Friday, July 23, 2021

Last Guard by Nalini Singh: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Last Guard by Nalini Singh

Psy-Changeling Trinity, the spin-off of Nalini Singh’s wonderful UF series has advanced to its fifth book, Last Guard. Mercant family has taken a prominent role in this series and the hero is Canto Mercant, the centre of its intelligence gathering. He’s a designation A Psy, which we haven’t met yet, an anchor holding the PsyNet together. As the net continues its unravelling, threatening the lives of all the Psy, he decides to take action and collect all the As to work together.

Payal Rao is the CEO of a large company, and its potential heir, should her cruel father and psychopath brother allow it. She’s an A too, and like most of her designation, in constant fear of her sanity. But when Canto contacts her, she agrees to become the face of the new coalition of As.

It turns out the two share a past. They were held in a prison masquerading as a school where difficult to control Psy children were confined. Both have had to come a long way to recover from the experience, but neither has forgotten the other. Meeting each other for the first time in decades brings old memories back and threatens Payal’s rigid control of her erratic mind.

But their minds aren’t the only problem. Since they are more deeply linked to the PsyNet than other Psy, its corruption bleeds into their bodies. Canto is in a wheelchair because of tumours in his spine, and Payal has tumours in her brain that are kept in check by a medicine that her cruel father controls. More is made of Payal’s medical condition, whereas Canto functions fine even without his legs. No miracle cure is sought or offered for either of them. The Psy are more about the mind than body.

This was a great romance, like always. A new designation brings with it new problems for the romance, but the answers are familiar: more empathy and emotions. There weren’t any gut-wrenching moments this time, but many sweet ones. The issues with Payal’s family were solved a little too easily, but the focus was more about the PsyNet and its problems. Many favourites made an appearance (I read the books for Kaleb Krycheck), but there weren’t enough bears in my opinion. There can never be too many bears. All in all, a good addition to the series.

 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

These Hollow Vows is YA fantasy that starts a series with the same name. It’s set in a world that is mostly early industrial, but with magic and indoors plumbing. Existing along it is the world of the fae that is accessed through portals.

Brie and her younger sister live Cinderella-like life (before the prince) in their aunt’s house after their mother abandoned them to live with her fae lover on the other side of the portal. They have a magical contract with their aunt that gets worse every time they fail to pay for their upkeep, which Brie provides by stealing from the rich. And then the aunt tires of the game and sells the sister to the king of the unseelie court.

Determined to save her sister, Brie heads to the fairyland and ends up striking a bargain with the king: she has to steal three impossible objects from the seelie court to get her sister back. Since she’s a good thief, she thinks she can manage it. But it’s easier said than done.

This was great YA fantasy. Like in (almost) all of them, there are two handsome men that Brie is interested in who seem to know more about her than they let on (not my favourite trope). As the story progresses, each of the men is revealed to be more than she believed, in good and bad, and she has to constantly adjust her view of them and her role in the story. Since she can’t talk about her deal with the king, she constantly ends up betraying either or both of them.

I liked Brie for the most part. She was resourceful and determined to save her sister. She had magic of her own that she only learns about when she arrives to the fairyland, and she makes the most of it. She wasn’t a teenager of contemporary YA fantasy, but matured by her hardships, which I especially liked. She was an adult and behaved like one. Except when she clung to her princes, hoping that they would save her, which happened too often to my tastes.

The princes, Ronan and Finn, were good YA heroes, charismatic and mysterious, but apart from their looks, I don’t see why Brie was so taken with either of them. Other side characters were few and they weren’t very memorable.

The book progressed in a good pace. The twists and turns were signalled well in advance, so none of them came as a surprise, which made this a pleasant read. And, like so often in YA fantasy, the book ended with the ultimate revelation and betrayal, which promises interesting times in the next book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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

Monday, July 19, 2021

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is historical fantasy set in China during the Mongol rule. Famine has emptied villages and the rest are killed in endless campaigns between the Emperor and the rebellious Chinese armies. To survive is to will it happen.

The protagonist starts as a nameless, scorned ten-year-old girl who survives on scraps her father and sole living brother of eight leave her, and her ingenuity. A fortune teller predicts greatness to her brother Zhu Chongba and nothingness for her. But when bandits attack, it’s the brother who dies while she survives.

She’s already learned that a girl is nothing, but instead of accepting it like other women around her, she finds the situation unfair. Spurred on by her will to live, she assumes her brother’s identity and outstubborns monks to be admitted to a monastery as a novice. But she assumes more than his name. She assumes his destiny to greatness too. For it to come to pass, she has to completely believe that she is Zhu and that his fate is hers, to fool the gods to grant it to her.

The story unfolds in a brisk pace. Years are skipped, and only the important scenes are told. Zhu is successful in becoming her brother, resorting to devious stunts to keep her true gender a secret. She’s becoming complacent though, believing that her greatness is found in the monastery. So when it’s destroyed, she needs to find a new way to make it happen.

She becomes a warrior, leading troops to victories against the Mongols. But it’s not enough. She needs to become the leader. And there’s nothing she won’t do to stay on her path to greatness. Nothing can stop her, not even death. It frees her from being her brother, and allows her to assume greatness as herself. The book ends when she’s halfway to her goal, to becoming the emperor.

But Zhu isn’t the only one with fated destiny. In the Mongol army, there’s a Chinese eunuch general, the right-hand man of the warlord’s son. Seemingly working towards the goal of crushing the Chinese rebels, he harbours a hatred towards the warlord and is biding his time to avenge his family’s deaths on him.

Zhu’s actions force him to act faster than he would’ve wanted, but like Zhu, he believes in the inevitability of his fate. And they share a goal: to crush the Mongol emperor.

This was a brilliant book. The pace was fast, the stakes were high, and the historical details wonderful, depicting a cruel, believable world. I wasn’t familiar with the true historical events the book is based on, but it didn’t matter at all.

The characters were oddly likeable, despite being awful people. Zhu especially manages to convey a sense of serene rightness while manipulating the events to her liking or killing people outright. She ends up marrying a woman who she repeatedly hurts by her actions, yet Ma stays by her side. The option would be worse, because at least Zhu understands what it is to be a woman without protectors. 

Not that Zhu quite accepts that she’s a woman, even after admitting to herself that she’s not her brother, nor is she quite a man either. She’s Zhu Yuanzhang, the radiant one, the one who will be the emperor. I’m looking forward to reading the conclusion to her journey.

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

Monday, July 12, 2021

Witches Get Stitches by Juliette Cross: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads
 
Witches Get Stitches by Juliette Cross
 
Witches Get Stitches is the third book in Stay a Spell paranormal romance series of witch sisters from New Orleans. Each has a special ability, but they have to keep them secret from humans, along with other supernatural creatures, vampires, werewolves, and grims. I liked the first two books and was eager to read this too when I received it from NetGalley.

Violet is a psychic and a tattoo artist. Nico is a werewolf singer who moves to New Orleans after a brief encounter with her, because his wolf declares she’s his mate. But she’s done a reading of their relationship and the cards predict doom, so she keeps him firmly in a friendzone.

This was a very uncomplicated romance. Both Violet and Nico were mature people who knew who they are, so there was no inner conflict with either of them. Nico’s trouble with his more violent urges was more a thing of his past, really, though a great deal was made of it. There were no large issues keeping the two apart, other than stubbornness, so no conflict there either. And what little outer pressure there was, happened so late in the book, that it didn’t affect the romance either. Basically the two simply acknowledged that they should be a pair and become one. It still managed to be an enjoyable process, and I have no complaints.

Apart from the romance, the book didn’t have much of a plot. There was a lot going on with the other sisters, but sort of in the side-lines, setting up future stories. It was fine as it was, but I wished the sisters would’ve been introduced a bit better. Even though this is the third book, I had trouble remembering who was who, or how many of them there were even.

Other than that, I found the story enjoyable, and will gladly read the rest of the series too when the books come out.

 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney

Midnight, Water City is crime fiction set in near future where humanity has managed to recuperate from an ecological disaster. Science has found a way to build to the bottom of the oceans—for superrich—and on it for the average wealthy—and those who live above their means, like the protagonist. Age is just a number, as everyone can rejuvenate themselves. And everyone is happy with the way things are, because forty years earlier, the humanity avoided mass extinction by splitting an asteroid that was heading to earth.

The scientist responsible for the feat, Akira Kimura, is revered as near god. And then she’s found dead by her former security guy, who promptly becomes a suspect. Since he’s the only one who truly knew her, he sets out to investigate the crime.

Eighty years old but passing as forty, thanks to science, he’s disillusioned and about to blow his fourth marriage. The investigation is all he has left. It soon turns inwards and back in time, as he starts to question his relationship with Akira. And every new thing he learns makes him realise he didn’t know her at all, which means he doesn’t really know who he is anymore.

The mystery was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end. The reasons behind the crime were over the top, but in the context of sci-fi, they sort of worked. The ending was satisfying, and managed to utilise the more innovative aspects of the worldbuilding.

Still, this wasn’t a book for me. I’ve lost appetite for overly descriptive sentences that take forever to reach the point, and forced cynicism. And I’ve never had taste for middle-aged men wallowing in self-pity. Unfortunately, the entire plot relies on that—even if the middle-aged man in question is over eighty. I’m glad he found some clarity about his life in the end, but I can’t say I cared for him much. I can’t even recall his name—if it was even revealed in the book. If it wasn’t, I didn’t notice until it was time to write this review.

I seldom comment on the cover and title of the book, but they’re completely wrong for the book and set up expectations that the book simply doesn’t meet. This wasn’t neo noir set in seedy side alleys. And while midnight probably refers to the bottom of the ocean, most of the book took place in sunshine and in seaside paradise resorts of ultra-rich. My overall impression was bright warmth, which made the protagonist’s whining even more annoying.

If you have stomach for middle-aged men wallowing in self-pity, this is a book for you. If you are a middle-aged man wallowing in self-pity, read it. You might find a sympathetic soul in there.

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

 

Thursday, July 08, 2021

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers has a wonderful ability to write books that are larger than they appear, and which leave the reader feeling good about themselves and humanity at large. A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a short novel, about 160 pages. Nothing much happens in it, yet it sets out to tackle the question about the purpose of life.

Sibling Dex is a monk who one day realises that life in the city doesn’t satisfy them anymore, so they change their vocation and begin to tour the countryside with a bicycle drawn trailer, to offer tea and sympathy for those who need it. After a rocky start, they become great at it. Yet they’re still not satisfied.

On a whim, they head to the wilderness that humans aren’t supposed to enter. There they encounter Mosscap, a humanoid robot who has been sent to find out if humans need them. Robots have become self-aware about two centuries ago, when humans were facing an ecological disaster. A pact between robots and humans has kept the two apart ever since.

Now the world has healed and the robots maybe want to join humans again. But they’re not the original robots anymore. They’ve rebuilt themselves from the parts of the old robots, and in the process have gained an outlook on life that rests on its finite nature.

Dex and Mosscap become friends over philosophical and religious conversations, both learning from the other. I liked them both very much, though Mosscap with its infinite curiosity and old wisdom was maybe my favourite. The book ends with the two deciding to head back to civilisation together. Since this is the first book in Monk & Robot series, the rest of their adventures will happen later.

This was perhaps the most hopeful of Chambers’ books I’ve read. The world—a habitable moon—is lush and green and full of happy people in harmony with nature. There’s no talk about space travel, though the people must have come there somehow. All the technology is fairly lowkey, even Mosscap. Like in all Chambers’ books, being genderless is a valid way of life. I especially liked Sibling as an option for Brother and Sister of other monks. And I liked that there was no drama. The book left me feeling rested and comfortable. A wonderful respite.

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

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim is an Asian retelling of a fairy-tale about princes who are cursed by their evil stepmother into swans. Their sister has to knit nettle shirts for her brothers to free them while unable to speak. There are several variations of the fairy-tale, but Lim follows the main story fairly faithfully.

Shiori is the youngest child and only daughter of an emperor, with six brothers and a mysterious stepmother. She’s arranged to marry a son of a Northern lord, but she’d rather learn magic with a dragon who’s saved her life by giving her a piece of his essence. But magic is forbidden in the empire and pursuing it puts her at odds with her stepmother, who curses her brothers into cranes and her into wandering the empire with a wooden bowl covering her face. No one recognises her and she’s unable to utter a word, as every sound she makes will kill one of her brothers.

Feared and hated as a demon, she sets out to find her brothers and perform the task that will set them free, knitting a net of demon nettles to capture their stepmother. By chance—or fate, as many of the plot twists rely on it—she ends up in the castle of her betrothed as a lowly kitchen maid. Evil forces are afoot there too, and Shiori finds herself tangled in them. But she perseveres in her impossible task, until everything is in place for her to face her stepmother again.

This was a wonderful retelling of the old story. The setting worked perfectly, and Asian myths and culture added depth and richness to the fairy-tale. Since the story was familiar to me, the beginning of the book felt too long, as it took a while before the curse happened. But once it did, the story progressed in a good pace. The additional plot of the empire under siege worked well too.

The book ended up being more than a retelling. I expected a black and white moral, but little by little shades of grey began to emerge, making the familiar story new. Things weren’t as they seemed and the curse wasn’t what it appeared either.

Shiori was a great character. Rather annoying at first as a selfish princess, but once cursed, she grew up and managed to do what needed doing. I especially liked that she wasn’t cursed to be mute but she had to remain so by the strength of her will. Her brothers remained distant, but since they didn’t have a proper role in the story, it didn’t matter. Takkan, Shiori’s fiancé, was likeable, and the blooming of her friendship with him worked well. Only the dragon boy seemed an odd addition, as he didn’t really fit in beyond teaching Shiori magic.

The story had a satisfying ending, but it wasn’t at all what I expected—and a good thing too. The ending also set the next book, so Shiori’s story isn’t over yet. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Outrageous by Minerva Spencer: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Outrageous by Minerva Spencer

Minerva Spencer’s Outrageous is the second book in her Rebels of the Ton historical romance series. I hadn’t read the first book, but I decided to give it a try when I received a free copy from NetGalley.

The story takes place in 1816, but instead of the usual balls and operas of London, it’s mostly set in carriages and seedy inns of the English countryside. Godric Fleming, a decorated war hero and a man bent on avenging his dead family on Gabriel Marlington, has decided to abduct Gabriel’s wife. Only to be abducted himself by Gabriel’s sister Eva de Courtney who has learned of his plan. Her intention is to keep him away from London long enough for Godric to give up his revenge, but weather and other unforeseen factors keep them on the road for days. And, as Godric points out, she’s now compromised in the eyes of the society and they have to marry. She’s not instantly agreeable to the plan, and he isn’t thrilled either.

This was a competent and interesting story. It relied heavily on some tropes of historical romances like forced intimacy and a clandestine marriage, but they were handled so that they felt fresh. I liked Eva and Godric both, and their inevitable falling in love happened organically and felt believable. The intimate setting meant that most of the time there was just the two of them, but they could carry the story well enough. There were enough twists and turns, some of them beggaring belief, to keep the reader entertained. The cover is somewhat misleading, making the reader expect a romance without sex scenes, but there were plenty of those.

I have a couple of complaints though. The book was too long. Especially the ending that took place after the climax was unnecessary, as it was basically a long filler scene that took several chapters. There’s only so much a reader is willing to learn about the mechanics of horse breeding. And then the reconciliation was handled hastily and was basically a sex scene and not much else despite the issues the couple had. There was nothing romantic or emotional about it. It was followed by a change in the point of view, which gave the conclusion to secondary characters. I found it highly unsatisfying, and it marred my enjoyment of the book.

I would also have liked the author to do a better work with introducing the characters from the first book. Eva had complicated family relations that I presume were handled in the previous book (and some in an earlier series even). They had some bearing in this one, yet the reader was left completely in the dark about who they were and why they mattered for this story. Not everyone read all the books in a series, so a few words here and there would’ve gone a long way to help the reader to understand some plot twists that relied on those relationships.

Nevertheless, I liked the book. It stands out in the mass of historical romances, which isn’t easy to pull off. I’ll be reading the next one too.

 

Friday, June 25, 2021

Heartbreak Incorporated by Alex de Campi: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Heartbreak Incorporated by Alex de Campi

I picked Hearbreak Incorporated by Alex de Campi on NetGalley based on the cover, partly expecting urban fantasy, partly soft horror maybe. The contents didn’t match my expectations at all, not even with reading the description.

This was an odd book, in good and bad. It was genre fiction, but the genre kept changing. It started as chick-lit that morphed into a mystery, then paranormal, erotica, and eventually into horror of sorts. But at no point it was typical of any of it.

That’s because of its chosen style. The book is written in third person present tense, which created a vast distance between the main character Evie and the reader. The narrative seemed to slog on instead of drawing the reader in. It’s not a long book, but I found the style so exhausting I had to pause several times and it took me days to finish.

It was a well-written third person present though, with good eye for detail that made the main character’s life believable. But it didn’t manage to convey the sense of urgency that especially the ending required, or let the reader in on the jokes of the first half. It made the reader feel as dreary as Evie’s life was.

The story follows Evie who’s working on a series of temp jobs while fooling herself she’s going to break into journalism in a world where paid journalism is dying. New York is expensive and she’s down her last dollar when she snags a job with a private investigator. They investigate by going undercover on behalf of the client, usually to prove first-hand that a spouse is having an affair. The owner is a charming man who sweeps Evie off her feet without trying. Pity she’s set things in motion that’ll make him hate her. She’s decided to use him as her a ticket to journalism. That’s the chick-lit part.

Misha isn’t a typical alpha mail of UF and paranormal romances. He’s bisexual for one, and dresses to emphasise his attractiveness to both genders. And his behaviour is intriguing enough to make Evie to suspect that he kills some of his clients. She needs to prove it though. That’s the mystery section. But when she learns the truth, she no longer wants to write the story about him. That’s when the book evolves into paranormal territory. The rest of it flows in similar vein.

That’s also when the book started to lose my interest, mostly because Misha opening up to a person he’s known for a few days isn’t believable. But Evie plunges into his world, only to end up betraying him.

The ending definitely isn’t what I expected. It might set a series, though it concludes the book well. But if the reader is expecting a happily ever after, or even for now, they’re up for a disappointment.

All in all, this was a good book that I didn’t like as much as I hoped I would. But if you’re bored with first person narratives, and want to read something atypical while similar, this is for you. The cover should be changed though. But to what, I have no idea. I can't imagine what would describe all aspects of the book in a satisfying manner.

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


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison

Katherine Addison returns to the world of her wonderful The Goblin Emperor in a stand-alone sequel, The Witness for the Dead. The protagonist is Thara Celehar who featured in the first book as the investigator solving the previous emperor’s assassination. It made him unpopular in the court, and the Emperor relocated him to a remote industrial city of Amalo to serve as the witness for the dead there.

Celehar is a priest who can communicate with the recently departed, to stand witness for them in this life. As naturally reticent, he prefers the company of the dead too. But being a witness often means investigating the lives of the dead, to find justice for them after death. It makes him a de facto criminal investigator, the only one in Amalo.

Celehar has a lot on his plate. A young woman’s family wants to find out how she died, which leads him on the trail of a serial killer. Another family wants to learn the patriarch’s true last will, which plunges him back into the political machinations he left the court to escape. And an opera singer has been murdered, and there is no dearth of potential suspects. Add to that a ghoul, an industrial accident, and a personable opera director who serves to remind him that one cannot be true to who one loves in the empire of elves and goblins, and it’s not a wonder he doesn’t sleep well at nights.

This was an utterly wonderful book. The world is rich to a fault, yet the story is small in scope; a cosy mystery in its truest form. Celehar, like Maia in the first book, is a deeply humane character who strives to do his duty, but who isn’t without small faults that make him all the more likeable when he overcomes them. The focus is on solving the mysteries, and although Celehar finds a way to forgive himself for the events of the past (told already in the first book), the book ends with him pretty much in the same place than in the beginning. Only a few experiences richer and with a new friend.

With a world this wonderful and characters as great as Celehar and Maia, I hope the author will write many more books set there.

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

 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Accidental Gatekeeper by Carla Rehse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Ten Low by Stark Holborn: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Ten Low by Stark Holborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 07, 2021

The Coward by Stephen Aryan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Coward by Stephen Aryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

I was excited to get a chance to read The Blacktongue Thief, the opening of a new fantasy series by Christopher Buehlman, in advance. The description sounded good and I’m always a sucker for a thief as the hero trope. The opening sentence promised a great read.

Kinch is a thief educated by a Takers guild, for which he owes them money he hasn’t been able to pay back yet. They give him a chance to settle his debts by undertaking a mission for them in a faraway country. He isn’t given any details; only that he has to follow a knight, Galva, on a quest of her own. Out of options, he sets out to do so. The only obstacle is, he’s recently tried to rob her, and it didn’t go well.

Kinch and Galva make unlikely travelling companions. They don’t like each other much, and she doesn’t really need him for anything. But she knows where she’s going and why, so he keeps her company through all sorts of obstacles, like shipwrecks and attacks by goblins. At some point they’re joined by a witch’s apprentice Norrigal, with whom Kinch gets romantically involved. There’s also a cat, Bully Boy, who is uncannily able to follow Kinch despite being blind. That’s thanks to an assassin, Sensa, who has been sent by Kinch’s guild to make sure he obeys them, and who is also on a mission of her own.

It takes quite long before Kinch learns what Galva is looking for. The Infanta of her country has been married off to a king of a distant land that’s recently been invaded by giants, and she wants to rescue her, maybe even put her on the throne of their own country. He’s perfectly happy to let her dictate their journey, even if it means he’ll be late for his own deadline—which may well be a literal death, if he can’t get the assassin off his tail.

The book has all the elements for an exciting read. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations. There are several reasons. For one, the book is much too long. Adventures and obstacles are fine on a quest, but not in excess and definitely not when they don’t advance the plot or stem from it. Over a half of the book was spent on what were in essence filler scenes, no matter how much action they contained. Added to that were the mythologies and stories. Gods are interesting, but not when the book isn’t about them or they don’t influence the plot.

Kinch wasn’t interesting enough to carry a first-person narrative on his own. He didn’t get to do much thieving to show off his skills. He wasn’t hero material, and while an anti-hero would make a good protagonist, he was merely cowardly and looking for excuses to get out of the situation he found himself in. His infatuation with Norrigal was incomprehensible.

By far the worst, however, is that Kinch wasn’t the protagonist of his own story. He wasn’t the driving force of the quest and he never tried to make the quest his. The author knows that his and Galva’s quests are essentially the same and steers the plot accordingly, ignoring the fact that Kinch doesn’t know this. At no point was Kinch in charge. That means we’re following Galva’s quest, not Kinch’s, yet we never get any insight into her. He’s not even the hero of the endgame, though he does rise to the occasion. The reader is left wondering why they’ve followed him all this way.

The side characters aren’t much better. Galva had promise, but she remained a sketch of a war veteran determined to see her mission through no matter what it took. I actively disliked Norrigal who seemed to be Kinch’s enabler in avoiding his duties—mostly because she was on the same quest as Galva. Added to that was an odd collection of characters who joined the quest at various points but who had absolutely no reason to be there. They showed up, did nothing, and either died or went away. But many pages were wasted on them. I only liked the cat and even he was cleaned away for convenience.

What made me actively dislike the book, however, was its attitude to women. Most of the characters were women, all in prominent and important positions, which should’ve made this feel like a progressive book. Galva especially was a strong character. But women were consistently called with pejorative names. They’re girleens and dams, which stood out even more because men and boys weren’t called any differently. To make matters worse, knights like Galva, who serve the goddess of death, must remove their breasts to show that they’re not inclined to breed, as if that would make them weaker. It all made the women’s prominent positions seem like lip service to strong women in speculative fiction.

The story picks up at the end. While Kinch still isn’t in charge of the plot, he’s at least actively helping Galva with hers. A lot happens in a few chapters and I couldn’t help thinking that the book would’ve been much better if more time had been dedicated to that part of the story instead of wasting it on pointless side-quests. Especially when it comes to Kinch’s insight into his guild, which came kind of out of the blue. The ending sets the next book, but I won’t be continuing with the series.

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

 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sedition by E. M. Wright: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads
 
Sedition by E. M. Wright

Sedition is a debut novel by E. M. Wright and it starts Children of Erikkson series. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sedition is steampunk fantasy set in alternate Victorian England of airships and biomatons, humans that have been altered with clockwork parts and mind modifiers. Because of these changes, they’re no longer considered human and are treated as slaves.

Taryn is a young student of biomechanics with a secret: she is a biomaton too. She’s been pretending to be human for several years now, after she was discovered from the streets by a son of an aristocrat. Then her secret is discovered, and she’s taken to a lair of a cruel lordship who collects biomatons. Taryn is put through examinations and torture that nearly breaks her. Only, her mind-control doesn’t quite work like others’.

This started as a four-star book. The language was smooth, and the first third progressed in a good pace. Then Taryn was taken captive, and everything changed. The rest of the book lacked a proper plot with a clear goal that the protagonist would try to work towards. Taryn was passed along in a progression of scenes where she was submitted to humiliation and/or torture over and over again, with no recourse. The sadistic cruelty of the other characters soon became tiresome, especially since Taryn had no agency and no way to influence her situation. The story happened to her, not the other way around. The ending was abrupt and came across like a deus ex machina, especially since the build-up was for a different solution entirely.

Taryn was an interesting character, but not someone I could identify with. I sympathised with her at first, but even that became difficult when she had no influence on her situation or any initiative. The idea that her emotions were dampened was fairly repulsive, especially in how it made her regard her only friend.

The side characters were odd, to say the least. Ace was probably meant to be a love interest of a sort, since he was given his own POV chapters, but he was cowardly and useless. Emmet was mawkish and then pitiful, through no fault of his own. The rest of the characters were merely a collection of sadistic torturers that would make Marquis de Sade envious. At least there was no sexual violence, which was probably due to this being marketed as YA fiction.

Things could be said about the idea of slaves as non-human (or vice versa), especially since the book is set at the time when America was fighting the Civil War over slavery, but since the author chose not to make the comparison, I’ll leave be. All in all, nothing else kept me reading than the obligation to review the book. I won’t be following Taryn’s path longer than this.
 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

It’s seldom that I get to plunge into an alien culture that is both contemporary and right here on earth, but Black Water Sister by Zen Cho lets me do just that. Set in provincial town in Malaysia, it depicts a culture I knew absolutely nothing about and was thoroughly fascinated with.

Jess is a daughter of Malaysian immigrants to the US, a Harvard graduate who should’ve had a great future ahead of her, only things haven’t gone the way she’s planned. When her parents face financial ruin, they decide that returning to the country they’ve left almost twenty years ago is the only solution. As their only child, Jess returns with them, her filial duty clear and simple to her. She leaves behind a girlfriend she hasn’t told her parents anything about, and an uneasy identity as not quite American.

But it turns out she’s not quite Malaysian either. Living with family members she hasn’t seen in years brings home how alienated she is from her cultural heritage. Add to that the stress of settling to a new country, finding a job, and hiding that she’s gay from her family, she’s not at all surprised when she starts hearing a voice of a woman who claims to be her grandmother who’s passed away a year earlier.

Jess needs to adjust her entire worldview to accept that she’s really haunted by her Ah Ma. Then she sets out to find out why Ah Ma hasn’t moved on. A development company is about to build houses on a temple where a vengeful goddess, Black Water Sister, is worshipped. Ah Ma tasks Jess to save the shrine.

Things aren’t as simple as that. The development company is run by a crime lord that Ah Ma seems to have a personal hatred for and getting involved with the affairs of mafia and gods puts Jess’s life at risk. It doesn’t help that Ah Ma is keeping secrets from her that might explain the whole sorry affair.

This was a wonderful book. It starts small and grows in scope and depth as the story continues. Malaysian culture comes to life in language and customs. Nothing is overly explained, yet I became totally engrossed in the alien world. The speech-patterns were especially delightful. As Jess sinks deeper into the affairs of the gods, the story becomes more familiar; gods are selfish, petty, and vengeful whether the story is set in a real world or a fantasy one.

The mystery is intriguing, but in the end it’s a story of three women in three different eras. Two of them have had their choices taken from them. Jess still has her life ahead of her, but she’s in a prison of her own making, as her girlfriend points out. It takes a goddess and a ghost for her to find freedom to make her own choices.

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

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Secrets of the Sword III by Lindsay Buroker: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Secrets of the Sword III by Lindsay Buroker

Death Before Dragons series comes to an end with the ninth book, Secrets of the Sword III. It’s been a fast-paced and exciting UF series full of mayhem, explosions, and dragons, with a side-order of romance and family issues. I’m sad to see it end, but it leaves us in a good place.

For the past three books, Val, the half-elf assassin of the criminal supernatural creatures, has tried to learn how to use the dwarf-made sword she’s acquired from a creature she killed. Here, finally, the dwarf expert comes to teach her. Too bad it’s the week before her wedding and she’s got her hands full with wedding guests who arrive a week early and the change of wedding venue, thanks to Zav, her dragon fiancé, killing a cow that belonged to the owner of the first location. Luckily, goblins come to an aid with an ideal location in the middle of nowhere where Zav’s dragon kin can hunt and play as a preparation for the wedding.

But Val can’t just concentrate on her wedding. Trolls are on a warpath, bombing her café and kidnapping Reb, the troll boy she’s helped before. And they have more explosives, so the chances are good that they’ll attack the wedding too.

With all that going on in the book, it’s not a wonder the wedding itself is more of an afterthought, with only a few pages devoted to it at the end. But at least the dragons enjoyed the troll hunt, which finally pleased Zav’s haughty mother. And there was a few sweet moments too--but nothing too sappy.

The book ends with everyone in a good place, but also as they’ve always been. It’s not a final goodbye when you know the lives of the characters will continue even without you. And maybe there will be more books in the future too, picking up where this one left. I’d love to read them, but for now, I’m happy with how the series ended.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Murderbot is back in Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth book in The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. After the previous book, I assumed the life of the rogue SecUnit would take a new turn, but instead the latest book steps back in time and takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect.

Murderbot has settled—sort of—on Preservation space station, a safe haven for all refuges from the Corporate Rim, even for security constructs (part organic, part cyborg) and bots. It fills its days trying to prevent its favourite human, Dr Mensah, the leader of Preservation from being killed by GrayCris Corporation, watching its shows, and getting annoyed by humans who fear it for being a SecUnit. When a murdered body is found, Murderbot is convinced GrayCris is responsible and gets involved in the investigation.

Fugitive Telemetry is a surprisingly traditional whodunit. Murderbot follows the clues, in its own way, which leads it to a different mystery entirely than it had assumed. But since it’s taken to solve the mystery, it’ll see it through, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with Dr Mensah. There aren’t nearly as much explosions, hacking on-the-fly, and fight scenes than in these books usually, but the mystery is interesting and the identity of the culprit surprising. And Murderbot manages to make new friendlies (not friends—never friends) in the process too.

If you haven’t read Network Effect yet, it’s perfectly possible to read this one first. It’s maybe even better if you do. It’s a good book, but I do hope the next one will pick up where Network Effect left Murderbot. Maybe in another full-length book even.

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

Network Effect by Martha Wells: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Network Effect is the fifth book in Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries sci-fi series of a rogue security construct, SecUnit (part organic, part mechanical, all sarcastic). It’s also the first full-length one.

I was really eager to read a longer Murderbot book, and it didn’t disappoint. Murderbot, the SecUnit who has freed itself from its governor module that can kill it, finds itself—for the first time—in a fairly good place. The threat to Dr. Mensah by GrayCris Corporation is practically over and it can choose what it wants to do. It wants to provide security for a science expedition by its favourite humans and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena.

Everything is going fairly well, when they’re attacked by a ship Murderbot knows very well, the one powered by ART (asshole research transport), as Murderbot calls the AI. ART has been compromised by alien looking creatures and is effectively dead. So Murderbot sets out to save ART—not its friend, no matter what Amena says—whilst keeping its humans safe.

The plot is constant action and involves abandoned colonies, hostile corporations, cyber-attacks, and explosions. But for the first time, there’s also a lot of room for Murderbot to reflect its existence, concept of friendship, and what it wants to do with its freedom. It does all this in a very Murderbot fashion by denying everything and being grumpy and sarcastic. But it also grows a lot as a person.

The book ends at a crossroads for Murderbot. But instead of revealing where it’ll go from here, the next book goes back in time to events before Network Effect. It’s again a shorter one, but hopefully we’ll get another full-length book after that. Murderbot has a lot to offer us yet.