Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Inscape by Louise Carey: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape is the debut (solo) novel of Louise Carey, and it’s a great one; interesting, immersive and mature. I received an early review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The book comes out on January 21st.

The name of the book and the description gave me the notion that Inscape would be some sort of virtual reality scape into which special agents entered their minds at their own risk while their bodies were suspended elsewhere, like in Matrix. That’s not the case at all. The book is set in future London in a world that has suffered a catastrophic event called Meltdown, though what it was and when it was isn’t explained. It’s not really important anyway. The current world is. London is divided into two zones on both sides of the Thames, which is only a dried-up riverbed turned minefield. Each side is ruled by a major technical corporation that have hostile relationship with the other, InTech in the north and Thoughtfront in the south. Everything and everyone is in the service of these corporations.

Inscape is an AR system installed directly in people’s brains and everyone on InTech side is augmented with it; the other side has their own system. Not only does it enhance people’s abilitiesor supress them in case of mindless slavesit also spies the residents. But it’s all perfectly normal as far as Tanta, the main character, is concerned.

Tanta is a CorpWard, an orphan who has been raised by InTech to be of service for the corporation. She is happy to serve, lives to please her superiors and fears their upset. She has been trained as an agent whose job is to prevent the other corporation from operating on her side of the river. She is absolutely loyal to her handler Jen, and will do anything she tells her. Her very first assignment doesn’t go as planned though, which causes her great deal of distress. But she doesn’t need to worry; she’s being given another chance: find out what has been leaked from InTech and by whom. She’s assigned a partner, Cole, a fifty-something neuroscientist with no field experience whatsoever and who suffers from a grave memory loss thanks to an accident with a device that wipes off peoples’ memories.

The first half of the book is a bit slow. We follow Tanta in her new role as an agent investigating the leak. The investigation seems somewhat random and produces results that don’t seem to lead anywhere. But the focus is, for the reader, elsewhere. We learn, unlike Tanta, that she has been carefully conditioned to be a perfect tool for the corporation. She is physically incapable of disobeying orders or being disloyal. She doesn’t understand other peoples’ reactions to her when they fear or pity her. And she doesn’t understand how anyone could betray the corporation by deliberately leaking its secrets.

The pace picks up on the second half. Something happens to break Tanta’s conditioning, after which she has to question who she is and why she is doing what she is. It’s not easy for her, but the process is described well. Nonetheless, she’s determined to finish the assignment given to her. Only, the truth turns out to be even more mind-shattering, not just for her but for her partner Cole as well.

Tanta is a great character and the reader follows her path from a mindless tool to independent thinker with interest. Cole, with his memory loss and timidness, is interesting too, and the two form an unlikely friendship. The characters without their own point of view, like Tanta’s girlfriend Reet, aren’t quite as well-rounded, but they serve a role in Tanta’s change too. The world with its technological wonders is kept simple and no explanations are given to why it has turned the way it is. The reader plunges right in and is taken for a ride. The writing is competent and the pacing is good. And if events fold out a bit too neatly for Tanta and Cole, every plan and operation executed as intended without surprises, it has enough twists and turns that the reader can overlook it. Besides, I like books where nothing bad (relatively speaking) happens to the characters. The book ends with a teaser for the next book and I’m definitely interested in reading that one too.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My year in books

This has been a busy reading year for me. At the beginning of the year I made an ambitious list of eighty-one books that I intended to read, some of which had been on my to-read list for several years already. And thenlike every yearI promptly began to read books outside my list. It’s more of a guideline anyway…

For this year’s Goodreads reading challenge, I pledged to read sixty-five books, which was fairly ambitious but achievable, as I’d managed that many the previous year. To my amazement, as I write this, I’ve read ninety-three books, with a couple of more still to come. After I discard nine books that I’ve reviewed without finishing them, I’ve read eighty-four books, which well exceeds my expectations.

If I’d stuck to my list, I would’ve managed to read everything on it. But I didn’t. At all. Of the eighty-one books on it, I read fifteen, which is an all-time low. The only books that I read from it were new publications by my favourite authors like Nalini Singh and J.R. Ward that I’d eagerly waited for. I managed to read only one book that had been on my reading list since the previous year. No wonder my TBR pile keeps growing…

That makes sixty-nine completed books read from outside my list. A whopping nineteen of them are by one author, Lindsay Buroker, one of the most successful self-published authors out there. I picked up by chance The Emperor’s Edge that starts her fantasy series of the same name and read the series back to back, and then continued with her new urban fantasy series Death Before Dragons that begins with Sinister Magic. And I have an e-reader full of her other books as well; sci-fi and romance among them, enough to full my reading list for next year.

Other highlights of my year include, among others, A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones, which starts her new modern mystery series of a small town sheriff Sunshine Vicram; Honor Among Thieves, the first book in The Honors YA sci-fi series by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre; and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, the first book in her The Sixth World post-apocalyptic UF series.

But by far the biggest reason why I read so much outside my reading list is because I joined NetGalley in July. It’s a portal where publishers offer early review copies for regular readers; you can register for free and then start requesting books that you’d like to review. The big publishers favour established reviewers though, so I began by reading and reviewing anything that was available for downloading straight away. I ended up reading quite a lot of books by new self-published authors, and debut authors by smaller publishing houses. To date, I’ve reviewed forty-one books there.

Not everything I read from NetGalley was to my liking, but since a review was expected of me, I ended up reviewing nine books without actually finishing them. Some were poorly written, some were hot messes, and some were just boring. But there were a few that were among the best books I’ve read this year.

The highlights include Phoenix Extravagant, a stand-alone historical fantasy by Yoon Ha Lee (author of The Machineries of Empire sci-fi series) set in imaginary Korea, with magic and automations. I warmly recommend it for fans of the genre. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novic (author of Temeraire alt-history fantasy series) starts The Scholomance YA fantasy series set in a school for mages that tries to kill the students on regular bases. If you live, you graduate. And The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, magical realism/fantasy by one of my favourite authors, V.E. Schwab, that tells the story of Addie who is cursed to live forever and be forgotten by all.

A few times I received a review copy for a second book in a series that I hadn’t read yet and had to read the first one too. Highlights among these include The Blacksmith Queen and its follow-up The Princess Knight by G.A. Aiken that belong to Scarred Earth Saga of fantasy romances with centaurs and dragons. Inspired by them, I also started reading her earlier Dragon Kin series that I’ve also enjoyed. The Last Smile in Sunder City and Dead Man in a Ditch are first two books in The Fetch Phillips Archives, a series by Luke Arnold, Australian actor of Black Sails fame. They’re a combination of UF tropes, mainly a down-in-luck detective, and an imaginative fantasy world where magic has died and all magical creatures are struggling to come to terms with the new reality. I liked the first book slightly better, but both are good.

Other highlights from my NetGalley career so far include The Seventh Perfection by Daniel Polansky, an experimental novel where the main character’s dialogue has been omitted completely; The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal, third book in her excellent Lady Astronaut series; and Hall of Smoke by a debut author H.M. Long, a brilliant stand-alone epic fantasy.

To end this long post, I have to mention the book that began my reading year, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang and The Dragon Republic, the first two books in The Poppy War epic fantasy trilogy set in alternative 18th century China. It’s both exciting and gut-wrenching while experimenting with the genre’s tropes, such as the idea of ‘the chosen one’. Both books left me reeling with the direction they took. Third one, The Burning God, is already out, but I made the mistake of asking it for a Christmas present and now I have to wait. Judging by the comments I’ve read so far, it’ll end me.

These were some of the highlights of my reading year. It was interesting and educating, as each review I wrote for NetGalley required quite a lot of thought, especially the books that I didn’t like. I have over twenty books waiting for me on NetGalley already for next year, so I’ll continue to discover new to me authors. I’ll write more about those in my first post next year where I make, yet again, a list of books that I’ll intend to read. Stay tuned for that. In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll have relaxing holidays and that Santa will bring you a lot of books.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Monster MASH by Angie Fox: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

The Monster MASH by Angie Fox

I’ve long meant to read Angie Fox’s comedic fantasies, and so I was eager to get my hands in The Monster MASH when I spotted it on NetGalley, and was thrilled to have an early review copy. The premise promised the same than the movie MASH and the subsequent TV series had, but with gods and supernatural entities: an endless war told from the point of view of the hospital staff that have no personal interest in the outcome, but who have no way of escaping, so they express their frustration with disobedience, disrespect and endless pranks. What was delivered was only a vague resemblance of that, and I’m afraid the book didn’t work for me at all.

The main character, Dr Petra Robichaud, has worked seven years on the front lines of a war between gods, taking care of injured gods, demigods and heroes. She’s been drafted against her will and she can only get out when she dies. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for her, nor does it affect her actions. She can see ghosts, which is apparently a big no-no among the gods, and might indicate she has a role to play in a prophecy that ends the war. The other main character is Galen, a demigod warrior who ends up on her operating table. He’s absolutely determined to see the prophecy to come to pass, though I never quite understood why now, when he’s been fighting for centuries already. He was overbearing and annoying, and as a love interest, a great disappointment.

This was a first person narrative and Petra the only point of view character. Problem for me was that I didn’t like her at all. She’s over forty, experienced trauma doctor and, according to her friends, a cynicnot a surprise when one has spent years at waryet she behaved like a schoolgirl, positively dying of embarrassment every time someone teased her of her alleged relationship with Galen. She didn’t take any charge of her life or have proper insight in herself. Her interactions with Galen were those of a teenager with her first crush, and consisted mostly of denial. There was no discernible reason that I could find why she nonetheless fell in love with him. I found her annoying, inconsistent and cowardly, and could only marvel when other characters described her as the opposite.

Other characters were odd and annoying too. Galen was the worst, a cardboard figure that showed up to order Petra around or save her. Other characters seemed to like him, but readers weren’t invited in their interactions and so can’t judge for themselves. The rest of the cast are oddities that were probably meant to be the comedic relief, but since they never did anything funny and their communications with Petra were mostly snarky, they didn’t come across as such. The only character I liked was the commander, but he had a fairly minor role.

But it’s not just my personal preferences that made Petra an unsatisfying main character. She had no agency. She didn’t influence the plot in any way at any point. She made no attempt to investigate or influence the prophecy concerning herthough apparently she had tried before the book beganand her only act of defiance was denying it had anything to do with her. There were some action scenes where she was usually saved by Galen, and although they had impact on the outcome of the story, they were accidental on her part. In the end, she watched the story unfold on TV. I kid you not.

However, what really made the book fail was that it had no plot. All the interesting bits had happened before it began: Petra’s fiancé had died in the war between gods; she had been drafted to the opposite side, learned about the prophecy and acted on it with bad consequences for her. All this was revealed to the reader in due, and not so due, course, but it didn’t have any impact on the plot or Petra’s actions, apart from her trying to deny her role in the prophecy.

The book has an inciting incident that throws Petra and Galen together. After that, half the book is spent with Petra dragging her heels about the prophecy. Absolutely nothing happens to advance the non-existent plot. She hangs around with her friends, does some hospital stuff, and goes back and forth with Galen whilst apparently falling in love with him at some point too. After the half point, the prophecy suddenly kicks in and we’re following it on TV where Petra learns how it’s supposed to unfold. There are some action scenes that confirm it, and then the prophecy is fulfilled. We watch it on the side-lines. Petra has no part in it. Undying love is declared. The end.

All in all, the book was unfunny, boring and unromantic. It failed in every level that I expect from a comedic fantasy. There’s an afterword from the author where she says this is a revised version from an earlier one where she couldn’t follow her vision for the book. Without reading the original version, I’m inclined to think that she should’ve let it be. This is a start for a series, but needless to say, I’m not going to continue with it.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long

Hall of Smoke is the debut novel of H.M. Long, and what a great debut it is. It’s stand-alone fantasy that starts deceptively small and grows into epic proportions. I received a free review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in a pre-industrial, almost tribal world that doesn’t instantly or obviously refer to ours, though the largest warrior culture reminded me of Rome and the smaller ones of both North American native cultures and Asian cultures. It’s a good mixture where nothing is so directly borrowed that it would jar and everything blends together to form something unique and new. The mythologies and habits are rich and they are brought up organically as the story flows. Countries and cultures have formed around different gods and though languages and habits remain fairly similar, the gods’ dislike of one another has transferred to humans too. Wars and raids are regular.

The main character is Hessa, a warrior priestess of Eang, the goddess of war. The country and people are called Eang too and the priests Eangi, which was confusing at times. She’s the only point of view character and the narrative is in deep first person, which works very well. She’s young (nineteen, maybe), but thanks to the constant wars, an experienced warrior. The priests and priestesses of Eang aren’t chosen; they are born with a special gift from the goddess, a fire that both makes them superior soldiers and heals them too. Other gods haven’t gifted their followers with anything similar.

The story begins at a low point in Hessa’s life. She has failed to perform a task from her goddess to kill a visitor to her town, and as a consequence has been stripped from her position as a priestess. While she’s in a remote shrine to pray for forgiveness from Eang who refuses to answer to her, her entire town is butchered by followers of a different godan unprecedented occurrence. She’s the only priestess of Eang left in the whole country and she’s in disfavour. But her goddess finally appears and promises her that all will be forgiven if she finishes the task given to her. From that point on, throughout the book, she’s carried by one goal: finding the man she was meant to kill so that she can have a place in the hall of death with her loved-ones.

But things aren’t easy or straightforward when one is alone and facing several enemies. While she tries to locate her prey, Hessa learns that the entire world is in upheaval, and not just among humans, among the gods too. As her goddess increasingly fails to come to her aid, she starts to question her devotion and the task given to her. Little by little, as her faith unravels, the stakes become higher, until Hessa finds herself as a pivotal player in gods’ war against each other.

This was a very satisfying story. The plot flows organically from one event to another, with Hessa learning and growing along it. The pacing isn’t fast, but the chapters are fairly short and there is constantly something going on that makes you want to keep reading. Because of the first person POV, the side characters remain slightly vague, and none of them become more important to Hessa than her task, but I liked most of them. And I especially liked Hessa. She’s resilient and determined, and capable of adjusting her worldview when the old one becomes untenable. And in a true manner of epic fantasy, the person who has lost all becomes the most important person in the world. Since this is a stand-alone, the ending is satisfying and doesn’t leave you with a need to read more.

The book is well-written and the language is beautiful. However, there was a glaring, recurring grammar mistake that became so irritating that I have to mention it, just in case there’s time to fix it before the final version is published: the first person singular objective case pronoun is me, not I. It was so seldom in correct form that the mistake had to be deliberate. Other than that, the book was a joy to read.


Friday, December 04, 2020

The Thief of Blackfriars Lane by Michelle Griep: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Thief of Blackfriars Lane by Michelle Griep

The Thief of Blackfriars Lane by Michelle Griep is a mystery set in Victorian London. Jackson Forge is a brand new constable who needs to prove himself by finding a missing cab driver. Problem is, he’s new to London and doesn’t know his way around the seedier parts of town, so he enlists a thief he’s (almost) captured to help him. Kit Turner is a foundling turned the leader of thieves who insist she’s not a criminal and who helps the poor in her spare time. Together they stumble on a larger mystery of missing men.

This is a book that should work, but quite doesn’t. The writing is good, the mystery is interesting if convoluted, and the characters of Jackson and Kit are likeable. But it’s as if it takes place in a vacuum. It’s supposed to be a historical novel, but it’s tasteless, soundless and odourless, and for the most part, sightless too. There are barely any descriptions of anythingplaces, interiors, clothing, people or foodand what is described is so random and vague it could be anywhere, anytimeor plain incorrect (the hansom cabs in use in London, for example). At no point did I get the feeling I was in Victorian London. And nothing ruins a historical novel faster than incorrect use of money. There are several sites where one can check not only how much a coin is worth in current times, but more importantly, how much were people paid at any given time and what they could buy with it. A constable giving a sovereign to a poor person, when neither of them would see such a coin in their lives, let alone could use it where they live, is only one such example.

The events were set in the special place within London, the City, which is a self-governing entity separate from the rest of London with its own leadership, taxationand police. But at no point in the book were things like jurisdiction or rivalry between the City police and the Scotland Yard brought up. The investigation took Jackson and Kit to the docks well outside the City, for example, and they were given orders by the Home Office. The City would be such an interesting place with its medieval streets and rookeries that it is a pity it wasn’t utilised better here.

This is also marketed as Christian fiction. God was mentioned several times and Kit especially tended to question God for allowing people to suffer. However, in historical fiction this kind of thinking is sort of default and one of the few things that made it feel historically accurate. The characters weren’t especially religious and there was no greater power in play anywhere in the book or affecting the plot. So if you’re looking for a book with particular devotion and a plot where God’s grace plays a special role, this isn’t it.

All in all, this was a bit of a miss for me. The ending was sort of satisfying, though I wasn’t happy with who turned out to be Kit’s father, and it lays the setting for a series. But I don’t think I’ll be following Jackson and Kit further than this.

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


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Lazarus by Lars Kepler: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Lazarus by Lars Kepler

This was my first book by Lars Kepler, a Swedish husband and wife duo writing Joona Linna Nordic noir thriller series set in Stockholm, Sweden, under a common pen name. I received a free review copy from NetGalley and ended up starting with book seven of the immensely popular series, but I gave it a go nonetheless.

Lazarus wasn’t necessarily the best book to start with, as it wasn’t a stand-alone like some thrillers are, where action matters more than the characters’ personal lives. Every character came with a heavy baggage I knew nothing about, likely accumulated through several books already. Most importantly, the old emotional and psychological scars of the main character, Joona Linna, surface when the severed head of his late wife is found in a freezer of a murder victim, and they influence much of his actions. Since I hadn’t been there from the start, it took me a while to enter into the emotions of the characters and I wasn’t able to anticipate some of the punches.

That being said, all the backstory that mattered for the plot was explained well enough and I had no trouble following the story or feeling the tension build. I hadn’t been there for the original hunt of the serial killer in focus here, but even I could surmise that though he is presumed dead, the killer is back. There were some other details left out though, that I would’ve wanted to know, like how old is the main character, for example, or why he had been in prison yet allowed to return to the police force, but I could ignore them and concentrate on the plot that kept me in its grip to the end.

This is very dark Nordic noir, with graphic details and psychological evil. Writing is in present tense, which adds to the sense of immediacy, though the narrative style was slightly distancing at times. The NetGalley copy had no chapter breaks, so there were no breathers to ease the pace either (maybe this is the case with the finished product too?). There were many point of view characters and I didn’t connect with all of them, but their subplots mattered in the overall story. And as a Finn, it tickled me that the main character is Finnish. I think I got more out of him than most readers of the English version. The translation by Neil Smith was good and there was no attempt to anglicise the Nordic names, which suited me, but might be a bit difficult for English readers.

If you’re a fan of Nordic noir, I can recommend this book. But if you’re new to the series, maybe don’t start with this one; read the other six books first.


Friday, November 20, 2020

The Part about the Dragon Was (Mostly) True by Sean Gibson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Part about the Dragon Was (Mostly) True by Sean Gibson

The long title is pretty descriptive of the kind of book this is. The Part about the Dragon Was (Mostly) True, Heloise the Bard 1, by Sean Gibson is a comedic fantasy that relies heavily on verbal acrobatics. It’s told by Heloise the Bard (or was it Heloise the Beautiful, as she is very fond of reminding the readers), a half-elf bard (I don’t remember what the other half was) who sets out to give the reader a true account of what went down with the red dragon (the false account of which she is also responsible of.)

We follow an odd-ball team of would-be adventurers who want to make name for themselves by killing the dragon (though they probably should’ve been taking care of the mad wizard they accidentally unleashed), lured there by Heloise’s somewhat inflated promises of the dragon’s gold. There’s a half-dwarf, half-halfling street magician (I’m sorry, prestidigitator), an elf archer (though aren’t they all), a rock giant who’s both slow and sweet, and a wizard who belongs to a race that look like rats. Heloise joins them to be able to tell their story accurately (to the readers anyway; the tavern folk get the official version because it pays better). They’re not exactly a seamless and accomplished team, but they’re getting (mostly) there.

This was a fun book, but not quite laugh-out-loud funny; clever rather than comedic. It’s a bit slow read too. Heloise has a tendency to go off on a tangent (or a tangent’s tangent) in practically every paragraph and I had to read everything twice to remember what the actual sentence was about. Moreover, there are two stories going side by side, the official one and the truth, so the plot takes forever to get to the point. After a while, I began to skip the official accounts that were helpfully in italics. They weren’t as interesting as the truth anyway. But despite the slowness and the tangents (or maybe because of the tangents, as the cleverest bits tended to be there), this was a pleasurable read where the characters turned out to be something other than their stereotypes and the truth was stranger thanwell, I’ll let you find out yourselves.

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


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Hex Breaker by Stella Drexler: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Hex Breaker by Stella Drexler

Hex Breaker is a readable story that suffers from not knowing what kind of book it wants to be. The cover promises fantasy with magic; the back cover description promises urban fantasy mystery. It tries, but fails. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A mystery from the shared past of the main characters threatens the life of Devin Rayne. But instead of investigating the past, the PI duo Alexandra Quinn and Rio Mondragon (though mostly Quinn, because Rio is useless) run after random clues that don’t really lead anywhere except by accident. A great production is made of acquiring one clue that turns out to be useless. There are flashback chapters that I foolishly presumed would reveal what happened ten years ago and foreshadow the baddie. My money was on Rio. But the baddie turned out to be a rando we’d barely met with random motivations, which is just about the worst mistake a mystery author can do. One star for that.

So it’s not a good mystery. It could be a romance. Quinn certainly has her fair share of men to choose from. Two she declares to be the loves of her life, though she takes her time to admit it (and I still don’t know why there was such antagonism between her and Devin in the first place if she’s always loved him). One is there for sex and random conflict. But there is no proper happily ever afteror even happily for now. I give the pair that forms six months the tops.

In the end I think this was a New Adult relationship drama, though the characters were over thirty (I presume; they claimed to be under, but they’ve graduated a decade ago). There are several relationships and a lot of drama.

Quinn and Rio are best friends since college turned co-workers. But I didn’t really feel their friendship. Rio did really shitty things to Quinn to either ‘protect’ her or just because he’s an asshole. Quinn and Jack are supposed to be dating, but all sorts of drama come from that. Quinn and Devin are the source of the main drama, past and present, with the added complication of Quinn and Hale. Then there is a random assortment of old college friends introduced for no reason that I could fathom, as they play no role in the story. They’re just word-fillers that come with their own dramas and could (should, actually) all be cut. And to crown it all, Quinn and Aine, her best friend, who casually violates Quinn’s bodily and mental integrity with potions and magic several times, basically just because she wants to, with no compunction or repercussions. She made me root for the bureaucrats who wanted to make every magic user wear a scarlet letter.

As a relationship drama, the book works. I might have given it four stars even, if it weren’t for everything else. On top of the lousy mystery, there were too many empty scenes that served no purpose whatsoever (though the gala dinner works if you think this as a relationship drama); incoherent world-building (I still don’t know where the book took place) and weak character introductions (I thought I was reading a second or third book in a series when I started for all I was able to connect with the characters); and some writing issues, like head-hopping, especially in those chapters that were in Rio’s point of view. With some restructuring and better focus, it could be an enjoyable book. As it is, I’m only giving it three stars.


Friday, November 13, 2020

Lord Lucifer by Jade Lee: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Lord Lucifer by Jade Lee

Lord Lucifer is the first book in a new Regency romance trilogy by Jade Lee, Lords of the Masquerade, and I received a review copy from the NetGalley.

Regency romances tend to repeat a certain formula of an innocent maiden paired with a more experienced man. The pair then waltzes through the society season from balls to opera performances that offer private moments for them to fall in love and have hot sex in a side. Some authors are better at making it feel fresh; some less so.

Jade Lee has taken a different approach in her romance. Diana has been married off at sixteen to a much older man to save family finances. Lucas had offered to save her, but his attempts to raise money with gambling had landed him in such hot waters that he had seen it best to enlist and leave the country. Twelve years later they meet again. A fairly average approach so far. But there’s a twist: Diana’s ailing husband is still alive. She’s not a merry widow with whom the hero connects for a second chance. And she’s not a damsel in distress, no matter what Lucas tries to tell herthough there is a villain out to get her.

Most of the book takes place in a sick room and in private parlours instead of balls and other glittering events. Diana is a dutiful wife who has carved a life for herself in her husband’s hostile household. Her husband needs to die, of course, for the young couple to have their happily ever after, and much is made of his death and the causes of it. Lucas is a soldier who sets his duty before anything, and so probably for the first time in a romance history, the hero refuses sex with the heroine unless she agrees to marry him. It works too.

For all that this is a romance, it’s a fairly gloomy book. There’s sickness and death. There’s a murderous villain making everyone’s life worse. There’s a lot of resentment between children and parents. All sorts of issues that have to be dealt with, and while they add depth to the characters, they dominate over the romance. There are a couple of fairly bland sex scenes that fail to engage my emotions, and although I liked Diana and Lucas both, I wasn’t terribly invested in their HEA. She could’ve retained her hard-earned independence for all I cared and kept him in a side. But she caves in the end.

The other two gentlemen of the trilogy are introduced in this book too. A lot is made of itand then they are completely forgotten for the rest of the book. So, as a lure for the reader to continue with these characters, it comes somewhat short. But if I come across them, I may give them a look.

Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

4/5 stars on Goodreads

I’ve also read Peace Talks by Jim Butcher, the long-awaited fifteenth Dresden Files book. It’s one of my all-time favourite series, but it fell a bit short. Harry was still familiar, but the way he interacted with his friends and family felt slightly off. I remember wishing in earlier books that he would be more connected with emotions, but now I sort of found him creepy at times. Especially with how he became aroused by every which woman that he came across, except the one he professed to be in love with. So the author needs to work on the delivery there.

Most of the book was spent with waffling about, likely so that the reader could connect with the characters again. I was still a bit lost for the great part of it, as it had been so many years since I read this series last. And then the plot picks up at the very end, only to continue in the next book. But I’ll read it too, of course.

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

4/5 stars on Goodreads

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones is the last book in the trilogy that starts with Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s a charming book of Charmain Baker, a young woman who would much rather read books than do anything useful. And then she’s given a task to look after her great-uncle’s house while he’s gone.

The uncle is a wizard and his house is a mysterious place where rooms appear where ever, but only if you know how to get there. One is even located in the past. The place is messy and Charmain isn’t terribly practical, but luckily for her, her uncle’s apprentice Peter shows up to help her. Not that either of them is terribly pleased by their circumstances. There’s a plot about the king’s missing gold and a villainous heir to the kingdom. Howl and Sophie show up too to help with that, and it’s nice to connect with them again. In the end Charmain discovers that she’s more capable than she thought she was and that she’s able to do magic. All in all, a nice story about growing up and finding one’s true self.


Saturday, October 31, 2020

Forged by Benedict Jacka: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Forged by Benedict Jacka

It’s been a few years since I read Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka last and I’ve missed several books, so I was little hesitant to start Forged, which is already the eleventh book in the series. But I requested a review copy from NetGalley and since I received it, I plunged right in.

I needn’t have worried. I didn’t know any of the characters except Alex anymore, and I had no knowledge of the events leading here apart from the basics, but that didn’t mar my reading experience at all. The first half of the book did an admirable job recapping everything and I had no problems following the plot. If you’re reading the series back to back, the setup part may seem a bit slow, but for me it was perfect. I wouldn’t start the series with this book, as some basic knowledge of Alex and the world is necessary, but if like me you’ve missed a few books, you can still enjoy this one.

If you’ve reached this far in the series, you’ll know it follows Alex Verus, a mage from London with the ability to see the future. He used to be a nobody, but mage politics and powerful enemies have forged him into a power player in the mage world. Many plotlines from earlier books come to their point in this one and Alex has his hands full trying not to get killed. It comes close a few times. Some of the people he has to face are old friends. The emotional impact of those scenes came across well, even though I hadn’t been there along the way. Not all the enemies are dealt with here, and the book ends with a cliffhanger, so there are more books still to come.

Alex has come a long way since I encountered him last and he’s really powerful now. In this book it dawns on him that he may have to pay the ultimate price for his power, and sooner than he would like. He’s still a bit too trigger happy, racking a massive body count in every battle, not a side of him I particularly enjoy. But he also still makes friends with unlikeliest beings, which evens things out a little. And since I’m now caught up with the events, I may continue with the series again.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Hands down, A Deadly Education, The Scholomance 1, is the best book I’ve read this year, and I’ve read quite a few. I like Novik’s Temeraire series set in an alt-history Regency universe with dragons, so I was eager to read this one when I received a review copy from NetGalley. Her new series couldn’t be farther from the sophisticated historical fantasyand it’s all the better for it.

The book is being advertised as Harry Potter meets The Fight Club, and it’s sort of accurate and not accurate at all. It’s young adult (urban) fantasy set in a school for sorcerers. But unlike in Harry Potter, it’s not a safe haven from the scary real world. The students are inducted at fourteen and they graduate four years laterif they’re still alive. Because the school is actively trying to kill them. There are no adults to help them, no sage elders. There are no teachers. There are only the students and hungry monsters. And the fight is constant. There are no safe places and they can’t get out except at graduation, and for that they have to exit through a huge hall teeming with the killer monsters. Not everyone survives.

Galadriel is on her second to last year, and she’s doing fairly well. She would do better if she gave into her affinity to dark magic, but she knows that if she does, she’ll become an unstoppable monster. So she hides her true nature and sticks to the good magic. But other students shun her, for no reason that she can understand. In a school that tries to constantly kill one, she need friends and allies. She can’t even take a shower without someone watching her back. She has no one.

Then Orion Lake, the hero of her year, takes interest in her, saving her from a monster after another. That’s what he does. He’s brilliant at keeping people alive. Galadriel resents him for itthe book starts with her contemplating his murderbut he seems to be impervious to her anger. And to her amazement, he starts hanging out with her. And with him, come other people. Not being alone is a new experience for her. What follows is basically a growth story about an angry loner, a fairly typical one at that, with popular kids versus the shunned ones and finding one’s true friends. There’s a little bit of romance there as well, but in a school where anyone can die at any moment, one doesn’t want to get too attached. Especially since it turns out that by saving all those students, Orion has only managed to make the monsters even hungrierand they’re out to get the entire school.

What makes this book so brilliant is the world Novik has created. It’s rich and terrifying, and the narrative doesn’t spend a moment longer than necessary at explaining things. We learn as we go with Galadriel, her stream of consciousness describing both the school and the outside world in an exhausting but unputdownable manner. The chapters and paragraphs are long, but the reader plunges right in there with her and is in for a ride. The ending is satisfying, with a hook that guarantees I’m going to want to read the next book. Instantly, if that were possible.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Golden Dreg Boy by D.K. Dailey: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Golden Dreg Boy by D.K. Dailey

Golden Dreg Boy: Book 1, the Slums by D.K. Dailey is a post-apocalyptic YA sci-fi that takes place in near future San Francisco. I got a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in a society wiped out by highly deadly diseases; an unfortunate premise in the current world, as even the casual reader is suddenly an expert in pandemics and herd immunology. The society is divided into two to the golden, who have money and power, but have lost their immunity to diseases (the science behind this seems to be based on the author’s faulty understanding of vaccines and immunology), and the poor dregs who have somehow acquired congenital immunity to all diseases in basically a generation. Even if you accept the idea of hereditary immunity, which I don’t, the result of this divide would most likely be that the totalitarian regime described in the book would force the dregs to breed with the golden to boost up their immunity. Instead, the two are segregated and if a dreg manages to pretend to be golden, they are instantly sentenced to death. For their part, the dregs would have a bartering chip with their genes they could use to get themselves better living conditions. None of this happens. Fiction is fiction, but I’d like it to make sense within its own world.

As it was, some suspension of disbelief was required to get through the book. The main character is Kade, a teenager from the top of the golden hierarchyand there is a hierarchy. Everything is going well for him until out of the blueand it’s truly thathe’s arrested as a dreg infiltrator and sentenced to death without a trial. To his shock, his family isn’t there to rescue him, but the dregs are. He’s given a new life among them and in a true manner of YA fiction questions everything he’s known to be true and learns he’s been living in a lie. The betrayal of his family makes him eager to help his new people to bring down the golden. The book is a bit too long for its plot, but well-written enough to help through the slow bits.

I didn’t like Kade much. He came across like a condescending teenage jerk in the beginning, interested only in breasts and kissing, and I couldn’t get over the initial impression. Other characters were a bit two dimensional and their presence didn’t improve him, and I couldn’t fathom his fascination with Saya. It says a lot about my feelings that I sort of rooted for the twist that happened in the end. But it helped him to get over himself, so maybe he’ll be more interesting in the next book.


Thursday, October 22, 2020

Restricted by A.C. Thomas: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Restricted by A.C. Thomas

I have a strong feeling that Restricted, The Verge Book One, by A.C. Thomas began its life as Han/Luke fanfic and was then thinly disguised as something else to avoid lawsuits from Disney. We’ve all been there, so I’m not judging; just observing.

We have a naïve, inexperienced younger man, Ari, in search of his twin (brother), and an older, more experienced scruffy space pilot Orin. Ari hires Orin to fly his spaceship so that he can go after his abducted twin Theo. There’s instant lust between the two, which they then act on at every opportunity in the seclusion of the spaceship. I presume the title of the book comes from that seclusion; otherwise it makes no sense.

There’s very little plot. The pair lands on several planets to look for Theo and has adventures on them and then they leave. Some twists reflect the original material, like Orin having dumped a ship full of cargo when he was captured by the Enforcers, the inter-planetary bogeymen. The focus is on the two of them falling in love. And then it ends. It’s a fairly amusing ending and saves a lot, even though it sort of voids the entire story.

World and character building are minimal. The author has clearly been taught that they should start as close to the story’s beginning as possible, and it does just that without any background info about the place, time or people. We’re given titbits about the characters along the way, but almost nothing about the world they live in. There are rich core planets shaped like Victorian Englandwith parchments for some odd reason, considering there’s shortage of water and plenty of electric communication devices. Then there’s the Verge, which I presume is a ring of systems around the Core that resemble Wild West à la Firefly with saloons and brothels, but governed by the laws and enforcers of the Core. And then there are illegal and lawless systems outside, where our heroes are headed to. That’s pretty much it, but since the main focus is in the bedroom, it doesn’t really matter.

This is a nice romance with great sex scenes, so I gave it three stars. It’s even better if you imagine the pair as your favourite scruffy-looking nerf herder and the best bush pilot in the Outer Rim Territories. If you like M/M erotic romance, this is for you.

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


Monday, October 19, 2020

Bane’s Choice by Alyssa Day: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Bane’s Choice by Alyssa Day

Bane’s Choice starts the Vampire Motorcycle Club series, and I received a copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I haven’t read books by Alyssa Day before and based on this one, I’m not sure I will.

It’s a fairly typical first book in a paranormal romance series. There’s the main couple, a group of secondary characters that are given enough airtime to make the reader curious about their stories, and a larger enemy that will threaten the wellbeing of the characters throughout the series. Yet it failed to engage me.

Bane is a three hundred years old vampire living in Savannah who runs a motorcycle club with ruthless anger. Ryan is a doctor who believes herself boring. There’s instant lust between them, brought on by her inebriation and his fascination with a human he can’t control with magic. She has a rude awakening into the world of supernatural, but she rises to the occasion and discovers she’s stronger than she believed. Along the way, they fall in love.

I found the love story slightly problematic. It wasn’t that Bane had a tendency to force his will on Ryan, because she soon taught him to ask for consent in everything. But their love relied too much on other characters telling Ryan how wonderful Bane is when all the evidence sheand the readergot was the opposite. Yet she based her love on the testimony of other people. So I found it difficult to believe in their happily ever after.

Beyond the romance, the story was all over the place. There was a vampire whose turning was going badly; there was a mystery concerning Ryan; there were issues between secondary characters; there were werewolves to deal with and the emergence of the enemy, warlock necromancers who were trying to take over the territory. None of it guided the narrative in any way. The enemy showed up when it wanted to and was gone in the next chapter (that dealt with something else as if nothing was amiss), and the solutions to all the problems showed up on their own at the end.

At no point were the characters in charge of the narrative, or their fates, including the final battle. They just spent the book reacting to events around them. In consequence, I spent it wondering when it will properly start. On top of all this, the book was filled with placeholder scenes that didn’t advance the plot and only existed to tell Ryan once again how wonderful Bane was, or summed up the plot in a couple of sentenses of ’the enemy was found and dealt with.’ All this made the book overly long and gave the notion that the author didn’t really know where she was going with it.

I had issues with the characters and the setting too. All the main characters were constantly angry and aggressive, reacting to one another with violence and rage. I found it difficult to understand what had kept them together all these centuries if they hated each other so much. I didn’t find them interesting or likeable, and I don’t want to read more about them. Savannah as a setting was an odd choice too. I just couldn’t fathom why it was of such strategic importance that a powerful organisation of warlocks would start their conquering of the US from there. If the author had utilised the special features of the place to paint a better picture of it for the reader, it might have worked as a unique location, but now it was just a lifeless backdrop that could’ve been anywhere in the world. And the greatest issue of all: why is it called Bane’s Choice when he doesn’t get to choose anything, and why is it called the vampire motorcycle club, when none of the characters showed any interest in motorcycles and—apart from the opening scenethe bikes played no role in the story?


Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Princess Knight by G. A. Aiken: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Princess Knight by G.A. Aiken

The Princess Knight, the second book in Aiken’s The Scarred Earth series, focuses on Gemma, the war monk sister of Queen Keeley. She’s not quite as overwhelmingly larger than life as her eldest sister, but she makes a compelling lead character too.

Two years has gone since the first book. The war hasn’t begun yet, and Keeley has had time to settle down in the town she’s claimed as hers. Then someone starts to destroy all the various religious sects and kill the worshippers of the myriad gods. The war monks could be next, so Keeley sends Gemma to warn them. She hasn’t been back with her people since she left two years earlier, and she’s considered a traitor of the order. She might face death when she returns, but she goes anyway.

This is in many ways a smaller book than the first. The plot isn’t quite as epic in scope, concentrating more on Gemma and her dealing with her past. The cast of characters is smaller, though random point of view characters still pop up at odd times for a couple of paragraphs. There aren’t as many huge fights between the sisters. The plot about the worshippers of one god never rises to become the threat it’s supposed to be. Beatrix, the evil queen, is mostly in the background. Even the love story, the inevitable consequence of mixing genres like epic fantasy and paranormal romance, sort of happens in the side-lines, despite Gemma and Quinn spending most of their time together, and Quinn remains a bit of a cardboard character. Worst of all, there isn’t enough Keeley. Her larger than life character carried the first book. Here she is mostly observed from the outside, with only a couple of point of view chapters towards the end. I missed her greatly.

This being said, Gemma was strong enough a character to carry the book by herself. The plot was entertaining, there was constant action in one form or another, and the group of people she ended up gathering around her were interesting and different from the people around Keeley, so there was no repetition. In the end, she rises as a more determined and less angry person who is ready to lead her people. And the twist at the end ensures that I’m more than eager to read the next book too.

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