Here’s the deal: if you’re a fan of zombie stories or if a zombie origin tale that puts a fresh spin on the genre sounds like it might interest you, then you’re going to want to check out The Rains by Gregg Hurwitz. Double bonus for you too if you prefer books with a YA bent, as this is the author’s first book in a new series targeting teen readers.
However, if you happen to be a science/biology geek or a stickler for common sense and logic, then this book is going to make you cry.
The story begins with an introduction to the quiet and rural community of Creek’s Cause, where the peace is shattered one evening by a meteor strike. Not long afterwards, our fifteen-year-old protagonist Chance Rain and his older brother Patrick are awakened in the middle of the night by a commotion at their neighbors’ house, leading the two of them to sneak out and investigate. They arrive just in time to stop an attack on the kids by the stepmother, who appears to have been transformed into mindless raving husk by a mysterious and unknown parasite. After saving the children, Chance and Patrick find the father on top of a water tower where millions of alien spores look to have exploded from out of his bloated corpse.
Recalling what he’s learned about the Cordyceps fungus and “zombie ants”, Chance quickly deduces that these spores are what’s causing the infection, turning all of the adults—and only adults, it seems—into violent, savage hosts. But if this is indeed the way the parasite is spreading, then why aren’t those who are younger being infected?
Chance and Patrick find the answer to this once they arrive at the high school, where their science teacher Dr. Chatterjee has been sheltering the town’s children and teenagers. Chatterjee explains that the parasite appears to be affecting white matter, the paler tissue of the human brain mostly made up of nerve fibers and their myelin sheaths. And since the brains of children are not as developed as an adult's and do not have as much white matter, they are immune to the effects of the spore. This also explains why Dr. Chatterjee, who has multiple sclerosis—a demyelinating disease—is unaffected himself.
So far, this is going great. Things are getting pretty interesting. I’m liking the suspense, and the mystery behind the infectious agent is really driving things. But then, we get another bombshell. The group figures out that, at the exact moment a person turns 18, the brain will immediately become susceptible to the parasite. The exact moment. As in, right down to the minute of your birth. One second, you’re fine. But as soon as the clock ticks over, then happy birthday, you’re a zombie!
The bio nerd in me just wants to tear my hair out and scream, NOOOOOOO THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS!
I do love it when zombie books use science to explain things (the Cordyceps idea is becoming a lot more common, for example, and I still can’t get enough) but let’s please try to make it more convincing. I thought that tying the parasite’s processes to brain development was ambitious and intriguing, but unfortunately the human body does not work like a clock. One does not wake up in the morning of their eighteenth birthday to find their brain suddenly and miraculously bursting with myelin. If only growing up and becoming mature was so easy.
So yes, that bothered me a lot. It might even have biased me against the rest of the book. If such a glaring oversight made it through the first few drafts, I can only assume that the prevailing attitude was “This is YA, good science and reasoning won’t matter so much.” But it does. It should. With this in mind, I soon started seeing more plot holes, inaccuracies, and logical leaps.
If things like that don’t concern you so much, then you should be fine, though for me they ultimately prevented me from calling The Rains a great book. It’s a shame too, because the plot was entertaining and fun in a way that reminded me a lot of The Faculty movie, and the characters were good, strong, and charming in the salt-of-the-earth sense. Still, generally speaking I don’t feel comfortable enough about recommending this book to just anyone; perhaps if you are a diehard zombie fiction reader or YA horror fan, you might want to take a look. However, if you’re a pickier reader like me who also predominantly reads adult speculative fiction, you might end up finding the flaws too distracting. I give this one 3 stars, and just barely....more
As the second volume in a historical fantasy series about Ancient Rome, The Gates of Hell can be viewed as the “next chapter” of the events following the Final War of the Roman Republic. Approximately five years have passed since Alexandria fell. Marc Antony and Cleopatra are dead. Their daughter Selene has been taken into their conqueror’s household, becoming one of Augustus Caesar’s adopted children. But for all that, she knows she is still a hostage and the longing for avenging her parents still burns inside.
The book begins with Selene taking matters into her own hands, seeking her own Shard of Heaven after finding out about the godlike abilities they can grant to the people who wield them. She manages to find and obtain one disguised as a statue in the Temple of the Vestals, bringing another of one these powerful artifacts into play. Meanwhile, her arranged marriage to Juba of Numidia, an adopted son of Julius Caesar, ultimately grew into to be a relationship based on love and respect. Together with her husband, who also possesses a Shard of Heaven, they begin to experiment and practice with their artifacts, learning how to harness their power.
At the same time in another place, a secret group of guardians are in the act of securing the Ark of the Covenant, rumored to be the most powerful Shard of all. Former legion soldier Lucius Vorenus decides to travel to Library of Alexandria to meet with the Head Librarian to discuss certain theories they’ve developed about the holy Ark. Unknowingly, he attracts the attention of a disgraced astrologer named Thrasyllus, putting all that vital information into the hands of a desperate man who knows Augustus Caesar will do anything to know the location of another Shard of Heaven.
Whether our characters are driven by love or greed, faith or revenge, all their actions culminate into a harrowing conclusion that spells a threat to come for everyone. Like the previous book, The Gates of Hell was another great read. While it does have the distinct feel of a “middle book”, it comes without the baggage normally associated with one. Pacing is dynamic and swift, and perhaps even a bit too brisk in some places when all I wanted to do was bask in the atmosphere of the setting a little while longer. Like I wrote in my review of The Shards of Heaven, the author has an extraordinary talent for evoking the time period. The people, places and events surrounding the Ancient Roman Empire have always fascinated me, but I don’t consider myself an expert and need the historical background or details in the narrative from time to time.
In that respect, I find Livingston’s writing and storytelling style to be very readable; even someone with just the bare knowledge of the subject matter can enjoy this novel, because of the perfect balance he strikes when injecting history into his fiction and vice versa. I also thought it was really interesting how almost every character was based on a real figure or an account of them in the historical record, and in many cases I only found out after reading the glossary at the end of the book. Livingston offered enough historical detail without overwhelming the reader, and to be honest, could have afforded to give more if he had wanted to.
Then there are the characters. Selene, a personal favorite (both in this book and in written history) is back with a bigger role in this sequel, carrying on her mother’s memory and legacy. She has been adopted into the family of Octavian/Augustus Caesar, but there’s no love lost there. She was also made to marry Juba, though to her surprise she grows to love him. The two of them bond over their shared experiences of having their parents and homelands conquered by Rome, but Juba still has mixed feelings towards Octavian, his brother by adoption. There are some incredibly complex emotions surrounding these characters, and with those, the reader might start to see Octavian from a whole different perspective.
My only criticism is that Selene, Juba, and Octavian might have been portrayed a little too well, with the result being that some of the supporting characters, including Thrasyllus and Vorenus, were overshadowed. Also, without giving away too much of the story, some parts were predictable in the sense that we were repeatedly told over and over how “in love” a certain couple was, which we all know is code for “something bad will happen.” As such, when the other shoe dropped, there were no surprises.
As a follow-up to Michael Livingston’s fantastic debut though, The Gates of Hell carries this series incredibly well. Everything that worked in The Shards of Heaven is back here in this sequel, including compelling history, powerful storytelling, and engaging characters. There’s some great set-up for the next novel, and I can’t wait to read it....more
What a strange, strange book. But in a good way. Incidentally, that’s what I always think after finishing one of Will McIntosh’s novels. I’m a huge fan of the author, precisely because his ideas are always so unique and original—and yes, they can sometimes be off-the-wall as well. Faller probably isn’t his best work; the writing wasn’t as tight and the story’s many parts were a little incongruous, but that could be due to the book’s subject matter which admittedly is not my cup of tea. As long as you’re willing to accept a wildly unfeasible premise and some logical leaps though, this book is an overall fun time.
The story opens with a man suddenly becoming aware of himself while standing in the crumbled ruins of a floating city island. He has no memory of who he is, who his friends and family are, or where he comes from. He has even forgotten how to read. Looking around, he notices other people in the streets, but they all look just as lost and scared as he is. The only clue to the man’s identity are the items in his pocket: a toy soldier with a parachute, a candy wrapper with strange symbols on it scrawled in blood, and a photo showing himself smiling beside a woman he can’t recognize.
Before long, the survivors from what has become known as “Day One” are killing each other over the dwindling resources on the island. The weak, including children and the elderly, are deemed a burden and are mercilessly thrown off the edge to die. Our protagonist, inspired by the little toy soldier in his pocket, dubs himself Faller and decides to fashion his own parachute, initially as a stunt to help him and his newfound allies earn food. But unfortunately for them all, his big jump goes wrong, and to Faller’s horror he finds himself accidentally sailing over the edge and into the abyss.
Just as he thinks it’s all over though, that’s when he makes a startling discovery.
Alternating between Faller’s narrative and flashbacks to the lives of a group of scientists in the months leading up to Day One, McIntosh weaves a twisted tale of a world literally shattered—by war and by warped physics. Faller is a bizarre book and it admittedly requires no small amount of patience if you want to get down to the bottom of this mystery. On the face of it, I can understand why the author decided to structure the novel this way, but it also gave rise to many distractions and interrupts to the flow of both past and present stories. I also found myself more drawn to flashback chapters because that was where you would find the meat of the “science fiction” in this book, while the Faller sections were weirder and more confusing. Still, the mystery was tantalizing enough that at no point did I ever want to stop reading; I knew that the further I got, the more the clues will start leading to answers.
However, quantum physics and mechanics have never really been my favorite topic in sci-fi. While I enjoy reading about the science and theory, a lot of books that seek to tackle it often don’t do a satisfying job with the details. This is a problem I ran into with Faller. A lot of the scientists’ experiments and the scientific phenomena described in this book aren’t well explained, and in many instances you just have roll with it. If you don’t mind that a lot of the science is glossed over and rushed, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Otherwise, the many plot holes and questions left by logical gaps will make this one tough to get into.
But even with its implausible premise, I thought Faller offered a fun and engaging experience. You only have to see how quickly I devoured this book to know that. This is the fourth novel I’ve read by Will McIntosh, and even though it wasn’t my favorite of his, there’s definitely a reason why he will always be on my must-read list. While he admitted in the acknowledgements that this was a challenging novel to write, I’m glad he’s continuing to push the boundaries and experiment with bold ideas. I’ll always read anything he writes....more
If Dan Simmons’ The Terror and The Fold by Peter Clines had a lovechild, I’d like to think the results would look a lot like Stranded. At first this book reads like a suspense-thriller with heavy shades of paranormal horror, but then we get a twist around the halfway point that arguably plunges it into sci-fi territory. And that’s when things starts to get really wild and interesting.
The story follows the crew of the Arctic Promise, a platform supply vessel for an oil rig in the Chukchi Sea. The main character Noah Cabot, ostensibly just a simple deckhand, also appears to be the resident whipping boy for everything that goes wrong aboard the ship, and we soon discover why: the ship’s master is William Brewster, Noah’s father-in-law from hell. The older man has never forgiven Noah for marrying his beloved daughter Abby, and has set out to make our protagonist’s life as miserable as possible by turning most of the crew against him. With few allies, Noah knows he has no other choice but to keep his head down and do the work.
But then one night, everything changes. After weathering through a particularly nasty storm, the Arctic Promise finds itself lost in a sea of fog with its navigation and communication systems down. What’s worse, once the visibility clears, the crew discovers that somehow their ship has gotten itself beset in second-year ice that stretches as far as the eye can see—an impossibility, given how they were just sailing in open water hours before. Things keep going downhill as one by one, the men on the ship are incapacitated by an unknown wasting sickness. Even Noah, who has remained relatively healthy, is not immune to some of its side effects which include the ghostly shadows that men are reporting to see in the corner of their visions. With none of the equipment on the ship working, the crew’s only hope is a mysterious structure they can barely spy in the distance, separated from them by an ocean of thick ice.
Stranded may have started with a heart-thumping opening sequence in which readers are thrown into the midst of a storm, but then the story pulls back a little as MacLeod gradually doles out the details of our maritime setting and establishes the protagonist’s situation aboard the ship. This book is like a ride that starts off slow, focusing first on the element of human drama and making us wonder why everyone on the Arctic Promise seems to have it out for Noah. As it turns out, Brewster’s grudge against him over Abby is only one half of the puzzle; the other has to do with a shocking incident that took place around a year ago while our main character was on the job. Hence the author spends a lot of time weaving the past into the present narrative, but seeing as how both points will come back to haunt Noah in a big way later on in the novel, all that measured build-up turned out to be worth it.
All the payoff is in the second half, there’s no doubt about that. The turning point drops not long after the crew discovers their ship trapped and they strike off onto the ice to investigate, and I think for many readers this will be the moment that determines whether they like this book or not. Personally speaking, I took this “make or break” plot twist in stride and ended up really enjoying myself, and even though this story is far from perfect, I thought the way the author pulled it off was pretty clever and slick. Overall this is a very entertaining tale, especially once things take off at a breakneck speed, culminating into a suspenseful climax and conclusion. I also liked the calculated progression in genres as we moved towards the grand finale; so much could have gone wrong along the way, but somehow this bizarre mash-up of thriller, mystery, horror and science fiction elements ended up working in the story’s favor.
That’s all I can say, really, without giving too much away. I’ll just close this off with a final piece of advice: try to read this in a warm place. Stranded is a good reminder humans are not meant for -40 degree temperatures; I swear I get chills just thinking about certain parts of the book (and it’s not all just because of the cold setting). The cruel atmosphere, engaging characters, and an entertaining plotline all helped make this one a fast, fun read. I’d check it out if it piques your interest....more
Luna: New Moon was a wonder for me, a sensation. And following directly on its heels is this sequel, Wolf Moon, which picks right up from the shocking events at the end of the first book. As such, the usual caveat about potential spoilers for book one applies to this review, in case you haven’t had the chance to start this series yet and would like to approach it with completely fresh eyes (and I would highly recommend doing so as soon as possible!)
In the previous novel, we were introduced to the Dragons: five powerful, dynastic corporate families that control everything on the moon. Among them, the most recent to rise were the Cortas, making their members the newest targets for the four other rivaling families—the Mackenzies, the Vorontsovs, the Suns, and the Asamoahs. Now the Corta matriarch Adriana is dead, her legacy scattered like lunar dust to the winds. Eighteen months have passed, and the surviving Corta children have been divvied up and claimed like so much of the company’s other assets by the four remaining families. Even with the death of a Dragon, nothing has changed; the moon is still a lawless, hostile place to be, ruled by the political machinations of the most cutthroat and corrupt.
Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, however, a major Corta player has survived the destruction, and he is keeping a low profile while attempting to regain his strength in secret. Of Adriana’s children, Lucas has always been one of the most competent and cunning, and he is determined to rebuild Corta Helio to become even more powerful than before. But first, he’ll need to go to Earth—even if the journey itself could very well kill a lunar-born citizen like him, whose physiology has been so altered by the low-gravity environment of the moon. Still, in the war between the Dragons, it’s the children who suffer most. Lucas’ son Lucasinho and niece Luna are still alive, but only because of the protection offered by the Asamoahs, while his nephew Robson has become a hostage of the Mackenzies, and devastation seems to follow him wherever he goes.
It’s no surprise this series has been described as Game of Thrones on the moon. Ian McDonald has achieved something truly impressive here with Luna, creating a tableau filled with multiple subplots and crisscrossing character paths. The ongoing power struggle between the great Dragons is rife with political scheming and intrigue, with alliances constantly being formed and broken, and the character list in the back of the book is a veritable tangle of relationships showing a history of arranged marriages and shady backroom deals between members the five families. This sequel continues the trend that started with New Moon, exploring the twisted fates of those characters who were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) enough to survive past the stunning events of the first book.
Originally, I had thought Luna would be a duology, and I’m glad I found out otherwise before I started this book, or I might have been more frustrated by some of the meandering story threads and lack of real resolutions. Despite being a great read, Wolf Moon felt distinctly like a “middle book”, and it didn’t impact me quite as much as New Moon did. If I were to guess, I would say this was due to the character POVs. First and foremost, with Adriana dead, we lost one of the strongest voices from the first book, and this was a void I felt keenly. Moreover, while Lucas Corta struck me as one of the more important characters, his storyline was often relegated to the background especially in the middle section of the book. Ariel Corta also had a diminished role compared to the part she played in New Moon, while Wagner Corta, whom I admittedly have less of an interest in, got more attention this time around. That said, the two bright points for me were Lucasinho and Robson, and if there’s one silver lining to the loss of so many older Cortas, it’s that the members of the younger generation are finally getting their chance to shine.
As you can see, most of my feelings for this sequel are based off of my personal preferences for the different characters. Certain strengths have remained the same from New Moon though, chief among them the fascinating world-building. I am still in awe of McDonald’s vision of a highly individualistic lunar society, where those who prosper are the strong and the merciless. I also love the multilayered storytelling, and the fascinating lives of the diverse people who bring this rich world to life. Every detail should be savored and carefully digested, simply because everything about Luna is so comprehensive and intricate; blink and you might miss something important.
All told, despite not reaching the height of its predecessor, Wolf Moon is still a solid and worthy follow-up. If you enjoyed the ingenuity and the surprises of the twists and turns in New Moon, then you definitely will not want to miss this sequel....more
I’ve been champing at the bit to read Certain Dark things ever since I first heard about the book. Back then it still didn’t have a title, but the mere description of it clinched it for me. I’m not someone who’s ever needed much motivation to pick up a vampire story after all, and after learning that one of the main characters is a descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, I was even more intrigued.
That the book takes place in Mexico City was a compelling factor too. Gangs, drugs and corruption run rampant in the capital, but what you won’t have to worry about are vampires. That’s because the city has declared itself to be a “vampire-free zone”. But as with all rules, there are times when individuals have found a way around this particular edict.
This is something Domingo knows all too well. A homeless teenager who ekes out a meager living by salvaging landfills for usable goods to resell, he is on his way home one day when he spies a pretty girl trailed by her large Doberman. To his surprise, she notices him back. And actually talks to him! It isn’t long before the girl confides in him her name and true nature. She is Atl, and she is a member of a subgroup of vampires who trace their line back to the ancient Aztecs.
Atl is in trouble, so she cuts to the chase: some other dangerous vampires are after her, and she needs to get out of Mexico City and head south right away. But while she’s here, she will need a place to hide as well as a “Renfield” to feed on and to assist her during the day. Completely smitten by this confident, beautiful girl, Domingo readily agrees to help her out—the fact that she’s a vampire and wants to drink his blood be damned.
However, it turns out Atl’s troubles are worse than he realized. The vampire gang she’s on the run from are headed by Nick Godoy, a real nasty piece of work. Brash young Nick is a “Necro”, a subspecies of vampire that most closely resembles the classical vampire archetype, and he has a grudge to grind. Bent on seeking vengeance for a long-ago slight, Nick has tracked his target to Mexico City where he and his Renfield Rodrigo have been getting into all sorts of mischief, attracting the attention of a police detective thus causing even more problems for Atl and Domingo.
I had high hopes for the world-building going into Certain Dark Things, and I was not disappointed. Instead of charging in with an attempt to turn the vampire mythos on its head though, Silvia Moreno-Garcia does something more subtle—and ingenious, in my opinion. As we go deeper into Atl’s past, we get to learn a wealth of information about vampire lore in general. We find out about the subspecies, of which there are many. Considering how many cultures throughout history have developed their own version of the “blood-sucking/flesh-eating monster” legend (the Chinese and the Jiang-shi, or the stories of the Wendigo in Native American folklore, to name a couple) I thought this to be an especially clever twist. By drawing from inspiration taken from all over the world, the author has formed a basis for her story that at once feels fresh but still has roots firmly planted in our reality. The results are very effective and pleasing because the reader feels an immediate affinity for the setting and characters.
The plot was also kept rather simple. It’s also fast-paced as hell. Everything about this book is slick and elegant, furnished with all the best features without being weighed down. This lack of complexity is perhaps the only thing holding me back from giving it a full five stars, but while it may not be phenomenal, it is still great. Certain Dark Things easily ranks among my most interesting and entertaining reads of the year.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia offers a whole new world to discover in Certain Dark Things, a novel that offers rock solid world-building and compelling characters that are guaranteed to charm you and open your eyes. So if you’re getting a hankering for a vampire story, why not give this one a try? You won’t regret it....more
Starborn is the wonderful debut of author Lucy Hounsom, kicking off The Worldmaker Trilogy in style. I found it elegantly written and imaginative, and there’s also a familiar yet down-to-earth vibe that will make it accessible to a wide audience whether you’re an avid reader of fantasy or new to the genre, and whether you’re a teenager or adult.
In Kyndra Vale’s village of Brenwyn, there is an ancient rite of passage. When a young person comes of age, he or she would partake in a meeting with a relic-keeper to find out their true name and the path they are destined for. However, on the day of Kyndra’s ceremony, she receives a strange vision. And when it is her turn to view the relic, it suddenly breaks, putting an end to a centuries-old tradition. Worse, immediately following the incident, Brenwyn is set upon by a Breaking, an unnatural storm that destroys the village.
Frightened and superstitious, the community is quick to blame Kyndra, but before they can act upon their anger, she is whisked away by two mysterious strangers who had come into town the day before. They are Nediah and Brégenne, a pair of bonded Wielders who can harness the power of the sun and moon to do amazing things, and for reasons unknown to Kyndra, they seem to have their eye on her. But while agreeing to be taken to the Wielder’s faraway citadel of Naris may have saved her life, Kyndra also becomes their prisoner. As her visions become worse, the Wielders suspect Kyndra may have some magic of her own, and she is kept from leaving until she can pass a brutal trial to determine the nature of her abilities.
It was easy to become drawn into this world Hounsom has created. As Kyndra travels to Naris with Nediah and Brégenne, snippets of history and magical lore can be gleaned through their conversations. Learning about the Wielders’ powers was fascinating, and the magic was perhaps my favorite part of the book. Based around the energies of the sun and moon, those who can use the former are known as Solars, while those that harness the latter are called Lunars. Often they travel in pairs while working in the field, so that they can watch each other’s backs. For example, Nediah is a Solar who can protect Brégenne, a Lunar, during the day while her powers are latent, while at night she can do the same for him. This way, a Wielder team is never left helpless.
Hounsom also doesn’t resort to overwhelming the reader with a flood of information. I felt that a lot of the world’s background had to be deduced, which might be a stumbling block for some, especially in the last quarter of the book where most of the big reveals and connections are made in a very short period of time. The pacing is a bit uneven for this reason, with the plot being slower to build in the beginning, but coming in fast and hard towards the end. There’s a lot going on, with multiple characters being driven by different motivations, and it can get confusing if you let your guard down. Still, the many plot threads kept me guessing, especially when it came to the question of whom Kyndra could trust.
In the end, the pleasure and satisfaction are in the details. Past some of the more common tropes in the story, there are a good number of innovative twists on familiar themes, such as the world-building and mechanics behind the magic system. Characters are likeable, even the supporting ones like Nediah and Brégenne (and speaking of the two of them, can I say what a breath of fresh air it was to see a romance sub-plot that actually did not involve the main protagonist?!) There’s a good amount of crossover appeal here that will make this a potentially attractive book to both Young Adult and Adult readers, and despite some minor issues with the flow, this book was intense enough to be very satisfying.
I can definitely see fantasy fans enjoying this novel, especially if the description of the magic appeals you. At the same time, I also would not hesitate to recommend it as a light introduction to the genre. All told, Starborn is an entertaining read and perfect for when the mood for a lighter kind of fantasy strikes you....more
To be fair, Windwitch wasn’t bad at all, but I was in the minority in that Truthwitch didn’t blow me away and I went into this sequel hoping it would help me decide whether or not to continue the series. There’s a lot of potential here, and wouldn’t it be a shame if I gave up on something great just because I was on the fence about the first book? After all, sometimes a series just needs a little extra time to develop.
I was also left curious about the fates of the characters after the events of the previous novel. “Threadsisters” Safi and Iseult are still separated, each struggling with their own predicament. The windwitch admiral Prince Merik is also dead, or so the world is led to believe after his ship was devoured by a fiery explosion. The truth is much complicated though. Caught between life and death, the prince has returned broken, scarred, and bitter, filled with anger towards his sister whom he believes betrayed him. After making his way to the capital, he begins rallying the tired and starving refugees there under the guise of the Fury, a legendary figure who fights for freedom of the oppressed.
The bloodwitch Aeduan has a greater role now too, realizing the sizeable bounty he would collect if he could find the threadwitch Iseult and bring her to those hunting her. In a twist of fate though, Iseult somehow manages to get Aeduan on her side, convincing him to help her track down her best friend Safi. While the bloodwitch and threadwitch end up forging a precarious alliance, truthwitch Safi finds herself stranded in the pirate-infested wilderness after her shipwreck, with none other than the Empress of Marstok in tow. Alone and with no defenses, if the outlaws or mercenaries don’t get to them first, then the elements will—and that’s only if the two young women don’t succumb to their thirst and hunger.
Like I was saying, I didn’t dislike Windwitch, but it was also far from being the huge improvement over Truthwitch that I’d hoped for. In fact, I might even have liked it a bit less. First off, so much for having a strong female friendship at its core. This aspect, which was supposed to be a major selling point for the first book, ended up being severely lacking. The author continues to tell instead of show Safi and Iseult’s closeness, and maybe it’s time to just accept she’s more interested in developing their respective romances at this point. The title itself is also telling because it points to Merik as the character getting most of the attention, but unfortunately I felt he was one of the blander, more exasperating characters from the first book and this sequel didn’t do much to change that. Iseult remained my favorite, and I wish there had been more focus on her and Aeduan.
In terms of the story though, this book is definitely more complex than its predecessor, and I enjoyed the multiple plot threads. Some might argue that the political, magical, and action elements presented here are just the same tired old narrative tropes, but Dennard deserves credit for knowing what readers want and how to spice things up. My one complaint was how long it took for this book to build. Admittedly the first half was pretty sluggish, though once everything fell into place, things took off from there. There’s a moment where it all comes together and the story kicks into high gear; you can’t miss it.
Still, my future with this series is up in the air right now. Not too long ago, I would have been a lot more open to the idea of continuing with book three, especially since I really liked how this book ended. But given the insane number of series I’m currently following, this year I’m resolving to be pickier when it comes to deciding which ones to keep reading. Windwitch was a decent sequel, but I had pinned my hopes on it being more exceptional. The “click” I’d wished for just didn’t happen, so I’ll probably set The Witchlands aside, at least for now.
Audiobook Comments: I was glad I got to check out Windwitch, if nothing else because I was able to experience the audiobook edition. Cassandra Campbell did an excellent job as narrator, adding her own flair to the characters with interesting accents and inflections. Somehow the world of The Witchlands felt bigger for it. Reading the first book in hardback format, it hadn’t occurred to me what the characters might have sounded like, and pondering their different origins gave context to the vastness and diversity of the setting. Despite my mixed feelings for the story, I have no complaints about Campbell’s wonderful reading....more
I’ll admit, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth year for me when it comes to fiction and humor. Excitement over highly anticipated satire and parodic works have mostly fizzled after finding out they are in fact not what I had in mind. Undeterred though, I decided to leap next into The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, intrigued by its “Guardians of the Galaxy meets The Hobbit” tagline and hoping against hope that I’ll finally get the fantasy comedy I’ve been searching for.
The premise sounded promising enough, featuring a tale about an unlikely band of adventurers who’ve gotten it into their addled heads to rob a dragon. Before everything in his world turned upside down, Will Fallows was just another unassuming farm boy from a poor little village (literally called, The Village…the people are too downtrodden to be inspired) in Kondorra Valley, doing his best to make ends meet. However, each year the rising taxes demanded by the Dragon Consortium makes it that much harder to do, until one day, the moment that Will has been dreading all his life finally comes. With no warning at all, the dragon lord Mattrax’s soldiers show up at his door to seize his farm.
Left with nothing to his name, Will suddenly finds himself in the company of two traveling mercenaries, the skilled fighter Lette and her partner the eight-foot-tall lizard man Balur. After recruiting the help of a magically gifted university scholar named Quirk and an old drunkard named Firkin, the five of them conspire together to hatch up a plan to get revenge on Mattrax, the dragon who has been the cause of so much pain and suffering to the humans of the valley. It’s a totally crazy, stupid idea, one that Will knows has almost no chance of success. If they fail, they’ll bring doom upon all the people of Kondorra, and possibly to the world beyond. But if they can somehow pull this off? They’ll all be rewarded with riches beyond their imagination. The promise of gold beckons, and who knows, maybe this time fortune might actually favor the foolish.
Main reasons to check out this book: 1) if you think you’ll enjoy an epic fantasy seen through a modern humorous lens, and 2) if you’re like me and have a fondness for a good heist story. Many times throughout this one, I was reminded of Patrick Weekes’ Rogues of the Republic series, which contains a similar amount of humor, action, snappy dialogue, and creative solutions to unusual problems. Jon Hollins takes the zaniness further though, often putting his characters in ludicrous situations whenever things go wrong—and things actually do go wrong a lot in this story, despite our heroes’ careful planning (or rather, what they naively believe passes for careful planning). But hey, who wants to read about a heist that goes off without a hitch anyway? In this quirky tale, it’s the infighting and the unforeseen circumstances that makes things so entertaining.
Now for the reasons why you might want to take a pass on this book. If you like full immersion into a world, then this would not be for you. The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold is unabashedly tongue-in-cheek, with exaggerated characters and situations. It’s all done very cleverly, but it’ll be tough to get on board if you already that know fantasy comedy isn’t your cup of tea. Hollins is generous with the use of anachronisms, pop culture references and modern slang, but mind you, these are features, not defects. One only has to take a glimpse at the chapter titles to see what I mean, with hilarious headings like “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat”, “What’s in the Box?”, “Hubris is a Dish Best Served Charbroiled”, “Lying Liars and the Lies They Tell”, “The Inevitable Cliffhanger Chapter” and many, many more such examples. It’s meant to be pure fun, and pure fun is what you get. It’s also relatively light fare, which is to be expected. For humor fiction, the book might have run a little longer than I was happy with, but that’s really my biggest criticism, which is in no way a deal breaker in the greater scheme of things. For the most part Hollins does manage to keep the story moving along at a quick pace.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to listen to the audiobook edition, and it confirmed one of my long-held suspicions: humor works splendidly well in audio format! Narrator John Banks with his smooth accent and deep tones seemed like an odd choice of reader for this book at first, but I quickly came around. In fact, I think his serious, earnest style only emphasized the humor. More importantly, his performance also moderated some of the more absurd situations for me, whereas if I’d actually been reading the words on a page, I think I might have rolled my eyes at the same scenes. He’s also great with voices, and even his exaggerated ones for characters like Balur or Firkin somehow sounded completely natural and in keeping with their personalities. Overall, I would highly recommend this audiobook.
Bottom line: The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold is clever, adventurous and entertaining. If you’re looking for a light read with a fun plot and interesting characters, you won’t be disappointed....more
I’ll admit, I was somewhat torn on this one. On the one hand, there were parts in this book that gave me a real struggle, but on the other, there’s no doubt Ninefox Gambit is one of the most fascinating sci-fi novels I’ve ever read.
Step into the incredible universe of Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate, a civilization whose way of life is entirely dictated by an intricate calendar system. Mathematics is king, the governing force behind everything in this reality including physics and warfare. However, there’s also another side to this— and here’s where the lines between science fiction and fantasy start to blur—because in order for the calendar to function, the Hexarchate also requires belief. Throw enough calendrical heretics into the mix who observe a slightly different calendar, for example, and reality can suddenly go all awry. Say, the people might start acting erratically. Or your weapons might not work. As a result, the Hexarchate enforces its calendar with the utmost ruthlessness, bent on preventing such unpredictability from wreaking all kinds of havoc.
Thus explains how a Kel soldier named Cheris receives her next assignment. Expecting to be dismissed after a misconduct on the battlefield, Cheris is instead given the mission to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star base recently taken over by a population of heretics. To aid her in breaking the siege, Kel Command has extracted the digital ghost of a brilliant general and tactician named Shuos Jedao, grafting his consciousness to hers so that the two can work as one to deal with the situation. The only problem is, in life Jedao was a madman, recognized for his victories but also notorious for having killed more than a million people including his own soldiers. While the general has never lost a battle, can Cheris really trust this manipulative genius not to make her his next victim?
First, just let me first state unequivocally that this book contains some of the freshest, most inventive ideas I’ve ever encountered in sci-fi. Story concepts rooted in mathematics are often tricky, and they’ve never really been my strong point. But when your math is virtually indistinguishable from magic? Then yeah, I can definitely get behind that. Ninefox Gambit is no doubt breaking new ground in combining elements from multiple genres, and it is extremely clever.
However, I also mentioned feeling conflicted about the novel, and this is in large part due to its inconsistent pacing. In the beginning, the reader is dropped into this strange universe and left to flounder, and it’s easy to become confused and overwhelmed if you’re not paying close attention. It makes this one a rather challenging read, especially since the story goes nowhere fast. After all, we are talking about a siege here, and the fact that it happens in space doesn’t change the basis of this long and drawn out process. Still, bursts of action occur do here and there, probably just enough to keep me going, so that in the end I found myself in the awkward position of alternating between not wanting to put the book down and wanting it to be over already.
Still, irked as I was with this book at times, I have to say both Cheris and Jedao were brilliant. In my opinion, their relationship is where this novel shines, and not least because of their unique psychic connection; both characters come from interesting backgrounds, and their combined strengths and talents make them a force to be reckoned with. However, by that same token, their individual foibles also result in multiple clashes. As a Kel soldier, Cheris has been trained from the start to follow her “formation instinct”, an urge that encourages obedience, loyalty, and conformity. Giving up that compulsion in favor to another authority like Jedao is a challenge to everything she feels is natural and right, and it’s a struggle that gradually threatens her sanity.
Then there’s Jedao, whose mind I find both alluring and downright frightening. It’s no surprise that the story got interesting as soon as he entered the picture. He may spout things about war that make a lot of sense in a twisted and horrible kind of way, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s a merciless, stone cold-hearted bastard. And yet, despite being a complete psycho, the general’s character is also delightfully intriguing and complex. Many of my favorite scenes involve the conversations between him and Cheris, and perhaps against my better judgement, I wanted her to let him in.
Overall, I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the beginning had eased me into the setting more gently, as opposed to throwing all its confusing concepts in my face. While I enjoyed the story itself, my patience was also tested by the pacing, which was all over the place. These issues aside though, I have to applaud the fantastic world-building and character development. Both these aspects were extraordinarily well put together, not to mention the concept of a Hexarchate that uses mathematical calculations and a calendar to govern itself is one of those things that make you gawp in wide-eyed wonder at its ingenuity. Ninefox Gambit might not be an easy read, but there’s also a lot to like if you’re willing to invest in it. As such, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, but if you’re a sci-fi fan interested in something more innovative and unusual, then this might be exactly what you’re looking for....more
After chilling readers with her debut YA novel The Dead House last year, Dawn Kurtagich is back with another horror tale about two sisters trapped in a house surrounded by a haunted wood…and is it just their imagination or are the trees slowly closing in? Since I had such a good time with The Dead House, when the publisher sent me an ARC of And the Trees Crept In, I just knew I had to give this one a try.
As a girl growing up in London, Silla Daniels had always heard stories about La Baume, the blood red manor that was her mother’s childhood home. It sounded like the perfect place, like a peaceful haven nestled safely in an enchanted forest. So one night, after their abusive and alcoholic father goes a step too far, Silla decides to pack up and escape with her younger sister Nori. Their destination: La Baume, where Silla knows that Aunt Cath, Mam’s older sister, still lives.
When the two girls arrive, Cath welcomes them in with open arms. And for a while, things are wonderful. Things are safe. But then they hear whisperings that a war is coming. The women hunker down at La Baume, where the surrounding woods keep them pretty isolated so they’re used to living off the grid. Not too long afterwards though, a madness seems to come over Cath. One day, the older woman retreats to the attic and never comes down again. Even though Silla still leaves plates of food at the attic door and can hear the constant creaking of Cath’s footsteps overhead, she knows she has lost her beloved aunt forever. Three years pass with only Silla taking care of Nori and Cath, all alone and struggling to survive. La Baume is not the magical place Silla imagined; now she knows it’s cursed. The woods won’t let them leave, and she thinks she can sense someone (or something?) out there, just waiting to take Nori the moment she lets her guard down.
Honestly, I thought The Dead House was pretty weird when I read it last year, but I have to say this one is even weirder. And it’s not just the story; it’s the entire structure and style of the novel. Whereas The Dead House was written entirely in the epistolary format, And the Trees Crept In only has random sections where it tries to include snippets of notes and journal entries, and sad as I am to admit this, it didn’t work nearly as well here. I was frequently bothered by the “creative” formatting and use of font sizes and styles, and together with the disjointed prose, at times it almost felt like reading bad poetry. The only positive I can think to this is the way it shows Silla’s state of mind her slow journey to becoming completely unhinged (unreliable narrator alert!) but on the whole I thought it was needlessly showy and a little gimmicky.
Not gonna lie, but that had an extremely negative impact on my overall experience. As a character, Silla was…problematic. The writing made it very hard for me to understand her, and that also made it very hard to like her. It’s one thing to be unable to connect with your main protagonist, but because most of the book is written in Silla’s rambling narrative, it was impossible to get a good sense of any of the characters either—Nori, Cath, or Gowan, the mysterious handsome boy who just appears out of the woods one day. And speaking of Gowan, there’s also a romance arc that will feel very strange at first. Not long after he and Silla meet, the word “love” gets tossed around like candy, and it just made me want to scream because not once did this book make me feel there was anything between them.
This could have gone very badly indeed, but ultimately I think what saved this book for me was the ending. I admit that for most of the story I was confused, frustrated, and I didn’t even feel it was all that creepy. But the final reveal at the end made everything make sense! In fact, I’m still a little shocked at how well everything tied together. I can’t go into any more detail without revealing spoilers, so I’ll just say that pretty much everything I had an issue with had some sort of resolution and that went a long way in salvaging the overall experience. So much so that I thought this book deserved three stars rather than the two I was prepared to give. I still have major issues with the writing style, and my feelings about that haven’t changed. Story-wise, however, things actually turned out really interesting.
So would I recommend this book? That would depend on a few factors, I guess. Personally, the choppy writing and the style of the novel made my head hurt, but if you’re okay with the wonky use of font design, font size, “sliding text”, and other such formatting devices to portray a character’s descent into madness (after a few chapters of this, I felt pretty insane myself) it probably wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, choosing the audio version could be a good alternative, and I can’t help thinking I might have enjoyed this book a lot more had I done the same. In the end, I thought the story outcome made everything worth it though, even if it does take a bit of patience to see it all come together. I think readers who are fans of YA and horror will get a kick out of this, so go ahead and give And the Trees Crept In a shot if you think it sounds like something you’ll enjoy....more
No question, I was particularly eager to get my hands on this third book of The Bloodbound trilogy, especially after that bombshell Erin Lindsey left us with at the end of The Bloodforged. And it appears she’s not done with us yet. The author has saved the best surprises for this final volume, along with some of the toughest battles and most challenging decisions our characters will have to face. The momentum of the war in Gedona is approaching its zenith, and by the time the dust settles, no one will be left untouched.
The Bloodsworn is the excellent result and reward after two books of build-up to this final showdown between the Kingdom of Alden and the invading Oridian forces. Since this is the last volume in the trilogy, the following review may contain mild spoilers for The Bloodbound and The Bloodforged so you might want to be caught up before proceeding. The previous book ended with a troubling revelation about Erik White, the king of Alden, leading to the creation of a secret plan known only to his majesty’s closest friends at court. A rumor is purposely spread that the king is ill and unable to appear in public, while his sister-in-law and bodyguard Alix prepares to go on a dangerous mission to save him—a quest which would take her beyond enemy lines. Erik himself is locked away to prevent him from being a danger to himself and others, while Alix’s husband Liam is left behind at the palace to guard his half-brother and keep up the façade.
Alix also seeks the council of her brother, General Riggard Black. Though Rig is unable to leave his post, he does send his lover the priestess Vel to accompany Alix, knowing that the two most important women in the world to him will be able to help each other. However, despite Vel’s handy healing skills and knowledge of the terrain, the priestess is no fighter, and on this particular mission Alix knows what a liability that is. Speed is of the essence; if they can’t get to what they need in time, terrible things will happen to Erik and Liam back at home and the kingdom of Alden will fall.
This is a book that covers a lot, a lot of ground. The story itself has several peaks as our characters have to deal with multiple disasters in their respective plotlines, until they all eventually converge in one explosive ending. Once more we have diverging POVs as our main couple is separated again in this book, with Alix heading out into the wilderness to mount a daring rescue while Liam continues settling into his new role as prince by trying to fill in for Erik. Their marriage is further strained as Alix’s guilt and Liam’s lack of confidence remains an obstacle between them, but with everything that happens over the course of this story, they soon realize what is truly important. Thus even amidst all the action scenes and battle sequences, I feel that this book might actually be the most emotional one of the series.
Then there’s Erik, who spends the bulk of his time in this novel imprisoned. This doesn’t make his arc any less interesting though, and in fact, after Alix’s POV my next favorite one was probably Erik’s. Out of all the characters, I think he’s the one who has grown the most. While it’s true that most of his battles are internal, without giving away any spoilers, I have to say Lindsey wrote his sections very well, making his personal conflict and the nuances in his personality feel utterly convincing. To be a good man, or be a good king? Those two roles sometimes clash, and Erik’s mettle is tested when that problem arises, though others like Alix, Liam, and Rig are also forced to ask a similar question of themselves when confronted with their own dilemmas. Lindsey has a knack for challenging her protagonists by putting them in extreme situations, which makes for gripping entertainment, but because you know deep down they are all kind-hearted and inherently good characters, their decisions are often predictable.
Still, like the previous two books in the trilogy, The Bloodsworn is meant to be a feel-good read, and I think we can safely say, mission accomplished. Granted, there are some darker undertones here and there (we are dealing with brutal war and plenty of blood magic, after all) but even through the hardships and heartaches, I feel like I can always cheer for these characters. Every book has also added something new to the world and its history, and I love how incredibly deep the setting feels. Mix in the excellent world-building and brilliant characterization with the action, romance, and thrills of the story, and you have yourself the ultimate fun, enjoyable “summer vacation” kind of fantasy novel.
In fact, according to the author’s website, that’s exactly the kind of book she was aiming to write, with the perfect blend of “action, heartbreak, and triumph”. The Bloodbound trilogy is all that and more, with The Bloodsworn being the outstanding conclusion I’d been hoping for. This is a series very much worth exploring if you enjoy fast-paced and adventurous character-focused fantasy. Highly recommended!...more
Lately, several books have made me think a lot harder about the collective memory of humanity and this one is the most recent. What if we lost that memory, or something happened to prevent us from remembering? What if we lost the ability to record our memories and knowledge for posterity?
In Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, this is the reality for our young protagonist Simon. Orphaned and alone, with only vague instructions from his late mother to locate someone named “Netty”, he arrives in London feeling as lost as he could ever be. In the aftermath of a brutal civil war, the London in this alternate world has been transformed into a divided city. Most of its citizens do their best to eke out a modest existence, while the poor live in squalor in the slums. Only a select few are chosen and taken into the walls of The Order’s sanctuary where they stay for the rest of their lives, receiving the best schooling and learning how to compose the beautiful music played throughout the city every morning and night. These are known as the chimes, the songs that suppress the memories of the people of London—because a population that forgets is one that can be easily controlled and contained.
Simon quickly discovers that his task is hopeless. No one is willing to help, and in any case, he can do no more with only a half-remembered promise. Soon, however, he crosses into the territory of a gang of street urchins who end up taking him in, teaching him how to scavenge for the precious metals valued by The Order. This is how Simon meets Lucien, the group’s blind and charismatic young leader.
After a while though, Simon no longer recalls what it was that brought him to London in the first place. Still, like most people in this world, he carries a bag of trinkets and baubles associated with memories that might help anchor him to the past. Handling these objects allows a person to remember, even if it’s just for a short while. Gradually, Simon realizes he is starting to remember things, more and more and from longer ago. He remembers his mother, and the talent that she may have passed on to him. Together with Lucien, whom Simon grows to care for and love, the two of them prepare for a journey to fulfill a promise and to find out more about Simon’s gift.
Smaill has created a wonderful atmosphere in this book. In keeping with the novel’s themes, starting the first few pages of The Chimes felt uncannily like stepping into a kind of fugue state. At first it was hard to figure out what was going on, much like waking up to your surroundings to discover that you have no idea where you are, but your senses detect things that feel vaguely recognizable and familiar. For instance, we are told that we’re in London, but the descriptions of the city and its people feel completely strange and alien. Then there are the made-up words that pepper the narrative, and yet their meanings can often be gleaned from the more common words used to form them. Here and there, musical terms also replace certain adverbs. The list of such dissociations go on and on, which gives this book an almost dreamlike quality. It made getting into the story more challenging than most, I confess, but eventually the fog did clear as more of the world was revealed, and I was able to piece together the novel’s premise.
As you can probably guess from the book’s description, music also plays a huge role in The Chimes, no doubt inspired by Smaill’s own background as a professional musician and violinist. In this world where writing has been banned and the people no longer remember how to read, memories are lost shortly after they are formed, spirited away by the sound of the chimes every morning and evening. But music isn’t the enemy, merely a tool used by the oppressors. In fact, it has multiple other purposes, the foremost of which is to serve as another kind of language. Messages are sung, instructions or maps to places are given in a series of tunes, and as mentioned before, some words are replaced with terms used in musical direction—forte for loud or subito for quick, for example—and clever musical allusions are given to created words like “dischord” or “blasphony”.
The world of The Chimes is also one of the most fascinating and original dystopians I’ve ever encountered. Simply by suppressing the people’s memory, the elites are able to stay in power. However, everyone is aware that memory is important, as evidenced by smalls acts like the carrying around of bags filled with “objectmemory”. Losing that connection is like being lost and untethered, a terrible condition called being “memoryless” that puts fear into people’s hearts.
In the vein of world-building though, I do wish there had been a little more. In spite of the unique concepts described in this book, the details behind them are rather simplistic. Character development was also a bit sparse, though this may have something to do with the fact that Simon spends much of the book trying to piece together his memories and it’s admittedly tough to connect with a protagonist whose sense of self isn’t even entirely complete. In addition, while the prose is gorgeous, there is an abstractedness to it that may pose an obstacle for some. The writing style was what initially tripped me up, though in the end I was able to fall into the rhythm, but it did take me some time to get there.
All told, The Chimes is a novel that may require a bit of patience—but the payoff is worth it. It’s a lovely book with an unusual but spellbinding premise, and readers looking for a different kind of dystopian novel may want to take a look, especially if you have a musical background or a fondness for interesting ways to portray music in fiction. A beautiful story full of imagination and feeling. ...more
Red Queen is the sequel to Alice, Christina Henry’s dark and twisted novel reimagining of the characters and worlds of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Considered to be both a retelling as well as a continuation, the first book impressed me with its portrayal of a whole different side of Lewis Carroll’s classic, and I’m pleased to report this follow-up is a very worthy conclusion to The Chronicles of Alice duology.
After spending ten years in a hospital ward for the insane, Alice is finally free. Alongside her fellow prisoner Hatcher, they’d made their way through the Old City, escaping the evil clutches of the Magician crime lords. But now they’ve come to the outskirts, a land that is supposed to be full of lushness and beauty, only to find that everything—including their hopes—has been burned to ash. But Hatcher still has to find his daughter Jenny, so the two of them decide to press on towards the mountains.
Passing through the forest though, Alice and Hatcher are waylaid by many obstacles—from a murderous goblin to a trio of monstrous giants. Worse, they eventually become separated, and Alice stumbles alone upon a village full of terrified townsfolk, who tell her about the evil queen responsible for all the bad things in this part of the land. Determined to help the villagers and save her beloved Hatcher, Alice decides to harness her newfound magic and head up the mountain, where she will confront this mysterious queen and break her wicked hold on the forest.
While darkness still permeates everything about Red Queen, the book also departs quite a bit from Alice. In spite of this, certain factors actually made me enjoy this sequel slightly more than its predecessor. First of all, it’s clear from the start that Red Queen lacks some of the in-your-face horror which was right at the surface of Alice, and overall the story is also less emotionally traumatic and disturbing. Don’t get me wrong, for I love the horror genre and all its elements, but one of my chief complaints about the first book was its extreme brutal nature and the hollowing effect it had on the characters and story. I likened this to a massive black hole sucking the life out of everything, leaving me feeling ambivalent and distant towards Alice and Hatcher. Red Queen, on the other hand, is still plenty grim and dreadful, but at least there’s room enough to let me care about the protagonists and their predicaments.
Another major difference is that Red Queen is a book mainly about Alice. Contrast that to book one, which featured a lot more of Hatcher, who played the role of her protector and was always there by her side offering his physical and mental support. However, the two of them spend much of the time apart in this sequel, and it’s Alice who does most of the rescuing, rather than the other way around. I truly enjoyed the way she stepped up in this story, taking the lead on facing off against the villain, never letting her doubts get in the way of what is right. Even after all the terrible things that have been done to her, Alice still sees the good in the world, and it’s this goodness in her that ultimately saves her life. On the whole, I also gained a better understanding of Alice and Hatcher’s relationship. It’s not romance, exactly. The two of them care for each other deeply, there’s no doubt about that. But their love is one born of pain and suffering, of surviving through terrors together. The bond between them is complex, and—paradoxically and ironically, perhaps—their separation in this book is what finally allows this intimacy to be explored.
Recent years have seen a marked increase in number of classics and fairy tale retellings, but I believe the uniqueness of Alice and now its sequel Red Queen means that these books will always stand out among the rest. This duology is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re inclined towards the dark fantasy or horror genres I would definitely recommend The Chronicles of Alice, and even more so if you enjoy bleak and darkly imaginative retellings. Christina Henry has transformed this world and reshaped it to her own bold and unflinching vision. I’m really glad to have gone down this wonderfully strange and fantastic rabbit hole....more
The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman was actually pretty awesome. Know that the only reason I didn’t rate this book higher is because I’m very picky about vampire books, owing to their particular abundance in fantasy and horror fiction. In truth, as much as I enjoyed this, I think there are better vampire titles out there, including Buehlman’s own vampire novel that was published a couple years ago, The Lesser Dead. I still remember how I felt when I read that book, the sense of fear and dread that filled me when I first encountered the novel’s group of creepy vampire children roaming and hunting in the subways. I wanted badly to experience that again with The Suicide Motor Club, but in the end it just didn’t compare.
The Suicide Motor Club opens in 1967, following a family of three as they drive down a lonely stretch of highway. All of a sudden, another car comes speeding up towards them out of nowhere, overtaking the family, making a snatch at the little boy sitting in the back with his arm hanging out the open window. Just like that, Judith Lamb’s son Glendon was gone, yanked into the other vehicle, a hot rod Camaro occupied by its gleaming-eyed driver and his pale companion. However, before Judith and her husband Robert could catch up and rescue their boy, another car comes up behind them and rams them off the road, causing them to crash.
Robert Lamb dies in the hospital soon after, but Judith survives, heartbroken knowing that Glendon is also lost to her forever. She ends up joining a convent, but two years later when she is still a novice nun, a stranger named Wicklow comes seeking her, claiming to be the leader of a group called the Bereaved. They are hunters, and the targets they hunt are the creatures in those cars that took Judith’s son, killed her husband, and almost killed Judith herself: Vampires. Wicklow tells her about a band of them known as the Suicide Motor Club, who prey on their victims by targeting them on the road, deliberately causing deadly accidents so they can swoop in and feed on the survivors. Because of her past experiences and unique position as a nun, Wicklow believes that Judith can help them. Ultimately he convinces her to join the Bereaved, appealing as well to her intense desire for vengeance.
There are a couple reason why I didn’t think this one was as good as The Lesser Dead. First of all, it’s pretty hard to out-creep creepy vampire children. Creepy vampire children are like the pinnacle of creepiness. Even the sadistic founder of the Suicide Motor Club and his ilk could hardly match that. Second, I felt a distinct aversion for the kind of…unsubtlety that made up the action in this story, like scenes of car chases, horrific crashes, and deadly explosions, etc. To be fair, this is something I should have anticipated, considering that fast cars and highways are the central focus of this novel. If that kind of action strikes your fancy, then chances are you’ll love the hell out of this book. Personally I’m just not that into this kind of bombast, so for me many of the more “exciting” sequences fell flat.
I also enjoyed the characters, even given limited opportunity to really get to know any of them. There are a lot of characters involved, including minor appearances from incidental names and faces whose presence is mainly used to illustrate the destructiveness of the vampires as they make their deadly rampage along the country’s highways. It’s a common enough device (especially in many horror and thriller-suspense novels) but to me it felt like it was slightly overdone here, overshadowing the more important primary characters. I liked Judith, but at the same time I also felt a detachment to her cause. When you consider the main story without all its tangents, the plot is actually quite simple; and at the end of the day, Judith didn’t seem to have much control over her circumstances, nor did she have the means to really influence the direction of the story and the fate of all involved. Still, I don’t deny that I generally prefer more character-driven stories, so this is most likely just a matter of taste.
Lest I start to sound too negative though, I want to emphasize again that this is not a bad book, and I actually liked it a lot! Admittedly I have high expectations when it comes to Buehlman, since I loved the two other books I’ve read by him. It’s just hard not to make comparisons to them, especially since like The Lesser Dead, this newest novel also features vampires, and I’ve even heard somewhere that The Suicide Motor Club was meant to be a quasi-prequel. Knowing that he was tackling vampires as a subject again, I’d merely hoped that the story would be more original, or that there would be something more unique about these vampires. Everything ended up being fairly standard and predictable, but I definitely wouldn’t say I was disappointed either.
Frankly, when it comes down to the enjoyment factor, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. It might not be perfect, nor do I consider it Buehlman’s best, but he does some pretty neat things with the premise. The Suicide Motor Club also hasn’t changed my opinion of him as a talented author, who writes with such a bold, evocative style. Plus, it’s fast-paced, action-oriented, and it’ll keep you turning the pages. When you’re looking to escape with a thrilling horror novel, sometimes you just can’t ask for more....more
I found a new favorite author in Keri Arthur when I read City of Light last year, and my hope is that I will continue to enjoy her work for years to come. Certainly those odds are looking good with Winter Halo, the sequel. Not only did I enjoy it as much as the previous book, this second novel of the Outcast series also came along when I needed it the most, providing a much needed counterpoint to the heavier reads I’ve had on my plate lately. It was nice to simply let loose with Tiger in her world again; that and we all know there’s nothing quite like vampires and shapeshifters plus a little a bit of sex and action to serve as perfect entremets.
The story picks up from the end of City of Light, continuing Tiger’s quest to rescue a group of kidnapped children. With the help from some new allies (because calling them friends would still be quite a stretch), she traces the trail to Winter Halo, a pharmaceutical company whose research arm appears to be involved in a bunch of shady activities. Our protagonist hatches up a plan to go undercover, using her déchet abilities to shapeshift and gather information from a top company executive to find out what’s going on within their research facility.
Her findings end up being even more bizarre and worrisome than expected, including everything from reports of hauntings to illicit experimentation and dissections. Just what is going on inside the walls of Winter Halo? To find out, Tiger must infiltrate the company and go deep into the heart of hostile territory. Time is fast running out, and the lost children are depending on her to find and rescue them.
If you haven’t discovered the world of Outcast yet, you’re in for a treat. As I mentioned before, Tiger is a humanoid being known as a “déchet”, a French term that means “junk” or “waste”, referring to the process with which she and others like her were made. Déchets were the super-soldiers created for the war against the monsters that came through rifts into our world more than a hundred years ago, genetic hybrids cobbled from genes from human, animal, and even paranormal creatures. Tiger’s main role in that long-ago war was to act as a “lure”, an agent capable of seducing her victims and extracting sensitive information from their heads before killing them. This explains why she is more “emotionally connected” than many of her fellow déchets who were mainly bred to be violent war machines. Pretty much all of them were eradicated by the end of the war though, so Tiger lives a lonely existence, making her home in an abandoned bunker surrounded by ghosts of murdered déchet children.
I think that’s the part which gets me the most. Let’s face it, urban fantasy and paranormal books about their main characters trying to rescue kidnapped kids are a dime a dozen. What makes Outcast and Tiger so special is that the reader can deeply sympathize with her reasons for going the distance for these stolen children. Her own life has been touched by the cruel and untimely deaths of young souls, and those experiences have affected her and stayed with her. Whenever we encounter scenes with Bear and Cat, our protagonist’ energetic helper ghosts, sometimes they charm us so much that it’s easy to forget the horrible way they died. For Tiger though, the heartbreaking circumstances around their deaths are always on her mind, and she’ll fight hard to prevent another child from ever being harmed again.
This sequel also builds upon the relationships established in the first book. The feelings growing between Tiger and Jonas are likely to be of the most interest, their attraction having been teased since the two of them first met. I’m actually surprised at the slow-burn approach Arthur is taking, when in a lot of other series, their authors often seem so eager to throw their love interests together as quickly as possible. I love this more measured pacing though, giving time to let the characters’ lives and personalities sink in.
Finally, I’m really enjoying the new plot developments. There’s a noticeable shift in Winter Halo’s themes towards more subterfuge, but the tensions and thrills remain high. The hunt for the missing children still makes up the main story arc, but now several secondary plot threads have also come into play and I’m curious to see where they will go.
The stakes have definitely been raised for this one! Arthur’s world-building and characterizations continue to be outstanding for this series, and I am having a blast with the twists and turns of the story. Now begins the hard part: the wait for book three....more
While After Atlas takes place in the same cosmos as Planetfall, it is more accurate to call it a companion novel than a true sequel. If you were like me and were confused by the ending of the first book, I’m afraid you’ll not find many answers here. There are mentions to previous events, but at best the link between the two novels are tenuous, with After Atlas following a new protagonist, featuring a completely new scenario in a new setting, and even the story’s tone and style are completely different.
Of course, even if this isn’t the direct sequel you’d hoped for, there’s still plenty of good news. It means After Atlas can be read as a standalone, for one thing. And out of all the books I’ve read by Emma Newman so far, I have to say this was hands down my favorite one of all. It’s quite a departure from her The Split Worlds series and even Planetfall, but that’s what I really enjoyed about it, and how the story dug its hooks under my skin so that even now, days later, I’m still reeling from that punch-drunk sensation I get when I finish an amazing book.
After Atlas introduces us to Govcorp detective Carlos Moreno who went into law enforcement not because he chose that career for himself, but because his contract was bought by Norope’s Ministry of Justice. When Carlos was just a baby, his mother left on the spaceship Atlas along with her fellow faithful to seek God among the stars, leaving her son with her bereft husband. The two of them soon ended up with the Circle, a religious cult led by the charismatic Alejandro Casales, a man whose calling has led him to gather the scientists left behind by Atlas and to heal their shattered families. But living at the Circle had its costs. Alejandro advocated a simple life for his followers, forsaking technology in order to appreciate the meaning behind one’s own hard work and endeavors. When Carlos became a teenager, he chafed against these rules, so he ran away.
Penniless, un-chipped, and innocent of the ways of the world, Carlos sadly ended up in the hands of human traffickers, which is how he came to be trapped in his indentured servitude. Life could be much worse than working for the MoJ though, so Carlos makes sure to do his job well and not cause any trouble lest he adds more years onto his contract. However, the very moment he finds out about his newest case, he knows that things could only go badly. An American VIP has been found murdered and hacked to pieces in a high-class hotel, and the victim is none other than Circle leader Alejandro Casales, a man Carlos once respected and loved even more than his own father.
What follows next is an exciting and suspenseful police procedural. While it is as far as you can get from the mysticism and colonization sci-fi we saw from Planetfall, the straight-up mystery of After Atlas worked a lot better for yours truly, a self-professed fan of science fiction noir. As far as I know, this is the first time the author has written anything like this, and boy does she have the touch. Best of all, she has made use of her futuristic setting and incorporated its science and technology fully, equipping Carlos and his team with the use of advanced AI and virtual reality. But even with all this helpful tech, the case involving Alejandro remains a tough nut to crack, thus much of the story’s impetus actually comes from our protagonist’s inquisitive personality and his own personal stakes in finding out the truth.
Which brings us to Carlos, our gifted but somewhat surly detective. His personality at the start will likely turn some folks off, but before long we will find out more about his past and understand why he might be so private and standoffish. Gradually we also come to grasp the significance of Alejandro’s death and how Carlos’ love-hate relationship with the murdered Circle leader will affect the course of the investigation. I thought Newman handled this aspect of the book particularly well, adding an extra dimension to the already stretched emotions surrounding the case.
Regarding the links to Planetfall, I mentioned before that they are few and tenuous, but readers who want the full picture might want to read the previous book before tackling After Atlas. This story takes place forty years after the Atlas spaceship departed earth with the Pathfinder and her followers, and weeks from now the time capsule that they left is scheduled to be opened. This aspect of the book might come across a tad confusing if you haven’t read Planetfall, but fear not for everything will be sufficiently explained so that the shocking ending of After Atlas will ultimately have the desired impact. As you might recall, the biggest problem I had with Planetfall was the last 10% of the book, and once more I can’t help but think that the final chapter of After Atlas will be the greatest point of contention among readers. Once again, I felt that the conclusion was rushed, but at least this time the end brought a stronger sense of closure—even if winded up shaking me to the core.
Nothing can stop me from recommending this book, though. Emma Newman has written a police procedural like she was born to this genre, laying out the clues and following up on all the leads before pulling everything together for a stunner, the way a composer conducts the many parts of an orchestra to build her symphony into a climax. After Atlas is a wonderfully gripping novel if you enjoy these kinds of stories, and for me it was one of the best I’ve ever read....more
This year, I’m resolving to do a much better job at controlling my TBR and a big part of that will involve being a lot more prudent with the books I choose to accept for review, but when I was contacted about The Rogue Retrieval, I knew there was no way I could resist giving it a try. The book’s main character is a Las Vegas stage magician who one day hopes to make it big and headline at a Strip casino! Call me cheesy, but I have a real fascination for illusionists and magic shows. Fantasy is fantasy, but watching a skilled magician at their art is always fun because if nothing else, you can suspend your disbelief and imagine—even if it’s just for a moment—that you’re experiencing something beyond the realm of possibility.
In fact, that explanation might also be analogous to why I love urban fantasy. I love imagining our real world with magic in it. The idea of the contemporary mixed with the paranormal appeals to me, and I also enjoy asking the question, “What if?”
Perhaps that is why I had so much fun with The Rogue Retrieval, because at its core, that’s what this book is—one big “What if?” story. What if a whole other world was discovered, connected to ours via a secret portal? What if everything we think of when we think “fantasy world”—like magic, sorcerers, sword-wielding warriors, etc.—is all a reality in this secret realm? And what if someone, just an average guy from our own world, was tasked to go over there to on a real-life quest?
Though, calling our protagonist “just an average guy” wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because Quinn Bradley is actually an extremely talented and ambitious illusionist. But on his big night, instead of being scouted by one of the big Vegas hotels, representatives from CASE Global, a powerful corporation, make him an offer he can’t refuse. The company has discovered a portal to another world called Alissia, a place where magic is real, and they need Quinn to be as good as the real thing so he and a team can travel there and capture a rogue scientist whose actions threaten to put all of them at risk. However, what CASE has neglected to tell Quinn is that impersonating a magician in Alissia is serious crime with fatal consequences.
What makes The Rogue Retrieval special is that it doesn’t read like your typical urban fantasy. In truth, most of the book actually takes place in Alissia, a world closer to what readers would regard as a “high fantasy” setting. But while Quinn and his companions go through the portal in disguise pretending to be native Alissians, they also carry with them advanced technology and other high-tech gadgetry to help them in their quest. So in essence, you get an interesting mix of traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, and even some science fiction thrown in.
This makes The Rogue Retrieval a very different sort of read, one that might appeal to fans of UF who are looking for something that breathes new life into the genre. At the same time though, it retains a lot of the characteristics that makes UF fun—namely the fast pacing, lots of laugh-out-loud humor, and plenty of thrilling action scenes. For better or worse, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, forgoing much world-building so that Alissia feels like your very generic fantasy world. The book has a feeling of satire at times, reminiscent of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a present-day person is transported to another world where he is able to fool its inhabitants into thinking he is a bona fide magician with his knowledge of modern technology. Nothing too deep here, but the story is admittedly tons of fun.
That said, there were a few puzzling issues with the plot. I was never entirely convinced why CASE specifically needed a stage magician for the mission, though a big deal was made about an aspect of Quinn’s background and the reasons for that might be revealed in the next book. But on the whole, I was hoping Quinn’s talents would’ve had more relevance to the story. There’s also the prospect of a romance that I’m not sure was really required. By the end of the book, nothing really gets resolved either, and there were a lot more loose ends than I would have liked.
Still, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface here, and hopefully the next installment will develop things further and give more answers. A few minor issues notwithstanding, I’m definitely interested in reading the sequel. Dan Koboldt’s new book is an entertaining urban fantasy with a fascinating angle, great if you’re in the mood for something light, fluffy and fun. I’m looking forward to see where the story will go....more
Piratical fantasy? Yes, please. I love me some seafaring scoundrels. Throw in some mercenaries and mermaids, and The Guns of Ivrea sounded like a maritime journey I wanted to take.
Unexpectedly, we’re also given a good dose of politics and religious lore. The book opens very cinematically, deep in the tomb of Saint Elded, the revered prophet of the faith. A young monk named Acquel is with a maintenance team checking for damages when he accidentally glimpses Elded’s body and discovers a shocking secret that can shake the foundations of the entire church.
Suddenly, Brother Acquel finds himself marked for death. He barely manages to escape, though not before slipping away with an ancient talisman belonging to the dead saint. Acquel’s desperate flight leads him straight to the doorstep of Captain Strykar, leader of the Black Rose mercenary band. In need of a new holy man, Strykar allows Acquel to travel with them, leaving the monk in the care of the company sutler, the widow Timandra. Meanwhile, they are on their way to the coastal city of Palestro where pirate princeling Nicolo Danamis commands the largest fleet in Valdur and carries out his privateering activities for the king. However, Danamis’ recent dealings with the Merfolk have made his devout men jittery and unhappy, and his latest trade may prove to be his undoing.
This book is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, and if you’re fond of breakneck action and twisty political hijinks, you’ll definitely find lots to like in The Guns of Ivrea. Clifford Beal keeps things moving at a quick pace, applying his tight plotting and solid storytelling skills to ensure something interesting happens in every chapter. Battle sequences are plentiful and exquisitely detailed, creating an atmosphere so rich and thick that you can practically smell the cannon smoke, though these scenes are still succinct and smooth enough that they do not wear out their welcome. The intrigue surrounding Brother Acquel’s startling discovery—and the extraordinary relic in his possession—is also a mystery that rests comfortably on the narrative, and as we follow along with the story, the big question surrounding the truth of Saint Elded’s identity serves as motivation to keep the pages turning.
So it was a surprise when I found that I didn’t feel as connected to the story as I thought I would be. Even now I’m having trouble putting my finger on the cause of this detachment, but my best bet would be on the characters. What felt lacking was a layer of intimacy, which ultimately kept them all at arms’ length. Despite the entertaining plot, it was hard to feel invested when at the end of the day I felt no great concern for the characters’ fates, though they were enjoyable enough to follow. I knew Danamis and Strykar had a complicated friendship because that’s what the narrative told me, not something I felt. Brother Acquel’s acceptance into their fold was likewise a relationship that was more told than shown, as was the monk’s romantic involvement with Timandra, which I didn’t feel emotionally at all. Similarly, Danamis’ alliance and subsequent bond with the Mer princess Citala in the in the later parts of the novel also felt under-developed.
But speaking of the Mer, by far the coolest thing about this novel is Beal’s unique take on these creatures of myth. They are abhorred and mistrusted by those who live on land due to the teachings of the human religion, which revile the Mer for being abominations and inferior beings. We didn’t get to see much of the Mer in this book, at least not as much as I’d hoped, though their history plays a very important role in the overall story.
It would be very interesting to see what the author has planned for the rest of this series. I hope the more time I spend with these characters, the more I’ll get to come to sympathize with them, but right now Beal has certainly hooked my attention. The Guns of Ivrea is an energetic and suspenseful fantasy that blends nautical adventure with political intrigue and religious conspiracies. I’ll be looking out for the sequel....more
Julia Verne St. John’s fantasy steampunk alternate history novel The Transference Engine became one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 when The BiblioSanctum hosted the cover reveal for it earlier this year. The first time I glimpsed that beautiful cover was also the first time I’d heard of this book, and both the protagonist and the world sounded fascinating to me. A mystery involving necromancy, set in an alternate 1830s London that’s run on magic and machines? No way I wasn’t going to love this. In spite of my excitement though, by the time I was through the first few chapters, I realized I was probably going to have to adjust my expectations.
These first few dozen pages or so introduced us to Madame Magdala, the proprietress of the Book View Café, a magical library where patrons can sit and read while enjoying a cup of coffee and freshly baked pastries. However, the café’s centerpiece is a magical book sorting contraption designed by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, a literal search engine that can find any book you ask for in the library’s collection. Magdala and Lovelace—the woman who will one day become the world’s first computer programmer—go way back, from the time Magdala was first hired by Ada’s mother to be a governess and protector for her daughter.
That’s because Ada’s father is also the notorious Lord Byron, the famous poet and depraved necromancer. Even after his death, Lady Byron feared that her husband’s followers would try to resurrect him in a new body using a soul-transferal machine called the Transference Engine. While the original machine was destroyed ten years ago, there’s no telling how far the necromancers will go to complete their task. Now, with reports of young men and women disappearing all around London (and several of the missing being employees of the Book View Café), Magdala is concerned that someone might be attempting to repair the Transference Engine by collecting enough innocent souls to bring back the one of Lord Byron.
In truth, I actually liked this novel. If I was a little disappointed, it’s only insofar because I thought I was going to love it. My main issue with the book was how slowly it started. For a 300-page novel, I typically expect things to be moving long by page 50, but this story didn’t pick up in earnest until more than halfway through, which is quite a lot to ask of your readers. I was feeling much more generous with The Transference Engine and kept reading because I genuinely was taken in by the world, but I think others might not be so patient. Not that the plot didn’t interest me, but I would have liked this a lot more if the major developments were presented sooner.
The number of confusing flashbacks was also another factor that played into the pacing issue. Part of the problem is that this book almost reads like a sequel, with the heroine constantly referring to events in the past like I should be aware of them already. This feeling of “sequel-ness” was so strong, I did some research after finishing The Transference Engine to see what I could find. It turned out, I was right—sort of. The character of Madame Magdala was actually first introduced in a collection of short stories called Steampunk Voyages, published by the author in 2013 under her name Irene Radford. Many of the past adventures Magdala mentions in The Transference Engine are apparently from this anthology, including her experiences involving her past clients, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley (the latter was a necromancer too). Knowing all this, I understood the reason I felt so lost and confused was because I was effectively starting this story from behind.
That said, I really liked some of the characters and world-building elements. I actually wish these aspects could have been developed more, but the truth is this book was probably too short to fit all the ideas the author wanted. The narrative also spends way too much time on things I didn’t find as interesting, such as Magdala’s constant congratulating of herself for taking in orphans and other street children (almost like she has to remind us all every few minutes what a kind, magnanimous soul she is). In actuality, what I really wanted to know was more about the amazing technology in this world, like her little tiny clockwork hummingbird, or her awesome book finding machine. I’d also hoped that Ada Lovelace would feature more prominently in this book; I think she’s an incredible historical figure and it was such a shame that she didn’t play a bigger role in the story.
Once this book got going though, it really moved. All the set up in the first half of the novel paid off in the second, and I breezed through the story’s climax and conclusion. I don’t know if I can wholeheartedly recommend this since the beginning was so confusing and somewhat dull, but at least the ending was satisfying, even if it did wrap up a little too quickly and neatly. The pacing issues really hurt this novel, robbing this mystery story of its full potential, but there’s also plenty to like here if you’re a fan of the steampunk genre and enjoy reading about cool world-building ideas. If there’s a sequel, I can see pacing improving since the foundation has already been established, and I would be very curious to continue the story....more
I badly wanted to like this book, but its style was just completely wrong for my tastes, a model example of the classic “It’s not you, book–it’s me.” In these cases I always struggle to write my reviews, because I know what I perceive as flaws are in fact really selling points that will be very attractive to others. They say good content will always have an audience though, which is why I’m not too concerned about this book’s chances of finding success with readers everywhere, but I confess it didn’t really work as well for me, in spite of its huge charisma.
First, a little bit about Heroine Complex: The book tells the story of two best friends—one is a flashy superheroine, and the other is her quiet personal assistant. Ever since they were five years old, our protagonist Evelyn Tanaka has always found herself in Annie Chang’s shadow, and that’s become especially true now that Annie has become Aveda Jupiter, savior of San Francisco. It isn’t easy keeping up with a superheroine, or putting up with her epic tantrums whenever things don’t go her way, but Evie always tells herself she doesn’t mind the work. After all, Annie-now-Aveda is her oldest, most loyal friend. She’s been there for Evie through all the bad times, rescuing her whenever she needed the help and emotional support. Evie figures the least she can do to repay Aveda is to give her boss anything she wants, and do whatever she commands.
But then one day, Aveda injures herself while fighting cupcake demons, suffering a sprain which would put her out of commission for at least four to six weeks. Refusing to accept being out of the spotlight for that long, Aveda convinces Evie to act as her double and make public appearances in her stead. True to form, Evie caves spectacularly to her friend’s demands, never mind that she has no experience schmoozing at glitzy events, or fighting portal demons for that matter. In fact, Evie has spent most of her adult life actually trying to hide her own superpower, which she fears would be dangerous if she ever let it out.
What can I say? The whole superheroes meets The Devil Wears Prada premise wrapped up in an urban fantasy package was certainly irresistible to me, and at first I genuinely thought Heroine Complex would be right up my alley. And indeed, I would have loved it, I think, if some of the elements which first attracted me to this book–the humor, the action, the snark, etc.–hadn’t been so exaggerated and over-the-top. Another key problem I had with this book was how cartoonish the setting felt. UF has always been one of my favorite genres because I love the way it reimagines our world with supernatural aspects in it, while still maintaining the realism and believability of the setting. In contrast, Sarah Kuhn’s San Francisco and all the characters populating it are more like comic caricatures, and her writing style also reflects this general vibe.
By the way, I use descriptions like “cartoonish” and “comic” because I believe none of this is by accident. I get the feeling that this is exactly what the author is aiming for, but I really have to be in the right mood for this tongue-in-cheek style, and I guess I just wasn’t.
Not surprisingly then, story and characters are also ultra-predictable. Again, I know all that is part and parcel of this particular narrative style, but it still nettled. Evie, despite her quirkiness and ebullience, comes across too bland and two-dimensional. She and her friends are like walking clichés playing their assigned roles and speaking their hammy lines. The romance also felt a bit tacked on and flat, since whenever Evie and her love interest Nate shared a scene, their relationship only seemed to have two settings: sniping-at-each-other mode, or can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other mode. I did think the story was fast-paced and fun though, and the plot had its flashes of brilliance every now and then, but it simply wasn’t enough to keep me energized for nearly 400 pages.
Major kudos for the Asian American superheroine protagonists though, even if I could have done without a couple of the stereotypes, like how Asian parents only care about their kids’ grades and would disavow us if we didn’t get into med school, and my eyes just about bugged out of my head when I read that part where Evie said she was used to not letting herself feel because she’s Asian and knows all about emotional repression. Yes, I realize there’s usually a nugget of truth to stereotypes and I’m aware this is all done in the spirit of good fun, but seeing them propagate even for the sake of humor still makes me a tad uncomfortable especially since I’ve had to face many of these same misconceptions in my life (“You’ll want your daughters to be doctors, right?” Even when said in jest, this one is my own personal bane.)
Overall, I know I’m in the minority with my lukewarm reaction, so if you think you’ll enjoy the story’s style or the type of humor I described, then you should definitely give this book a try. Heroine Complex accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it does all of it very well, even if it did turn out not to be the kind of book for me....more
I had a feeling I was really going to enjoy this book. A light, breezy read with a wildly entertaining premise, The Big Sheep deserves high marks for humor and excellent characterization, plus major bonus points for creativity. This was a truly unexpected but enjoyable sci-fi mystery which reminded me very strongly of Sherlock Holmes, with shades of Philip K. Dick and a nice heavy injection of bizarre twists.
It is the year 2039, and our story takes place in Los Angeles, opening with our main character Blake Fowler and his business partner, the great detective—er, I mean, the great “phenomenological inquisitor”—Erasmus Keane, investigating into a case about a missing sheep. But this sheep isn’t any ordinary sheep. Mary, as the wooly ruminant is called, stands about as tall as a grown man, weighs 300 pounds, and was specifically bioengineered by a genetic research company for an uncanny purpose. And now she has been stolen, presumably by a rival company for her secrets.
But Keane and Fowler aren’t so sure, especially when it’s clear that the company isn’t telling them the whole truth. The waters are further muddied when another case shows up on their office doorstep in the form of Priya Mistry, the hottest TV star in the country, who has come to hire the duo because she suspects someone is trying to kill her. Her evidence is a mysterious note sent to warn her, signed “Noogus”, the name of her childhood teddy bear. At first, Fowler is skeptical, thinking that the beautiful young celebrity has come unhinged or is just being paranoid, mistaking the usual attention for something more sinister. However, it soon becomes clear that something much stranger is going on, when Priya starts exhibiting troubling behavior like memory loss and confusion. Fowler and Keane do their best to protect her while also juggling the case of the stolen sheep, eventually coming to the realization that the two cases might have more to do with each other than they thought.
I’m so glad that I went into this book without knowing much more beyond the publisher’s description. It was a lot of fun discovering all of its unique charms and merits. As sci-fi novels go, The Big Sheep was very readable, and at first glance, it might even seem like your typical light and fluffy fare (I swear, no pun intended) but ultimately a number of deeper themes started emerging. Not to give away too much, but as with many of the works that inspired this book, you can expect to see some existentialist questions explored in here, as well as thought-provoking discussions of ethics in science and technology. Definitely not something I expected when I first picked up this book, which I thought would be a pretty standard detective story, about the hunt for a missing giant sheep no less.
The world-building is also fantastic. Though we don’t get to venture much outside Los Angeles where the bulk of this story takes place, what Robert Kroese does show us of the setting is extraordinary and well-constructed. His world of 2039 Los Angeles is a surreal place, a city still trying to recover from a catastrophic event called the Collapse which happened a little more than ten years ago. The disaster caused a big section of LA to be cordoned off, creating an area called the Disincorporated Zone where law, order, and infrastructure swiftly degenerated. After a while it became clear to government that the only way forward was to cut its losses, so the DZ was officially disowned by the city, creating a district that is separate from any other jurisdiction. In spite of this, the people who were inside the DZ before the Collapse managed to survive, living under crime bosses who are constantly vying for power.
I had a good time with the characters as well, enjoying Fowler’s personality and snarky narration. He is essentially the Watson to Erasmus Keane’s Sherlock Holmes, hired on by investigator to be his tether to reality. Keane is portrayed as something of a savant, but virtually hopeless in social interactions or any situation requiring a gunfight, which is why Fowler also provides security services and protection. The two of them have a very interesting relationship, which makes for great dialogue as well as a number of downright hilarious scenes.
Of course, at the heart of this novel is a mystery, and the duo intrigues of the missing sheep and paranoid TV star cases were what kept me reading. Even as the investigation went from ordinary to insane, I enjoyed following the clues and watching the brilliant Keane piece the whole puzzle together. I do appreciate a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously, touching briefly upon heavy topics while still endeavoring to be entertaining. Comedic elements are also handled deftly, so that the humor never became too campy.
All in all, The Big Sheep was a pleasure to read. I picked it up expecting a straightforward sci-fi detective story, but instead I got pulled into this genuinely fun and bizarre tale filled with humor and wild twists, which nonetheless tackled some deeper themes. Given the way the final chapter ended, there’s a good chance this is intended to be the first book of a series, and from what I’ve seen of the creative world-building and excellent characters, I can already see the potential for more great sequels....more
As soon as I finished this book I wanted to jump up and scream YES! This is what more YA should be like. It has originality. It has depth. It has a talking, flesh-eating demon horse. Wait, what? Yeah, more on that in a bit.
Think of The Star-Touched Queen as a retelling of the Persephone/Hades story, but inspired by the grand sweeping epics of Indian mythology. And like the greatest of the legends, this powerful journey also has elements of magic and romance, beauty and darkness, death and sacrifice. Seventeen-year-old Princess Myavati is said to be cursed, tainted with a horoscope that promises a marriage of Death and Destruction. In a kingdom where the people are deeply superstitious, this makes Maya something of an outcast in her father’s palace. None of the women in the harem want anything to do with her, but that suits Maya just fine as she puts her mind towards more scholarly pursuits.
But then Maya’s world is shattered when the Raja announces his plan to barter her off in a political marriage. The news shocks and mystifies her, because princess or not, who would want her as a cursed bride? In the end, what her father had in mind turns out to be much more complicated and terrible, but just as Maya was about to accept her fate as a mere pawn in this game of power, a new player enters the field—Amar, a mysterious prince who claims to be from a magical kingdom far away. Indeed, Amar ends up whisking Maya away to Akaran, his world beyond the mortal realm. There, he shows her wonders she never thought possible, though he reveals little of the truth about himself, telling Maya that a magical geas prevents him from answering all her questions until a certain amount of time has passed. The secrets gradually begin to eat away at Maya, who is not content to stay in Akaran like a caged bird. Acting upon her instincts, however, she unwittingly unleashes a chaos may unbalance the fates of both the ordinary world and the Otherworldly one, and now Maya needs to figure out how to make things right and save the people she loves.
While it’s true that the prose edges into purplish territory at times (especially noticeable when you’re listening to the audiobook), I’m a little tempted to let this one slide…just this once. Somehow, the style actually ends up being a good fit for kind of the imagery presented in this novel—rich, vibrant, perhaps a little bit over-the-top in terms of abstractedness, but still grounded enough to be very enjoyable. Certain aspects in this story remind me of the different kinds of myths in antiquity or folklore/legend, only retold for a modern audience.
I also really enjoyed the heavy focus on Maya and Amar’s relationship, and I don’t simply mean that we spend a lot of time on the romance. This goes deeper than that. I love the fact that author Roshani Chokshi is not afraid to slow things down, especially when current YA fiction trends are seemingly always pushing for more ACTION, ACTION, ACTION! PEP, VIM, ZING! The Star-Touched Queen is not that kind of book, and I would even understand if others call it out for its languid pacing, though I have to say found this novel no less exciting in its own unique way. I marveled at the amount of bonding time between our two main characters, or how the thoughtful, reflective conversations they had with each other actually meant something.
If you were hoping for a faster-paced story, the second part of the book does bring a little more momentum. We get to know Maya a lot better as a character, watching her personal growth as she rises above her past memories and actions. In the tradition of the ancient Indian epics, this section chronicles a hero’s journey, except in this case of course, our hero is a heroine, a princess trying to find a way to save her world and her beloved. But Maya doesn’t fight this battle alone; by her side is Kamala, the aforementioned demon horse who makes for an unlikely but humorous ally.
I also highly recommend The Star-Touched Queen in audio format. I thought narrator Priya Ayyar’s performance started out a little strained at the beginning but it gradually smoothed out to become more natural over time, and she is really good with accents. Furthermore, some stories can work incredibly well when they’re being read out loud, with certain sections that make you want to close your eyes and imagine the wonderful things described. This is definitely one of those books.
All told The Star-Touched Queen was a delight to read and listen to; I would recommend it if you’re looking for an imaginative YA retelling that’s not as formulaic and contrived. A lovely mix of romance, fantasy, and mythology....more
I was so excited to finally get my hands on Company Town, a book which had been on my to-read list for years going back to the days since it was first announced by Angry Robot. While the original publisher’s sale followed by the novel’s move to Tor resulted in a significant delay for its release, I have to say the wait was absolutely worth it. I was already a fan of the author, having read her seriously imaginative and seriously twisted novel vN set in an age of self-replicating synthetic humans, but with Company Town Madeline Ashby delivers a whole other level of storytelling genius.
The book takes place in New Arcadia, a city of floating towers surrounding a dilapidated oil rig in the North Atlantic just off the east coast of Canada. Three years after a major accident shook up its residents, new life has returned to town in the form of Zachariah Lynch, patriarch of a wealthy family of energy barons who buys up the place and begins development of an alternative reactor under the waves.
Our protagonist Go Jung-Hwa works as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada, accompanying her charges to appointments with their clients. The sex trade may be a highly regulated industry in New Arcadia, but that doesn’t mean the girls don’t need protection. Because Hwa was born with Sturge-Weber Syndrome, her mother deemed it “a waste” to invest in any augmentations for her daughter, so as a result, Hwa is one of the few people in the city completely free of bio-engineered enhancements. In spite of this, she is adept at self-defense and is no stranger to getting into scraps, making her very good at her job.
Eventually, her talents come to the attention of Zachariah Lynch himself, whose fifteen-year-old heir Joel has been receiving death threats. Taking an immediate liking to the kid, Hwa agrees to work for the Lynches, becoming Joel’s personal bodyguard. However, her sudden career change could not have come at a worse time. Women from around town, all sex workers and Hwa’s old friends, are turning up murdered. The timing of these incidences are just way too uncanny to be coincidental, making Hwa wonder if the killings and the threats against Joel might be all related.
This was a highly addictive read, literally a book I couldn’t put down. I kept making excuses for myself not to stop reading (“Sleep? Who needs sleep?”), and as a result I ended up finishing this over two or three sessions in a little more than a day. I enjoyed everything about this novel, from the phenomenal world-building to the irresistible mystery surrounding the story. I also found the characters likeable, especially the protagonist Hwa, whose personality was positively magnetic. She’s definitely not one to hide her feelings about her condition and the associated port-wine stain on her face, wearing her fears and insecurity on her sleeve. However, she is also emotionally and physically strong, having weathered all kinds of challenges on her own without any help. Knowing that she’s different and living with a disorder that could incapacitate her anytime has not slowed her down. She’s a character you can sympathize with but not pity, someone whose self-doubt does not inhibit her from doing what she knows is best for herself. Despite having a rough life, she can still see the humor in things, as well as the good in people. It is this that ultimately leads her to accept the job protecting Joel Lynch, who is nothing like the “rich kid” stereotype. His personality appealed to me immediately as well, winning me over with earnest charm and innocence.
Then there was Daniel Síofra. Mere words cannot describe how much I love this character! As head of Joel’s security detail, he’s also Hwa’s boss. There’s actually a thread of romance here that took me by surprise; it is not strong nor is it a big part of the story, but nevertheless it’s one of the most satisfying romance arcs I have ever read. That incredibly intense moment where Hwa finally opens up emotionally to Síofra, the first time she has ever done that with anybody, practically had me melting into a puddle on the floor.
But while characterization was by far the strongest point, the story didn’t disappoint either. Sure, at times there was a bit too much going on, and I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about the ending (which had a mind-blowing twist!), but overall there’s no denying the allure of this mystery. The suspense was what kept me reading long into the night.
All told, I loved this book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to fans of futuristic sci-fi and mystery. Hwa’s not your typical sleuth but she’s brilliant and accomplished in her own way, protecting those who can’t defend themselves. A fascinating setting along with an amazing cast of characters made Company Town an unforgettable read....more
Imagine the Roman Empire in space, still busy conquering the stars and holding their brutal gladiatorial competitions to sate the bloodthirsty appetites of the public, even thousands of years into the far flung future. This is the scenario presented to us in Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan’s Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator, a sci-fi space opera featuring a galaxy in which Ancient Rome never fell, instead remaining the greatest superpower that ever existed.
The book begins in the midst of a bitter rivalry between two noble families: House Viridian, represented by the proud Golden Wolf, and House Sertorian, bearer of the Ruby Hawk emblem. Across the galaxy, other royal houses has chosen sides, plunging the empire into utter chaos and war. In an attempt to halt the violence and prevent any more unnecessarily bloodshed, the Emperor has decreed that any future fighting will instead take place in the arena at the Imperial Games on the planet Olympus Decimus, where all scores will ultimately be settled. To the victor will go the spoils, while the losers will be forced to give up their status as a ruling house and be stripped of all their royal titles and properties. Wolf and Hawk will still have a chance to take each other down, but now their fighters’ attentions will be turned to honing their gladiatorial skills.
Enter our protagonist Accala Viridius, who has sworn vengeance upon the Sertorian forces who murdered her mother and brother. As a young noblewoman, no one will heed her words, but as a common gladiator, she can take matters into her own hands. Defying her father’s wishes, Accala sacrifices her social status and privilege to compete in the Imperial Games, armed with her weapon-of-choice, a sharp-edged discus.
With this amazing premise set to such a unique backdrop, I could hardly resist. The first couple acts of this novel were perhaps my favorite of all, for I enjoyed how quickly the story established a fully-formed picture of Accala, even in spite of her single-minded desire for vengeance. The authors quickly turned what could have been a vulnerability into a character strength, focusing on Accala’s anger when they developed her personality and began establishing her motivations around this central core. Flashbacks into the past were seamlessly worked into the narrative, portraying the protagonist’s grief at her mother and brother’s deaths, which in turn provided an explanation as to why she was so determined to train as a gladiator. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Accala’s obsession with revenge may also shed some light into her frame of mind as we go deeper into the story. At a certain point, our heroine finds out a shocking truth about her family and is subsequently presented with a horrible dilemma. Admittedly, I couldn’t bring myself to agree with a lot of the things she does in the later sections of this novel, but at least I can sympathize a little with what was driving her.
Accala’s questionable decisions aside, there were a few other nagging little issues that started cropping up as I dove further into this story. For one thing, there’s a whole whopping lot of stuff happening around here, which normally wouldn’t be something I’d complain about. I’d wager though, there’s probably enough plot development in here to fill three books, but cramming it all in one volume only served to create meandering distractions and bring about reader fatigue. That’s what wore me down eventually, as whatever momentum was gained by the solid intro slowly began to drain away once we crossed the halfway point, after which the plot started to feel repetitive and too drawn out. Needless to say, I did not enjoy the second half of the book as much as the first, and I also didn’t read this section with as much speed and enthusiasm.
That being said, the story’s quick pacing wasn’t actually that affected. Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator boasts plenty of fight scenes, and in fact it doesn’t take long at all for things to turn into a massive bloodbath with heads and limbs flying off left and right. There are a lot of twists too, so don’t be surprised when certain pieces on the game board come back into play, even once you think they’ve been taken out of the equation. Nothing is over until the authors decide it is.
I also enjoyed the world-building, even if some of its foundations are a little dubious. I for one am not entirely convinced that seven millennia later, certain customs and attitudes of the ancient Romans have remained static after all this time, such as the stifling patriarchy or the populace’s rabid lust for the gladiatorial blood sports. The Roman Empire in space is an interesting thought experiment more than anything though, and approaching it from a casual point of view, it can be a lot of fun to see how Christian and Buchanan handle the mashup of science fiction and antiquity.
Final verdict: Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator was a fun romp through the galaxy with its intriguing heroine. The first half was definitely stronger than the second half, though I still think it was a great read with a highly unique and imaginative premise. Certain parts of it brought to mind the intrigues and betrayals of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising combined with the fast-paced action of the competitive games in Holly Jenning’s Arena. I would recommend Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator for fans of space operas and gritty, adventurous sci-fi sagas....more
David Dalglish’s Skyborn was perhaps one of the greatest surprises for me last year. I didn’t know what to expect going in, but it turned out to be an epic start to a high-flying fantasy adventure series about a group of elite winged soldiers with the power to command the elements. The Seraphim, as they are called, are the warriors of a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has taken to the skies. Everyone now lives on one of six floating island kingdoms that are constantly in conflict.
The first book introduced us to protagonists Bree and Kael, twins who are following in their late parents’ footsteps by training to become Seraphim themselves. Much of Skyborn read like a “magic school” story, chronicling the siblings’ individual trials at the Seraphim Academy. In contrast, the themes surrounding Fireborn are a little more complex. This sequel is set right after the stunning events of the previous novel, and if you haven’t read Skyborn yet, I’m not going to ruin it for you. It’s enough to know that things have gotten very bad.
In the fallout, one of the main casualties was the Seraphim order. With their home invaded and their order disbanded, Bree and Kael’s futures are now uncertain. However, upon their return to their occupied island, they are almost immediately recruited by a group of rebels planning to fight back against the powerful Center. Bree becomes their reluctant symbol, the Phoenix—a nickname given to her because of the burning twin blades she wields in battle. Meanwhile Kael, whose talents lie elsewhere, is tasked to recruit new allies for their uprising, but the coming war weigh heavy on his heart. As the fighting intensifies, he worries for his sister who is on the frontlines but also starts to have doubts about the leader of their rebellion, the unsettling cult leader and doomsday prophet Johan.
As with the first book, there were some issues with the pacing in Fireborn. Despite its more intricate ideas, I also found it harder to throw myself into the plot or feel engaged with the characters. For the first half, this is essentially the standard dystopian-rebellion story, complete with member recruitment and secret gatherings. Some of these sections were a little too drawn out for my tastes, making this one a slow burner. Don’t get me wrong, though; this was still a solid sequel. However, it didn’t quite sweep me off my feet the way Skyborn did, containing some of the vexing symptoms of “middle book syndrome”. To be fair, the first book had the advantage of being a series opener, introducing readers to a fresh and unique world. That book charmed my socks off, understandably making it a tough act to follow.
Fireborn makes up for its more subdued intro with a ton of action packed into its second half though. Again, like Skyborn, this book is back loaded with much of the excitement saved for the end when all the tensions finally come to a head. That’s when all the build-up starts to pay off. As the rebellion explodes into the open, Dalglish exacerbates an already fiery situation by throwing in an unexpected twist, adding an even greater threat to the equation. The aerial battle scenes continue to be a highlight as well, and their even better now that Bree and Kael have a much better handle on their flight skills and elemental powers.
Fireborn wasn’t without its flaws, but then again, the first book also started on shaky ground before ending up blowing me away. Still, there’s no denying that it lacked some of the magic that made Skyborn so amazing. The story and characters may have matured while the themes have also grown darker, deeper, and more complex, but the plot itself remained rather simple and straightforward. That said, I still really enjoyed Fireborn and in no way do I consider it a poor sequel. The ending did a fantastic job building up anticipation for the final book of the trilogy, and I’m looking forward to see how it will all end.
Audiobook Comments: The Seraphim is another example of a series where I decided to jump formats again this year, choosing the audio edition over the print because I got curious after hearing such great things about the narration. I was not disappointed. Joe Knezevich is a fine narrator and he does some great voicework, playing with accents, inflections, and tones—though I think he could have taken advantage of even more opportunities to do so. Overall I have no complaints about the audiobook. If presented with the opportunity to continue the next installment in this format, I probably would take it. Recommended....more
I knew I was going to have fun with this book, but I ended up liking it even more than I expected. I’ve reached the point in my reading where I already have several go-to authors or series I seek out whenever I want my routine Urban Fantasy fix, so for me to jump into a new UF, something has to be unique or special about it to catch my interest. I’m happy to say that It Happened One Doomsday was just that—fresh, original, and extremely entertaining. It’s not every day you come across a magic system based on crystals, minerals and gems, or a version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who herald in the end of the world driving fast classic cars.
Our protagonist is also not your typical sorceress. In fact, by her own admission, Dru Jasper is barely a sorceress at all. She knows her own magical potential is weak, but she tells herself she’s fine with that. Most folks in the magical community aren’t the most stable, anyway. All Dru wants now is to be a “normal” person, to settle down with her “normal” successful dentist boyfriend Nate, and start a “normal” life together with him. In the meantime, she’s happy enough supporting other more talented sorcerers with her store, The Crystal Connection, supplying them with powerful potions and magical crystals. Every once in a while, a regular customer will also come in asking for some relaxation incense or crystal healing.
Then one day, a hunky mechanic named Greyson rolls up to her store in a black muscle car and walks in with complaints of nightmares keeping him awake. Right away, Dru feels a connection with him. Just being near him seems to amplify her powers, so that she can achieve more magical healing with her crystals than she’s ever managed before. However, despite Dru’s best efforts, Greyson’s symptoms don’t seem to be getting any better. Her worst fears are confirmed when horns start sprouting from his head and his eyes start glowing red: Greyson is turning into a demon. Turns out, an order called the Harbingers are bent on bringing about doomsday and for some reason Greyson has been targeted to be one of their Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To stop the end of the world, Dru and her friends must recover an artifact known as the Apocalypse Scroll, but first they’ll have to survive long enough to find a way to reverse Greyson’s terrible transformation.
I had a wonderful time with this fast-paced and entertaining story. Laurence MacNaughton’s writing is very engaging and readable, and he has a great touch with dialogue, especially when it comes to snappy back-and-forth interplay between characters. However, for this review, I want to focus on what I thought were the book’s main standout features.
To start things off, Dru’s use of crystal magic is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The author recently wrote a guest post for The BiblioSanctum which talked about the magic system in It Happened One Doomsday and it is clear he knows a lot about the history and properties of crystals and gems. The main focus of the post was on galena, which Dru uses in the book to fight demons, but there are so many more types of rocks, minerals, and even metals that are featured in this story. Our protagonist’s touch can activate the magical potential in the crystals, which she can then use or channel to so some pretty amazing things. It’s a simple idea, but the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Second, the characters are what makes this book shine. Dru is headstrong and isn’t afraid to step up to do what needs doing, but she’s also far from being the perfect heroine archetype. MacNaughton paints her as something closer to an underdog, someone who doubts her own powers and worth. She’s reluctant to reach for what she really wants, fearing failure and disappointment, so she decides to settle for what she thinks is good enough. Fortunately for Dru, she has good friends who provide her with a daily dose of reality check. Enter Rane, a six-foot-tall Amazonian sorceress who can turn her body into whatever substance she is in contact with, which makes Dru and her extensive inventory of metal and rock jewelry a good ally for her to have. Rane is proof that sometimes you can like a supporting character even more than the main protagonist; I just loved her and her friendship with Dru, and I was happy that she had a big role in this story.
Third, I liked the idea of possessed cars. While I’m not a fan of muscles cars or hot rods, the concept of demons riding them seemed like an apropos, modern-day equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Greyson’s car, dubbed Hellbringer, was a delight, and much credit goes to MacNaughton for giving an inanimate object such a convincing personality and for making it seem so alive.
The ending ties things up nicely, but also sets the stage for more. Bottom line, even though I’m following way too many urban fantasy series these days, I’ll never say no to entertaining stories and great characters. It Happened One Doomsday definitely sold me, and I know I’ll be waiting on pins and needles until the sequel....more
I want to say right off the bat, this was the most fun I’ve had with an urban fantasy in ages! Not only was I blown away by the potential—the most I’ve seen when it comes to a new series—Kristi Charish appears to have this uncanny ability to push all my right buttons. I became a fan of hers after the Adventures of Owl, and I’ve been hankering for anything she writes ever since. That’s how this first book of her new series came to my attention. Hard to imagine anything beating a fast-talking, tomb-raiding, RPG-playing ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief, but Kincaid Strange of The Voodoo Killings might actually give Owl a run for her money.
For one thing, she’s not your typical voodoo practitioner, nor is this book your typical ghosts-and-zombies fare. However, like a lot of her peers in the UF genre, Kincaid is flat broke. And while she might be the best at what she does, what she does best isn’t exactly paying the bills these days. New Seattle laws against the raising of zombies have dried up her source of income, leaving her scrounging for séance jobs among the city’s population of university students, especially those with an obsession with grunge rock. It helps a little that the ghost of Nate Cade, the legendary Seattle grunge rocker who died in the late 90s, is her roommate. The two of them make a great team.
Then one day, Kincaid gets a call about the stray zombie of prominent local artist, and before she knows it, she’s his brand new guardian. Cameron can’t remember who raised him or even how he died, but an unauthorized zombie walking around town spells very bad news for everyone, so Kincaid takes it upon herself to help him piece together the final days of his life. The investigations go south when she connects Cameron’s death to a string of recent murders, and the victims are all zombies and other voodoo practitioners like her—which can only mean one thing: it’s only a matter of time before the killer comes gunning for her.
As I said, The Voodoo Killings is not your typical UF. The world Kristi Charish has crafted here is all her own, and I love what she’s done with the magic and mythos behind the raising of zombies and summoning of ghosts. There’s an intricate process behind animating a corpse involving a complex series of spell threads that only someone with the skills can recognize and manipulate. A practitioner’s relationship with the “Otherside” is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, hooking me in right from the very start. It’s also the wild little details that make me want to giggle and rub my hands together with glee, like the practice of writing on mirrors to communicate with ghosts, or Cameron having to pan-fry his servings of human brains that come neatly packaged in highly illegal (but highly convenient!) vacuum-sealed packets.
The characters themselves are instant favorites. There’s a special place in my heart reserved for all the underdogs of UF, and Kincaid definitely counts. In truth she actually shares a lot of traits with Owl from Charish’s other series, save for the recklessness and smart-alecky mouth, which made connecting with Kincaid a lot faster and easier. Like Owl again, Kincaid has few human friends and spends the bulk of her time associating with other practitioners and supernatural beings, and as a result we have a fascinating and very diverse cast of supporting characters. First and foremost is Nate, who is in no way your everyday sidekick ghost, though his loyalty to Kincaid is unequaled. Then there’s Lee Ling, the centuries old mysterious zombie who runs a tavern in the magical underground and who will keep you guessing at her motives at every turn. And last but not least, there’s Cameron, the stray zombie Kincaid so reluctantly took under her wing. Throw everything you think you know about zombies out the window, because he will make you see them in a whole new light.
The plot is also fast-paced there’s never a dull moment. This story hits the ground running and not once do we hit a lull. Kincaid Strange appears to belong to the same school of UF protagonists as Harry Dresden, where the heroes and heroines must handle the challenges of juggling a million crises at once while multiple fires around them keep screaming to be put out. Still, while there may be a lot of things going on in this book, I didn’t actually find any of it to be too much or overwhelming. All it did was make it hard to stop reading.
While I still love Owl and her Indiana Jane persona, Kincaid really appealed to me in her own unique way. Whenever I read urban fantasy, it’s not uncommon for a new series to take several installments—two, three, sometimes even four books—for the characters and world to draw me in. Rarely does it happen with the very first book, but that’s exactly what happened here with The Voodoo Killings. If you’re a fan of the genre, I can’t recommend this one highly enough! Hands down, this is my favorite book by Kristi Charish right now, and to my happy surprise, I think I’ve also found a new favorite urban fantasy series....more
The publisher description for Bite is pretty vague, but I actually think this works in favor of the novel. When you pick up a book set in a post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland and speculate on what the story might be about, probably a whole slew of other things will enter your mind before you think, “cannibals”. But it does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
In this ruined world after the bombs fell, survival ain’t easy. Lack of food and lack of clean water can kill you as easily as raiders and crazies. Especially if you’re all alone. Our protagonist, known only as “Kid”, has been traveling by herself ever since her father died a few years back. On a lonely stretch of road, she finds herself weakening due to hunger and thirst, unsure if she’ll make it long enough to reach the next town where she can replenish her supplies. Desperation can make people do stupid things, she thinks to herself as she accepts a ride from two scary strangers who stop when they see her walking and offer her a ride in their truck. It’s probably a really bad idea, but Kid would rather take her chances with Wolf and Dolly than die alone in the desert wasteland.
There was little reason for Kid to suspect that her chance meeting with the two of them would lead to an insane journey of many wild and bloody adventures. Soon, they meet up with Tank and Pretty Boy, who make up the rest of the team. Few people ask for or give real names in this world, as that would make it too easy to get attached, but regardless, the team sees something they like in Kid and decide to welcome her into their fold. That, however, was before Kid learns the truth about her new adopted ragtag family. Known as “Sharks”, they’re despised throughout the wasteland for a certain lifestyle choice they’ve decided to make—like dining upon their fellow human beings. By the time Kid finds out though, she’s already accepted her place in the crew, and cannibals or not, when a new enemy threatens her friends, she will do what she can to fight back beside them.
Author K.S. Merbeth takes us into what would be a familiar setting for sci-fi and fantasy readers, but she also peppers her post-apocalyptic world with some flair of her own. The wasteland is a haunting, desolate, and grey place, but there is also a strange beauty to it, which if you’ve ever played the games in the Fallout series you could probably understand. From savage raiders and paranoid townies to the lonesome wastelanders and megalomaniacs in radio towers, I was getting major Fallout and Mad Max vibes from this one (which is awesome, obviously.)
Bite also does a fine job obliterating the lines between the “good” and “bad” guys, painting our little group of cannibals as the unlikely heroes of this gory tale. Yes, they eat human flesh, but…but…but…they’re just so lovable! Wait, did I really just say that? The character development is excellent in this novel, and I guess it really had to be in order to convince us that these people and their abhorrent dietary preferences are worthy of our time and attention. Merbeth succeeded marvelously, creating a cast of engaging characters that I just couldn’t help but cheer for. Each individual had their irresistible quirks, like Wolf and his devil-may-care approach to leadership, Dolly and her taciturn badass persona, Tank and his surprisingly gentle devotion to his friends, Pretty Boy and the emotional scars he hides under his self-interest and false bravado. And finally, there’s Kid, who certainly isn’t the boldest or strongest of protagonists, but her resourcefulness has kept her alive in this rough world for a long time. She won me over quickly, the same way Wolf and the others were charmed by her honesty and good heart so that even her blundering inexperience and mistakes were tolerated, albeit with some exasperation. In most other books, this rough group of cannibals and killers would be the villains, but thanks to clever use of humor and a healthy dose of surreal sardonic fun, I found it remarkably easy to love and care about these characters and appreciate the fresh dynamics between them.
The plot was entertaining, but also relatively uncomplicated as these types of stories often are. Pacing does seem off in a few places, which can be felt in the rushed ending, or in the glossing over of a major character’s death, plus a few minor hiccups like the sparse characterizations of big baddies like the Queen or the Saint. But are these deal breakers? Certainly not. My overall enjoyment was unaffected despite some of these weaknesses. This book delivered exactly what I was expecting: a fast, fun, explosive adventure.
Audiobook comments: I was fortunate be given the opportunity to review the audio edition of Bite. This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to narrated by Stephanie Willis, and I was very impressed by her performance. At first, I worried that her voice might be a little too mature and feminine for Kid, who is supposed to be a small, mousy sixteen-year-old girl frequently mistaken for a boy. However, all my doubts were erased within the first hour. Willis has an incredible talent for portraying a wide range of emotions, and her narration added a poignant, extra layer to the story. When Kid was trudging through the desert wasteland on her own, I could sense the desperation and hopelessness. During the action scenes, the panic and confusion really came through. Willis also did a phenomenal job on the dialogue, giving each character a voice to match their personality. She was able to emphasize the humor and other nuances in the back-and-forth conversations as well, and there was never a problem distinguishing which character was speaking. I ended up really enjoying this audiobook. If Bite sounds like a book you’d like to check out, I would recommend giving this version a go....more
I was super excited to read this sequel to Walk on Earth a Stranger, and not least because the first book was one of my favorite Young Adult reads of last year. Knowing how rare it is for a series to strike gold twice though (pun intended) I wasn’t surprised to find that I didn’t find Like A River Glorious quite as earth-shattering as its predecessor, but it was still an excellent sequel and a fun YA fantasy western.
At the end of Walk on Earth a Stranger, a novel which takes place in the midst of the great California Gold Rush, protagonist Leah “Lee” Westfall and the survivors of her party had managed to reach their destination at last. They’d wasted no time in settling in and staking their claims, and thanks to Lee’s remarkable secret, she and her friends have done pretty well for themselves.
After careful consideration though, Lee decides to let her trusted circle in on how she’s been helping them find the best plots. The truth is that she has a mysterious magical ability to sense gold in the environment around her, and being in gold-rich California, her powers have been practically humming within her. However, Lee also wanted to come clean to her friends to warn them that being close to her may have its own dangers. Her uncle Hiram, who knows about her secret, is still hunting her and wants to use her gold sense to his advantage. He had already killed Lee’s parents, and now she’s afraid that she’s put everyone associated with her at risk too. Lee had good reason to be worried. Despite their best efforts to remain discreet, news of Lee and her group’s success begins to spread, and it’s just a matter of time before Hiram tracks them down. Unwilling to put her friends through more pain and grief, Lee ultimately decides to take matters into her own hands and begins to plot a plan to confront her uncle.
First, the good stuff: Readers who felt that the first book did not have enough “fantasy” in it will be a lot happier with this sequel. Lee’s gold sense plays a bigger role this time around, and has a much greater impact on the outcome of the story. Her power is also evolving, growing stronger somehow. And as to why this is happening, that’s a mystery Lee is also trying to figure out for herself.
Then there’s the romance. While it wasn’t a big part of the first book, Rae Carson did plant a seed of something between Lee and her best friend Jefferson, and those feelings finally come to fruition. The pacing of the romance remains slow-burn though, which for me is a breath of fresh air especially after having read a string of YA novels featuring instalove, or female protagonists who immediately hurl themselves at a guy the moment he shows a hint of interest. I liked how Lee kept a level head despite her growing feelings for Jeff, keeping in mind what she would be gaining and sacrificing for marriage in an era where women have little power. It may seem like a rather cold, unromantic way to think about love, but it does show that Lee is mature, independent and insightful—traits that I admire in a protagonist.
Despite the book’s strengths though, I did have some issues with the depiction of Lee and her friends, especially given the historical setting and social climate of the times. I understand that, especially in a YA novel, we need our protagonists to be the good guys to cheer for and look up to, and true to form, Lee is heroine who wants to buck the system and fight against injustices. The problem is that it’s not subtle at all, and it’s immersion-breaking when looking at this book through a historical fiction lens. When it comes to historical novels I think it’s important to look at how context shapes character motivations and attitudes, and while I can understand why a lot of Lee’s experiences would shape her opinions on land ownership, slavery, religion, women’s rights, etc., a lot of the actions of her and her settler friends do come across a bit revisionist. At some point in this novel, Lee also started to feel too much to me like a present-day teenage character transported to the 1850s, but this probably didn’t bother me as much as it would have if this had been an adult novel.
Other than that minor issue, I honestly have no complaints. Overall I really enjoyed Like A River Glorious, and like the first book this one was also blessedly free of pesky cliffhangers. I like how both installments have so far ended with all its major story conflicts resolved, while still being a part of a greater narrative. This is another chapter in Lee and Jefferson’s lives, and I loved the happy conclusion. Looking forward to where the next book will take them....more