Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Neanderthal Box Set by Penny Reid: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Neanderthal Box Set by Penny Reid

I’ve previously read and loved the Winston Brothers series by Penny Reid, so I jumped to download this box set when it was offered for free a while ago. It contains books 1 and 1.5 from her Knitting in the City series, three follow-up novellas with the same characters, and a couple of preview chapters from Reid’s other books. So it’s well worth the expense, even if you pay for it.

The first book, Neanderthal Seeks Human, introduces the main couple, Janie and Quinn, plus all the other characters in the series, a group of women that belong to a same knitting group in Chicago. It’s a fun and not entirely typical romance. Reid has a great knack with writing characters that tend towards unique way of thinking and regarding the world with understanding and love, and making the other characters accept them just the way they are.

Janie is a math-wizard with a habit of collecting data and blurting it out in stressful situations with absolutely zero filters. Sometimes they relate to the situation, but most of the time the workings of her brain baffle people around her. Quinn is different though and he finds her mind fascinating. A great basis for their romance.

Quinn is a head of a private security firm and insanely wealthy. He becomes Janie’s boss, but for the better part of the book she has no idea of it and believes him to be a regular security guarda plot-line that dragged on a bit too long. The Neanderthal mentioned in the title is Janie, who sees herself as one, because she’s larger than other people with an odd mind. It’s not until the second book that we really learn the reason for her habit. It’s an emotional coping mechanism she’s learned in childhood to deal with physically and emotionally absent parents.

It’s a good book, but long. Really long. According to the author’s own notes, it’s over a hundred thousand words, which is about twenty thousand more than a regular romance novel. It would be fine, if there were side plots to fill the pages, but it’s really just the two of them working towards the happily ever after. There are several side characters introduced, but despite the length of the book(s), they remain distant and two-dimensional. Some of them get their own books later in the series, but Steve the co-worker would’ve deserved a better treatment than he got.

The second book, which is marked as an in-between novel, is equally long. Neanderthal Marries Human starts with Quinn proposing to Janie and then follows the subsequent wedding planning. The actual plans are in the side-lines though. It’s more about family bonds and healing. Quinn has been cast out by his family, so Janie sees the wedding as an opportunity to bring them back together, and maybe gain a family that she’s never really had. It’s sweet and touching at times, butagainreally long.

The three short stories at least live up to their name. First one is about the honeymoon, where Janie decides to rid the tropical island of invasive toad species, much to Quinns bemusement. The other two are about Janie getting pregnant and the latter stages of her pregnancy. I haven’t read the other books in the series, so I don’t know if the child is ever born during the course of it, but that might be an amusing story too.

All in all, this was an entertaining package. However, I don’t feel the need to follow it up by reading the rest of the series, with maybe the exception of the last book that has Quinn’s best friend as the hero. I liked him. But there’s a Winston Brothers spin-off coming soon with Cletus as the main character. I’ll definitely read that.


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Alpha Night by Nalini Singh: review (plus some other books)

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Alpha Night by Nalini Singh
It’s been three weeks since I updated this blog the last time, so this is going to be a long post of everything I’ve read since.

I’m not sure why I bother reviewing Nalini Singh’s books anymore. They’re all great. Five stars. Even if the plot in some is slightly thinner than in others, she has the amazing ability to write unabashedly emotional characters who manage to convey their emotions straight to reader’s heart. Alpha Night is no exception.

It’s the fourth book in the Psy-Changeling spin-off series called Psy-Changeling Trinity. It’s again set in Russia, this time with a wolf pack there. Selenka is the alpha of the pack and Ethan is a damaged Arrow (as if there were any other kind). The book starts with a mating bond forming between the two at the first sight, and takes the romance from there. Obstacles on their path rise from Ethan’s mental damage that can only lead to death, on top of which the enemies of Selenka’s pack move in on them. And then there’s the larger plot of the psy-net unravelling, which may lead to the death of the entire psy-race. There are high emotions and a great reward at the end. All in all, a perfect romance novel.

The Graveyard Shift by Darynda Jones

It’s not the only book I’ve read since my last blog post. Darynda Jones published a short romance set in her Charley Davidson world. The Graveyard Shift takes place a few years after the final book in the series and features Garrett Swopes, a PI friend of Charley’s who has one task: keep Charley and Rey’s daughter safe. And then she disappears. Out of options, he seeks help from the mother of his son, whom he resents for various reasons. It’s an opportunity for a second chance romance for them. However, the book is curiously thin on romancethough there’s of course a happily ever after ending. The main focus is on Beep, the daughter, and what happens to her during her absence. Basically, the book sets up the next phase in the series. So, even if the romance is a bit dull, the book is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep reading the series.

The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole

The A.I. Who Loved Me by Alyssa Cole is a delightful love story between two people who are both recovering from an accident that has affected their memories, but with a twistrevealed in the titlethat one of them is a biomechanical human, basically a replicant from Blade Runner. It’s set in somewhat dark future, after WW3. America is run by an organisation called Hive that controls people, or at least its employees with AIs, robots and fear. The focus is on the love story though, emphasised by the fact that the two never leave the apartment complex where they live. There’s a mystery unfolding on the background that upends both their lives when its revealed, done well-enough that I never even suspected it. Quite a lot was left unexplained in the end though, so I assume there will be a series focusing on other characters mentioned in this book. I’d read them.

Firelight by Kristen Callihan

Firelight by Kristen Callihan was a disappointing historical fantasy romance that I gave only three stars to. Two people with curses they want to keep hidden from the world and each other fall in love and then have to save the world from the Big Bad. There was a bit too much artificially forced secrecy between the two, and the falling in love seemed to happen outside the narrative and was simply given to the reader, but the plot was interesting and the solution to the curse was unique. I liked Archer and Miranda, didn’t instantly guess who the baddy wasor whyand approved the way the day was saved in the end, but the narrative dragged and the outside threat to the couple never felt immediate. The main character of the next book was introduced in this one, but I didn’t like him and I probably won’t read his story.

Changeling by Molly Harper

Another historical fantasy I read is Changeling by Molly Harper. It’s a delightful middle grade story of a servant girl who learns she can do magic in a society sharply divided to haves and have nots based on their ability with magic. It has everything such a book needs: a rags to riches story, adventure, making new friends in a boarding school for witches, and even a little romance. Sarah/Cassandra is a good-hearted girl who learns to survive in her new reality with the help of a magical book and her two new friends. I’ll definitely read the next book too.

Elven Doom by Lindsay Buroker

On top of these romances I read Elven Doom by Lindsay Buroker, a fourth book in the Death Before Dragons urban fantasy series. It’s yet another solid four star book from her: action packed, funny and romantic. Val and Zav’s romance should’ve moved to a new level, but things are ruined by Zav’s sister. Also the dark elves are ready to destroy the world. The book has a slight wrapping-things-up feel to it despite leaving much unsolved, but I hope this isn’t the last we hear from these characters. Things are just getting interesting. I also read a collection of short stories and scenes written from Zav’s point of view called The Forbidden Ground, which was a nice addition to the series. I’m not sure if it’s on sale yet, as it was a newsletter gift from the author to her readers. 

These books were joined by three I received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. And, honestly, two of them weren’t anywhere near being published yet. Calypso’s Heart by M.C. Solaris resulted in my first ever one star review on Goodreads (I usually never write a review if it’s going to be that bad) based on the eight chapters I managed to read before giving up in rage. Paradise Rising by P.G. Shriver got two stars, but only because I actually finished it. Into the Black was a fairly interesting sci-fi mystery/romance I gave three stars to. Nothing terribly wrong with that one, but it failed to properly engage my interest. You can read my Goodreads reviews by clicking the name of the book.

All in all, a busy and interesting month of reading. NetGalley has definitely broadened my reading habits with books that I might not otherwise choose to read. If I’m not always happy with them, I at least learn a lot from them for my own writing. And that can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Second Change Angel by Griffin Barber and Kacey Ezell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Second Chance Angel by Griffin Barber and Kacey Ezell
Second Change Angel is a sci-fi mystery set in somewhere in space, somewhen in the future. Full disclosure: one, I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, and two, I stopped reading around the 70% mark and didn’t finish it.

Second Change Angel is one of those unfortunate books that don’t give the reader any roadmap to work on when it comes to characters, time and spaceand space. I put the latter in twice, because apparently it takes place in a space station, though we only get a confirmation of that when the main character leaves the place. Until then, we could’ve been on a random planet or a moon just as well.

Time is somewhere in the future after a devastating war with an alien race that has blown up the earth. The war was apparently long, but the earth has been gone for only seven years. Does this upset the remaining humans? No, it doesn’t. Maybe they’re too far removed from the home planet already. Maybe the human race has spread so far that the loss of the planet doesn’t matter. I don’t know, because I don’t know where we are in relation to the earth and how long ago humans have left it. Space travel is sort of fast, and although it depends on tricks like slingshots around a sun and using a planet’s gravitational force for deceleration, I got the notion that we’re far, far from our solar system.

Place is a space station that seems to be built to accommodate humans, though not by humans, if I got that right. The place is so poorly described that all I have are weird, confusing and frustrating impressions that don’t really make any sense when put together. The place is apparently huge, because people travel by vehicles. It’s built on one level, with very tall houses rising from it, so that the ceiling has to be high, but it’s also curving. The ceiling is apparently non-transparent, because the place is artificially lit. But despite all this, there is only one level below ground? How does that even work?

Characters are the greatest weakness. There are four point of view characters, three of which are AIs. That was why I initially chose the book, having read and loved books like Murderbot Diaries where the AI tries to cope among humanity, but remains essential alien to it. Unfortunately that wasn’t what I got.

The AIs are very human-like with emotions and petty grievances, and inability to concentrate on more than one task at the time. They are gendered and very stereotypically at that. LEO, a male, is a law enforcement AI and SARA, a female, a station administrative AI. Both behave according to their assumed gender as well. The station AIs have their own mystery plot unfolding concerning a virus or some such that cause their emotions and prevent them from correcting the malfunction. They also provide a bird’s eye view on some characters, so that we learn more than just the main character’s point of view.

The main AI character is a personal AI called Angel. Developed for soldiers, personal AIs are mainly supposed to enhance their users’ physical and mental abilities during the battle, but the war is over and the AIs remain. Angel belongs to a former special ops soldier Siren who works as a lounge singer in a seedy bar. She goes missing and somehow Angel ends up in the body of another former soldier who has had his AI removed as a disciplinary measure.

Angel is a female and behaves like one to get her way with her new host, like making him feel like he’s being caressed by her. She’s manipulative and doesn’t hesitate to take over the host’s body when she feels like it with no regard to his right to govern his bodynor is that philosophical question brought up in the narrative. She sulks and is in general a great nuisance and a very annoying character. As an AI, she’s a failure. As a narrator, she’s really difficult to follow, because she wavers between I, we, and he when she describes the actions of the body she inhabits.

The only human character is Muck, the former soldier whose body Angel invadesuninvited, I might add. We don’t learn anything about him initially, and titbits about his past spring up only when the plot so requires. For example, he needs a rescue on a desert and it so happens that the religious order that saves him is the one he grew up in. Wouldn’t that have made a great starting point for building his character? How does a man who grows up with an order who shuns AI technology end up becoming an AI enhanced soldier? Maybe the answer is given at the end of the book, but I didn’t get that far. At some point Angel also informs him that the memory he has of the events that led to his disgrace are altered. It’s a meaningless titbit at that particular point, but maybe all is revealed in the endand hopefully it links with the overall plot somehow too. I don’t know. What I know is that it would’ve been more meaningful if Muck had even remotely suspected it earlier.

All in all, Muck is a spineless character in a thug’s body who is pushed this way and that by Angel. He’s seemingly in lead of the investigation that Angel forces him to do, but that’s about the only thing that distinguishes him in any way.

What about the plot then? Siren goes missing without the knowledge of her AI who somehow gets booted off her body and ends up in Muck’s, so she forces him to investigate the disappearance. Do they start by investigating who might have the technological skills to remove an AI? No, they go after the biggest drug baron. Do they search the most obvious places for her, like the station itself? No, they head off the station to a planet the drug baron directs them to. Do they find her there? No.

This is where I stopped reading, by the way. The events so far had been so illogical and stupid and filled with out of the blue attacks and pointless detours, like getting weapons from an arms dealer Muck then never even uses before they get blown up. The secondary plot with the station AIs about the virus infecting them might have been more interesting, but they were so annoying characters that I couldn’t really care.

The task of making sense of the plot wasn’t made any easier by the narrative that was mostly dialogue between talking heads. Most of the time there was no indication about who was talkingnot a single ‘he said, she said’, or even the occasional action beat of ‘she smiled’, ‘he nodded’so that I had to actually count the exchanges to figure out who was saying what. This was made infinitely more difficult by the file I received from NetGalley that was dismally formatted, with paragraphs that either had no indents or had indents in the middle of the sentence, and dialogues that bled together in endless rows.

So, all in all, a disappointing experience. Why, then, did I give it three stars? I don’t know. It had some draw that kept me reading despite the difficulties, like the struggle with PTSD Muck and Siren originally dealt withthough that was soon forgottenand really imaginative alienswho were all criminals, by the way. And who knows, maybe it redeems itself in the end. I couldn’t make myself finish the book, but I don’t want to rob others the chance to find out by giving the book only two stars. If it improves, let me know.


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison
 
Sarah Monette is a fantasy author who blew my mind with MĂ©lusine and the Doctrine of Labyrinths series that followed fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve kept expecting new books from her, but it was years later until she returned to my radar, now writing as Katherine Addison. The Goblin Emperor is waiting on my to-be-read pile, but the sample chapters were truly interesting. When I noticed The Angel of Crows on NetGalley, I instantly made a request for it, and to my absolute delight, I was given an early copy.

The book description promised an alternate Victorian London where angels rule and everyone lives in a constant fear of one of them falling, which would be like “a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds”. Seldom has a book description been so off. What I got was a Sherlock Holmes retelling. I don’t like retellings and Sherlock Holmes retellings are the most tired of them all. If I’d known it was one, I probably would’ve skipped this, no matter how much I like the author.

This is basically a collection of Holmes’ most famous cases bound together with a superficial plot about Jack the Rippera case Holmes famously never tackled. There were some minor changes, but none of them made the stories truly fresh. The newness, therefore, rests solely on the world-building.

It’s an alternate Victorian London with everything. There are both steampunk elements, like airships and automatons, and all manner of supernatural creatures from vampires and werewolves to ghosts and hellhounds. And angels. There are three kinds of angels: those bound to a building and thus worthy of a name, the Nameless who wander about without a mind and purpose of their own, and the Fallen who are vicious creatures who kill and inflict supernatural diseases. We actually never meet the latter.

Holmes is an angel called Crow. He is different from other angels because he is not bound to a building, but isn’t a Nameless or a Fallen eithera fact that the author didn’t fully explain until about midway to the book, which left me constantly baffled with people’s reactions to him. He likes to solve crimes, and he is very good at deductive reasoning. Unlike Holmes, he doesn’t have any viceshe doesn’t even eator irritating habits, and he is actually very endearing in his constant awe of humanity.

Dr Watson is Dr Doyle who has survived an attack by a Fallen in Afghanistan and is suffering from the consequences, which will lead to a metamorphosis. Since the actual flavour of the change is kept as a secret for a while, I’ll discuss it in the spoiler section at the end of the post. It plays some role in solving the cases; perhaps the only worthwhile alteration the author has made to the stories. The good doctor has another secret too, even more tightly guarded. Considering the importance given to it, I would’ve wished it actually had some sort of impactit definitely would’ve opened the story to a whole new levelbut it was glossed over and life went on like it didn’t even exist. More about that in the spoiler section.

Considering the interesting world the author has created, it seems criminal that she’s wasted it on Sherlock Holmes. The angels had a fascinating society that could’ve formed a basis to a completely unique plot, and Crow had such an interesting backstory that he could’ve carried a book on that alone. The alterations don’t even really influence the original stories. It wasn’t until midway to the book that they started to have any effect on the cases, and the suspects remained ordinary humans in pretty much all of them.

This being said, I found the book interesting enough to keep reading. I even gave it four stars. The author has recreated the atmosphere of Conan-Doyle’s originals well, the narrative style works and never wavers, and I liked both Crow and Dr Doyle. If there’s ever a follow-up, I hope the author goes to town with the world and gives the two a proper plot and a unique story.

And now to the spoilers.

***

You have been warned.

The first spoiler concerns what Dr Doyle is changing into. A hellhound. It’s a somewhat helpful change, as it gives Doyle an ability to smell both natural and supernatural traces. It also allows the author to play with the story of the Hound of Baskerville and add fresh scenes about them trying to find a cure for it with Crow. In the end, it allows the doctor to find Jack the Ripper too. However, it reveals the secret to the police who rush in to arrest Doyle, as unregistered creatures are illegalthough the author fails to explain why this is.

Being a hellhound is surprisingly easy for Doyle. There’s some pain and some shame, but at no point in the narrative does the doctor mourn or berate the change. The author is too tied with the original Holmes stories to give room to such ruminations. And just when the story got interesting, a deus ex machina allows the doctor to remain free.

The other secret is bigger and an even greater wasted opportunity for the author. At the mid-point of the book, out of the bluethere are literally no hints whatsoeverit turns out, that Dr Doyle is in fact a woman. I’d say my mind was blown, and it kind of was, but it would’ve made a greater impact if it had been at least hinted at.

And it would’ve mattered more, if this new reality had been incorporated into the story somehow. But life goes on like before. We don’t learn why Dr Doyle pretends to be a man. Is it for purely practical reasons, as it’s the only way she can practice medicine? Or does she in fact identify as a man? She seems to be attracted to women, but then nothing comes of that. And how does it work? She’s spent decades as a military doctor on campaigns and no one even guessed until she ended up in hospital after being attacked by the Fallen angel. Does she have a naturally manly body? A low voice? And what about the periods? How does she deal with them? So many questions and not a single answer given. So I don’t understand why the author felt necessary to make such a change. Being a hellhound was bad enough for the poor doctor. Why did he need to be inflicted with being a woman too?

Saturday, May 09, 2020

This Eternity of Masks and Shadows by Karsten Knight: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Eternity of Masks and Shadows by Karsten Knight

I picked This Eternity of Masks and Shadows from NetGalley based on the description that promised an urban fantasy mystery with gods. In a way, that’s what I got. In other ways, it was nothing like that.

The book is set in an alternate world where all the gods of all the mythologies in the world live as humans among the general population, with some supernatural abilities based on their mythology, but with a limited lifespan. Once they die, they reincarnate with no memory of their past lives and sometimes with no idea they are gods. A group of gods living around Boston start dying, presumably by their own hand. One of them is an Inuit goddess of sea. Her daughter, Cairn, believes her mother was murdered and wants to find out the truth.

Even though the setting is basic UFsupernatural elements in modern world and a mystery that is solved by an outsider investigatorthe execution is nothing like your typical urban fantasy. For one, it lacked the energy and immediacy of urban fantasy. Instead, the narrative is lingering and dreamlike with not much world building, the point of view is very distant third person that offer only a superficial insight into the characters’ minds, and it relies heavily on telling, not showing. And worst of all, it has no humour whatsoever. In the afterword, the author mentions superheroes as one of the inspirations. Going with that notion, this book is the dark, no-laughs, no self-irony DC world of superheroes, not the more upbeat Marvel with humour and the ability to laugh at themselves.

It’s not a bad book though. The mystery is interesting and told in two timelines, the present and twenty years earlier. There are enough surprises that the main baddie isn’t obvious until the great revelation. The pacing is slightly off however; there are two climatic scenes at sixty and eighty percent mark that both could’ve led to the end, but the book continues on to the final showdown. And then it goes on some more. At the eighty percent mark I wasn’t invested in the outcome anymore, mostly because of the distancing narrative that failed to make me care about the characters and their fate, but I read on.

The main weakness of the book was its characters. I didn’t care for any of them. Cairn as a grieving daughter was initially interesting, but the reader learns nothing about her during the story. She is a person who has been formed by events before the book starts, and that’s all the reader gets. She doesn’t grow, she doesn’t change and she doesn’t get any sort of catharsis from avenging her mother. The supporting cast was a collection of cardboard cut-outs. I had great hopes for Nook, a grumpy polar bear detective. For the first third of the book when he and Cairn investigated together, there was some proper interaction between them, but then they were separated for most of the book. Yet at the end the reader was supposed to believe they had grown fond of each other. Then there were the victims. I didn’t care for any of them. Just because they met gruesome deaths wasn’t enough to feel for them, when I hadn’t learned anything about them that would’ve make me sympathise with them. For most part, they were very unlikeable characters.

The most annoying, perhaps, was Cairn’s relationship with Delphine. Urban fantasy often has some sort of romantic element in the background that doesn’t dominate solving the main mystery, but which adds spice to interactions between characters. Not so here. The book starts with their romance, but it had already had its great formative moments before the book begins. Then it’s just a series of on-again off-again events that doesn’t make the reader believe that either of them cares for the other, let alone loves. One of the climaxes depends on the reader caring for their relationship, but it was just the same for me what would happen. Basically, I began to root for both of them to die.

All in all, this was a mixed read for me. The mystery was satisfying, the rest of it not so much. There was some setting-up for a series at the end, but I doubt I’d read more of this.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

My second NetGalley pick is The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell, the first book in The Legacy of Mercenary King series. It’s high fantasy with magic and warring kingdoms, and it had great potential. Unfortunately that didn’t manifest.

The book starts with the main character being sentenced to death for treason and then recounts the events that led to that point. Michael Kingman is a son of a man convicted for killing a prince and his life leads him to be convicted for killing the king. Michael is the hero of the book, so the reader can’t help hoping that the events that seem inevitably to lead him to his doom might be something else after all. With ‘kingdom of liars’ in the title, I presumed an unreliable narrator and a slow unravelling of the truth. That wasn’t what I got.

This was a good book, but also an odd one with something constantly slightly off. Even though the frame of the story, Michael’s quest to prove his father’s innocence and inevitable doom, was given at the beginning, that’s not the sole direction the book took. For the first half there was another story happening too, a rebellion against the king, which competed for attention with the main story, with not enough room given to either story-line. The latter mainly consisted of events that distracted Michael from his quest and added nothing to the main story or had an impact on it. On the latter half of the book that story-line was discarded after an annoying cop-out, which improved the plot considerably.

In addition to two plots, there were two sets of secondary characters that were identical to one another. There were two poor, mistreated boys with little brothers that Michael felt responsible for, but who didn’t seem to be friends with one another, as if Michael led two separate lives. Their actions had no impact on the plot, but they served to distract Michael, i.e. added to the word count. Then there were two women who knew Michael of old, but of whom he had no recollection. Their identities were withheld to the last moment, giving the reader a notion that they would be important for Michael’s life and the main plot, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. And then there were two women from law enforcement/military who were interchangeable too and had no meaningful impact on the plot.

I don’t know why the editor of the book allowed two parallel plots with two sets of characters to happen. Even if the rebel plot were a setting for the next book, it could’ve been handled as background noise with the focus more sharply on the main plot. There was enough going on with that one to fill a book.

Michael wasn’t a likeable character. He was selfish and childish, and he didn’t much care who he hurt with his quest for truthuntil after the fact. Then he rushed in to make things better, putting the main plot on hold and/or in jeopardy. His memory was faulty due to magic, but when he did regain his memories, they didn’t offer any sort of revelation that their absence had hinted at. He wasn’t the agent of his story. He was pushed around by events outside his control; he spends the entire book trying to gain access to the king, only to be denied his goal; required a deus ex machina salvation, and didn’t manage to achieve what he set out to do in the beginning, thus robbing the book of a proper conclusion. It was left for the next book, but with the rebellion and the sudden turn in his life orchestrated outside the plot, there would’ve been enough material even without postponing it too.

There’s a lot happening to the secondary characters behind the scenes that mainly come off as ‘what the hell’. Trey, a poor slum dweller, is auctioning himself off to become a soldier at one point and the next he is in the inner circle of the prince, only to become a rebel. How did that happen? No one even questions it. The mercenary Dark has an issue with his father, but when they finally face, they don’t even recognise one another. Was it all in Michael’s head? Michael’s older brother is being allowed to marry into the most important family in the country and no one bats an eye, even though Michael has to support himself as a thief and is constantly being harassed for his past. The princess is missing and then she’s not, but isn’t anyone important for the plot despite all the build-up, and then she’s absent again. A lot more thought should’ve gone into all these characters. Now they seem like spur-of-the-moment inventions.

The world is fairly interesting, but its special features are mainly props. The use of magic causes memory loss that accumulates, but none of the main characters suffer from it. It’s used as a plot device, as Michael sets out to find the king’s memories, i.e. his journal that might tell the truth about his father, but in the end that doesn’t happen. Every magic wielder remembers Michael even if he doesn’t remember them. And then there’s the broken moon that has pieces falling from it, but that doesn’t drive the plot either, so I wasn’t entirely sure what its point was, other than distraction.

This was a good book, but not a great one. The author clearly didn’t know what kind of book he was writing until at the end. With a sharper focus it would’ve been a much better book and a more enjoyable read. I hope the next one will fix that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Paradise Factory by Jim Keen: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Paradise Factory by Jim Keen

I recently joined NetGalley, a website that makes it easier for publishers to get books in the hands of reviewers. Like everyone else, I hope to get the next book of my favourite author before it’s published, but that seldom happens. However, there are plenty of books available for immediate download by authors I’ve never heard of before and books I wouldn’t come to read otherwise. I’ve decided to give some of those a chance.

The first book I picked is The Paradise Factory, Cortex book 1 by Jim Keen. It’s being marketed as cyberpunk, which I found very misleading, as there are no cyberpunk elements. It’s more a post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia. The apocalypse in this case is brought about by the invention of Mechanical Intelligence, a machine that has made human workforce obsolete. Hundreds of millions are without work and those lucky enough to be employed can lose their job on a whim, with no social security to fall back on. That the humanity is still alive and kicking is more because of stubbornness than for any discernible survival skills.

The story follows Alice Yu, a Brooklyn cop in her twentiesI thinkwhose partner is abducted right in front of her. Even though loyalty to one’s partner and initiative are discouraged by her bosses, Alice goes after him. Traces lead to Brooklyn Bridge, a lawless no-go-zone ruled by criminal empire. She knows she’ll lose her job if she goes there, but she goes anyway.

Another story-line follows Red, a young boy who needs to deliver a message over the Brooklyn Bridge, an errand that would pay well if the other kids weren’t trying to kill him for it. The paths of Alice and Red meet on the bridge and they team up.

The plot is straightforward: find the partner and save him. Obstacles come in form of bridge security trying to kill Alice for their boss, a crime lord who has a nefarious enterprise to conceal. The constant fights became boring pretty soon, but Alice is fighting PTSD from her time as a Marine in Mars, which gives some depth to her character. Because of what she considers a personal failure in Mars, she decides that saving Red is more important than finding her partner, a decision that Red disputes, forcing her to face her past.

After all the fighting, the main conflict is solved amazingly easily. If it hadn’t been for the chapter that followed, which showed the truth of what was on the other side of the bridge and gave both the world and the main characters some new depth, this would’ve been a solid three star book. The ending changed that.

I had some issues with the book. One of them was with the way the scenes were set. Namely that they weren’t. Every scene, especially in the beginning, started right with the action or even a beat after it. For example, the book starts a moment after Alice’s partner has been taken, when she is fighting her injuries. No context was offered to where she was, why she was there, and why her partner mattered so much to her. As it was, I had trouble understanding Alice’s need to go after him other than the general ‘of course she does’. Were they friends or was there a debt to pay? Was he a lover, a mentor? In a world where such decision means a pretty certain death, it needs to be a good reason. Causes were given later in the book, but it came too late as I’d already formed my opinion.

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a narrative where character motivations, like the cause of Alice’s PTSD, are rationed and revealed after they have already influenced character’s actions. It made the narrative style very claustrophobic with too little to work on. I had to put the book down fairly often just to clear my head. That fortunately changed towards the end of the book when all the players were familiar and the plot began to move forward.

I had issue with the world-building as well. If the world is that rigged against humanity, with no chances of survival, how come there are so many humans left? Especially since there’s a constant winter (and where did that come from). Why are there no riots? The only one seems to be planned by the bad guys for their benefit. The idea of MI didn’t work well either. How could a machine replace the entire workforce? All it seemed to be able to do is print human body parts. They are so expensive that countries bankrupted themselves to get one, so they can’t be in every factory for example. And if they are supremely intellect, how come one of them could be fooled by a human? All the other technology seemed to be in the service of humanity, like the intelligent jacket Alice was wearing, so why was the humanity in such a bad state. Also, most of the technology appeared to be micro-chip based, whereas MI seems to be based on a Babbagean difference enginea cool idea that would’ve changed the entire world-building if everything was based on that; a twenty-first century steampunk world powered by nuclear reactors.

All the issues aside, I liked the book enough to keep reading through the claustrophobic chapters. I liked Alice from the start and Red grew on me. Bad guys could have been more evil, but considering the ending, there’s maybe some use for them in subsequent books. I’m not entirely sure I’ll continue with the series, but I’m glad I read this one.


Monday, April 27, 2020

A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones

It’s always a source of unease when a favourite author starts a new series. Darynda Jones is the author of the great and brilliantly funny Charley Davidson urban fantasy series of a grim reaper turned private investigator. It ended last year, and now Jones has returned with Sunshine Vicram, a series that has no fantasy elements, but has mystery and comedy aplenty.

A Bad Day for Sunshine is different enough from Charley Davidson books to feel fresh and similar enough to feel like coming home. Biggest change on the outset is the use of third person narrative, with alternating points of view between Sunshine and her teenage daughter Aurora. It worked fairly well, but at times it was impossible to tell who the ‘she’ referred to was. There were also a few annoying dream sequences that started in the middle of ‘normal’ scenes, only to pull the rug under the reader later on.

The book follows Sunshine Vicaram, the new serif of a small town in New Mexico. It's her home town, but she’s been away for years and has only been tricked to returning by her parents who somehow managed to get her elected as the new serif. While she knows the people and places, she needs to reacquaint herself with everything. Her first day at work starts with a bang, or a crash, and goes downhill from there when a young girl goes missing. It brings back memories of her own abduction when she was seventeen, the reason she has left the town in the first place.

The other story-line follows Auri at school. She has her own troubles in the form of bullies and a new crush, and she is eager to help her mother to find the missing girl, which puts her in peril. Sun is a good cop and a quirky mom, Auri is a brilliant but troubled daughter. Together they are a great team and I loved them both.

The main case of the missing girl seems odd on the surface, but turns out to be straightforward enough that I guessed the bad guy surprisingly early on. But that’s not all the book is about. There are all sorts of shenanigans going on around Sun, with weird and quirky characters brightening the day, and amazingly sexy men pouring in from every direction. And none of them is as sexy as Sun’s biggest crush since she was a girl, Levi, who may be the hero or the baddie of Sun’s life. With clues from Sun’s past surfacing towards the end and the mystery of how she was elected a serif when she didn't run still unsolved, the following books should prove to be as interesting as the first.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Deadly Games, Conspiracy, Tangled Truths by Lindsay Buroker: reviews

4/5 stars (each) on Goodreads

My Lindsay Buroker binge continues with three books. Deadly Games and Conspiracy are books three and four of The Emperor’s Edge series, and Tangled Truths is book three in Death Before Dragons series. So far, I’ve been happy with both.

While the two series are set in completely different worldsEmperor’s Edge takes place in a steampunkish world with magic and Death Before Dragons in our world with addition of otherworldly creaturesthey have some similarities. The main couple consists of an extroverted woman and a highly secretive, unemotional man/male; there’s a larger plot going on in the background that the main character tries to unravel, and both have action and mayhem aplenty. Romantic stories advance in glacier pace, although a bit faster in case of Val and Zav in Death Before Dragons who don’t have the baggage of past misdeeds between them like in the case of Amaranthe and Sicarius in The Emperor’s Edge.

Tangled Truths by Lindsay Buroker

In Tangled Truths, Val has to face both her pasti.e. ex-husband and teenage daughterand dragons bent on revenging the death of Dob. The latter seems to be easier for her, as she isn’t one to contemplate her emotions. And she has an assignment that for once doesn’t require her to kill anyone, which takes her a little out of her comfort zone. But Zav is there to help, if reluctantly, and the ending takes their relationship to a new level.

Deadly Games by Lindsay Buroker
In Deadly Games, Amaranthe’s group becomes involved in investigating the disappearances of athletes competing in important games. When two of her men are taken too, it takes the case to a different levelat the bottom of a lake. The additional point of view is that of Basillard, the former slave. He has learned that Sicarius has killed the ruling family of his people and wants to avenge them. But when they are both held captive, he changes his mind. And he has an important role at the end, when he gets to meet the emperor, who has an odd request. He wants Amaranthe’s group to kidnap him.

Conspiracy by Lindsay Buroker

In the next book, Conspiracy, the group sets out to fulfil the emperor’s request. It’s not easy, especially since he has to be taken from a moving train full of soldiers. The group is experiencing internal strife too. Akstyr, the magic practitioner, is planning to sell Sicarius to bounty hunters, upsetting the rest of the group when they learn of it, and Sicarius goes on a killing spree that upsets Amaranthe and complicates their mission. On top of that, Forge, the group working against the emperor, is moving to overthrow him and they have technology unlike anything that has been seen in the world where everything works on steam. And then the book ends in a cliff-hanger when the action is at its peak. Luckily the next book picks up with the same exact sceneI already checked.

All in all, both series remain satisfying and I’ll continue with my binge. In addition, I’ve acquired several other series by Buroker, so I won’t run out of reading any time soon.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Sinner by J. R. Ward: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Sinner by J. R. Ward

The Sinner is the eighteenth book in Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series of a brotherhood of vampires and their partners. It marks a final of a sort for the series too, although there are several books already announced. Unfortunately, it didn’t do it with a bang.

Since the first book, the main plot has been about a war with the Lessening Society, evil creatures made by Omega, the counterpart of the Scribe Virgin who created the vampires. The war has sort of ended a couple of times already as the series has reached its peaks and then continued. A constant, however, has been a prophecy of the end of Omega delivered by Butch, one of the brothers.

Butch had an own storyline in this book, which built towards the conclusion of the prophecy. All was set for the great showdown. And then it didn’t happen. The glory of ending Omega was robbed from him, supposedly in order to save his life, but basically in a cop-out that made the entire story deflate like a bad soufflĂ©. A great disappointment, even if it introduced the new great evil who will continue the tormenting of the brotherhood.

But these books aren’t only about war. There’s always a love story too. Here it was between Syn, a tragic male with a compulsive need to kill, and Jo, a half-vampire about to go through the transition to a vampire—not that she knows about it. And the revelations are dragged almost to the end of the book where they didn’t make as great an emotional impression as I would’ve liked.

Like often in these books, the couple falls in love almost instantly. Syn is hired to kill Jo by mobsters, but he is drawn to her instead. From there, he begins a change to a romantic hero, with a good redemption arc. Jo is a more boring character. Her role is to wait for an event she doesn’t know is coming. In the meanwhile, she searches for clues of her past, but it’s not her actions that reveal the truth in the end.

It’s difficult to see why Syn finds her so special that it brings a change into his centuries of existence, but somehow it doesn’t matter. He is so earnest in his need to do right by her that it elevates their story to a true romance. And then there’s the added anxiety of not knowing whether she will make it through the transition.

The book isn’t without flaws, but I loved it anyway, like always. It’s the little things; the bonds between the brothers combined with a few truly emotional moments. And in a way it was a good thing that the war with the lessers came to an end, as it had turned boring. The new baddie is much more interesting than the old one, even if she wasn’t the character I would have wanted to move to this series from the Fallen Angels series. So there’s something to look forward to in the upcoming books too.

***

With this book, Im finally in schedule with my Goodreads Reading Challenge, having read 16 books of 60.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Emperor’s Edge 1, 2 & 2.5 by Lindsay Buroker: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads (each)

The Emperor's Edge by Lindsay Buroker

I’ve been on a Lindsay Buroker binge this past week, after getting hooked on her Death Before Dragons series. I subscribed to her newsletter and was given a four book bundle of her fantasy books (she writes sci-fi too) as a thank you. I picked The Emperor’s Edge, which starts a series with the same name. It’s her first book, and while it’s not perfect, it’s interesting and good. I instantly continued with Dark Currents, and then read a short story The Assassin’s Curse.

The Emperor’s Edge is set in Turgonia, a steam-punkish empire, but not an alt-history/pseudo Victorian one. Technological advancements are based on steam; there are trams, cars and factories among other things, but society’s norms aren’t Victorian. Women handle the commerce and have consequently more freedoms, and men the war. Society is divided to the warrior caste and the rest. Magic exists, but not in Turgonia where it’s been banned.

Dark Currents by Lindsay Buroker

The main character is Amaranthe Lokdon. She’s an up-and-coming enforcer, one of only a few women in the police force. She comes to the notice of the young emperor Sespian and through him the man who is holding the emperor’s reins. The regent sends her to kill Sicarius, the most notorious assassin of the empire. Things get a bit out of her hands and before she knows it, she’s a wanted criminal running from the emperor’s soldiers. But she also discovers a plot to kill the emperor and decides to clear her name by saving him. For that, she enlists Sicarius to help her.

During the course of the book, Amaranthe builds a team of very different people to assist her, and they become the heart of the series. In the first book, they manage to save the emperor, but end up all being wanted by the law. The second book sees them attempting to clear their name by thwarting a plot to poison the drinking water of the Turgonia’s capital. They face magic wielding shamans and weird magical beasts and machines. And form tight bonds.

The Assassin's Curse by Lindsay Buroker

The main relationship is building between Amaranthe and Sicarius. He’s a very difficult person to get a hang of, but she’s persistent. Already in the second book she confesses her feelings for him, which was faster than I anticipated, considering that there are nine books in the series. But it suits her character. His answer definitely suits his.


Based on two books and a short story, the plots evolve around economy, which is a refreshing change to all the fantasy series about conquer and war. The main villains don’t come from the outside, but from within the city. There’s a faction of business leaders who are plotting to overthrow the emperor. I’m guessing the truth of the organisation won’t be unravelled until the last book. And I’m guessing it’ll take that long to clear Amaranthe’s name too. I’m not sure it’ll be possible to clear Sicarius’s. The plots are a bit all over the place and the pacing is slightly odd; the books tend to end before I would expect them to. But these are minor details that haven’t marred my enjoyment of the books. I already have the third one waiting.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Battle Bond by Lindsay Buroker: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Battle Bond by Lindsay Buroker

Battle Bond is the second book in Buroker’s Death Before Dragons series. It starts almost right after the first book with references to it and the aftermath still going on. Val is as sarcastic and kickass as ever, but her sessions with the therapist are starting to have a hold. She even goes to yoga, although that doesn’t end well. Zav the dragon is his arrogant self, but he starts to warm up to Val a little. We also learn that dragons are perfectly capable of relationships in their human form, which gives hope for a future romance between Zav and Val. There is some build-up to it in this book, but nothing major yet.

The plot is full action from the start. A new dragon shows up, killing humans, and both Vals boss and Zav want him gone. And a group of shifters is harassing Vals weapons supplier, so shes helping her too. Neither task goes well. Val gets her ass handed to her many times before everything is solved. Luckily she heals fast. However, the way she deals with the dragon causes a rift between her and Zav, which might spell trouble for her in the future. I can’t wait to read what happens next.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Honor among Thieves by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Honor among Thieves by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

Occasionally Amazon manages to recommend a book that is spot on. Honor among Thieves grabbed me from the start and took me on a ride through stars. It’s a YA sci-fi by authors Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre set on near future earth. The earth has been saved by an alien race of sentient spaceships, and in return a hundred humans are selected every year on a trip around space inside them. It’s considered a huge honour to be selected, but when the protagonist, Zara, is chosen, she has other ideas.

Sentient spaceships that look like huge whales aren’t a new concept, and calling them Leviathan isn’t exactly innovative either. Giving the spaceship a personality, whether it’s an AI or other kind, is a well-used idea too. Still, there is something about Nadim, the ship Zara is assigned to, that makes him stand out as a person among the other characters.

Zara is a fairly typical YA heroine, ill-treated and angry. She starts as a thief living on streets, but she begins to heal on board of Nadim and grows to be a hero. She also turns out to be a veritable technical genius, which I found a bit far-fetched, considering she hadn’t studied much. But I could move past that.

At the heart of the story is the friendship and bond between Nadim and Zara. Both have suffered psychological trauma and abuse that gives them common ground and ability to understand each other even though they come from such different worlds. Reading the reviews, some found their bond creepy. YA readers are used to there being a love story at the heart of every book; the authors tease with this with an early character that turns out to be something completely different. They view the bond in romantic light and are repulsed by it. I’m not sure the bond between Zara and Nadim is romantic, although their connection is often described like two people falling in love, but I could be wrong.

The story is exciting too. It’s divided into four separate parts, each with its own arc that leads seamlessly to the next part. Stakes get gradually higher from one part to the next, until the great revelation at the end. The main cast of characters is fairly small, which is good, and none of them is solely black or white, not even the sentient ships. I’m not entirely sure how the title fits, as there are no other thieves than Zara, but the authors made a valiant effort to integrate it to the plot. The story ends at an exciting place and I definitely want to know what will happen next.


Book 11/60

Friday, March 13, 2020

Love Hard by Nalini Singh, A Lovely Drop by Darynda Jones: reviews

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Love Hard by Nalini Singh
 
Love Hard by Nalini Singh is the third book in Hard Play contemporary romance series featuring four rugby playing New Zealand brothers. Jake is the second youngest, a single dad of a six-year-old after his teenage sweetheart suddenly died right after giving birth. His counterpart is Juliet, a wild-hearted best friend of his former love. They didn’t like each other at school, but years later, they are different people and sparks fly. 

I love romance novels with lots of happy tears, and this one made me cry an ocean. Jake and Juliet were a great, balanced and grownup couple despite their young age. Both came with package, on top of which they had the shared past they needed to work through too. All problems got solved fairly easily, but in a satisfying way. And the entire Bishop-Esera family made me want to be adopted by them. This was perhaps my favourite in the series so far, but there’s one more book to come and I have high hopes for it.


4/5 stars on Goodreads

A Lovely Drop by Darynda Jones
 
A Lovely Drop by Darynda Jones is a novella or a short story of about eighty pages. Despite the length, the story is fully developed, and I didn’t feel like anything was missing. The premise is interesting: Andrea has the ability to ‘drop’ twenty-four hours into past and observe everything that has happened. She has operated under radar, helping anonymously to solve difficult crimes. But now she has been caught by the Homeland Security who demand she help them. She’s not entirely willing, a memory of her mother’s downfall in the hands of law enforcement clear in her mind. The agent assigned to her case is compelling, however, and so she complies.

The crime(s) are fairly easily solved. After all, all Andrea has to do is go to the past to see what happened. But there are some twists and turns that stem from her ability, which keep matters interesting to the end. And there’s a romance developing between her and the agent, which spiced things up too. Andrea is an interesting character, as is Agent Strand. The book ends at a good place that makes me wish that there are more stories or even a complete series featuring the two in the works. I’d definitely read them.