Thursday, March 04, 2021

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

Down Comes the Night is a debut fantasy novel by Allison Saft. It’s advertised as Gothic YA romance, and it’s set in a unique world with both magic and early technology like electricity and steam engines. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wren is a healer in the military, skilled both in magical healing and more scientific approach. She’s also the queen’s niece, and the two have an antagonistic relationship. In an act of defiance after the queen sends her on a fool’s errand, she accepts an invitation from a friendly neighbouring country to come and heal a random servant in a nobleman’s castle. But when she arrives there she learns that the servant is actually her country’s greatest enemy Hal Cavendish. She has to choose whether to heal him or take him to the queen so that she can finally earn her approval.

There’s something sinister going on in the castle. Hal is there to find out what it is, and since the mystery concerns Wren’s country too, they begin to solve it together. But the corruption runs deeper than she could’ve imagined. If they can’t solve it, she and Hal both will be lost, and both their countries plunged into a war.

The book starts well, with an interesting and concise backstory about two countries in a permanent war, Wren antagonism with the queen, and Wren’s relationship with her commanding officer Una, whom she ends up betraying in order to leave the country. Then comes the middle part, which is some sort of Gothic romance with all its clich├ęs (a castle with odd restrictions of movement, peculiar host, snowbound couple with only one bed etc.). And then the last quarter is again like from a different book as it returns to the earlier setting. From a triangle between three strong women, need for love and the lack of it, to a very boring romance that never really takes flight, and back to the three women again.

If I were to guess, I’d say the middle part existed first as a standalone romance into which the author then added the backstory. The middle is much too long for its contents and not terribly interesting or romantic (Wren and Hal are seasoned soldiers yet they suddenly behave like innocent teenagers). The backstory barely plays a role. It’s as if Wren is a different person with completely different motivations; she doesn’t spare a thought for Una whom she’s loved for years. The book changes for the better once the Gothic castle is left behind; the pace picks up and stakes get higher. But while there’s some emotional payoff, it’s not really enough to compensate for the clumsy middle section.

The world is a mishmash of everything. Two countries have magic and one doesn’t for some reason, as if interbreeding never happened, but they have electricity, which the other two don’t have. Yet Wren has a working knowledge of genetics. But the concoction sort of works, if one doesn’t pay too close attention. What did annoy me were the many consistency issues, especially in the middle part. The time of day changed from paragraph to paragraph (like, the sun shines, yet it’s pitch black and  then snowing in the next instance) so that I never knew if it was morning or evening. This wasn’t a bad book, but it could’ve used a more careful editing. But the ending was satisfying for all parties and it doesn’t set the scene for a sequel. If you like stand-alone fantasy, give it a try.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh

Quiet in Her Bones is the second thriller by Nalini Singh who is better known as a bestselling paranormal romance writer of Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series as well as of several contemporary romances. Her first thriller, A Madness of Sunshine, relied heavily on the atmosphere of rural New Zealand, small town setting, and thriller tropes. Quiet in Her Bones is a more mature thriller and—dare I say—much better.

The book is set in Auckland, the largest city of New Zealand, but it mostly takes place in a small gated community for the rich. It’s a good choice, as it allows for a compact cast of characters who have known each other for decades. Every family has their secrets and there’s always someone who knows them.

The book is told in first person by Aarav Rai, a bestselling author in his late twenties who’s had to return to his childhood home after a bad car accident. His leg is in a cast and he suffers from migraines. He and his father hate each other, the root of which is Aarav’s mother Nina, who has disappeared thirteen years earlier. And then her remains are found, not far from their home. Enraged by the fate of his beloved mother, Aarav begins his own investigation to his mother’s death.

The list of potential suspects is fairly long for such a small community, but Aarav is under no illusions about his mother and her habits, and doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. As he investigates the death, he ends up stirring old secrets that have nothing to do with his mother. And along the way we solve the mystery of Aarav too.

Aarav is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He’s a self-professed sociopath and liar, but more importantly for the reader, his memory is faulty. It dawns little by little on him and the reader both that his car accident was much worse than he thought. He has great gaps in his memory, on top of which he suffers from vivid hallucinations. Yet his narration is so convincing that the reader is constantly thrown back by the turn of events. As the story progresses, the reader knows more than he does, as he forgets events that have taken place only days ago.

With his memory, Aarav begins to question everything, even his own involvement in his mother’s death. From the chaos of his mind, glimpses of real memories surface, directing him to the truth. But because the reader is unable to trust him anymore, it’s with a baited breath that they wait whether he finds the real killer—or if it turns out to be him after all.

Quiet in Her Bones is an excellent thriller with a great main character. It stands on its own and, unlike the first one, doesn’t suffer from comparisons with Singh’s romantic fiction. I’d definitely be interested in reading more thrillers from her.

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Jackson by LaQuette: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Jackson by LaQuette

Jackson is the first book in Restoration Ranch contemporary romance series by LaQuette. It’s set on a ranch with the same name near Austin, Texas, that’s been in the Everett family ever since their ancestor was freed after the Civil War. The current owner, Aja, a former hotshot defence lawyer from New York in her late thirties, wants to turn it into a holiday resort, but someone in her town opposes the plan. Accidents plague the construction, and when Aja is almost killed, her family intervenes and calls in Texas Rangers. Enter Jackson Dean, a ranger as protective as he is hot.

There’s instant attraction between the two, but this is a grown-up romance, where both parties bring in a lot of baggage, so neither of them intend it to last. Alongside the romance, there’s the mystery of who’s trying to harm Aja. There are some really hot scenes, but once the case is solved, they go their separate ways—only to realise they need each other after all.

I liked both Aja and Jackson, separately and together. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid of going after it, and he wasn’t afraid of letting her be who she is, provided he could be there to save the day and comfort her. The supporting cast remained a little distant and I didn’t really get a hang of them.

This wasn’t a bad book, but unfortunately it suffered from a clumsy execution. We plunge in with a brief action scene when the situation on the ranch has been going on for a while already—and then everything halts. We’re told about the troubles, but we never witness them, and the investigation takes place outside the narrative.

The narrative was on a constant holding pattern. It consisted of filler scenes between brief bursts of action when the bad guys made their moves and the characters reacted. The characters were never in charge of the plot, never proactive, and the reader was an observer. Even the romantic scenes felt emotionally distant. It made the book feel overly long, and even the twists at the end couldn’t really save it. But Aja and Jackson got their happily ever after and it made the ending satisfying.

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

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Wolf After My Own Heart by MaryJanice Davidson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

A Wolf after My Own Heart by MaryJanice Davidson

A Wolf After My Own Heart is the second book in BeWere My Heart urban fantasy series by MaryJanice Davidson. I haven’t read the first book, but it didn’t matter at all, as this one had a unique plot and plenty of references to the previous book and characters.

The book is set in a small town outside St. Paul, Minnesota, and the world is mostly like ours, but populated with various weres ranging from wolves and bears to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. They go under human radar, but with their own social organisations like child services and fire brigades.

Lila, a human—or Stable, though she doesn’t know that word yet—has just moved into a huge old house in a quiet neighbourhood. Her very first night, she runs over a wolf and finds an injured bear cub. The first disappears before she has a chance to do anything, but the cub she takes home. Only for it to shift into a little girl. This plunges her into a strange new world of weres, including Oz, the sexy social worker werewolf who’s supposed to look after the bear cub now that her parents are dead.

There’s instant attraction between Lila and Oz, but it doesn’t really go anywhere fast. For all that this is advertised as a sexy romance, anything romantic is pretty much in a backburner, and sexy things happen behind closed doors and only at the very end. This is more of a paranormal mystery, where the characters are trying to find out what happened to the cub’s parents and who is trying to kill her. The mystery unfolds in a fairly haphazard way, with everything happening in the last chapters of the book. The ending is satisfying, but not exactly a happily ever after kind of affair.

I liked the book, but I had some issues. The two point of view characters, Lila and Oz, had similar inner monologues that made them seem like ADDs off their meds; a stream of consciousness with many tangents that were supposed to be quirky and funny, but were only exhausting. It was difficult to tell them apart at times and more annoyingly, the inner monologues were in contrast with their actions. Oz was an accountant turned social worker, reliable but yearning for some action, and Lila was a survival who was prepared for everything life could throw at her. I haven’t read other books from Davidson, but I suspect this is her writing style that trumps the characters’ own voices. This stretched to other characters too, who only communicated with snarky, often really mean comments, which made them fairly unlikeable.

I’m also not a fan of a writing style where a scene starts in the middle, with nothing to indicate who is talking, where, when and why, with the POV character explaining the scene later. It made the narrative very clunky, and required a lot of backtracking. There were also footnotes from the author that constantly yanked me off the narrative and the world. Towards the end, a new point of view character was added to explain the plot, which confused the matters further. If it hadn’t been for the really sweet child characters and some funny moments, this would have been a three star book. But there was something compelling about the setting and the mystery, if not the romance, which left me happy with the book in the end, so it gets four stars.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth (and last?) book in Becky Chambers’ wonderful Wayfarers series. Each book has been set in a different location in her vast and imaginative galaxy, featuring different people, and has tackled different aspects of (human) experience from AIs right to a self, to finding a place to belong. The latest isn’t an exception.

The book is set on a small rock of a planet that has no life of its own, but—as Tupo, one of the characters says—even life that is introduced on a planet is life. Gora is a hub of space travel between several wormhole jump points, a place to rest and refuel for a day or two while waiting for a place in the jump queue. Life is contained under large domes, and the only thing connecting the domes is the power grid.

One of the domes is Five-Hop One-Stop, a rest-stop run by Ouloo and Tupo, her child. They are Laru, a species that resemble long-legged and necked dogs or maybe Alpacas; they’re furry and four-legged, with front paws acting as hands. It’s a matter of pride for Ouloo to make each and every traveller feel like home when they visit, whether it’s offering them particular food, accommodating different bathing habits, or finding a suddenly fertile Aeluon the closest place to procreate.

On this occasion, she’s visited by Pei, a female Aeluon, a mostly humanoid species who communicate with colours on their skin; Roveg, a Quelin male who are basically large insects with exoskeletons and multiple legs; and Speaker, a female Akarak, a small species who cannot use oxygen and therefore only exit their ship inside a mechanical armour. Accommodating such different guests isn’t easy, but Ouloo does her best. And then a disaster strikes, stranding them into her dome for days with no way of communicating outside.

Like all the books in the series, this is very much character driven. We follow each character as they try to adjust to a change in their plans, their worries for what they might miss or what awaits them once they reach their destination. Each character has their own story and reason to travel. And for the first time for most of them, it’s a chance to get to know species they find alien. They do this in a respectful manner and with minimal strife, which has become the hallmark of these books. While nothing much happens externally, each character changes through these interactions and by the time they are able to leave, they have made new friends. The epilogue sees everyone to their happy places, the private conflicts solved.

This was a wonderful, happy book that left me warm and fuzzy inside. If this truly is the last one, it’s a great ending, but I wish the series would continue. It’s been imaginative and positive, with great detail and thought put to the biological and cultural differences of the various species, and I’m sure there would be dozens of stories to tell. I for one could read many more Wayfarer books.

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