Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Serpent in Heaven by Charlaine Harris: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Serpent in Heaven by Charlaine Harris

The Serpent in Heaven is the fourth book in Gunnie Rose alt-history fantasy series that takes place in alternative 1930s America that has been divided to several new countries after the Great Depression. Britannia in the east coast is ruled by the British, and former California and Oregon form the Holy Russian Empire ruled by the Tzar Alexei, the haemophilic son of Nikolai II, now an adult. Texas and Oklahoma form Texoma, where the series originally took place, following Lizbeth Rose, a sharpshooter who hires herself as a guard on dangerous missions through the lawless state.

The previous book moved the focus to San Diego, where the Tzar’s court is, and to the machinations of courtiers and grigoris, the powerful magic wielders that are allowed to operate openly in the empire. This book ditched Gunnie completely and focused on her half-sister Felicia, who as a granddaughter of Rasputin is one of the few people whose blood can alleviate the Tzar’s haemophilia.

The change in the point of view was good and put a new gear in the story. In the previous books, Felicia has been the target of people who want to kill all the Tzars blood donors. Now she’s a student in a school for grigoris, trying to lay low, and going through a freakish growth spurt that brings her up to speed with her real age, fifteen, after her father had suppressed her growth with magic for years to keep her safe.

But she isn’t as unnoticeable as she had hoped. While the school empties during an epidemic of Spanish flu, her dead mother’s family comes gunning for her. Their motivation is a bit lame and doesn’t really justify the body-count that ensues. Most of it was caused by Felicia who discovers she is more powerful magic practitioner than she had known.

This was maybe my favourite book in the series so far. The world is more familiar, there was more magic, and the story was fairly straight-forward. Felicia was a very different character from Gunnie, but I liked her voice and character. Having grown up in the slums of Mexico, she was tough and resilient. However, I would’ve liked some reaction from her to all the deaths she caused, but like with Gunnie, they didn’t affect her at all.

The romance was sweet, though maybe unnecessary at this point, especially with all the drama. She’ll end up bossing Peter around if they stay together. Felix was my favourite side character, but others were good too. Gunnie only made a cameo appearance, but she wasn’t needed. All in all, I hope the following books continue with Felicia’s story.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Archangel’s Resurrection by Nalini Singh: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Archangel's Resurrection by Nalini Singh

Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series has advanced to its fifteenth book. What began as a series about vampire hunting woman and her archangel, has expanded to an entire world of vampires, angels, and archangels. In Archangel’s Resurrection the world expands even more, tens of thousands of years into the past.

We follow Alexander through his childhood and advancement in ranks over the millenia, until he becomes the Archangel of Persia. He’s already thousands of years old when he meets Zanaya who is only at the beginning of her journey to become the Archangel of North Africa, and he’s willing to wait a thousand years more, until they’re more equal in strength, to start their first romance.

It’s a story of two powerful, stubborn archangels who love for a thousand years and fight for another, only to return to each other to start the cycle of toxic love affair again. But neither can let the other completely go, even when Zanaya choses to sleep for ten thousand years to avoid the madness of angels.

The first half of the book is fairly slow, the details brushed over, with only brief moments of the two together. And when Zanaya finally awakens in the modern world, it’s only to perish at the hands of the Archangel of Death, and so Alexander has to wait a decade more for her to heal.

The main story happens in the last third of the book. Zanaya and Alexander are finally mature enough to break the cycle of stubbornness and anger and become vulnerable enough with each other to let the other in to start a proper relationship. There’s also some aftermath of the war with Lijuana to deal with that threatens to destroy their newfound happiness.

Despite the tempo difference between the two halves, this was a good book. It was interesting to see what the long lifespan of angels does to them, and to meet familiar names from earlier books. The toxic romance was a change of pace too and kept the story fresh. In the end though, I couldn’t help wishing that it hadn’t taken them quite that long to get to their senses. The ending hints at the next romance, which will likely be even longer in the timespan than this one. I can’t wait to read it.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Moonlight and Magic by Darynda Jones: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads
Moonlight and Magic by Darynda Jones

Moonlight and Magic is the fourth book in Jones’ Betwixt and Between series that follows two forty-something women who suddenly find out that they are powerful witches, charmlings. The first three books were about Defiance. This one is about Annette.

Having powers came as a huge surprise to Annette, because unlike Deph, she knows who her parents are and they’re not magical at all. So, it must mean her father isn’t who she thought. Determined to find out the truth, she travels back home to ask her mother about it.

Before she’s even taken off her coat, things get out of hands. A warlock appears, but one only she can see; a ghost of a little girl needs help, and her mother’s new man turns out to be even more evil than the warlockwho doesn’t seem all that evil after all.

It takes most of the book to set things straight, before Nette can return home to Salem, where she discovers that the warlock wasn’t who she thoughtand turns out to be something better. But the troubles follow her home. Luckily her new familyand the houseare there to help her.

This was a good book. Fairly short, but with a good mystery and a complete plot. It’s still difficult to imagine Nette is a grownup woman in her mid-forties, but she was a fun character now that we get her point of view. She didn’t get to use her new powers much, but when she did, she made a difference, in more ways than one. And if a few things were left unsolved, like the statue, they’ll likely continue in the next one.

The familiar cast didn’t have a large role, but they seemed fresh through Nette’s eyes. Nette’s mom was a good and surprising addition, and the warlock was excellent. Ghosts and other incorporeal heroes aren’t my thing, but considering Nette’s infatuation with Percy, the spirit controlling the house, this was an improvementin more ways than one. And the little cliffhanger at the end ensures I’ll continue with the series.

Junk Magic by Karen Chance: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Junk Magic by Karen Chance

Junk Magic starts a new spin-off series, Lia de Croissets, set in the world of Chance’s Cassie Palmer and Dorina Basarab series. While it can be read separately, it also presumes that the reader is familiar with what’s going on in the other two series, namely the war with gods, and how the world works, i.e. the Magic Corps, vamps, weres, and fay. None of it is explained in any way, so a new reader to Chance may find it difficult to understand everything that’s happening.

AccaliaLiade Croissets is a daughter of a war mage and a werewolf. She hasn’t taken the bite to Change to a werewolf though, ostensibly so that she could become a war mage, but in truth because she carries a disease that prevents it. Because of it, she’s at odds with the were world. And that was before she shacked up with an outcast were.

Her boyfriend, Cyrus, has begun to rescue other outcasts, mostly teenage boys. When one of them suddenly transform to a monster of nightmares, Lia sets out to investigate. It leads her to a doctored drug that triggers old supernatural genes. And then she is dosed with it herself.

This was a familiar affair of Chance’s, with political machinationswerewolves this time instead of vampiressinister villains, chapters-long, confusing battle scenes, and a powerful underdog heroine who must face them if not alone, then vastly outnumbered. Lia was a good MC, intelligent, resourceful, and goodhearted, and unlike Cassie, knew what was going on the whole time. And like all Chance’s heroines, played it so close to her heart that the villain came completely out of the blue. Moreover, missed its mark badly this time.

Of the supporting cast, Caleb, Lia’s war mage partner, was the only one that we’ve met before, and I liked that he was finally given a bigger role. Cyrus, her boyfriend, was a great character, but following a relationship that’s been going on for a while wasn’t as satisfying as watching a new one grow. Lia’s students and the rescued boys were a good addition, but there were so many of them that most of them were left in the background.

All in all, this was a good, coherent book and a great start to the series. I’ll be reading more.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Folk Around and Find Out by Penny Reid: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Folk Around and Find Out by Penny Reid

Folk Around and Find Out is the second book in Good Folk: Modern Folktales, a spin-off series of Reid’s Winston Brothers. The first was a let-down, but this one had a bit more kick to it.

Hank Weller is the owner of a strip club, Charlotte Mitchell a divorced mother of four whose husband left her with one of Hank’s strippers. Bad blood ensued, though not from Charlotte’s side, because she’s wilfully oblivious to gossip.

Charlotte needs an inside access to the club. Her cousin has gone missing and might be working as a stripper there, but the girls are protective of their own and won’t spill the beans to an outsider. First she tries to audition as a stripper, much to Hank’s horror, as she is a church-going teacher’s aide. Eventually, she becomes the bookkeeper. Romance ensues.

The romance was good. It was slow with many complications like boss dating an employee, town pariah dating a respectable woman, and a man who doesn’t like children dating a mother. All the obstacles were won little by little. Hank and Charlotte were believable people, and the romance grew organically. The children were great, with their own personalities instead of just backdrops.

All the rest was a bit off. Hank had a backstory as a rich kid turned a bad-boy, which was referred to, but nothing was made of it. Charlotte had an odd mother who interfered in the beginning, but it wasn’t dealt with in the end. Hank and Charlotte had a bit of history that he didn’t remember, but which meant a lot to her, yet it sort of went away on its own.

Charlotte also had trouble with her ex’s family, but just as it was coming to a climax, a deus ex machina solution in the form of Cletus Winston (who else) was handed outside the narrative and the problem went away. None of the potential drama outside the romance led to anything, and as a consequence the romance itself didn’t quite reach the emotional height it could have, as it was never really tested. The emotional payoff was in the epilogue and involved the children.

This wasn’t a bad book, but something has changed. What felt like a charming, quirky little town in Winston Brothers series has turned into a more realistic version with judgemental people making the life of others difficult, just because they can. The charm is gone and not even Beau and Cletus were able to bring it back. But the preview of the next book at the end promises Isaak’s story which we’ve been waiting forever, so I’ll definitely read that one too.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Babel by R. F. Kuang: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Babel by R. F. Kuang

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it lived up the hype. The story is excellent, the style perfect for it, the prose effortless, and execution perfect. It’s not an easy book, but it’s worth the effort.

Set in alternative England of 1830s, it tells the story of Robin Swift who is whisked away from his home in China as a child to live with a demanding scholar in England. His sole purpose is to learn languages well enough to be accepted to Babel, an institution of translation at the heart of Oxford.

Translation is how magic works in that world, the difference between what the words mean powering the spells. For a long time though, magic is in the background of the story, the focus on Robin and his companions. It’s a good narrative choice that allows the story to explore the hostility and racism they face in the academia. At first, academic curiosity and the honour of being in Babel carries them despite the troubles. Little by little, magic rises to the fore and Robin comes to understand that it isn’t for all and moreover, it’s been used for exploiting his people, forcing him to act.

Robin is an excellent character. He’s an observer for most of the time, with events happening to him. And when he does act, the consequences are usually bad for him. His story isn’t easy, and the reader is upset for him for much of the time. His friends are each interesting too, but remain slightly distant.

This was a hefty book, but it didn’t feel long. The narrative flows easily and the story progresses swiftly. The historical world is well researched and believable. The magic system is unique and not without its consequences. The footnotes didn’t work for me as well as I’d hoped though. They don’t form a dialogue with the main narrative like the best do, or add anything useful. Also, in the e-book version, the superscripts were so small that I often didn’t notice them, and then I had to try and search the text for what the footnote referred to.

Babel proves that Miss Kuang can write with brilliance, no matter the genre or topic. I’m definitely looking forward to what ever she chooses to publish next.

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

Monday, October 10, 2022

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

The Carnival of Ash is an alt-history novel set in the 16th century Italy, at the time of city states. It takes place in Cadenza, a made-up city somewhere near Venice. Where Venice takes pride in its glass industry, Cadenza’s entire existence is based on words. Poets are revered, and the leader of the town is chosen by his ability to turn a beautiful phrase.

And then he dies, and a politician more concerned with finances and impending attack by Venice is chosen to lead. It starts a series of events that plunge the city into chaos and destruction.

This is a book that takes the poetic form very seriously. It’s divided into twelve cantos that each tell a story of a different character. Some of them touch the lives of other characters who in turn get to tell their stories; some only make one appearance. In a relatively short space, with carefully chosen words, the reader is shown a crucial moment, or gets a longer account of the character’s life.

At first it seems like the form is all there is. But gradually, a story emerges. Not everyone is happy about the state of affairs in Cadenza; not everyone revered the late leader; not everyone becomes a great poet; and not everyone makes it to greatness with their own wordsor in their hometown.

A few characters rise above the others. Carlo is an aspiring poet who arrives at Cadenza just as the leader has died. With brashness of a youth, he tries to make a name for himself, only to be ridiculed; the worst fate there is. Honour demands that he clears his name with a glorious act, by killing himself or burning the city. Instead, he ends up living in the basement of a burned church with an eccentric gravedigger. Eventually, he makes friends among the poets and ends up being at the right spot at a crucial moment.

There are sisters Vittoria and Maddelina. The former is an ink maid whose sole purpose is to write letters, the latter a free spirit befriending the young poets. Vittoria is plunged into a personal crisis with the leader’s death, leaving Maddelina the thankless job of trying to save her.

Then there is a group of women convicted of real or imaginary crimes to live in a convent with their tongues removed, their sole task to remove all mentions of the rivals of the former leader from the books. After his death, the women decide to take revenge on him by removing his memory, but things get out of hands.

Even the characters that make only a brief, onetime appearance have interesting stories. There’s a murder mystery and a delightful union of long-lost lovers. They may seem like separate stories, but each contribute to the whole, telling a story of corruption and a fall out of glory. And all the while, behind the scenes, the ordinary people of Cadenza prepare to take to arms to clear the town of poets and the tyranny of words for good.

This was an excellent book. The world felt authentic, even though it didn’t pile on historical details, and even with some fantastical elements in the mix, it didnt feel purely like historical fantasy, although it is marketed as such. The characters were all interesting, and the slowly unfurling descend into chaos was believable. Language was beautiful, and in the end, the form served the story very well. If you like historical fiction, alt-history, or historical fantasy, this is a book for you.

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

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

(Spoilers ahead. I tried to avoid anything explicit, but its impossible to review the book without them.)

The Thief (The Queen’s Thief 1) was originally published in 1996 and was well received with several awards and nominations. It’s now been reissued by a new publisher to reach a new generation of readers.

I belong to the generation that would’ve read the book when it originally came out, but I hadn’t. I think I would’ve loved it then. However, time has done its thing, and it hasn’t been altogether kind to it.

The book follows Gen, a thief who is made to join a mission to steal a piece out of mythology, located in an enemy kingdom. It’s either that or remain in the gaol, so off he goes with a nameless magus (if his name was ever given, it wasn’t used again), his two apprentices, and a man of arms.

They sneak into the enemy kingdom through mountains. It’s slow going and the narrative is slowed more by a bunch of completely unnecessary stories about gods. You can skip them all. With a great difficulty, they finally achieve their impossible task. And then things go wrong.

The book is narrated by Gen in the first-person point of view, and if I recall correctly, there weren’t many of those in fantasy back when the book first came out. It was a very odd choice for the story, and it wasn’t done very skilfully, especially when the story required other peoples’ point of view. The narrative was very impersonal, and in parts he just told what happened, even the dialogue. A brief sample of the next book at the end has a third person POV and it worked better.

Even though we spend the whole book with Gen, we learn absolutely nothing about him. I don’t know his age even. He has no inner monologue. He observes the others, but rarely comments and never in a meaningful way that would relate to him. Even when he is in charge, the reader isn’t with him, except for the brief part where he does the actual stealing.

The narrative is so impersonal, that for the entire book, I was convinced Gen is a woman. I know he was referred to as ‘he’ already at the beginning, but nothing about him made me believe it. He didn’t sound like a man inside his head. He didn’t even need to shave after having been in a gaol for a long time, even though a great show was made of washing him otherwise. I kept expecting the other shoe to drop, but it never did. Nevertheless, I think the story worked fine, if not better, with my version of him.

The reason for the odd narrative is revealed at the end when it turns out that the whole story is a lie. The reason Gen plays everything so close to his chest is because he lies not only to his companions but to the reader as well. And I hated it. It’s not the clever twist the author probably intended it to be. It’s just disgustingly lazy, aching to ‘it was just a dream’ ending. Nothing we learned about him is true (except the gender, apparently). So, in a way, it was good I wasn’t invested in him, and that I imagined him as a woman. My version was as true as what the readers got.

The stupid ending ruined the book, prompting me to give it two stars. However, since I was fairly entertained until that point, and liked most of the story, slow and old-fashioned though it was, I’m giving it three stars. But I won’t be reading the rest of the series.

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

Saturday, October 01, 2022

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads
 
The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
 
The Golden Enclaves ends The Scholomance trilogy, and what a wild ride it has been. El, the sourly mage-to-be, has spent four years trying not to become an evil maleficer in the school for mages that has tried its best to kill her. She’s desperately trying to avoid fulfilling the prophecy of her as a destroyer of enclaves, the safe havens of mages. She’s now out of the school, which she has destroyed, and she’s saved everyone. All except Orion Lake, the boy she’s reluctantly come to love.

The book begins right from the cliff-hanger ending of the previous one. Orion has pushed El out of the school and stayed behind to fight a maw-mouth, the worst monster there is, a hungering blob that devours the living, never stopping. She tries to save him, but he won’t let her.

Grieving and traumatised, she’s moping in her mother’s yurt in the healing commune, when her friends from London enclave ask her help in killing a maw-mouth, a near-impossible feat which she’s done before. Someone’s attacking the enclaves by emptying them from their protective magic, which either plunges them into the void, killing everyone inside, or weakens the wards, opening them for monster attacks.

With nothing better to do, she sets out to help, with her friends facilitating her, as her ability to survive the outside world is sketchy at best, thanks to her isolated childhood in the commune. And then she learns the secret behind the enclaves, the evil magic they’re based on. She has to decide, if she wants to save the enclaves, or become the destroyer of the prophecy after all. Its not an easy decision and nothing in the book is black and white, good or evil. Everything she does has consequences, and some of them are catastrophic.

This was an excellent book and a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy. The book moves smoothly from one disaster to another, forcing El to reveal exactly how powerful she is. All her closest friends are with her, ready to help, which she’s sort of coming to terms with. She isn’t without enemies who have waited for her to graduate for a long time, but she also learns that she has allies and a family that loves her.

And she doesn’t give up on Orion, if her plan basically is to kill the maw-mouth that got him. But he has a surprise for herand the reader. Orion has been a tragic figure from the start, an exploited hero who wants nothing more than to help others by killing monsters. I badly wanted a good ending for him, even if it would mean putting him out of his misery. It’s not an easy decision for El, but in the end, she knows what she must dowhich was nothing I could’ve predicted.

An ending to a great trilogy is seldom perfect, but I am perfectly satisfied with this one. It’s not a fairy-tale or happily-ever-after ending, but it’s good enough for everyone, and it suits the world and the characters. And El may even have found a way to become content after all.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

A Sense of Danger by Jennifer Estep: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

A Sense of Danger by Jennifer Estep

A Sense of Danger is urban fantasy spy mystery and romance that was meant to be a stand-alone and reads as such. It follows Charlotte and Desmond who work for Section 47 in Washington DC, a black-ops agency employing paramortals, people with special abilities, who hunt paramortal terrorists. Not only is the agency highly secret, ordinary humans don’t know about paramortals.

Charlotte Locke is in her mid-thirties and an analyst for the Section. Her magic allows her to see written errors and untruths, which is useful when tracking evil people. She can also hear if a person is speaking the truth or lying, and she can sense danger. She’s very good at her job, but frustrated, because her immediate supervisor keeps blocking her reports. On the private front, she’s swamped with debt from medical bills, which forces her to have a second job as a waitress.

Desmond Percy is a cleaner, aka an assassin for the Section, and excellent at his job. He can manipulate energy from electricity, which among other things allows him to heal fast. He’s recently survived an attempt to his life that killed his partner, and he’s on a private mission to find a mole inside the Section who leaked their location to a terrorist he’s been after. This brings him to Charlotte, who is currently investigating a terrorist connected with his.

They’re ordered to work together in a sting operation to capture the terrorist. But they’re privately trying to find the mole, all the while knowing that everything they do will be leaked to the terrorist if they’re not careful. And they know too that they both have private agendas, which makes it difficult for them to trust each other.

This was an action-packed mystery with enough twists that I couldn’t immediately guess who the mole was and even then I didn’t know everything. It’s told from the first-person point of view of both Charlotte and Desmond, giving the reader a good insight to them. I liked them, but I especially liked that Charlotte wasn’t a nerdy or stupid damsel who stumbles on the truth and needs to be rescued by Desmond from her ineptitude. She was a stone-cold killer who went after the mole with unwavering determination. That left Desmond with a supporting role, but he was mature enough to handle it. Romance was slow burn, but satisfying.

The only thing that left me wanting was Desmond’s backstory. He’s the son of a man high-up in charge of the Section and their relationship isn’t good. Much is made of it, but the father doesn’t even make an appearance. I found this especially surprising since Desmond had forged the father’s clearance for his operation. I kept expecting some kind of confrontation or consequence for it, but it didn’t come.

Since this was meant as a stand-alone, the ending is conclusive, but it also leaves an opening for more books. And luckily, the next one is arriving already in November. Looking forward to reading it.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Only Bad Options by Jennifer Estep: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads
 
Only Bad Options by Jennifer Estep
 
Jennifer Estep is a prolific writer of fantasy and urban fantasy, but Only Bad Options, Galactic Bonds 1, is her first sci-fi novel. It has action and some romance, but mostly it’s about the trauma of being abandoned and maybe finding someone to ease the loneliness with.

The world is a combination of science and magic, a collection of psionic abilities, where the latter complements the first, like in making new technological innovations. Humanity has spread all over the galaxy, there’s faster than light travel, and no non-human people. Everything is clean and technologically advanced, and if there’s suffering, it isn’t shown. Much of the world is derivative, but everything works within the framework of the book.

There is a constant war going on between aristocratic Regals who mostly have psionic abilities, a technological alliance no one knows anything about, and a third faction that mostly control the raw material like minerals. All the technological advancements are in the service of the war.

Vesper Quill is a developmental engineer working for a Regal family that manufactures weapons and spaceships for the ruler of the galaxy. She has some magic that helps her see how tech works, which she has put to a good use, only to have others steal her designs.

A spaceship has crashed and she’s the only one who knows it was because of a technical flaw in the design. When she tells the leader of the family the truth, she suddenly finds her neck deep in trouble on a war zone. Her only options are to die or to find an ally that is likeliest to survive.

Kyrion Coldren is a Regal and the leader of Arrows, the ruler’s special forces who fight with a combination of weapons and psionic abilities. He’s feared throughout the galaxy as the ruler’s assassin. When he’s injured in a battle, he finds himself being saved by Vesper, which forms a galactic bond between thema connection between two people, romantic and non-romantic, both metaphysical and physicala much desired but incredibly rare occurrence. And he instantly wants to break it, by killing Vesper if nothing else works.

Little by little, they form a truce and then alliance. She’ll help him figure out who tried to kill him, and he’ll help her to reveal the truth about the design flaw in the spaceships. After that, they’ll break the bond and go their separate ways. But nothing is ever as easy as that.

This was a great book with mature characters who had believable backstories and a lot of baggage. The romance was very slow, taking all the steps from enemies to neutrals and then friends, without quite reaching the lovers stage. That will hopefully happen in the latter books. The narrative was first person from the point of view of both Vesper and Kyrion, which gave a deeper insight into them. I liked both, separately and together.

There weren’t all that many side characters and only a couple of them had a meaningful role in the story. Bad guys were thoroughly bad, but there were a few characters that might have been either way, making them a bit more interesting.

The book was full of action, intrigue, and betrayals, some healing and a lot of self-discovery. It didn’t quite have the emotional impact that the best of Estep’s books have, but I’m sure that’ll change in the upcoming books. The ending was satisfying, but open enough for me to look forward to reading what happens next.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Viper by J. R. Ward: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Viper by J. R. Ward

The Viper is the third book in Black Dagger Brotherhood: Prison Camp, a spin-off series of the original BDB. It follows a group of vampires and wolven falsely imprisoned in a cruel prison, sometimes for centuries.

Kane, a vampire aristocrat, has been in the prison for two centuries accused of killing his shellan (wife). In the first book, he sacrificed himself by detonating a bomb to save two people fleeing the prison, and though he didn’t die, he’s in such a bad shape that he can’t heal himself.

Nadya is a nurse caring for Kane in the prison. She’s not a prisoner, but she doesn’t want to live in the outside world because an attack has left her physically deformed. As she takes care of Kane, she starts to think of him as more than a patient, someone she could loveif only he wasn’t about to die.

The third book starts where the previous ended. The remaining two prisoners of the group, with the help of third who managed to escape in the previous book, escape the prison and take Kane with them. They take him to a wolven healer/goddess, who heals him by making him a vessel for a viper god, which essentially makes him a viper-shifter. The first thing he does is head back to prison to save Nadya.

This was maybe the best book in the series so far. We’re familiar with the people and the setting, and Kane and Nadya had known each other for a long time, so the romance doesn’t feel forced or instantaneous. There’s a solid side-plot between Apex, one of the prisoners, and Callum, a wolven, and the way it was left in this book promises a difficult journey for them in the next one. And V’s drama was at minimum, a rather sweet side-quest with Payne, his sister that has mostly been absent in the BDB books.

However, the romance remained secondary again, buried under the action and other drama, and its emotional impact was a bit light. But if you’re looking for UF action with a side of a romance, this series is great for that.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

No Land for Heroes by Cal Black: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

No Land for Heroes by Cal Black

No Land for Heroes is a Western fantasy set in a world much like post-Civil War US, with elves, dragons, and other non-human people. It has a solid plot at its core. Milly Berry, an elf, is a veteran of a civil war. She’s done some questionable things during the war and is badly traumatised. Now she only wants to live in peace in an out-of-the map town as its deputy. But her former commander and the source of much of her trauma finds her and she must defend herself, her family, and friends.

The book didn’t settle with the core story though. There were several point-of-view characters with their own stories that didn’t contribute to the plot (I’m looking at you Jeb). Gilbert, the love interest, sort of had a backstory that mattered, but he was made to sit out the part that concerned him. It created a very messy story that left the reader feeling let down for investing in the unimportant characters. Added to that were confusing details, like Milly having twins, only for it to turn out one was adopted, but only after a conversation that made me think less of her people. No explanation was given why, even though we did learn who the mother of the other child was.

Characters were unlikeable and their interactions odd. Milly with her traumas was the only one worth following. Gilbert was a jerk who kept propositioning women ‘for good fun’ and passing judgement on everyone he met. I wouldn’t have chosen him as the love interest, but luckily that part of the story was at minimum and unromantic anyway. Jeb, for all that his story was an add on, was the only one who felt like a real person.

My biggest issue was with the worldbuilding. It was basically a Western setting, a frontier town in a world that was recovering from a civil war to free slaves. The core plot fit that setting, and would’ve worked fine in real world too. The fantasy elements didn’t feel integral to the world or the story. The dragon existed solely as a gimmick that had to be killed in the end, and the magic was mostly to heal wounds that weren’t even life-threatening. Religions were derivative and glued on, and the non-human people had no real purpose except to exist as oddities.

The worst thing by far, however, was replacing the Native Americans with elves. When the world is so obviously based on ours, replacing an integral part of it with fantasy creatures who then appropriate the entire culture with tomahawks, tipis, and mohawks stood out like a sore spot. I’m not an indigenous person, but even I found it really upsetting. If you want elves, give them their own culture. Black people too were replaced by orcs who worked as servants and were referred to by their grey skin. I was slow to figure that one out though. And why does the banker family in a fantasy world have Jewish names and their own special religion, Carpenter, by which theyre constantly referred to?

All in all, this was a mess that could’ve used a sensitivity reader and heavy editing. But if you like Westerns with a strong female lead and can ignore the fantasy elements, then this is for you.

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

In the Serpent’s Wake by Rachel Hartman: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

In the Serpent's Wake by Rachel Hartman

In the Serpent’s Wake continues directly from where the first book, Tess of the Road, ended. Tess is journeying again, this time over the sea to the freezing, uncharted southern archipelagos full of mysterious peoples, in search of another world serpent to save her quigutl friend Pathka, and to spy for her queen. No one knows the way, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Unlike the first book, this isn’t a journey (voyage?) into Tess herself, her trauma and redemption. She has been sent to observe how a rivalling nation treats the southern colonies they’ve conquered, and whether or not her queen should do something about it. She isn’t entirely free from her past though. There’s Spira, a dragon she has wronged, and Will, the man who is the cause of Tess’s trauma.

Tess isn’t the sole point of view character anymore. We follow Spira through their identity crisis, and Countess Marga, the leader of the expedition, who is forced to face the consequences of her privilege; Hama, the Watcher protecting the serpent, and occasional other characters, like Tess’s brother-in-law Jacomo who had followed her in the shadows through the first book to his own redemption story. Not all of them moved the story forward. Spira’s story especially was more a parallel one without impact, although it was interesting, and some were unnecessary in hindsight and only lengthened the book.

This is a large story told in a relatively short space, and one that takes it well out of young adult category to adult fantasy. Over and over again, Tess witnesses the oppression and subduing of the native peoples in the hands of the outsiders, an open criticism of the colonialism in our world and the harm it has caused. She has a great need to help them, but everything she tries either fails, makes things worse, or is met with scorn, as she behaves like only the ‘civilised’ world can bring salvation to the natives. In the end, she learns to ask, what do the people themselves need and want.

By the time the story reaches that point, the book rather abruptly ends. Tess would finally have the means to navigate the natives’ lands to the serpent, only for her journey to end and Pathka to leave with the natives. She is sent home with a vague prophecy of the task ahead of her. It left her story so open that I hope there will be at least one more book that gives her a conclusion. I would hate to see her journey end here.

Friday, September 09, 2022

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road is a spin-off of Hartman’s wonderful Seraphina duology. They’re set in a world of shapeshifting dragons, lizard-like quigutl, and humans. It’s a pre-technology world, but with clever gadgets the quigutl invent, like long-distance communication devices.

Tess is Seraphina’s human half-sister. She’s seventeen, deeply unhappy, and suffering from a trauma that is only alluded to at first. Her sole focus is to get her twin sister Jeanne into a good marriage, hoping it’ll absolve her past and set her free. But when the marriage is accomplished and she’s still being punished, she walks awayand keeps walking.

A chance encounter with a childhood friend, a quigutl Pathka, gives her a destination and purpose. He wants to find a world serpent, a creature from quigutl mythology that no one else believes even exists. Together he and Tess, disguised as a young man, set out to find a creature that calls Pathka in his dreams.

The journey to the snake is long and eventful. But the events themselves aren’t as important to Tess as what she learns on the journey about herself. Little by little, the tangles of her past open, and the reader learns about the trauma that haunts her. She has imagined herself in love with a young man who promised to marry her, only to get her pregnant, and then leave. But even that story has deeper layers, and the trauma they have caused rushes to the surface in bursts of violence when events trigger her.

It's not an easy road to recovery for her, and in her eagerness, she often causes more harmeven irreparablethan good. But by the time of the final call to come home, she’s grown and healed enough to know, that it isn’t her home anymore.

This was a wonderful book about healing and forgiving oneself. Tess started as a troubled girl and grew into a self-confident, determined woman. Pathka, as her companion, was an excellent character too, suitably alien and with his own family trouble that mirrored Tess’s relationship with her mother. Seraphina seemed like a different person when seen through the eyes of an outsider but remained unique. Other characters were more fleeting, existing to help Tess on her journey and then left behind. Some will perhaps resurface in the latter book, but if Seraphina duology is anything to go by, permanent, romantic relationships won’t be the goal.

This is marketed as young adult fantasy, and as a growth-story, it is that. But the trauma of Tess’s past and her journey to forgiveness are both triggering and profound in a way that adults will appreciate the book as well. I will definitely read the next book too.

Friday, August 19, 2022

The Heretic Royal by G.A. Aiken: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Heretic Royal is the third book in The Scarred Earth Saga and exactly the kind of bat-sh*t craziness I was hoping for. None of the characters are nice or pleasant, and none of them like each other very much, yet they form a warm—if homicidal—whole. Everything is chaotic, no one’s doing anything proactive to oust the bad queen, and dragons do their best to make things worse.

The book begins where the previous one ended, with the arrival of dragons from Aiken’s earlier series—a cliff-hanger that made it an agonisingly long wait for this book. They instantly amp up the insanity level, and most of the book is about Keeley and her family dealing with them, the war on the background.

There are several point of view charcaters, some of which don’t have much to do. The main ones are (on paper anyway) the fourth eldest sister Ainsley, and Gruff, a centaur warrior asked to guard her. They’re the romantic couple of the book, but the romance is extremely low key among the chaos. It basically takes place during a couple of chapters at the end of the book. Still, I liked them both. They made a good couple and spent most of the book interacting with each other, so the romance didn’t spring out of nowhere.

The rest of the book is spent in crazy antics with seemingly no plot, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. There was a small cliff-hanger (mountain dropper?) at the end, but what will draw me back are the characters that I love one and all. Can’t wait to read the next one.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen

The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a retelling of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail movie with zombies, in an original world of islands, complex mythology, and a wild-west vibe. The movie is one of my all-time favourite romantic comedies, so I had high hopes for this book.

There were some changes with the premise. In the movie, the romantic pair are business rivals. The bigger business eventually forces the smaller to close, a cause for permanent animosity between the pair in real life, while they become close through correspondence without knowing the identity of their friend. The romance hangs on whether she can forgive him for putting her out of business.

In the book, Hart, a marshal keeping a frontier town free of zombies, and Mercy, an owner of a funeral home, don’t have such a logical cause for their dislike. They hate each other at sight for no reason, which makes them rather unlikeable and weakens the premise. They too start corresponding, and find the other a kindred spirit while continuing to dislike each other in real life.

The pivotal moment, the attempt to meet for the first time, is copied from the movie. It doesn’t work as well as the author maybe hoped, and only managed to yank this reader out of the world of the book and remembering the original, which won the comparison. As the premise is different, the consequences of the meeting are different too. The romance basically hangs on whether she can forgive him for lying.

The book was at its best when it relied on its own worldbuilding and original story. For most of the book, the characters had their own stories going on that didn’t really touch. He had an apprentice to teach and needed to get over some trauma of his past, and she had the funeral home to save from a random jerk. She didn’t write to him to ask business advice, for example, like in the original (basically asking him to work against his own company).

Hart and Mercy improved on acquaintance. For the first part of the book, which follows the movie, the romance grew through letters. For the latter part, the romance was a rather run of the mill series of heat and heartache. Mercy handles her business problem with the help of her family. Hart handles the zombie problem with self-sacrifice. The latter brings the romance to a point in a rather forced fashion. It’s tear-inducing, but I didn’t find it terribly romantic.

The book was a mixed bag for me. I liked the world, which was much more complex than the story required. I liked Hart’s storyline, especially the parts with his apprentice, but it didn’t need to be that long. Mercy’s storyline with her family was nice, but much, much too long as well, and it took too long for her business trouble to solve. Put together and added with the romance, the plot was a mess that could’ve used chopping. I would’ve left the movie retelling out and gone with the author’s original story. It worked for the characters and the world best.

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

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

The Atlas Six had a lot of hype as a self-published book before being picked up by a publisher. I read the publisher’s version. I’m not entirely sure I understand the hype. It’s not the kind of book that usually gets it: there are no deep emotions, no romances, no high stakes and no action.

I found this a difficult book to like or dislike. It wasn’t bad as such. It’s well-written and has an interesting premise: six magically gifted people who are given a chance to become even more together. The problem is that nothing actually comes of it. Nothing happens.

The book consists solely of personal musings and endless conversations between the characters, each of whom have their POV chapters. Most of it is philosophical and scientific, or attempting to be so. While I found some of it interesting, it wasn’t enough to carry the book. There is no plot and no sense of immediacy. All the story-advancing elements are told second-hand, and the reader is seldom invited in.

This could’ve maybe worked, if the characters had been interesting and/or likeable, but they were all selfish and self-serving (Nico’s attempts to help Gideon the only exception, though we don’t really know why he’s doing it.) Reading endless chapter after another of unlikeable people interacting for their own gain was not entertaining. Having them contemplate killing one of them didn’t make them more interesting.

It didn’t help that they were like copies of the characters from The Magicians by Lev Grossman, or the TV version of it. I kept imagining Libby as Alice, Tristan and Nico as Quentin (one was filled with Quentin’s self-hatred, the other his quest of impossible), Parissa as Margo, Callum as Eliot and Reina as Julia. There even turned out to be a version of Penny among the characters.

For a book about magic, we learn very little about it. The reader is only given glimpses of magic being wielded by the POV character, so we never learn what it feels like. Most of the time we only observe it through other characters. The magic takes some kind of toll on the user, but basically there’s nothing the characters, especially Libby and Nico, can’t do. In the end, magic wasn’t all that important, only the end results.

Then came the out of the blue twist at the end, which the book should’ve worked better at foreshadowing to make it anything other than a blatant f-you on reader’s face. It does promise a more plot oriented second book, but it basically rendered the entire book until that moment pointless, especially the bits about time-travelling.

With the way the book ended, the follow-up should be more interesting, with proper stakes. But since I didn’t care about the characters, I’m not compelled to read it.

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