Friday, March 31, 2023

The Restorer’s Home Omnibus vol 1 by Kim Sang-yeop: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Restorer's Home by Kim Sang-Yeop

The Restorer’s Home is Korean manhwa that really spoke to my historian’s soul.  Sixteen-year-old Sungwoo Yoo has inherited a traditional Korean mansion from his grandfather and since both his parents are absent, he has to take care of it by himself, with no funds. That’s the smallest of his problems.

As an archeologist, his father was responsible of destroying an ancient tomb and now the spirit of the king buried in therecurrently looking like a ten-year-oldwith his retinue that includes a female bodyguard and a concubine, have moved into his house, wreaking havoc. They need Sungwoo to repair the original tomb, but since that’s not possible, they’re here to stay.

Sungwoo is special. He has an ability to see the spirits of artifacts and determine how he can repair the items to original condition. The story consists of requests of repairing things, each more unique than the other. Some involve his school friends; some are random encounters, and all are delightful, with Korean history added to the mix. The book ends at a cliff-hanger and I’m interested in reading more.

This was a wonderful mix of high-school drama, cartoon antics, and Korean traditions. It doesn’t seem like a combination that should work, but it does, very well. Sungwoo was a great character, caring and self-conscious, and determined to do the right thing. He suffers from being abandoned by his parents, which shows occasionally, but he doesn’t let that make him bitter. His house is filled with ghosts from 1500 years ago, which he takes in a stride, befriending them and all sorts of interesting people along the way.

Illustrations were black and white and good, with great attention paid to the details of the artifacts that were being restored. At times though, the characters looked a bit too much alike, which was slightly annoying.

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Hel’s Eight by Stark Holborn: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Hel's Eight by Stark Holborn

Hel’s Eight is the second novel in Ten Low sci-fi-dystopia-western-paranormal series, a combination that shouldn’t work, but which does, beautifully. The first book, Ten Low, was one of my favourite reads the year it was published.

We return to Factus, a desert moon at the edge of the universe that has resisted all attempts to terraform it. It’s a harsh, dry, airless place populated mostly by former convicts. Societies are violent, water is scarce, and games of chance mean automatic deathby the beings that were there first.

Ten Low is a former army medic trying to atone a massacre she was instrumental in. In the first book, she discovered the Ifs, as they are called, beings of possibilities that live on humans, and the Seekers who have dedicated their lives for them. At the end of the book, she became their mouthpiece.

Where they go, death follows, so Ten has lived five years outside all civilization. But then an old friend/enemy comes asking for help, and the Ifs are pushing her to action too. Reluctantly she agrees.

A businessman wants to harness the Ifs so that he can guarantee a future where he is the ruler of the moon. He believes Ten is Hel, the controller of the Ifs, because she’s able to manipulate the possibilities the Ifs show, so he wants to capture her. Ten knows she’s not Hel, because she knew the woman who was. But the Ifs know differentlyand to become Hel is to die.

The second book was as interesting and good as the first. The world is unique and the atmosphere tense and creepy. But it was a bit more difficult to get the hang of. I had no recollection of the Ifs, and since they weren’t explained in any way here, I’m not sure I understood them correctly. I’m not entirely sure what Hel was either, a leader, prophet or a speaker of the Ifs, or something else. In addition, the title of the book never became clear.

The book is told in Ten’s first-person point of view, but there were additional notes too by Pec Eight Esterhazy who was the previous Hel, as she discovers the Ifs decades before Ten. Ten remained an interesting character struggling with her past and the actions she had to take, including killing people even though she had sworn never to do that. Side characters were a bit distant, but I was invested in them. The ending was good, but maybe a bit hasty and vague, though that could be because the review copy seemed to be missing some scenes. But it leaves the door open for more books. I’m looking forward to reading them.

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

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Thousand Autumns vol 1 by Meng Xi Shi: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Thousand Autumns by Meng Xi Shi

Thousand Autumns is Chinese xianxia fantasy set in three 6th century empires near Yangtse river, one of which lasted thousand autumns. Not being familiar with Chinese history, I can’t say anything about historical accuracy, but since it’s mainly cultivation fantasy with elaborate fight scenes, it doesn’t really matter. However, the plot is more political than in other xianxia I’ve read.

Shen Qiao is the leader of the top ranked Daoist cultivation sect. He and the entire sect have kept themselves secluded from the outside world, but when he’s challenged to a duel by a leading martial artists of a nomadic Turkic tribe, he acceptsonly to lose and almost die.

Yan Wushi is the leader of a demonic cultivation clan (demonic, I understand, is the word used by the translators of xianxia fantasies and not original; mainly it seems to mean here that they’re not followers of Daoism, Buddhism or Confucianism, but their own hedonistic intents). He’s been cultivating in seclusion for ten years and has emerged more powerful than ever. He has a lot of catching up to do, so when he comes across the mangled body of Shen Qiao, he almost leaves him to his fate. But a sparkle of secret cultivation energy in Shen Qiao that Yan Wushi covets makes him change his mind.

Shen Qiao wakes up blind and weak, without memory and any of the cultivation power he’d had. He sets out to make a slow way back to his sect, encountering all sorts of trouble along the way, slowly gaining his memory but not his strength or eyesight. When a hidden scroll about the secret cultivation method emerges, his and Yan Wushi’s paths cross again. The two travel together, with Yan Wushi challenging Shen Qiao to a duel after another so that he can learn the other man’s martial art secrets.

The book description gives to understand that this is a story of an evil man trying to corrupt a good man. There’s certainly a lot of talk about human nature, and Yan Wushi makes a lot of fun of Shen Qiao while trying to make him become his student. But Yan Wushi isn’t nearly as evil as some men they encounter, and Shen Qiao isn’t a paragon of virtue either and is capable and willing to kill when needed. Mostly Yan Wushi is a person who won’t help others until he himself benefits, and Shen Qiao helps everyone regardless of consequences for himself.

It’s also listed as a gay romance, but there isn’t even a hint of that between the men, even if Yan Wushi occasionally teases Shen Qiao by holding his hand. If there is going to be romance, it’ll be in later volumes. The men were very different and there wasn’t much interaction between them, so I’m not sure what kind of romance it would be, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

What this is, is a cultivation adventure with a political undercurrent. There are many players and dynasties in play, most of which are a confusing jumble, but luckily everything is repeated several times. There’s famine and refuges and several wars brewing. Shen Qiao learns that his loss wasn’t due to his lack of skill but political machinations, and Yan Wushi seems to have his own agenda in play. The book ends in a cliffhanger just as things became interesting.

While this wasn’t the book I set out to read, I was well entertained by it. I’m looking forward to reading the next volume.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Missing Piece by Kun Yi Wei Lou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Missing Piece by Kun Yi Wei Lou

The Missing Piece is m/m romance set in modern China. I don’t know how openly gay one can be in China, but here it seemed to be fairly unproblematic, family disownments aside.

Shen Mo is an art graduate in his early twenties. Due to an accident that he cannot remember, he’s lost his ability to paint. The only thing he remembers with any clarity is that he was saved from homelessness by Ji Mingxuan, a wealthy businessman about his own age.

Mr. Ji is utterly devoted to his sister’s happiness, so much so that when the man she wants turns out to be Shen Mo’s ex-boyfriend, he strikes a deal with Shen Mo. They pretend to be lovers so that the ex and Mr. Ji’s sister can pursue their romance in peace. Out of gratitude, Shen Mo agrees, even though his ex and Miss Ji aren’t even in the same country to witness the fake relationship.

When they return to China, things start to unravel fast. Shen Mo’s memories begin to surface even as Mr. Ji seems to want to make their relationship more real. Inevitably, everything steers towards heartbreak for everyone.

This was the best fake relationship romance I’ve read. The past wasn’t at all what it seemed, and the fake romance wasn’t as fake as Shen Mo believed. Much relied on miscommunication, which normally is my pet peeve, but here it worked perfectly.

Shen Mo started as a tragic character who suffered from memory loss and PTSD and worked towards getting his life back in order. Mr. Ji seemed to be a cold, callous man who only used Shen Mo for sex, but the truth about him was different too. Sex scenes were great throughout.

The main story took about two thirds of the book and had a satisfying HEA ending. The rest consisted of ten longish stories about the past and after the HEA. The best story by far was the first, which told the same story from Mr. Ji’s point of view, but others were interesting too. The book left me happy and wistful and a bit sad at the same time. All in all, a wonderful read.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Bitter Medicine by Mia Tsai

I picked up Bitter Medicine thinking it was UF with romance in it, but it was romantic fiction with UF elements. It was also a somewhat odd book, consisting of two uneven parts. First storyline came to a point at around 60% mark. It was ok, even if the romance was very slow-burn with rather odd intimate scenes. If the book had ended there, I might have given it a better rating. Unfortunately, it continued.

The latter part was a meandering mess that didn’t need to be that long; a couple of chapters would’ve sufficed. The conclusion was very unsatisfying. It’s a happily ever after, but at a cost that went against the tropes of fantasy genre, and not in a good way. Kudos for originality, but … no.

Fantasy elements were a mishmash of everything, but mostly western. The description promised xianxia inspired fantasy, but it was inspiration in name only. The main character, Elle, was Chinese, but nothing in her behaviour made me believe it. She was very American in her thoughts and deeds, though incredibly stupid for some reason (she could use a computer but not a smartphone?). For his part, Luc didnt feel very French, and the Catholic elements seemed really odd.

I was especially disappointed with Elles family relations. As a western reader, one thing that makes Asian fiction feel authentic to me, is the idea of duty to one’s family and elders that is very alien to western society. Some lip-service was paid to it here, but in actual dealings with each other, the characters were wholly western. Even the premise was about Elle taking away her brother’s immortalitywithout his consent, I might addso that he could escape doing his duty to his family.

Maybe modern Chinese are more western in this respect, but these characters were over a century old and from the heartland of China. If the characters hadn’t been Chinese, the premise would’ve worked. Now it only irked me. As a whole, the book left me unsatisfied both as a romance and as a fantasy.

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

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten

The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten starts The Nightshade Crown series (duology, trilogy, I don’t care, I’ll read it all). The world has lost its gods. Five of them have died and one has disappeared and is now worshipped as the one true god, the god of life.

The body of the goddess of death rests underneath the town of Dellaire, heavily guarded. It’s oozing Mortem, a substance of death that needs to be regularly channeled away from humans so that it won’t kill them. Only the priests of the Presque Mort, people who have briefly died, can do it. And then there’s Lore who was born with the ability.

Lore has kept it a tight secret ever since she accidentally resurrected a dead friend when she was a child, as necromancy means a death sentence. So, when she does it again in a very public way, she’s instantly caught by the Presque Mort. But instead of killing her, the head priest—king’s brother—brings her to court and makes her spy on the crown prince, Bastien.

She’s also tasked with figuring out what’s killing a village after a village of people without a trace. Helping her is Gabriel, a Presque Mort and a former childhood friend of the crown prince. But things aren’t what they seem. Lore has no idea who she can trust or who’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. And the cause for the deaths may hit closer than she could’ve imagined.

This was an excellent book. Told in the point of view of Lore, it instantly drew me into its world. Lore was a great character with conflicting interests and a healthy self-preservation instinct. She wasn’t a simpering YA heroine, and she owned her choices, even the questionable ones.

Gabe and Bastien made excellent counterparts to her. Both had troubled pasts and neither was a black and white character, even though Gabe tended to see the world that way. I’m a bit over triangle dramas and I kept hoping the author would veer the romance towards a threesome, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Fingers crossed that’ll change later.

The world, and especially Mortem, was a bit complicated and I’m not sure even the author always knew what she meant it to do. The court drama and the king’s need to spy on his son seemed far-fetched, but there was a reason for that in the end. I was a bit frustrated at times when Lore was slow to figure out things the author all but spelled out to readers, but not so much it would’ve marred my enjoyment. The great showdown that everything built towards came and went a bit fast, but it laid ground for the next book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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

Thursday, March 09, 2023

Frontier by Grace Curtis: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Frontier by Grace Curtis

Frontier is set in the 29th century Earth. It’s a dry, desolate place that most humanity abandoned several centuries ago to conquer the space. Only a small fraction remained, a religious sect called Gaians who believe in the divinity of goddess Earth. No technology newer than 21st century (for some reason) is allowed and even the talk of space is sin.

Noelle, a scientist, wants to visit earth, the first time in three centuries, for humanitarian and other ideological reasons. With her as a security is Kei, a former army captain who has resigned from her post after a massacre. A romance forms between the women during the six-month travel through space. When they finally reach Earth, everything goes wrong. That’s where the book begins.

Stranger finds herself in a frontier town. She has no idea where she is, but she needs to find someone. For that she needs a communicator. But in the technology averse world, those don’t exist. So she travels, rather randomly, towards the only city where one might exist. On her way, she encounters people who either help her or try to kill her. She changes from Stranger to Courier to Darling, with no name of her own that she would introduce herself with, and no clear indication who she’s looking for, other than her love.

The book consists of encounters that are almost short stories from various points of view. Reader gets a good idea of what the life on Earth, or at least in that small part of it, is like. Some encounters remain one-off, some people appear again just when they’re needed. We don’t get the backstory of the main character until after the half-point, and only then does she get a name and we learn who she’s looking for.

This was a good story, easy to read and interesting. The atmosphere was a bit gloomy, and the main character remained distant, even in the chapters told from her point of view, thanks to the odd decision to not name her or give her any backstory until after the half-pointodd, because the MC really didn’t seem poetic enough to think of herself in terms other than her name. From then on, the book came to life in a whole new way, and Kei became a real person.

The world was interesting, a good combination of space travel and dystopian. But I wasn’t entirely convinced of the logic of the life on Earth. There was no new technology, and everyone seemed to be living on what they grew or scavenged, but there was petrol for 21st century carsstill in use several centuries laterand fabrics for clothes, for example. Only printed books existed, even though people didn’t leave earth until the 24th centurythough it was interesting to think that Alexander Dumas and Jane Austen were still read a thousand years after their books were first published. And in three centuries, no one had rebelled and started creating technology that would make life better for everyone. An outsider was needed to save them from the ill-effects of their religion.

I didn’t feel the romance between Kei and Noelle either. They were an uneven pair, and it seemed Noelle only spent time with Kei because there were no other options. For her part, Kei’s devotion to Noelle fit her single-minded character, but not so much that it made a believable character motivation. There was the massacre she felt guilty about; saving her crew to atone herself would’ve been a much stronger reason. Now it went completely unused other than in her reluctance to kill people.

Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed the book. For a debut, it was excellent. It’s a stand-alone with a satisfying ending, but I wouldn’t mind reading more about Kei.

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

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Villains Are Destined to Die vol 1 by Gwon Gyeoeul & SUOL: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Villains Are Destined to Die by Gwon Gyeoeul & SUOL

Villains Are Destined to Die is a transmigration manga where the MC is transported to the game she’s been playing. In the easy mode, she was the heroine winning over the affections of all the men around her. In the hard mode, as Penelope, she dies over and over again, and everyone hates her. Before the player manages to crack the hard mode, she finds herself as Penelope, desperately trying to survive.

This was an excellent story. At first, I was leery of a game where the goal was to win male characters’ affection, but the story turned out to be much darker than these light novels usually are. There was also greater integration between the MC’s backstory and current life than is usual in transmigration stories. I haven’t read the books by Gwon Gyeoeul the manga is based on, but I have a notion the MC deals with her own trauma as the story progresses.

Both Penelope and the person playing her are orphans brought into a rich family, with two older brothers that hate her and a cold, distant father. In her real life, she’d just escaped to an independent life at the university, and now she has to live similar life in a game. The game controls are visible, showing her progress. The only thing missing is the reset button, which she discovers to her horror when she tries to die to get a do-over.

In the first volume, Penelope makes some progress in settling into her new life. It ends with her gaining some affection from four of the five male leads, but she’s a long way from reaching 100%. The fifth guy will show up in the next volume. I’ll be interested in reading more.

The illustrations by SUOL were full colour and beautiful, with the past life depicted in black and white. They were enjoyable to look at and added greatly to the reading experience. Translation was very good.

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

Conquer the Kingdom by Jennifer Estep: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Conquer the Kingdom by Jennifer Estep

Conquer the Kingdom ends the Gargoyle Queen trilogy, the spin-off of the Crown of Shards trilogy. It had been a while since I read the previous book, but the author brought me right up to speed and I had no trouble following.

Milo, the enemy crown prince, is on the run and Gemma, the princess turned spy, is trying to find him. Failing that, she lures him to her kingdom—but he has a trap of his own. Gemma is forced to truly connect with her magic and her darling gargoyles if she hopes to defeat him.

I enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced and the stakes were high. Gemma’s romance with Leonidas was satisfying and the side characters held their own, even if Gemma overshadowed them in the first person narrative.

The book had a good ending, but it seems the author isn’t done with the world and there is one more queen in the making. Looking forward to reading about her.

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