When I heard that V.E. Schwab’s long out-of-print debut novel The Near Witch was going to be re-issued, my first thought was, “Oh hell yes, I’d read it!” even with the full understanding that things might be a little rough. Schwab may be an experience writer now, but debuts are debuts—most are like raw, uncut gems, their latent potential waiting to be released. I certainly wasn’t going to judge it by the same standards as I would apply to her later books.
What I didn’t expect, however, was how much I loved this. The prose was plain, the story was simple, but in that straightforwardness was also a refreshing sweetness and charm I haven’t seen a lot from the author’s newer works. In a way, The Near Witch reads very much like a traditional folk tale. Taking place in the sleepy little village of Near, the story follows Lexi, who lives with her mother and little sister Wren. Before her father died, he had taught her that witches are just like anyone else—there are good ones, bad ones, and most just wish to be left alone to their own lives. Unfortunately though, many of the other villagers hold on to more old-fashioned views, mistrusting the two elderly sisters who live on the edge of town. Whispers of witchcraft have long surrounded Magda and Dreska Thorne, but for the most part, the people of Near have tolerated their presence.
However, that was before the children started disappearing, called from their beds by a magical voice in the wind. Suspicions immediately fall upon the Thorne sisters, who are also accused of protecting a mysterious stranger who has just arrived in town. But Lexi has met this stranger, and knows he has nothing to do with the disappearances. Cole, as she called him, is just a youth hardly older than herself, and he has an idea of the real reason behind the missing children. Lexi wants to help him, but her efforts are prevented by her overprotective uncle Otto as well as some of her “friends” like Tyler who think proper girls should know their place and leave the search to the men. What none of them realize is that Near’s legends know no bounds or limits; an ancient force has awakened, and it won’t rest until a wrong has been righted.
As I said, there is nothing complicated about the plot to The Near Witch; in fact, Schwab places more emphasis on the atmosphere than the story or even the characters. But I think this, more than anything, is what gives the book that timeless allure, like a fairy tale or legend you can pick up five, ten, or twenty years from now and still have its setting and mood resonate with readers. This has allowed the novel some lenience, despite having many of the same flaws as typical debuts. For example, Lexi and Cole aren’t particularly well drawn, nor are many of the other townsfolk who read like clichéd archetypes. But because this falls into the expected pattern for a story resembling traditional folklore, a perceived weakness actually ends up becoming a strength.
So although The Near Witch might not be as complex or developed, I nevertheless found it to be more enjoyable than some of the author’s newer books. Its classic themes are familiar and relatable, like those of friendship, love, and redemption. It is also a story about a young woman wanting something more than what society has dictated for her, as well as her determination to show that she can and will succeed where those trying to suppress her have failed. While nothing new is presented here that thousands of Young Adult novels have not already covered, the beauty and pureness of the story’s ideas and emotions come through in their simplicity.
Also included at the end of this book is a heartbreaking little novella called The Ash-Born Boy, intended to be a prequel that reveals Cole’s origins. The fairy tale-like feel is even stronger in this one, given that it is so short, beguiling, and tragically dark. If you enjoyed Cole’s character in The Near Witch, then you’ll no doubt also love this story which adds even more depth to his personality and explores his troubled past.
In sum, there is nothing deep or earth-shattering about The Near Witch, but this magical 2011 debut by V.E. Schwab nonetheless managed to exceed all my expectations for it. Her writing was solid even then, deftly creating the timeless atmosphere and weaving in the folktale vibes I loved so much. All in all, a delightful and enjoyable read—like a nice, sweet treat....more
Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg first caught my attention with its synopsis, but I became even more intrigued once I realized what I was looking at on the cover was the head of a fiery demon-like horse. The reason for this striking motif was soon revealed, as the story introduces readers to Sandis, who is no ordinary young woman. For one, she is a vessel, whose body is trained and primed to hold demon-like spirits called forth from the netherworld. She is also a slave of sorts, kept under lock and key by a cruel summoner named Kazen, who has captured a number of kids like Sandis for his nefarious purposes. And because what Kazen does is highly illegal, he operates underground in a top secret facility where he can hide his activities as well as keep his charges isolated and unaware of what’s going on in the outside world. This in essence is Sandis’ life, where all she does each day is keep her head down and obey the rules, as not to anger Kazen. After all, it’s painful enough what happens to her whenever he calls forth “her” demon, the fire horse Ireth, into her body.
But then one night, Sandis witnesses something at the facility that frightens her to her core, prompting her to leave immediately, escaping into the unfamiliar city. Her only hope is a name of an unknown relative she chanced to glimpse in Kazen’s records, perhaps a distant uncle who would recognize their kinship and protect her. Instead, Sandis finds Rone, a caddish thief who thought the poor lost girl would be easy prey to his charms. But to his surprise, it is actually Sandis who catches him off guard and ends up making off with something valuable of his: an extremely rare and powerful artifact called amarinth which grants its bearer immortality for one minute every day. To get it back, Rone tracks down Sandis, but then winds up getting swept along in her desperate attempt to escape Kazen and his minions. Understanding that the two of them need each other to survive, Sandis and Rone strike up a reluctant partnership. She needs to lie low until she can find her mysterious relative, and he’s hoping that the reward for helping her will earn him the money to free his mother from jail.
I’ll be honest, I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I not disliked the characters right off the bat. On the whole, Sandis was all right, even if her meekness sometimes bothered me—though at least this was in keeping with her background and history. Rone, on the other hand, was infinitely punchable and irritating. I despised his smugness and arrogance the moment he showed up on the page. He is also impulsive and shows an astounding lack of foresight and awareness of potential consequences. He has little consideration for others and barely ever thinks beyond his own self interests. It’s hard to feel bad for him when you know his own bad decisions are the cause of all his troubles. The reason he gets tangled up with Sandis is because he thought he could take advantage of her. The reason his mother is arrested is because she wound up being blamed for a crime he himself had committed. This guy thinks he has all these problems when, really, he is the problem, but of course, he’s too self-centered to realize it.
And the worst part? I don’t think Rone changed all that much. It would be one thing for an unlikeable character to redeem themselves throughout the course of a story, and though Rone did show some signs of turning around, when the moment of truth arrived in the second half of the novel, he completely blew the chance to prove himself and made me angry at him all over again. I’m glad I didn’t waste my sympathies on him, though I did feel bad for Sandis. There were times where I felt the author might have been hinting at an eventual romance for her two characters, but I was never really able to feel much of anything, let alone a spark of chemistry, between them. One reason for this is the power and knowledge imbalance where it seemed Rone always held all the cards despite Sandis being the one with the ability to channel a demon horse. He went freely about the world while she remained stashed away in some hidey hole as she always was, the naïve and innocent girl. The relationship had all the ingredients of one heading straight for trouble, but even when it turned out I was right, the confirmation brought little satisfaction.
But now, for the things I did like: without a doubt, the whole premise of summoning demons into human vessels was the most intriguing and memorable aspect of the book. There is an entire system involved in the process, from the blood sacrifices it requires to the permanent scars carved into a vessel’s flesh. Each individual vessel also has a power level associated with him or her, determining the strength of the demon that can be summoned. And then, there was Rone’s amarinth. As magical trinkets go, it doesn’t get much cooler or more imaginative than that, and reading about its effects immediately made me curious to know more about the object and others like it. Suffice it to say, a lot of hard work was put into developing the magic of this universe, given its layers upon layers of rich detail, and as a fantasy fan, I always delight discovering new and unique world-building.
Still, at the end of the day, I’m a “characters first” kind of reader, and admittedly, my loathing for one of the key characters most likely impacted my overall enjoyment of this novel. Still, I didn’t think Smoke & Summons was a bad book, despite having to put up with Rone, and I actually find myself curious to see how he and Sandis can move forward in the wake of the choices he made. Both are now changed from the experience, which should make the next book interesting....more
I was surprised how much I liked Breach. Mostly, I wasn’t sure how I would take to the novel, given my last venture into a Cold War alternate history was met with mixed results, but I’m pleased to say W.L. Goodwater has delivered a fine thriller here, laced with just the right amount and balance of history, action and magic.
The novel opens on a world very different from our own. World War II happened, yes. But a generation later, even following the devastation, the world’s powers continued to clash—with war, ideology…and magic. Though thaumaturgy is widely seen as a weapon of the Germans because of how brutally the Nazi troops used magic to do horrible things during WWII, American researcher Karen O’Neil is trying to change that perception. To counter magic, she reasons, one must be able to understand it, and it need not be a tool for destruction either if its power and energy can be harnessed to do good.
As a woman and a magician, however, Karen’s quest is an uphill battle, given how wary the public is regarding anything to do with magic. Even her own father, a veteran who has experienced its destructive power in the war, despises the magical work she does for the State Department. Then one day, an urgent request for a magical expert arrives from Germany, warning of a breach in the Berlin Wall, which in this world is a massive construct made entirely of magical energy. Karen is tapped for the assignment, amidst backlash from her male co-workers who feel she would not be up to the rigors of the job. Determined to prove herself, Karen throws herself into finding an explanation and solution for the growing breach, despite increasing signs that the problem may be linked to greater dangers involving deadly conspiracies and powerful secrets.
For a debut, Breach was pretty solid. I was impressed by the flow of the writing, despite some over-embellishment and the occasional moment where I questioned word choice. I also enjoyed the voice of the main protagonist. The narrative follows a couple points-of-view besides Karen, but she was the character I latched onto the moment she stepped onto the page. A twenty-something-year-old woman and a magician, she faces pushback from many corners because of her sex and her ability to do magic. While the negativity she receives is great motivational factor, it also has a tendency to drive her to do impulsive things in her effort to prove she is up to the task, usually resulting in her doing something she regrets. However, her complexities—which include her flaws and personal weaknesses—serve to make her feel like a genuine and well-rounded character. On the whole, I found her to more memorable and developed than any of the other POVs, though I hope some—namely Jim, the CIA agent—will get more attention if there are future sequels.
To my relief, you also don’t have to be much of a history buff to get into this book. Cold War knowledge certainly isn’t my forte, but I made out fine anyway, mostly because Goodwater has devised a world that holds up reasonably well as its own creation. The presence of magic is a gamechanger, causing sweeping changes in history and the way people conduct their lives. The magic system described in the book itself isn’t anything too special (comprising of the usual hand gestures and incantations, special objects to act as a focal point for the magician’s power, etc.) but I felt the social implications of it were. Magicians are both admired and feared for what they can do, as represented by an early scene of Karen at a family gathering, showing off her magic to the delight of her young niece while Karen’s own father stands to the side, seething with disapproval. It is a time of great change in this world, and attitudes towards magic play a role in determining the impact of certain events and people in the story.
The plot reads like a mystery, with emphasis on investigations and spycraft early on, though there is a lot more action and suspense in the second half of the novel. There is also a surprise twist later on in the story that throws even more possibilities into the mix, making me re-evaluate what I thought I knew about this world. It seemed a bit over-the-top, for a novel already filled to the brim with a multitude of concepts, but as it was a genuinely fascinating plot development and the author didn’t let it get too out of hand, I was willing to disregard some of the more overreaching elements of the story. As well, the final page makes me think there will be more to follow, and as I alluded to earlier, if we’re fortunate enough to get a sequel, I will definitely be on board for more....more
In my review of the previous book, Charmcaster, I noted how certain patterns seemed to keep popping up repeatedly in the storytelling. However, as I was reading Soulbinder, all I could think of was how Sebastien de Castell must have had the same concerns as I did on the direction of this series, because it seemed he did everything he could in this one to shake things up and make the story as unpredictable as possible again, even going as far as to make light of some of the repetitive patterns from the previous novels.
Needless to say, this time the introduction did not parallel the opening chapters of the previous books, although once more, the novel opens upon a scene of our protagonist Kellen and the squirrel cat Reichis struggling to survive another attempt on their lives. Such is the life of an outlaw, after all. Still, instead of Ferius Parfax charging to the rescue with her bold tricks and fiery words, this time the Argosi adventurer is nowhere to be found. And instead of barely managing to thwart their attackers and get away, this time our heroes wind up beaten and broken, lying in the hot desert sands waiting for death to claim them.
But when Kellen wakes up next, his elation at having survived is short-lived. He finds he has been kidnapped by a cult of monks afflicted with the cursed Shadowblack, who have spirited him away to their Ebony Abbey hidden in the snowy mountains. Worse, when they took him, they also left Reichis behind, leaving our protagonist all alone in a strange place.
No Ferius. No Reichis. You’d think I wouldn’t have enjoyed this book as much, since our beloved trio has been split apart, but nothing could be further from the truth. I loved Soulbinder, which might be the best installment since the first one. This is the book where it is truly Kellen on his own against the world, where his resolve is fully tested. Without the support of his friends, he must rely on only his own wits and skills, applying all that he has learned since leaving home to figure a way out of his predicament. As much as I love Ferius and Reichis, even I must admit a story like this was a long time coming, because readers needed to know just how far our boy has come.
That’s not to say Kellen doesn’t find help from other sources, some of them quite unexpected. It turns out there is more to the Ebony Abbey followers who have stolen him away, and among them, he makes a few new friends and allies. What’s more, we get to learn a lot more about the Shadowblack, which our protagonists and his companions have been trying to find a cure for since the beginning of the series. But what if there was more to the condition? For the first time, Kellen is willing to consider the possibility that there might be something more to the so-called curse, which means we are also one step further along on his journey to self-acceptance.
It would be hard to read this book and not to feel proud of him, watching him confront his demons and decide his own future. Having grown up in a society of labels and where one’s place in the hierarchy is everything, Kellen coming to grips with his new life as an exile was a huge turning point. Now he’ll have another challenge before him as he determines once and for all how to deal with his own family, from the father who has given up on him to the sister he doesn’t know if he can trust. Without Ferius to guide him, or Reichis to fight with him, Kellan is forced to follow his instincts and place priorities on what matters most. In some ways, this makes Soulbinder the most telling and important books in the series thus far, revealing all of our protagonist’s inner feelings and conflicts.
And so, if you’ve been following along and enjoying the Spellslinger adventures, this fourth volume is not one to be missed. A great deal hangs in the balance in this book, not least of all are the lives of friends both new and old. Soulbinder is a powerful installment that sees a hero coming into his own, and it is filled with momentous revelations and pivotal actions that will surely make it one of the more memorable books in the series....more
With so much hype surrounding Wicked Saints before its release, I was glad I took the time to check out some of the more critical reviews before diving in. Doing so helped me prepare myself for the possibility that it might not be everything I had expected, and there were also a few things frequently mentioned by reviewers that I thought might cause me some issues as well. Turns out, they were right. While I don’t actually regret my time with this book (it had its saving graces), I can’t say I was engaged much with it either.
Set in a fantasy world which draws much of its inspiration from Slavic culture and history, Wicked Saints splits its focus between three main protagonists: Nadya, a Kalyazi cleric raised in a monastery and trained to commune with the gods; Serefin, a High Prince of Tranavia who is also a blood mage; and Malachaisz, a rogue Tranavian mage who has defected against his own people. Nadya has spent her life hidden away in the remote mountains, Kalyazin’s secret weapon to use against Tranavia in the religious war between the two nations. However, before her time could come, the monastery that has been a safe haven to her for her whole life is suddenly attacked by Tranvaian forces led by Prince Serefin.
Fortunately, Nadya was able to escape, evading capture by falling in with a group of rebels. Meanwhile, Serefin is forced to abandon the search for the cleric when he is unexpected called back home by his father. Nadya is relatively safe again for now, but for how long? The resistance fighters are determined to take their cause all the way to the palace, where they plan on assassinating the king to put an end to the violence once and for all. Despite herself, Nadya also finds herself drawn to Malachiasz, the gorgeous blood mage who embodies everything she has been taught to hate and fear in her devout upbringing by the monastery priests. Every character seems to have an agenda of their own, each of them grinding against the others like rusty gears while none of them have a choice but to go along with the tide of the times. However, inevitably when the centuries of bad blood and brutal conflict come to a head, there will undoubtedly be consequences for them all.
First, let’s start with what I liked. Admittedly, this isn’t a long list, but what’s there is significant and goes a long way in making up for a lot of the issues in the book. Number one is the atmosphere. Wicked Saints is a gothic fantasy novel and that’s obvious enough; you can practically feel its dark and broody vibes wafting off the pages like some cheap perfume. No, it’s not subtle. One might even say it’s a bit overdone, that this novel is “gothic” in the way a preteen would interpret the word—nihilistic themes, blood magic and death gods, bad boys and bad girls in black edgy clothing, etc. And yet, despite the prose dripping with angst, Emily A. Duncan’s writing is fantastic, which brings me to the second thing I liked most about this book. The author clearly has way with words, and I found her style perfectly suited to creating this gritty world full of richly decadent details.
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. As much as I enjoyed Duncan’s writing, it pains me to say that the very nature of it prevented me from connecting with her story and characters. While the prose may be well-crafted, I wouldn’t exactly call it easy on the eyes. In some ways, I feel like the writing may have placed too much emphasis on artistry while sacrificing readability and overall engagement. The plot was decent, but slow, and none of the character POVs managed to excite me long enough to keep the momentum going. Which brings me to the characters. I didn’t like them, nor did I dislike them. They were just there—and it was this ambivalence towards everyone in the book that frustrated me to no end. Make me love your characters or make me hate them—I don’t care. Just make me feel something, anything! The fact that I couldn’t relate in any way to the characters left me with an overall sense of ennui and coldness, and I think this was what resulted in the emotion disconnect I had with the novel.
So yes, I struggled, even though I’d be hard-pressed to point out anything that was seriously flawed about this book. In fact, despite experiencing problems early on, I still knew that deep inside I wanted to see the story through to the end. The problem though, was the incredibly difficult time I had motivating myself to pick up the book again, and in the end, what finally did it was borrowing the audiobook from the library and finishing it in another, more convenient format. It just goes to show, some books and I are simply on different wavelengths, making it hard for us to jive. I believe this was the case with Wicked Saints, which sadly proved not to be my cup of tea after all, but I’m sure it will find lots of love with others....more
Lots of interesting and unique ideas are happening in young adult sci-fi and fantasy right now, and when the author can pull them off while being diversity-minded and still nail the trifecta of characters, story, and world-building, it can be incredible thing to see. However, I’ve also found these cases to be extremely rare. To wit, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve come across a book with amazing representation and great ideas, only to have everything else be a convoluted and fractured mess. And it pains me greatly to admit that this was similar to what I found with Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy.
Credit where credit is due though, I have to say this was one of the most ambitious YA novels I’ve read in years. When I first heard about a gender-bending queer retelling of the King Arthur legend in space, I knew I had to read it, but I was also curious to see how it would be done. As it turns out, the answer is a doomed cycle and some nebulous form of reincarnation. In a nutshell, this means that all the characters of the Arthurian legend have come back again and again in one form or another, ever since the time of the first Arthur.
So now far into the future, in a universe ruled by an evil megacorp called Mercer, we get to meet our 42nd reincarnation of the great king, who is a determined teenage girl name Ari. Cut off from her home planet of Ketchan, which has been barricaded off by Mercer, Ari finds herself constantly on the run with her brother Kay to avoid being captured. Then one day, she crash-lands on Old Earth and finds an ancient sword among its ruins. You know the rest of the story: the chosen one, awakened when the world is at its greatest need for heroes. In due course, Ari rallies a group of loyal knights to her cause, including Lam, Val, and Jordan, and even finds her queen Gwen, the ruler of the medieval recreation planet Lionel.
Of course, we also mustn’t forget Merlin, the man of myth and magic. And here’s where things get a little weirder. Cursed to age backwards reliving the tragic story of King Arthur over and over, this iteration of Merlin emerges from his crystal cave the moment Ari draws the old sword, looking younger than ever before. Fearing what would happen if he fails his liege this time, Merlin places his last desperate hopes on Ari, who granted isn’t the Arthur he expected, but might turn out be the one to finally break the vicious cycle.
I’ll give Once & Future this: considering all the elements the authors had to pull together to make this work, the ideas behind the book are surprisingly well realized and great fun. I also didn’t think I would enjoy the style of humor, but I did. Offbeat but not too silly, the jokes and playful banter actually helped make this novel a smoother ride and more enjoyable.
That said though, I found most of everything else to be a struggle, especially the story. Despite the high stakes, there’s a distinct lack of depth to any of our characters’ actions because all the plot points involved are so shallow and simplistic. In a way, I suspect this might in fact be a side effect of the world-building, which I also felt was flimsy and superficial and even a bit goofy—though on this point, I am less sure whether or not this is by design. We seem to be constantly waffling back and forth between a serious space opera in which our characters deal with some pretty grave matters versus an over-the-top sci-fi comedy where the lines between retelling and straight-up parody are being blurred. As a reader, I found this split incredibly jarring and difficult to engage with.
Furthermore, after the first quarter of the book, we started to run out of things to feel excited about. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the refreshing diversity of our characters and the representation in the novel, but like I always say, a gesture like this is diminished if everything else—story, characters, world-building, etc.—isn’t tightly written. And indeed, a lot of these elements fell a bit short. The pacing was haphazard, with examples like our characters becoming best buds in an eyeblink, or time jumps being handled less than ideally. The plot, which started off being so promising and chockful of all these wildly creative ideas became progressively less interesting as the story retreated back to more familiar territory with regards to aspects of the King Arthur legend.
Ironically, I think it’s the reincarnation angle that’s the most intriguing but also the most restrictive feature of this story. Here is a retelling of the Arthurian legend in space where the possibilities are essentially limitless. However, because of the direction the authors have chosen, we’re locked into the same patterns that we’ve seen countless times before, superimposed upon a typical YA dystopian tale of oppression and resistance, reskinned with a sci-fi setting with planets and spaceships.
Ultimately, I believe Once & Future was a case of many well-developed ideas and themes that sadly did not come together as well as they could have. Taken individually, I loved many aspects of this book, including the central premise and diverse characters, but presented as a whole, the experience somehow felt empty and unfulfilling. I’d say this novel is still worth the read for the things it does well, but at the same time, be prepared for the things it doesn’t....more
Don’t know why, but lately it feels like I’ve been striking out a lot with hyped books. My latest disappointment: Ravencry by Ed McDonald. The praise I’ve been seeing for it has been damn near universal. Most reviews I saw also lauded it for being even better than the first book.
However, this is probably the area where my opinion differs. While Ravencry was a good read, I don’t really believe it lived up to the standards set by its predecessor. In fact, the strength of the first book—and to some degree, my feelings that I owed it to my enjoyment of Blackwing to see this one through—was one of the few things that kept me reading even when the drive to continue was low.
As a sequel, I think Ravencry sought to do all the right things, including an attempt to build upon everything that made the previous novel so great. A few years have passed since we last saw Captain Ryhalt Galharrow at the end of Blackwing, but peace continues to elude our unhappy protagonist. The events that took place in the conclusion of the first book have left him damaged and grieving, though he makes a valiant effort to push on through the dark times and get over his loss.
But in the heart of the city, a cult known as The Order of the Bright Lady has emerged and taken root. Their goddess is supposedly a savior come to offer salvation to those who survived the horrible carnage. More and more, she is appearing in what her acolytes are calling divine visions, growing the order’s influence. The situation worsens as Galharrow is unexpectedly called upon by his patron, Crowfoot, to investigate a powerful artifact stolen from the Nameless’ vault. Now the captain and his fellow mercenary Blackwings must get to the bottom of this theft, a mission that will require them to venture deep into the Misery, the expansive wasteland of corrupted magic where all your worst memories and nightmares come to life.
I hate to say it, because to its credit, Ravencry features many of the same elements and follows many of the same patterns as Blackwing. The problem was that it was much too slow. That said, I did enjoy the introduction. We had a fantastic opening, which refamiliarized us with Galharrow, who hasn’t really changed much since we last saw him, though now carries the extra burden of mourning for someone close he lost. I thoroughly enjoyed the book through the scene at the opera, the awkward moment where our protagonist witnesses a weak and sickly bird burst through the tattoo on his arm to bring him a dire message while trying to hide in a public restroom (which I actually found darkly funny), and then the subsequent rush to inspect the breached vault.
But then we run smack into a brick wall in terms of pacing. One problem was that there was so much exposition and dialogue, a lot of centered on established character and world-building points I already knew. Pages would go by where I felt little to no progress would be made on the overarching plot. Fresh elements were on the whole few and far between, while old ideas were retreaded. I just didn’t feel as galvanized or enthusiastic about the premise this time around.
In some ways, I think McDonald tried to catch lightning in a bottle twice by sticking close to the playbook and with what has worked before, but I can’t help but think it might have backfired. The good news though, is that if you enjoyed Blackwing, there is little reason why you shouldn’t enjoy Ravencry as well, since the two books are so similar in vein. I also don’t want to sound too negative, because this was certainly not a bad book, and I do wish to stress that. However, as someone who reads a huge volume of books each year, with sequels making up a large bulk of that, I know what works and what doesn’t for me. I prefer sequels that not only retain the strengths of the original, but perhaps strive to go above and beyond them as well, and here is where I think a lot of second-books-in-a-series struggle.
All in all, I’m going with a middling rating for this one. There were moments of brilliance in Ravencry, most notably in the beginning and at the end, but broadly speaking, it was slow-going. I will continue watching this series, but I’ll probably be more on guard with the next novel....more
Once more, we join our protagonists the exiled mage Kellen, his Argosi mentor Ferius, and the unhinged squirrel cat Reichis on a road trip to their next destination in this third installment of the Spellslinger series. Building upon the events of the first two books, Charmcaster takes us out of the desert and into the land of Gitabria, where our characters are hoping to track down and help the first of many victims targeted by a Jan’Tep conspiracy. However, being a wanted man himself, Kellen finds his every step dogged by mercenaries. But then in a twist of fate, his latest confrontation with a group of bounty hunters leads him to rescue another mage on the run, who turns out to be none other Nephenia, an old friend (and secret crush) from his life before exile.
After a brief recuperation, our characters continue to make their way to the capital, where they get the chance to witness the unveiling of a miraculous new invention. While most of the crowd is blown away by the spectacle, only a few, including Ferius, are aware of the threat this could spell for the entire world if this technology were to fall into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, it appears that dangerous factions have already caught wind of the groundbreaking innovations happening in Gitabria, for the inventor’s daughter turns out to be one of their targets. After experiencing first-hand the devastating results of his enemies’ methods in the last book, Kellen is determined to do whatever it takes to free the girl from their evil influence.
Following the trend established by Shadowblack, we are introduced to a new setting, new cultures, and new side characters in this next chapter of Kellen’s journey. That said, the format feels very episodic in that each volume features a self-contained adventure, but together they make up an overarching series plot. As such, it is still imperative to start from the beginning and read the books in order.
That said, I am starting to notice a few repetitive patterns in the storytelling. The introduction paralleled the opening chapters in the previous book, which begins with an attack that our heroes barely manage to thwart and ends with them getting a new addition to their party, but for some reason I felt it took things in Charmcaster a lot longer to take off. On the bright side though, I did delight in seeing Nephenia again, despite her character being much changed from the girl Kellen used to know. A significant part of this book deals with the fallout of what has happened back home while our protagonist has been on the run, and some of this involves why Nephenia has become so different. In fact, I would say the strength of this novel is in the character and relationship building, because although we see the overall plot moving forward, it’s admittedly not by much.
Still, I am enjoying myself. Like its two predecessors, Charmcaster is fun, lively, and…well, charming. Sebastien de Castell continues to expand his world-building, adding even more detail and intrigue to this already rich setting. In Gitabria, our characters encounter a new land with different culture, politics, and traditions. They meet new people who teach them—and us—new things. Case in point, one of my favorite encounters in this book allowed both Kellen and the reader a glimpse into Ferius’ mysterious past, revealing that she too was a very different person in her youth. And of course, Reichis was his usual crass self, delivering most of the comic relief. As for Kellen, there were several interesting developments for his character too, mainly focusing on the deteriorating effects of the shadowblack and what this means for his mental capacities and how others treat him. In addition, Kellen is forced to face the harsh truth about his family and come to terms with the fact they are not the people he once thought they were. Needless to say, this book sees our protagonist growing up fast, whether he likes it or not.
But therein lies the beauty of this series. Kellen began this whole thing as a naïve and sheltered boy of fifteen, but gradually he is becoming a man. Every adventure is a learning experience for him, and with each book, the lessons are getting harder. Compared to the first two books, I felt that Charmcaster was slightly darker in tone, presenting Kellen with problems that are more complicated and disturbing. Still, our protagonist has retained the essence of who he is, the goodness that allows him to make the right decisions, and for that I am grateful to the author.
All told, every step of this journey has been great so far, and even though Charmcaster didn’t quite command my attention the way Spellslinger and Shadowblack did, I felt the book’s strengths came through in different ways. I can’t wait to see what’s next....more
Wild Country by Anne Bishop is, bar none, my favorite book in the world of The Others to date. All my favorite elements have been brought back, while all the gripes have been either corrected or dealt with. Also, I am simply loving this spinoff format allowing the author limitless opportunities to explore the stories of other people, creatures, and places in this wondrous magical world of Thaisia.
Before I continue, because the events of Wild Country take place in the aftermath of Marked in Flesh and run concurrently with much of Etched in Bone, it may contain potential spoilers for the original 5-book series if you haven’t read it yet. This time, readers are brought to Bennett, a settlement in the wild territory known as the Elder Hills. At one point it was a thriving town, before the powerful Terra Indigene in the area killed every man, woman and child in retaliation for the slaughter of the Wolfgard pack. While the Elders have consented for Bennett to be rebuilt and repopulated, they do so with one stipulation: the town must be under Terra Indigene control, and any human living within its limits must agree to work with the Others and be subject to their authority.
As it turns out, a surprising number of humans are willing to make this bargain, though many are drawn to Bennett out of desperation. Whether it’s the need for work, a place to lie low and disappear, or simply a community in which to belong, they have all come with the hopes of making a new life for themselves. Soon, Bennett is up and running again, with a new deputy in town, a lively bookstore, and even an old-timey saloon. But even after the Elders’ show of power, some humans still have it in their heads that they can simply take from the Others what they feel is rightfully theirs. Many groups that have sprung up in recent years to take advantage of the lawless frontier environment, including a notorious gang of hustlers known as the Blackstone Clan. Unfortunately, these mobsters see the flourishing Bennett as an invitation to take some of that success for themselves, and their leader is also looking to settle a score with someone he suspects is hiding out in the town.
Without a doubt, the characters were the highlight of this novel. As thrilled as I was to make new acquaintances, I was even more excited to catch up with old friends, many of whom were introduced but only seen briefly in Marked in Flesh and Etched in Bone—names like Jana Paniccia, Barb Debany, Jesse Walker, Abigail Burch, and Virgil Wolfgard. A couple of familiar faces we’ve known even longer, like John Wolfgard, who worked at Howling Good Reads and has relocated to Bennett to run the bookstore (a staple in every Others novel), as well as Tolya Sanguinati, who has been tapped to lead the entire town. I loved getting the chance to catch up with these characters and see what they’ve all been up to, and apparently, the answer is a lot.
Much of this story involves the residents of Bennett attempting to get the town back into shape. Perhaps my only criticism of the book is that this process dragged on just a tad too long; there’s only so much description of cleaning, recruiting, hiring, and building I can take before it becomes tedious, but thankfully Bishop kept things interesting enough with the introduction of new characters and establishing their fascinating backgrounds. One example is Scythe, who is a particularly dangerous kind of Terra Indigene though she is no less enterprising because of it, hoping to set up a Wild West style saloon called the Bird Cage in Bennett. Then there’s Joshua, a young man who grew up with the Panthergard but whose origins and what they represent make him a troubling enigma for both humans and the Others. More great characters include a mixed family headed by Evan and his partner Ken, who have come to town with a group of Terra Indigene orphans they have rescued.
The result of all these different lives coming together gave this novel an incredible “fresh start” vibe that I found exciting and full of hope. Despite the town’s grim history, I loved Bennett for the same reasons I love Westerns and stories about pioneers settling on wild frontiers. This new setting also allowed for fresh situations and dynamics we’ve never seen before. One of my main complaints about Lake Silence was how similar it felt to Meg Corbyn’s story, containing a lot of parallels and reusing many the same ideas from her time in Lakeside Courtyard. Wild Country, on the other hand, felt more like a true departure, even with the return so many known characters. I especially loved the women in this book, like Jana and Abigail who despite their flaws are strong, resourceful and driven, setting themselves apart from Meg who I thought was too meek and always needed to be saved.
While some of the plot developments in the second half of Wild Country felt similar to the previous books—mainly those related to the Human vs. Others conflict—this is one area I didn’t mind where the tone and spirit remained the same. Besides, the stakes felt higher in this novel, with villainous humans who are more underhanded and devious, and likewise the Terra Indigene characters were also more ruthless and unforgiving.
Truly, Wild Country is my favorite book set in the Others world so far, and I hope Anne Bishop continues to branch out and tell even more stories about the denizens and communities surrounding the original Lakeside Courtyard. There are so many possibilities to explore, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next....more
The Spellslinger series is starting to take shape with this second volume, and I’m liking where it’s going. Ex-magic student Kellen, having chosen the path of exile, has become transformed into a roaming outlaw of sorts, and I’m feeling these wonderful Western vibes seeping in. Best of all, traveling with our characters mean we get to discover a whole wide world of endless possibilities.
Indeed, Shadowblack is a sequel that greatly expands the world-building. In this book, Kellen and his companions Ferius the Argosi woman and Reichis the squirrel-cat are trekking through the wild and lawless borderland—a far cry from the more structured and civilized Jan’Tep city in which our protagonist grew up. Unable to use magic without bringing any unwanted attention to themselves, Kellen finds himself way out of his element. However, despite their precautions, trouble winds up catching up to our trio when they are ambushed by bounty hunters who nearly get the best of them. Battered and weakened, Kellen has no choice but to trust a pair of strangers who come to their aid, one of whom is an Argosi who seems to be acquainted with Ferius.
But it is the other traveler, Seneira, who astonishes Kellen the most. Like him, she is afflicted by the shadowblack, a deadly magical ailment which causes terrible headaches, disturbing visions, and swirling black markings to appear on the skin around the eyes. What Kellen can’t figure out is how. All his life, he has been taught that the shadowblack only affects magic users, but Seneira is no mage and has no magical ability to speak of. Drawn to the mystery, Kellen and Ferius agree to travel with Seneira and her Argosi mentor (who reluctantly goes by “Rosie”) to her home city, where to their dismay, they find that the plague is even more widespread than they had feared.
Shadowblack was everything I loved about Spellslinger, with a bit of added adventure. The characters are back and they’re as captivating as ever, especially Kellen, who finds himself way out of his depth in this new environment. His sheltered days are over, and he’s learning to get by without relying solely on magic (not that he was a very good mage to begin with), hoping that Ferius will teach him other ways to survive. But thus far, the Argosi woman is keeping her tricks close to the vest, and meeting Rosie has revealed just how secretive Ferius is by comparison. She’s an enigma, and something tells me her plans for Kellen go beyond simply wanting to help him find his way. Happily, there’s also Reichis, there to cut through all the bullshit. With him, what you see is what you get: a bad-tempered little squirrel-cat with an obsession with clawing out people’s eyeballs. Since the expectation is that Kellen will be growing and changing a lot over the course of this series, it’s nice (and even a bit comforting) to know that there are certainties you can always rely upon, such as Reichis’ propensity to say and do outrageously hilarious things.
For the most part though, this series is evolving. The ending of this book establishes a pattern which has been confirmed by the author, who has stated that each volume will take Kellen to new places where he will encounter new forms of magic and intrigue. This structure reminds me very much of a TV series where each episode might be self-contained, but together they make up an overall story arc that tells the journey of the main character. The downside, of course, is the sad implication that we won’t be returning to past places. In fact, Shadowblack ends on a strong sense of goodbye to this part of the world, as Kellen and his companions look ahead to their next destination. That said, it’s hard to see this as a true negative, especially now that I know what to expect. While I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we’ll meet some of these side characters again, at the same time I can’t really say I’m all that torn up about moving on to another chapter of Kellen’s adventure. I had a great time with this novel, and now I’m just even more excited for the future of this series.
Knowing Sebastien de Castell, he’ll have another incredible sequel in store for us. So far, I have been very impressed with his YA series; he seems to be able to excel at any kind of story he wants to tell. Every time I pick up one of his books, I know I can expect his great sense of humor, fast-paced plotting, attention-grabbing characters, and nonstop fun. If you enjoyed Spellslinger, you will absolutely want to pick up Shadowblack....more
The apocalypse has finally arrived in this third Dru Jasper novel starring the crystal sorceress and her ragtag group of friends as they continue in their fight against the Harbingers. No Sleep Till Doomsday opens with a brazen attack on The Crystal Connection, perpetrated by a mysterious red-headed enchantress who breaks into the store’s vault to steal an object of unimaginable power. This artifact, called the Amulet of Decimus the Accursed, can be used to activate the sixth seal of the apocalypse scroll, bringing about the end of the world. To stop that from happening, Dru and her friends will either have to track down the sorceress, or locate the apocalypse scroll itself.
But doing so won’t be easy. Dru’s boyfriend Greyson is still under a curse binding him to his demon-possessed muscle car Hellbringer, and the old Dodge Charger senses something else going on that his human handlers do not. Meanwhile, Dru’s friend Rane gets mixed up with a gang of protean sorcerers who use magic to shapeshift into animals, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Salem also has his amulet of power stolen by a bat-man, which can’t possibly be a coincidence. A carefully planned and coordinated war is being waged upon the world by demonic forces, but to turn the tides, our characters must first learn to sort out their differences and gain each other’s trust. One in their circle is wary of Greyson and his influence on Dru, a rift that might not be mended in time before doomsday comes.
If you enjoyed the first two books, you’ll be sure to find plenty to love in No Sleep Till Doomsday as well. In this fast-paced and action-packed installment, Dru and her colorful band of allies are thrust into another situation where they have save the world. It helps that our protagonist has come a long way in her journey, embracing her status as a full-fledged sorcerer, no longer trying to hide her power behind a mask of normalcy. So what if her boyfriend is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Own it, Dru! I was so proud of her character for sticking by her guy, despite some of the doubts expressed by her friends. That said though, Dru still wants to help Greyson, and she hasn’t yet given up on trying to find a way to break the curse.
I also liked how this book, to a greater degree than the previous volumes, expanded the scope to include more of the supporting cast. It makes sense—ever since A Kiss Before Doomsday, Greyson, Rane, Opal, and Salem have become a more integral part of this series. They each have been given their own mini plot arcs in this one, and the narrative alternates between each group, giving the the book a well-balanced perspective. Even Hellbringer gets an opportunity to chime in once in a while, delighting fans with a glimpse into the “mind” of a demonic muscle car.
Because there was so much going on, admittedly the plot structure of this book did feel a little bit crowded and messy, at times even repetitive. For example, Rane and Salem would have their tussle with the shapeshifting protean sorcerers, only to have their foes escape to do it all over again with Dru and Opal, and then this process would repeat itself for the final showdown. Notwithstanding the fate of the whole world on the line, the actual conflicts of the book also lacked weight. One reason is that the possibility of doomsday has already been hanging over the characters’ heads for so long, readers have become desensitized to the threat. Another reason is simply the nature of these books, intended to be a quirky urban fantasy series, delivered in a fun and lighthearted manner.
By the way, nothing wrong with that at all—the first two Dru Jasper books were great popcorn reads, and I was happy that No Sleep Till Doomsday followed in their footsteps. Written with plenty of wit and humor, this one featured even more wild shenanigans and funny banter with our cast of eccentric characters. The multiple storylines following their antics were also entertaining, and I was compelled to see how everything would fit together. Curious to find out more, the energy behind plot kept me turning the pages.
All in all, No Sleep Till Doomsday was another fine installment to the Dru Jasper series. If you’re looking for a different kind of urban fantasy that doesn’t feature the usual paranormal and magical tropes, especially if you enjoy quirky humor and action-packed fun, then this one’s for you. (P.S. This book had the feel of a conclusion, but after I wrote this review I found out that apparently there will be one more book out to wrap up the series next year, so it’s good to know the fun ain’t over…)...more
Keeper of the Bees has all the makings of a popular YA modern fairy tale—cursed protagonists, magical villains, and a romance for the ages. It has even been described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, though personally I find that comparison to be a bit of a stretch, and, to be honest, a disservice to the world of this book, considering how unique it is.
The story is told from the perspective of two teens: one who has been wandering the earth since time immemorial, cursed with a hive full of bees in his chest, and the other is from a small town where everyone knows her name, but only because it is said her entire family line is cursed with madness. Dresden, who was born in a faraway place long ago, was eighteen when he was captured by a wicked queen and turned into a monster whose insides crawl with bees that can cause psychosis and violent tendencies when they sting you. With his real visage having been lost to the centuries, his face now is an ever-shifting composite of all the people whom his bees have stung—all dead now because of him. His only consolation is knowing that he goes only where the Harbingers go, since where the crow shifters gather, death and destruction will soon follow. At the very least, his stings will only affect those whose days are numbered anyway.
But then came Essie. Dresden ends up following the Harbingers’ trail to a town in Missouri where something bad is about to happen, for the crows are never wrong. There, he meets a girl who can not only see through his shifting features when his magic usually keeps others’ attention off him, she also doesn’t seem to be afraid. In fact, she doesn’t seem at all bothered by what he is, or that a swarm of angry buzzing bees that live inside his chest. But then she confesses that she sees strange things every day, because she is Essie Wickerton, and like many members of her family, she is afflicted with a mysterious condition that makes her suffer hallucinations. She ends up being quite surprised that Dresden is real. A special bond forms between them, which eventually deepens into something more. But Dresden, who doesn’t always feel in control of his bees, fears he will bring harm to the first person he has ever loved since becoming a beekeeper, and Essie, whose condition is worsening by the day, knows that she is one wrong move away from being committed involuntarily into a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, there is a ruthless killer in town, creating panic in this once peaceful community, and as the Harbingers warn, a big disaster is still looming on the horizon.
Keeper of the Bees is the second novel of the Black Birds of the Gallows sequence, though I was happy to learn it stands alone because I have not yet read the first one. This book takes place in a new setting and follows new characters, with Meg Kassel providing newcomers with a great rundown of her lush and imaginative world so you can slip right in without feeling like you missed a beat. As a matter of fact, the incredible world-building was the first thing that caught my attention. After all, how can you read the author’s concept of “beekeepers” and not be intrigued? The idea of a supernatural being with a hive of bees in the hollowed-out cavity where his insides use to be is pretty grotesque…but also fascinating. And we haven’t even gotten to the best part. The sting of a beekeeper’s bees contain venom that can trigger the dark instincts of already broken individuals, causing them to kill themselves or others. This effect often goes hand in hand with the Harbingers, who are also former subjects of the twisted reign that created all these magical beings. They can never truly die, and instead they are resurrected into crows, a form that they will live in for a time before assuming their human shape again, but as children. Then they grow, and the cycle starts over, forever trapping the poor soul in this cruel limbo. The Harbingers harvest the energies of the dying, so wherever you find Dresden, there is usually also one or two of these crow-shifters around, feeding off the mayhem left by his bee sting victims.
All this is just scratching the surface. There are also the Strawmen, watchers of immense power that strike fear into the hearts of both Harbingers and beekeepers. They are just one example of the many things in this book that I wish we had more time to explore, but as you can see, there is a lot of potential here and simply too much of the “weird and wonderful” to cover. That is why on some level, I think the blurb likening this book to Beauty and the Beast was unnecessary, and even hurts it to some extent, because being so strongly associated with a known fairy tale like that inevitably creates expectations, when the reality is that Keeper of the Bees can stand on its own without the help of any preconceptions. Its world is just SO unique, truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
That said, the world-building was perhaps this novel’s greatest strength, and thank goodness for that, because it was probably the one thing that helped bolster my interest in the admittedly humdrum YA romance plot. The only reason I’m not blasting it right now for insta-love is because there was so much else going on in the world-building which effectively masked the fact that Dresden and Essie barely knew each other before advancing to the “I’ll move worlds for you” stage in their relationship. Still, the insta-love was there, just not as obvious in this case. Other aspects of the plot were also pretty predictable, and cliched. Essie herself felt like a throwback to the classic fantasy damsels-in-distress who needed to be saved, and that bothered me a lot more than I thought it would. On the one hand, I applaud Kassel for attempting to create such an interesting female protagonist, but on the other, in making Essie’s condition so debilitating, the author might have gone a little overboard with it and made her character too helpless.
All told, Keeper of the Bees is a novel with incredible strengths in some areas, and disappointments in others. The pros include an amazingly complex world full of strange and darkly whimsical creatures and magic, brought to life by Meg Kassel’s rich prose. The superb world-building and the unique ideas found here are probably worth the price of admission alone. However, there are also the cons, with the hokey YA love story and archetypal characters making up the worst of it, though thankfully many of their negative effects are offset by the book’s strengths. I would still happily read more by the author, especially more of this series, if it means seeing more of her stunning world-building at work....more
I loved An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock, so you can imagine my excitement when it came time to dive into its sequel. To my delight, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery turned out to be every bit as enchanting and mysterious as the first book, featuring the same incredible fusion of genre elements that captured my imagination so completely.
Once again, we’re transported back into the world of The Risen Kingdoms, where protagonist Isabelle des Zephyrs has been struggling with both the success and failures necessary for a leader’s development. Le Grand Leon has made her ambassador to the Great Peace, but unfortunately, the job has come with a lot more strings attached than she anticipated. What’s more, on top of her increased responsibilities, Isabelle finds herself dealing with her newfound well of magic—a discovery which has certainly elevated her status in court but has also meant increased scrutiny for her behavior and actions.
In a cutthroat environment like this, Isabelle knows she must step lightly, but there are also certain lines she is determined never to cross. Soon enough, her morals are put to the test, and when one of her decisions leads to a diplomatic incident, she finds herself thrown under a bus and stripped of all authority and protection. Thankfully, Isabelle’s friend and guardian Jean-Claude has remained faithfully by her side throughout the entire ordeal, keeping her spirits up as she ponders her next step. That decision is quickly made for her though, as Jean-Claude, in his own work as a King’s Musketeer, uncovers a horrific plot involving human experimentation perpetrated by a shadowy enemy known as the Harvest King, inevitably drawing them both into a tangled web of danger and conspiracy.
And here I thought An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was complex, but its sequel proved to be an even more twisted and suspenseful read. Like its predecessor, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery was filled with courtly secrets and political intrigue as Craddock continues to build upon the plotlines he’s already established. Almost immediately, multiple threads arise to seize the reader’s interest, introducing even more mystery to the series. I honestly could never tell where the story was going to take me next; at times it almost got to be overwhelming because there were so many possibilities and nothing was ever predictable.
As well, I’m impressed with character development and the direction in which our main characters’ relationships are headed. The author has ensured that his protagonists have evolved with their experiences while retaining the core of their true selves, and Isabelle is a prime example, sticking to her guns even when she knows that it will cost her dearly. That said, she would then utilize her intelligence and whatever resources she can gather to keep moving forward, and I loved that she also started exploring her romantic side as part of her soul-searching. Moreover, I was beside myself with happiness when it came to Jean-Claude, who was my favorite character in the first book. He won me over yet again in this sequel, demonstrating, over and over why his loyalty is one of his most endearing traits. Interestingly enough, we also got to glean some details of his past which showed he was not always the kind of man we know him to be, but somehow these glimpses into his youth only made me like him more, knowing that he had matured and learned from his mistakes.
And of course, I would be remiss if I made no mention to the gorgeous world-building. Craddock greatly expands it in this volume, adding to the already vibrant atmosphere and history of The Risen Kingdoms. As I wrote in my review of the first book, there are honestly few things that this series doesn’t have. Examples from many genres are represented, including intricate magic systems, powerful shapeshifters, clockwork automata, flying airships, floating kingdoms, dashing musketeers and much, much more. With book two, this world has further solidified itself as a complex network of all these disparate but interconnected elements.
Initially, I was concerned that this novel wouldn’t feel quite as fun or surprising, given how a lot of the luster and novelty had worn off. Fortunately though, that was not the case, and A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery turned out to be a riveting and worthy sequel. This is a series I would highly recommend if you enjoy narratives that contains a number of different genres, themes, and ideas. I really hope more people will discover the wonders of Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms, and I await the next installment with great anticipation....more
The Gutter Prayer is a novel that got a lot of pre-publication attention; even half a year before it was due to come out, I was already hearing readers sing its praises. This was THE fantasy novel all fans should be checking out in 2019, apparently—especially if your predilections run towards grimdark.
So I read it. And now I understand where all the love is coming from.
Our story, for the most part, is centered on the lives of three thieves. Cari, Spar and Rat have not known each other for long, but by the time they were called upon to work together in a secret plot hatched up by Heinreil, the city of Guerdon’s most notorious crime boss, the three of them were already…well, as thick as thieves. Spar is the son of a late gang leader, but he is also a Stone Man—the term given to someone afflicted with a degenerative disease which slowly petrifies the body and its organs, turning them hard as rock. Rat is a Ghoul, a member of a race of underground people who live in the old tunnels and crypts of the city, subsisting on the flesh of the dead. And Cari is an orphan and a drifter who feels like she owes a lot to her other two companions, who took her into their gang even though she arrived with nothing to her name.
Their job together was supposed to be quick and simple: a smash-and-grab at the city’s House of Law, where the three of them were tasked to steal an important document. But little did they know, Heinreil had other plans, and their little group was only meant to be a distraction. The night ends in disaster, with a great fire that levels a good chunk of Guerdon and claims lives. And Cari, who was injured and knocked out in the commotion, wakes up in a thieftaker’s prison with a new power in her head.
The Gutter Prayer, in many ways, is the perfect marriage of grimdark and epic fantasy. Here you will find the grittiness and cynicism one might expect from a Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch novel, but also the kind of unique and imaginative world-building that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Brandon Sanderson story. Clearly Gareth Hanrahan’s experience as a game designer and RPG writer has also served him well in writing his debut, for many of the ideas in here—particularly those related to creatures and theistic myths—reminded me a lot of elements from fantasy tabletop campaigns.
The world of this novel is, in a word, incredible. While most of the story is confined to Guerdon, the narrative never lets you forget that this little corner of the universe is just one piece of a greater puzzle, so not once does the setting ever feel small. The place is rich with history, its culture influenced by the diversity of its peoples and religions. The city becomes a character in its own right; from the dank gutters to the well-kept university district, every little slice of Guerdon we get to see is another side of its personality. The best sights, however, lie in its underbelly. There you find the Ghouls, hiding in the shadows. The Stone Men, who are feared and shunned. The Tallowmen, menacing wax golems that are magically bound to serve as the city’s enforcers. The Crawling Ones, digusting monstrosities made up of a wriggling mass of sentient worms. And if you’re really unlucky, you might even run afoul of a Raveller, a shapeshifting predator aligned with the Black Iron Gods.
In the face of all this originality, the characters are almost overshadowed. The perspectives of Cari, Spar, and Rat are compelling enough, but in a way, I also felt that their development took a backseat to the world-building. As protagonists, they didn’t inspire much attachment, and individually, their voices did not really stand out. In fact, I thought Hanrahan did better with his supporting characters in this regard, exploring strong personalities like Jere, Eladora, or Professor Ongent. More than once I wished a couple of these characters had gotten more attention or a bigger role. The Gutter Prayer being a debut, it also exhibits a few signs of what I feel are common new author mistakes. One is the compulsion to throw in unnecessary flourishes like random narrative shifts when it might have been better just to keep things simple.
However, the criticisms I have are minor. Ideally, I would have preferred a bit more balance between story, characters, and world-building, where one aspect isn’t disproportionately overrepresented to eclipse the others, which was partly the issue here. But overall, The Gutter Prayer was an impressive debut, one that is certain to make a lot of dark fantasy fans ecstatic. Boldly ambitious and innovative in equal measure, Hanrahan’s daring entry into the genre is guaranteed to captivate and enthrall....more
I’ve made it no secret that I love Peter Grant/Rivers of London, and right now, it’s easily one of my favorite urban fantasy series. But for the last few books, our characters have been floundering in their hunt for the Faceless Man, the main baddie who has been a constant thorn in the Met’s side since the very beginning, and I was starting to worry that the lack of progress might soon be blowing up in all our faces. Luckily though, those wondering if we’ll ever get to see the end of this Faceless Man’s saga will be pleased to know, Lies Sleeping has the final showdown and answers you’re looking for. After seven books, this resolution was a long time coming, and it was awesome.
Needless to say, if you’re not caught up with the series yet, be aware this review may contain references to events from the previous books, so only read on if you’ve read finished The Hanging Tree to avoid any potential spoilers. Since the last time we saw him, Peter has received a promotion on the police force and is now playing a key role in the operation to take down the Faceless Man, now identified as Martin Chorley, as well as his associate Lesley May, a one-time friend of our protagonist. Chorley’s grand plan for London has also been revealed, involving a dastardly plot to lure out one of the city’s oldest and most deranged gods—a supernatural killer with whom series fans should be very familiar.
For this dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, Peter and his mentor Thomas Nightingale must shore up their resources and gather all the support they can get, calling in help from all corners including the regular police force, history and archeology experts, and even Arthurian scholars. But unfortunately for Peter, Lesley knows all his usual tricks, and worse, where to hit him where it hurts the most. Chorley is up to something big, and no matter how well the Folly plans, their target always seems to be a few steps ahead, constantly slipping through their fingers.
Peter’s resolve has been tested before, but never like this. Lies Sleeping is the big shakeup this series needed, after all the breaks and build-up, and I think it succeeded in delivering both thrilling action and emotional impact. If the goal of the previous book was to bring us back into the thick of things and ramp up the momentum, then this one valiantly took up the baton and ran it to the finish line. I was also ecstatic that I got most of what I’d wished for, number one on that list being more Nightingale in action. While I’m not usually one for literary crushes, I’ve got it seriously bad for that guy. When all is said and done though, taking down the Faceless Man was very much a team effort, and I’m glad we also got the second item on my wishlist, which was seeing more involvement from the rest of the supporting cast. As I expected, Guleed has become a regular, and even more exciting is the fact she’s being brought onto the Falcon magical scene. Abigail becoming a fixture at the Folly was a nice surprise too, after getting know her well from The Furthest Station novella.
Once more, I also found the humor in Lies Sleeping to be on the more muted side, but in this case, I think it’s okay, and even appropriate. Peter still makes me smile occasionally with his dry, sardonic wit, but this was probably one of the more serious sequels, because of all that it had to deal with. Over the course of this series, Peter has matured as a person, taking matters more seriously in both his professional and personal life, becoming a better police officer and a wizard while also settling into a stable relationship with Bev. Still, there are also certain things that never change, and Peter’s mega blind spot with regards to Lesley was the cause of much teeth grinding on my part. There was a moment too where I felt the plot might be falling into a repetitive pattern, but fortunately, Aaronovitch was able to pull things back on track following a lull around the halfway point and save the situation in time for the big finale. Personally, I found the climax to be a bit confusing, in the way things related to the genius loci usually are when it comes to these books, so I suppose that’s nothing new. Regardless, those who have always appreciated this series’ attention to the history and mythology associated with London will find lots of like about this book, I expect.
And finally, Lies Sleeping has the unmistakable feel of a conclusion, though I do sincerely hope that this is just a wrap for the Faceless Man arc, and not for the series itself. It would be cruel to end things right as we’re seeing so much promise for our side characters, not to mention the big news dropped on us in the final few pages, but if this is going to be it, I’m also happy with how things played out. There are a few loose threads I wouldn’t mind seeing addressed, but overall I was impressed with how many conflicts were resolved by strongly tying them back to the series’ roots, i.e. where it all began in Rivers of London. I have no idea where Ben Aaronovitch will take this world and his characters next, but I’ll be crossing my fingers for more....more
I expected to enjoy The Wolf and the Whale, but what I was not prepared for was how completely it swept me off my feet. In this stunning masterpiece, Jordanna Max Brodsky weaves a cinematic tale of adventure and survival, blending history, mythology and timeless romance. All of this is set to the epic backdrop of the Arctic wilderness at a time of great change towards the end of the first millennium.
Our story follows Omat, a young Inuit girl born into her tribe during a time of tragedy. But in death, her father gave his daughter his strong hunter’s soul, and the spirits sent the Wolf to watch over the child so that she would survive. Omat’s grandfather, a wise shaman, recognized the gift in her and believed that she was meant to follow in his footsteps, so he raises her as a boy to hunt and protect her people, while also teaching her the ways to commune with the spirits.
However, as Omat grew, some in her group began to question her role, concerned that the spirits are angered by the taboo of a woman hunting. Their people are starving, and with no new children being born, they are slowly dying out. So, when their group happened to come across another Inuit band on the ice one day, Omat and her grandfather thought for certain that their prayers have been answered.
Sadly, they could not have been more wrong. As Omat finds her entire sense of identity unraveling, her life is also now in danger because of the newcomers. But an even greater threat looms on the horizon, in the form of a group of Norse explorers bringing only violence and death. As the gods and spirits of multiple pantheons look on, Omat must find common ground with an unlikely ally and embark on a perilous journey together that will determine the fate of both their peoples.
The Wolf in the Whale is a coming-of-age story unlike any other. It is also about a meeting of two cultures. Told in gorgeously lush prose, this tale unfolds over a number of years, though most of it follows Omat’s life through her young adulthood. Painstakingly researched, as evidenced by the author’s extensive notes on the historical period, the setting was brought to life with incredible attention to detail. Like her first trilogy, Olympus Bound, Brodsky’s new novel perfectly balances myth and reality in an exquisite cocktail of facts and fantastical elements, creating a world infused with magic and folklore. Here you can read about the Norse gods, as well as Inuit traditions of animism and shamanism.
There is also much I would like to say about Omat. This is the story of her struggle to overcome many hardships, some horrific, but she manages to emerge a stronger and more determined person each time. Though her lessons in loss have been huge, they have also shaped her in ways that were fascinating to watch. Readers get to witness her transformation from an overconfident and short-sighted youth to a more levelheaded adult who has come to realize that no fate is set in stone—and one should never take anything, or anyone, for granted.
Omat’s journey was also an exploration into gender roles that I found unexpectedly well-balanced and insightful. Our protagonist begins this tale as a proud, almost arrogant shaman-in-training who revels in her special place in the group, disdaining women’s work and the female body because she believes them to be weak. Raised as a boy in a girl’s body, all Omat wanted was to become a man—until the spirits turned on her and took away her magic, leaving her untethered and her future in doubt. Over the course of this novel, Omat gradually reconciles herself to her new path, learning to appreciate the strength and skills of a woman, ultimately embracing both the masculine and the feminine, because as in all things, life requires balance.
Speaking of which, one of the most significant events in this book is Omat’s meeting with Brandr, a Viking warrior with whom she develops a complex relationship that teaches her more about that balance, as well as how to trust and love. I’m a sucker for stories about disparate strangers from worlds apart who come together and form a deep bond, so it was no wonder that I found myself completely enthralled by these two. Plus, what a delightfully interesting little family they made along with Omat’s three companion wolves; I simply could not get enough of their interactions together.
In short, I think I have my first real contender for my list of best books of 2019. No surprise that it came from the imaginative mind of Jordanna Max Brodsky, who has impressed me before with her stunning prose and expert storytelling. With the courageous Omat at the story’s heart and a beautifully rendered world filled with magic, myth and history, The Wolf in the Whale is a novel that will enchant and captivate fantasy and historical fiction fans alike....more
In the lusciously written Empire of Sand, debut author Tasha Suri takes readers on a journey to a south Asian-inspired fantasy world full of mysterious magic and spirits. A strong and alluring intro eventually gave way to a rather mild and slow-moving plot which is why I am only tentatively embracing this book with a middling rating, and because I didn’t find my attention hooked completely since the plodding pace made some parts of this a struggle to read.
In the beginning, we are introduced to Mehr, the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor of Ambha and an exiled Amrithi mother she barely knows. However, it is said that the Amrithi are a group of desert nomads descended from spirits, possessing the power of magic in their blood—a power that Mehr has inherited. Growing up in her father’s noble house, she clashed constantly with her stepmother, both of them vying for the responsibility over caring for Mehr’s little sister Arwa. Then one night, a winged demon called a Daiva invades Arwa’s room, and in her attempts to calm her younger sibling, Mehr is caught performing a forbidden rite bringing her magical lineage to the attention of the imperial mystics.
From that moment on, Mehr’s life is changed forever. She is subsequently forced into an arranged marriage to Amun, an Amrithi enslaved to the empire. Scorned by the other mystics, Mehr’s betrothed is nonetheless required for his role in a ritual which would solidify Ambha’s power and expand its borders. Since the rites can only be successfully performed by an Amrithi couple, Amun and Mehr’s fates were all but sealed, but working together with their wits and powers, they may yet find other ways to resist the empire and its cruel mystics, especially as their feelings towards one another deepen.
The first few chapters immediately drew me in. I loved Suri’s descriptive writing, and the characters and their dialogue attracted me with their charisma and emotions. The supernatural elements were introduced lightly, adding a bit of intrigue to the plot rather than overpowering it completely with talk of Daeva, spirits, or magic. The world-building is scrumptious, teasing, and mysterious—an uncertain quality at first, but you just know it will eventually take shape and grow into something more. And when Mehr’s magic was found out, the atmosphere felt as though the story itself was holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen next.
Sad to say though, that was perhaps the highest point of the book for me, at least for the next little while. What came next was about a couple hundred pages of very little action, but lots of observations by the protagonist as well as relationship building between Mehr and Amun. Speaking as someone who did not really expect this shift, the middle section of novel proved a bit tedious and a challenge to press through. However, for readers who prefer more calm “quiet” fantasy, especially those who like slow-burn romances, the style and tone of this book would probably be more to your liking.
The good news is, the characters are lovely. As the daughter of Ambhan nobleman and an Amrithi outcast, Mehr is an interesting figure struggling with her two conflicting backgrounds. She isn’t always bold or quick to take action, but she is more of a rational thinker and I appreciated the author for giving her protagonist a more level-headed personality. Mehr has found herself in a bad situation and while the odds may seem hopeless at times, she never lets them wear her down. She also has some compelling chemistry with Amun; it’s not really a fiery hot passion between them, but a softer more careful kind of love that grows sweeter over time. I can be quite picky when it comes to romance arcs and it’s not often they work for me, but I thought given how Mehr and Amun began, Suri handled the course of their relationship perfectly.
Ultimately, Empire of Sand could have been a more enticing read, but the slow-moving sections in the middle of the book really hurt my overall enjoyment. That said though, there are a lot of things going for it, and I will head into the sequel with hopes that the story will pick up in pacing and action....more
There’s a good reason why there’s not an official summary for this fifth and final novel of the Heartstrikers series, and that the description you will find everywhere is a message to the reader from the author about how there’s no way to write a blurb for this book without spoiling all the others. That’s because it’s true. So much has happened over the course of this series, with events and revelations piled up on top of one another, that to single out any thread would be a risk to unravel and reveal more information than I want to give. So, if you’re reading this review, I’ll assume that you are at least caught up to this point in the series, and if you’re not, be aware that there are potential plot details for the previous four volumes.
Last Dragon Standing picks up right up from the events at the end of Dragon of a Different Color. But before the story starts up in earnest, readers are given a brief glimpse into the past with Bob, our favorite dragon seer, who is seen striking a bargain that will change the course of Heartstriker history forever. We are then zipped back to the present, catching up with all our key players who have all gathered around the Detroit Free Zone following the aftermath of what happened to Algonquin, the spirit of the Great Lakes. There have been happy reunions all around—with lovers, friends, family, and even enemies coming together again—and that also includes the return of a couple characters that everyone thought was dead. But the celebrations have barely begun, when a new threat comes looming on the horizon—quite literally.
As epic as this finale was though, I had some concerns. For one thing, I can see why now Rachel Aaron had to make this a five-book series to wrap things up. Don’t get me wrong, I think this final volume was absolutely required, but it irked me a little that so much of it was made up of nothing but talk. If I hadn’t been so invested in the story already, I think I would have been bored to tears, and even then, there were times where the amount of talk really tried my patience. Up to this point, each Heartstriker novel has been a lot of fun, full of action and witty banter. It saddens me that I can’t really say the same for Last Dragon Standing, because at least two thirds of it was filled with our characters doing nothing but just standing around, explaining the situation or discussing battle plans in a very dry, in-your-face tone. Not that this kind of information wasn’t important to the plot, but it still felt an awful lot like blatant info-dumping.
I also think that’s a clear sign of a book trying to do too much when you literally need to have a character chime in and explain what’s happening every single step of the way. In a sense, one of the series’ greatest strengths has become its biggest liability. I’ve always loved the incredible world-building in Heartstrikers and how every book has introduced new elements as well as bigger, badder, and more overwhelming threats for Julius and the gang to face. But now we’ve gotten to the point where the situation has ballooned into something barely manageable, and yet, we still have to tie everything together in one final volume that also happens to be the shortest book of the series.
Still, I don’t know if things could have turned out any differently. As I said before, Last Dragon Standing completes the author’s vision of Julius’ journey, bringing everything full circle back to where we began, in the DFZ. Only now, our nice dragon is no longer alone or quite so powerless. Everything has been building up to this point, and at the end of the day, getting a satisfying conclusion that addresses all questions and conflicts is probably worth putting up a few pacing issues, or having to soldier through some lengthy sections of dialogue. Also, the last quarter of the book was amazing, which went a long way in making up for the tedious talk at the beginning. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and despite feeling confident that Rachel Aaron would leave us all with a happy ending, I still got extremely nervous there for a little while.
Bottom line, as the finale of one of my favorite series, I wish Last Dragon Standing had been a little more fun to read. However, if you’ve been following the books thus far, you probably won’t be too bothered by the lack of action. While this one was mostly full of talk, all of it still went towards building up to the stunning climax. As befitting a series conclusion, the antagonist was an insurmountable threat requiring all our characters coming together to defeat, and that part of the battle was handled in a truly epic fashion. Everyone—and I do mean everyone—we’ve come to know and love in this series will have a part to play, and I really enjoyed the feel-good, fist-pumping energy in the final showdown. All in all, that ending makes this a must-read book in a must-read series, and Heartstrikers will always have a special place in my heart and on my shelves. I can’t wait to see what Rachel Aaron does next.
Audiobook Comments: Vikas Adam has become the voice of this series, and I think I’ll always know him for the incredible performances he has given for these books. He was so good that I’ll even miss his “Bob voice”, which is really saying something! I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Heartstrikers in audio; I’ve had just as much fun listening to this series as reading it, and both formats have been greatly entertaining and rewarding....more
A new novel by Robert Jackson Bennett is always cause to celebrate, as he is the author of one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, The Divine Cities. Needless to say, I went into Foundryside with sky-high expectations, and once again I was rewarded with a remarkably good read.
This book, the first in a new series, takes place in the industrialized magical city of Tevanne. Almost everything here runs on a magic system called “scriving”, which utilizes a complicated process involving ancient sigils left behind by a long-lost race of people known as the Hierophants. Using this method, the characteristics of everyday objects can be altered magically to perform other functions or to behave in different ways. With the business of scriving, the leaders of the four merchant houses that govern Tevanne have become fantastically wealthy, while the rest of the populace is left to bear the burdens and shortcomings of the ruling elites’ power games.
Our story’s protagonist is a young woman named Sancia Grado, an expert thief who has been hired by an unknown client to steal a mysterious box from a heavily-guarded dockside warehouse owned by one of the merchant houses. After pulling off the heist, however, Sancia’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she opens the box to catch a glimpse of the object she was paid an exorbitant amount of money to steal. It turns out to be a key—but not just any ordinary key. As soon as it makes contact with Sancia, she hears it in her mind. Calling itself Clef, the sentient golden key explains to our flummoxed protagonist exactly what it can do, and the implications of it are beyond anything she can imagine. If the secret of Clef is made known, it can revolutionize everything the world knows about scriving. It can also be extremely dangerous for Sancia. Already, she has painted a target on herself by disrupting the plans of someone very powerful. Unwilling to let Clef fall into the wrong hands, she decides to keep it to herself while she attempts to uncover the identities of those who want to kill her and anyone else who knows about the key.
With Robert Jackson Bennett, you never know what you’re going to get. His speculative fiction work has been tagged in a wide range of categories, including but not limited to horror, fantasy, steampunk, mystery, and even spy thriller. Hence, when I picked up Foundryside, I thought I was pretty much prepared for anything. However, what I did not expect was humor. In some ways, this might be the most lighthearted novel I’ve ever read from the author, though to be fair, most of that levity is the result of Clef. That key sure has one hell of a personality, but more on that later. First, I just want to say how delighted I was again at the wonderful blend of genre elements featured in this book, and I make it no secret how much I adore a good heist story. Bennett always excels when he is writing mystery and adventure, and once more he delivered in a big way.
Of course, fans of Bennett also know he is an exceptionally talented and imaginative world-builder, and Foundryside is another stunning testament to his skills. Everything about this story and the world is full of wonderful and creative magic, starting with the process known as scriving. The concept behind this magic system is elegant in its simplicity and natural in its execution, belying the tremendous amount of work and thought that was likely put into its development, for everything about this novel—plot, characters, setting—is centered around scriving. Using the ancient language of the Hierophants, scrivers etch magical commands onto metal plates that can “convince” normal objects to be something they’re not. For example, wheels can be scrived to behave as those they are on an incline, causing them to roll even when they are on flat ground. Materials can also be scrived to become something more, so that the metal edge on a sword can be made to act sharper and cut more effectively.
As for the characters, Foundryside features a pretty large cast, but at the core of it is the relationship between Sancia and Clef. They are the heart and soul of this story. Readers will care about what happens because they care about them. Scrappy thieves with tragic pasts trying to eke out a living in an unjust world are a dime a dozen in the fantasy genre, but ultimately Sancia proves herself different from the norm by way of her mentality and highly individualistic reactions to certain situations. Her personal journey is fascinating is watch, and it is made even more interesting with Clef thrown into the mix. As mentioned before, Clef is a force unto itself. Would you believe me if I told you the strongest personality in this novel belongs to a sentient key? Clef is a scene-stealer, dominating the attention whenever it appears on a page. Obviously though, there is more to this book than just Sancia and Clef. Many other characters add some flavor and liveliness of the supporting cast, and they are all as deliciously complex as our main protagonists.
All in all, Foundryside is a superb series-starter and another magnificent creation from the masterful mind of Robert Jackson Bennett. Like all good beginnings, it promises to bring his readers even more adventure and glorious excitement in future volumes, and the rest of this series is a journey I can’t wait to experience....more
I’d never read Jennifer Estep before Kill the Queen, though I’ve often seen her name spoken of highly among readers in urban fantasy and paranormal romance circles. As a result, I’d long been curious about her work, so when I first learned that she was venturing into epic fantasy with a new book described as a royal revenge story about a female gladiator, I was instantly intrigued.
Kill the Queen follows Everleigh (who prefers going by Evie), a minor member of the Bellona royal family. Seventeenth in line for the throne, she mostly passes through the halls of the palace as an afterthought or ignored all together, especially ever since she and her cousin the crown princess Vasilia fell out. People are also dismissive towards Evie because she doesn’t have much in the way of magical power, though secretly, she is glad for the lack of attention—the better to hide her true talent, which is an immunity to magic.
But then one day during a foreign dignitary event, the power-hungry Vasilia finally shows her hand and together with her co-schemers, they unleash a coup on the unsuspecting court. The queen is killed, along with all those in attendance so there would be no living witnesses to Vasilia’s treachery. Thanks to her secret power though, Evie manages to survive her cousin’s magical attack. She flees to a gladiator school, taking refuge with the troupe there after they agree to take her in and train her in the ways of fighting. Not knowing whom to trust, Evie decides to lay low, until it becomes clear she must stop Vasilia from using her stolen crown to plunge the kingdom into war.
While trope-laden and not terribly original, this book nonetheless provided plenty of enjoyment. I think it says a lot about Estep that she was able to carry the story using the strength of her writing skills alone, giving me such a good time that I was willing to overlook all the glaring clichés. Much of it was due to Evie, whose charming personality and voice hooked me right from the start. An unlikely heroine, she’s a forgotten royal orphan with a special hidden talent that just conveniently happens to be the key to saving an entire kingdom—in other words, her character is as stereotypical and formulaic as you could get. And yet, it did not bother me as much as I thought it would. Like I always say though, tropes are popular for a reason and they only become a problem if not written well, and thanks to the author’s natural and flowing prose, her protagonist was immediately granted a high “likeability factor” which kept me reading.
I also thought world-building was on the sparser side, due in part to the lack of fine detail and description one would usually find in an epic fantasy. The book felt very streamlined in that regard, keeping background information to a bare minimum. There’s both a positive and negative to this approach. Of course, I would have delighted in getting more detail about the magic systems or the history behind the setting, but in doing away with lengthy explanations, the story was able to move along at a good clip. There’s also the book’s audience to consider, as Estep was probably aiming for an epic fantasy with enough crossover appeal to her urban fantasy and paranormal romance fans. Subsequently, you have a very readable book told in an easy and sassy style, with just a light touch of romance that did not feel too overbearing.
If Estep’s goal was to write a highly accessible and entertaining high fantasy, I would say she succeeded. At the end of the day, Kill the Queen was a surprisingly good read, despite the story’s overall predictability and heavy reliance on well-worn tropes. While hardcore epic fantasy readers will likely find the plot too simplistic, the world too shallow, and the characters too paint-by-the-numbers for this novel to be truly engaging, for those of us who do not mind something a little lighter and fluffier—or just want to kick back with something fun—this will do the trick nicely. Highly recommended for gladiatorial action and palace intrigue, with potential for the series to grow over time....more
Long ago in the highlands of Northern Scotland there lived a kind and just king. However, one day he returned home from a hunting trip with his son Prince Aric and found that a cursed ring had suddenly appeared on his finger. With no way of removing it, the ring quickly caused the king to sicken until he was close to death. But just as his father was about to slip away, Prince Aric noticed a mysterious young man riding hard for the castle. Using his magic, this newcomer was able to remove the ring just in time to save the king’s life. He then introduced himself as Prince Albaric from the Faerie realm, revealing that he was also Prince Aric’s half-brother, conceived when the Fae queen seduced the king and transported him to the otherworld. His story also explained how the enchanted ring first came to be on the king’s finger.
But rather than feel grateful towards Albaric, the king refused to even acknowledge him as his son. Worse, as Aric and Albaric grew closer, their brotherly bond only caused their father’s hostility to worsen. No longer good and just, the king became bitter, paranoid, and angry. Concerned for his father and troubled by the changes wrought on the kingdom, Aric also started to worry for his half-brother. Exiled from the land of the Fae and with no home to return to, Albaric’s only hope was to be accepted by his mortal father, but sadly, the king’s mind would not be easily swayed.
In order to save the kingdom, Aric must somehow find a way to help Albaric make peace with their father before the king’s resentment can bring ruin upon them all. In essence, this familial conflict serves as the backbone of The Oddling Prince. A fantasy inspired by folklore and mythology, the novel lends itself to be compared to stories of Arthurian legend, as it is written in a style that evokes that same kind of quaintness and sentimentality. Much of this is due to the book’s somewhat archaic tone and language, which was elegant and lyrical but also served to bog down the prose. As a result, it took me quite a while to get into the flow of the story, for the same elements used to impart an old-fashioned flavor also made it very awkward and slow to read.
Tales of this type are also often heavy in metaphor and deep in meaning, but lighter in terms of character and story development. So even though I found The Oddling Prince to be a sweet and charming little book, I was not surprised to feel little to no connection to the characters. Like a Disney movie, you just knew deep in your heart everything would work out fine, despite all the seemingly insurmountable challenges thrown in the protagonists’ way. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say this novel was completely devoid of surprises, there were simply no genuine threats or high stakes to make you feel any real concern. There was also this thick layer of idealism in the depiction of Aric and Albaric’s relationship—which was intentional, I am sure, given the sentimental nature of this story. But again, this just made them feel like cardboard heroes out of a fairy tale, not real enough to relate to.
Still, there were a lot of aspects I really liked. Despite the book’s fanciful tones, there were some powerful tensions between Aric and his father. I wouldn’t say this story had a real antagonist, but with the king being such a huge jerk, I would say he came the closest. In the face of his irrational fury and jealousies though, Aric remained steadfastly on Albaric’s side, refusing to be cowed. This loyalty to his brother was heartwarming and beautiful, and ended up being the highlight of this book. And even though she was a rather late introduction, I also loved the character of Marissa. The portrayal of her relationship with Aric may have left a lot to be desired, but her personality was so lovable that she immediately became a favorite.
In the end, I thought The Oddling Prince was an enjoyable read, though at times it felt a little too light and lacking in substance. However, if you like reading fantasy stories that are heavily inspired by fae-related folktales or mythological influences, this one might be worth checking out. The underlying wistfulness and dated feel of the writing may take some getting used to, but all the same, these elements might prove to be the novel’s biggest selling point for those seeking an evocative tale told in an old-timey, sentimental style....more
Before An Easy Death, my past experience with Charlaine Harris’s work pretty much began and ended with the first Sookie Stackhouse book, and it was swiftly determined that southern vampires just weren’t for me. Afterward, I wasn’t so sure about trying another one of her series, but then I heard about Gunnie Rose. Maybe it was the weird western vibes or the idea of a modern gunslinging urban fantasy set in a post-collapse alternate world where most of the country and its heroes are wild again, but right away, the premise caught my attention like a fish on a hook.
Lizbeth Rose, our intrepid protagonist, is a gunnie—a hired gun who makes her living with a mercenary team whose jobs frequently involve escorting bands of farmers across the treacherous landscape of what was once the southwestern United States. Following the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, the country suffered a massive decline in economy, infrastructure, and national defense, forcing its government to cede much of its territory to the other world powers. The Russians, for instance, have claimed much of the west coast as part of their Holy Russian Empire, while Canada has also taken a chunk out of the north, and in the bordering states to the south where we find ourselves now, the area has become known as Texoma. Much of society here has reverted to the times of the Old West, where bandits on the road are not uncommon, and travelers who wish to arrive at their destination in one piece are wise to hire gunnie crews like the one Lizbeth works for.
But of course, survival—like everything else in Texoma—is never guaranteed. What was supposed to be a routine job turns into a bloodbath, as the caravan Lizbeth and her crew were hired to escort is ambushed on the road by a group of merciless bandits. All our protagonist’s teammates are killed, including a couple of their charges, but nevertheless, our girl perseveres, completing the job with what’s left of her party. Once safe, Lizbeth returns home for some much-needed quiet time in order to grieve and figure out her next step. Unfortunately, respite is not in the cards. Apparently, her reputation as a reliable gunnie has reached the ears of the Holy Russian Empire, and a couple of their wizards from California have found their way to her doorstep, looking to hire her to protect them while they search for one of their fellows. Pauline and Eli are “grigoris”—powerful magic users named for their venerated Rasputin—on a dangerous and secretive mission, one that would require the services of an effective and discreet bodyguard. What they don’t realize, however, is that Lizbeth has a personal stake in their manhunt too, and she knows a lot more about the situation than she lets on.
Have you ever finished a book and thought to yourself, wow, this was just what I needed? I felt that way after reading An Easy Death. It’s the perfect book to raise you out of a reading slump, or to tackle on a leisurely Saturday morning after grueling week. Action-packed and fast as hell, this was a novel I finished in a single sitting. The pacing never really let up, and the snappy prose and dialogue kept me reading for hours until the very last page. I enjoyed everything about the book—so much so, I can’t decide what I loved best. World, characters, story—it was all so good.
But I suppose Lizbeth Rose made the strongest impression. The author has a knack for writing feisty, spirited main characters who might not be very worldly for their young age, but they make up for it with cleverness, independence, and determination. Some of Lizbeth’s strongest traits include her sense of honor and loyalty. She’s only a killer when she needs to be, when she’s on a job or defending herself and her friends. She’s the kind of person who does right by those who treat her well, and will give no mercy to those she considers her enemies. This simple worldview of hers also has a tendency to make strangers underestimate her, always to their own detriment. In reality, Lizbeth is a lot more perceptive and calculating than others give her credit for, which she uses to her advantage.
Then there’s the world-building. Charlaine Harris has created a no holds barred version of a post-apocalyptic Wild West-like setting where life is rough, violent, and mostly lawless. You get a sense that everyone is out for themselves out here, in this world where wishing someone “an easy death” is the kindest and most friendly greeting you could receive from a passing traveler. Theft, murder, and rape are everyday realities in Texoma, a notion backed up by the blunt, no-nonsense attitude of the prose. Horrifying as it is, none of the violence or suffering is really played up for emotional points or drama, and in a way, this stark presentation further adds to the gravity of the situation. Perhaps none serves as a better example than the massacre in the opening chapters. This is the only life Lizbeth has ever known. It is what it is, so you do what you do to pick yourself up and keep going.
This being an alternate history, the setting also has its fair share of quirks, not least of them being the presence of the Holy Russian Empire in the Americas, bringing along with them their powerful magic. And yet, the fantastical elements remained a more understated aspect of the book throughout, though I enjoyed the interesting angles they provided. They added spice to what was a standard adventure plot following the trio of Lizbeth, Eli, and Pauline as they made their way across Texoma, stopping at town after town—some of which are more welcome than others. As you would expect, there was also a light touch of sexy action, though mixed in with the action and mystery, the romance wasn’t something that was emphasized or put on a pedestal, which was exactly the way I liked it.
Bottom line, for a straight-up awesome read, pick up An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris. Whether you’re new to the author’s work or an old fan, I think most readers will be struck by the refreshingly different feel of her new series and be riveted by the energy of Lizbeth’s tale....more
After I finished Furyborn, the first description to come to my mind was “ambitious”. Told in alternating chapters between the perspectives of two young women separated by a thousand years, this is a novel that demands a fair bit of investment and patience from the reader, though if you do manage to see it through to the end, you might find the payoff rewarding if you’re lucky.
First, we get to meet Rielle. As a daughter of a nobleman, she got to grow up at the palace, becoming best friends with crown prince Audric and his cousin and betrothed, Ludivine. The three were inseparable, until one fateful day during a high-profile horse race, Rielle had to reveal her magical powers while trying to save Audric from assassins, and suddenly, everything changed. For it’s one thing for Rielle to possess power, another to have the ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. It is said that the only people who should be able to do so are a pair of prophesied queens: the Sun Queen, bringer of light and all that is good, as well as the Blood Queen, who will bring death and destruction. To determine which one she is, Rielle is put through a series of dangerous trials to test her magic. If she can’t prove she is the Sun Queen, she will be put to death—that is, if the trials don’t kill her first.
Next up, we have Eliana, whose storyline begins a millennium after the time of Queen Rielle, a figure who has become more legend than reality at this point. After the Undying Empire conquered her homeland, Eliana was left with no choice but to serve her new masters as a bounty hunter in order to keep herself and her family alive. She also has special powers, but because magic is thought to have left the world, she keeps her abilities a secret as not to draw any attention to herself, especially given her chosen profession. But then, her mother suddenly disappears, snatched away like so many other women in the city. While the empire shows no mercy to rebels, Eliana ends up joining the resistance in the hopes that they will help her find some answers, but what she learns is more than she ever bargained for.
First things first: I’ve never made it a secret my struggle with books that utilize multiple timelines, so in a way, I’d known as soon as I discovered the story’s format that Furyborn would be an uphill battle. With two entirely different perspectives in play, there was twice as much groundwork to cover, so not surprisingly, I also felt that it took the book twice as long for it to finally get somewhere. The first hundred pages were perhaps the toughest; things were confusing and vague, huge chunks of the story felt missing, and worse was knowing that this was all likely done on purpose. To the book’s credit, the holes do get filled in as time goes on, though getting to the point where everything finally makes sense can be quite tedious. Add to that, the author attempted to end every chapter on a cliffhanger, which was murder on the pacing, not to mention how watching the resulting plot acrobatics of trying to get this to work while keeping the story interesting at the same time were just downright exhausting.
I also didn’t feel a connection to either Rielle or Eliana. Part of this is due to the format, as one could hardly expect a narrative that’s constantly going back and forth between timelines to be conducive to quickly making the reader feel invested in any one character. And quite honestly, they both just felt kind of bland. Granted, I did find Rielle and Eliana likeable enough, but I also didn’t find anything too memorable about them to latch onto either.
That said, despite what might seem like nothing but harsh criticism so far, I actually didn’t dislike this novel. It had some great ideas, and no doubt the author had an incredible and creative vision for the end result. I just don’t think it quite got there. While the story was interesting, it could have been more. I also didn’t think the book had to be so long, as much of plot was padded with action and other fluff. It was fun, but in the end, not too substantive or meaningful.
All this is ultimately why I cannot give Furyborn more than a middling rating. Sure, it had its moments, and maybe as the series grows it’ll gradually become something more, but as an opener, this first novel was simply too forgettable. It’s a shame because it could have—should have—been more with such a strong premise and original concept behind it, but in the end, there was just something lacking in the execution.
Audiobook Comments: I’d originally debated giving this one 2.5 stars, but in this case, a good narrator made all the difference. I love Fiona Hardingham; she’s one of the best in her line of work, and her performance was able to add just a bit extra to the story....more
If there’s one thing I can say about The Invisible Library series, it’s that I can count on the books being consistently solid and entertaining. That’s why I always look forward to picking up the next installment, and that was most definitely the case too with The Mortal Word.
In this fifth volume of the series, the war between the Fae and Dragon-kind is heating up. Attempts to broker a peace treaty are jeopardized when a high-level dragon is found stabbed to death, and naturally the dragons are quick to point the finger at their sworn enemies, the Fae. Our protagonist, the time-traveling, parallel-worlds-hopping, book-stealing Librarian agent Irene Winters, is thus tasked to get to the bottom of who committed the murder before the situation can devolve any further. Joining Irene on the investigation is also Vale, her talented detective friend, along with some backup from dragon prince and former Library apprentice Kai.
Meanwhile, the peace talks must go on. As a representative of the Library, Irene must oversee the meeting with the eye of a neutral mediator, as well as ensure that the process goes smoothly. However, someone is bent on disrupting the talks with poisoning and deadly sabotage attempts, causing even more trouble for Irene and her team. With the stakes so high, anything can happen now to tip the fragile balance between Order and Chaos, potentially threatening the fate of countless worlds connected to the great interdimensional Library.
Somewhat breaking with tradition, this installment does not involve much book stealing or hunting. Instead, granting Irene one of her long-held childhood dreams, Genevieve Cogman sends her protagonist sleuthing in an entertaining and wonderfully executed murder mystery plot. It was quite a treat to see Irene relish in this role, which includes plenty of new responsibilities requiring her to exercise different talents and skills. But it’s not all fun and games as our girl learns that with leadership also comes accountability and all the pressures that come along with it. Worse, her new position plunges her into the complicated world of Library politics, and more than once, Irene is forced to pit her own professional standards against her loyalties and natural instincts to follow orders.
By following a more traditional mystery plot, however, this book also features a more conventional storyline as well as a less elaborate and flamboyant setting. Compared to The Lost Plot, the previous novel which transported readers to a world reminiscent of the American Roaring Twenties complete with fedora-wearing, tommy gun-toting, jazz-listening gangsters, the worlds of The Mortal Word seemed downright tame. However, Cogman knows balance. The areas of character development and relationship dynamics are where this one shines. As a Vale fan, I was very happy with the prominent part he ended up playing in this novel. I was also pleased with the attention given to the bond between Irene and Kai, especially given the all the recent challenges they’ve been through together. I also loved how the story made more room for characters like Lord Silver, as well as some truly fascinating Fae figures like the countess or the princess.
All told, this was another exciting and fun-filled romp through the myriad worlds of The Invisible Library along with my favorite Librarian spy, and I particularly enjoyed the elements of mystery and intrigue that featured so strongly in The Mortal Word. The combination of humor, adventure and the constant pleasure of not knowing what to expect always makes picking up an installment of this series a special treat. Every book is a surprise, and I’m eager to find out where Genevieve Cogman will take her fans next....more
I don’t know what it is about the Witchlands series, but both novels that are out thus far have received middling ratings from me when I reviewed them, and yet I just keep coming back for more! Still, if I had to guess, I would credit the simply sublime world Susan Dennard has created. Say what you will about her storytelling and characters, but the incredible imagination and effort that she has put into the world-building here is second to none. I probably would have continued the series anyway, so when I found out about this prequel novella which serves “as a set up to Bloodwitch as well as an expansion to the world”, I thought it would make sense to read it and learn more about the magic while waiting for the next novel installment.
Sightwitch takes place approximately a year before the main series starts, following a Sightwitch Sister named Ryber Fortiza (whom we first met aboard Prince Merik’s ship, if you’ve read Truthwitch). Told through a series of journal entries and other pieces of documents, her story will take us on an adventure into the mountain which houses the convent of her order, a close-knit sisterhood that worships the goddess Sirmaya.
They say Sightwitches are made, not born. Young acolytes serving at the temple are eventually called to receive the gift of Sirmaya, becoming blessed with her Sight. For years, Ryber’s mentors have told her that she is special, that one day she will be called under the mountain and become one of the greatest Sightwitches to have ever lived. But day after day, as others are called forth and not her, her hope begins to fade. As someone who always follows the rules, Ryber can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong or what more she could be doing to get her goddess to summon her.
Then one day, everything changes. Sirmaya still does not call upon Ryber, but she does call upon everyone else. Ryber’s threadsister Tanzi was the first to go beneath the mountain and not return, and after that, more are taken each day until Ryber is the only one left. Something is happening to the goddess, and it is now up to Ryber to seek the truth.
Despite being a minor character in the main series, Ryber has always been a fascinating figure. We also know relatively little about her, so a novella telling her story was a very welcome addition. Not only does it reveal a lot about our protagonist’s life before Truthwitch, it also tells the origin story of how she became a Sightwitch Sister. The presentation of the novel was a nice touch as well, with the journal entries giving insight into Ryber’s unique voice. The in-depth exploration into her character gave me a better understanding of her motivations, and I liked how I got to see the way she viewed herself and how others viewed her.
The other major highlight of Sightwitch is, of course, the scene detailing the first meeting between Ryber and Kullen, the threadbrother of Prince Merik. The young man had somehow found himself deep underground, lost and bedraggled with no memory of how he got there. Terrified of this dirty and scary looking stranger who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, Ryber is reluctant to have anything to do with Kullen at first, but eventually she realizes they must work together in order to survive the many obstacles beneath the Sightsister mountain. Gradually, a friendship develops between them, and considering the limitations of the format and length of this novella, I felt this portrayal was done exceptionally well.
I also loved the magic in this. The world of The Witchlands is filled with many types of witches—individuals who possess the power to manipulate the forces and elements around them. These powers, called “witcheries”, can manifest in different ways, with some being rather straightforward (like an Airwitch’s ability to control wind and air currents) and others being quite complex and abstract (such as a Threadwitch’s power to allow him or her to read people’s emotions and see the literal ties that bind relationships). I’ve always felt that Sightwitch magic falls in the latter camp of being one of the more unique and complicated witcheries. The world-building is as exquisite as ever as we explore the mysteries of the Sight in Ryber’s story, learning the ways of the Sightwitch convent and the way Sisters are called forth to receive Sirmaya’s gift. With each chapter, our understanding of the Witchlands universe grows a little more.
What surprised me most about Sightwitch was how much I actually enjoyed it. Typically, I find most novellas to be too short for much story or character development, but in the case of Sightwitch, it worked well. There’s enough to feel a connection with the characters even if you are newcomer to this world, and the story was also relatively straightforward, so the more streamlined the better. I think overall this has given me a new enthusiasm for the series, and I look forward to seeing how everything will play out once we get back to the main novels.
Audiobook Comments: The Sightwitch audiobook is narrated by a full cast—a rare treat, especially for a relatively short piece like this. The voice actors and actresses were chosen well; everyone performed marvelously with varied accents, tones, feelings, and inflections. The only downside is that the print edition contains some art and illustrations so you’ll be missing out on those, but otherwise I would highly recommend the audio....more
Five hundred years ago, a magical weapon was created in the form of an infestation that ate magic, but it quickly got out of hand and became impossible to control. This power burrowed itself into amulets and would grow and devour everything in its path if not contained. Only individuals with talent and specialized training, called Sweepers, can defuse and dispose of these magical ticking time bombs.
Enter Laura, an apprentice Sweeper who works with her boss Clae to rid the city of these dangerous threats. The problem though, is that the local politicians have been deceiving their people into believing that infestations aren’t really a problem anymore. As a result, Clae’s office is severely underfunded, and no one takes the profession as seriously as they should. All it will take is one mistake—or one act of malice—for a massive infestation to level the entire city.
This wasn’t a terrible book, but it very clearly could have been improved. For one thing, it’s always unfortunate when a publisher description oversells the story. When I read “bomb squad that defuses magic weapons”, I immediately pictured elite armored special teams and lots of suspense and excitement. Too bad this book had none of these things. I was expecting something more akin to a fast-paced thriller, but instead what I got was a somewhat dry and meandering plot that seemed to lack even a main conflict for the first half of the novel. As a result, the early part of the story felt like it had no direction, a problem also exacerbated by too much info-dumping. While the world-building may have been able to capture the reader’s imagination (at least initially), having no immediate hook meant that any interest I had in the plot rapidly faded.
The other problem I had was with the characters. It’s one thing to be progressive and proud to work in a profession not conventionally held by women, but Laura goes through life with an air of superiority I didn’t much care for. Often, she had this attitude of dismissal or contempt for subjects that she doesn’t understand or things that don’t interest her, which drove me crazy. And God forbid we ever forget she’s bucking gender norms and society’s expectations of her, because she never fails to remind us every chance she gets. Then there was Clae, her boss and head Sweeper. He’s tactless, brusque, and incredibly antagonistic towards everyone, reminding me of a more annoying and less lovable version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I feel like that was exactly what the author was trying for, attempting to channel BBC’s 21st-century portrayal of the famous literary detective, except Clae comes across just plain unlikeable, and Laura is no Martin Freeman’s Watson to pull off the part in this double act.
There were a few things I did enjoy. One was the world-building. It wasn’t as well developed as I would have liked, but I was intrigued by the notion of magical amulets that held infestations that could grow into monsters capable of destroying cities. I also loved the concept of Sweepers. In truth, taken individually, all the ideas in this book are great, but as a whole, they feel like pieces of a puzzle that don’t fit together quite right. Perhaps if the plot been clearer and more cogent, the world-building might have reached its full potential.
Overall, I think it was a combination of a vague synopsis and disorganized storytelling that made City of Broken Magic a miss for me. It’s a shame because I really wanted to like this one, as there were many ideas in here that I liked. Sadly, they were unable to carry the plot, which struggled to get off the ground, or make me overcome my initial distaste for the characters. Since this is Mirah Bolender’s debut, I chalk most of these up to new-author problems, and if this is to become a series, hopefully the next book will have many of the issues ironed out....more
Bring Me Their Hearts by Sara Wolf was so much fun—much more fun than its grisly premise would lead you to believe. The book stars Zera, who was murdered in a brutal bandit attack when she was just sixteen years old, but was then “saved” when the witch Nightsinger resurrected her by carving out her heart, keeping the organ safe in a magical jar. Now Zera has become a Heartless—immortal, un-ageing, and unkillable by any earthly means, but this all comes at a very steep price. She is forever bound to serve Nightsinger, and to prevent herself from transforming into a mindless ravening monster, Zera must consume raw meat regularly to stave off the hunger.
For three long years, Zera has dreamed of becoming human again, which would only happen if Nightsinger gave her back her heart. But now, the witch would give her that very chance to earn back her humanity—with the stipulations being high-risk and dangerous, of course. Another Sunless War is threatening to break out, and in order to stop it from happening, the witches need a hostage they can control completely. Crown Prince Lucien would make the perfect target—but only if he can be turned Heartless. To lure him into the witches’ trap, Zera has been tasked to pose as a potential bride at the next Spring Welcoming, where she will mingle at the court, ingratiate herself with the other nobles, and attempt to steal Lucien’s heart—literally.
Without a doubt, what made this book such a delightfully entertaining read was its main character. Zera is always quick on her feet with a wisecrack retort, but she does it in such an easy and charming way that it’s hard not to like her immediately, especially when most of the victims of her sharp tongue deserve it. I can’t remember the last time I’ve cheered so hard for a protagonist, watching her take the royal court by storm and catching everyone there unawares. But Zera is also more than just a smart mouth and a sassy attitude; deep down she is also wrestling with a past filled with darkness and guilt. In fact, as time goes on, we find out that most of the time her flippancy is her response to her feelings of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty. As insistent as she is on calling herself a monster, she seemed wholly human to me, and for a girl with no heart who claims everything she does is to further her own gains, she sure cares a great deal about others.
The world-building in this book is also exquisite. The relationship between a witch and a Heartless is a little like the one between a vampire and their thralls, except it is much more intricate and nuanced. Heartless are a witch’s personal soldiers, but not all witches treat their Heartless like expendable chattel, and Nightsinger and Zera actually have something close to an affectionate bond. But while a witch can channel their magic into their Heartless to heal and help them, they can also put an end to them instantly by shattering their hearts in their magical jars, which means any kind of attachment between Nightsinger and Zera is still a very unbalanced power dynamic. This is a world full of old gods and ancient magic, and that’s just one of many mysterious and complex systems working behind the scenes. Bitter rivalries and backstabbing powerplays also rage in the royal court of Vetris, which would ultimately determine whose influence wins out, affecting the fates of both humans and witches alike.
The romance should be discussed here too, since it is so integral to the plot. That Zera and Lucien will eventually fall in love is sort of a foregone conclusion, because otherwise, where would be the conflict? Still, I liked that their romantic arc was developed steadily and carefully, with both of them getting to know each other before falling in love. It’s the crux of the novel’s premise after all, since it would be much easier to betray someone and rip out their heart if you saw them as a soulless enemy, but that changes drastically if the man you thought was a stuck-up and callous prince actually turned out to be a good person, with a lifetime full of hopes, dreams, and desires.
To my surprise, this was one of the best YA romances I’ve read in a while, though there were plenty of other relationships at play here that also deserve a mention, including the one between Zera and Lady Y’shennria, the noblewoman helping the witches by pretending to be Zera’s aunt. In truth, I probably enjoyed following their interactions even more than I enjoyed watching Zera and Lucien, because there was just something so earnest and heartbreaking about the desperate way Zera constantly sought Lady Y’shennria’s approval. When they eventually acknowledged each other like true family, I might have even shed a tear or two.
Only a few flaws kept this book from a perfect rating. First, Zera reminds readers every few pages that all she wants is her heart and getting it back is the most important thing to her, yet she sure seems to enjoy sabotaging herself any chance to gets by not sticking the plan or by taking stupid risks. Second, after a while, it becomes clear that everyone involved is on the same side and wants the same thing, which made me think that a good sit-down and bit of decent communication could have solved a lot of problems and made everything a lot less complicated. Third, there was this awful cliffhanger—except what happened was also kind of predictable, so I’m still torn as to what to think about the ending.
Still, when all is said and done, I had a great time with this book. Bring Me Their Hearts had everything I could ever want from a YA novel—superb world-building, a fantastically well-written story, and a phenomenal protagonist I could emphatically root for. I originally set out to read this story about Heartless and heart-taking, never once expecting it to steal my heart so quickly and completely too. But now I am irrevocably hooked, and I want more....more
I’m always a little nervous going into a sequel to a book I loved, especially when the story and characters are still fresh in your mind. Knowing you are jumping into a new adventure that can change the course of everything you know or shift the game as swiftly as the weather is sometimes a terrifying thing.
But as it turned out, I had an amazing time with Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir. In fact, I pretty much couldn’t ask for more out of a sequel. In the first book, The Tethered Mage, readers were introduced to a historical fantasy setting reminiscent of Renaissance Venice, along with an irresistible cast which includes our protagonist Lady Amalia, a young noblewoman finds herself becoming a Falconer to the fire Warlock Zaira. Forever linked together by a magical bond neither of them wanted, Amalia nonetheless tries to make the best out of the situation, and although Zaira’s initial pushback was hard and aggressive, eventually she too started to come around to their new reality.
Friendships, however, are not forged overnight. There’s still plenty of conflict—both individually and between them—for Amalia and Zaira to work out, and this is where this sequel comes in. The Defiant Heir continues to develop the characters’ relationship by setting them on a quest to gather information behind enemy lines, with success only possible if both women can pull all their knowledge, skills, and abilities together to work as one. All this is also set to a backdrop of imminent war, as the seventeen Witch Lords who rule in Vaskandar gather for a rare conclave in the aftermath of the events that transpired in The Tethered Mage. As the scion of one of Raverra’s most powerful families, Amalia has been groomed to take her mother’s place on the Council of Nine since birth, even though she would much rather be ensconced in a library with a pile of books or tinkering with new contraptions in a workshop. But now the time has come for her to formally enter politics and take on the responsibilities of her role as La Contessa’s heir, even if it means giving up the things she loves.
I’m a big fan of stories that put characters to the test, because they always have the most compelling conflicts. Which path will a person take when faced with life-altering choices? Do they follow their sense of duty or their heart? What lengths will they go to achieve their goals? For Amalia, life has changed a great deal ever since becoming a Falconer. She has made a new friend in Zaira, even if that friendship is still complicated and somewhat precarious. She’s even found love with her fellow Falconer, Lieutenant Marcello Verdi. But as mad as they are for each other, a future together just isn’t in the cards, and that was even before Amalia decided to increase her efforts to follow in her mother’s footsteps. As the daughter of La Contessa, she must put the needs of the country before her own desires. And if her country needs her to play spy and court alliances, she’ll have to do that too, even if those duties require her to serve beyond her experiences and limits.
Amalia, however, is not the kind of person to give up when the going gets hard, which is what I loved about her character in the first book and she continues to show the same kind of persistence in The Defiant Heir. She’s also measured and calculating, preferring to keep all her options open, even if it does leave her personal life a bit of a mess. That said, it’s wonderful to see a flawed but genuine and intelligent female protagonist who displays such strength in the face of crushing social pressures, and still be a good, kind, and sincere person.
But once again, Caruso shows that her greatest strength is writing relationships—and a good thing too, since each and every single one of the story’s multiple threads have a basis in the character dynamics. Amalia loves her mother and wants to please her, which fuels her determination to be a good heir. She loves Marcello, but must put her feelings for him aside to allow herself to be courted by Kathe, a Crow Lord who is debonair and charming, but still pragmatic enough to understand how such a relationship would serve both their purposes. Then there’s the Falconer-Falcon bond between Amalia and Zaira, which has developed into something much deeper and more complex. They’ve put their lives in each other’s hands, and both women have learned to trust more because of it. Zaira has even let herself open up and grow closer to Terika, another Falcon. This particularly sideplot has expanded the scope of her character in many ways, showing a side of the cantankerous fire warlock that we’d only begun to explore by the end of the first book. All these relationships were woven together to form an intricate web of personal stories within a greater narrative, which made this book a joy to read because we got to watch each character grow.
Fans who enjoyed Caruso’s debut will find even more to please them in The Defiant Heir, a sequel that further explores the world and all the characters we’ve come to know and love. In addition, it’ll take us to new locales and introduce us to new players, adding even more depth to series. With this second volume of Swords and Fire, Melissa Caruso is well on her way to making a very big splash in the fantasy genre, and I can’t wait for the third book to get here....more
Although this book is now published by St. Martin’s Press, my first encounter with Song of Blood & Stone was in 2016 when an earlier version of it was entered into the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, the writing competition created by author Mark Lawrence. Ever since the SPFBO’s launch, several of its alum have already been picked up by traditional publishing, and it’s always great to see that number grow by the day. As I understand it, the novel has gone through many changes to get to this point, and as I am fascinated by indie publishing success stories, I was excited to check it out.
At its heart, Song of Blood & Stone is a fantasy romance. Starring Jasminda, a young woman of mixed descent, the story is set in world split by a veil called the Mantle which separates Elsira, a land with no magic, from the country of Lagrimar, whose people possess the power of Earthsong. However, the two nations are divided by a lot more. On one side, citizens are forced to worship and fear the True Father, a power-hungry tyrant who hoards the world’s magic for himself, while on the other side, the Queen Who Sleeps lies dormant, leaving her subjects directionless and without their true ruler for centuries. The Mantle has only been breached a few times in history, but every time it has happened, chaos and death have been the result due to the intense fighting and struggle for power.
As a child of two peoples, Jasminda grew up as an outcast in her mother’s homeland on the Elsiran side of the Mantle simply because she has inherited her Lagamiri father’s darker skin as well as his magical abilities. Ever since the deaths of her parents and siblings, she has lived alone maintaining a small goat farm by the mountains. One day, her quiet existence is interrupted by a group of Lagamiri soldiers at her door. Not realizing they have crossed the veil into Elsira and believing her to be one of their own, they demand that she open her home to her country’s soldiers and shelter them from an incoming storm. With them is a battered and broken prisoner named Jack, whom the soldiers claim is an Elsiran spy. Using her Earthsong, Jasminda heals Jack and helps him escape, and together they embark on a dangerous journey to warn the capital that the Mantle is about to fall once again—and that their people must prepare for war and another incursion from the brutal True Father.
Well written with beautiful and detailed flowing prose, Song of Blood & Stone showed immense promise right from the beginning. The world-building was compelling, and it is clear that L. Penelope put a lot of work and thought into formulating the book’s background and premise. The author’s characterization of Jasminda was also very well done, establishing her situation and making her a sympathetic protagonist to readers right away.
However, bearing in mind that this is a fantasy romance, these developments soon give way to the themes surrounding Jasminda and Jack’s burgeoning love story, which may prove frustrating to those who aren’t big readers of the genre. Personally speaking, I wish there had been a better balance between all the elements of the story, especially when the romance started taking priority over developing the characters and world-building. I also felt that there was very little lead-up to the romance itself, as Jack started developing feelings for Jasminda from the start, even as he was being held captive. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it insta-love, I still wish that the author had held off on exploring their emotions for each other until after they actually managed to escape (or at very least, waited until they’d known each other for more than a few days).
In time, the plot also revealed itself to be rather simplistic, despite the complex nature behind the history and politics of Elsira and Lagrimar. Part of this is due to the aforementioned lack of world-building once the characters arrive in the city. Queue the romance drama at this point, which—unsurprisingly—also began to impinge upon the story’s pacing. Racial conflicts and the problem of Lagamiri refugees in Elsira also started becoming central to the plot, and in this middle section I felt that the author was trying a bit too hard to inject real-world issues into the book. Normally I wouldn’t mind this, except that it was done very blatantly and at the expense of world-building and character development, ultimately making me feel less connected to the protagonists and their world, which became confusing to me. I had trouble picturing the characters’ surroundings and was never truly able to grasp the setting which came across as a mishmash of genres and time periods thrown together, with ancient magic, mysterious visions and immortals mingling with steampunk elements like airships and more modern tech like automobiles. World-building was certainly creative and ambitious, but due to the lack of attention in developing these ideas, things ended up being rather messy, which was unfortunate.
In sum, parts of this book worked well for me, while others didn’t so much. However, I do think readers who are more inclined towards the romance genre will probably like this one a lot better. While I personally prefer my stories, love or otherwise, to feature a more balanced approach to plot, characters, and world-building, if a fantasy romance is something you think you’d enjoy, then I highly recommend giving Song of Blood & Stone a try....more
There really is no such thing as a bad Witcher book, just some are better than others. Season of Storms is probably one that I would put on the lower end of the spectrum—meaning I enjoyed it, but compared to the rest of the books in the series, it simply didn’t stand out as much as I’d hoped. While this is the eighth one overall (when you include all the novels and collections), it is also something of a standalone prequel, taking place between the short stories featured in The Last Wish and well before the events of the main saga.
In Season of Storms, readers are given insight into the events occurring just prior to Geralt of Rivia’s fateful visit into the city of Vizima to deal with King Foltest’s striga problem, which was chronicled in what was Andrzej Sapkowski’s debut work, a tale simply titled “The Witcher”. When the story opens, we get to catch up with our protagonist in a quiet seaside kingdom, though in true Geralt fashion, it’s not long before he finds himself embroiled in a spot of trouble and winds up getting arrested and thrown in jail.
Unfortunately, this also means that his swords are taken from him. A Witcher without his iconic weapons? Say it isn’t so! After all, what use is a monster hunter without the tools of his trade? As a result, the main plot of this book mostly focuses on Geralt as he is roped into taking on all kinds of dangerous and daring missions to try and get his swords back. It involves a lot of the elements you would expect—shady sorcerers, political intrigue, monster killing, and sexy times.
In other words, Season of Storms is full of your usual Witcher shenanigans. It means that if you’ve enjoyed the previous books in the series, then there is a good chance that you’ll enjoy this one too. This novel also felt more light-hearted to me, though of course, when it comes to The Witcher, words like lightness and darkness are all relative. Since this one is a prequel, there are quite a few people who haven’t yet made their appearances in Geralt’s life, the most notable of these being Ciri, which does mean the story is generally free of the kind of angst that typically follows her character everywhere. There’s also a general nonchalance and more laidback tone to the story which gives the impression of much simpler times.
In fact, that might be part of the problem. Season of Storms doesn’t really add anything new or special to what we already know of the world or protagonist; everything feels like it has been done before—in bigger, better, and more complex ways. Its status as a standalone prequel might also have a lot to do with this, since the main saga itself is over and done with, leaving this one to feel “tacked on” and apart from the other novels. Whatever intrigues and challenges Geralt has to deal with in this book, they simply pale in comparison to those he has faced in the overarching series. Likewise, when it comes to the relationships he forges, the villains he fights, or the monsters he kills, all of them feel rather like superficial throwaway encounters in the context of this novel.
Does this mean you shouldn’t read Season of Storms? Not at all. As a matter of fact, it might make a good choice if you are new to Sapkowski or The Witcher. While I would still recommend starting with the main series, this book would be an ideal jumping off point to dip a toe into the world if you just want a little itty-bitty taste of the series’ overall tone or writing before taking the full plunge. Plus, it would also make for a nice, light introduction to the author’s style, which can be tough to get on board with if you are not used to non-linear storytelling. Devices like time jumps, flashbacks, multiple plot threads are all employed here, giving new readers a good idea of what to expect from the main saga.
There’s plenty of things to like too, if you’re an old fan—as long as you’re not hoping for big revelations or anything earth-shattering. As a longtime follower of this series, I would describe Season of Storms as a comfortable read, full of references and cool easter eggs you might catch, but it is far from being Geralt’s best adventure. For completion’s sake though, I would still deem it a must-read, and at the end of the day, the uncomplicated spirit of this novel meant that I had a fun time with it.
Audiobook Comments: Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Peter Kenny. I started listening to the audiobooks of this series with Blood of Elves, and because of his excellent narration, I’ve never looked back. Kenny’s voice has an intensity to it that makes it perfect for Geralt of Rivia, and yet he is also versatile enough to portray every single other character, bringing all the humor, magic, and charisma of this series to life....more