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
Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns collects six short stories set in the “Grishaverse”, the world in which her novels like Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows take place. However, these tales are for the most part unrelated to either of those series—a point in this anthology’s favor, in my opinion—and therefore can be enjoyed on their own. It would be more accurate to think of these as fairy tale retellings, each self-contained and often involving their own message and lessons. Personally, I find this format more appealing, as I tend not to get as much out of “side stories” that are tied to (and hence feel “tacked on” to) existing characters and events from a main series.
Filled with dark undertones, many of these stories also call back to familiar classic fairy tales—but with a twist. An in-depth analysis and more of my thoughts on each story can be found below:
Ayama and the Thorn Wood
The king and queen of a small kingdom have two sons. The older one is handsome and well-loved, while the younger one was born monstrous and was hence locked away in a labyrinth beneath the castle soon after his birth. However, the beastly prince managed to escape, and is now terrorizing the village. Desperate, the king offers a large reward to anyone who can stop his monstrous son, and the call is answered by young girl named Ayama, whose family neglects her and treats her more like a servant than a daughter. With shades of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and even 1001 Nights, this opening tale is a good example of the kind of stories you’ll find in this collection—magical, subversive, and adheres closely to the classic fairy tale three-part structure. I was immediately transported to another place and another time, my head filled with evocative images of children sitting rapt and cross-legged by the fireside as they listened to their elders tell them stories. There’s a good takeaway from this one too, a reminder that even the most unassuming lives have value and volumes to them.
The Too-Clever Fox
Even from birth, Koja the fox was showing everyone why he was the cleverest animal in all the forest, convincing his mother not to devour him, the scrawniest and scraggliest runt of the litter. Using his quick wit and silver tongue, he somehow always manages to squirm his way out of certain death. However, one day a hunter arrives at the forest, ruthlessly picking off all the woodland animals. Undeterred, Koja decides to pit his wits against the human, confident that he can help end the slaughter. A cautionary tale against hubris, this story is another twist on a popular archetype often found in fairy tales, that of the quintessential trickster. Koja, however, will find that plot twists are none too kind to clever foxes.
The Witch of Duva
The protagonist of this story is a woodcutter’s daughter named Nadya who comes from an area where young girls from the surrounding villages frequently go missing. When her mother dies, her father is quick to remarry Karina, a spiteful woman whom Nadya secretly suspects might be a witch. This one might be the darkest tale in the collection, which possibly explains why I liked it so much. Again, there are plenty of subversions and twists, and some truly disturbing themes and imagery found here too, even if they are portrayed rather subtly.
This is another story that follows the traditional structure of a classic fairy tale, featuring a greedy duke whose daughter Yeva is so beautiful that the very sight of her instantly causes one to become smitten. When it became time for Yeva to be married, her father decides to hold a competition so that the best man may win her hand. This is a good story for anyone who has ever wondered at the illogical choices made by the typical fairy tale princess character, or why they have to put up with all the crap. The ending to this one is Leigh Bardugo’s brilliant answer to those questions, and it’s just priceless.
The Soldier Prince
The Nutcracker gets a nice retelling in this story, but with elements from the Grishaverse to spice things up. Thematically, it reminded me very much of science fiction narratives about artificial intelligence, with messages about moral and philosophical issues that make us question what makes us human or gives us free choice. Bardugo does not manage to go quite as deep as that, however, though not for the lack of trying. Quite honestly, I felt this one of the more lackluster tales, at least when compared to the stronger offerings that came before.
When Water Sang Fire
Fans of The Little Mermaid will probably enjoy this one, since it draws heavily from that story and offers a different perspective on its villain. It follows a sildroher named Ulla, an outcast among her people on account of rumors that she is half human. Still, she is a talented singer, and together with her friend Signy, the two girls can give rise to wondrous creations through the mere power of their voices. Out of all the stories, When Water Sang Fire is probably the most complex (and it might also be the longest), which is ironic because it did little for me intellectually or emotionally. Personally, I preferred the earlier stories in this collection which held all the charm and magic of traditional fairy tales, whereas this one struck me as rather contrived and a little too “fanservice”. A shame that it ended up being one of my least favorite stories, for I would have preferred ending this otherwise excellent anthology on a higher note.
Still, as far as short story collections go, The Language of Thorns is very good one. I don’t often find myself recommending anthologies, but I will in this case, since I think this book would appeal to a wide range of readers, especially those who love fairy tale-inspired fiction and imaginative retellings. Perfect for both fans of the author’s Grishverse and newcomers alike.
Audiobook Comments: Having listened to all the books in the Grisha trilogy as well as the Six of Crows series in audio format, I am no stranger to the incredibly talented Lauren Fortgang. She’s capable of doing a huge range of voices and accents, and listening to her narrate this book genuinely felt like I was listening to a master storyteller tell creepy fairy tales around a campfire. I would definitely recommend The Language of Thorns in audio, with the only caveat being that actual book contains some art and illustrations, so I would opt for the print edition if you don’t want to miss out on those....more
I’m trying to add more mysteries and thrillers to my reading repertoire this year, so earlier this month when an opportunity to review The Chalk Man audiobook landed into my lap, I decided to take it. After all, you can hardly expect me to say no to a book that has been compared to the works of Stephen King and Stranger Things.
Described as a tale of psychological suspense and a murder mystery, this book is told through the eyes of protagonist Eddie Adams in a narrative divided between two timelines. In the summer of 1986, Eddie is a 12-year-old boy doing what all 12-year-olds do when school’s out and the weather’s nice: he and his friends Hoppo, Metal Mickey, Fat Gav, and Nicky spend their days playing in the park, riding their bikes, and exploring the woods around their quiet English village of Anderbury. Then Fat Gav receives a bucket of chalk for his birthday, which inspires the five of them to invent a way of communicating amongst themselves by using coded chalk drawings. Soon, all of them are using this system to leave each other secret messages—until one day, someone else uses their code to lead them to a grisly discovery.
Fast forward to 2016, and Eddie is a middle-aged man recalling the day thirty years ago when those unexplained chalk drawings pointed him and his friends to a dismembered body in the woods. He had thought the past was behind him, but then he receives a letter in the mail with a single stick figure drawn in chalk. The mystery deepens when he finds out that his friends also got the same message, reminding them all of what happened that summer. The whole town had thought the murder was solved, the killer identified, and the case put to rest—but the little chalk man suggests otherwise. Then one of Eddie’s friends, who claims to know who the real killer was, ends up dead. It seems the past will continue to haunt them all, unless Eddie can uncover the truth of what happened all those years ago.
This book had me engrossed from beginning to end. Like all debuts it had its flaws, but nevertheless, it’s hard to believe this was the author’s first novel, since she seemed to have such a firm grasp on all the touchstones of the genre. Atmosphere was something Tudor managed exceedingly well, creating a story filled with tension and suspense. The 1986 chapters painted a very authentic picture of the time period and of life in a small insular village where everyone knows each other’s business. As such, there were plenty of opportunities for side plots involving the townsfolk, as well as other elements all going on at the same time, and these were all blended perfectly together to add drama and intrigue to the main storyline. This kept the overall mystery unpredictable with carefully constructed false leads and surprising twists, resulting in a very entertaining experience.
This book was also a very detailed study on the character of Eddie Adams. We get to know him fairly well, seeing the events through his point of view as a child on the verge of adolescence, and then as a grown man. However, there’s a touch of the “unreliable narrator” about him too, especially when it becomes clear early on that Eddie is himself a bit of an oddity. Like many of the townspeople, our protagonist has plenty of his own secrets, and really, what 12-year-old boy is a paragon of honesty? As an adult, Eddie is more even-tempered and mature, though there’s no doubt that the events of that summer have affected him deeply, and we also get the sense of a man full of regret. Throughout the novel, there’s a recurring theme of inaction leading to misery, as well as unintentional acts leading to harm or misfortune, which might explain why the 42-year-old Eddie is so driven to find the truth, possibly because he feels the need to make up for past mistakes.
Engaging and intense, The Chalk Man is a book that will have you constantly wondering who, what, how, and why. Non-linear narratives can be tricky, but C.J. Tudor uses the alternating timelines to great effect, timing the twists and revelations perfectly to induce horror and suspense, creating an atmosphere of unease that is always creeping at the edge of your consciousness. Her debut is a psychological thriller worthy of the genre, well written with slow teases and cleverly dropped clues that gradually build up to a chilling finale. Highly recommended.
Audiobook Comments: Euan Morton was a great narrator, who pulled me into the story straight away. Between his reading and the author’s writing, this was an audiobook I couldn’t stop listening to and I finished it in two days....more
I’ve been on a tie-in kick lately, with Mass Effect: Initiation being my latest foray into the world of one of my favorite video game series. The fact that they also got Hugo Award winning author N.K. Jemisin to lend her writing chops to this project certainly didn’t hurt. Co-written by Bioware creative director Mac Walters, Initiation is the second prequel novel to Mass Effect: Andromeda, focusing on the events that take place in the months before the game starts. However, no knowledge or experience with the games (or any of the previous books) in the Mass Effect series is required to enjoy this story.
It is 2185, approximately half a year before the start of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Lieutenant Cora Harper, formerly of the Systems Alliance military, is returning to human territory after four years spent with Talein’s Daughters, an elite Asari commando squad, as part of an interspecies training program. Now one of humanity’s most powerful biotics, Cora is recommended for Alec Ryder’s Andromeda Initiative, a civilian-backed multi-species project to settle colonists in the Andromeda Galaxy. Called the Pathfinder, Alec is initially skeptical of Cora’s motivations (or rather, the lack of them) but nevertheless agrees to take her on, giving her what was supposed to be a straightforward assignment to recover some stolen data.
However, the mission ends in spectacular failure, with Cora barely escaping with her life. Clearly, there is more to the stolen property that Alec Ryder had tasked her to retrieve, and Cora intends to find some answers. But the more she digs, the more she discovers too many secrets, and Alec’s tight-lipped refusal to let her in on the truth means that it is up to Cora to protect the Andromeda Initiative against the incoming threat.
For a sci-fi action novel, Initiation is well-written and solid. For a media tie-in, I found it exceptional. Either way, you can’t lose. Jemisin and Walters have written a fast-paced and adrenaline-fueled adventure that packs all the entertainment and thrills expected from a Mass Effect story. If you’ve played the Andromeda, Cora Harper is one of your game-controlled squad mates, but her role as lead protagonist here gives us a lot more insight into the history and personality of the character. She comes across as genuine and real. A tough and seasoned soldier, Cora is nonetheless in a vulnerable position when we first meet her upon her return from Asari space, feeling like the odd woman out in a world that no longer feels familiar to her. She also has no idea how to deal with pushy reporters getting into her face, or the toxic, xenophobic attitudes directed at her for “betraying” humanity just because she worked with aliens. We get this sense of a lost and confused woman, cast adrift now that she feels she is no longer needed.
Fortunately, the Andromeda Initiative gives Cora the new motivational drive she’s been looking for—that, and trying to find out who’s trying to kill her. As her professionalism and tactical skills begin to shine though, we are treated to the “real” Cora—the one who possesses a fierce and unbending loyalty, impeccable discipline, and a wry sense of humor (which frequently reveals itself when she interacts with SAM-E, the experimental “virtual intelligence” she was implanted with when she first joined the Initiative). Cora is also a goals-oriented individual who is in her element when given something to fight for, and I liked that the authors took the time to highlight her bravery and tenacity.
The story was fun, very different from what I’ve seen from Jemisin so far with her work in the fantasy genre—but I sure hope she’ll continue writing more like this. I loved the exciting and intense action, which kept the book’s pacing rapid and engaging. At the same time, we got a level of character exploration not typically seen in a lot of media tie-in novels, and here, I have no doubt we have Jemisin’s influence to thank. When it comes to developing character personalities and backgrounds, she’s one of the best.
I must admit though, despite Jemisin’s name attached to this novel, I wasn’t expecting much from Mass Effect: Initiation when I first picked it up. Needless to say, I was quickly disabused of that notion within the first few pages. This was a great book, with lots of fun and lots of thrills. It just goes to show the bias against media tie-ins still runs deep, even for someone like me, who reads almost one a month. However, as more books like Initiation prove that books based on video games can be just as engaging, well-written, and worth reading, hopefully those perceptions won’t linger for long....more
It’s been several months since I last reviewed a Serial Box title, and it appears they’ve been very busy churning out new serials while my attention was elsewhere. Still, I thought I’d been doing a pretty good job keeping informed of their releases, which was why I was so surprised on my latest venture to the SB website to come across ReMade, a series I hadn’t heard of before. Not only that, I saw that Season Two had just kicked off, which meant somehow a whole season had passed me by.
Curiosity piqued, I ended up accepting an offer of the entire 15-episode first season for review. The premise sounded interesting, and this being Serial Box’s first foray into the Young Adult genre, they probably wanted to get some of big names behind the project because I also recognized several of them on the author list which includes Matthew Cody, Andrea Phillips, Kiersten White, Gwenda Bond, Carrie Harris, and E.C. Myers. The story was pitched to me as Lost meets The Maze Runner (which I actually found to be quite accurate), following a group of twenty-three teenagers and young adults who wake up one day on a strange jungle world full of unidentifiable creatures and killer robots. Nearby, a towering space elevator looms. Are they in the future? Or have they been abducted and transported to an alien planet? No one knows for sure what’s going on, but gradually they discover a common factor among themselves—every single one of them has final memories of dying before they woke up here.
First, there’s Holden and Seyah, who were together in the same car that collided with an oncoming truck in the opposite lane. Then there’s May, whose paranoia over her severe allergies prevents her from eating anything in this strange new place, even as her body hungers for food. Next is Nevaeh, who remembers drawing her last breath in a hospital bed before finally succumbing to a long battle with cancer. The boy known as Loki. Teen idol and reality TV star Teddy Young. Inez, whose last memories of a fun day at the beach with her family ended in tragedy. Umta, who is not quite human. Hardworking Cole, who is haunted by memories of his sweetheart and infant son. Nearly two dozen characters from different backgrounds with different stories to tell, but all their lives seemed to have ended around the same time, with death occurring between 9:31 and 9:32pm Eastern Time on October 14th, 2016.
When reading serialized fiction, I generally prefer waiting for the full novel or season to be completed before tackling all the installments in one go, as opposed to following them piecemeal by the week. Serials like ReMade are a pretty good example of why I do this, given its rather unusual structure. While it features a present storyline set on the mysterious jungle world, each episode also focuses mainly on one character and tells their backstory through a long sequence of flashbacks. More than anything else, it was this aspect of the series that reminded me most of Lost, with its use of a nonlinear narrative to tell a character-driven mystery.
Admittedly, this is a format that probably works best if you can finish one episode and jump into the next one right away. Personally, I doubt my interest would have held and I probably wouldn’t have continued reading if I’d had to wait a week between each one. For example, the first episode “Shadow and Dreams” featuring Holden simply drops readers into this bizarre new world with little to no context, and because his flashbacks also took up so much of the narrative, we were also left with no real answers by the time it ended. It was a pretty unsatisfying intro to say the least, but the advantage of having the full season on hand meant I was able to binge read the next few episodes, which I believe made all the difference. As I kept reading, a pattern began to take shape, along with a clear direction. As a result, somewhere between Episode 3 “Home, Perilous Home” (Nevaeh’s story) and Episode 4 “The Most Dangerous Game” (Loki’s story), I found myself completely hooked.
Still, for me I think it was Episode 6 “Reality No-Show” featuring Teddy and Inez that finally sealed the deal. Aside from being my favorite, this episode also signaled a turning point in the series, first because it began apart from the others, and second because it kicked off a new arc for the main storyline which is still advancing at a brisk pace despite all the flashbacks. Like a TV series, ReMade seems to move in stages, and every few episodes there will be a climactic event that will challenge the characters and shake up the status quo. While there were still plenty of questions at this point, I was already so invested in the mystery that I didn’t mind waiting a little longer for the answers.
Considering the format, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the characters were also a huge motivation for me to continue. Although the premise states we start off with twenty-three people, eventually only a handful rise to prominence as “main” characters. However, this is still enough for a very diverse cast, resulting in a lot of interesting backstories and interactions between different characters. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, with some emerging as natural leaders while others take on a more supportive—but no less important—role in helping each other survive throughout the series. Even though a couple characters manage to achieve great feats, the story still gives you the sense that everyone’s skills and talents are required to succeed. There was no one character I preferred more than any other, in that I was able to relate to each in a different way. They are all flawed, with their individual experiences shaping much of their personalities and motivations, and the flashbacks go a long way in showing us how and why.
All told, ReMade now ranks among my favorite series from Serial Box. If you’re familiar with the TV show Lost and the way it featured a primary storyline supplemented by flashbacks to expand character backstories, then you’ll probably recognize a similar format here, used by the authors to develope a fascinating dystopian mystery. Now that all 15 episodes of the first season are released, you can pick up ReMade in its entirety, which in my opinion is the best way to enjoy the series anyway, and hence why I am looking forward to when the currently running second season is complete. I’m very curious to find out what happens, and will be excited to continue reading....more
I confess, I’m not too well-versed in the Enderverse, with Ender’s Game being the extent of my experience with the series. Still, I was drawn to the Children of the Fleet because it was pitched to me as the beginning of a new story arc which runs parallel to the events on Earth as told in the Ender’s Shadow sequence, so I decided to give it a try in the hopes that I won’t get too lost.
In this novel, we are given the first look into Battle School, now re-purposed and renamed to Fleet School ever since Ender Wiggin brought an the end of the Formic Wars. Our protagonist is an 11-year-old named Dabeet Ochoa, a highly intelligent but also extremely arrogant little boy. Raised by his overbearing mother, he desperately wants to escape his life surrounded by mediocrity. His dream is to attend Fleet School which he believes is his prerogative, since—according to his mother—Dabeet’s father is an officer in the International Fleet who got her pregnant and then abandoned them both.
In truth though, Dabeet holds little faith in his mother’s claims, but believes that his high intelligence scores and academic merits should be enough to get him accepted. Fleet school may have been repurposed, but its mission remains the same: to recruit the best and the brightest children, and train them to become humanity’s future leaders. Naturally, filled with his own sense of self-importance, Dabeet believes he belongs in this group. Surely, if he sends enough inquiries and writes enough essays, he’s bound to catch someone’s attention. And indeed, one day Dabeet gets a surprise visit. Turning up on his doorstep is none other than Golonel Graff, the man who mentored Ender Wiggin and is now the head of the Ministry of Colonization, the administrative arm that runs Fleet School. However, to Dabeet’s surprise and bewilderment, the meeting doesn’t exactly go as he thought it would.
What follows is a story that mirrors Ender’s Game in a lot of ways, but also offers a few new spins on a familiar premise. We are once more thrust into a coming-of-age narrative that takes place in a sci-fi military school setting, but changes have definitely been made now that the alien threat is no more. Additionally, a much greater emphasis is placed on Dabeet’s personal journey and emotional growth, making Children of the Fleet more of a character study than an action-oriented adventure. In other words, the tactical training and battle games take a backseat to our protagonist’s own journey of self-discovery, evaluation, and eventual realization.
How you feel about this story will hinge upon how you feel about Dabeet. His character is at the center of this narrative, a singularly unique personality that demonstrates resolve, autonomy, and intelligence—all traits that should make him a natural leader, except he possesses not a shred of humility or social grace. Arguably, he is unlikeable by design. Exceptional even among the other gifted students at his school on Earth, Dabeet never met an intellectual challenge he couldn’t conquer, filling him with overconfidence and pride. He also has few friends, believing himself superior over others. His entire worldview is shaken, however, once he arrives at Fleet School and discovers just how average he is, surrounded by his fellow cadets who are equally talented, if not more so, than himself. Gradually, Dabeet realizes he must overcome his flaws in order to succeed, even if that also means forging relationships and working with others.
Although I never did warm to Dabeet, the later sections of the book showing his efforts to change his ways and become something more admittedly did make me feel more sympathetic towards his character. There’s also a background situation involving a conspiracy which our protagonist must try to uncover before his time runs out, and I found myself rooting for him to succeed. That said, I wouldn’t say I was riveted by this story because it was rather tame and slow to build (not to mention, we’re never given the full answers behind what is happening at MinCol even by the end of the book). At the same time though, I loved the greater focus on character building and development. Finally, because this novel is all about Dabeet, I found that I was able to jump into this book with minimal knowledge of the Enderverse and still follow along with no problems.
All told, I thought Children of the Fleet did a great job presenting a different point of view, letting us glimpse this post-Formic Wars universe through the eyes of a fascinating protagonist. Love him or hate him, Dabeet Ochoa is the kind of character who will stick in your mind, and hopefully his addition to this saga will open up many doors to future possibilities and new horizons....more
After my disastrous time with Empire of Storms, I wasn’t sure that I would be continuing this series, especially when I found out that there would be not one but two more books left until its completion. However, that was before I realized that Tower of Dawn would be focusing exclusively on Chaol Westfall, whose absence in the previous novel was one of the main factors that rattled my cage. Thing is, despite Chaol’s many faults, I still like him. I also consider him to be one of the better Throne of Glass personalities amidst this sea of unlikeable characters. And so, just like that, I was suckered in once again.
But flying in the face my initial concerns, this book actually turned out to be pretty good (it’s amazing what a difference it makes not having to put up with Aelin’s brattiness and endless self-absorbtion). Tower of Dawn is basically a story that runs alongside what we’ve been seeing from the point of view of Aelin, Dorian, and Rowan so far. While those peeps are off busy fighting a war, Chaol and Nesryn are instead traveling south to the land of Antica where they hope to convince more allies to join their cause. Moreover, it is said that the empire’s best healers dwell in kingdom’s Torre Cesme, and after having his lower body paralyzed from a magical blow that shattered his spine, Chaol is desperate to see if there’s anyone there who can cure him.
In fact, there is indeed someone at the Torre who has the specialized skills to help. Yrene Towers is a powerful healer who has recently treated a similar injury in another patient, with great success. As heir apparent to the Healer on High, she has completed many difficult trials to get to where she is today, but the task she receives now could be the greatest challenge she has ever faced. Tasked to oversee Chaol Westfall’s convalescence, Yrene is at first vehemently against the idea of treating the former Captain of the Adarlan Royal Guard, a man she considers an agent of the enemy that invaded her homeland when she was a little girl. Adarlan soldiers burned her mother alive, leading Yrene to flee her native land and ultimately end up in Antica.
In news that should surprise no one, Tower of Dawn is mostly a romance with 90% of the story concerned with how Chaol and Yrene eventually get together. Yes, there is some mystery and action involved as well as some political maneuvering, but these were mostly distractions to give readers the semblance of moving the series arc along. Still, let’s not kid ourselves—most are likely here primarily for the love story, and secondarily for Chaol’s redemption, so the question is, how did Maas do this time?
Well, I’m not going to lie, there are still a lot of aspects of her writing I find annoying, like her overly dramatic, flowery prose, or the fact that her characters all seem to follow a particular template. The story was also very clichéd, and for a book that was supposedly giving fans a chance to follow a different protagonist and visit a new setting, I frankly expected a lot more.
That said, this was still an enormous improvement over the previous novel. Maas may have taken her sweet time developing Chaol and Yrene’s relationship, but at least she always stayed on point, avoiding the lengthy and pointless conversations and meandering plot threads that plagued Empire of Storms. And while the romance itself was still eye-rollingly predictable, it deserves some credit for at least giving us some meaningful questions and themes to chew on.
In my time spent working in the rehabilitation field with individuals with disabilities, one of the main principles drilled into all of us care providers was the importance of client dignity. Kudos to the author, I believe she did her due diligence in researching the related issues, and I probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn if some of these efforts had involved actual conversations and interviews with people living with paraplegia. A lot of Chaol’s thoughts and emotions echoed closely to those from real clients I have worked with in wheelchair and seating clinics, immediately making his character feel genuine to me. Yrene, too, is like a representation of a caregiver’s guide of dos-and-don’ts as it relates to medical professionalism, exploring how her mistakes can affect Chaol. Hence, compared to the series’ other couples, I just felt like there was something a little deeper and more heartfelt to their romance.
My one big complaint, though? I did not like how Nesryn’s storyline was sacrificed for the main couple’s happiness. Oh sure, true to form, Maas made sure she was paired off with someone else, but as other reviews have mentioned, there is some serious grey area cheating happening here, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Strangely, infidelity as a plot device has never bothered me as much as some people, but in Chaol and Nesryn’s case, it was the way it was handled that didn’t quite sit right. Emotional affairs are not something to take lightly, and there were times I felt all the characters involved were really pushing the boundaries of appropriateness. That everything worked out in the end is irrelevant; it’s the principle of it that irked me. Plus, considering how it was Nesryn who carried out most of the difficult investigative work while Chaol was busy making moon eyes at his healer, she didn’t get nearly the attention or recognition she deserves.
Final thoughts? I make it no secret that I disliked the previous volume, but in truth, I’ve been unhappy with the series’ new direction since Queen of Shadows. So if nothing else, Tower of Dawn was a welcome reprieve as it meant simply taking a break from all the obnoxious Aelin drama, and overall this book was a much needed high point even if it was just a modest bump in rating. At the moment, I’m feeling way too cagey to say whether or not I’m looking forward to the next installment, but seeing as it will be the series finale, I will most likely read it for completion’s sake.
Audiobook Comments: As usual, Elizabeth Evans rocks. Her excellent performance has always been my main motivational reason to continue picking up these books in audio format. I actually thought they would go with another narrator for Tower of Dawn, perhaps a male one because of Chaol being the main character, but in the end I’m glad they didn’t. A new reader would have been interesting no doubt, but to me, Elizabeth Evans will always be the voice of this series....more
I enjoyed Tess of the Road more than I expected, but probably less than I had hoped. I wasn’t a big fan of Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina duology when I read it, but nevertheless felt optimistic about her new book because I have a love for “wanderlust” stories and the description of Tess as a “troublemaker” immediately piqued my interest.
To her credit, our protagonist was living up to that promise from the start. When she was a little girl, Tess was caught trying to stage a pretend marriage between her twin sister and cousin because she wanted to know where babies came from. Just a child’s innocent curiosity, perhaps—but it does foreshadow a lot more to come. Years pass, and all of Tess’s energies have turned towards helping her sister Jeanne find a good husband, having ruined her own prospects in the eyes of her family. Society now considers her “damaged goods”, and Tess is forced to hide her past like a shameful secret. Lashing out at Jeanne’s wedding, she winds up drinking too much and causing a scene, jeopardizing the entire marriage. Driven to her last nerve, her mother decides to send her to a convent, but before any arrangements could be made, Tess dons the disguise of a boy and runs away, taking to the road.
What follows is an almost episodic narrative that traces the ups and downs of Tess’s journey as she travels across the land, meeting new people and trying new experiences. It is also a deeply personal tale of self-discovery and coming to terms with one’s own past.
The problem, however, is the book’s structure, consisting of a present timeline with flashbacks inserted throughout, revealing the events which made Tess such a social pariah and why her own family holds her in such contempt. In truth, it is not hard to guess; as I said, there were plenty of hints provided in the early pages. But knowing exactly what happened makes Tess a more sympathetic character and easier to understand, and unfortunately, these important details are held back until late into the novel. In light of these revelations, Tess’s troubled personality is cast in a different light, but of course, by then it might be too late for readers who have already made up their minds about her character.
The “episodic” nature of Tess’s adventures also made the pacing feel uneven. Some parts of the story, especially in the middle of the novel, were slow and I had some difficulty trying to stay focused. Most of the time, I just found myself hoping for another flashback so that I could find out more about Tess’s past. To be fair, the book did pick up again near the end with the introduction of Josquin, though by then my attention had already been severely tested.
Finally, Tess of the Road is a very “mature” book, dealing with a lot of issues modern teens face today. Personally, this made the story a much more compelling read, though I fear these themes might lose a bit of their significance due to the fantasy context, or they could potentially become a mere distraction to those who rightfully just want a bit of escapism. In a way, some of the novel’s greatest strengths are also its biggest drawbacks, and the mixed response from the YA community now makes a lot more sense to me.
Despite some of my mixed feelings, I’m still very excited to read the sequel. The book ends on a high note just as things were becoming interesting, promising more excitement in Tess’s future. For better or worse, I don’t think the next volume will focus as much on our protagonist’s inner turmoil, considering how far she has come in this first book with regards to realizing her own self-worth. As long as Tess continues to travel and grow as a character though, I can definitely get behind a more adventurous and action-oriented sequel....more
Tempest and Slaughter was my first Tamora Pierce novel, and I loved it. The story follows protagonist Arram Draper, a gifted 10-year-old mage whose power rivals even that of students almost twice his age at the prestigious Imperial University of Carthak. But when his lack of training eventually leads to the accidental flooding of a classroom, it is swiftly decided that special arrangements must be made for Arram.
Suddenly, he finds himself transferred amidst a cohort of older students, to be given private one-on-one instruction by no less than five masters at the school. The special treatment results in Arram being ostracized by the other children, though he does end up making two very close friends, both of whom are also in the fast-tracked program. The first of them is his roommate Ozorne, an heir to the throne of Carthak (though there are seven others ahead of him in line, earning him the nickname of the “Leftover Prince”). And then there’s the kind and charismatic Varice, an intelligent and hardworking girl who loves cooking and working with potions. The three of them become inseparable, and even talk about the future when they will all fight by each other’s sides to protect their kingdom from the constant threat of war. But the more Arram learns in his lessons, the more uncertain he is that this is the path he wants to take. While there is glory to be had on the battlefield, his true passion lies in the less martial forms of magic.
As the years pass, Arram also feels his relationships with his friends changing. He begins falling for Varice, though he has no idea whether she feels the same about him. Around the same time, a series of accidents and tragedies befall the royal family, putting Ozorne closer to the throne. It makes Arram’s heart break for his friend because he knows the crown is not what Ozorne wants. Still, the prince needs the support of his companions now more than ever, and one of Arram’s best virtues is his loyalty.
Arram eventually grows up to become the powerful mage known as Numair Salmalín, a character who apparently features prominently in a lot of Tamora Pierce’s books set in the Tortall universe. But in Tempest and Slaughter, he is still just a young boy, and the series is supposed to chronicle his early life. Most of this first book is taken up by why goes on in his various classes and the amazing things he learns from his teachers, and unsurprisingly, like most “magic school” narratives for young adults, I found many of its themes to be very Harry Potter-like in their execution. It’s also a bit of a slow-builder, with no overarching conflict for much of the story. Instead, the earlier sections of the novel are presented as a series of Arram’s experiences with magic, and many of the challenges he faces are those related to the day-to-day life of being a student. This includes everything from the mundane (like trying to pass exams, make new friends, or dealing with bullies) to the more magical (such as crafting magical jewelry or mastering mage circle techniques). As well, there are plenty of unexpected delights to be found in Arram’s lessons, such as getting to meet a crocodile god while learning to traverse underwater, or having to take responsibility for raising magical animals.
Despite its somewhat rambling nature, I still very much enjoyed following Arram’s story. As interesting as his lessons were, my favorite part was reading about his interactions with Ozorne and Varice. The three friends come from very different backgrounds and have a lot to teach each other as they grow from children to young adults. Matters of puberty are addressed as Arram becomes more conscious of his changing physiology and emotions, even as his heart grows fonder for Varice. Meanwhile, Ozorne also grows increasingly anxious and moody as, one by one, the heirs before him are picked off by misfortune, leading Arram to begin questioning his future with the young prince.
Besides his friends, our protagonist has also bonded with others outside the university, including a gladiator slave whose harsh life has opened Arram’s eyes to a lot of the poverty and injustices occurring in the city. These sections highlight Arram’s innocence by exposing him to the more brutal ways of the world, but they also show he has a compassionate side and a strong sense of decency.
I’ll be honest here; not much really happens by the end of this book, but I think the author’s powerful character study of Arram and the intimacy of his tale will go a long way in making up for that lack of story progression. Throughout it all, I never lost interest. If anything, my curiosity about the book’s world has only grown, and I find myself wanting to read more of Pierce’s work. Perhaps I’ll take a look at her other series set in the Tortall universe while waiting for the sequel.
Audiobook Comments: Ari Meyers is a new narrator for me, and although I couldn’t find too many audiobook credits to her name, her performance sounded experienced enough and I also thought her voice well suited to portraying the many young and diverse characters in the story....more
I spent a day last week stumbling around in a sleep-deprived stupor because I had been up late the night before, and it was all this book’s fault since I’d refused to put it down until I was finished. Totally worth it, though. Talk about a page-turner! The Naturalist was exactly what I wanted out of a mystery-thriller—fascinating, addictive, and dramatic in all the best ways. It also captivated the science geek in me by featuring a protagonist who uses the study of plant and animal behavior and physiology to solve crimes, his specialized knowledge allowing him to spot patterns where others cannot. Think The Da Vinci Code, but with biology.
Our story begins as computational biologist Theo Cray gets a call from the police while on a field research trip in Montana. The body of Juniper Parsons, one of his ex-students, has been found in the woods near a small town, and the cause of death appears to have been a rogue grizzly attack. However, Theo is not convinced, recognizing unnatural signs in the evidence. Despite the terrible claw marks and the traces of fur on the victim, he’s not sure that whatever killed her was even an animal. More likely it was a man, he insists. Killing like an animal.
Unfortunately, the police are no help, especially once Fish and Wildlife Service puts down the bear believed to be responsible for the savage attack. Knowing that his former student’s true killer is still out there though, Theo is unwilling to give up and decides to conduct his own investigation, uncovering a disturbing pattern of missing persons reports and mysterious deaths that go back for more than thirty years. All the incidents happened in or around the state of Montana, many of them involving young women. In the cases where remains were recovered, the mutilated bodies all displayed the same kind of claw marks found on Juniper Parsons. Following a trail of clues, Theo begins finding more victims and knows he’s getting closer to the truth, though inevitably his efforts draw unwanted attention as the police start suspecting Theo himself.
The Naturalist is the perfect thriller novel for the science lover. Yes, it can get a little farfetched at times, requiring the reader to simply roll with it, but with a story this enthralling and irresistible, you’d be surprised at how much I’m willing to let slide. A couple of minor plot holes and a few dubious moments were not enough to detract from the enjoyment.
Another amazing thing about this book is its protagonist. Theo is a professor in an extremely esoteric field, so he’s always having a hard time getting others to understand his evidence or how he’s getting his data. It also doesn’t help that he’s a bit socially awkward, and his brain is wired to think in a very different way than most people. In spite of this though, I found him remarkably easy to relate to—and not just because of the shared interest in biological sciences. Above all, Theo is driven by a sense of duty towards his murdered student, and while his guilt and emotional self-punishment may have been a tad unfounded, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic towards someone whose heart is so genuine and in the right place. He attacks his mission with indefatigable zeal that almost borders on obsession, but you’ve also got to admire his persistence, especially when he finds ways to get creative. While Theo is highly intelligent, his doggedness and complete lack of street smarts often leads to solutions with successful results but appalling side effects.
Then there’s the plot, which sank its hooks into me and dug in deep. The story’s tone and style are arguably similar to that of most thrillers, but like I said, this novel had a scientific angle to it that made it special. A good balance of action and suspense kept the pace swift and strong, and some of the more mysterious and atmospheric scenes were even touched with a hint of horror. The final chapters of the book, AKA the section that had me devouring the pages at the expense of a good night’s sleep, were so intense and insane that I doubt I could have stopped reading even if the house was burning down around me.
Man, I really hope I won’t have long to wait for the sequel, because it does appear The Naturalist is the first book of a new series. Cleverly addictive and hugely entertaining, this book had me hanging on every word from start to finish. If I’m reading a lot more mystery-thriller these days, well, it’s because of books like this, and I can’t wait to read more from Andrew Mayne....more
Admittedly, I’m not so big a fan of Jane Austen or Austen-inspired fiction that I would normally pick up any book with a title that begins with “Pride and…”, but there was just something irresistible about John Kessel’s novel that called to me. Of course, the added element of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t hurt. Still, although it may draw inspiration from one of two of the most beloved novels of classic literature, it would be a disservice to simply label Pride and Prometheus as just your average literary mashup. Not only has the author succeeded in capturing the tone, spirit, and style of these two works, he’s managed to create a perfect fusion of its deeper themes as well.
Expanding upon Kessel’s 2008 Nebula Award winning novelette of the same name, the story begins with the chance meeting between an English high society woman and a young scientist from Switzerland. Mary Bennet, one of the sisters of Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, is persuaded to attend a ball by her mother, who is desperate to find marriage prospects for her two remaining unwed daughters. It is there that Mary first encounters the quiet and pensive Victor Frankenstein, who is in town with his friend Henry Clerval. Drawn to his intelligence and his shared love of the sciences and natural philosophy, Mary immediately strikes up a rapport with Frankenstein, but is disappointed when the scientist ends up standing her up for a dance, having slipped out of the party earlier without letting anyone know.
The reason for Victor Frankenstein’s reticence and hasty departure is soon made apparent with the introduction of the Creature, a monster whom the scientist had brought to life and then cast out, appalled by what he had done. But now the Creature stalks him, driven by Victor’s promise that he would fashion a bride for him. He has followed his maker to England, growing impatient. Victor knows that until he has delivered on his promise, any new relationship would be impossible because no one around him would be safe.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the writing. Kessel’s writing is absolutely gorgeous, emulating the style and manner of the original novels that inspired this tale, both of which were written in the early 19th century. As such, the language might take some getting used to, but gradually the story will ease you into the rhythm of the alternating viewpoints between Mary Bennet, Victor Frankenstein, and the Creature (who has dubbed himself Adam). I was also surprised to find that not only were the elements from both Regency Romance and Gothic Horror represented equally, they were blended perfectly. Granted, I was initially skeptical of the novel’s premise and the ambitious idea of throwing these two disparate genres together, but John Kessel managed to knock it out of the park.
As for the story and characters, my feelings are a lot more complicated—but in the good way. For the most part, Kessel stays true to the personalities of Mary, Victor, and Adam, expanding upon them in a way that feels different without abandoning the essence of what makes them who they are. His version of Mary is especially sympathetic. As the middle Bennet sister, she is plain and bookish, much like Austen’s version. However, in Pride and Prometheus, she is a much deeper and contemplative character, and her love of the natural sciences (manifested as an interest in fossils) is genuine. Beneath her social awkwardness is also a caring and spiritual heart, even if she is sometimes driven by self-interest. Just as complex are the characters of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, but because their tale closely mirrors that of Shelley’s original, I didn’t find them nearly as fascinating. Still, close to the end was a scene that filled me with so much anger and then with so much sorrow that I was almost driven to tears. All I’ll say about it is that, beyond the three main characters, there are a few others who I’ll never look at quite the same way again after reading this novel.
All in all, I adored everything about Pride and Prometheus, from the utterly engrossing struggles of its characters to the emotional themes about obsession and attachment. The book is also artfully written, and I think Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein fans will be impressed with how well Kessel has captured the original novels’ forms and styles, even if it might make it more challenging for some readers to get into the writing. If you’re familiar with both classics, there will still be plenty of surprises, many of which I loved but couldn’t elaborate on in this review because I badly want prospective readers to discover these plot developments for themselves. This book endeared itself to me and then broke my heart, but all I could think about after finishing this was how I wanted more. Truly a treasure of a novel....more
Last year, I had the pleasure of reading horror writer extraordinaire Ania Ahlborn for the very first time. I was glad I picked up The Devil Crept In, a novel about a boy who goes missing in the woods amidst a town with a terrible secret. It was legitimately one of only a handful of books to ever keep me up at night, and I vowed that I would read more Ahlborn the first chance I got.
That chance came with Apart in the Dark, an omnibus featuring a pair of the author’s horror novellas which were previously only available in digital format. Now, I’m not typically big on novellas, but I gladly made an exception in this case.
The Pretty Ones
The first story in this collection, The Pretty Ones, takes place in New York City during the sweltering summer of 1977—the year in which the Son of Sam conducted his infamous killing spree. Our protagonist is Nell Sullivan, an early twenty-something young woman employed at a call center for a major corporation. Quiet, awkward, and extremely self-conscious, Nell doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of the girls at work, who all seem to have perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect lives. Silently, she may seethe at their bullying and cruel jabs, imagining torturing and killing them in the worst of ways, but the truth is, Nell desperately wants to be popular. She also can’t afford to lose her job, so when her supervisor tells her to try to open up and be more social, Nell takes the advice to heart.
However, her brother Barrett, who doesn’t speak and is completely dependent on Nell to support his aspiring writing career, thinks she’s wasting her time trying to make new friends. He believes the two of them can only depend on each other, having shared a traumatic childhood growing up with an abusive mother.
More than this I don’t want to say, because wow, there were a ton of cool twists and surprises packed in this novella which only clocks in at about 140 pages. As someone who both fascinated and frustrated me, Nell was a compelling character to follow. She’s strange, timid, unwilling to stick up for herself, and admittedly, at times her thoughts and actions could also come across as unbelievably cringey. That said, her personality traits are the result of her upbringing, and the descriptions of horrible things she and her brother went through were just heartbreaking. When you consider her past, it becomes easier to understand the disturbing thoughts that go through Nell’s head, and why she is the way she is.
Truth be told though, I don’t know if I would classify this story as true Horror, as it is not frightening or creepy in the traditional sense. And while there is an element of suspense, Ahlborn doesn’t exactly utilize it in an overly dramatic or exaggerated way. Instead, the story’s climax just kind of sneaks up on you, so that when the final revelation hits, you won’t even really see it coming. That’s the only explanation I could come up with for not figuring out the ending until late in the story, as I’m usually much quicker when it comes to these things.
I Call Upon Thee
Before I continue, first let me preface this next part of my review with a little confession: I hate dolls. Ever since I was a little girl walking in on my parents watching Child’s Play, I have been afraid of them. To this day, I cannot look upon the frozen smile and glassy eyes of a doll without getting the heebie-jeebies. So as you can imagine, this next story creeped me the hell out.
I Call Upon Thee follows Maggie Olsen, a college student who was raised in Savannah, Georgia in a big gorgeous house with her two older sisters. But something happened in that house when our protagonist was a child—something dark and unnatural—that made her decide to leave the moment she graduated high school and never look back. When she was nine years old, Maggie’s middle sister Brynn took her to the nearby cemetery to see where the town’s dead children were buried, and sitting on one of the ancient forgotten graves was a box containing a porcelain doll. Feeling sad for the little girl in that grave, Maggie made a promise to be friends, visiting the cemetery daily until the summer of 2005 when Maggie brought the doll home in order to protect it from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.
But that wasn’t the only thing she brought home. On the day she turned twelve, Maggie used her birthday money to buy a Ouija board, which she tried playing with her best friend during a sleepover party. Life for the Olsens was never the same after that. Tragedies struck one after another, until Maggie left for college and thought the past was finally behind her, but now a frantic phone call in the middle of the night has forced her back to Savannah to confront her old home and the darkness still living inside.
If the previous novella wasn’t scary enough for me, then this one definitely made up for it in spades. Reading it sent chills up my spine. Containing all the ingredients of a classic horror tale, I Call Upon Thee plays upon our childhood fears of the dark and things that lurk under our beds or in our closets. Of the strange sounds waking you up in the dead of night. Of the quick blurry shadows that you catch just out of the corner of your eye.
Also, since this was a longer novella, there were more opportunities for character and story development. I liked how the narrative slowly unraveled, gradually revealing all the secrets and terrible things that happened in Maggie’s past. And just when I thought things couldn’t get better, I reached the end and saw the Author’s Note. Here’s a tip: if you ever read this, make sure not to skip Ahlborn’s closing comments. Reading them only made the unease I felt over this story grow, and made me appreciate it even more.
In closing, I’d just like to say how much I enjoyed Apart in the Dark. While the two novellas within may share some themes, on the whole they are quite different, each offering a distinct horror experience. Both, however, are solidly written and utterly engrossing to read. If you’re curious about the work of Ania Ahlborn, this would be an excellent place to start....more
Redemptor is another fantastic addition to the Valducan series, becoming the fourth book to be published in the sequence, though I think any of the novels can be enjoyed as a standalone. That said, while each of the first three books have featured a different protagonist, this one breaks the pattern by swinging the focus back to Matt Hollis, the demon hunter whom we first met in Dämoren. Prospective readers who wish to get the full picture may want to tackle that one first, since Redemptor contains quite a few characters and references from book one.
Our story begins approximately three years after the events of Dämoren, which saw the defeat of Tiamat’s Cult at Matt Hollis’s hands. Matt is now married to Luiza, a fellow Valducan Knight, and they even have a daughter. But still, the war on demonkind continues, as does the hunt for more sacred weapons to add to the Valducan arsenal. These sentient weapons are the only things capable of destroying a demon, and the knights who wield them are also bonded to them for life, their minds, bodies, and souls becoming one with the angelic spirit within.
Understandably, everyone is concerned when grave news emerges from South America that someone has been trying to steal holy weapons from museums across the continent. An evil buried long ago has suddenly awakened, leaving a trial of death and destruction in its wake. Now even the paladins of the Catholic Church have stepped in to join the fight, offering to put aside their differences with the Valducans in order to help stop their common foe.
So far, each book in the series has expanded upon the world-building and mythology of holy weapons, and Redemptor was no exception. We also get to find out more about the inner workings of the Valducan. In the years since Dämoren, Matt has become an important member of the order, hunting demons with a team instead of being the lone wolf he once was. A bigger cast of characters opens up the book to multiple perspectives, giving the reader a fuller and more detailed picture of the relationships between the various knights, as well as the roles they play. I especially enjoyed the sections featuring Mei and her training sessions with her master, highlighting the importance of trust and friendship among the ranks. No matter who they are or where they come from, the members of the Valducan are like one big family.
But unlike the earlier books like Dämoren or Hounacier, which mainly followed a single hunter, we don’t get to know any one character as intimately in Redemptor. It’s also a very fast-paced and action-oriented novel, so there’s not as many opportunities for in depth characterization—another reason why it might be best to start this series from the beginning if you are a newcomer, so that you can get the foundation for Matt’s character from the first book. Existing fans, however, will most likely find this one to be the most exciting and action-packed installment yet. Matt and his friends are up against the most powerful and dangerous enemy they’ve ever faced, and once this plot gets going, it doesn’t stop.
This book also introduced Felisa, a formidable female paladin of the Vatican, and she was probably my favorite character. Religion tends to be a contentious subject in sci-fi and fantasy, and often, I find that the Church or religious figures in many of these stories are set up to be scapegoats or strawmen, which to me is just lazy writing, and then there are the blatant stereotypes of the zealot. In contrast, it was a breath of fresh air to meet someone like Felisa, who is a strong, positive force—merciless when dealing with demons, but who also has boundless compassion and support to give to people like Luiza’s mother, whose faith is a beautiful and integral part of her life. I hope this won’t be the last we see of Felisa, especially since I’m very interested to see how the partnership between her people and the Valducan will play out, now that the Catholic Church is an ally.
I’m sure I sound like a broken record by now, but simply put, this is a fantastic series and perfect for readers who enjoy their urban fantasy with some darkness and grit. Redemptor was another action-packed sequel featuring compelling characters and topnotch world-building. I can’t wait to read more Valducan.
Audiobook Comments: Certain narrators who make books a better listen than a read, and R.C. Bray is definitely one of them. I’ve been an admirer of his work ever since I listened to him read The Martian, and I love that he is also the voice of the Valducan series. He’s the kind of narrator who can adapt to anything he’s reading, and once again he was excellent with Redemptor, capturing the atmosphere and mood of the story, delivering a pitch-perfect performance....more
After a slight dip, things in Rockton are back in full swing with this latest installment of the Casey Duncan mysteries. Summer has come to the Yukon and Casey is looking forward to taking advantage of the longer days, patrolling the woods around town with her boyfriend Sheriff Eric Dalton and training their boisterous Newfoundland puppy to help with police work. But then the peace is shattered when the powers that be inform Rockton that they will need to make accommodations for a new resident—which isn’t an unusual request by itself, but it soon becomes clear there’s nothing ordinary about this visitor.
For one thing, Oliver Brady is a serial killer. While Rockton may house its fair share of criminals who are trying to keep a low profile, none of them are anywhere near so dangerous. Established as a haven for those hoping to escape their pasts, the town also lacks any facilities or resources to keep anyone in long term imprisonment. But that is exactly what Rockton’s handlers are demanding, expecting the town to keep Oliver locked up and out of the public eye for six whole months. And because he’s the stepson of a rich businessman who is paying handsomely to make this all happen, Eric and Casey have no choice but to do as they’re told.
Still, no amount of warning could have prepared them for the trouble Oliver will bring to Rockton. From the moment he is dumped on their doorstep, bound and gagged, the young man has insisted on his innocence, claiming that he was set up. While Casey is almost certain it is all an act, Oliver does succeed in riling up the townsfolk who are disconcerted by his rough treatment, and before long, there is evidence to suggest he may have recruited a sympathizer or an accomplice. As a former homicide detective dedicated to seeking out the truth, Casey wants to believe in innocent until proven guilty, but neither can she deny that Rockton has become a much more dangerous place ever since the arrival of Oliver.
This series is three books in now, and just when I thought things might be slowing down, Kelley Armstrong is ratcheting up the action and suspense again in this unpredictable sequel filled with murder, subterfuge, and plenty of suspects. No doubt about it, this novel was a vast improvement over the previous one, which disappointed me after the strong start that was City of the Lost. First and foremost, the story of A Darkness Absolute was marred by its predictability; obviously, there was much less fun to be had when I was able to guess the perpetrator by the halfway point. The main characters were also forced into situations where they failed too many times, making me feel frustrated with their incompetence.
In contrast, This Fallen Prey was a roller coaster of red herrings and unexpected twists. As a character and a plot device, Oliver has got to be every mystery reader’s dream come true, simply because there is absolutely no guessing his endgame. He’s a desperate man and a master manipulator, taking advantage of Casey and Dalton’s honorable intentions and desire to do the right thing. Oliver’s sudden arrival in Rockton turns their job into a nightmare, and between all the security issues and chaos of trying to keep everyone from poking around asking too many questions, it’s amazing they were able to keep the town from tearing itself apart. I also liked that we got to see more of the surrounding areas of Rockton, with the warmer weather giving our characters more time to spend outdoors rather than stay cooped up within the confines of the town. Isolated and in the middle of nowhere, you’d think there wouldn’t be that many suspects to consider, but the author pulls out all the stops in this one, reminding readers that there are plenty of unknown factors out there lurking in the woods, including hostiles, settlers, and even the local wildlife. For the first time in this series, we also end on a significant cliffhanger where not every loose end gets resolved. Although the big questions get answered, things are still far from over.
Still, the highlight for me was being able to return to Rockton and catch up with the characters. Casey and Eric make a great team, and I’m liking how each book sees them growing closer. That said, the romantic drama has been downplayed with each sequel, which incidentally is what I prefer—after all, Casey Duncan is a mystery-thriller series, and Armstrong appears to have found the perfect balance between focusing on the suspense and action while continuing to develop character relationships without distract from the story. I can’t wait to read the next one.
Audiobook Comments: Considering how much I love Therese Plummer, I just have to say a few words about her performance. She’s one of the finest narrators I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, reading the story with perfect timing and dramatization. A good narrator is the key to a good listen, especially when it comes to the thriller-suspense genre, and once again Plummer knocks it out of the park....more
David Moody’s One of Us Will be Dead by Morning might be the first zombie-style book I’ve ever read that doesn’t involve actual zombies. All the post-apocalyptic themes may be there along with the survival elements and violent carnage, but instead of the living dead we have the “Haters”—normally sane, rational and self-controlled people who suddenly and inexplicably turn into feral, vicious killers. It sounded like a fascinating premise, so I decided to give this book a try after learning that the original Hater trilogy was not a prerequisite, since the story covers the events of the outbreak from the perspective of a whole different group of people.
We begin this tale on Skek, a tiny remote island somewhere in the middle of the North Sea between the coasts of the UK and Denmark. A group of corporate employees are on a team building retreat run by the staff of Hazleton Adventure Experiences, an outdoor recreation company. All together there are fifteen people on the island, which has no cellular coverage and little to no supplies beyond what might be necessary for immediate use. When the mangled body of one of the corporate employees is found shattered on the rocks beneath a tall crag, a co-worker is immediately blamed for her murder, though he insists that he was only acting in self-defense when he pushed her over the edge after she savagely attacked him. With no witnesses to the event, all anyone can do is wait for the next boat to ferry everybody back to the mainland.
The boat, however, never arrives. Instead, the islanders find the remains of it broken against Skek’s rocky shore, and within its hull they find a ghastly sight. As the days go by, their numbers start to dwindle as more of the group start dying under mysterious and violent circumstances, with repeated calls for assistance over the radio going unanswered. Cut off from the rest of the world, no one has a clue what’s happening on the mainland, and soon there’s even talk of having to ration food in case help never comes. As the situation becomes increasingly desperate, a rift begins to form between the survivors who are all paranoid and fearful that anyone around them can suddenly turn into a mindless homicidal maniac.
I’ll give the book this: it’s a fun, relatively quick read, and while you’ll probably forget the names of all the characters a few days later, that’s okay! It certainly got the job done and was entertaining while it lasted. Unflinchingly gory and brutal, the story will be a real treat for fans of post-apocalyptic survival horror. The remote setting also meant a small-scale but intense thriller, where powerful emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger drove most of the plot. To give you an idea of what that was like, try to recall the worst stress you’ve ever experienced while dealing with a boss or co-worker you despise. Now imagine that office drama multiplied by an order of magnitude unfolding on a tiny barren island upon which all of you are trapped, knowing that at any moment, anyone might lose their mind and tear your esophagus out with their teeth. Drain away all hope, and the stage is set for a darkly claustrophobic and terrifying tale featuring a modern twist on a classic idea.
On the other hand, characters in novels like these tend to be weakly sketched, as I alluded to before, given how most of them are written solely as fodder for their various gruesome deaths. With the exception of a few key characters, no one was all that well developed, and my memories of those who died early are limited only to vague impressions and snippets of conversations. Like watching a paint-by-numbers slasher film, there were no surprises involved and the emotional impact was minimal whenever something disastrous or tragic occurred. It also didn’t help that the majority of characters were very unpleasant, and I was glad to see the end of many of them if for no other reason than knowing I didn’t have to read about them anymore. Still, what you see is what you get when it comes to this genre, so as long as you know what to expect, you won’t be disappointed.
For that reason, I think I would like to continue with the next book. Novels like One of Us Will be Dead by Morning are designed to scratch a certain itch for me as a horror reader; they’re like candy for the brain and occasionally the mood for a fun popcorn read like this will strike. The book also ends on a mild cliffhanger, and I’d very much like to know what will happen next. I’m definitely going to be keeping my eye out for more from David Moody.
Audiobook Comments: This book is also available as an audiobook, which I also want to say a few words about. The narrator Gerard Doyle delivered a decent performance, though because of his accent, I sometimes found him hard to understand. Still, this was just a minor issue, certainly not a deal breaking one, and overall there’s nothing that would stop me from recommending this to audiobook fans....more
I can never resist a good mystery in space! Chris Brookmyre blends the science fiction and thriller-suspense genres to give us Places in the Darkness, a gritty crime noir type story set hundreds of miles above Earth. Our story begins with a murder, though those in charge on board the Ciudad de Cielo are very keen to keep the details of it quiet. Officially, the space station’s reputation is that of a crime-free utopia where everyone has a place and purpose, operating like a well-oiled machine. The reality, however, is much less appealing. There’s a reason why the people who live on the CdC call it “Seedee”, and it quickly becomes apparent why it’s more than an apt nickname. Like any city where people are packed so close together, the station has its problems, from petty smuggling and prostitution to gang violence and illegal fighting rings.
Enter Alice Blake, a young and brilliant federal national government representative newly arrived from Earth to overhaul the CdC’s security division. She is unsurprisingly greeted with much suspicion and dislike from the elite who have benefited all these years from the status quo. Unable to hide such a gruesome murder for long though, they reluctantly hand the investigation over to Alice, who requests to be paired up with an unscrupulous former LAPD investigator named Nikki Freeman, the only person on the station with the experience to catch a ruthless killer.
Best known for his crime thrillers, Brookmyre brings his good sense of timing for action and suspense to the science fiction genre. We are drawn immediately to this dark, dangerous world full of secrets and conspiracies. The plot itself begins at a careful and measured pace, ensuring readers are properly immersed in the wickedly alluring atmosphere of Seedee before ratcheting up to full-throttle action and twisty surprises. Before I knew it, I was completely sucked into this compelling tale, knowing it would soon escalate into something big and explosive.
And yet, we still had plenty of time to get to know our characters. I loved how we had two amazing female protagonists at the helm, both of whom made this book a much more memorable read with their fascinating backstories and strong narrative voices. Alice is an idealist, and a bit of a stickler for the rules and regulations. When she first arrives on the CdC, readers are given the sense she will either bring some much needed law and order to the space station, or be eaten alive by its cutthroat politics. On the other side of the coin, Nikki is a jaded ex-cop who is part of the rot that’s gnawing away at the heart of Seedee, representing all the crime and corruption that Alice hopes to bring an end to.
As the mystery deepens, we get to see how each character is affected by new information, thanks to the intimate look we get into their heads. That said, Alice and Nikki’s eventual partnership will become the crux of the novel itself, and that’s a lot of potential for interesting dynamics. The two women have no reason to like each other, for one; they come from very different backgrounds, and even their first meeting is one tainted with deception and lies. Consequently, Alice and Nikki spend the majority of the book distrusting one another, though ultimately, both realize they are working towards the same goal and that the future of Seedee will depend on whether they can put their differences aside and trust each other with their private fears.
Brookmyre gets you to feel invested in his characters, and makes you care about what happens to them. His background in crime fiction also shows through in the elaborate plotting of Places in the Darkness, which is his first science fiction novel but often reads like a murder mystery which includes elements of a political thriller. In this complex setting full of machinations and intrigue, half the fun is the experience of watching its secrets unfold before us, and the other half is immersing yourself in the incredible world and its characters. I would recommend this one to mystery-suspense and sci-fi fans alike....more
It’s rare that I find myself at a loss for words about a book, and while I’m sure I can come up with any number of adjectives to describe Chandler Klang Smith’s The Sky Is Yours, I doubt even that would be sufficient to give the full picture of the novel. This is just one of those once-in-a-lifetime books with a story that is much bigger than the sum of its parts, and can’t be easily summarized or placed neatly into any one category. Here’s to giving it my best shot, though!
Imagine a city, at once high-tech and futuristic, but also burned-out and falling apart. This is Empire Island, where our story takes place. High above in the skies, a pair of dragons continually rain down fire upon the buildings and citizens, creating mass havoc. This has been going on for so many years that they have become a become a fixture on the landscape; those who could not bear the constant threat of destruction have long since fled the city, while those who chose to remain have learned to live with the new reality.
As such, Empire Island has become a place of dichotomies. Within its crumbling underbelly there lives a thriving world of danger and violence, where the gangs are effectively in control. Meanwhile, the rich and the famous live in decadence and luxury, safely shielded from the chaos and poverty in their own backyard. One of our main protagonists, Duncan Humphrey Ripple V, is a young man who belongs to this wealthy upper class. As the scion of one of the city’s oldest and most powerful families, he is also the star of a reality TV show called Late Capitalism’s Royalty, and just like the monarchies of old, his parents have decided that it is time for their pampered and foppish teenage son to be married. A betrothal is thus arranged between Ripple and the Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg—AKA Swanny—whose mother will stop at nothing to see her daughter become ruler of all of Empire Island.
But before he can formerly meet Swanny, Ripple ends up crashing his hover car into a landfill, where he meets a young feral woman who has been living among the trash. Her name is Abracadabra—Abby for short—and she has been waiting her whole life for her prince to drop from the skies. Ripple becomes quite taken with Abby too, and when he is eventually rescued by his family, he decides to bring her along.
More than this, I dare not say for fear of revealing anything else; The Sky Is Yours is one of those books where it’s best to go in with a blank slate, the better to be surprised by all its wonders and oddities. The imagination and creativity displayed here is off the charts. It’s almost overwhelming at first; at times it felt like I was thrown into a hyper-imaginative child’s dreams without a tether, with the amount of new sights and sounds you have to take in, but the world is so amazing that you can’t help but give it your full attention. The writing also made it easy to immerse myself; Chandler Klang Smith’s prose is incredibly polished and well put together considering this is her debut, and the story’s wry, humorous tones succeeded in drawing me deeper into the plot.
This book is also populated with a number of fascinating characters. Ripple is a spoiled, self-absorbed, and impudent brat with a terrible case of “affluenza”, and yet I enjoyed reading from his perspective despite his many flaws. I watched with a perverse satisfaction as he lost everything and had to bumble his way through life in a series of events that were packed with both tragedy and hilarity. Then there’s Swanny, who is a study in contrasts. Intelligent, proper, and well-read, she’s nevertheless capable of the most outrageous thoughts and acts. Swanny’s anger is something to behold, though her character does mellow out somewhat once she discovers that a bizarre condition she suffers from will end her life prematurely. And finally, we have Abby, a girl who has been living wild in junkyard, scavenging for her survival. Before Ripple crash-landed on her doorstep, Abby believed all people to be evil half-machines—clearly, she has been alone for a long time with only her pet vulture for a companion—and her naivete can be as irritating as it is endearing.
Needless to say, this book will not be for everyone. Its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, with the sheer weight of its creativity and uniqueness threatening to overwhelm or sidetrack the reader. Sometimes I felt like I was reading an epic fantasy complete with noble houses, dragons, and a sprawling quest line involving an orphan’s search for her true parents; at other times it felt like I was lost in a futuristic sci-fi dystopian not unlike Blade Runner, and the dissonance caused by this might prove jarring for some. Though I enjoyed the first and last sections of the novel immensely, I also felt the middle part of the story faltered by focusing on too many threads and meandering a little off-track. And finally, some readers might find the characters too off-putting. Ripple, Swanny, and Abby are all products of their environment and upbringing, and their flaws are the results of their individual circumstances. However, because they are also a part of this strange and unfamiliar world, some of their more eccentric or extreme personality traits can make them difficult to connect with.
If you’re seeking something fresh and completely out of this world though, look no further because The Sky Is Yours is the book you’ve been waiting for. I really enjoyed it for the most part, despite some of the plot’s more confounding and meandering moments, but readers with an interest in genre mash-ups and exploring strange new worlds should find Chandler Klang Smith’s debut irresistible and satisfying....more
While I’ve read a lot of tie-in fiction in my time, this might be one of few instances where I’ve picked up a book based on a franchise or media property that I’ve had no prior experience with. Happily, like most media tie-ins, Boneyard is completely accessible to anyone, whether or not they are familiar with the Deadlands role-playing game or have even read the previous books in the series.
For many years, Annie Pearl has been a mainstay of the Blackstone Family Circus, known for her role in growing and caring for the traveling show’s collection of unique oddities. But long before she was Mistress of Monsters, she was Grace Murphy, married to a mad scientist who conducted unspeakable experiments on his young wife. The last straw finally came when the crazed Dr. Murphy set his eyes on their daughter Adeline, prompting Annie to steal away in the middle of the night with the infant girl and their pet lynx cub in tow. After many weeks and many miles, she eventually ended up at the mercy of Nathaniel Blackstone, the kind-hearted circus owner who took in the tired mother and her sickly child. Life in the circus is not easy, however, and everyone who joins must earn their keep. Luckily for Annie, she’s a hard worker who will do anything to protect and provide for her daughter…and as it turns out, she’s pretty good at taking care of the circus creatures too. Time passes, and their menagerie of horrors grows.
But like most traveling circuses, Blackstone’s is always a knife edge between survival and starvation. To make the most out of the remaining season, they decide to steer their wagons towards The Clearing, a small town deep in the woods of Oregon where their residents are always hungry for entertainment. Word is though, one in four shows that pass through The Clearing never emerge from the wilderness again, but with the alternative to not going being the circus’s ruin, Nathaniel Blackstone judged it to be worth the risk. Ultimately, it would be a decision he would come to regret, as the crew finds itself beset by trouble soon after their arrival. Two of their members disappear into the woods after their first show, one of them being young Adeline. Together with Martin, whose girlfriend has also gone missing, Annie must brave the darkness and enter the terror-filled wilds to rescue her daughter from the monsters of the night.
These days, a lot of people still balk when they hear the term “media tie-in”, and hey, I don’t blame them. While the genre has come a long way in the last few decades, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding books based on movies or games, because the sad truth is, a vast majority of them just aren’t that great. Thankfully though, publishers in recent years have pushed hard to try and change those perceptions, especially for their popular franchises and big-name projects. One way they’ve started to do so is by contracting well-known authors, and in this case, the makers of Deadlands have partnered up with the talented and award-winning Seanan McGuire to pen the latest novel based on the world of their Weird West RPG.
I won’t deny it; I was pretty excited when I heard, and if you’re already familiar with McGuire’s style, then you’ll probably know exactly what I’m talking about. She’s been known to write stories that are on the dark and quirky side—in other words, perfect for a Weird Western. There was also little doubt she would be bringing the full force of her creativity to the setting and atmosphere, and I was not disappointed. McGuire’s commitment to detail can be seen and felt even in the opening paragraphs, which paint a harsh but gratifying reality for those who have fully dedicated their lives to the Blackstone Family Circus. Sure, the going can get tough, but the circus takes care of its own, and Annie and Adeline find themselves surrounded by love and friendship as they travel across the miles of untamed frontier, entertaining crowds wherever their wagon wheels take them.
It is an existence that is at once idyllic and grim, much like the setting, which ultimately takes on a personality of its own. While the Deadlands RPG takes place in the American “Wild West” during the last quarter of the 19th century, it is also a world filled with monsters and other malicious entities, creating a combination of historical and horror elements which serves as the basis of the novel. Throw some mad science and steampunk into the mix, and the result is an intense and chilling supernatural fantasy further bolstered by an intriguing plotline and well-developed characters. In fact, if I only have one complaint, it was that the ending felt jarringly abrupt. Given the time and care spent building upon both Annie and Martin’s storylines, I would have expected the denouement to be handled with the same meticulous treatment. Instead, I just got the impression that the author was in a hurry to wrap things up.
Still, despite some pacing missteps, Boneyard managed to hit that elusive sweet spot between creepy horror and action entertainment. Seanan McGuire was able to charm me with her courageous protagonists and, more importantly, make me feel connected to a game world that was completely new and foreign to me. Weird West fans will eat this one right up, and I imagine readers with prior experience or more than just a passing familiarity with the Deadlands RPG will probably appreciate it even more....more
The Gone World follows protagonist Shannon Moss, who belongs to a top-secret division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. On paper, her job is to investigate any criminal activities involving members of the US Navy or Marine Corps, but behind the scenes, her duties involve a whole lot more, including traveling through time to search for clues in a myriad of possible futures. It’s dangerous work, and years ago she even lost her leg to frostbite while on an assignment exploring the wintry landscape of a future Earth.
Moss’s “own” time is 1997, the year she receives a case to track down a missing teenage girl named Marian whose mother and brother have been brutally murdered. The main suspect is a former Navy SEAL, who Moss discovers, with some shock, was part of the Naval Space Command program, stationed aboard a spaceship assumed lost on a classified mission. Knowing how the stresses of traveling through space and time can push a person to the edge, Moss suspects a deeper connection. Now she will need to jump ahead to a possible future Earth to see if Marian’s disappearance has made any ripples, so that Moss might trace the events backwards to discover what happened to the girl.
But for a while now, the NSC has also been aware of an event known as the Terminus, which will bring about the end of the world and all reality as we know it. The date of the Terminus, however, is not set; every time Moss makes the jump to the future and returns to the present, she receives news that the Terminus has moved up a few more years, drawing ever closer.
This novel is a sci-fi crime thriller with time travel thrown into the mix, so you just know the story will be a little wild. It can also be quite confusing—but again, that’s almost par for the course when it comes to time travel fiction. Everything is connected somehow, and as readers, we must keep track of the times Moss travels to the future, how long she stays, the people she talks to, and the information she gleans. Just to make it even more complicated, every time Moss jumps forward and comes back, the future she visits “blinks” out like it never happened (or maybe that should be “will never happen”?) and anyway, all her futures are possibilities only, not certainties. If your head isn’t exploding yet, there’s more: Echoes. These are individuals brought back from the possible futures, doubling someone already living. This aspect plays a big role in the story, so I won’t say more on the topic. The point though, is that The Gone World is a story of many different components, which Sweterlitsch juggles like a performer spinning plates on sticks, trying to keep them all up in the air and moving at once. If you’re not prepared to have your mind twisted, of if you’re in the mood for something lighter, then this is not a book for you.
This is also the second novel I’ve read by the author, so to some extent, I knew what I would be getting in terms of the tone of the story and writing style. In a word, it’s dark. Really dark. Like Sweterlitsch’s first novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow, we’re talking an extremely bleak worldview, where the threat of the Terminus is always present and encroaching on our minds. Some of Moss’s memories and her disturbing visions also have the quality of a nightmare, and the prose frequently utilizes imagery that is once painfully beautiful and viscerally horrifying.
As much as I enjoyed this novel though, there are a few caveats. The raw, gritty, and depressing mood aside, I’m not sure the book got its ultimate point across successfully. The story might have lost its hold on me at the end, crushed by the weight of its own ideas and growing a little too unwieldy for the plot structure to support. As well, I still have no idea how a lot of the science or the mechanics behind the technology in the novel really work; the author doesn’t make much of an effort to explain. One can argue all that is secondary to the main story, but I think it would have helped to get at least some background on the secret NSC space program and the history of how time travel was ultimately achieved.
But all in all, I enjoyed this. It’s smart, imaginative, and so edgy it could cut. I liked following our compelling protagonist, watching all the pieces come together (and sometimes get torn apart) against a backdrop of drama, action, and thrilling suspense. I would recommend this for time travel fiction fans and sci-fi mystery lovers, especially if you’re looking for a challenging, mind-bending read.
Audiobook Comments: Brittany Pressley was a wonderful narrator, successfully portraying a large cast of characters of different ages, different backgrounds, and different times. She used accents to great effect for several of them, creating a very immersive experience for the listener. She had a great voice for the book too, perfectly capturing its grim and dark tone....more
Not as good as the first book, if I’m to be honest, but still a very fun read. When we last saw Gwen Proctor at the end of Stillhouse Lake, she’d just barely managed to keep her children out of the vengeful reach of her ex-husband, the infamous serial killer Melvin Royal. But that was before the prison break. Now Melvin is on the loose, and with no shortage of help from his network of psychotic fans, he’s also many times more dangerous and resourceful enough to evade the cops.
Tired of running, Gwen knows that as long as her ex-husband is still out there, she and her family will never be safe. Their house at the peaceful lakeside has become a target, prompting Gwen to hide her daughter Lanny and son Connor away with a neighbor so that they will be protected. With her kids out of harm’s way, there’s only one thing left to do. Not content to sit around waiting for news, Gwen and her friend Sam Cade, the brother of one of Melvin’s victims, decide to team up and go hunting for Melvin by themselves.
There’s no denying Killman Creek was an exciting read. Having enjoyed the first book immensely though, there were several areas where I felt this sequel was weaker, not to mention a few plot developments that were just plain infuriating. There was also a decreased sense of urgency, with the story taking a long time to build. At first, I thought we would be getting a lot more thrills by following Gwen and Sam as they go hunting, but turns out, they just end up being played for fools at every turn. This portrayal made them seem unprepared, gullible, and incompetent—a disappointing contrast from the confidence they instilled in Stillhouse Lake.
I did, however, enjoy getting perspective chapters from Gwen’s children, Lanny and Connor. That said, the new POVs came with their own issues, namely the way Caine milked the “naïve child” trope. Yes, we’ve all seen how young children in these kinds of stories are often manipulated because they don’t know any better, but it still irked to see how quickly and unquestioningly Gwen’s kids quickly turned on her, especially after everything she’s done for them and knowing the evil and deception their father was capable of.
But perhaps the biggest gut-punch was what happened to Sam’s character. Pretty much any chemistry that was established between him and Gwen was nullified by the events in this book, and I am still mystified as to why the author decided to take their relationship in this direction, in essence throwing all her hard work out the window. If Sam had any reason to still distrust Gwen, it should have been resolved in the first book, and I would have liked to see them move on to a new and different conflict. Instead, we retread old ground, using an unrealistic and far-fetched scenario to force a wedge between them. Again, after everything Gwen has done to prove herself, it just didn’t feel right for all that goodwill to be swept aside like it meant nothing to the people who supposedly loved her and had her back after all this time.
Still, while it may seem like this review is full of nothing but complaints, I do want to make it clear that I did enjoy this—just not as much as the first book. As a sequel though, I thought it was decent, and if you were a fan of Stillhouse Lake, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t read this next chapter of Gwen’s hair-raising battle against the monstrous Melvin Royal. Despite my criticisms of Killman Creek, I also really loved how it ended. In fact, given the tidy way it ended, I was actually quite surprised when I discovered there will be at least one more novel, disproving my initial thought that this series would be a duology. I’m curious to see how Rachel Caine will continue the story, so there is no doubt in my mind I’ll be picking up the next installment....more
As far as I’m concerned, Claudia Gray has already proven herself capable of writing a damn good Star Wars novel, with fantastic examples like Lost Stars and Bloodline. So when I found out she was penning a new YA novel about Leia, it was automatically added to my must-read list.
The book, titled Leia, Princess of Alderaan, is a look back at the titular character’s early life as a daughter and heir to the throne of one of the most cultured, beautiful, and prosperous core worlds in the galaxy. Before she became a leader of the Rebel Alliance, before she became burdened by the guilt and grief that resulted from the destruction of her home planet, the iconic Princess Leia was vivacious and high-spirited young girl who faced every challenge with a determination to succeed. At sixteen years old, having just officially declared her royal service to Alderaan, Leia is preparing for a series of tests that will prove her worth in the areas of body, mind, and heart. The trials will involve grueling survival courses. Intense political training. Charity missions and relief efforts. Leia is resolved to master them all, and to make her adoptive parents proud.
Unfortunately though, her mother Breha and father Bail Organa appear to be distracted by other matters lately—like throwing dinner parties and other social gatherings with their allies in the Senate. Frustrated by their unwillingness to let her in on their activities, Leia decides to conduct her own investigations, and in doing so, unwittingly uncovers a network of rebel cells and activities operating right under the nose of the Empire’s leaders. And the greatest shock? It looks as if her parents—her peace-loving, diplomatic parents—are at the heart of it all. Realizing that they cannot shield their daughter from the truth anymore, Breha and Bail come clean, leaving Leia with the first of many hard choices she will make in her long and storied life. Will she embrace her parents’ work and help fight the Empire, or focus her efforts on protecting the citizens of Alderaan, her people that she has sworn to serve?
Needless to say, this a book that Leia fans will certainly not want to miss. On the timeline, it takes place in the Star Wars: Rebels era in the period leading up to the events of Rogue One and A New Hope. It is a formative year for Leia Organa, in which she will experience many firsts, including the first time she makes an appearance before Alderaan in an official capacity, the first time she is exposed directly to the harsh conditions of the Empire, the first time she hears about the rebellion, and—most unexpected of all—the first time she falls in love. The lessons she learns from her achievements (and mistakes) here will end up shaping the rest of her life.
And as Claudia Gray has already written a book about Leia, she knows the character inside out and I honestly can’t imagine any other top-class author writing about the Alderaanian princess as well as she does. Despite being a young adult novel, its themes are mature and serious enough that this can be enjoyed by Star Wars fans of all ages, not to mention the compelling plot and rich characters that held my attention from beginning to end. I enjoyed seeing this rare version of Leia, one that is still very much innocent and naïve, though as always, her heart is in the right place. She doesn’t realize what the Empire is capable of yet, and as such, her inexperience leads her to play dangerous games and fall into traps. This story, however, is also bigger than Leia, focusing on the efforts of Breha, Bail, Mon Mothma and the other secret allies in the Senate to fight back against the Empire. Not only do we get a lot of background information into Leia’s origins, we also get a wealth of history about how her resistance force started.
Lore buffs will also delight in the many references to all the movies, with Easter Eggs that go back even to the prequel trilogy. Those paying attention will notice a couple of familiar faces making surprise cameos, and some of the mentions made about Leia’s past in the films are given context as well. And because technically this novel falls under the umbrella of Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there may be some light foreshadowing related to Leia’s role in the upcoming movie. Bail Organa’s work in establishing the rebel network has been touched upon in many stories including this one, and there are perhaps hints here as to how his daughter will continue his legacy in the places he used to spend his time.
All in all, Claudia Gray is fast becoming one of my favorite Star Wars authors and I hope she will write many more. Leia, Princess of Alderaan is another important piece in the new canon, perfectly encapsulating the personality and spirit of one of the most beloved characters in geek fandom as she comes of age during a tumultuous time. If you love Star Wars and if you love Leia, you will need to read this book—period.
Audiobook Comments: Saskia Maarleveld may be a new narrator to me, but her credits include years of audiobook narrating and voice-over work, and this impressive amount of experience is apparent in her performance. She was a fine choice of reader for this audiobook, and I thought she did a fantastic job portraying young Leia....more
Billed as the secret history behind the First Order’s most notorious and ruthless Stormtrooper, Star Wars: Phasma was released to great anticipation from fans who wanted to learn more about the eponymous character whose chrome-plated presence was woefully underutilized in The Force Awakens. This being a Star Wars novel though, and knowing how they always tend to oversell the reality in their blurbs, I’d already braced myself not to expect too much, which turned out to be a wise decision. Basically, what we have here is an origin backstory for Phasma—or at least as close to one as we’re going to get anyway, coming from a third-hand retelling. However, if you’re coming to this novel hoping to find out more about her personality or discover what makes her tick, then be prepared for disappointment because this book is completely devoid of any kind of real characterization.
Star Wars: Phasma begins with an introduction to Resistance spy Vi Moradi, who will be the one actually telling this story. While running a mission for General Leia Organa, Vi is captured by the First Order and is immediately held for questioning at the hands of the red-armored trooper known as Captain Cardinal, who already seems to know a lot about his prisoner. But the Resistance knows about Cardinal too, especially of the bitter antagonism between him and his colleague Captain Phasma, so it’s no surprise to Vi when the first thing her captor asks her is for more information about his greatest rival. After all, Vi’s ship’s log show that she has just come from the desolate planet of Parnassos, Phasma’s home world, and Cardinal is hoping the Resistance smuggler’s eidetic memory will hold some incriminating evidence about his enemy so he can use it to take her down.
So Vi indulges Cardinal by telling him a story, heard second hand from a friend named Siv who grew up in the same clan with Phasma herself. In the beginning, Phasma and her brother Keldo were co-leaders of the Scyre, deciding that adopting an isolationist strategy will be their clan’s best chance at survival in the harsh conditions of Parnassos. However, that was before General Brendol Hux’s ship fell from the sky. Along with Siv and a few other of her warriors, Phasma rescues the stranded Hux and his escort of Stormtroopers, and after interacting with them she discovers that there’s a whole galaxy beyond the confines of her dying world. Understanding that the First Order General can help her learn more—and to become more—the ambitious Phasma agrees to guide him across the merciless desert, in exchange for passage off-planet once they reach the pickup point. But plenty of dangers lurk beneath the Parnassian sands, and before long the expedition is beset with all kinds of problems.
The result is a Mad Max-like adventure that takes up the majority of the pages in this novel, and it’s a perfectly decent, action-oriented story if that was all you were expecting. For those expecting a more in-depth character study, however, you’re going to be out of luck. As I mentioned before, this is Phasma’s history told through not just one but two intermediaries—good for preserving the mystique behind this enigmatic character, I suppose, but not so good when it comes to letting readers understand her. This was essentially a play-by-play of how Phasma went from being the best warrior of a small clan on some insignificant backwater planet to become head trainer and leader of all the First Order’s military troopers, making her one of the most powerful and infamous figures in the galaxy. On the other hand, almost nothing can be gleaned about her character on a deeper level, or how she became the cold-hearted and ruthless soldier that she is. We’re simply to accept that she’s always been an evil badass, even when she was just a young girl.
Furthermore, I feel that the characterization might have suffered a little from the writing. While I find Delilah S. Dawson’s prose well-suited to urban fantasy and YA, for a Star Wars novel such as this, her style might just be a tad overwrought and excessive. Her depictions of the characters are also rather two-dimensional and uninspired; from Vi and Cardinal to Brendol Hux to Phasma, everyone’s motivations are predictable and can be summed up in a handful of words.
That said, overall I wouldn’t say this book was too bad, considering it’s the author’s first full-length Star Wars novel. Phasma is still far from being in the same league as, say, Claudia Gray’s brilliant Lost Stars or Bloodline, but it’s a start, and if nothing else, I’m glad that the shiny Stormtrooper captain is finally getting some much needed attention in the lead up to the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Audiobook Comments: I love January LaVoy and it’s always a pleasure to listen to her narrate a Star Wars novel. As usual, she delivered a great performance, and even sounded a lot like Gwendoline Christie whenever she had to say Phasma’s lines, which impressed me a lot. I would never not recommend a Star Wars audiobook!...more
I’ve been on a humorous sci-fi kick lately, and this series is proving to be the most amazing diversion. The first book hooked me with the non-stop action and laughs, and book two certainly didn’t disappoint me in these areas either.
Following the events of We Are Legion (We Are Bob), our titular sentient AI character and his many clones have been spreading out from Earth for about forty years now, and not surprisingly, he’s made a few adjustments to his mission objectives. While he’s still primarily searching for new habitable planets for colonization and competing against hostile space probes from other nations, many of the Bobs have also found other projects to invest their time in. The Bob called Riker trying to be the mediator between Earth’s bickering politicians as they work together to coordinate a mass evacuation from the ruined planet, and worse, among the survivors there are radical groups who would go to any lengths to sabotage those efforts. Meanwhile, things aren’t going so smoothly at the destination planets either, with cultural clashes and the dangerous local wildlife making it difficult for the new settlers to thrive.
In another part of the galaxy, the original Bob has become attached to the alien race he discovered called the Deltans, involving himself in their lives and becoming something like their skygod. However, in trying to help elevate them, he may have unwittingly done more harm than good, delivering them into the jaws of a far more menacing predator than the ones they had originally escaped from. Deeper into space, the Bob called Mario has stumbled upon an unsettling find—an entire planet where all life appears to have been harvested by a ruthless spacefaring species that considers everything as food. There’s no telling where this all-devouring threat will strike next, and he must get word out to the other Bobs to warn them, or humanity’s second chance at survival may be over before it even begins.
Despite the doom and gloom of many of the story’s threads though, For We Are Many is in fact a light, fun, and profoundly enjoyable read. It’s also full of sci-fi geekery but at the same time accessible enough so that even readers who don’t normally read the genre will be able to appreciate its charms. Any technical explanations are easy to grasp, not to mention many are also presented in a clever and humorous way, pulling in references from pop culture favorites like Star Trek or Star Wars.
The biggest surprise for me though, are the characters—or rather, I should say, the many iterations of Bob. We already had a number of clones to follow in the first book, and this sequel expands the cast some more, introducing additional perspectives to the equation. And yet, this hasn’t gotten old yet, and I doubt it ever will. In my review of the previous novel, I wrote about how each of the individual Bobs had their own unique and vibrant personalities, and this is a trend that continues with no matter how many times they clone themselves. I especially loved the Howard chapters and being able to see a more contemplative, emotional side of Bob. This just shows that while all of them may be aspects of the same person and resemble the original to some extent, the copies are still different enough that even now I could probably name about a dozen of them off the top of my head and tell you their defining traits. They might not be conventional characters, but they do tend to stick with you for a while.
So if you enjoyed We Are Legion (We Are Bob), there’s no reason why you shouldn’t continue with For We Are Many. With more clones being sent out to explore deep space, the “Bobiverse” might be growing ever bigger, but fear not, because you’ll still be getting the same kind of action, adventure, and humor that made the first book so much fun to read. I’m really having a blast discovering all these new worlds, new aliens, and new scenarios, and I can’t wait for the series climax and conclusion in the next book to see how the stakes will be raised yet again....more
Every time I go to Audible my account page is always bombarding my recommended list with this one, and well, it’s hard not to be curious when the book’s page is filled with literally tens of thousands of five star reviews. I figured it was high time to find out what all the fuss was about, and am I glad I did! For those of you who have already been initiated into We Are Legion (We Are Bob) fan club, I beg your forgiveness for being skeptical at first, but can you blame me? This whole time, I’d been going on what was written in the arguably bland and generic publisher description, which—I have to stress—is not a good reflection of the story AT ALL. Trust me, this book is so much more.
Meet Bob Johansson, who has just sold off his software company and is looking to take his new fortune to a service offering their clients the option to cryogenically freeze themselves in the event of their deaths. You can probably guess where this is headed. Sure enough, while enjoying his new life of freedom and leisure at a convention in Las Vegas, Bob gets distracted while crossing the street and—BAM! Pain and blackness is the last thing he remembers before waking up more than a century later to discover that he is now an artificial intelligence created from a brain scan of his consciousness. The country has turned into a theocracy which has declared that replicants like Bob are without rights. He is also now the property of a government program developing a self-replicating interstellar von Neumann probe with the goal of exploring the galaxy. If all goes well, Bob will be uploaded into the probe and sent on journey into space to look for habitable planets.
Unfortunately, the mission will be dangerous. Other nations have the same idea and are all in competition with each other, and indeed a large chunk of the book involves Bob’s run-ins with his Brazilian replicant counterpart who is following the same directive from his handlers. As Bob travels deeper into space, he also begins to realize the need for more processing power, leading him to clone himself multiple times in order to distribute all his responsibilities. And thus, we end up with a “legion” of Bobs, each one going about their own way and chronicling their own adventures in deep space.
This is sci-fi done in a way I’ve never really seen before. While the tone of the narrative is familiar, with its snarky humor and heavy infusion of geek pop culture jokes, the story and the characters and the worlds feel different and fresh. Like a funnier, more action-oriented version of The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, it is presented in a format that feels almost episodic and digressive, but I was surprised to find I didn’t mind the divergent plotlines too much. Mostly, this was because of how fun it was to follow all the “Bobs”. Dennis E. Taylor has turned what could have been a lonely tale about a solo space explorer into an uproariously entertaining experience filled with many vibrant and unique personalities. The characters in this book are all one person—but they are also not. The story actually makes it a point to emphasize that the Bobs are distinct individuals, each possessing different aspects of the original.
The plot was also very clever and dynamic. Admittedly, I didn’t really care for the first few chapters, finding Bob aloof, standoffish and unlikeable. Little did I know though, this was intentional set-up for the later parts of the novel. Bob eventually learns some interesting lessons about his identity and his life, which I suppose comes with the territory of interacting with multiple versions of yourself. In fact, despite the tensions involved during the earlier parts of the book involving the development phase of the space probe and Bob’s training, I didn’t feel that things took off until well into the story—right around the same time he started replicating himself, which shouldn’t be too surprising given how so much of this book’s awesomeness is directly related to the shenanigans of the many Bobs. I won’t ruin it by going into details, but I adored following Riker, Bill, Homer, and all of the others (each iteration of Bob gets to choose their own names, most based on their favorite childhood TV shows and interests growing up int the 90’s) along on their respective adventures.
Consider me a new fan and follower of the Legion of Bob! Having finished this book and seen for myself what it’s all about, I can understand now why the popularity of this book blew up in such a short time. I highly recommend taking a look for yourself, especially if you enjoy space opera or sci-fi comedy that manages to be both smart and funny. I can’t wait to dive into the next book....more
While I have been listening to audiobooks for years, this is the first time I’ve actually tried one of these much-talked-about audio dramas from Audible Studios. Also known as audio plays or audio theater, these are very much like the old-school radio shows that were so popular in the 1920s-40s before the advent of television, though obviously their successors have come a long way since those days. Still, the idea is the same—with no visual aspect at all, the production relies completely on dialogue, music, and sound effects to tell the story.
As this was brand new territory for me, I was happy to take my first plunge with a franchise that has always been close to my heart. The X-Files dominated my TV time in the 90s and was a show that made a huge impression on my childhood, so despite the disastrous final seasons, the terrible movies, and the most recent lukewarm miniseries revival, I always still find myself returning again and again. The X-Files: Cold Cases caught my eye right away for several reasons, and not least because it features a full cast including David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and several other actors from the original show returning to voice their respective characters. I was also intrigued because this audio drama is actually an adaption of the series of graphic novels by Joe Harris, and I’ve always been curious about those.
Set after the events of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, these stories provide a glimpse into those intervening years leading up to 2016’s television tenth season. When a cyber security breach at FBI headquarters compromises the information of unsolved investigations, former agents Mulder and Scully are pulled out of hiding by Deputy Director Skinner to resume their past work in the secret department known as the X-Files. For Scully, the timing of the database breach is of an even greater concern when she learns that some of the stolen information may involve the child she secretly put up for adoption, and now the boy may be in danger.
So, the nostalgia is there, but is it enough? The answer, I think, will depend on what you were expecting. I wouldn’t consider myself a super fan by any means, but I’ll admit my heart still gave an excited flutter to think about Mulder and Scully being on the case again, going back and forth with their cheeky banter. It’s less about the stories for me, but more about the full experience. Even audio dramas such as these are an opportunity for me to skip down memory lane in the hopes of recapturing and holding on to that old feeling, so yes—personally speaking, anyway—sometimes nostalgia is indeed enough. Even hearing that familiar Mark Snow theme song come through my headphones in the audiobook intro was enough to send a pleasant shiver down my spine.
That said though, not all the stories in here were created equal. Like the first volume of the graphic novel it was based on, this audio drama contains a handful of episodes over a period of about four hours. The first story, ostensibly reintroducing Mulder and Scully back into game while also attempting to link this series to the main body of the lore was, in a nutshell, awkward as hell. Just as well that I wasn’t really looking for story cogency, because there was some major plot gymnastics going down in this first episode in order to tie the X-Files mythology together with the goal of bringing back as many old characters as possible. Calling it messy would be an understatement, but thankfully, not all the episodes were like this. Subsequent stories, particularly the ones that moved away from “mytharc” themes to instead feature more “monster of the week” horror/thriller narratives were a lot more entertaining and easier to follow. I especially enjoyed the return to Flukeman as well as the episode that took our characters on a trip to investigate a case in Saudi Arabia.
As far as my first experience with an audio drama went, I loved it! The performances were amazing, with Duchovny and Anderson bringing their best even when the acting only involved voice work. The characters were true to themselves, and many times I caught myself smiling as I pictured Mulder’s deadpan deliveries or Scully’s epic eye-rolls. The music and sound effects were also mixed in so perfectly that if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine seeing everything play out like it was a TV episode. That’s not to say everything was flawless, because whenever you deal with adaptations, especially from a visual medium to an aural one, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter some hitches. You’ll get the odd scene where the actor has to talk clumsily to themselves to make up for the listener not being able to see what’s going on (“I’m wearing the same clothes, and here’s the same bullet hole in my jacket….but oh, my arm! There’s not a scratch!”) but on the whole, I think the creative team did a really good job adapting the comic in spite of the limitations.
In sum, I had a great time with this audio drama and would do this again in a heartbeat. While this wouldn’t be the best place to start your journey if you’re new to the X-Files franchise (mainly because there’s so much of the original show’s mythology involved), I definitely would not hesitate to recommend these audiobooks to fans like me who aren’t quite ready to let go of the magic just yet. I still want to believe! Needless to say, I’m already highly anticipating the next audio drama in this series, The X-Files: Stolen Lives....more