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.