Saturday, January 30, 2021

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs

It’s been a while since I read a Mercy Thompson book and I was a little out of touch when I picked up Smoke Bitten, which is already a twelfth in the series. But that didn’t matter at all. Briggs has a very reader friendly writing style and I was soon brought up to speed about what had happened and who was who, and had no trouble following the story.

This book is slightly smaller in scale than some of the previous ones when it comes to the size and lethalness of the enemy and attack on Mercy and her werewolf pack. Not that a killer who can turn into a smoke is easy to face. To add tension, a portal to Underhill opens to Mercy’s backyard, a rouge pack threatens Mercy’s, and Adam is suffering from a magical problem he’s not willing to discuss with Mercy, creating tension between them.

The story opens with an emotional punch, followed by a deceptively slow unfolding of the main plot. Little things happen here and there, and all of a sudden it’s time for the final confrontation. Everything works out to satisfaction in the end, and Mercy learns new things about herself and Adam. All in all, a good addition to the series.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov

Tower of Mud and Straw is a short fantasy novel (or a long short story) that tells an interesting and complex story in the limited space it’s given. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Shea Ashcroft is a disgraced politician who is ordered to the provinces to oversee a construction of a gigantic tower. Feeling sorry for himself, he decides to make sure it’s built fast so that he can return to the queen victorious. But this dream soon crumbles. Dangerous alien technology is being used for building the tower, and he has no choice but to remove it, halting the project. Humans are furious, but aliens rejoice: they tell a story of a similar tower that caused a portal to open and destroy their world. But Shea is a bit wishy-washy person and easy to persuade. A promise of a high position in court makes him return the alien technology to start the construction again—only to discover that the aliens were right. There is a portal forming. Now the choice becomes between destroying the tower and his future, or letting the portal destroy everything.

Alongside the main story there is another of Shea’s sister Lena who has died because of the alien technology, which dictates much of Shea’s decisions. He meets another Lena, an alien woman opposing the tower and they fall in love—or at least he does. His decision to continue building the tower seals Lena’s fate, and Shea is left with the realisation that he has failed two women he has loved. So how to atone?

The ending is fairly self-evident after a certain point; there’s only one way it can go for the tower. Shea’s fate, however, could’ve gone either way. The choice suits a short story better than it would’ve suited a long novel, though I kind of wished there would have been another way out for Shea.

This was an excellent story that could easily have been a longer novel too; the world is rich and the politics that are only hinted at here are complex. The writing style was sparse, a little too sparse at times; it could’ve used some fleshing out in places, especially when it came to describing sequences of events. But that, too, suited the short form just fine. All in all, a great one evening’s read.


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A Conventicle of Magpies by L.M.R Clarke: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

A Conventicle of Magpies by L.M.R. Clarke

A Conventicle of Magpies is the first book in the Bloodskill duology by L.M.R. Clarke. It’s set in an industrial town of Stamchester in a unique world with factories, early automobiles, and even some telephones, but also magic called bloodskill that is available for all. The world is referred to as Victorian in the book description, but it’s not steampunk/gaslight punk—or very Victorian in general. Edwardian, maybe, if one absolutely has to utilise period descriptions from our world. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Stamchester is a hotspot of political tension. It has belonged to one set of people conquered by the Avanish, who have then brought in a different set of people, the Saosuíasei, to live there as cheap labour while they plunder the original country of the Saosuíasei. For some reason that isn’t given a very good explanation for, other than prejudice, the Avanish have now decided to empty Stamchester of the Saosuíasei, with violence if necessary.

Rook is a young Saosuíasei woman living in the slums where her people have been banished. She belongs to a gang of women led by Mama Magpie who steal to protect the Saosuíasei women. When the Avanish begin to move against the Saosuíasei, the women team up with another gang, Jaguars, to try to save their people.

The book took a while to get going, or decide what the story it wanted to tell was. Rook has a lot going on in her life. She has lost an older sister and father, and has to take care of her ten siblings practically alone. A serial killer haunts the slums, emptying the victims of blood to use it in blood magic—a storyline that never really moved the plot and seemed superfluous despite the importance of blood to all magic users. A childhood friend has chosen to side with the enemy, much to the sorrow of Rook and her adoptive sister Kestrel, another gang member. It isn’t until the gangs unite against the Avanish that the story finds a direction that holds until the end.

Rook is an interesting character who always tries to do the right thing despite the enormous pressure she is constantly under from every direction. She’s good with bloodskill and stealing, but not overly superior. She comes across as a bit aloof though, and apart from Kestrel, she doesn’t really connect with any of the side characters. And neither does the reader.

Side characters were the main weakness of the story. There were simply too many of them, and the focus never stayed in them long enough for the reader to form an attachment. At the beginning of the book there were one set of people with Rook, in the middle there was another, and then again a new set, none of which were properly introduced to the reader. They simply appear, do their part in that section of the plot, and then disappear.

The character most ill served by this was Kestrel, Rook’s stalwart companion and the main side character. She was clearly meant to give the book LBQT+ status, but she turned out to be a mere token. She’s a biological male presenting as a woman, but her main concern seemed to be her looks, and her only role was to save Rook from scrapes. I found it especially disappointing that she was pushed aside when the plot required infiltration to a women’s prison. The excuse was that she would have to strip, but that didn’t even happen to the women who eventually participated, publicly anyway.

It’s an author’s job to put their characters in difficult situations, and then extradite them whilst staying true to their characteristics, not push them aside when they become incovenient for the story. There would’ve been plenty of ways to include Kestrel, but she wasn’t. So, instead of being inclusive, the message here is that she isn’t good enough as she is to have agency or a proper role, even as a side character in a make-believe world. I hope this is done better in the next book.

The book ends when the war with the Avanish finally begins. I find it difficult to imagine how the Saosuíasei will save the day against the far superior enemy who have almost destroyed them already. But, despite the issues I had with this book, I’m definitely going to find out how the story ends.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

This is the fourth book by T. Kingfisher that I’ve read—pretty much back to back—and the first one meant for younger readers. T. Kingfisher is a penname for Ursula Vernon, who mostly writes children’s books, but according to her afterword, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking was deemed too dark for her audience by all publishers who had shown interest in it, so she published it under her adult penname.

Mona is a fourteen-year-old baker who works at her aunt’s bakery, happily making bread and muffins. She’s also a minor wizard with affinity to baking—and only to that. She can persuade her dough to have the desired density or the bread not to burn in the oven. And she can animate gingerbread men to amuse her customers. She’s also responsible for the world’s angriest sour bread starter, Bob. It eats rats.

Everything is perfect, until the day Mona finds a dead girl on the floor of the bakery. Someone is killing all minor mages in their town. It’s followed by a fearmongering campaign against them, and a call for all mages to register. Angered by this, Mona decides to demand that the leader of her town do something about it, and gets pulled into dangerous political plotting. Soon she finds herself as the only mage left in town and it’s up to her to defend it with magic. And since it’s bread she knows, it’s bread she uses.

I found this an excellent book. Mona was a great character, resourceful and determined, and she grew a great deal during the course of the book. The story was intriguing and stakes were high enough to keep an adult’s interest. Descriptions of Mona’s magic were fun, and the side characters were great; special mention goes to the gingerbread man who was brilliant. I’m absolutely sure that I would’ve loved this book when I was twelve too. Yes, there were dead bodies and evil adults, but so there were in many other books too that I read at that age. Magic is always intriguing, especially when it’s used as imaginatively as it is here, and a child rising to save the day when adults can’t is always appealing. I would definitely recommend this to middle grade readers.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground is already seventeenth book in the Dresden Files UF series about Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in Chicago. There was a long gap between books fifteen and sixteen, which ended with an epic two-part story consisting of Peace Talks and this one.

Battle Ground is a good book, but exhausting. Sooo exhausting. It starts right where the previous book ended, at the same scene, on the eve of a great battle against an ancient goddess. From there it’s basically nonstop war, with the enemy getting bigger and more brutal, forcing Harry to become bigger and more brutal too, which isn’t always good for him. Once the action starts, there are barely any breathers for the reader to rest for a minute or two. I had to put the book aside several times just to be able to go on. There are some sad moments—it is a battle, after all—the biggest taking place surprisingly early in the book, but the narrative doesn’t really pause for them either, to let the reader mourn. The war takes precedence.

I’m not entirely sure it was a good idea to split into two books what could have been one with more brutal editing. Peace Talks especially was full of filler scenes that could’ve been cut, and the epic battle in Battle Ground could’ve been shorter. What turned out to be the main story arc between the two—Thomas’s fate and the new baddie—was completely lost in unnecessary noise, and only became visible as an afterthought in the last chapter, where we learned in one sentence why Thomas had attacked the goblin king in the first place. I’d given Peace Talks four stars originally—most likely because I was so happy there was a new Dresden Files book—but after reading both, I don’t think it deserves more than three stars either.

I’m also not happy with how Murphy was treated in these two books. It was as if the author didn’t know what to do with her now that she and Harry were romantically involved. Physically broken, she was made a bit too dependent on him, and that wasn’t good for her, which she rightly railed against—and was punished for. And I do mean punished, in the meanest and most unnecessary way possible, robbing her off all glory and agency.

Going in, I was sure this would be the last book in the series. But once the dust had settled and Harry had had a chance to take a stock of his life, it turned out there’s more to him yet. The ending put him firmly in a new place in life—the table was definitely cleared for it—though not entirely to his liking. I was ready to give up the series that was once my absolute favourite, but I think I’ll hang on to see how Harry will wriggle his way out of that.

The edition I read had a short story at the end. It was a sweet Christmas story, and nicely cleansing after the book itself. Left me feeling much better.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

I recently discovered T. Kingfisher’s (Ursula Vernon) adult fantasy and became an instant fan. I started with Paladin’s Grace, an excellent fantasy romance, and proceeded to read the Clockataur War duology that began with Clockwork Boys and concluded in The Wonder Engine.

The two books are perhaps best reviewed together, as they form one story and are told in very uneven parts, with the latter book being perhaps three times as long as the first. They’re set in the same world as Paladin’s Grace, a fairly generic pre-industrial land of city-states with their own rulers and constant wars. Gods are aplenty and they’re very hands-on and real for their paladins, but there are also mechanical inventions and non-human creatures.

Anuket City has declared a war to the Capital, and this time they’re attacking with monstrous clockwork engines that are indestructible. An army of them is marching over the mountains and it’s only a matter of time before they reach the Dowager’s city. After exhausting all options, the ruler sends out a team of criminals. There’s Slate, a forger who’s fled Anuket City a few years earlier after angering the local crime lord. Brennan is an assassin and Slate’s former lover. And Caliban is a former paladin for Dreaming God who was possessed by a demon he was supposed to slay and butchered a bunch of nuns. They’re joined by Learned Edmund, a scholar in search of a colleague who went to study the Clockwork Boys and disappeared. They form a very uneven group, but during the journey to the Anuket City, they become a team—of sorts. The first book ends when they reach the city, rather abruptly.

The second book finds the group trying to learn where the Clockwork Boys come from and how to destroy them. The first half of the book is a tad slow, but it picks up pace at half-point, when the crime lord Slate had betrayed finds her. From there it’s constant action until the mission is completed.

I really liked these books, despite the unevenness and slowness. The characters grew and changed a lot during their mission and I came to like all of them. Even Learned Edmund who seemed insufferable at first turned out to be a compassionate young man with keen eye to smaller creatures among them. There was a love story too, between Slate and Caliban, but it was secondary to the mission, and I liked how the mission and the events of the final battle affected it. The ending made me wish there were more books in the series about the adventures of Slate and Caliban, but I’ll settle with follow-up books to Paladin’s Grace.


Friday, January 15, 2021

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Mask of Mirrors by M.A. Carrick

M.A. Carrick is a pseudonym for authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, and The Mask of Mirrors is their first book together. It’s high fantasy set in a world with magic, and it starts the Rook and Rose series. I received a free review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book is written by two anthropologists and it shows. Tremendous work has gone to creating a world with hundreds of details ranging from directions (earthwise/sunwise) and times of day (sun hours and earth hours) to rules of card games and duels. The various peoples living in the city of Nadežra have their unique cultures with different clothing, deities and even funeral habits, from nobility to street gangs. None of it is explained to the reader; there are no info dumps and the reader is left to learn everything as they go. Mostly it works well—much of it is intuitive and none of it is vital for following the story—but there was so much of it that it was exhausting at times. There is a map and a glossary, but they’re not very easy to use in an ebook.

Nadežra is a city ruled by conquerors, and the peace between the ruling (white) people and the (Romani-type) tribes whose holy town is occupied, is tenuous at best. No one is happy with the situation, and there are elements on both sides that have decided to do something about it—at the same time.

In the middle of this arrives Ren with her sister Tess. They are former street urchins who have escaped from their cruel gang lord several years earlier, and have now returned to Nadežra with a bold plan to infiltrate a noble family and get rich. It’s a long con based on Ren’s skills at pretence and lying and her knowledge about the family she’s about to dupe.

Things start very well and Ren makes a splash in the society. But in order to maintain her con, she is drawn into the affairs of nobility and crime lords alike. The only way out is forward and Ren isn’t about to give up. Not even when she realises that the entire city is at risk and she might be the person to destroy it.

The book is divided into four parts. The first two are mostly a set-up for the latter two, and they are very slow to read. There’s a lot going on, but no plot to follow. The narrative doesn’t carry the reader forward, and it’s difficult to figure out what is important to pay attention to. The chapters don’t have an action-sequence pattern, and often when a chapter ends with a call to action, nothing comes of it, or the action happens where the reader cannot see, making them feel let down. This applies to all the point of view characters. They show up at random intervals to do something that seems random, or their chapters exist only to introduce the character. Tess, for example, doesn’t have a plot-influencing role, but she has her own chapters.

This changes after the half point. The latter two parts have a coherent plot that sweeps the reader with it and doesn’t let go. Ren discovers several schemes to destroy the city, and instead of working on her con, she finds herself trying to save Nadežra. The reader is kept guessing to the end if and how she might be able to do it.

This is a book that relies very much on Ren’s character. She’s a survivor who is willing to do pretty much anything to keep herself and Tess safe. Her morals are questionable from the start, but she changes along the way. The con becomes less important after she comes to like the people she’s trying to dupe, and saving the town becomes a priority over the con—though she’s also doing it to save herself.

There are several other characters too, none of which are easy to get a hang of. Are they good or bad, love-interests or backstabbers, and will they play any role in the final? Some people that we spend a lot of time with in the first half disappear completely, making them a waste of reader’s time, and we never get to know the baddies. But the characters with their POV chapters are all interesting, with secrets that aren’t revealed in this first book—but at least we learn the biggest one, the identity of the Rook. I would’ve been really annoyed if I’d had to wait for that any longer than I did.

All in all, this was a very mixed reading experience. I was ready to give up several times during the first half, as the story didn’t seem to go anywhere. But then I read the latter half in two days. And I’m glad I persevered, as the pay-off was satisfying, and there were a couple of interesting twists saved for the last. It just didn’t need the almost seven hundred pages to get there. Ren ends up in a new place in life and it’ll be interesting to read where she’ll take her con from here.


Friday, January 08, 2021

The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Dark Archive by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman has advanced to its seventh book. It’s been an interesting series so far, with slightly uneven quality when it comes to the plots; some are really convoluted, some more simple. The Dark Archive sits somewhere in the middle, with a fairly straightforward plot and multiple adversaries.

The series is set in a universe where there are several parallel earths in various stages of development, with similarities to ‘ours’ in those eras, but with some differences too, like a world where Nazis weren’t defeated, for example. The world where the main characters spend most of their time is Victorian with airship travel and other steampunk elements, but there are highly advanced far future societies as well, and everything in between. The parallel worlds fall on spectrum from highly orderly to high chaos, with dragons ruling over the first and the fae the latter. Humans are found in all worlds, but they don’t have much say in how they are governed by the more powerful forces.

In the middle of everything is the Library that exists between worlds, connecting them through libraries. Its job is to maintain some sort of balance between order and chaos. This it does by collecting books from each world to the Library that anchors them. Librarians are more thieves and spies than anything else, and none more so than the main character Irene.

There are, of course, forces that try to push the worlds off balance, and Irene, with the help of her dragon apprenticecurrent love interestKai, and recurring cast of characters, has the thankless job of thwarting them. In this seventh book, two former foes that she has believed dead return. As always, it’s much down to Irene’s ingenuity to make sure everyone survives, even if it means that the enemy lives to try again.

These books are very much plot-driven, and issues like romance are secondary; heavy on action and light on emotions. The romance between Irene and Kai comes across as an afterthought, and after several books it still doesn’t feel believable. Partly this is because the two are very different, partly because the reader never sees them in normal situations where they might have time for their romance. But at least Kai has a proper role in this one. There’s a new character too, Irene’s fae apprentice Catherine who seems like a good addition.

Once again, Irene’s world is badly shaken with information concerning her real parentthough this reader at least had suspected it already. And the book ends with an introduction of an entirely new force working behind the scenes. Time will tell whether they are for or against the Library. I, for one, will definitely continue with the series to find out.


Thursday, January 07, 2021

My reading challenge for 2021

It’s a new year and that means a new Goodreads Reading Challenge. I’ve set myself a reading goal there several years in a row, and I find it a fun way to keep track of what I’ve read and maybe challenge myself a little too. Last year I made a personal reading record of ninety-five books (or eighty-five, if you only count those I finished). This year I pledged to read eighty books, though that may change later.

Every year, I make a list too, of books that I want to read. It’s a guideline more than a mandatory programme; last year I only read ten books from it. But I’ve noticed that it’s easier to keep up with everything I want to read if I’ve listed every book I already own and haven’t read yet, the books on my wish list and the upcoming publications by my favourite authors.

This year’s list contains a whopping hundred and fifty books, mostly because I did so poorly with it last year that several books moved over. It has four sections: books from the old list, new books, books from NetGalley, and books I chance to read outside itobviously currently empty.

There are fifty-two books from the old list. Some of them didn’t seem so interesting anymore, so I pruned it down to those I already own or definitely want to read. That brought it down to twenty books. These include The Burning God by R.F. Kuang, which was published in November and I got for a Christmas present and didn’t have time to read last year, and Crush the King by Jennifer Estep that I reserved from the local library, but haven’t got yet.

The list of new books filled with everything I bought last year and didn’t have time to read. There are several by Lindsay Buroker, for example, as many of her boxed sets were free or discountedand she’s published a lot. But there are also many upcoming books from my favourite authors; two from J.R. Ward and three from Nalini Singh. All in all, the list has seventy-nine books, so if I manage to read them all, that’s my reading challenge pretty much covered.

And then there’s the NetGalley section. I’ve already been approved to read twenty-two books, and that’s only until May. A couple of really interesting books there, like Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders, which will come out in April; A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, the follow-up to A Memory Called Empire, which will be published in March; The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers, coming out in February, and The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris that will be published in February too.

All in all, a full and interesting list. And there’s still room for surprises, so bring them on. Last year ended with one such surprise, as I picked Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher, a really great fantasy romance, and instantly proceeded to read her Clockwork Boys, which is the first book I’ve finished this year. I’ve already started it’s follow up, The Wonder Engine. So the reading year is on to a good start. Follow this blog to find out how it proceeds.