Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse

There’s a recent trend in urban fantasy to make the protagonist a middle-aged woman. She’s usually in her early forties and facing a sudden change, be it a divorce or something else, when she’s believed her life perfectly set. The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse, which starts the Accidental Midlife trilogy, is part of that trend.

Everly Popa, 45, returns to her childhood home after ratting her (soon-to-be-ex) husband to FBI for his criminal activities, which has caused his partners to threaten her life. She’s had to leave her adult daughter behind, after she sided with her father.

It's not an easy homecoming for her. She hails from a town that sits on a nexus of heaven and hell, populated by humans bred to guard the place and all sorts of supernatural and otherworldly creatures. She’s fled the town in a huff in her teens after being denied a post as a Hunter for her gender, and hasn’t been back since. The semi-sentient town isn’t willing to let her in, which is only the start of her troubles.

Everly has barely been let in when she’s attacked by a hellhound, which indicates that she’s been chosen as the Gatekeeper of the town, because the person who was supposed to inherit the post has gone missing. And she’s not the only one. Things go from bad to worse to apocalyptic in no time, and it’s up to Everly, who isn’t exactly in her teenage shape anymore, to save the day.

This book started well, with an interesting premise and good pacing. But once the action began, that’s all there was. I’m not a fan of a narrative where mayhem follows mayhem, with no pause for reflection. And I absolutely dislike the trope where the protagonist is kept deliberately in the dark. Everly is swept along by the events around her and at no point does she influence them. Add in a few deus ex machina saves (literally), and she’s a pretty useless protagonist. That she ends up saving the day in the end was thanks to the power invested in her, and not to any particular action of hers.

The book never answers any of the questions set by the premise. The criminal husband and the threat to Everly’s life are forgotten, and the issues with her daughter aren’t solved. And many questions are given unsatisfactory answers, including the antagonist’s motivation or how they were able to do what they did. The treatment of the elders of town especially left me flabbergast.

But what made me dislike this book was Everly herself. At forty-five, she’s already going through the menopause (apparently thats the only valid experience for a woman that age to have, never mind that its a tad early) and is inconvenienced by it (apparently medical treatment for it isn’t available where she lives), and suffers from aches caused by age (because forty-five is old and not the new black).

Yet she doesn’t seem to have a proper past. References to her daughter’s childhood could be made by a woman fifteen years younger, and her husband doesn’t exist even that much. Her interaction with the people in the town are only about their high school years. She has insecurities from her youth she hasn’t managed to work through during her adulthood and is only facing now. And she has no common sense at all.

Despite the flaws, this was a passable UF starter, if much too long for the content. There’s some attempt to kindle an old romance, but the guy left me cold. In the end the most important relationship turned to be with one of the angels guarding the town. The ending sets the next book, but I don’t think I’ll continue with the series.

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


Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Ten Low by Stark Holborn: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Ten Low by Stark Holborn

Ten Low is a stand-alone sci-fi novel by Stark Holborn. It takes place in not-so-distant future from earth at the edge of the universe, on a badly terraformed moon that’s basically a desert. People fleeing from the dominant political force, the Accord, and ex-convicts try to make the most of the meagre reserves they have. It’s a desolate, violent place where bandits and protectors alike prey on the weak. And the most feared of all are the Seekers who harvest the organs of the dying.

But the humans know they’re not alone on the moon. There are beings no one can see and only a few can sense; beings of potential and chaos, who feast on human will. They were there first. And they are very interested in some humans, like Ten Low.

Ten is an escaped convict, a former army medic with a past she’s trying to atone by striving to save as many lives as she can, and never kill again. One night, the beings give her a vision of potential futures. Compelled to follow the path they show her, she ends up saving an enemy general, a genetically enhanced child soldier, Gabi.

The story follows the pair as they try to make it to safety through a hostile terrain where safety is only an illusion. Ten is on an inner journey as well, as she begins to trust the beings that guide her steps, for reasons that she doesn’t understand. Little by little we learn what she has done to earn her sentence and why she’s atoning. And little by little it dawns on her that the atonement is not what she thought it would be.

This was a great book. It’s a blend of sci-fi, western dystopia, and paranormal. It’s told solely from Ten’s point of view, and she’s strong enough to carry the narrative, though it leaves the side characters, even Gabi, slightly vague. The world is gritty and dry, and the action is plenty. As the story progresses, the paranormal side takes over more and more, creating improbabilities that nonetheless become realities. And somehow it works. Really well.

If you want your Firefly (sans spaceships) with a hefty dose of mystical, this is for you.

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

Monday, June 07, 2021

The Coward by Stephen Aryan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Coward by Stephen Aryan

I picked up The Coward by Stephen Aryan thinking it was a comedic account of a man who has faked his way into herodom and now has to face the consequences of his cowardice, when the threat he hadn’t actually dealt with returns. I don’t know why the description gave me that notion. The book turned out to be a run-of-the mill epic fantasy that starts a Quest for Heroes trilogy. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Kell is a farmer with a heroic past. He’s the sole survivor of a quest of heroes to kill a creature that has caused the weather to turn cold. His quiet life is interrupted when the weather worsens again, and the king sends him back to the creature’s lair to see if it’s come back. He gathers a group of people, heads to north and does exactly as commanded, heroically saving the day again. The end. There are no cowards, just a few moments of weakness that only make the characters more human.

Despite the baffling name, this is a competent fantasy starter. Narrative flows well, the characters are interesting, and there’s plenty of action. There are several point of view characters in addition to Kell, like Gerret, a young boy joining the quest. He hopes to become a hero too, only to learn that it’s a perilous job. Other members of their small group get an occasional chance to narrate the story too.

The most important side character is the Head Priestess of the Shepherd, the zealot leader of the dominant religion. She’s an old woman fighting to spread the faith at any cost and to prevent age from getting the better of her. She was a creepy character, but her chapters suffered from a lack of a coherent arc. They mostly set the plot for future books, but in the context of this one, they remained a bit pointless. A holy war isn’t original enough an idea to keep my interest either.

While this was a good book, it was much too long. It’s as if authors think that fantasy needs to be epic in length, whereas it should be epic in content. This wasn’t. A large portion of the book was spent on a journey, with the group fighting a monstrous creature after another. Obstacles make a good story, but the scenes were repeating themselves after a while, turning the heroes into mindless butchers. The characters were prone to introspection too, and while it gave them depth, none of it led anywhere, which added to the sense of needless length.

The book ended with a series of out of the blue revelations that hadn’t even been hinted at. I couldn’t help thinking that instead of wasting pages in pointless butchering, the author should’ve used the space in foreshadowing them better. The ending promises interesting times for Kell in subsequent books, but I think the book works as a stand-alone just fine.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

I’ve had The Goblin Emperor waiting on my e-reader for a long time for a suitable time to read it. Now that I have, I wish I’d read it soonerand that I could instantly read it again.

The book takes place in the Elfish Empire, in a world with clockworks and airships, magic and swords—and no humans. The emperor and his sons die in a tragic airship accident, leaving the youngest son Maia to inherit the throne. Maia is a half goblin, despised and ostracised by his father to a remote farm. He doesn’t know the first thing about being a ruler, the court, or how to conduct himself around other people. He doesn’t want to be a ruler, but instead of rueing his fate, he sets out to do his best.

Told solely from Maia’s perspective, the book follows him through the first bewildering days of his reign to when he finally starts to feel comfortable in his new life. In between there are power struggles, coup and assassination attempts, an investigation to his father’s death, and marriage negotiations where women aren’t given a say in who they want to marry—a state of affairs that Maia wishes to remedy, but finds nearly impossible to do.

At first, it seems like he’s alone facing the world, but little by little he realises that there are people around him that wish him good and are willing to help him to achieve his goals. The ending is hopeful yet wistful, as he realises that the one thing he cannot really have is genuine friendship.

Maia was a wonderful character. Thoroughly decent, and willing to be the best he can, not just as a ruler but as a person. He had many insecurities that he made a conscious effort to overcome, an ability to find good people to rely on, and a skill to bring out the best in people around him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was willing to apologise and make amends when he succumbed to anger or weakness. It was wonderful to watch him grow to become a great ruler.

The writing style was immersive even though it didn’t dwell on details, glossing over days and events, and often relying on telling instead of showing. The moments when the narrative paused to give a closer look on Maia’s life were all the sharper for it. The only confusing thing was the names. Everyone had honorifics that sounded similar from person to person, and given names that weren’t used, except occasionally, plus combinations of the same that made them seem like different persons. I was constantly lost, but even that didn’t mar my enjoyment of the book. The world would be a better place if we had more people like Maia in it.


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler

Hard Reboot is a short sci-fi novel (novella) you can read in one sitting, but it manages to have both a rich world and an exciting plot. It’s set in far future earth that’s been abandoned to its fate millennia ago and serves mostly as a curiosity destination for rich off-world colonists or as a research opportunity for academics. But people still live there, making most of the opportunities the world offers them—which aren’t much.

Kas is an off-world academic. She’s a third-wave colonist, and while her ancestors have arrived on her planet a thousand years ago, she’s considered lower class and it affects her chances in academia. She’s clawed her way on an academic expedition to earth as a data-archaeologist, determined to make the most of her chance, only to learn that instead she’s expected to help a lazy first-wave colonist (effectively an aristocrat) to conduct her research, or do it for her.

Kas’s visit to earth takes an unexpected turn, however, when she’s tricked into placing a huge bet on a robot fight by Zhi, the robot’s pilot. They’re huge humanoid robots operated from the inside; I imagined jaegers from Pacific Rim, but smaller and for one pilot. Kas doesn’t have that kind of money, but the system automatically uses the expedition’s funds, which puts her academic career in jeopardy. And that’s even though the fight goes for her, because she still owes the house’s cut.

To avoid paying, Kas tracks Zhi to where scavengers live under the city and learns that Zhi has another robot, one that Kas is dying to research. Zhi persuades Kas for a double or nothing dare: Kas funds the restoration of the battle robot (with the money that isn’t hers) for a chance to win big. Since she’s already neck-deep in it, she agrees.

For such a short book, the stakes are high, though unevenly so. Kas might lose her career, but Zhi will lose her life if things go wrong. The women are an odd pair, but friendship and even a romance form between them. And Kas ends up risking her life in the final battle too. The ending is satisfying and doesn’t leave the reader wanting for anything.

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