Friday, July 23, 2021

Last Guard by Nalini Singh: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Last Guard by Nalini Singh

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, July 22, 2021

These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 19, 2021

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

5/5 stars on Goodreads

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 12, 2021

Witches Get Stitches by Juliette Cross: review

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, July 10, 2021

Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, July 08, 2021

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

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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