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.