I never thought I’d see a book like this, brought to us by the author of World War Z no less. A month ago, if you had floated me the idea of a Minecraft novel adaptation, I would have laughed and said it would never fly. I mean, what would it even be about? Won’t it just end up being a three-hundred-page instruction manual on how to play the game?
Well, apparently yes and no. This “first and only official Minecraft novel”, trumpets the publisher blurb, tells the story of a hero stranded on an island based in the Minecraft world. The book starts off with our unnamed protagonist (whom I will refer to as “he” since I listened to the version of the audiobook narrated by Jack Black) coming to consciousness in a freaky new reality where everything—the land, the trees, the animals, the sun, and even the character’s own body—is made up of square blocks. This shouldn’t be too hard to picture in your mind, if you’re familiar with Minecraft, though if you’re not, then this book—not to mention the rest of this review—is probably going to sound very strange.
Reading this story, I flashed back to early 2010 which was when I was first exposed to Minecraft. The game was in Alpha phase at this point, very early in its development cycle, and the only mode available was Survival where players must collect resources, build shelter, fend off hostile mobs, and manage your health and hunger in order to survive. Like the character in this novel, you literally started with nothing but the clothes on your back. To flourish and thrive, you had to explore and gather raw materials which can in turn be used to craft other items like tools, weapons, and furniture. At night, you wanted to be safely ensconced in a well-lit shelter because that’s when monsters like zombies would spawn, which our protagonist discovers to his horror and dismay. This book is essentially the story of his experience and serves as a proxy for a new player who might be seeing this confusing and disorienting game world for the first time—except, of course, there are no game guides or online wikis to help him out.
As surprised as I am to admit it, Minecraft: The Island ended up being very good. Much of the enjoyment came from listening to the audiobook, I am sure (which I will go into later), but I was overall quite impressed with how the author managed to dramatize the new player experience, making even the most mundane tasks feel like a race against time. Brooks also did a great job capturing the spirit of the game, perfectly portraying that giddy sense of excitement whenever you make a new discovery, or even that satisfying feeling of accomplishment when you survive your first night without being killed by a zombie.
For a story based on a desert island scenario, the tone of the narrative was also much more enthusiastic and upbeat than I expected. Thanks to unconventional personalities like Moo the cow and other barnyard animals that our protagonist befriends (hey, it sure beats talking to an inanimate volleyball), we avoid the usual problems involving loneliness and tedium. As this book is geared towards children and young adults, the humor we get is light and clean, though I’m also confident that readers of all ages will be able to appreciate the story’s universal themes. The table of contents, which ostensibly reads like a list of guidelines to help you succeed in Minecraft, show chapter headings like “Never Give Up”, “Details Make The Difference”, “Take Life In Steps”, “Take Care of Your Environment So It Can Take Care Of You”, “It’s Not Failure That Matters, But How You Recover”, or “Books Make the World Better”—all good lessons that can be applied to the real world, no matter how old you are.
Bottom line, Minecraft fans will undoubtedly get the most out of this, but it would also be a shame to dismiss it out of hand. Having sunk plenty of hours into this game back in Alpha, reading Minecraft: The Island was a nice shot of nostalgia, with the main character’s challenges reminding me lot of those early days where no one really knew what was going on and any progress was made mostly through experimentation and sheer dumb luck. Overall, I thought this was a fun little book filled with tons of game lore and Minecraft-y goodness—along with a surprising amount of introspection, which is always a nice bonus.
Audiobook Comments: The audiobook for Minecraft: The Island comes in two versions—one narrated by Jack Black, the other narrated by Samira Wiley. Since the protagonist is undefined by gender, this allows the reader/listener to select their own “character”, so to speak. I personally went with the Jack Black version because I love his work as an actor and comedian, and it was a choice I did not regret at all. His energy was a great fit for Max Brook’s humor and writing style, and his voice acting really took the story to a whole new level. I also liked how the audiobook incorporated sounds from the game, and though the music could get a bit loud and distracting at times, I doubt I would have enjoyed myself as much if they hadn’t included these nice little touches. Indeed I am happy that I decided to go with the audiobook, and I would not hesitate to recommend this format to anyone thinking of checking out the novel....more
As a relative newcomer to Catherynne M. Valente, having only read my first book by her earlier this year, I’ve grown increasingly curious about her other work especially her Middle Grade/Children’s projects. And so when the opportunity to read The Glass Town Game came to me, it sounded like it could be the perfect place to start.
Inspired by the fantastical stories and worlds created by the Brontë siblings as children, this novel follows Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne as they are spirited away to a land populated by the creatures and denizens of their own imagination. The book opens with the two oldest girls preparing to leave for Cowan Bridge School, a situation none of the youngsters are happy about, considering how their two older sisters had just recently died from a fever contracted from that very same place. As the only brother, Branwell is instructed to accompany them to the carriage station, while also bringing along Anne. In town, however, the children are distracted by the sights and sounds, and instead of continuing on to Cowan Bridge, they find themselves unexpectedly carried off on a magical train bound for another realm.
To the children’s surprise and excitement, the place they find themselves is Glass Town, a perfect replica of the world they have created in their imaginations during play sessions, complete with all their dolls and wooden toy soldiers come to life. Unfortunately though, as they soon find out, the rules they’ve come up with during their fun and games have also become binding, and innocent joy quickly turns to worry as the siblings begin to wonder if they’ll ever find their way home.
At the beginning of this review, I posited that The Glass Town Game might be a good jumping on point for readers curious about Valente’s Middle Grade books. However, after finishing this novel, I’ve started to rethink that initial assessment. The truth is, I’m having a hard time figuring out its audience. The publisher’s recommendation is for children between Grades 4-7, which ostensibly makes sense, considering the ages of the main characters as well as the silly and somewhat juvenile nature of their adventures. Kids who delight in wild, whimsical descriptions and situations (like Napoleon Bonaparte riding to war on a giant chicken, for example) will no doubt eat this one right up.
However, linguistically and stylistically, I feel that the writing in this book is actually geared towards readers much older than the ages recommended. The story’s pacing suggests this to me as well, with large swaths of the book that could have been cut down or scrapped completely, for they added no real substance to the plot. While adult and young adult readers might gain some appreciation for all this exposition by finding value in the character or relationship development, I have to wonder if the majority of Middle Grade readers will have the same amount of patience for these slower sections, not to mention how the double meanings behind many of the “punny” jokes might go over their heads.
Honestly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this book. Characters and storytelling are topnotch. The writing is as gorgeous and technically sound as it can be. At the end of the day, I think I liked The Glass Town Game. Still, as I went back and forth between thinking like an adult and thinking like a middle schooler while reading this, I just couldn’t figure out who would benefit the most. Other questions that went through my head were, would this book hold the average nine-year-old’s attention for 500+ pages? Or, would an adult fantasy reader be able to look past all the silliness? Because of this, the novel strikes me as a bit confused as to what it wants to accomplish, and that was what hurt it the most, ultimately affecting my overall enjoyment and rating.
But for fans of Catherynne M. Valente, I doubt they’d want to miss this. The mixed feelings I have for The Glass Town Game notwithstanding, I can’t fault the beautiful prose, the fanciful imagery, or the author’s magnificent talent for bringing the Brontë children and their world to life. This book is getting filed under “Interesting Experiences” for now, but I’ll definitely continue keeping my eye out for Valente’s future work....more
The thing about Warlock Holmes is, you can’t stop at just one. A Study in Brimstone was so much fun, I simply couldn’t bear the thought of letting book two go unread for one second longer. Almost as soon as I finished the first book, I fell upon the sequel The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles like a ravenous zombie on a fresh brain.
Last we left our characters, Warlock’s arch nemesis Moriarty had just revealed himself, setting off a chain of events that left the brilliantly dim detective in a strange state of dead-but-not-dead. Not knowing what to do with the inert and decomposing body, Dr. Watson has decided to conceal the truth behind his friend’s apparent passing—at least for the time being. After making up a cover story to explain Holmes’ whereabouts and filling their flat at 221b Baker Street with flowers to hide the smell, Watson sets his sights on finding a way to bring Warlock back to life.
This second novel closely mirrors the format of the first, containing a series of stories following Warlock Holmes’ eventual resurrection and recovery from a being a rotting corpse. From a not-so-relaxing jaunt to the peaceful countryside of Surrey to an outlandish tricycle race in Farnham, our characters are once again embarking upon a number of adventures inspired by the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, the book’s tour de force is without a doubt its title story “The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles” which makes up more than half its pages, and features the culmination of everything that has happened in the series so far.
I picked up this sequel expecting more hilarity and fun times, and I was definitely not disappointed. In fact, the author appears to have raised the humor to a whole other level—the situations Holmes and Watson find themselves in are even more extreme and absurd, and on the whole I found the jokes a lot less subtle. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword since I’ve always preferred my humor on the understated side, i.e. less overt and in-your-face, but I also can’t deny that when G.S. Denning does silliness, the results work a lot better for me.
More importantly, the increase in madcap humor is also balanced out by the darker, more macabre moments. There are more of those in this sequel as well, as the series is in the process of maturing in story scope and content. This is most obvious in “The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles”, based off of perhaps one of the most well-known Sherlock Holmes stories, and I am happy to report Denning does it justice. Giving depth to Warlock by filling in some of the details behinds his tragic backstory, we are gradually built up to a suspenseful climax filled with some pretty shocking twists.
The characters are generally more developed in this second installment, and I continue to enjoy their hilarious interplay. The premise of the series is that Holmes is actually a witless buffoon who couldn’t solve his way out of a paper bag if it weren’t for Watson’s levelheaded assistance, and it’s a joke that hasn’t worn out its welcome yet. In fact, the Warlock/Watson dynamic is better than ever, with their personalities playing off each other in more complex, meaningful ways. I really enjoyed the revelations into their friendship at the end of book, and I hope that Denning will continue exploring this aspect in the next installment.
Honestly, there’s not much left for me to say except I’m completely addicted to this series, and here’s hoping I won’t have too long to wait until my next Warlock Holmes fix! I’ll be waiting on pins and needles to see what Denning has in store for us in book three....more
Any book that could make me laugh like a maniac deserves high marks from me. It’s been a while since I’ve read something so funny—and I do mean funny, as in exploding-in-uncontrollable-giggles-so-that-nearby-bystanders-are-staring-at-you-sidesways-and-backing-up-slowly funny. This was something I did not expect. When the Warlock Holmes series was pitched to me, I figured it would be your run-of-the-mill classic literature mashup with paranormal elements. Oh, little did I know.
The key to this book’s success, I think, was balance. Denning stuck close to the source material while still keeping the tone light and readable, and he dressed the story up with just enough of the fantastical to make it feel unique and different. After all, everyone knows of the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes whose logical reasoning and powers of observation are unparalleled. But what if, instead of a brilliant genius, he was a bit of a dippy eccentric, albeit endowed with arcane powers and the scary ability to tap into the world of demons? This, in essence, is Warlock Holmes. He’s well-intentioned, but rather dim. To make up for it though, at least he’s something of an expert in the supernatural and occult.
Fortunately, Warlock also has the help of his more sensible roommate Dr. John Watson to keep him in line. In time, we also discover that Watson’s actually the true detective with the astute deductions, desperately coming up with perfectly reasonable explanations to try and cover up all the weird stuff his partner gets into. In this first book, we join him and Warlock in a retelling of many of the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, so that “A Study in Scarlet” becomes “A Study in Brimstone” and “The Adventure of the Resident Patient” becomes “The Adventure of the Resident Sacrifice”, and so on and so forth in this same hilarious vein. Along the way, we even get to meet Inspector Lestrade, who is now Vladislav Lestrade, a vampire, and Inspector Tobias Gregson is now Torg Grogsson, a ballet-loving ogre.
Honestly, I was surprised at how much I loved this. For one thing, I wouldn’t say I’m too familiar with the classic Sherlock Holmes tales. For another, I’m often wary of books described as humor. What can I say though, but Warlock Holmes ended up being right up my alley. It was funny in a way that worked for me, silly in places but not over-the-top, thanks to the moderating effects of the writing style which stayed relatively close to Doyle’s. And yet, it was also a bold and relentless riff on the source material. It’s important not to get the wrong idea though, for all of this is clearly done out of love and in good fun. Denning takes the original stories and just runs with the idea of “supernaturalizing” them, while having a blast in the process.
In turn, I had a hell of a good time with this book too. I enjoyed the premise of Holmes as a warlock, as well as the idea that Watson is the real brains behind the duo. They make a comedic pair, though much of my delight was in the fact that most of the humor in the book is plot-driven, going beyond simple one-liners or relying on slapstick. In other words, the author did not go out of his way to create funny situations, but rather, the characters reacted in entertaining ways (that also fit their personalities in this context) to the events unfolding in each story. Nothing irks me more than forced humor, so I was glad to see this was not the case.
In terms of criticisms, I don’t actually have anything too negative to say. After all, we’re talking about a book called Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone here, so it’s really not too hard to guess its shtick, and as long as you know what you’re in for, it’s hard to be disappointed. As creative retellings so, I thought it was a good one, with plenty of charisma. The storytelling is also straightforward, with a clear eye as to what it wants to achieve, and the characters are compelling in their re-imagined forms, with fascinating new personalities and backgrounds to match.
All in all, I had a wonderful time with this book, and boy am I glad to have the sequel Warlock Holmes: The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles already on hand because I’m really looking forward to continuing this series. I’m sure I’ll be diving into it soon....more
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a girlfriend or wife of a superhero? The answer is not so glamorous in The Refrigerator Monologues, a new book containing a series of linked short stories by Catherynne M. Valente. Inspired by “Women in Refrigerators”, a term used to describe a trope used in many comic book plots involving the deaths, disablement, and disenfranchising of female characters to forward a male superhero protagonist’s storyline, this clever collection offers both a darkly humorous commentary on the subject as well as a vicious lampoon on these kinds of story arcs as a whole.
Meet the six women of the Hell Hath Club, all inspired by well-known characters in the DC or Marvel universes so that even passing fans of comics should recognize some of their origins. There’s Paige Embry, the brilliant and driven college student who saw her bright future snuffed out when she was thrown off a bridge by her superhero boyfriend’s arch nemesis. Gwen Stacy anyone? Or how about the powerful telepath and telekinetic, taken away at a young age for a school for special powered people to fight another group of special powered people by an ostensibly well-meaning professor, who later puts Jean Gre—I mean, Julia Ash on an otherwise all-male superhero team called the “Millennial Men”? And of course there’s also Samantha Dane, based off of Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Kyle Rayner whose gruesome manner of death in the Green Lantern comics is what inspired the “refrigerated” term in the first place.
The tales go on like this, each one exploring the background of a female character who has been killed, depowered, or generally dismissed in favor of the male superheroes (and in one case, a supervillain) in their lives. Now the six of them meet regularly in the afterlife, hanging out at a quaint little joint called the Lethe Café where they share their stories, support each other, and listen to the gargoyles bands play punk rock.
The Refrigerator Monologues was a quick read, offering brief but plentiful examples to illustrate the concerning trend in comic books of having bad things happen to female characters as merely a plot device. While these are entertaining stories, I’m afraid there’s also very little lightness to them. After all, the women portrayed here are meant to represent the victims of “lazy writing” and “stock storylines”, most of them reduced to playing second fiddle to their male superhero counterparts or as pet causes for their romantic partners. Valente shines a harsh, subversive light on the injustice and absurdity of these situations, from Gwen Stacy whose death has somehow become an inextricable and defining moment in the life of Spider-Man, to Harley Quinn who is forever standing resolutely by the Joker even after the bajillionth time he leaves her to rot in Arkham. The short vignettes here capture both the tragedy and comedy of the women’s fates by putting readers in their shoes.
I also thought the length and format of the book was perfect for the author’s vision. It is clear anything less would have failed to deliver the same level of poignancy, while a longer book containing more stories would have run the risk of being repetitive. The writing style here is very distinctive, aiming for biting humor and as much as snarky finesse, though after a while I found it difficult to distinguish the different voices of the women for they all seemed to speak with the same mannerisms. By the end, I was also feeling a little weary and heartsick from the underlying tones of sadness and dejection. For you see, this isn’t a book that “fixes” things, nor was it ever meant to be—I think Valente put it best in an article I once came across where she said (and I’m paraphrasing based on memory), “I might not be able to swoop in to save the damsel, but I can turn on the mic to let her scream.” You might read these stories expecting more anger and indignation from the characters, but ultimately the Hell Hath Club isn’t so much about fury than it is about a place where its members can come together to vent, grieve, commiserate, or simply to tell their personal stories and be heard.
In closing, I also want to give special mention to the world-building of Deadtown. Aside from being the most unique and interesting aspect of the book, this brilliant setting ties all the characters’ stories together and gives this collection a special touch. Being dead isn’t easy—you’re basically stuck wearing whatever god-awful outfit you were buried in for all eternity, and there are bizarre rules like how all food can only be made from plants and animals that have gone extinct, or that the only books available are those that have been forgotten to time, etc. Still, it isn’t all bad. Residents of Deadtown share the afterlife with a population of friendly gargoyles who sure know how to have a good time!
Finally, you certainly don’t need to be familiar with comics or comic book characters to appreciate this book, but knowing some of the context would probably help. Sharply droll and acerbic, The Refrigerator Monologues offers a look at the superhero genre from a rare but important perspective. Whether these stories make you laugh or cry, pound your fists or roll your eyes, at the end of the day they’re bound to evoke emotions and start some conversations. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters....more
Grimdark on the high seas! Sweeter words have never been spoken. I’ve always had a taste for maritime fantasy, so when the chance arose to review Where Loyalties Lie, how could I say no? And the fact that it has pirates in it was simply the icing on the cake.
But while I’d never before had the pleasure of reading Rob J. Hayes, I’m familiar enough with his style to know that his pirates would be the real deal—not the watered down, unobjectionably mild sort you usually see catered to general audiences. His protagonist Captain Drake Morass is exemplary of this, being one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty bastards sailing in these fair isles. Needless to say, he’s also not a man who takes too kindly to being hunted. As Drake and his crew stand witness to a pirate town being slaughtered and burned to the ground by naval forces, he realizes that his way of life may be fast coming to an end…unless someone decides to rise up and fight back. Quickly, an idea begins to hatch in his mind. First, he will unite all the pirates. Next, they will form their own little pirate kingdom, where they will be able to govern and defend themselves. And naturally, Drake will be their glorious leader.
However, Drake’s plans are not without their obstacles. For one thing, his reputation as a dastardly pirate precedes him, and getting any of the other captains to sign on to his campaign will be difficult—unless, of course, he can find someone trustworthy to vouch for him. This is where Captain Keelin Stillwater enters the picture. A practical man, Stillwater is not your typical pirate, preferring more civilized resolutions to conflicts over bloody mayhem if at all possible. He is also one hell of a swordsman and holds a certain level of respect among his fellow pirates, so his word would go a long way to legitimizing Drake’s grand scheme. Together, the two of them will also have to come together to face another threat—Tanner Black. As leader of the most feared pirate fleet on the open seas, Black is setting his sights to dethrone Drake Morass even before he can establish his pirate utopia. To complicate matters is also Tanner’s daughter Elaina Black, who has a past with Stillwater. Torn between her feelings for Keelin and her loyalties to her father, she is something of a wild card who will play a significant role in determining the outcome of this epic ocean-faring saga.
Passion, pride, and fierce ambitions come together in this enthralling adventure full of violence and grit. After a slow-burning start, the surprises come at us fast and thick as the plot takes off in the second half, all set against a backdrop of tensions and hostilities. It’s interesting to note that the pirates of this world have their own politics, so with that also comes the mercurial alliances and betrayals, not to mention their own set of rules and piratical codes of conduct. Anything can happen at all, which makes one wonder if Drake Morass might be in way over his head trying to unite this rough bunch of thieves and miscreants, most of whom are only out for themselves. After all, it’s not easy being a pirate, especially in the world of Hayes’ First Earth. As I mentioned before, Where Loyalties Lie was my first introduction to the author’s distinctive brand of dark fantasy—which I found to be as brutal and visceral as it was reputed to be. If you’ve come for the raging sea battles and bloody ship takeovers, then you’ll be in for a treat. However, be forewarned as well that depictions of murder, torture and rape are frequent, tossed out almost nonchalantly and often described in graphic detail—not in a way that’s intended to be flippant, mind you, but simply because this is the way of this novel’s world. It’s best, therefore, to avoid this one if you don’t think you can stomach these kinds of horrors, for the threat of violence is an everyday reality for the characters, and the story never lets you forget it. This book is grimdark in its purest form, and it is not ashamed to flaunt the fact.
For the genre, the characters are also as you would expect—most of them are capable of doing great evil, with a few who have some admirable qualities. Admittedly, as with a lot of grimdark novels I wish there had been more variety in the personalities, though there were still enough surprises to keep me guessing at their motives and actions. I also didn’t get a good feel for Drake Morass until later in the novel, largely because the slow build-up in the first half, though I’ve also heard that he is a character—albeit a minor one—from Hayes’ The Ties That Bind trilogy and I can’t help but wonder if not having read the previous series might have played into my initial disconnect with him. That said, the good news is that this is merely a minor issue; by the time the story got going, there is no doubt that I became fully engaged with every single one of these characters, especially once all their potential and intentions were revealed.
Bottom line, for fans of grimdark and pirates, Where Loyalties Lie will be like your dream come true, capable of satisfying the most ferocious appetites for gritty, brutal, and violent nautical fantasy. It is a solid first volume, doing a superb job of establishing the series’ colorful characters and themes, and I am looking forward to the next installment....more
Now I really wish I had read this book sooner, because in a word, it’s amazing. Sitting in that much-needed place between Middle Grade and Young Adult, A Face Like Glass is a coming-of-age novel about a younger protagonist, but the challenges she must deal with are no less difficult or complex.
Our protagonist Neverfell was just a child when she was found practically half-drowned in a vat of curds by Master Grandible, Caverna’s foremost maker of fine, magical cheeses. But as soon as the cheesemaker cleaned off the little girl and looked at her face, he could tell something was seriously wrong. From that moment on, he has instructed Neverfell to always wear a mask in public, though he refuses to tell her the real reason why, letting her believe she is hideous and disfigured. For years afterward, Neverfell trains with Grandible as his apprentice, learning all about the ways of Caverna and cheese-making since she herself has no memory of who she was or where she came from. Caverna, as its name would suggest, is a huge underground city made up of tunnels. Skilled craftsmen like Grandible create all sorts of things with fantastical properties to sell to the court, like cheeses that can bring on wondrous visions, perfumes that can influence the emotions of others, wines that can make you forget your worst memories, and much more.
Then there are also the special artisans called Facesmiths, for unlike the people who live in the world above, citizens of Caverna are born with blank faces and no natural instinct to form facial expressions. This is where a Facesmith comes in, developing and teaching new expressions to those who can afford his or her services. The richer you are the more facial expressions you can learn, while the poor, like the laborers and drudges, are only taught a few to get them through a life of servitude.
Because so much can be gleaned about your social status from the number of faces you can wear, this leads to much demand for Facesmiths among the court, and likewise, a Facesmith who can develop the most unique catalogues will also earn a lot of prestige. So when Madame Appeline, one of Caverna’s most prominent and skilled Facesmiths suddenly shows up at Master Grandible’s one day, Neverfell sees the visit as a chance to change her own fate. Appeline is in need of a favor from Grandible, but in spite of the cheesemaker’s initial refusal, Neverfell is convinced that she can make her master change his mind, unaware that she is meddling in dangerous matters she doesn’t understand.
Everything about this novel is pure imagination and magic, and needless to say, I loved every moment. While there is a strong emphasis on the whimsical, I thought it was applied in just the right amount, without becoming overly silly or distracting. Every page was filled with new and interesting ideas, from the oddly precise sleep cycles that citizens of Caverna must keep due to living in the tunnels to the absurd rules of etiquette that the city elites must follow. This is one strange world, where society is strongly shaped by the fact that its people are born with the inability to form facial expressions naturally. Considering the huge range of emotions that that can be expressed through facial cues, just thinking about how every single little facial movement has to be slowly and painfully measured and applied…well, the consequences of it are staggering. One tiny miscalculation or a sudden muscle tic can convey a different meaning and cause a scandal at best, or lead to persecution and even punishment by death at worst.
I was also completely taken with Frances Hardinge’s writing, which is so beautiful and clever. I imagine she faced a lot of challenges for a story like this—after all, how do you even begin to put yourself into the shoes of a character who has little understanding of the relationship between emotions and expressions? Somehow though, Hardinge made it work. Her descriptions are careful but also creative, utilizing unconventional methods to paint a picture of the way someone looks or to convey how they feel. The story is also fast-paced and addictive, and with surprises waiting at every turn, I can’t say there was ever a moment where I felt bored.
Perhaps most importantly, A Face Like Glass has something I don’t often find in a lot of YA and MG books—rich imagination and a shockingly original and unpredictable storyline, refreshingly light on cliché or stereotypes. Consider me a fan. This may be my first book by Frances Hardinge, but you can definitely count on me to read more!...more
From the moment I started reading Devil’s Call, I was rapt. J. Danielle Dorn masterfully draws the reader in with her incredible debut, a horror-fantasy western featuring an emotional and gritty tale of revenge.
Written in the form of a letter from the narrator to her unborn child, the novel chronicles the life of Li Lian MacPherson, also known as Lily, a mixed-race witch who hails form a long line of magically gifted women. It is the mid-1800s when most of America is still wild, unsettled country. Lily was raised by her mother and her coven of aunts and cousins in a roadhouse in St. Louis, but youthful wanderlust soon led to her Texas where she first met Matthew Callahan. Even though she was a runaway and the young soldier was tasked to bring her home, the two of them ultimately bonded and fell in love, got married, and moved out to build a new life together on the Nebraskan frontier. Soon, the couple was expecting a baby.
But that was when the horror came. On a dark winter night, three men entered their home and murdered Matthew in cold blood before riding off without a trace, leaving Lily alone and pregnant in a world that believes her to be responsible for her husband’s death. Turning her grief into rage, Lily sets out on a quest for vengeance, using her magic to follow the killers across hundreds of miles of untamed land. Devil’s Call is our protagonist’s record of this journey, written so that the daughter growing inside of her will one day know the story of her parents and understand why her mother took all the risks she did. Lily also knows there’s a good chance she will not survive to tell her tale in person, for eventually it becomes clear that the mysterious enemy she seeks may not even be natural or human.
Anyone who follows my reviews probably also knows that I have a predilection for western-flavored fantasy, and Devil’s Call is easily the best I’ve read in years. First and foremost I loved Li Lian, a unique heroine who is as fierce in her pride of her magical heritage as she is in her devotion to those she loves. She felt like a genuine character from the start, her words in this journal ringing true to the depths of her experiences and emotions. So moonstruck was I by the tale of how she and Matthew met and fell in love that when his eventual killers arrived and shot him dead right in front of her, the scene and its repercussions damn near broke my heart. Then there is her unborn child, whom Lily frequently addresses in her writing. Every confession and heartfelt piece of advice leaves no question as to her love for her baby, but as more is revealed about the three men she is chasing, it becomes clear why her quest is leaving her torn. Still, everything about her character exudes strength, independence, and a will to fight on. Lily is likeable, believable, and she drives the story in such a way that every page and every step of the way had me cheering her on.
There’s also no way I can talk about excellent characterization without giving mention to Roger Hawking. A butcher with a shady past who ends up allying with our protagonist and lending her support, Hawk became a major character in his own right when the anticipation of learning more about his backstory became nearly as strong as needing to find out how everything will end. The scenes between him and Lily feature some truly excellent dialogue, and the great banter between them while they traveled kept things entertaining, though in truth the plot hardly needed any help in that department; this was a fast-paced story that never had a dull moment.
And of course, I adored the setting. It probably goes without saying, but atmosphere has a lot to do with what makes a good western, and it’s one of the main reasons why I love the genre. I’m also very particular when it comes to what I enjoy. Generally, fantasy mashups are allowed a lot more leeway, but there are still a number of essential elements that I have come to expect—which this novel delivered marvelously, I might add. It stresses the harshness of Lily’s world, where violence and death are always lurking around the corner. And despite the raucous saloons and busy telegraph stations, what we get to see here is a lot more wilderness than civilization. Picture all this and wrap it all up in a light veil of magic, and this should give you a sense of what to expect from Devil’s Call.
All told, this book was a poignant and riveting experience that took me by surprise. Westerns are always fun, and westerns with revenge plots are even better, especially when the struggle between good and evil is portrayed in such a heart-wrenchingly personal and visceral way. Even before I had a chance to start Devil’s Call, I had a strong feeling that I was going to love it—I just didn’t expect how much. So far, it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It had everything I wanted, from a strong and compelling heroine to a mesmerizing fast-paced plot that is guaranteed to engage, captivate and leave you breathless....more
Golden Age and Other Stories is a charming little anthology that is sure to please fans of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, though if you are just getting started on the series or are hoping to sample some of the stories here before diving into the main books, this will not be the most ideal entry point. For that, I highly urge you to simply pick up His Majesty’s Dragon, one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. While I don’t think you have to complete the series to appreciate this collection (I myself have only read the first six of the nine volumes), having some basic knowledge of the world to start will definitely help you out a lot.
This anthology also features an interesting format, consisting of six short stories which are then followed by about two dozen snippets termed “Drabbles”. All of them are accompanied by a piece of fan art upon which these tales are based, so not only are you getting plenty of dragon-y goodness with this collection, you’ll also be receiving a generous helping of gorgeous eye candy.
But how do the stories themselves stack up, you ask? Well, as with most collections, the offerings here are somewhat unbalanced, hitting both highs and lows. I don’t mind admitting that I was largely unimpressed with the first few stories or any of the Drabbles at the end, but sandwiched between them are several amazing gems that are so good that I would say they are worth the price of admission alone.
To begin, we have the first tale called “Volly Gets a Cow”, a short humorous piece that nevertheless left me feeling lukewarm towards it. One thing I did like though, was how this was one of the few stories in here that featured Temeraire displaying a deep font of patience as he tries to reign in one of his dragon friends, the playful and distracted Volly who only has eyes for a delicious yummy cow.
Next up is a story called “Planting Season”, which fortunately I enjoyed a lot better than the first. It stars a dragon in the Americas named John Wampanoag, who has fallen into a sort of mediator role between the Native Americans and the European settlers in the aftermath of the Revolution. Offering his services as a courier, John has a talent for making negotiations and a sharp mind for getting the best deal out of a trade. I liked how this one offered another view of the world from a different context, accomplishing just what a side story should do.
Then comes another dip, I’m afraid, in “Dawn of Battle”, a story starring a young Jane Roland that gives a bit about her background. To my disappointment, of the six full tales in this collection, I thought this was probably the least memorable, though if you’re a big fan of her character then this one may impact you a lot more.
Now comes the good stuff: The title story “Golden Age” is a reimagining of Laurence’s first meeting with his dragon. This alternate version has Temeraire’s egg washing up ashore on a desert island following a shipwreck. After hatching and falling in with a group of feral dragons, the lot of them decide to turn to a life of piracy, and their subsequent looting and plundering prompts Laurence to investigate and bring them to justice. Do I really need to spell out why this story was so awesome? PIRATE DRAGONS! Not to mention there’s also a heart-pounding encounter at sea involving dragons and a kraken, which hopefully shouldn’t be a spoiler considering how the image depicting this scene is plastered all over the cover.
After all the action, a more emotional, quiet tale is told next in “Succession”, a story about Temeraire’s mother. After laying twin eggs, Qian has to make a difficult decision in order to prevent a rivalry between the princes in the Chinese imperial family. This one really tugged on my heartstrings, reading about a nervous parent fretting for the precarious wellbeing of her growing child, only to find out about a second dragonlet. Something that should have been a blessing becomes the source of even more heartbreak in this beautiful story about motherhood and sacrifice, and I think fans of the series will also enjoy the little insights we get into Temeraire’s origins.
Without a doubt though, the crowning glory of this collection is “Dragons and Decorum”, and yes, the title should clue you in on the story’s inspiration, even without the mention of Elizabeth Bennet as the main protagonist. In this lovely, delightful mashup featuring a blend of the worlds of Temeraire and Jane Austen, Elizabeth is sent to the Aerial Corps as a young girl to become a dragon rider, returning home a few years later as Captain Bennett accompanied by her gabby Longwing named Wollstonecraft. Similar to the novel Heartstone by Elle Katharine White, this is a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice with dragons, but what I loved about this story is that Elizabeth is the dragon rider instead of Mr. Darcy. It’s also quite a close retelling, though I did wish the story had ran a little longer because it was so cute and endearing. Novik also shows what a versatile writer she is, perfectly channeling Austen and the Regency-era style.
And finally, we come to the Drabbles, a series of 100-word paragraph-long stories which I honestly could have done without. Like a collection of random notes or passages clipped out of a book, I can see writing them being a fun little exercise for Novik and pairing them with pieces of fan art was also a very unique and cool idea, but for the most part none of them made much of an impression.
So, is Golden Age and Other Stories worth reading? If you’re a fan of Temeraire, the answer is absolutely yes. While the early stories and the ending Drabbles may be on the underwhelming side, I wouldn’t let that discourage you from seeking the real treasure found in the intervening pages. I would even go as far as to say standouts such as “Golden Age”, “Succession”, and “Dragons and Decorum” are must-reads, and happily, these three stories make up the bulk of this book. The world of Temeraire is rich and marvelous, and a collection like this reminds me that there’s always something more to discover....more
Maybe it was my mood, maybe it was the timing, or maybe it was just the nature of this book itself, but for some reason The Heart of Stone took me a long time to read. That said, I really enjoyed it. The story is not just about war and fighting, as the description had initially led me to believe. Amidst the action, we also have a lot of adventure and intrigue, as well as a number of unexpected twists in perspective and moments of pure emotion.
The story follows Task, a creature known as a Windcut Stone Golem. Built to be weapon of war by a long-ago creator, he is the last of his kind but also unlike any that came before or after him, for deep within that flinty exterior is a very real heart and soul. Task feels. He thinks. He dreams. However, for as long as he can remember, he has been suppressing that part of him in order to serve his purpose as a killing machine. For four hundred years, Task has been passed from army to army, bound by an ancient magic to obey the commands of his masters. He has fought in many wars, taken countless lives in battle, and seen enough examples of human avarice to know that this cycle of violence will never end. For a long time, he has believe that it is best to simply keep to himself and do as he is ordered.
But now, Task has been brought out once more to serve a new master in a bitter civil war between the crown and a fractured group of rebel nobles. Fighting on the side of the Royalists, he winds up being under the command of Huff Dartridge, a ruthless general who will go to any length to achieve victory over the enemy Fading. Not to be cowed though, the other side also has a secret weapon, acquiring the services of the Knight of Dawn whose reputation as a dragon slayer is sure to make him a formidable foe against a stone golem.
Still, as the war wages on, Task finds that his magically-bound loyalties are becoming tested as Huff’s demands grow more unreasonable and cruel by the day. In spite of himself, he also finds himself growing emotionally attached to some of the men and women he fights with. In particular, he strikes up a friendship with a young stable girl named Lesky, who teaches Task that there may be more to his existence than simply destruction and killing, and for the first time in centuries, Task finds himself pondering his purpose and questioning the nature of the war he is forced to fight.
Ben Galley is an author I’ve wanted to try for a while—or more precisely, ever since I first heard of him a few years ago in the inaugural Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off in which his book Bloodrush scored very highly with the blogger judges. I’m quite glad I finally got to read his work, because I really enjoy his style of writing and the way he goes deep into the hearts and minds of his characters. It is especially important in a novel like this, which features a non-human protagonist made of magic and stone. The people around Task may dismiss him as a mindless beast, but in truth, he possesses far more humanity than even some of the actual human characters in this book. It was a pleasure to get to know him, seeing through his eyes and finding out his deepest thoughts and desires.
I also really liked the plot. While it was not as evenly paced as I would have preferred, I did enjoy the story’s incredible battle sequences as well as many of the slower, more introspective sections in between. In fact, I found these quieter moments to be just as important as the action, if not more so, since so much of this book was about Task discovering himself and learning to be his own master. I had a great time watching the relationships develop between him and the other characters, especially the special bond he has with Lesky, who was one of my favorites. There’s also plenty of political intrigue in this tale, and a formidable villain whose machinations lend this novel a healthy dose of suspense by keeping you guessing at their endgame every step of the way.
All told, Heart of Stone is a solidly written and fascinating dark fantasy novel, one I would highly recommend to readers who enjoy character driven stories and reading about compelling non-human protagonists. It’s true that it’s a bit of a slow-builder, but I think it’ll get easier to appreciate the intricate details of the plot once all the pieces fall into place. Despite my quibbles about the pacing, ultimately this is a very engaging, unique, and wonderful book. Ben Galley has a real knack for this, and I look forward to reading more by him in the future....more
Driven by the excellent experience I had with Bookburners earlier this year, I vowed to myself I would check out more serials from Serial Box. Pleasantly surprised by how well the structure of the serial novel worked for me, I wanted more—and thus my attention immediately fell upon Tremontaine Season One, the collection of all thirteen episodes released from Saga Press.
But while Bookburners came out of the gate running, throwing readers headfirst into the action right from the start, Tremontaine turned out to be a more measured affair, taking a handful of episodes to establish the setting and characters before easing into the meat of the story. Another way to look at it might be: if Bookburners is perfect for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then the pacing and themes of Tremontaine would probably make it more appealing to fans of the action, romances, and politics of period dramas.
To provide a bit of context, Tremontaine is actually considered a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s highly acclaimed Riverside series, which I confess I have not read—though I know that the first book Swordpoint and the subsequent novels set in the same universe have been praised for its diversity and LGBT-friendly characters and world. Tremontaine continues in this tradition. In episode one, we are introduced to a vibrant setting, its atmosphere seemingly reminiscent of 17th or 18th century Europe. There appears to be two sides to this city, one characterized by luxuriously dressed nobles indulging themselves with decadent balls, masquerades, and of course, copious amounts of chocolate. The other side is a darker, seedier underworld where all manner of rogues and scoundrels gather to do their drinking, whoring, and gambling.
Among the nobles, one of the most prominent figures is Diane the Duchess of Tremontaine, a beautiful woman with a calculating eye and a sharp mind seeking to restore the glory of her House. While her husband is the one who technically holds ducal authority, in truth it is Diane who has all the power. Next we meet Ixkaab Balam, a young foreign woman who hails from an influential merchant family, newly arrived by boat to make her name in this strange land. Other members of the key cast also include Micah, an autistic farm girl whose uncanny talent for mathematics eventually leads her to a university where she meets Rafe, a passionate scholar who has dreams of one day opening his own school.
With all these disparate plotlines in play, things simmer for a while before exploding. I would say that, as much as I enjoyed the first handful of episodes, I did not consider myself thoroughly hooked until much later in the novel. Tremontaine is a serial that takes a slow burn approach, steadily building its foundations so that when the long anticipated action and passions do come, they are much more impactful. This does mean that it takes a good deal of patience to get to the exciting parts, but sticking it out will pay off in the end.
However, reading Tremontaine also made me feel skeptical of the multi-author serial format for the first time. I think having several authors on the same project works perfectly fine as long as their styles are alike enough to complement each other, as was the case with Bookburners where each episode written by their respective authors flowed easily from one to the next. In contrast, the transitions between episodes did not go as smoothly in Tremontaine. This was my first experience with all the authors, a lineup that includes Ellen Kushner, Malinda Lo, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover. They’re all very good writers, each with their own talents and individual flair. The problem with having so many different styles, however, is that the changes between episodes are very noticeable and distracting. Furthermore, episodes in Tremontaine do not follow the “mini-story” structure (the way many episodes in Bookburners did), with many of them having no rising action or resolution, and that together with the awkward transitions between authors made picking up at the beginning of each episode a little more difficult.
The characters were also not as strong as I would have liked. Among the main characters, my favorite was hands down Diane. She’s ambitious, cunning, and merciless, not to mention she’s sitting on a deep, dark secret that paints her in a very bad light. Still, I can’t help it; I seem to be drawn to these sly, scheming Machiavellian types—especially when they’re women. Compared to Diane though, no one else could really hold a candle to her. Kaab was interesting but I felt many of her sections felt like filler, especially when they could have gone to develop other characters like Micah, whom I loved but whose role felt underused. In particular I also felt a deep annoyance for Rafe, whose self-absorption and blind spots were done just a tad too much for me.
Still, I enjoyed my time with the first season of Tremontaine. Admittedly, it had a slow start, and if I had only a few episodes on hand to begin with, I might have given up early. Fortunately, this is where having a complete season really helps; I was able to keep going and reach a point where the story built up enough momentum to deliver on all its promises of swashbuckling action, passionate love affairs, political conflict and scandalous drama—plus enough descriptions of rich delicious chocolate to make your mouth water! Based on a world that is known for its vibrant diversity and queer-friendly themes, this prequel serial continues the trend in offering something new and different from the status quo. If you’re into “vanity fair” types of stories featuring adventure, romance, and intrigue, then I urge you to give Tremontaine a closer look....more
This book was a ridiculously entertaining read, putting me in mind of Marvel’s Runaways set in a fantasy world that is rife with Game of Thrones vibes. Characters tragic and comic, heroic and despicable all live within these pages, including beautiful princesses, warring kings, powerful mages, and of course, royal bastards.
As the daughter of Lord Kent of the Western Province and a Castle Waverly servant, sixteen-year-old Tillandra has always lived in a world of in-betweens. While common born and not his legitimate heir, Tilla was nonetheless loved by her father, who filled her childhood days with rides over the fields or to the forest, teaching and showing her amazing things. But ever since Lord Kent got married in a political alliance, that all changed. Once his new wife gave him trueborn children, his time spent with Tilla gradually dwindled to the point where he now barely gives her any attention at all. Tilla instead spends her day with her half-brother Jax, hanging out at the stables and drinking with the servants, though in her heart she still secretly dreams of the day her father will notice her again and perhaps even legitimize her as a trueborn Kent.
When the book opens, everything at the castle is abuzz with activity as preparations are made for the feast in honor of the visiting princess of Noveris from the ruling Volaris Dynasty. Although Tilla is invited to attend, her place in the great hall is with the castle’s other outcasts which includes Miles, an illegitimate son of House Hampstedt, as well as Zell, a Zitochi from the north who has been disowned by his warchief father. When Princess Lyriana makes her appearance though, she is nothing like any of them imagined. First, she shocks everyone by choosing to sit with Tilla and the others at the “Bastards’ Table”, and before long, she has convinced them to sneak her out of the castle after the feast to show her Castle Waverly’s beaches. However, what might have started out as an innocent late night excursion quickly turns into a nightmare as Tilla, Jax, Miles, Zell and Lyriana stumble upon a scene they were never meant to witness. Now their own parents have put a price on their heads, and the group is forced to go on the run to protect the princess and deliver back to her people. If they succeed, they’ll be able to clear their names, expose a vast conspiracy, and stop a war. But if they fail, it could spell the end of more than just their lives.
Royal Bastards was an interesting book—uncomplicated to be sure, and also unabashedly trope-filled. The writing style also has a simplistic tone and uses modern language, which initially made me think this might be a Middle Grade novel, until the swearing, violence, and sexual innuendoes quickly disabused me of that notion. For all that though, I found the author’s straightforward approach refreshing. What you see is what you get, with little attempt to be subversive or break the mold. I got the sense that Shvarts was just trying to tell a fun story about characters that he genuinely cared about, and in turn I was captivated by this book’s carefree aura, willing to be swept into whatever adventure awaits.
I’m happy to report the results were pleasantly and surprisingly positive. Sure, the characters are all textbook YA—the plucky heroine who yearns for parental approval, the broody warrior who’s always surly because “no one understands me!”, or the nerdy bookwork whom everyone dismisses until his knowledge saves all their lives, etc., etc., etc.—but happily, their individual charms more than make up for that. Despite the clichés, every single one of the Bastards had wormed their way into my heart, and by the end of the book I found myself invested in the outcome of their fates. Every triumph filled me with celebratory cheer while every loss and betrayal made me fume and rage inside. I very much cared about what happened to these characters, which made this one an easy read. Together with the fast pace of the plot, I just flew through this book.
I probably enjoyed Royal Bastards more than I should have. But books like this prove you don’t have to reinvent the genre to be successful; sometimes familiar ideas work just fine when you combine them with a story that’s fun to its very core (though you should still brace yourself for some eventual tensions and heartbreak) and characters who have great chemistry and infectious personalities. There are several major twists, a couple of which I coming a mile away, but that didn’t stop me from having a blast. If all this sounds good to you, I highly recommend giving this book a try. Personally, I can’t wait for the next installment in this planned trilogy....more
At the Table of Wolves is the first book I’ve ever read by Kay Kenyon. It’s also the beginning of a new historical paranormal fantasy series set in the prelude to World War II, starring an extraordinary woman who uses her superpower to go undercover to spy for the British. Following the “bloom” in the aftermath of the Great War which resulted in the appearance of psychic talents in about one in a thousand people, Kim Tavistock has manifested the “spill” ability to compel others to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets to her. Not wanting to alienate her friends who might shy away from her if they ever find out, she has always kept her true nature close to her heart. After all, few people find themselves comfortable around a spill—for obvious reasons—though as an intelligence agent, Kim’s unique power would make her a formidable weapon indeed.
Upon her return to England in 1936 to visit her father after an unsuccessful journalism career in America, Kim is troubled by the political upheaval in Germany and the headway the Nazis have made on the research involving military uses for those affected by the bloom. Inspired to help the British, she decides to report to a facility to have her power tested, and is promptly recruited by her caseworker for a dangerous mission to expose a possible German spy. Eager to lend a support, Kim agrees to infiltrate the estate of an aristocratic family during a weekend where she will get meet some of England’s most prominent fascist sympathizers and even a visiting Nazi officer, the seductive and enigmatic Erich von Ritter.
It’s no secret that alternate history fiction set around the time of World War II has always been popular, but believe it or not, the theme of paranormal superpowers versus Nazis has become a growing trend in the subgenre too. Thus, the big question I asked as I sat down to read this novel was, what does it bring to the table? We have a protagonist who has no experience in espionage who unsurprisingly ends up committing a number of mistakes and falling into a bunch traps, always appearing to be outsmarted, outclassed, and outgunned at every turn. As such, the book doesn’t quite meet the typical requirements of a spy novel, and neither is it a satire, so we are presented with none of the humor despite Kim’s bumbling incompetence. Nor does At the Table of Wolves read much like a thriller, for that matter; the majority of the story has little action or suspense, not to mention the pacing was on the slower, plodding side. So, what is it that makes this one stand out? What makes it special?
In truth, I had a rough time getting a bead on this novel, which made answering these questions difficult. The story is pretty decent, light and fluffy enough to provide some entertainment, but now that I’m finished with it, I just can’t help thinking it could have been more. A good example is Kim, who would have been an admirable protagonist, except her character was constantly being undermined by her own poor decisions and inconsistencies. To her credit, she is strong-willed and brave—though I find it hard to truly admire someone who charges headlong into danger while disregarding orders and advice from more experienced agents, and then is shocked when everything blows up in her face. I was also somewhat let down by how little her spill came into play. The effects of that particular power was supposed to give Kim a strong advantage in her spying, but even in this area she underperformed and became overshadowed.
I should mentioned too that the story is told via two main POVs: Kim, as well as her father, Julian. Kenyon attempts to build tension by injecting potential friction between her two main characters, making Kim suspect that her father may be a Nazi sympathizer, when in truth he is actually working on the same side—as one of Britain’s most senior intelligence agents, no less—a development that the reader discovers very early on. For the entire novel though, we are kept in suspense for the epiphany in which estranged father and daughter will finally learn the truth, but alas, the moment never comes. While I understand this is the first of a new series, and that the priority is the resolution of the book’s main story line, still, the situation left unresolved between Kim and Julian felt to me like a glaring loose end. This robbed the conclusion of its emotional impact, which was something the book desperately needed, so hopefully the sequel will take big steps to address this.
Speaking of which, I’ve decided I may continue with the series, despite my issues with this one. For all its flaws, At the Table of Wolves is not a bad book, mainly because the entertainment value is there along with room for the premise to grow beyond what it is now. I didn’t see anything to get really excited about, but given the direction of the last couple of chapters, I have a feeling that may soon change with the next installment....more
I may not be the biggest fan of spy fiction, but out of all the Serial Box series released so far, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold was probably the one that excited me the most. To know why, you just have to take one look at that dream team of an author line-up. There are even a couple on there who are on my auto-read list. I mean, that’s a lot of talent in one place, and of course, I was also curious to see how their different styles would work together, because as you know this book is a serialized novel made up of a number of individual “episodes”, similar to a season of a TV show.
As you’ve probably gathered from the title, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold draws its inspiration from the Cold War spy novel by John le Carré. Offering a quirky mix of politics and espionage, the story also has a fair bit of magic and other paranormal elements thrown in for good measure. The scene opens in Prague, where both KGB and CIA agents conduct covert operations amidst heightened hostilities between their respective countries. Gabe Pritchard is an American agent who has been struggling with some problems as of late. Ever since returning from another assignment in Cairo, he has been experiencing some strange effects, like headaches and other distractions that seem to strike him at the worst possible times. Eventually, his actions lead him to cross paths with his Russian counterpart, a KGB operative named Tanya Morozova. While Gabe is aware that she is an agent for the other side, little does he know Tanya is actually more than she appears.
For you see, behind the tensions between the US and Russia, there lies another conflict—the struggle between two magical factions, Ice and Flame. Secretly, Tanya is a sorceress for Ice, working to prevent Flame from realizing their vision of a new world born from the ashes of the old. However, after some disturbing new developments, she is beginning to wonder just how much she can trust her own organization. Complicating matters is the fact that an ally in politics does not necessarily mean an ally in magic, and caught in between are the mundane agents who are blissfully unaware that a whole other sphere of reality lies hidden beneath their own.
After an action-packed intro in the first episode, the story does admittedly slow down somewhat, focusing instead on developing the characters’ backstories and how they came to their positions. The magical aspect is made known very early, following Tanya and her colleague Nadia as they track a target through the streets of Prague. This was our first taste of how magic operates in this world, via elementals and human hosts. It’s a fascinating system, and this section also does double duty in revealing where Tanya’s true loyalties lie. Then there’s Gabe, whose chapters alternate with Tanya’s. He is an ambitious CIA agent, and sometimes a bit rash, which often puts him at odds with his superiors throughout the course of the novel. His character is also important because initially, he is just your mundane guy who has no idea magic exists. Through his eyes, we are gradually eased into the secret war between Flame and Ice, once it is discovered that his migraines have a magical cause and he is forced to work with Tanya in order to find out more.
I have to say, I really enjoyed the authors’ take on the Cold War premise here, especially the added layer of complexity thanks to the imaginative inclusion of the magical war. That said though, due to the constant back-and-forth between the themes of espionage and magic, the pacing did sometimes feel a bit uneven to me. To be fair, I don’t read a lot of spy novels, and when I do, they’re often of the thriller-suspense variety, so subtler types of plot developments tend to be wasted on me. Not that I didn’t appreciate all intelligence gathering, underhanded backstabbing, or sowing seeds of doubt, but after a while, it was clear that I so much preferred the paranormal aspects like ley lines, magical golems, and sorcerous cults. In the end, I was not surprised to find myself gravitating more towards Tanya’s chapters, because hers often featured more magic, while Gabe’s dealt more predominantly with spycraft.
I also noticed similar themes or story ideas repeated in some episodes. Not sure if this might be a hitch in the editing process, but I suppose when you have multiple authors working on the same project, there’s going to be more potential for such issues. Of course, it’s possible too that reading the episodes week by might would have given me a completely different experience. On the whole though, I felt that the serialized format actually worked quite well in this case. Transitioning between the different episodes was practically seamless, and there was clear synergy between the authors’ writing styles. Books like these are also fast making me rethink my initial skepticism for serial novels. Though I think I will always prefer consuming my serials like my TV shows, i.e. binging full seasons all at once, I’m definitely starting to see their potential for creative storytelling as well as a more entertaining way of reading.
Bottom line, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is another sophisticated and innovative series, perfect for readers who might be feeling up for some fantasy in their spy fiction. Despite some minor obstacles, I had a good time with this book, and it was a treat and joy to see the amazing work done on it by some of my favorite authors....more
“That was the first meeting of the Athena Club. … Readers who remember their classical mythology will immediately realize its significance: Athena, born from the head of her father, Zeus. We do not claim the wisdom of Athena, but we identify with her dubious parentage.”
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter may be the latest in a long line of mashups based off of some of literature’s most famous horror and sci-fi classics, but it possesses a charm you don’t find in a lot of retellings today. The awesome quote above is one of my favorites from the book—which I just had to use to begin my review, because it manages to capture the essence of this book so perfectly, as well as the strength and spirit of the women in it.
As the story begins, we are introduced to Mary Jekyll who is in mourning for her mother, dead after years of suffering from a debilitating madness. Left with nothing to her name, Mary has no choice but to sort through some of her family’s old accounts, only to find that for years her mother had been sending money to a halfway house for “fallen women”. Following this trail, our protagonist is led to Diana Hyde, daughter of Edward Hyde, the man Mary only knows as her father’s former employee—and murderer. Mr. Hyde has been wanted for his crimes for years, and with this new development, Mary has hopes that helping the authorities capture him would mean the end of her financial troubles once she collects the reward.
It is while following up on the case that Mary ends up meeting with the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson. As it so happens, the two men are also currently helping Scotland Yard investigate a string of gruesome murders in Whitechapel. Some of the victims, all street women, were brutally dismembered and one even had her brain removed. Could these murders be related to the Edward Hyde? Further digging leads Mary and Diana to find and befriend more women, all of whom have been created through experimentation by a shadowy group known as the Société des Alchimistes: Beatrice Rappaccini, raised by her father to tend to a garden of poisonous plants until she herself became poisonous to others; Catherine Moreau, a beast woman brought to life by her creator’s human-animal hybridization experiments; and last but not least, Justine Frankenstein, reanimated from the corpse of a dead girl by Dr. Frankenstein to be a female companion to his monster.
One part creative re-imagining and one part loving homage, my favorite aspect of this book is most definitely its premise, or the idea of getting the “daughters” of some of gothic literature’s most famous characters together to solve a mystery. Goss gives all the women personalities that let them stand out as unique individuals, like sensible Mary Jekyll who is the de facto leader of the group, Justine whose great physical strength and stature belies her gentle soul, or Catherine whose irreverence and independence reflects the fact she used to be a puma. My absolute favorite, however, was probably Diana—the lovable hellion who just does and says whatever she pleases, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Poole the housekeeper. Then there are of course the nods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and even some to Dracula by Bram Stoker. Indeed, if you are a fan of any of the referenced classics, you should have a lot of fun with this novel. It was also very clever how the story even incorporated Jack the Ripper; even though it was done in a very oblique and subtle way, the location and details behind the murders are clearly meant to make you think in that direction.
The structure and format of this tale is also interesting. The book, as we find out early on, is an account of events as told by Catherine Moreau, who among other things is an aspiring writer. For better or worse, she has also allowed her companions to chime in in reaction to everything going on in her manuscript, meaning we frequently get interruptions in the narrative ranging from humorous remarks made by the characters objecting to the way they are being portrayed, to snarky comments about the quality of Catherine’s writing. While this is all done in good fun, I admit that sometimes these asides can get a little excessive and distracting, and it took me a while to get used to them. Granted though, I can still say these are vastly preferable to pesky footnotes.
In terms of pacing, my only complaint was the drawn out conclusion. Goss had it so that each of the women were able to tell their individual stories, and for the most part, these were spread out nicely throughout the book and came in at appropriate times. The only exception was Justine. Her backstory was left until the end after the plot’s climax, piggybacked onto the denouement which I thought was a little awkward. The wrap-up section explaining the formation of the Athena Club could have been shortened too, along with the setup for their next adventure—but I’m not going to grumble too hard on this point. After all, it is foreshadowing that bodes well for the possibility of a sequel, and it’s safe to say I wouldn’t mind seeing more from this world and its characters.
A delightfully vibrant fusion of mystery and adventure, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter will make you think about your favorite literary classics in a whole new light. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and will be looking forward to more by Theodora Goss....more
Humor can be a tricky beast, as I often say. What works for one reader might not work for another, and what works one day might not work the next. Picking up something labeled “fantasy humor” is therefore always something of a crapshoot because I never know how it’s going to play out, and unfortunately the last couple of years have seen more misses than hits. When I started Kings of the Wyld though, I had a feeling it was going to be special, and I’m glad that my instincts didn’t steer me wrong.
This book has it all: gritty anti-heroes and twisted villains, epic battles and heart-stopping fight scenes, exotic locales and all manner of fantastical creatures. If this sounds like your kind of story, then you’re in for a treat. Nicholas Eames has reworked the classic quest narrative and presented it to us in a fun and refreshing package. You might even find yourself laughing out loud along the way.
Kings of the Wyld follows a motley crew of aging yet charming mercenaries as they reunite to rescue a bandmate’s daughter trapped behind the walls of a city under siege. After years of questing and brawling, Clay Cooper is ready put his past behind him. He’s married now with a young child, and he’s looking forward to retiring to a life of quiet and leisure. Fate, however, has different plans. One day, his old bandmate Gabe shows up with a desperate request for help. It seems Gabe’s daughter Rose has run off and gotten herself into trouble again, only this time it’s a matter of life and death.
At first, Clay is reluctant to get involved. He has his own fledgling family to think of now; no longer can he drop everything to traipse across the world on dangerous missions. But seeing Gabe’s distress, and recalling all the good times he’s had with his friend, he finally relents. Leaving the comfort of home behind, Clay joins Gabe to round up the members of Saga, their old band. This includes Matrick, their resident rogue who is now a drunken cuckolded king; Arcandius Moog, a wizard who has turned to a life of research trying to find a cure for a deadly disease; Ganelon, who has spent the last nineteen years trapped in his own private prison; and along the way, they even meet a Daeva named Larkspur who is in fact more foe than ally.
What follows is an entertaining, brilliantly crafted adventure that takes us across the Wyld by land and by air. If you’re a fan of video games or tabletop RPGs, you’ll feel right at home in this world with these characters who feel like they’ve stepped right out of a D&D campaign. Kings of the Wyld reads like a loving tribute to these types of classic narratives, while giving it heart—which I feel is the secret ingredient that sets this one apart. Somehow, Eames made it possible and even easy for me to relate to this band of mostly drunk, fat and jaded old men by turning their faults into endearing traits. These are genuine characters who have very real hopes and dreams, as well as values and principles that are important to them. After all, the entire premise of this story is driven by Gabe’s love for his daughter, and also by Clay’s loyalty to his old friend. You’ll fall in love with the members of Saga and want to cheer them on every step of the way.
And of course, humor is another huge selling point. Kings of the Wyld is a fantasy novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are elements in it that are unabashedly tongue-in-cheek. The author might have taken a gamble on the style, but in the end I think it paid off. Still, one of the more common criticisms I’ve seen when it comes to fantasy comedy is the use of modern language, slang, or pop culture references. Personally, it doesn’t bother me when it’s second world fantasy, but if such anachronisms aren’t your cup of tea, then you might find it problematic. For me though, what matters more is the tone of humor; I prefer my comedy on the subtler side (as opposed to more overt styles, like slapstick) and this is where Eames struck the perfect balance. Without going overboard, he kept the story light and entertaining while still adhering to epic fantasy traditions.
From the first page to the last, Kings of the Wyld is a rollicking fast-paced novel with just the right amount of grit and wit. Nicholas Eames is definitely on to something here with his impressive debut. Bottom line, read this book if you’re a fan of good old-fashioned quest adventure narratives, epecially if you think you might enjoy one as seen through a modern humorous lens. I’ve tried a lot of books that match this description in recent years, and I have to say this is the best. Already I find myself craving the sequel....more
To put it bluntly, I never thought I would read anything else by Terry Goodkind again. After my disastrous first attempt to get into The Sword of Truth series, I almost turned down the opportunity to read Death’s Mistress, but now I’m very glad I didn’t. It’s been years since I last read Wizard’s First Rule, and it seemed a shame to potentially miss out on a good start to a new series especially when the author’s style or my reading tastes could have changed so much since. And as things turned out, I did have a surprisingly good time with this.
I also had initial concerns about jumping in without having read the entirety of the previous series, but that was not a problem. The book follows Nicci, a “Death’s Mistress” and a former lieutenant of Emperor Jagang who has since switched her alliance after being converted to the right side by Richard. Now that the latter has solidified his rule, Nicci travels the world helping spread the word of his benevolence and letting everyone know that the world is free, while accompanied by the ex-prophet and wizard Nathan.
At the beginning of this story Nathan decides to seek out the witch called Red, and Nicci offers to go along with him for protection, knowing they can trust no one and must be prepared for anything. Sure enough, after their visit, the witch imparts upon them the following obscure message: travel to a dangerous place far away called Kol Adair, where Nathan will find the answers to his struggle with his waning magic. Little do Nicci and Nathan know, that by embarking on this adventure they will also be a part of something much bigger, bringing back peace and hope to many along the way. Indeed, before they can even set off in earnest, Nicci saves the life of a young sailor named Bannon on the docks, preventing him from being mugged and killed by a gang of thugs. Grateful for her help, Bannon offers his services to the Death’s Mistress, volunteering to fight alongside her and Nathan while on their journey to Kol Adair.
I must confess, the story’s introduction was a bit of a whirlwind for me, with the bewildering circumstances around Red and her message, as well as the reasons for Nicci and Nathan to head to Kol Adair. It’s clear that I’ve missed a lot of history, not having followed The Sword of Truth. Trying to piece together everything that has happened since the last time I spent time in this world admittedly took up most of my attention, though fortunately once our characters actually begin their adventure, the path ahead gave way to clearer purposes and more exciting and engaging motifs. Death’s Mistress has a strong traditional fantasy vibe to it, with emphasis on the classic quest narrative. The question why Nicci, Nathan and Bannon were on this journey in the first place became less important to me overtime, while the details surrounding where they’ll go or what they’ll do when they get there or who they’ll meet gradually became more fascinating and relevant.
If there’s a bigger story, it hardly matters—at least at this point. Goodkind is starting a new series here, and you can tell he’s doing his best to make Death’s Mistress as accessible as possible. There’s not much history or deep context in play, and no greater conflict to concern ourselves with…yet. Rather, our characters are given a relatively straight forward task (go to Kol Adair, spread the word of Richard’s reign) and while on their travels they encounter various situations in which they can lend a hand or help solve a problem (picking up some side-quests along the way, so to speak). In fact, the structure of the plot can almost be described as “episodic”, the way our adventuring party moves from one place to the next, setting things aright before moving on again to save the next village or help defend the next town.
The results are surprisingly enjoyable. After all, few things are better than being able to explore new worlds, meet new people, and witness epic battles infused with a real sense of excitement and magic. If you’re a fantasy reader, these are the moments we live for, and this book had a way of satisfying all those little pleasures. From our time with our characters on the high seas, to watching them fight alongside a fishing village against a fleet of attacking slavers, to being with them as they try to save a land leeched of life, it’s never a dull moment with this book. The characters are also memorable, with Nicci being a strong protagonist I could sympathize with and root for. Supporting characters are also well-written and fleshed out, leading to some highly emotional and shocking surprises near the end.
Like I said, I’m very glad I decided to give Death’s Mistress a chance. At times, Goodkind’s writing still has the subtlety of a cudgel and some of his scenes can be a little schmaltzy, but on the whole my experience was a lot better than I expected. Nothing too complicated here in terms of plot, but I think in this case, the straightforward and simple approach worked in the book’s favor, offering readers a chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride....more
Okay, I’m seriously impressed. Orbit is really killing it with the 2017 debuts (no pun intended), releasing yet another winner in Age of Assassins by R.J. Barker. Though this book had caught my attention earlier this year with its Assassin vs. Assassin premise, I still found myself unprepared for just how enjoyable and addictive it was.
“To catch an assassin, use an assassin…” This is the situation Queen Adran has found herself in when she discovers a plot to murder her son, the royal heir Prince Aydor. But rather than showing her hand, the queen has decided to handle the matter quietly, privately seeking out the services of an expert in the field. Setting a trap, the queen lures her old friend the accomplished killer-for-hire Merela Karn to Castle Maniyadoc, tasking her to root out the would-be assassin and report any conspiracies she finds directly to Adran.
Enter our protagonist Girton Clubfoot, who is Merela’s young apprentice. Pretending to be a squire while his master dons the guise of a traveling jester, Girton is put through combat training with the other castle boys to maintain the deception. Hiding behind a mask of clumsiness and ineptitude, he begins to ingratiate himself with the other noble sons, when all the while he is actually keeping his eyes and ears open, discreetly gathering information that would help them discover who might want Prince Aydor dead.
The answer, as it turns out, is a lot of people. The heir is a contemptible and loathsome creature who will be a terrible ruler one day when he takes the throne, and it seems like everyone has a reason to want him gone. To make matters worse, Girton’s mission is further complicated by castle politics and scandal, even as his and Merela’s list of suspects grows and grows.
From the start, I was drawn to the fantastic premise of Age of Assassins, and that was even before I learned all about the secrets hidden behind the walls of Castle Maniyadoc. Needless to say, I loved the element of mystery and the way our protagonist conducted his investigation, sniffing around the palace trying to shake loose even the slightest clue. While it’s true that the scope of the setting is somewhat limited and self-contained, the good news is, not once did I feel that it restricted the story or made it feel dull. A rich cast of characters helped with this, each keeping their own agenda tightly under wraps. Plots within plots ensured that that the drama and the tensions always remained high, and often I found myself barely able to put the book down because I was so desperate to find out what would happen next.
But without a doubt, the highlight of this novel for me was the bond between Girton and Merela. Certainly, there’s no lack of examples when it comes to masters and apprentice relationships in fantasy fiction, and yet there was something about this particular one that warmed my heart. Merela is almost as much a mother to Girton as she is his teacher, encouraging him to see past the disability for which he is named in order to reach his full potential. And like any young man coming of age, Girton can sometimes be blinded by his naïve idealism (not to mention an infatuation for a pretty stable girl), which causes him to clash with Merela. Still, the two clearly have something very special between then, and it’s really quite rare to come across a master-apprentice relationship that feels so genuine and developed. Plus, speaking as someone who generally dislikes flashbacks and other such devices, the scenes going back to Girton and Merela’s early days together actually turned out to be some of my favorites in the entire book.
Like I said, Age of Assassins is an exceptional debut, so well written and put together that I am shocked that this is the author’s first novel. R.J. Barker will be going places, that’s for damn sure! If you’re looking for a compelling mix of fantasy and mystery along with a bit of wisdom and heart to go with your deadly intrigue, then I strongly urge you to pick up this book as soon as you can. I had an immensely good time with it, and I can’t wait to continue with the next book in the Wounded Kingdom series....more
Eighteen years after its original publication in Polish, this concluding volume of The Witcher series finally has its official English translation. While fan translations have been around for quite a while now, honestly I thought it was well worth the wait, if nothing else because I got to enjoy the excellent audiobook edition. I started off by reading the books, but then on a whim decided to switch formats once I got to Baptism of Fire and never looked back.
Anyway, the final book of a series is always something special. By this time, the story has taken over your mind and the characters have wormed their way into your heart. While endings can be a delight, oftentimes they are also bittersweet, because you’ve had so much fun on this adventure but now it’s time to say farewell. You start to wonder to yourself what the long awaited finale might be like: will it be everything you ever wanted, or fall short of expectations?
Well, in the case of The Lady of the Lake, my thoughts were mixed. The story begins cryptically, with Sir Galahad of Arthurian legend fame stumbling upon Ciri bathing in a pond. After the knight mistakes her for the Lady of the Lake which causes Ciri to correct his error, the two of them start talking and she begins to recount the tale of what she has been up to since the Tower of Swallows. It seemed that the portal she entered there had taken her to a different world, one where the Elves reigned. Seeing that she was trapped and at his mercy, the Elven king had proposed a bargain: Ciri could have her freedom…but only if she would agree to bear his child.
Meanwhile, back in her home world, the northern armies and the Nilfgaardian forces are still at war. In the middle of all this, Geralt and his companions are also continuing their search for Ciri, but with the recent abduction and imprisonment of Yennefer, the Witcher now has even more troubles on his hands.
It vexes me admit this, but The Lady of the Lake was probably the most confusing of all the books. Not that any of them have shown much linear storytelling, but for this one Sapkowski takes devices like flashbacks, dream sequences, POV switches and time jumps to extremes. This not only made the book feel very disjointed and hard to follow, it also dampened my enthusiasm for the story especially when we went on wild tangents that added zilch to the main plot or followed characters I could not care less about. If it were up to me, I would also have axed much of the ending. In my opinion, too much of the fluff that came after the climax spoiled a lot of the impact.
Now that I’ve gotten my complaints out of the way though, here’s what I did like: 1) Pretty much any scene where Ciri or Geralt and any of his companions or key characters appeared was topnotch. These are the characters I’ve come to know throughout the series and I found it hard to stay focused whenever the attention shifted away to anyone else. 2) Despite all the jumping around we do, there was at least a sense that final volume was trying to pull everything together; whether it’s a nod to events in the previous books or tying up loose ends and bringing things full circle, the narrative made an earnest attempt at closure. 3) All the references to fairy tales, myths and legends. This was one of the aspects I fell in love with when I first picked up The Last Wish so long ago, and it just seemed so apt for this last book to bring me back to those memories. 4) The action sequences were amazing. Obviously, it’s great anytime we get to see Geralt or Ciri kicking ass, but there was also this one epic scene depicting a huge battle which I thought was really well done, transporting the reader into the thick of the fighting.
Overall the book’s strengths outweighed the weaknesses, ultimately making The Lady of the Lake an enjoyable if flawed read. It wasn’t my favorite book of the series, and as an ending, it definitely wasn’t as good as what I’d hoped for. Still, I don’t regret reading it at all. Taken as a whole, The Witcher is a superb series, and I would certainly not discourage anyone to try these books just because I wasn’t a hundred percent pleased with this concluding volume; after all, you’d be missing out on many more great moments on this epic journey. In spite of everything, it was well worth it to see this saga through to the end.
Audiobook Comments: As always, Peter Kenny brings his best. His narration was a big reason why I stuck with the audiobooks for this series, because when he reads he brings the stories and characters to life. The Witcher books are also generally pretty well suited for this format, I find, because of their nonlinear structure, and the stories just seem to flow more smoothly and are less distracting when I’m listening. So if you’re considering tackling this series with the audiobooks, I say go for it; truly I can’t recommend them highly enough....more
Each year seems to bring its crop of Peter Pan retellings, and 2017 is no exception. We’ve gotten to the point where even the versions told from Captain Hook’s point-of-view, where “Hook is good/Peter is evil” are nothing to bat an eye at. And yet, I still find myself unable to ever resist these, always searching for the one which will finally do this great villain justice.
This was what led me to Lost Boy, and I must say, Christina Henry’s portrayal may be one of the best I’ve ever read. Not surprising, really, considering this is the same author who brought us the dark and bloody Chronicles of Alice, a twisted duology inspired by the classics works of Lewis Carroll which I also happened to enjoy immensely. This time though, Henry is taking us down a different rabbit hole, into one that connects the world of our own with a magical island in another place where children never grow old. This is the home of Peter Pan, who spends his never-ending childhood stealing boys from the “Other Place” to bring back to his island paradise so that he will always have playmates to amuse him. However, Peter has a very sick sense of what constitutes “amusement”. His outward appearance of an eleven-year-old boy belies the fact that he is a master manipulator, with an infectious charm that makes all his Lost Boys love him and want to please him.
The only one who can see through all of this is Jamie, the first boy Peter ever brought to the island. They’ve been the best of friends for a long, long time—long enough that Jamie has become Peter’s favorite companion and right hand man, the one who takes care of the rest of the boys. Someone has to, after all, considering the way Peter goes through playmates like dogs go through chew toys, a fact that Jamie hates. Whether he is leading the boys into pirate raids or making them beat each other up during Battle, Peter only has his own entertainment in mind, giving no thought to whether the others got hurt, sickened, or even died. Already he is showing signs of growing bored with Charlie, the latest boy he has brought back from the Other Place. Younger and more helpless than the others, Charlie immediately becomes attached to Jamie, who steps in to become the little boy’s protector. Unfortunately, this just seems to make Peter resent Charlie even more. Not for the first time, Jamie wonders just how far Peter would go to maintain his absolute rule over the Lost Boys, though if it means harm to Charlie, he knows he will do whatever what it takes to stop his oldest friend.
And here I thought Disney’s depiction of Peter Pan was an annoying little shit. The portrayal of the Boy-Who-Wouldn’t-Grow-Up in Lost Boy on the other hand, is on an entirely different level of evil and heartlessness. While it is said that in the original play and books by J.M. Barrie, the character symbolizes the selfishness of childhood as evidenced by his thoughtlessness and cocky attitude, Christina Henry’s Peter Pan embodies of all of this plus a healthy dose of psychopathy, to the point I doubt even the Once Upon A Time version can hold a candle to hers in terms of sheer dickery. The Peter in Lost Boy is a repugnant little monster, one who relishes in manipulating the minds of young and innocent little boys so that they would worship him and leap unquestioningly to do his bidding—even if it is an order to beat each other to a bloody pulp. To Peter, the Lost Boys are nothing more than disposable and replaceable meat toys; if they get destroyed or if he grows bored with them, he’ll just go over to the Other Place and pick up another.
This in turn made it easy to root for Jamie, our protagonist who has come to realize that what used to be fun becomes no longer so if you’re forced to do it for eternity…never growing older, playing out the same “adventures” again and again. He’s also getting sick of burying his friends, the many Lost Boys who have died over the years because of Peter’s negligence (it’s all fun and games until someone gets decapitated by a cannonball). Without even being aware of it, Jamie is growing up, maturing in mind if not in body, a process which has already begun when we first meet him. What sets Lost Boy apart from similar books is the way Henry handles this transition. For Jamie, his hatred of Peter Pan isn’t a switch that just gets flipped on one day. Instead, it is like a seed which has been planted since the beginning, only it has been buried for a very long time. With every shock and revelation he receives about Peter’s true nature, it grows and grows until something finally happens that makes him reach the point of no return.
Jamie’s characterization was a huge part of what made Lost Boy such a fascinating, addictive read. However, it also led to a lot of powerful and heartbreaking moments. The protagonist’s caring attitude made me sympathize with him, but it also killed me knowing that it would eventually lead to his downfall. After all, we all know of the famous rivalry between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. That part of their story does not change with this retelling, but Christina Henry has made the journey to get there a lot more interesting and at times overwhelming and painful in its emotional intensity.
All told, Lost Boy is Hook’s tale as I have never heard it told before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d probably avoid this if you’d like hold on to your memories of Peter Pan as a cute and free-spirited young boy, but definitely pick this up if you are a fan of grim and gruesome imaginative retellings....more
The Court of Broken Knives is unlikely to shatter any molds in the grimdark genre, but I do have to give it credit for checking off all the right boxes and pushing all my right buttons. Also, the writing is exquisite, making it hard to believe this is Anna Smith Spark’s debut as it’s so incredibly polished and well done.
I do worry, however, that prospective readers might pick up this novel dismiss it almost right away because of its first chapter. There’s a pervasive belief about the fantasy genre these days that “grimdark” is all about the violence, nihilism, amoralism, and a lot of piss, blood, shit thrown in along with all the killing and dying. While, sure, those are the common features of many works of grimdark, I would argue that there’s also a lot more to it than that. Unfortunately, a lot new authors also tend to fall into the trap, trying to score points by shamelessly resorting to shock value when their main concern should be developing their characters and story, regardless of the desire to include as many examples of brutal violence, graphic sex, profanity, and explicit descriptions of bodily fluids as possible.
Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, not long before I started The Court of Broken Knives, I’d just come from another debut grimdark that I would described as edgy-for-the-sake-of-being edgy. And when I was reading the opening pages of this, there was that brief period of annoyance where I thought for sure I was strapping myself in for yet another one.
But thankfully, I was wrong. Yes, the book does begin with a bloody battle and lots of DEATH! DEATH! DEATH! Eventually though, we move beyond that into the meat of the story, following a rough crew of mercenaries as they close upon their destiny of Sorlost, the Sekemleth Empire’s seat of power. The truth of their mission will be revealed soon enough, but for now, let’s take a look at the key players. Nervous and inexperienced, Marith is the new recruit, a young Adonis with the face of an angel and a dark secret in his blood. Tobias is his squad captain, a thoughtful but pragmatic leader who keeps his purpose close to this heart and his eye on the prize.
But the mercenaries are just a small piece of the big picture—the muscle behind the brain, so to speak. They follow the orders of Orhann Emmereth, a powerful nobleman and counselor to the Emperor. A hardened and jaded politician, Orhann fears for the future of the Sekemleth Empire and believes that doom will come to them all come unless he can bring about a new leader to rise from the ashes of the old. It is he who has hired Tobias and his mercenaries, tasking them to kill the Emperor and everyone else in his court. Meanwhile, in the nearby temple in Sorlost, much of the power also rests in the hands of a fourth major character. Thalia is the High Priestess of the empire’s rather unusual and cruel religion whose god demands the sacrifice of children, and as the head of the order, it is she who must carry out these difficult ritualistic killings.
From these four perspectives, the author weaves a tale of intrigue, passion, and betrayal about the complexities of human nature and war. Characterization is the real standout here, exploring the different interaction between the members of this eclectic cast. Every one of them is a unique and multi-faceted individual, complete with their own set of quirks and flaws. In particular, I found Orhann and Thalia’s storylines to be the most intriguing, for both are conflicted characters who are in positions of influence and yet are also victims of their own circumstances. Tired and cynical, Orhann may have seen it all in his long career as a politician, but it still wouldn’t be fair to call him a bad or callous man. If anything, he cares too much. Despite the troubles in his personal life, he strives to be the loving husband and soon-to-be father, and any corrupt or treasonous decisions he makes, he does it because he truly believes he is doing it for the good of the empire.
Then, of course, we have Thalia, a complicated woman who carries on with her grisly work with child sacrifices as she knows she must. But there is also a spark of defiance there, fueled by the knowledge of the fate that awaits her at the end of her tenure as High Priestess. Curiously, hers is the only perspective we get in first-person, a strange choice by the author. Short as they were though, Thalia’s chapters do give readers deeper insight into her character and personality. She goes on to develop an unexpected romance with Marith, a grand love affair that really should deserve a paragraph all on its own, though it’s probably best to leave the best parts as a surprise. Suffice it to say that they are not your typical fictional couple, and I wouldn’t go in expecting anything you’d usually get from a more traditional romance.
Likewise, I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, because so much of the joy in reading this book was the experience of peeling back its layers and discovering its secrets. What I can tell you is that it is more than the sum of its parts, and the plot follows a slow-burn approach that gradually builds to a violent climax. To wit, A Court of Broken Knives wasn’t a book that had me on the edge of my seat the whole time, but neither was I ever bored. And although I wouldn’t call it groundbreaking by any means, this is still a very solid and well put-together debut. Certainly, it ended up giving me a lot more than I expected, and I would not hesitate to recommend it if your predilections run to grimdark or dark fantasy. Anna Smith Spark is an author to watch, and I would not hesitate to pick up the next book in the series....more
Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
The Waking Land is a gorgeous new fantasy novel from debut author Callie Bates, and it was on my wishlist long before I had the opportunity to read it. There are just certain types of stories, while not entirely groundbreaking or new to the genre, that are just irresistible to me, and this is one of them. The book encompasses a lot of the elements I love, including a courageous heroine, an evocative magic system tied to the living earth, and a complex world built upon the political alliances and animosities between various kingdoms.
Things get off to a rather intense start, with the prologue opening on the scene of an interrupted dinner party. Our protagonist Elanna Valtai, five years old at this point, watches as her nurse is murdered in front of her eyes. Meanwhile, King Antoine and the rest of his royal guards are storming the house downstairs, putting an end to her father’s rebellion. To ensure no more attempted uprisings, Elanna’s parents are banished back to their ancestral home of Caeris, while Elanna herself is seized as a hostage, to be raised in the king’s household in Eren.
Fourteen years pass. For all that she is an outsider and the daughter of a known traitor, Elanna has been treated well by King Antoine, whom she regards and loves as a father. She has not seen her real parents since the night of the party, and Eren has become the only place she feels at home. In fact, she even has her future all planned out; once she comes of age, the king will send her off to study botany, where she will hone her gift of working with plants.
But then one day, King Antoine sickens and dies. And unfortunately, his heir Princess Loyce has never accepted Elanna, always ridiculing her for her Caerisian heritage. Worse, it has been ruled that the king died of poisoning, and being the botanical expert, Elanna is the number one suspect. With no other choice left to her, our protagonist is forced to flee back to her homeland and reunite with her estranged blood kin. It is there, however, where she discovers the truth about her birthright and the mysterious magical powers she always knew she had—and with that knowledge, she must lead a rebellion against the very kingdom to which she once pledged her loyalty.
While I realize this was not the most original plot, I didn’t care; books like The Waking Land are usually well represented in my reading repertoire despite their familiar elements, simply because I always know I’ll have a good time with them and they remind me of why I love the genre. Plus, there are certain aspects which were handled extremely well, like the world-building and magic. Under Bates’ deft touch, some of these well-known tropes are transformed into something slightly different—just enough to offer a bit of flavor without too much distraction. Take Elanna’s powers, for example. Earth magic is certainly nothing new in fantasy, but nevertheless, I enjoyed how the story introduced fresh context for it by incorporating some unique history and lore. Likewise, the conflicts between the kingdoms were interesting. After all, it’s rare to meet a heroine whose loyalties are torn in such a way, her dual roles of dutiful daughter vs. brainwashed hostage giving the political landscape a whole new dynamic.
Speaking of which, Elanna was a great character. At nineteen, she is dealing with a lot of “new adult” type problems on top of being accused of regicide, so it’s a bit of an emotional journey. The occasional moment of angst aside though, I found her to be likeable and down-to-earth (no pun intended). Undoubtedly, the author’s biggest challenge was to make Elanna’s transition from one side to the other believable, and I think for the most part Bates succeeded. Gradually, her protagonist’s eyes are opened to see beyond her upbringing, letting her take control of her own life and decide for herself what she wants to do.
In terms of criticisms, I only have a few, and none of them are deal breaking. I felt the pacing was a little off in places, especially with the amount of filler in the middle. There was also a romance plot that was emotionally flat and did little for me, its only saving grace being the fact that it probably wasn’t meant to be a big part of the story. I also wish that we’d gotten to see more of Elanna’s powers in the first half of the novel, though in all fairness, the book ultimately makes up for that with an epic magical showdown in the ending.
When all is said and done, I very much enjoyed this book. The Waking Land is not out to reinvent the wheel as far as the premise or the story goes, but I was nonetheless delighted and satisfied with the way it turned out. Callie Bates has concocted a magically captivating tale that will draw you in from the very first page, exactly the kind of fantasy novel I crave. A strong protagonist, an entertaining plot, and a well-crafted world are all reasons why this would make a great pick for any fantasy reader, especially if you enjoy a dash of enchantment and magic. The author has a bright future ahead of her, and I look forward to her next project....more
I fucking loved this book. The Grey Bastards went down like a shot of good top-shelf tequila: warm and smooth, but with one hell of a spicy kick. If SPFBO has taught me any lessons, it’s that you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a self-published novel, but many stars aligned to make this one work immensely well for me. It happened to perfectly fit my tastes, for one. With a title and cover like that, you can be sure this dark epic fantasy will have plenty of grit and violence. Throw in some breakneck pacing and a dash of that crude and vulgar brand of humor, then you’ve got yourself a recipe for a good time.
The story follows a half-orc named Jackal who is sworn to the The Grey Bastards hoof, one of the eight brotherhoods of former slaves that now live on the land known as the Lots. Shunned by humans but also hostile to the orcs, the mongrel bands are all that’s left standing between the city of Hispartha and the forces that want to see it fall.
Life among the hoofs has its own trials, however. Long has Jackal wanted to challenge their warchief Claymaster for leadership of The Grey Bastards, but because a failed bid can mean his own death, our protagonist is prepared to wait until he has more support beyond that of his good friends, Oats and Fetch.
Still, that was before their so-called allies started turning against them, or before the Claymaster started sparing their orc enemies instead of swiftly dispatching them, and certainly before before a wily wizard named Crafty managed to weasel his way into the warchief’s good graces. More and more, Jackal is noticing erratic behavior in their gnarled and plague-ridden leader, reaffirming his beliefs that the old half-orc should be deposed. The final straw finally comes in the form of an elf girl named Starling, whom Jackal rescues from a terrible fate. Vehemently disagreeing with the Claymaster on their next course of action, Jackal feels he has no choice but to throw down his ax—thus declaring his challenge and sealing his fate for the inevitable course of turmoil to come.
So yeah, I liked this book. I liked it a lot. And thing is, there isn’t any one aspect of the story that I can single out and claim that I liked the most, since it was the culmination of all of its parts—and all at once—that made The Grey Bastards such a memorable and spectacularly good read. I enjoyed how the plot started small before snowballing to become something much bigger, and at no point did it take a step back or even pause for a breather; there was only aggressive forward motion, constantly driving forward.
I’ll also admit a love for reading dark fantasy featuring raw, gritty, foul-mouthed and violence-seeking characters—call me old softie, but I reserve a special place in my heart for these kinds of anti-heroes. However, an author can wind up with a whole cast of virtually indistinguishable characters if they’re not careful, which is a common pitfall for books in this genre. Fortunately though, French manages to avoid this problem in The Grey Bastards, giving all his half-orc characters their own unique and individual personalities. Jackal is our main protagonist, with his lofty ambitions which can sometimes blind him to other perspectives around him. In part, this book is the story of how he finally opens his eyes to see the big picture, but the journey to get there is a tough one indeed. Lucky for Jackal, he has his friends to back him up. Oats is a thrice (so called because they are three-quarters orc, making them physically larger than their half-orc brethren) who is as loyal as they come, and rounding out the inseparable trio is Fetch, the only female in the Grey Bastards who had to fight tooth and nail for her position in the hoof. Like all friendships, the three of them have their ups and downs, but the well-developed relationships between them made these dynamics very convincing.
In terms of story, The Grey Bastards was a book that pulled me in straight away. It’s fun and exciting, full of unexpected twists and turns, though I feel I have to warn prospective readers that this is not one for the faint of heart. If you are easily turned off by brutal graphic violence or crude and offensive language, then this is probably not for you. French pulls no punches in this vicious and no-holds-barred world full of orcs, humans, elves, halflings, and even centaurs all fighting one and another, with scenes of skirmishing and great battles punctuating the narrative every few chapters. This sets a very fast and readable pace with rich world-building that is not so much inserted as it is integrated into the story, often done in a seamless way that is in context with the events playing out on the page. This has got to be one of the most interesting and fleshed-out fantasy worlds I have ever read, and the author made it all seem so effortless.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond impressed with The Grey Bastards. In reading it I got to experience a strikingly vivid world come to life before my eyes, populated by characters who are at once wild and wonderful. Jonathan French is a fantastic writer and talented storyteller who has created a very special gem here, and the story even ends with potential for our characters to engage in more future adventures. Here’s hoping Jackal and his fellow Bastards will get a sequel soon, because you can bet I’ll be all over that....more
For so long I’ve been wanting to read something by Barb and J.C. Hendee, and with The Dead Seekers being the first of a new series, I figured there’s no better time and place to jump onboard! Better yet, later I was even more excited to learn that the book is set in the same world that was made well-known by the authors’ popular Noble Dead Saga.
Things kick off with a prologue which introduces readers to the story’s two protagonists. What should have been a happy time instead turned to sorrow as Tris, the baron’s only son and heir, was born without breath. But even when the baby was revived, the disturbing circumstances around his apparent miraculous recovery only causes more fear and unease. Thirteen years later in another time and another place, young Mari was in the woods with her family making camp after a long day of travel when they were suddenly ambushed by violent spirits. Being a shapeshifter, Mari was able to take her cat form and escape, but everyone else was killed. Ever since that day, she has been searching for the one she believes is responsible for her murdered family—the mysterious figure known as the Dead’s Man who is said to have the ability to command spirits.
When the main story starts in earnest, both Tris and Mari have grown to adulthood and are living very different lives, though without knowing it, the two are linked by their tragic pasts. Tris had experienced something very similar to what Mari saw in the woods all those years ago, and now he travels to wherever he is called, banishing spirits for a living. While a close encounter with a spirit would usually mean death to any normal person, Tris however possesses a remarkable power enabling him to touch ghosts and destroy them. It is this ability that initially makes Mari suspect that Tris may be the Dead’s Man she is looking for, though at their first meeting she has to admit he is nothing like she expected. Wanting to make sure she has found the right mark before killing him, Mari decides to stick around and observe Tris as he makes his way to his next assignment to banish a particularly troublesome spirit.
The Dead Seekers is perhaps best described as a mystery in three distinct parts. First Tris and Mari travel to a small village, where the ghost of a girl who died under peculiar circumstances has been coming back to haunt the people she knew. But this humble intro soon leads our protagonists to uncover an even bigger conspiracy in the middle section, requiring them to travel to a border garrison where they realize their spirit problem isn’t so simple anymore. The last third of the book is the resolution where everything ties together and ends in a satisfyingly explosive way. As plotlines go, it’s a pretty straightforward and “on-rails” experience even if the story is no less enjoyable because of it. However, this also meant the authors had to rely mainly on flashbacks and memory sequences to explain anything that took place in the past, and these weren’t always integrated very smoothly.
This also might not be a terribly deep or sophisticated fantasy novel, but it will hit the spot if you’re simply looking for a light and fun read. Most notably, I found the book weaker in the areas of world-building, though to be fair I am a newcomer to the Hendees’ work and the bulk of this novel’s audience will probably know the world already from the authors’ previous series. That said, I don’t want to make is sound like world-building aspects are completely lacking though, because I definitely saw enough to make me care and want to know more. I also loved the characters. Mari and Tris are fascinating and memorable, and so easy to root for. I’m really enjoying their dynamic so far (they are a good example of an amazing non-romantic male/female team-up!) and the story even leaves plenty of room for their alliance to grow.
The Dead Seekers is a great introduction to a new series that’s all about ghostbusting, fantasy-style. What the story lacks in impact, it makes up for with pure, fantastic fun. There’s an addictive quality to it that will make you want to pick up the next book and dive straight back into this world to spend time with Tris and Mari. Already I’m looking forward to see what our protagonists will be up to next....more
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading In Calabria is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
In a small village nestled in the peaceful and scenic countryside of Southern Italy, there lives a man named Claudio Bianchi. Becoming increasingly aloof and grumpy in his middle age, he prefers to keep to himself on his farm, tending to his crops and animals while writing poetry in his spare time. His only regular visitor is a postman who comes to his place twice a week to drop off his mail. Life is quiet, routine and uncomplicated, and it’s the way Bianchi likes it. But that all changes in an instant, when our protagonist looks outside one morning and spies an impossible creature gazing back at him from his fields. It is a golden-white unicorn—heavily pregnant too, if Bianchi isn’t mistaken—and for some reason, she has chosen his farm as the place to give birth.
All of a sudden, Bianchi is filled with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. He has promised La Signora, the name he has given the unicorn, that he will keep her and her baby safe. His poetry also come more easily to him now, with her in his life. That peace, however, turns out to be short-lived. Eventually, the rumors start spreading that unicorns have made their home on Bianchi’s land. His farm is sudden swamped by media, trophy hunters, and all manner of nosy busybodies. But worst of all, there are the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria who have come to Bianchi with an offer to buy his farm and the unicorns on it, threatening him with dire consequences if he refuses.
Magical realism fans are going to want to take note for this one. It’s a short and simple tale, but packed with some powerful themes. I’ve always loved stories with unicorns in them, especially those that portray them in meaningful ways, and if anyone can be relied upon to write a book that does just that, it is Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn has long been a symbol of purity and healing, and as we watch Bianchi’s life unfold, it becomes clear that he is in desperate need of some of that magic himself, as much as he may want to deny it. His character is taciturn, a little standoffish, but you can also tell Bianchi is a man who takes pride in his independence and accomplishments. Behind that gruff exterior is a kind heart and plenty of evidence that he cares about the people around him, which is why I found him likable despite his flaws.
There was also a romantic side plot in this that I didn’t see coming, nor did I expect to enjoy it so much. There’s a considerable age difference between the protagonist and his love interest, and while in general May-December relationships can be tricky to pull off, I thought the portrayal of Bianchi and Giovanna’s courtship was sweet, sympathetic, and subtle enough that it doesn’t take too much from the main story. It always warms my heart to read about two very different people coming together, finding an understanding and connection that ultimately leads to something more.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, In Calabria will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic....more
What an amazing surprise this was! Though to be honest, I had no idea what to expect at first, only that from the moment I saw the book description for The Valiant, I knew I had to read it. I make it no secret that I am fascinated with anything to do with Ancient Rome, and so historical fiction set in this time period is like an instant Mogsy magnet. And secondly, FEMALE GLADIATORS.
The story follows Fallon, daughter of a Celtic king and younger sister to the late legendary warrior Sorcha who fell to the legions of Julius Caesar while fighting in defense of her homeland. Despite a druid’s prophecy predicting that she will meet the same end as her sister, Fallon remains undaunted and determined to follow in Sorcha’s footsteps, hoping to one day join her father’s fighting force. She even turns down a marriage proposal from the boy she loves, knowing she must make her mark on the world before she could make such a commitment.
However, when the big day finally comes, instead of formally accepting Fallon into his war band, her father instead surprises everyone by announcing her betrothal to her true love’s brother, a Roman sympathizer. The king cites political reasons for his decision, and also because he cannot bear the thought of losing another daughter to war, but Fallon is unappeased and furious at what she sees as a betrayal.
At this point, you might think you know how this story will play out, or that all the components are laid out on the table. Within the first handful of chapters, we are introduced to a protagonist who has spent her entire life worshiping her older sister while also growing up in her shadow, and even after Sorcha’s death, all Fallon wants is to live up to her memory. Then there are the two boys around Fallon’s own age who for years have been fostered at her father’s castle, vying for Fallon’s affections. But while Fallon fell in love with one, her father decided to marry her off to the other. “Oh, this is a scenario that feels a little familiar,” I thought. “I have a few guesses about what might happen.”
Well, I was wrong about that. There were definitely plenty of surprises, a couple of which came very early on in the book too. I’m not going to spoil what they are, but suffice to say, they altered my predictions for the story entirely. Fallon ends up being captured by slavers and shipped off to Rome, where her steel resolve catches the attention of a representative for a school for female gladiators, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While The Valiant is marketed as a YA fantasy, in fact gladiatrices did exist in ancient Roman times, though they were very, very rare. They were seen more as novelties, according to the few accounts that have survived. And more than likely, they were not viewed or treated with the same regard as their male counterparts. No evidence either has been found of the training of female gladiators, or schools dedicated to them. So in a sense, this book does fall into the historical fantasy category, in the way it attempts to imagine a picture of what life would have been like if gladiatrices had been a big part of ancient Roman culture, in and out of the arena.
By combining history and elements from her own incredible imagination, the author brings the vivid world of The Valiant to life. Details are noticeably on the lighter side when it comes to setting, but Livingston makes up for it by creating an atmosphere that feels distinctly and authentically “Ancient Roman”, allowing readers to fill in any gaps with their own knowledge or understanding of the time period. I also loved the protagonist. At times, I might have found her a tad too melodramatic, but other than that, I don’t really have any major complaints about Fallon or any of the other characters. As I mentioned before, the story is sufficiently unpredictable and I was taken by surprise by a couple plot points. I might also have bemoaned the lack of gladiatorial fights in the first half of the book, but the second half showed me why it’s important to be patient. Towards the end, the ferocious action and the intense thrills succeeded in blowing me away.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. The category for my favorite YA novel of 2017 officially has its first contender, folks. If there’s any justice in the world, this book will be huge and it will deserve all the attention it gets. The future of this series promises to be exciting both on and off the arena floor, and I can’t wait to read more of Fallon and her sisterhood of ruthless and tough gladiators.
Audiobook Comments: I was lucky enough to be offered the audiobook of The Valiant for review, and I found it to be another splendid example of a fast-paced and addictive listen. Personally, thought the narrator Fiona Hardingham did a great job voicing Fallon’s story. I love her accent and the emotions she puts into her reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend The Valiant audiobook to anyone considering this format....more