Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Book of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Book of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells

This is a combined edition of the first two books in Ile-Rien series, The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer. Both were originally published in the 90s, and were received well. They’ve been revised here and are the author’s preferred edition.

First book is set in a renaissance or baroque type of royal court of Ile-Rien where tensions are high between the dowager queen, her rather useless son the king, the current queen, and the king’s favourite courtier. That alone would’ve made an interesting story of palace intrigue, but added to it are a conspiracy by a sorcerer, attack by the unseelie court of fayres, and the illegitimate daughter of the previous king by the fayre queen of Air and Darkness who returns after several years of exile. And at the centre of everything is the captain of the Queen’s Guard, Thomas Boniface, whose job it is to maintain order and keep both queens safe.

Kade’s return pushes several conflicts and conspiracies to light, and before anyone realises, there’s a battle for life and death going on. The enemy is rather vague and changes constantly, as the conspirators betray each other for their own gain, keeping the reader guessing as much as Boniface. When the dust settles, things have changed for everyone, and not always for the better.

This was a good and compact stand-alone story with high stakes, interesting characters and a bit of romance which I didn’t entirely feel. It’s a May-December one between Kade and Boniface that felt slightly icky even though she’s 24, mostly because Kade behaved like a capricious child. Luckily it was left to the end of the book, so I could let it go.

The second book takes place a century later in the same city. The world has advanced in leaps, and this one is a Gaslamp novel with gothic vibes and aesthetics, complete with séances and rambling manors. It doesn’t really build on the first book, even the magic has changed, and the focus is on the world of demimonde as much as the aristocracy.

Nicholas Valiarde is a successful thief and man of mystery posing as an art dealer. He’s lost his foster father to a conspiracy, and has spent the years since planning a revenge against the man he thinks is responsible for it. With his team, he’s worked hard and everything is ready for the final act in his revenge. And then things start to go wrong.

A man arrives who claims to know who Nicholas is. Even worse, he has items Nicholas’s father has invented that should’ve been destroyed. Nicholas has no choice but to go after the man. What should’ve been a quick kill turns into a full-blown investigation into necromancy and other forbidden arts that is as ghoulish as it’s difficult to solve. And to make matters worse, Nicholas himself is being hunted by an investigator.

This too was a compact, standalone story with great characters and an intriguing story. Interestingly enough, I’d tried to read The Death of the Necromancer years ago and hadn’t managed more than three chapters before giving up. Mostly, if I recall, because I couldn’t get into the world at all. Reading the books back-to-back, it was easier to understand the second book too, even though the worlds are completely different, and I rushed through it.

I would give the first book four stars (it was a tad confusing with too large a cast) and the latter five stars. As a whole, they get five stars for being well-written, imaginative and able to tell their stories in a concise manner that didn’t leave anything out and didn’t have anything unnecessary either. The characters were great and the world was interesting. There are other Ile-Rien books too, and I’ll have to give them a try after this.

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

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture Vol. 3 by Mikage Sawamura: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture by Mikage Sawamura

Volume 3 of Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture is called A Tale of Curses and Blessings. This light novel series of paranormal cozy mysteries is set in contemporary Japan. It follows Naoya Fukamachi, a first-year student at Seiwa University in Tokyo, and an associate professor of folklore, Akira Takatsuki, who specialises in urban legends and ghost stories. Naoya helps the professor to explore all sorts of paranormal incidents, all of which have had very mundane explanations so far, much to the excitable professor’s disappointment.

As the title tells, the third volume is about curses. Naoya’s classmate believes he’s been cursed because he didn’t forward a chain letter, so Naoya brings him to the professor who solves it in a very Takatsuki manner. Then the pair investigates a ghost story at a nearby library. The ghost leaves ciphers in books and whoever finds them is cursed if they fail to solve them. That turned out to have a lovely and sad explanation.

Third mystery takes Naoya, Takatsuki and his detective friend Kenji ‘KenKen’ Sasakura out of Tokyo to a remote mountain village. They’re supposed to be on a winter break, but Takatsuki has heard of a cave with a demon buried in it and wants to see it for himself. When they find bones that belong to a human, they suddenly have a mystery to solve. That too, turned out to be very sad.

The volume ends with a lovely bonus story from KenKen’s point of view, where he remembers how he and Akira first met when they were six and formed a friendship that’s lasted thirty years. It has a spooky ghost story too, that might shed light to why Akira is special—if only KenKen would reveal it to him.

In addition to mysteries, we learn more about Takatsuki. He hides a personal tragedy behind constant smiles and taking delight in all the small things, like hot chocolate with marshmallows. But the glimpses behind the scenes make the reader want to give him a tight hug and never let go. There is something dark in him too, which Naoya discovers to his horror, though it’s unclear yet if Takatsuki himself knows about it. Since Naoya and KenKen are determined to protect him at all costs, mostly from himself, neither of them will likely tell him.

Naoya, the point of view character, is more involved this time round instead of a mere observer that remains a bit distant. He realises that his time at the university has changed him, and that he might have made friends even. He’s not willing to admit it though, as all friends he makes usually leave him when they learn that he can hear their lies. He tells a few fibs himself, much to his distress. But best of all, he realises he’s become friends with Takatsuki beyond a mere student-professor relationship. Those looking for a romance will be disappointed though—unless the last line in KenKen’s story hints at that.

As always, I read this too fast and now have to wait for the next volume. Luckily there are several volumes to be translated still. I’m looking forward to reading them all.

p.s. If you’re buying this series on Amazon, there’s a glitch which directs to the manga of the series when purchasing the ebook. The volume number is the same, but contents obviously aren’t. Paperback links direct to the correct book. Other retailers don’t have the same problem, so maybe favour them. The problem isn’t unique to this series on Amazon; many light novels with manga adaptations have the glitch.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Case File Compendium vol 1 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Case File Compendium by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

Case File Compendium is a long-awaited official translation of the Chinese webnovel Bing An Ben by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou, a prolific author of historical danmei fantasies. Unlike their other series, this book has a contemporary Chinese setting and doesn’t have fantasy elements.

He Yu is a 19-year-old university student in the imaginary city of Huzhou (basically Shanghai.) He’s recently returned from living several years abroad, and wants to reconnect with the girl he’s loved for a long time, Xie Xue. She’s teaching screenwriting at the university, so that’s what he’ll study too. She’s several years older than him though, and only sees him as a childhood friend.

Xie Quingcheng is 32, a former doctor and current professor of medicine at a nearby university. He’s Xie Xue’s brother, and He Yu’s former doctor. He Yu suffers from an extremely rare (and imaginary) condition that’ll eventually drive him insane, if he doesn’t learn to control his emotions. And love, especially unrequited, isn’t good for him.

The premise of the three being connected throws the men constantly together. They don’t like each other much, and don’t really understand each other either, even though Xie Quingcheng is the only person who truly knows what He Yu is like and what is required of him so that he can remain sane. Both are extremely homophobic too, so even friendship under the guise of looking after a former patient isn’t likely. The first volume only sets the stage for their relationship.

Mostly, the book is a bit of a mess. A lot of things happen, a background conspiracy emerges, people come and go, and random stories pop up that have nothing to do with the characters or the plot. It takes a long time for the basic story to form and the reader to get the hang of the two men, especially since—in the manner of webnovels—their characters and backstories keep changing to fit the plot.

It’s amazing how much Xie Quingcheng has done for a relatively young man (though He Yu keeps calling him middle-aged), and how sane He Yu is for a psychopath. They’re fairly likeable characters nonetheless, and oddly well-suited for one another for such different people. The age gap is pronounced, but I didn’t find it problematic.

Contemporary China is an interesting setting. It remains kind of vague though, and I kept wishing there would be more of it. It’s mostly about the divide between the rich and poor, and traditional, patriarchal society and modern values—or the lack of them.

Despite the slow start, the story becomes fairly compelling towards the end, lifting it from a three-star book to a four-star one. The first volume ends at a small cliffhanger that comes out of the blue. However, since it is about the background plot, it’s not terribly annoying. The game between the two men has only started, and I’m interested in reading where it’ll lead.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

At First Spite by Olivia Dade: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

At First Spite by Olivia Dade

At First Spite starts the Harlot’s Bay series of contemporary romances. In the first book, Athena Greydon moves to Harlot’s Bay, into the house she had bought for her husband-to-be as a wedding present, only for him to call off the wedding. Now she’s stuck with the house and mortgage, and to her horror, she’s next-door neighbours with her ex’s brother who caused the breakup.

Matthew Vine had a good reason to make his brother call off the wedding: Johnny wasn’t mature enough for Athena. He just didn’t think to tell her that. And he’s not about to admit, not even to himself, that he’s interested in her himself.

At first, Athena’s anger with Matthew makes her push him away, but little by little, the two become friends. He feels responsible for her and acts accordingly, which occasionally annoys her. But when she becomes depressed, he’s there for her. There’s not much romance as such until after the half point, when she has recovered, with a bit of drama when Matthew feels he needs to choose between his brother and her.

This was a lovely, grownup romance, though slow and much too long. Both MCs are closer to forty with lived lives and baggage. They behave their age too, and not like teenagers, like so often happens in these ‘mature’ romances. Nevertheless, both needed to grow up, and some grovelling had to happen, before the happily ever after. Emotions were fairly steady, but its a good romance for those who want more mature characters.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennet: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennet

The Tainted Cup starts the Shadow of the Leviathan series of fantasy mysteries. As always, Jackson Bennet has created a wonderfully innovative world that isn’t a mere backdrop but an integral part of the story, and characters that the reader can root for.

The story is set in a vast empire lined by the sea at one edge, where each wet season huge leviathans try to enter the land, kept at bay by a wall. All the efforts of the empire, especially the military, is directed at protecting the people from these creatures. But they’re useful too, as their blood is used for modifying and genetically manipulating everything from people to animals and plants.

Dinios Kol is an engraver, a person whose brain has been altered to remember absolutely everything. He’s been assigned as an assistant to Ana Dolabra, a criminal investigator banished to a tiny village near the sea. She’s susceptible to outward stimulus and goes blindfolded most of the time. And she never visits the crime scenes herself. That’s why she has Kol.

A puzzling murder has happened in a manor of one of the most influential families in the empire. A tree has burst from inside a visiting military officer. The crime doesn’t take Dolabra long to figure out, but then there turns out to be more of these murders, which takes the pair to the town nearest to the seawall where the military is preparing for the wet season.

This was an excellent book and an intriguing mystery. Told from the point of view of Dinios Kol, the mystery deepens and its scope widens at every turn. He’s the perfect protagonist for the story, curious, single-minded and persistent. With his ability to remember everything, he conducts a steady investigation. But solving the crime is left for his boss. She’s a Sherlock Holmes type of person who makes huge deductive leaps that leave others puzzled, the reader included. But she definitely finds the truth in the end.

It's also a warning about the human manipulation of nature. At every turn, the story relies on the consequences of altering the people and the nature, and the toll of the endless war against the leviathans. I have a notion they’ll turn out to be both more important and less destructive than the people believe.

Despite the gruesome nature of the murders, the story has a cozy feel to it. Kol goes about his investigation, making friends and finding new things about himself and his abilities. There’s even a bit of romance for him, if too briefly. The ending sends the pair for more adventures. I hope there will be an entire series of the two solving crimes around the empire.

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