Monday, May 31, 2021

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Hard Reboot by Django Wexler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sedition by E. M. Wright: review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Secrets of the Sword III by Lindsay Buroker: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Secrets of the Sword III by Lindsay Buroker

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

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

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

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

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