Sunday, April 18, 2021

A Wolf in Duke’s Clothing by Susanna Allen: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

A Wolf in Duke's Clothing by Susanna Allen

A Wolf in Duke’s Clothing by Susanna Allen starts Shapeshifters of the Beau Monde series. It’s a Regency romance with paranormal elements, not a paranormal romance set in a Regency world. It might seem like a small difference, but it can mean a lot for readers who like one but not the other genre. Luckily, I like both.

All the tropes are from Regency romances. We have an orphan heiress at the mercy of a dastardly guardian, a duke who sweeps in to rescue her, Ton parties, ball gowns, and a lot of floral language that borders on incomprehensible as a synonym after another is thrown at the reader.

As a Regency romance, the book works fairly well, but it drags on far too long after the plot has already ended. Nothing significant happens after the consummation of the marriage and some storylines are completely forgotten, like the missing horse. And I don’t think the author understands what an epilogue means. The ending was positively bizarre.

The weakness of the book is in its paranormal elements. There’s a lot of mythology, but none of the excitement. The dynamics of the pack are really off. Everyone shows constant deference to the alpha—Alfred, the romantic hero—and the moment they aggravate him, he subdues them with his alpha power. They seem to believe he’s a great man, but I couldn’t help thinking that they were hostages to his power and said whatever he wished them to. I certainly wasn’t shown otherwise.

His behaviour is at worst in his dealings with Florence, the heroine. First he abducts her. Then he tries his alpha powers on her. It’s bad enough in an ordinary situation, but then he tries to subdue her with the power when she refuses sex. The moment she says no, his first instinct is to take her will away. Not once but several times.

That she’s able to resist him isn’t relevant (it could’ve been demonstrated in a different situation completely), nor is it relevant that he was, for the most part, a nice man. The point is that he’s the kind of man who naturally considers taking a woman’s will away to have his way with her the moment she resists him. He stops this after a while, but only because he knows it doesn’t work. That he shouldn’t do it isn’t even addressed.

Not all alphas need to be the same. That would make a boring read. But all romantic heroes, regardless of the genre, should be strong enough that their weaknesses don’t manifest as bullying. I was so disgusted with Alfred that I ended up skipping all the sex scenes. Luckily they were at the end of the book, which was overlong as it was.

This could’ve been a good book, a fresh take on two genres. Now it sort of failed both because the hero was such a disappointment. Fans of Regency romances might find this a refreshing change of pace, if they can ignore the hero. Fans of paranormal romances might want to give it a pass. However, I think I’ll read the next book too, if only to find out if it has a better hero.

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes

The Last Watch is the debut novel of J. S. Dewes. It’s an intense sci-fi military adventure that begins The Divide series. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

At the edge of the universe is the Divide where the expansion of the universe has stopped. Sentinels are posted to guard the Divide to make sure that an ancient alien enemy won’t attack humans from there. But everyone knows that nothing survives the void on the other side of the Divide, and the post is in fact a punishment for criminals and demoted soldiers.

Their commander is Adequin Rake, a decorated hero of the latest war with the aliens that ended ten years previously. For the outsiders, it looks like she’s been promoted to her post, but she knows the placement is a punishment for something she did at the end of the war. But since she’s punishing herself for it too, she’s determined to be the best commander the outpost on Argus, a decommissioned starship that houses the Sentinels, has ever seen. She’s respected and capable, but then the universe throws a problem at her that she has no idea how to handle. Namely, the universe.

For some reason the universe has begun to shrink fast and the closest thing on its path is Argus, with a few hundred soldiers and nothing to evacuate them with. All communications to the command centre are cut. But since the only other option is to be devoured by the void, Rake sets out to do her best to save them.

The book is pretty much action from start to finish. A problem after a problem is thrown at Rake from evacuating Argus to finding fuel to establishing communications to fighting aliens to saving the universe. Rake is indefatigable; I don’t think she eats or sleeps for days. Her physiology is assisted with Imprints, alien technology inserted under her skin that makes her stronger and helps her heal faster, but it’s still impressive. She’s fuelled by her duty and her personal relationship with a fellow officer who has gone missing with the crew of his repair ship.

The other point of view character is Cavalon Mercer, grandson of the ruler of the universe and the sole heir. He has a toxic relationship with his grandfather, which has led to him being banished to the edge of the universe, hopefully to die there. Privileged and unaccustomed to military life though he is, he nonetheless manages to make himself an indispensable part of Rake’s team—mostly because he has several useful degrees from genetics to astromechanics. He’s a great character, a coward who rises to the occasion time after time.

This was a wonderfully solid book, with language that grounded the reader to the world and action with ease. There was nothing unnecessary; the backstories and the world were given only as much space as they needed, and it didn’t try to be anything other than it claimed, a sci-fi adventure. Politics and romance were background noise.

With only two POV characters, I expected the relationship between Rake and Cavalon to be the driving force of the narrative—whether antagonist or romantic—but while a friendship of sorts forms between them, they have their own storylines that only occasionally meet. Even though the action was almost non-stop, there was time for their personal stories, growth and grief too. All in all, a great book that instantly made me want to read the next one too.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

Victories Greater Than Death is a young adult sci-fi novel by Charlie Jane Anders. I read it as a stand-alone, but it turned out to be the first book in Universal Expansion trilogy. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The sole point of view character is Tina. She’s an American teenager who knows she’s a clone of an alien spaceship captain, genetically modified to look like a human and with all her memories. She’s accepted that one day she’ll leave the earth and become a new person. But it happens more abruptly than she would’ve wished when Marrat, the enemy who killed the original captain, finds her first.

During the daring escape, she takes her best friend Rachel with her on the rescuing spaceship. When it turns out that the spaceship is short on qualified staff, they pick up four other teenagers from all over the earth too, all geniuses in their own field. Together they set out on a quest across the universe to find a stone Marrat wants before him. Clues to what it is and where to find it are in the memories of the original captain.

But the medical procedure that’s supposed to make Tina the original captain again doesn’t quite work. She’s left with encyclopaedic knowledge of space and great new skills, but with her own memories and personality, and with no traces of the original captain. It triggers an identity crisis in her, which is the driving theme of the book.

The book starts with a lot of action and then slows down for a very long middle part. There are episodic scenes of Tina and the earthlings, as they call themselves, learning new skills and studying the new world they find themselves in. There’s also a great deal of teenage angst about who they are or want to be, and who they want to be with.

Teenage drama is what YA books are about, and it’s done fairly well here; the characters behave like teenagers and not like adults in teenagers’ bodies. But since it doesn’t really interest me, it made the already slow middle of the book drag far too long.

Action returns in the last third with the final confrontation with Marrat. An ancient alien race has gone through the universe millions of years ago to help humanoids to thrive over creatures that aren’t based on two legs, arms and eyes. Marrat wants to bring this back, and the earthlings and their spaceship crew rise to oppose his humanoid supremacy.

Marrat is an evil creature who isn’t easily won, but in a true YA fashion, the teenagers succeed where the adults fail. The final battle felt a little off, however. In a first person narrative, I would’ve expected Tina to be the one who pulls off the impossible, but while it was a team effort, she was basically left to observe the outcome from the side-lines.

It’s nice, in principle, to give each character equal time to shine. But from a narrative point of view, it doesn’t work. Especially since it was done ‘the wrong way round’. It would’ve made a greater dramatic impact, if Tina had been allowed to act on her original plan, and the last minute solution had come only after it was almost too late to save her. Now, there was no drama, and the final battle fell flat.

The ending wasn’t conclusive, which also lessened its impact, as I believed I was reading a stand-alone. Even knowing there are more books to come, it doesn’t feel satisfying enough. The last sentence of the book positively threw me.

But the book isn’t so much about action as it is about representation. There are gay, bi and transgender characters, black and Asian ones, and the alien races add their own uniqueness to the mix. Everyone introduces themselves with their name and preferred pronouns. It was a bit jarring at first; education for education’s sake. However, most characters are odd and alien to each other, even on a spaceship, so it was merely practical to tell these things upfront.

Everyone accepts everyone else just the way they are. Gender and sexuality issues that would’ve been the main themes in most YA books are given normalcy and not addressed. The identity issues that Tina and her friends grapple with aren’t based on who they fall in love with or what they look like underneath their clothes. It’s about finding their place in the universe as they are, based on their skills and what they like to do. Tina especially has to figure out a lot, since she wasn’t miraculously altered to someone else after all. On the flip-side, the characters—the minor ones especially—became the sum of their skills, not living, breathing persons.

The book tries to include everyone, respect everyone’s choices and personal space (consent was asked for every hug), understand everyone and not to be mean to or dismissive of anyone. It was nice, but it didn’t offer much character conflict or chance for personal growth for any of the characters, which are the building blocks of any narrative. The reader wasn’t given a reason to read beyond the action plot.

I also found it odd that on a spaceship full of aliens the earthlings only hung around amongst themselves. Without proper interaction with the aliens on an equal level (mostly they were teachers and commanding officers who weren’t given backstories), they didn’t really have to question their humanity. They could’ve been anywhere on earth, and the book would’ve been pretty much the same.

In the end, I didn’t like the book quite as much as I hoped I would—or as much as I enjoyed the first few chapters. The odd, dispirited ending doesn’t really make me want to read the next book either. But I’ll probably continue with the series anyway, if only to see whether the earthlings end up where they want to go.

 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green

The Best Thing You Can Steal is the first book in Gideon Sable UF series by Simon R. Green, a British fantasy author of several series and dozens of books. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book takes place in modern London that is full of supernatural and paranormal in ways that isn’t really explained. They simply are. The sole point of view character is Gideon Sable, a thief and con-artist wearing someone else’s face, who’s about to pull the heist of his life to take down an evil collector of rare magical items. He’s accompanied by his ex-girlfriend Annie Anybody, a woman who can charm technology; the Damned, a man who’s killed angels; Johnny Wild Card who knows what reality truly is, and the Ghost who’s been haunting the streets of London for decades. They’ve all been wronged by the collector and have their reason to want revenge.

For a heist book, this was incredibly dull. There was no excitement, no unexpected twists. Deus ex machinas don’t count, even literal ones. For any kind of book, it was really oddly composed, and not what I’d expect from a seasoned author. Nothing happens. There’s no plot, only a series of events that go from A to Z in preordained order, with odd sideways jumps that don’t affect the story or the behaviour of the characters in any way.

Over half of the book is taken by character introductions. Gideon goes to them one by one, asks them to participate in the heist, they say yes, and then tell him their life stories. Then we learn what the heist is about, meet one more character who has no role to play in the story, do a detour to an event that doesn’t affect the plot in any way, go through the heist plans one more time, and then follow the plans step by step with no surprises.

There were no antagonist forces putting obstacles in the characters’ path (armed guards don’t count), and the characters didn’t get in their own way either. A brief surprise was had when the goal of the heist wasn’t quite what they’d thought, there was some moralising about it, and then we learned what the best thing you can steal really is. Which was just. So. Lame. It’s really not worth reading the book for that.

The characters were a combination of quirky and tragic, though not quite as quirky or tragic as the author probably intended. They also changed pretty fast when interacting with the others. Unlike the rest, Annie Anybody wasn’t given a backstory. She could be anyone she wanted, but I expected at least some sort of insight into her. Was she born that way? Where did her skill with the machines come from?

But the oddest character was Gideon Sable himself. We don’t learn anything about him, even though he’s the first person narrator. We know he’s not who he used to be, but just because he has assumed another person’s face and identity shouldn’t mean the reader isn’t given any insight into who he was before or why the change, or how it was possible. We don’t know his age, or if it changed when he assumed Gideon Sable’s life, and we don’t learn why he’s after the collector. Some mystery is expected to keep the reader’s interest, but since we view the events through his eyes, not having a clue of what he thinks or feels, or what motivates him is really bizarre.

The best thing you can say about the book is that it’s short. The language is descriptive and there’s a lot of it; by the time you finish a sentence you’ve forgotten what it’s about. A lot of effort has been put into creating the weirdest possible items, people, and events, and most of the book is taken by describing these. Therefore, it’s slightly odd that I constantly had a feeling that everything took place in a bubble. Nothing connected to anything, smelled or felt like anything. For all that every chapter began with a description of London, I never felt like I was there.

The book has a conclusive ending. If this is a part of a series, it doesn’t really set the stage for follow-ups. Maybe it doesn’t have to go farther than this. There’s certainly nothing compelling this reader to continue.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris

In this third instalment of Gunnie Rose series, The Russian Cage, action moves from the lawless western setting to sophisticated and wealthy San Diego, the capital of the Holy Russian Empire. Lizbeth is completely out of her comfort zone among the aristocratic Russians and wizards, and to make matters worse, she can’t carry her guns.

Eli has been imprisoned without charges and no one seems to care or do anything about it, least of all Emperor Alexei, whom Eli has helped a lot. So Lizbeth’s sister Felicia summons Lizbeth to free him. The plot that’s led to Eli’s imprisonment involves both the imperial household and Eli’s own family, but Lizbeth doesn’t hesitate to set things right. And this time she’s not only shooting for self-defence; she’s contemplating an outright assassination.

The alt-history setting of the series truly came to life in this book. The Russian Empire has settled on the west coast of California, ruling over Americans who’d been left in power vacuum. There’s surprisingly little conflict from the Americans. All the plotters are Russians, and solely so that they could rule.

True to her character, Lizbeth isn’t wooed by the wealth or power. She’s as straightforward as ever, stubbornly concentrating on freeing Eli. There’s more Felix in this book, helping her in Eli’s absence, and his character gets some depth, though superficially, with only hints and allusions. He never gets to voice his own emotions. Eli was absent for most of the book, and even though I’m not a fan of his as a romantic lead, I kind of missed him. The ending for him and Lizbeth was good and put them in a new place in their life, setting the stage for more adventures. I’d be interested in reading them.

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

 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris has a rich and varying catalogue of urban fantasy and mystery series, mostly set in present-day small American towns with peculiar people. Gunnie Rose, her latest series, is a refreshing exception to this.

The series starts with An Easy Death. It’s set in post-apocalyptic alt-history America of the Great Depression era in the 1930s. The United States has collapsed after a series of events and been divided into several countries or annexed by its neighbours, Canada from the north and Mexico from the south. The east coast is part of England and the west coast forms a new Holy Russian Empire, after the Tsar fled there to escape the revolution of the 1918. The rest have formed Dixie in the south, New America in Midwest and Texoma in southwest.

Texoma is poor and lawless, a new wild west where gunslingers rule and bandits prey on travellers on poorly maintained roads. Lizbeth (Gunnie) Rose is nineteen, but an experienced gunslinger. She’s part of a group who offers protection to people who need to travel the lawless roads. But everything goes wrong and she finds herself without a crew.

In need of employment, she accepts a job to protect two wizards from the Holy Russian Empire where magic is everyday thanks to Rasputin. They are looking for a man Gunnie knows for a fact is dead, because she’s killed him—not that she’s about to reveal it to them. Curious to find out what they want with him, she sets out on a long and perilous journey across the border to Mexico.

This was a good start to a series. The world was interesting and the plot fast-paced and full of action. Gunnie was a cynical and resourceful protagonist, oddly likeable despite never doing anything nice. The first person narrative left the side characters slightly distant, but they made a good counterpart to her, although I didn’t see Eli in the romantic light she did—the opposite. There was a lot of graphic violence and talk of rape, which sort of worked in its context, but after a while I became desensitized and it stopped being effective. Nevertheless, I liked the book a lot and will continue with the series.  

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen is the second book in Nick Martell’s The Mercenary Kings series, which started with The Kingdom of Liars. It’s epic fantasy set in a world where using magic results in a memory loss and a broken moon drops pieces down to the earth. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I had a lot of issues with the first book—the plot was all over the place and there were too many unnecessary characters, among other things—but I decided to give the sequel a try. Unfortunately, the issues continued.

There were, if possible, even more going on than in the first book. The rebels, the king’s death and Michael trying to prove his innocence, the princess and the succession to throne, Michael trying to restore the Kingman legacy, avenging his father and taking revenge on his step-father were joined with refugees from a far-away country, Michael training to be a mercenary, a serial killer, and an assassin, to name only a few. And all of it was Michael’s responsibility.

Needless to say, with everything going on, the focus wasn’t properly at anything. Like in the first book, Michael was running all over town, doing this and that, and mostly failing. None of the plotlines flowed organically, let alone so that the reader could follow or anticipate what would happen. There were no logical plot points or climaxes. Continuity and logic issues that I hope only occur in the advance copy I read—characters showing up in scenes they’re not supposed to be or knowing things they’re not supposed to know—didn’t help matters either. There were no moments of peace to give Michael—and the reader—time to reflect what was going on and why. Mostly, I suspect, because the author had no idea either.

The entire first half felt like a collection of filler scenes to make the book long enough for some imaginary epic fantasy word count. For example, Michael made a lot of noise about the necessity of helping the refugees as part of his Kingman legacy, but a chapter later they were completely forgotten and never brought up again except as props.

There were too many characters too like in the first book—mostly the same characters, with nothing to do. Problem for this reader was that they weren’t really re-introduced or connected to the events of the previous book. The author assumed that the reader would remember them all, but personally I had no clue. I spent the first half of the book wondering who all these people were and why they mattered.

It didn’t make things easier that some of them were seen in new light. Michael got his memory back at the end of the previous book and the nameless people of the first book were now his old friends. Unfortunately they weren’t connected with the memories the reader had of them. Who was Joey and why he needed heart surgery? Who was Dawn in the previous book?

It didn’t help that the author can’t really create distinct secondary characters. I could’ve sworn that Michael’s sister Gwen was a soldier or in law enforcement in some capacity, yet she turned out to be a blacksmith who liked to dress as a boy. I had no recollection of that.

The only positive change was Michael himself. Now that he could remember who he was, he was less obnoxious and obsessed with revenge. Like he said himself, the curse had prevented him from growing up. Not that there was much character growth here, but at least he tried to be a better person.

The second half of the book was better and more coherent, with a few truly emotional scenes at the end. All the unnecessary distractions were eliminated and the plot concentrated on finding the serial killer. Their identity was a twist that would’ve been more impactful with better foreshadowing from book one. Now it was merely one of the WTF moments the book was full of.

In my review of the first book I noted that it could’ve used a stern editor that would’ve cut the unnecessary plotlines. The second book would’ve benefited from multiple point of view characters. They could’ve been given some of the plots that poor Michael tried to handle by himself to add some depth and coherence to them. The author clearly has a lot he wants to tell, but the chosen method doesn’t do it justice. The one additional POV there was didn’t move the plot forward at all and so was fairly useless.

I think the books’ problems stem from worldbuilding. Martell has clearly spent years creating a complex and intriguing world containing everything possible, and wants to cram it all in, whether it serves the overall plot or not (like what’s with the moon). Many scenes existed solely to introduce the world, making the plot incoherent. The plotline about the immortals will—likely—be the guiding line from here on. In hindsight, it probably was that in the previous book too. It merely got swamped under all the unnecessary distractions.

The book ended at a new place for Michael. The issues with his step-father aren’t solved and new issues have emerged. There’s so much to come that this likely won’t be a classical trilogy but a longer series. I’m not entirely sure, however, that I’ll continue farther than this with Michael.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Bounty by Janet Evanovich and Steve Hamilton: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Bounty by Janet Evanovich and Steve Hamilton

Janet Evanovich’s Fox and O’Hare series about unwilling cooperation between FBI agent Kate O’Hare and international thief Nick Fox has advanced to a seventh book, The Bounty. There’s a new co-author, Steve Hamilton, after a short-lived collaboration with Evanovich’s son Peter. The change is for the better.

This is perhaps the most coherent and exciting book in the series so far. The plot is intriguing. Nick’s estranged father is after a treasure map that should lead to a hidden hoard of Nazi gold, and Nick and Kate are swept along on the quest. They storm through Europe, trying to find the pieces of the map, which have been hidden in very imaginative and difficult-to-access places. And naturally they are pursued by a group of Nazis who want the gold for themselves. There are plenty of twists and turns before everything is solved.

The book is constant action with plenty of over-the-top violence, but there isn’t much of Evanovich’s trademark humour. Also the romance-that-almost-is between Kate and Nick is all but forgotten, with a token scene at the end. But it still manages to be light-hearted and not to take itself too seriously.

My only complaint is the lack of a coherent point of view. It switched between Nick and Kate from paragraph to paragraph with no clear indication to who was guiding the narrative. There were short stretches with a single narrator, usually in a minor character’s POV, but the general impression was vagueness and lack of depth. Character development has never been Evanovich’s strong suit, but here the characters were completely at the mercy of the plot. Nick especially felt like a shadow of his usual conman self. His outrageous heists used to be the heart of the books, but there were none here.

Nevertheless, the book was entertaining and engaging. It’s the best in the series so far, unless you miss the silly humour. I hope Evanovich continues the series with Hamilton. I’d definitely read their books.

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

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

Alpha & Omega, the parallel series to Briggs’ Mercy Thompson has advanced to a sixth book already and it’s still going strong. In Wild Sign, Charles Cornick, Mercy’s werewolf step-brother, and his wife Anna, the omega, are sent to investigate the disappearance of an entire village in the mountains between California and Oregon, in a land owned by Charles’s step-mother Leah.

Leah has been a staple character in both series, a constantly disagreeable figure with whom Charles and Mercy have a very conflicted relationship. Her mating with Bran has been a puzzle to the entire pack. Here we finally have her story and learn why Bran mated her, and why she’s been angry for two centuries. It involves a mysterious god-like power and Sherwood Post, the werewolf in Mercy’s pack who has lost his memory.

Playing with one’s memories is the godlike entity’s main weapon, and it accesses them through music, to which Anna as a musician is particularly susceptible. And it’s not magic that Charles can easily counter with his skills. The entity needs to lure women to it in order to impregnate them, so that it can gain power and become a god in reality. And Anna is there, no matter that as a werewolf she can’t get pregnant.

It’s not easy to battle a god, let alone defeat it. Great sacrifices are needed, and that’s where Leah has a role to play. She has to face her past in order to finally be free. For all that I’ve always disliked her, she became a real, relatable person with her suffering. Bran too has to face his past with her.

This felt like a shorter book than it probably was. It seemed like Anna and Charles were still investigating when the final battle was already on them. But the battle was complicated enough that the ending didn’t feel rushed. The emotional payoff was perfect too, especially in the epilogue. All in all, a good addition to the series that opens great new avenues for the series.

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

 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

A Desolation Called Peace is the second book in Teixcalaan duology, which began with A Memory Called Empire. It picks up two months after the first book ended. Mahit Dzmare, the ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire has returned home after stopping the empire from annexing her space station. But instead of being hailed as a saviour, she’s being treated with suspicion by the rulers of the Station who know something must be wrong with her implant that hosts the memories of her predecessor. Just as the situation is becoming untenable, Three Seagrass, her former cultural liaison at the empire and a current intelligence officer, comes to take her away.

The empire is at war with an utterly alien enemy that they can’t communicate with and don’t understand. Mahit and Three Seagrass are tasked with learning their language so that the war can be stopped before it spreads to the heart of the empire. But how do you learn a language that makes you sick? How do you stop genocide when there are factions within the empire who have their own agendas? And is it genocide if you don’t define the enemy as people?

This is a more mature book than the first—and that wasn’t bad either. It’s also more science fictiony with spaceships, first contacts, and incomprehensible aliens. The political intrigue and philosophising about cultural differences is replaced with questions about language and definitions of people.

There were more point of view characters, and it worked well; the pacing was better and chapters had good cliff-hanger endings, forcing me to read on to find out what happened to that character. Mahit had a smaller role to play in the overall story, but her personal progress remained interesting. Three Seagrass was given her own POV chapters, often side by side with Mahit’s. Their romance advanced too, but as it was a bit toxic, I wasn’t very invested in it. Then there was Nine Hibiscus, the commander of the fleet, whose POV served as a window to the war. But the most interesting new point of view character was Eight Antidote, the clone of the previous emperor. He’s only eleven, but mature beyond his years. Prodded by the new emperor, he takes interest in the war, and ends up playing a pivotal role in it.

The book has a satisfying ending suitable for a duology. But it’s open enough that there’s room for more books too, should the author wish to continue with the world. She’s created a complex universe with great characters, and it would be a pity if it ended here.

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

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Conductors by Nicole Glover: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors is a debut novel by Nicole Glover and it starts Murder and Magic series set in 1860s Philadelphia, after the American Civil War. The main character is Hetty Rhodes, a former slave who’s helped other slaves escape to safety as a so called conductor of the Underground Railroad. Now that the war is over, she’s settled in Philadelphia with her husband Benjy, a fellow conductor. She works as a seamstress and he as a blacksmith, but in their spare time they find missing persons and solve other mysteries. They are aided by their extraordinary magic that allows them to perform all sorts of near impossible feats.

A friend is found dead and it appears he was killed with magic. They set out to solve his murder, but new bodies turn up. Hetty is also trying to find a missing woman, and then there’s background noise of grave robberies that she and Benjy don’t pay attention to at first. Alongside the present day there are chapters about Hetty’s and Benjy’s past as conductors.

This book has a great premise, but unfortunately it suffers from a clumsy execution and poorly conducted plot. At the beginning of the book I had to check several times that I wasn’t reading a sequel, as there were references to people and events as if I should already know them. The narrative has some temporal jumps here and there, with no clear indication that the paragraph describes earlier action. And worst of all, it relies heavily on telling, not showing, so that I had hard time connecting emotionally with the characters.

This is especially the case with Hetty who is the sole point of view character. She appeared to be a strong-willed and formidable woman, but I never really figured out why she solved the mysteries. Mostly she seemed to regard it as her duty that didn’t really give her any pleasure. The side characters were even more difficult to get a hang of.

(As an aside, I found it really odd that Hetty and Benjy had chosen Rhodes as their last name. Maybe it has a different connotation among the freed slaves, but as a white European, I immediately thought of Cecil Rhodes, the notorious figure in African colonialism and great believer in white supremacy.)

What really prevented me from immersing myself in the story was a total lack of descriptions. A couple of characters were briefly described, mostly by the colour of their skin, but I had no idea about their ages, heights and looks otherwise. I had no idea what sort of clothing people wore, which is something I’ve come to rely on in historical fiction. Hetty was a seamstress, but fabrics and colours were never described, as if she didn’t care at all. There were no smells, even though there were magic potions, horses, poor slums and bogs. And the town could’ve been anywhere in any era. I imagined earth-covered streets and low wooden buildings, and then the town turned out to be so large it had streetcars, which I would assume means paved streets, gas street lamps, and brick townhouses.

The magic system was divided to sorcery of the white and celestial (?) magic of the Black. I liked how flexible the magic was and how the practitioners could do pretty much anything with it, though it was never properly described either. What annoyed me a little was how the celestial magic was based on zodiac signs of western astrology and Greek gods. Surely there would’ve been other mythologies to base it on, which would’ve explained better why this particular type of magic was natural to the Black and Native Americans.

But what really irked me was that the alt history angle of magic wasn’t properly utilised. Now that the former slaves were free to use their extremely powerful magic, they did nothing to overturn the system that regarded them as lower beings and instead submitted to be treated badly. The author could’ve—should’ve—imagined bigger than solving mysteries, and not limit herself to history.

Solving the mysteries was never a priority to Hetty and Benjy anyway, even though they made a show of it. In the end, they all got solved without their input. The killer got bored with the pair’s inefficiency and made their move against them, and the missing person just showed up. The grave robbery angle sort of went away. The only storyline that progressed at all was Hetty’s and Benjy’s relationship, but even that was fairly low key. So, a great premise, but a really frustrating end result.

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

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

Down Comes the Night is a debut fantasy novel by Allison Saft. It’s advertised as Gothic YA romance, and it’s set in a unique world with both magic and early technology like electricity and steam engines. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wren is a healer in the military, skilled both in magical healing and more scientific approach. She’s also the queen’s niece, and the two have an antagonistic relationship. In an act of defiance after the queen sends her on a fool’s errand, she accepts an invitation from a friendly neighbouring country to come and heal a random servant in a nobleman’s castle. But when she arrives there she learns that the servant is actually her country’s greatest enemy Hal Cavendish. She has to choose whether to heal him or take him to the queen so that she can finally earn her approval.

There’s something sinister going on in the castle. Hal is there to find out what it is, and since the mystery concerns Wren’s country too, they begin to solve it together. But the corruption runs deeper than she could’ve imagined. If they can’t solve it, she and Hal both will be lost, and both their countries plunged into a war.

The book starts well, with an interesting and concise backstory about two countries in a permanent war, Wren antagonism with the queen, and Wren’s relationship with her commanding officer Una, whom she ends up betraying in order to leave the country. Then comes the middle part, which is some sort of Gothic romance with all its clich├ęs (a castle with odd restrictions of movement, peculiar host, snowbound couple with only one bed etc.). And then the last quarter is again like from a different book as it returns to the earlier setting. From a triangle between three strong women, need for love and the lack of it, to a very boring romance that never really takes flight, and back to the three women again.

If I were to guess, I’d say the middle part existed first as a standalone romance into which the author then added the backstory. The middle is much too long for its contents and not terribly interesting or romantic (Wren and Hal are seasoned soldiers yet they suddenly behave like innocent teenagers). The backstory barely plays a role. It’s as if Wren is a different person with completely different motivations; she doesn’t spare a thought for Una whom she’s loved for years. The book changes for the better once the Gothic castle is left behind; the pace picks up and stakes get higher. But while there’s some emotional payoff, it’s not really enough to compensate for the clumsy middle section.

The world is a mishmash of everything. Two countries have magic and one doesn’t for some reason, as if interbreeding never happened, but they have electricity, which the other two don’t have. Yet Wren has a working knowledge of genetics. But the concoction sort of works, if one doesn’t pay too close attention. What did annoy me were the many consistency issues, especially in the middle part. The time of day changed from paragraph to paragraph (like, the sun shines, yet it’s pitch black and  then snowing in the next instance) so that I never knew if it was morning or evening. This wasn’t a bad book, but it could’ve used a more careful editing. But the ending was satisfying for all parties and it doesn’t set the scene for a sequel. If you like stand-alone fantasy, give it a try.

 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh

Quiet in Her Bones is the second thriller by Nalini Singh who is better known as a bestselling paranormal romance writer of Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series as well as of several contemporary romances. Her first thriller, A Madness of Sunshine, relied heavily on the atmosphere of rural New Zealand, small town setting, and thriller tropes. Quiet in Her Bones is a more mature thriller and—dare I say—much better.

The book is set in Auckland, the largest city of New Zealand, but it mostly takes place in a small gated community for the rich. It’s a good choice, as it allows for a compact cast of characters who have known each other for decades. Every family has their secrets and there’s always someone who knows them.

The book is told in first person by Aarav Rai, a bestselling author in his late twenties who’s had to return to his childhood home after a bad car accident. His leg is in a cast and he suffers from migraines. He and his father hate each other, the root of which is Aarav’s mother Nina, who has disappeared thirteen years earlier. And then her remains are found, not far from their home. Enraged by the fate of his beloved mother, Aarav begins his own investigation to his mother’s death.

The list of potential suspects is fairly long for such a small community, but Aarav is under no illusions about his mother and her habits, and doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. As he investigates the death, he ends up stirring old secrets that have nothing to do with his mother. And along the way we solve the mystery of Aarav too.

Aarav is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He’s a self-professed sociopath and liar, but more importantly for the reader, his memory is faulty. It dawns little by little on him and the reader both that his car accident was much worse than he thought. He has great gaps in his memory, on top of which he suffers from vivid hallucinations. Yet his narration is so convincing that the reader is constantly thrown back by the turn of events. As the story progresses, the reader knows more than he does, as he forgets events that have taken place only days ago.

With his memory, Aarav begins to question everything, even his own involvement in his mother’s death. From the chaos of his mind, glimpses of real memories surface, directing him to the truth. But because the reader is unable to trust him anymore, it’s with a baited breath that they wait whether he finds the real killer—or if it turns out to be him after all.

Quiet in Her Bones is an excellent thriller with a great main character. It stands on its own and, unlike the first one, doesn’t suffer from comparisons with Singh’s romantic fiction. I’d definitely be interested in reading more thrillers from her.

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Jackson by LaQuette: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Jackson by LaQuette

Jackson is the first book in Restoration Ranch contemporary romance series by LaQuette. It’s set on a ranch with the same name near Austin, Texas, that’s been in the Everett family ever since their ancestor was freed after the Civil War. The current owner, Aja, a former hotshot defence lawyer from New York in her late thirties, wants to turn it into a holiday resort, but someone in her town opposes the plan. Accidents plague the construction, and when Aja is almost killed, her family intervenes and calls in Texas Rangers. Enter Jackson Dean, a ranger as protective as he is hot.

There’s instant attraction between the two, but this is a grown-up romance, where both parties bring in a lot of baggage, so neither of them intend it to last. Alongside the romance, there’s the mystery of who’s trying to harm Aja. There are some really hot scenes, but once the case is solved, they go their separate ways—only to realise they need each other after all.

I liked both Aja and Jackson, separately and together. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid of going after it, and he wasn’t afraid of letting her be who she is, provided he could be there to save the day and comfort her. The supporting cast remained a little distant and I didn’t really get a hang of them.

This wasn’t a bad book, but unfortunately it suffered from a clumsy execution. We plunge in with a brief action scene when the situation on the ranch has been going on for a while already—and then everything halts. We’re told about the troubles, but we never witness them, and the investigation takes place outside the narrative.

The narrative was on a constant holding pattern. It consisted of filler scenes between brief bursts of action when the bad guys made their moves and the characters reacted. The characters were never in charge of the plot, never proactive, and the reader was an observer. Even the romantic scenes felt emotionally distant. It made the book feel overly long, and even the twists at the end couldn’t really save it. But Aja and Jackson got their happily ever after and it made the ending satisfying.

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

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Wolf After My Own Heart by MaryJanice Davidson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

A Wolf after My Own Heart by MaryJanice Davidson

A Wolf After My Own Heart is the second book in BeWere My Heart urban fantasy series by MaryJanice Davidson. I haven’t read the first book, but it didn’t matter at all, as this one had a unique plot and plenty of references to the previous book and characters.

The book is set in a small town outside St. Paul, Minnesota, and the world is mostly like ours, but populated with various weres ranging from wolves and bears to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. They go under human radar, but with their own social organisations like child services and fire brigades.

Lila, a human—or Stable, though she doesn’t know that word yet—has just moved into a huge old house in a quiet neighbourhood. Her very first night, she runs over a wolf and finds an injured bear cub. The first disappears before she has a chance to do anything, but the cub she takes home. Only for it to shift into a little girl. This plunges her into a strange new world of weres, including Oz, the sexy social worker werewolf who’s supposed to look after the bear cub now that her parents are dead.

There’s instant attraction between Lila and Oz, but it doesn’t really go anywhere fast. For all that this is advertised as a sexy romance, anything romantic is pretty much in a backburner, and sexy things happen behind closed doors and only at the very end. This is more of a paranormal mystery, where the characters are trying to find out what happened to the cub’s parents and who is trying to kill her. The mystery unfolds in a fairly haphazard way, with everything happening in the last chapters of the book. The ending is satisfying, but not exactly a happily ever after kind of affair.

I liked the book, but I had some issues. The two point of view characters, Lila and Oz, had similar inner monologues that made them seem like ADDs off their meds; a stream of consciousness with many tangents that were supposed to be quirky and funny, but were only exhausting. It was difficult to tell them apart at times and more annoyingly, the inner monologues were in contrast with their actions. Oz was an accountant turned social worker, reliable but yearning for some action, and Lila was a survival who was prepared for everything life could throw at her. I haven’t read other books from Davidson, but I suspect this is her writing style that trumps the characters’ own voices. This stretched to other characters too, who only communicated with snarky, often really mean comments, which made them fairly unlikeable.

I’m also not a fan of a writing style where a scene starts in the middle, with nothing to indicate who is talking, where, when and why, with the POV character explaining the scene later. It made the narrative very clunky, and required a lot of backtracking. There were also footnotes from the author that constantly yanked me off the narrative and the world. Towards the end, a new point of view character was added to explain the plot, which confused the matters further. If it hadn’t been for the really sweet child characters and some funny moments, this would have been a three star book. But there was something compelling about the setting and the mystery, if not the romance, which left me happy with the book in the end, so it gets four stars.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth (and last?) book in Becky Chambers’ wonderful Wayfarers series. Each book has been set in a different location in her vast and imaginative galaxy, featuring different people, and has tackled different aspects of (human) experience from AIs right to a self, to finding a place to belong. The latest isn’t an exception.

The book is set on a small rock of a planet that has no life of its own, but—as Tupo, one of the characters says—even life that is introduced on a planet is life. Gora is a hub of space travel between several wormhole jump points, a place to rest and refuel for a day or two while waiting for a place in the jump queue. Life is contained under large domes, and the only thing connecting the domes is the power grid.

One of the domes is Five-Hop One-Stop, a rest-stop run by Ouloo and Tupo, her child. They are Laru, a species that resemble long-legged and necked dogs or maybe Alpacas; they’re furry and four-legged, with front paws acting as hands. It’s a matter of pride for Ouloo to make each and every traveller feel like home when they visit, whether it’s offering them particular food, accommodating different bathing habits, or finding a suddenly fertile Aeluon the closest place to procreate.

On this occasion, she’s visited by Pei, a female Aeluon, a mostly humanoid species who communicate with colours on their skin; Roveg, a Quelin male who are basically large insects with exoskeletons and multiple legs; and Speaker, a female Akarak, a small species who cannot use oxygen and therefore only exit their ship inside a mechanical armour. Accommodating such different guests isn’t easy, but Ouloo does her best. And then a disaster strikes, stranding them into her dome for days with no way of communicating outside.

Like all the books in the series, this is very much character driven. We follow each character as they try to adjust to a change in their plans, their worries for what they might miss or what awaits them once they reach their destination. Each character has their own story and reason to travel. And for the first time for most of them, it’s a chance to get to know species they find alien. They do this in a respectful manner and with minimal strife, which has become the hallmark of these books. While nothing much happens externally, each character changes through these interactions and by the time they are able to leave, they have made new friends. The epilogue sees everyone to their happy places, the private conflicts solved.

This was a wonderful, happy book that left me warm and fuzzy inside. If this truly is the last one, it’s a great ending, but I wish the series would continue. It’s been imaginative and positive, with great detail and thought put to the biological and cultural differences of the various species, and I’m sure there would be dozens of stories to tell. I for one could read many more Wayfarer books.

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

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Witherward by Hannah Mathewson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Witherward by Hannah Mathewson

Witherward is the debut novel by Hannah Mathewson. It’s a young adult portal fantasy set in Victorian London and it starts a series of the same name. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Witherward is a book that relies heavily on its unique world, occasionally at the expense of the plot. Alongside with and unbeknownst to the normal world, Otherworld, is Witherward where seasons and times of day are the exact opposite, with some similarities to Otherworld but with its own rich history. It’s populated by people with magical abilities. There are Changelings who can change into any animal or person, or make a more attractive version of themselves; Sorcerers can manipulate the world around them, Psis can move things with their mind, Oracles see the future, Whisperers can read and manipulate minds, and Wraiths have supernatural strength and speed, and they can move through walls. They all hate one another and Changelings above all. London has been divided into sectors to maintain a semblance of peace, but strife and warfare are constant.

Ilsa is a seventeen-year-old Changeling who has lived her whole life in Otherworld London not knowing why she has the skill to change into animals and people. She’s fled the orphanage she grew up in because they treated her like a devil there, and has supported herself with thieving and, later, as a magician’s assistant, relying on her special skills. Then—out of the blue—she’s whisked to the Witherward London to save her life. But she might not be much safer there.

Ilsa learns that she’s a long-lost daughter of the leading family of Changelings. Most of her family are dead in the hands of a secret group, but she has a brother, Gedeon. Only, he’s gone missing. With the help of people who lead and protect the Changelings, she sets out to finding him. But it’s not easy to learn the rules of her new world, and there are secrets and spies everywhere.

The plot is fairly good, but rather slow to unfold. The book consists mostly of scenes where Isla either learns a new skill or gets to know the people around her, and only every now and then the search for Gedeon moves forward. But there are enough action scenes to keep the reader’s interest. True to the YA genre, there’s romance too, though it doesn’t dominate the story or become the driving force of Ilsa’s actions.

Ilsa is a great character, resourceful and resilient, despite traumas from her childhood that occasionally cripple her. The side characters are interesting too, with their own backstories and ghosts. They never really come together as an ensemble, but that reflects the state the household is in because of Gedeon’s absence. Everyone is distrustful of everyone else. The ending is good and complete enough to make the book work as a standalone, but it sets the stage for the next book too, which makes me want to continue with the series. All in all, a very good debut.

 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas

The Moonsteel Crown is the first book in Stephen Deas’s new fantasy trilogy, Dominion. It’s set in the town of Varr in the empire of Aria that is struggling with a succession crisis and a bitterly cold winter. Of the two, only the latter has some meaning to the main characters.

The book description made me expect a fairly standard fantasy plot where the lowest of the earth end up becoming kingmakers. And while it sort of turns out that way in the end, that’s not what the book is about at all.

A group of thieves steal the emperor’s crown; accidentally, it seems at first. But instead of putting it back where they found it, they hide it. Naturally there are people who want it back and they know exactly who to come after. Why is that? Does someone in their group know more than they’ve let on? The thieves’ boss has started a war with a rivalling gang, but is that random either, or is the other group after the crown too? Meanwhile, the thieves themselves disagree on the best course of action, until the only way to save their lives is to give the crown back. But nothing is as straightforward as that.

The book has three main characters with their own point of view chapters. Seth is a former novice priest expelled from his church for blasphemy—or sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. He’s bitter and adrift, and he makes poor choices because of it. And then he gets his hands into texts that push him on a path of forbidden death magic. But is he in control of the magic, or does it control him? The book ends before we get the answer, but we’ll likely follow that story in the upcoming books.

Myla is a warrior monk who has also been expelled from her order. She’s excellent with her swords and quite deadly—and on the run. But her past is catching up with her, and it threatens the lives of the thieves with whom she has found a new home. So will she fight for them, or return home and face her past?

And then there is Fings, the greatest thief in Varr. He’s the one who does the actual stealing, and he isn’t exactly happy with being manoeuvred to doing it, especially when it puts his mother and sisters in peril. But as the forces who want the crown back press on them, he agrees with Myla that the crown must be returned—only he has an ace in his sleeve. He was my favourite of the three with his cunning plans and superstitious beliefs.

This book took a long time to get going. The characters were vague and difficult to get a hang of. A lot of space was devoted to the myths and history of Aria that didn’t really have anything to do with the plot. The reasons for Seth’s and Myla’s downfalls with their respective orders were hoarded like gold, but they turned out to be so mundane that the revelations were disappointing. It wasn’t until after the half point that I began to see what the book was about, and where it was going—and then it didn’t go there. At all. The latter half was as exciting and interesting as the first was dull, and it saved the book. The end was satisfying and complete, but it left enough questions open to lure the reader into continuing with the series.

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

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Purgatory Mount is a complex and philosophical science fiction novel one would expect from a professor of English literature. It’s also a terrifying image of near future USA and an imaginative vision of far future of the humanity.

This is not a simple read. It presupposes a working knowledge of Dante, medieval Christianity and modern Catholicism—particularly the ideas of original sin and purgatory—the pantheon of ancient Greece, and the Lord of the Rings. It’s not an easy concoction and it doesn’t always work. This could be, as the author tells in the afterword, because the elements from the Middle Earth had to be replaced with the Greek pantheon for legal reasons, but I don’t think it would’ve made a great difference for the reader. What we have is non-Christian entities philosophising about Christianity, which doesn’t make for an easy first chapter.

The story is told in three parts that, according to Roberts, reflect Dante’s vision of afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. Of the three, hell and heaven exist outside time, and the purgatory in the temporal world, i.e. is subject to change. This isn’t immediately obvious to the reader—or even after reading the afterword—but time does play a role in the story.

The first and last parts take place in far future on a generation ship orbiting a dying planet that features an enormous tower. It has lured five entities forty lightyears from earth to study and profit from it. They call themselves human, but they have a lifespan of tens of thousands of years, bodies that are more machine than organic, and the ability to bend time to their will. Consequently, they consider themselves gods. They are named after Greek gods Zeus, Apollo, Dionysius, Hades and Pan, although the omniscient narrator of their chapters is quick to point out that the names are only for the reader’s benefit. However, apart from Pan, the names don’t really reflect their characters—they don’t really have any personality—and it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had been named after the wizards of Middle Earth as was the author’s original intention, or with numbers even.

Living on the ship are people who also think of themselves as humans. They have short lifespans of maybe forty years, and they’ve been living on the ship for generations. They have a complex culture and religious life that revolves around the gods running their ship, and no true understanding of why they are on the ship—or what is a ship—and what their purpose is. For the gods, they are food. The gods call them pygmies, and the few descriptions of them gave me a notion that they might be some sort of evolutionary form of pigs. Their entire existence becomes under threat when they are told that they have reached the journey’s end. Is it the end of the world? From among them rises B who is the only one curious enough to find out what is going on—for what good it does to him.

The middle part, which is about twice as long as the other two, takes place in the near future USA. It has descended into a civil war between various states, government agencies and private militias, with no-bars-held warfare. It’s technologically far more advanced society than one would suppose of 2030s. There are some interesting innovations, like a system for uploading operational memory into iPhones, which is mostly used for helping people suffering from a grave memory loss due to chemical warfare. And the country is riddled with enormous towers, eSpires, that no one knows what they are for.

A group of teenagers, fed up with the government surveillance, have developed their own private net. But their system holds a secret, which all the warring factions want and will do anything to get. We follow Ottoline who is captured by a nameless government agency and plunged into a journey of survival through prisons and warzones. The secret Otty and her friends are trying to keep took me by surprise, and not necessary in a good way; a bit more information would’ve gone a long way to understanding how a sixteen-year-old would be able to withstand everything that was thrown at her. Once the secret is out, it takes over and the world as Otty knows it basically comes to an end.

I read the entire book trying to figure out how the two stories connected, and failing. According to the afterword, the book is about memory and atonement, which … I really don’t see. The loss of memory plays some role in the middle part, but mostly on the background, and it doesn’t guide the actions of the characters in any way. The pygmies have their collective memory, which has corrupted over the long journey, but it doesn’t really play any role either. And the gods remember everything.

Atonement is even more difficult concept to accept, because as far as I can see, nothing is atoned. The purgatory itself is a system of atonement, but for all the talk about Dante and afterlife, none of the characters really go through the purgatory; Otty hasn’t even done anything that would require atonement when she goes through her ordeal. Pan has a crisis of conscience when it comes to the gods’ treatment of the pygmies, but they don’t really atone either; they abandon the pygmies to their fate.

Instead of atonement, there is revenge: Otty’s collective revenge on humanity for harming her friends and Pan’s revenge on the other gods for disrespecting them. Otty uses an AI as her instrument of revenge, Pan uses the pygmies. If either of them atone their actions, it happens outside the narrative.

What really connects the two stories is the tower. Not as an idea that has travelled lightyears to inspire Dante, as Pan suggests, but a different biblical concept entirely: the tower of Babel, (human) hubris and inevitable downfall.

The towers, eSpires and the Purgatory Mount, don’t have an active role and we never really learn anything about them, but they are why the events of the stories take place. On earth, the fear that the towers spy on them causes the teenagers to build their own network, which eventually leads to an apocalypse of sorts. On planet Dante, the tower is the reason why the ship is there and the cause of the strife between the gods that leads to Pan’s revenge. And it may well have been the downfall of the people who built it too, leading to the planet dying.

Purgatory Mount is a complicated book, but it’s not difficult to read. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the two stories for what they are without trying to find connections between them. They’re slightly uneven in scope, but both are interesting and good. I liked Otty and B the pygmy who is caught in Pan’s revenge, and if the gods were pompous and not very approachable, their end was satisfying. And for those readers who like to challenge themselves, this is a perfect read.

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