Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Hel’s Eight by Stark Holborn: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Hel's Eight by Stark Holborn

Hel’s Eight is the second novel in Ten Low sci-fi-dystopia-western-paranormal series, a combination that shouldn’t work, but which does, beautifully. The first book, Ten Low, was one of my favourite reads the year it was published.

We return to Factus, a desert moon at the edge of the universe that has resisted all attempts to terraform it. It’s a harsh, dry, airless place populated mostly by former convicts. Societies are violent, water is scarce, and games of chance mean automatic deathby the beings that were there first.

Ten Low is a former army medic trying to atone a massacre she was instrumental in. In the first book, she discovered the Ifs, as they are called, beings of possibilities that live on humans, and the Seekers who have dedicated their lives for them. At the end of the book, she became their mouthpiece.

Where they go, death follows, so Ten has lived five years outside all civilization. But then an old friend/enemy comes asking for help, and the Ifs are pushing her to action too. Reluctantly she agrees.

A businessman wants to harness the Ifs so that he can guarantee a future where he is the ruler of the moon. He believes Ten is Hel, the controller of the Ifs, because she’s able to manipulate the possibilities the Ifs show, so he wants to capture her. Ten knows she’s not Hel, because she knew the woman who was. But the Ifs know differentlyand to become Hel is to die.

The second book was as interesting and good as the first. The world is unique and the atmosphere tense and creepy. But it was a bit more difficult to get the hang of. I had no recollection of the Ifs, and since they weren’t explained in any way here, I’m not sure I understood them correctly. I’m not entirely sure what Hel was either, a leader, prophet or a speaker of the Ifs, or something else. In addition, the title of the book never became clear.

The book is told in Ten’s first-person point of view, but there were additional notes too by Pec Eight Esterhazy who was the previous Hel, as she discovers the Ifs decades before Ten. Ten remained an interesting character struggling with her past and the actions she had to take, including killing people even though she had sworn never to do that. Side characters were a bit distant, but I was invested in them. The ending was good, but maybe a bit hasty and vague, though that could be because the review copy seemed to be missing some scenes. But it leaves the door open for more books. I’m looking forward to reading them.

I received a free copy from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Thousand Autumns vol 1 by Meng Xi Shi: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Thousand Autumns by Meng Xi Shi

Thousand Autumns is Chinese xianxia fantasy set in three 6th century empires near Yangtse river, one of which lasted thousand autumns. Not being familiar with Chinese history, I can’t say anything about historical accuracy, but since it’s mainly cultivation fantasy with elaborate fight scenes, it doesn’t really matter. However, the plot is more political than in other xianxia I’ve read.

Shen Qiao is the leader of the top ranked Daoist cultivation sect. He and the entire sect have kept themselves secluded from the outside world, but when he’s challenged to a duel by a leading martial artists of a nomadic Turkic tribe, he acceptsonly to lose and almost die.

Yan Wushi is the leader of a demonic cultivation clan (demonic, I understand, is the word used by the translators of xianxia fantasies and not original; mainly it seems to mean here that they’re not followers of Daoism, Buddhism or Confucianism, but their own hedonistic intents). He’s been cultivating in seclusion for ten years and has emerged more powerful than ever. He has a lot of catching up to do, so when he comes across the mangled body of Shen Qiao, he almost leaves him to his fate. But a sparkle of secret cultivation energy in Shen Qiao that Yan Wushi covets makes him change his mind.

Shen Qiao wakes up blind and weak, without memory and any of the cultivation power he’d had. He sets out to make a slow way back to his sect, encountering all sorts of trouble along the way, slowly gaining his memory but not his strength or eyesight. When a hidden scroll about the secret cultivation method emerges, his and Yan Wushi’s paths cross again. The two travel together, with Yan Wushi challenging Shen Qiao to a duel after another so that he can learn the other man’s martial art secrets.

The book description gives to understand that this is a story of an evil man trying to corrupt a good man. There’s certainly a lot of talk about human nature, and Yan Wushi makes a lot of fun of Shen Qiao while trying to make him become his student. But Yan Wushi isn’t nearly as evil as some men they encounter, and Shen Qiao isn’t a paragon of virtue either and is capable and willing to kill when needed. Mostly Yan Wushi is a person who won’t help others until he himself benefits, and Shen Qiao helps everyone regardless of consequences for himself.

It’s also listed as a gay romance, but there isn’t even a hint of that between the men, even if Yan Wushi occasionally teases Shen Qiao by holding his hand. If there is going to be romance, it’ll be in later volumes. The men were very different and there wasn’t much interaction between them, so I’m not sure what kind of romance it would be, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

What this is, is a cultivation adventure with a political undercurrent. There are many players and dynasties in play, most of which are a confusing jumble, but luckily everything is repeated several times. There’s famine and refuges and several wars brewing. Shen Qiao learns that his loss wasn’t due to his lack of skill but political machinations, and Yan Wushi seems to have his own agenda in play. The book ends in a cliffhanger just as things became interesting.

While this wasn’t the book I set out to read, I was well entertained by it. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Missing Piece by Kun Yi Wei Lou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Missing Piece by Kun Yi Wei Lou

The Missing Piece is m/m romance set in modern China. I don’t know how openly gay one can be in China, but here it seemed to be fairly unproblematic, family disownments aside.

Shen Mo is an art graduate in his early twenties. Due to an accident that he cannot remember, he’s lost his ability to paint. The only thing he remembers with any clarity is that he was saved from homelessness by Ji Mingxuan, a wealthy businessman about his own age.

Mr. Ji is utterly devoted to his sister’s happiness, so much so that when the man she wants turns out to be Shen Mo’s ex-boyfriend, he strikes a deal with Shen Mo. They pretend to be lovers so that the ex and Mr. Ji’s sister can pursue their romance in peace. Out of gratitude, Shen Mo agrees, even though his ex and Miss Ji aren’t even in the same country to witness the fake relationship.

When they return to China, things start to unravel fast. Shen Mo’s memories begin to surface even as Mr. Ji seems to want to make their relationship more real. Inevitably, everything steers towards heartbreak for everyone.

This was the best fake relationship romance I’ve read. The past wasn’t at all what it seemed, and the fake romance wasn’t as fake as Shen Mo believed. Much relied on miscommunication, which normally is my pet peeve, but here it worked perfectly.

Shen Mo started as a tragic character who suffered from memory loss and PTSD and worked towards getting his life back in order. Mr. Ji seemed to be a cold, callous man who only used Shen Mo for sex, but the truth about him was different too. Sex scenes were great throughout.

The main story took about two thirds of the book and had a satisfying HEA ending. The rest consisted of ten longish stories about the past and after the HEA. The best story by far was the first, which told the same story from Mr. Ji’s point of view, but others were interesting too. The book left me happy and wistful and a bit sad at the same time. All in all, a wonderful read.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai

I picked up Bitter Medicine thinking it was UF with romance in it, but it was romantic fiction with UF elements. It was also a somewhat odd book, consisting of two uneven parts. First storyline came to a point at around 60% mark. It was ok, even if the romance was very slow-burn with rather odd intimate scenes. If the book had ended there, I might have given it a better rating. Unfortunately, it continued.

The latter part was a meandering mess that didn’t need to be that long; a couple of chapters would’ve sufficed. The conclusion was very unsatisfying. It’s a happily ever after, but at a cost that went against the tropes of fantasy genre, and not in a good way. Kudos for originality, but … no.

Fantasy elements were a mishmash of everything, but mostly western. The description promised xianxia inspired fantasy, but it was inspiration in name only. The main character, Elle, was Chinese, but nothing in her behaviour made me believe it. She was very American in her thoughts and deeds, though incredibly stupid for some reason (she could use a computer but not a smartphone?). For his part, Luc didnt feel very French, and the Catholic elements seemed really odd.

I was especially disappointed with Elles family relations. As a western reader, one thing that makes Asian fiction feel authentic to me, is the idea of duty to one’s family and elders that is very alien to western society. Some lip-service was paid to it here, but in actual dealings with each other, the characters were wholly western. Even the premise was about Elle taking away her brother’s immortalitywithout his consent, I might addso that he could escape doing his duty to his family.

Maybe modern Chinese are more western in this respect, but these characters were over a century old and from the heartland of China. If the characters hadn’t been Chinese, the premise would’ve worked. Now it only irked me. As a whole, the book left me unsatisfied both as a romance and as a fantasy.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten starts The Nightshade Crown series (duology, trilogy, I don’t care, I’ll read it all). The world has lost its gods. Five of them have died and one has disappeared and is now worshipped as the one true god, the god of life.

The body of the goddess of death rests underneath the town of Dellaire, heavily guarded. It’s oozing Mortem, a substance of death that needs to be regularly channeled away from humans so that it won’t kill them. Only the priests of the Presque Mort, people who have briefly died, can do it. And then there’s Lore who was born with the ability.

Lore has kept it a tight secret ever since she accidentally resurrected a dead friend when she was a child, as necromancy means a death sentence. So, when she does it again in a very public way, she’s instantly caught by the Presque Mort. But instead of killing her, the head priest—king’s brother—brings her to court and makes her spy on the crown prince, Bastien.

She’s also tasked with figuring out what’s killing a village after a village of people without a trace. Helping her is Gabriel, a Presque Mort and a former childhood friend of the crown prince. But things aren’t what they seem. Lore has no idea who she can trust or who’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. And the cause for the deaths may hit closer than she could’ve imagined.

This was an excellent book. Told in the point of view of Lore, it instantly drew me into its world. Lore was a great character with conflicting interests and a healthy self-preservation instinct. She wasn’t a simpering YA heroine, and she owned her choices, even the questionable ones.

Gabe and Bastien made excellent counterparts to her. Both had troubled pasts and neither was a black and white character, even though Gabe tended to see the world that way. I’m a bit over triangle dramas and I kept hoping the author would veer the romance towards a threesome, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Fingers crossed that’ll change later.

The world, and especially Mortem, was a bit complicated and I’m not sure even the author always knew what she meant it to do. The court drama and the king’s need to spy on his son seemed far-fetched, but there was a reason for that in the end. I was a bit frustrated at times when Lore was slow to figure out things the author all but spelled out to readers, but not so much it would’ve marred my enjoyment. The great showdown that everything built towards came and went a bit fast, but it laid ground for the next book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.