Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun vol. 2 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun vol 2. by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

The second volume of The Husky and His White Cat Shizun continues exactly where the first volume left things; even the chapter numbering continues. Mo Ran, his fellow disciples Shi Mei and Xue Meng, and their Shizun, Chu Wanning, are in a mortal peril at the bottom of a lake while trying to acquire divine weapons.

Their situation isnt as random an event as they thought. It turns out that a dangerous adversary is targeting Mo Ran; one he had no knowledge of in his previous life. Wherever he and his group go, there the opponent already is. So where did he come from? And is he after Mo Ran’s golden core or is it something more personal?

Mo Ran’s difficult relationship with his Shizun takes an unexpected turn. First, Chu Wanning starts having visions of Mo Ran’s past life that involve him, mainly the parts about sexual abuse. And then a poisoning he’s suffered at the bottom of the lake turns him into a six-year-old.

Chu Wanning doesn’t want anyone to know, so he pretends to be a new disciple and befriends Mo Ran who takes him as his little brother. Together, they explore their childhood traumas of being abandoned and treated badly. There’s some healing, but also new hurts as neither of them understands love or affection. And it doesn’t quite carry into their adult relationship eitherMo Ran is yet to repent the way he treated Chu Wanning in the pastso the romance doesn’t really evolve.

Mo Ran continues to meet people from his past and see them in a new light as the events unfold differently. The biggest shock for him is coming across the woman he ended up marrying in his previous lifeand hating. But it may be there’s something odd about Chu Wanning’s past too that is also trying to catch up with him.

I think the second volume is even better than the first. Mo Ran keeps growing, even if he lapses a few times; there are some great adventures, and the character relationships evolve. The ending isn’t quite the nail-biting cliff-hanger than in the first volume, but it leaves Mo Ran in a new and difficult positionwhich he has no idea about. I can’t wait to read the next volume.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Dangerous Flames by Stephanie Burgis: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Dangerous Flames by Stephanie Burgis

Dangerous Flames is the fifth story in the Good Neighbors series of short novellas about necromancers in a secondary world that resembles Victorian England. First four were about Leander and Mia, accidental neighbours turned a romantic couple.

This is a story about Carmilla, Countess of Cardenza, a powerful necromancer and Leander’s adoptive guardian. She’s preparing for Leander and Mia’s wedding with a single-minded focus stemming from a fear that villagers with pitchforks will come at the new couple again.

She’s therefore unprepared when the attack is against her own heart in the form of Eliza de Mornay, the love of her life that ended their relationship sixteen years earlier and broke her heart. Only, Eliza seems to think it was the other way round.

Both are stubborn and proud, and neither would admit to any feelings, past or present. But then a common enemy forces them to work together. In the heat of the battle, pride doesn’t seem so important anymore.

This was a good addition to the series, read in about half an hour. It’s told solely from Carmilla’s point of view and even in that short space she emerges as a complex figure with an interesting past. But Eliza gets her say too. My only wish was that we’d get to witness the wedding in the end, or at least catch a glimpse of Leander and Mia, but that wasn’t to be.

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

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun is Chinese danmei/xianxia fantasy set in a fantasy past of China where disciples of sects follow an ancient path of cultivation to immortality through self-discipline, martial arts, and hidden knowledge.

Mo Ran has risen to the top of the cultivation world as its emperor by basically being the opposite of what is expected of a cultivator: he’s a debauching, bloodthirsty tyrant that everyone fears. The book begins with him facing the consequences of his actions and he kills himself.

Instead of ending up in an underworld to face punishment for his actions, he is reborn as his sixteen-year-old self, with all the memories of his past life intact. He hadn’t been a good person at that age the first time round, and with all the knowledge he has amassed since, he has a good chance of becoming even worse. But he has a couple of things he likes to do differently, mainly to save the love of his life, Shi Mei, a fellow cultivator.

The different choices he makes lead to major events of his life unfurling differently. And at the core isn’t Shi Mei, but his teacher Chu Wanning. He’s the greatest cultivator and the man Mo Ran hated with such vehemence in his first life that as an emperor he kept him alive solely to punish and sexually abuse him. But he was also the person Mo Ran couldn’t live withoutthough he isn’t self-aware enough to understand whyand when he died, Mo Ran had no reason to live either.

With the knowledge of where they ended at, Mo Ran starts to look at their relationship with different eyes. Where he had previously seen only hatred and contempt, gets more nuances. And with the memory of Chu Wanning in his bedhowever involuntarily the other man was therehe realises to his horror that he’s now lusting after the one person he hates.

This was a good book, well-written and compelling. Mo Ran was an excellent, complex MC who is far from a good person, yet he finds himself taking action for other people this time round, especially for his Shizun. His twisted relationship with Chu Wanning gets more depth from the other man’s point of view, and despite Mo Ran’s knowledge of how he treated his Shizun in the past, the way their new relationship unfurls is amazingly sweet. The book ends at a cliff-hanger that guarantees the reader will want to continue with the series.

Based on reviews I read, I went in expecting Marquis de Sade or darkest of grimdark, but this isn’t anywhere near their level of angst, darkness and violence, sexual or otherwise. The main characters have agency throughout the book, there isn’t much violence, but punishments are corporeal and strict, sex (M/M) and sexual abuse are only hinted atthough the latter isn’t repented yet (if ever?)and suicide isn’t glorified. Violence isn’t the focus, love and change are. People with delicate sentiments might still enjoy the growth story and the hint of romance if they aren’t too put off by the other aspects.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Bride of the Barrier Master, vol 1 by Kureha: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Bride of the Barrier Master by Kureha

Bride of the Barrier Master is a cute story set in modern Japan with magic and clans protecting the country with it. Families with magic are organised by importance and magical ability, and at the top are the barrier masters who protect the five pillars that support the entire country.

Hana comes from a less-important family and she’s the least important member of it. She’s completely ignored and neglected in favour of her twin sister who is a magical prodigy, whereas Hana is almost without power. She’s emotionally detached herself from her family, so much so that when she suddenly comes to immense power at fifteen, she keeps it a secret from everyone, even though she has to endure constant scorn.

When she’s eighteen, a new barrier master, Saku, comes to power, and he discovers her secret. He needs a powerful wife to bolster the barrier, and so he coaxes her into marrying him, much to the anger and dismay of the entire community who believe he’s chosen a weak bride.

The first volume follows Hana as she changes from nobody to the most important person in the magical community. She’s depicted as selfish and greedy, but in the end she’s the one who saves the day. The romance is on the light side and will likely mostly take place in the subsequent books. Saku was a good romantic hero, though maybe a tad childish for a twenty-four-year-old. Side characters were mostly caricatures.

While I enjoyed the overall story, it wasn’t a terribly good book. The writing style was childish and incredibly repetitive, with same things repeated page after a page, especially in the beginning. It would maybe have worked better as manga. As it is, it made a very light emotional impact. I’m not likely to continue with the series, but younger fans of the genre might like it.

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

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Emily Wilde's Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries starts Emily Wilde series of historical fantasy romances. The book is set in the early twentieth century and it follows Emily, a Cambridge scholar of faeries. She’s determined to write the definitive encyclopaedia of them and for that, she’s come to a remote island somewhere off the coast of Norway, right as the winter is starting.

Emily isn’t exactly a peoples’ person, so first thing, she manages to offend most people in the village. And her troubles only worsen when a fellow scholar Wendell Bambleby shows up and decides to take part in her research. Sharing a cottage with the boisterous man is straining for her, no matter that he smooths things over with the villagers, but then truth about him comes out, changing everything.

The winter is cold and full of adventures that put Emily and Wendell in danger time after time. But it’s all in the name of research and a paper they plan to present together at a conference of faery studies. If they can get out of the clutches of a faery king, that is.

The book is written in the form of a research diary, complete with footnotes. Everything is told after the fact, though in a very readable first-person account. A couple of times, the point of view changes to Wendell’s, when he gets his hands on her research notes. The story gets a moment to get going, but then it’s a delightful fantasy with a bit of romance between a single-minded protagonist and her suitor who is amazingly patient with her.

This is the first book in the series, but the story is complete without cliffhangers. There are enough open questions though, mostly about Wendell, for many books to come. Looking forward to reading more.

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

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Barrow of Winter by H. M. Long: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Barrow of Winter by H. M. Long

Barrow of Winter is the third book in Hall of Smoke fantasy series set in a tribal world of old and new gods and the peoples who used to worship them until Hessa, the protagonist of the first two books, destroyed the system and killed some gods, making way for one true god and their three primal god siblings. Events take place twenty-five years after the first book.

The protagonist is Thray, Hessa’s adoptive niece. She’s the daughter of Ogam, a winter god killed by his goddess mother, and a human woman. She’s serving as a priestess of the one true god in a small fishing village, preparing to get married, but she is plagued by the question of her immortality.

She’s put herself time and again in situations where she should die. Every time, she’s saved by her grandfather, Winter. So, when people arrive from north to her village and tell her there are plenty of Ogam’s children where they come from and they can give her the answer, she leaves with them, despite Winter’s warnings.

Things aren’t well in the north after Ogam’s death, and Thray’s siblings aren’t what she had hoped they would be. She doesn’t know who to trust and what to do with the answer she finally receivesor how to deal with the way it was delivered. She’s at odds with her family too, Hessa and her brother, for lying about being on a mission from god, so returning home isn’t appealing either. And then she has to choose between her newfound siblings and her homeland.

This was a good book. The pace was fast, there was nothing unnecessary, and the ending was satisfying and conclusive, though rather painlessly delivered. Thray, the sole point of view character, was compelling, even if she wasn’t quite as complex as Hessa as a protagonist, and rather obstinate in her quest. I didn’t share her idea that if she turned out to be an immortal, she wouldn’t be able to love anyone because she would have to watch them die, but that was the only way she was able to see things.

There were many secondary characters, but most of them didn’t have an impact on the story. Bad guys were fairly obvious, but there were interesting characters among them too. Thray’s fiancé was a bit of a bore and only existed to follow her around like a puppy, with no say on decisions about their relationship. Hessa only had a small side role, but it was interesting to see her from the outside, after spending two books watching the events from her point of view.

This was a stand-alone book, and if it turns out to be the last in the series, it leaves things in a satisfying place. But the ending was open enough for new adventures too. I wouldn’t mind reading more.

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

Monday, January 02, 2023

My 2022 in books

I had an uneven reading year in 2022. I read a fair number of books, eighty-two in total, sixty-two of which I reviewed on this blog. But there were a couple of long stretches where I didn’t read at all or couldn’t finish what I’d started.

Both times, I crawled out of the reading slump by resorting to fan favourites. First time round, I reread Anne Bishop’s The Others series, eight books with the spin-off series. Second time, I read Shelley Laurenston’s utterly bonkers (like all her books are) Call of Crows trilogy.

But my year held some truly brilliant books too. There was The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, a secondary world fantasy about an orc girl who is a sacrifice to her god, and its follow-up The Thousand Eyes (though it wasn’t quite as brilliant).

There was Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, a cosy fantasy about a former orc warrior setting up a coffee shop, and nothing else. It’s a wonderfully comforting fantasy that I’ve been recommending to everyone. In contrast, Saint Death’s Daughter is about a necromancer who is trying to save her found family that pretty much hates her. It’s dark and violent at times, and wonderfully refreshing.

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller is a haunting story of trauma. Charm grows bones to create copies of herself, each of which has one aspect of her personality so that only one person won’t have to endure all her trauma. It’s also a murder mystery about who killed the emperor holding her prisoner that she has to solve.

I read two books in Naomi Novik’s Scholomancer trilogy of a deadly school for mages. First was The Last Graduate, and the trilogy ended with The Golden Enclaves. It’s not easy to end a brilliant trilogy, but Novik managed it perfectly.

Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road duology began with Tess of the Road and concluded with In the Serpent’s Wake. Again, the first book was much better than the latter, but it was a satisfying whole about personal trauma and healing.

I ended the year with four volumes of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiùwell, I finished the fourth this year. It’s the series that The Untamed TV series is based on, written originally in Chinese. It’s not terribly good literatureand what I hear, even worse English translationbut the emotional attachment I have for the TV series carried to the books. Now I have to wait until May for the last volume to be translated.

On top of these there were several stables I read every year, like Nalini Singh, JR Ward, Lindsay Buroker, Janet Evanovich, and Daryda Jones, in addition to the two I mentioned earlier. Of the eighty-two books I read, thirty-five were from NetGalley, six were from my old TBR pile and forty-one were new books. Most were fantasy in one form or another (urban, epic, romantic), with only six sci-fi books, and thirteen contemporary romances and crime novels. All in all, I’d say a very good reading year.

For this year, I’ve pledged to read ninety books in Goodreads reading challenge. I have several books lined up already, so I might even reach the goal. My reading year will start with Barrow of Winter by H. M. Long, a third book in her Hall of Smoke series. Looking forward to another great reading year.