Sunday, June 16, 2024

Winter Lost by Patricia Briggs: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Winter Lost by Patricia Briggs

Fourteenth Mercy Thompson book is a good addition to the series and a welcome interlude after the previous book. Mercy is suffering from consequences of the artefact that took her over, and no one can help. But when her brother by the Coyote, Gary, needs her help, she puts her issues aside and heads to Montana with Adam.

An artefact has been stolen from the Frost Giant and until he gets it back, he’s going to bury the mountains in snow. That’s not even the worst part: if the ritual where the artifact is needed isn’t performed, the world will end. No pressure.

Despite the high stakes, the case is relatively easy to handle for a change. There isn’t an overwhelming evil to kill and even the main adversary is a fairly benign creature. It takes a bit of a toll on Mercy nonetheless, but she has good help too.

On top of the main story, there are random side stories that don’t seem to have any importance, and minor characters points of view glimpses. They add to the length of the book, but don’t really offer anything to the overall story, except maybe the one about Sherwood. My only gripe is that despite it taking place in Montana, not a single member of Bran’s pack made an appearance. All in all, a less intense but interesting addition to the series.

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

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Case File Compendium Vol. 2 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Case File Compendium by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

In volume 2, He Yu, the university student with a rare mental disorder, and Xie Qingcheng, a professor of medicine and He Yu’s former doctor, continue their toxic relationship. And it gets really bad here.

The beginning is fine, and it seems the men will slowly but surely work through their misunderstandings, hatreds, hurts and homophobia into a friendship of sort. But then the shadowy criminal organisation on the background decides to purge their ranks at the university campus, and the men get drawn in.

Xie Qingcheng realises these are the people who killed his parents and he’ll stop at nothing to find the truth. But the organisation isn’t willing to divulge it, and they throw Xie Qingcheng under a social media bus. The video they surface makes He Yu question everything that took place when Xie Qingcheng was his doctor and he comes to a conclusion that the only person who he thought cared for him never did.

It leads to his mental disorder to flair up, and to a huge confrontation with Xie Qingcheng. What follows is a graphic, very much non-consensual bedroom scene that destroys what goodwill Xie Qingcheng might have built towards his former patient. He’s a proud, unyielding man, and it’s difficult to see how their relationship could recover from this.

This was a good volume, but sad and uncomfortable. We learn more about He Yu’s childhood and it makes one want to throttle everyone who was responsible for his wellbeing. That he’s as functional as he is, is a miracle. The way he chooses to act out his pain isn’t acceptable, but it’s in line with his character and the men’s angry relationship and powerplays, and it fits the tone of the book insofar as such actions can, leaving the reader both sad and angry. That being said, if such scenes make you uncomfortable, you can skip it. The aftermath is understandable even without reading it.

The background story with the organisation is a bit over the top and sort of unnecessary, even if their actions push the men around. And there was a revelation about it that I didn’t see coming. The cast of characters was smaller than in the first volume, keeping things simpler, the plot was more straightforward and advanced in a fast pace, and the ending wasn’t a cliffhanger, though it didn’t conclude anything either. And I absolutely have to find out how anything can be salvaged between the men after this volume.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Ballad of Sword and Wine Vol. 1 by Tang Jiu Qing: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Ballad of Sword and Wine by Tang Jiu Qing

Ballad of Sword and Wine: Qiang Jin Jiu is the latest Chinese boylove series translated by Seven Seas. It’s set in a secondary world that resembles ancient China with its culture, but with a completely different geography. The book even comes with a helpful map.

A war has almost ended in defeat when Prince Shen Wei shamefully fled before the enemy before killing himself. All his family has died too, except the youngest, illegitimate son, Shen Zechuan. He’s fourteen and hasn’t even met his father, as he’s been raised by his shifu, Ji Gang. Nevertheless, he’s been brought to the nation’s capital to face death for what his father has done. But political machinations and the Dowager Empress intervene, and he’s confined to a house arrest instead.

Xiao Chiye is sixteen and a son of another warrior prince. His family had to step up to defend the nation when Shen Wei fled. He’s a volatile young man and he hates Shen Zechuan for what his father has done. But political machinations catch him too, and the reward he’s granted to command the useless Imperial Army is in fact a prison for him too, as he’s basically held hostage in the capital to keep his family from revolting.

The main story starts five years later. Tides turn again, and Shen Zechuan is released, much to the dismay of the nation. Xiao Chiye’s hatred hasn’t eased at all, and he makes it his business to make life difficult for Shen Zechuan. But the emperor is dying and he doesn’t have children. People have started to take sides, and Xiao Chiye has his own player in the game. And behind the scenes, helped by his shifu and an old teacher of the former crown prince, Shen Zechuan is working on his revenge.

When the plot comes to a point, the two young men find themselves on the same side and Shen Zechuan ends up saving Xiao Chiye’s life. Their lives become tangled, but their animosity doesn’t ease. The problem for Xiao Chiye is, however, that he’s finding himself attracted to the younger man. For his part, Shen Zechuan is willing to make most of the attraction to get his revenge. It’s a game about power and manipulation that slowly comes to a point.

This was a great book. The two men were very similar in how they gave the world to understand they are useless while hiding their true strength and intent. Shen Zechuan is a dainty, beautiful man who seems to be plagued by an ill health. But he’s traumatized by the war and almost sociopathic in his behaviour when he finally has the chance for revenge. Xiao Chiye pretends to be a wastrel and  drunkard, while he’s reorganising and training the Imperial Army for a coup.

Court intrigue dominates the plot, but the relationship between the two men is its backbone. It’s in no way romantic in this first book. Both are using the other for their own ends, and neither trusts the other. Xiao Chiye is open about his lust, but determined to control it. Shen Zechuan doesn’t feel the same, but in a fit of anger, he’s willing to push things to a point. The book ends with a bedroom scene, quite literally with a climax. It’s a slightly odd choice, but kind of works well with the tone of the book, and leaves the reader desperate for more.

The book is well written and doesn’t suffer from the over-abundance of telling instead of showing like so many of these Chinese BL series. Court machinations and background stories are handled in the dialogue, there are no repetitions, and the story advances in a fast pace. The opening chapters have some descriptions of torture, and there’s a very disturbing scene of animal cruelty in chapter 18: Donkey Roast, which you can easily skip, though it’s referred to later. All in all, one of the best BL series translated so far. I’ll definitely continue with it.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Moonstorm by Yoon Ha Lee: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Moonstorm by Yoon Ha Lee

Moonstorm starts a new Lancers YA sci-fi series by Yoon Ha Lee. It’s set in New Joseon, an empire inspired by the Korean past. It’s a collection of moons and artificial planets orbiting together in Moonstorm, what seems to be a vast asteroid field of sorts filled with ether where people can survive for a moment, instead of void. The empire is held together by gravity that is created by peoples’ adherence to rituals and respect for the empress.

But Moonstorm has rogue moons and planetoids in random orbits too. They belong to clanners who hold their gravity with different rituals and don’t bow to the empress. The two different gravities don’t mix and the two sides are at constant war.

Hwa Young is ten when her clanner moon is destroyed by the empire. As the sole survivor, she’s taken to New Joseon and given an education as the ward of the empress. She’s made a conscious decision to become a good citizen of the empire and hide her clanner past, because she wants to become a lancer in the empire’s military, a pilot of huge mechas that operate in space.

At sixteen, she’s unexpectedly given a chance to enter the lancer program. And that, inevitably, leads to her going to a battle against the clanners. It’s all very abstract to her, until it turns out that it’s her former home she’ll be attacking against.

The war isn’t going as well for the empire as the news propaganda gives to understand. Hwa Young is forced to consider the possibility that the empire isn’t entirely right. And it turns out, there’s such thing as too much devotion.

This is a great start to a series. Lee has once again created a world that is unique and interesting, and which has an integral role in the story instead of being a mere prop, although the Korean elements could’ve been brought out more clearly. The mechas with their sentience are more interesting than usually too.

Hwa Young is a fairly typical YA heroine, a headstrong loner who makes emotional decisions at wrong moments. There’s no romance; a good decision, although she seems to be eyeing someone in that light. I hope it doesn’t lead anywhere, as I didn’t really feel the pairing. Side characters were interesting with lives of their own.

The ending leaves Hwa Young in a completely new place in the world. It’ll be interesting to see where that’ll lead.

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

p.s Its seldom that a book has two such vastly different cover images. I chose the YA version that brings out the Asian characteristics of the story. The other is more hard-core sci-fi with completely different vibes:


Monday, May 27, 2024

Hell for Hire by Rachel Aaron: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Hell for Hire by Rachel Aaron

Hell for Hire starts a new Tear Down Heaven UF series. It’s set in a modern-day Seattle and a world where humans are ignorant about the supernatural around them. It’s not a fun or good world for non-humans. 5000 years ago, Gilgamesh conquered the Paradise that held both heaven and hell, killed its rulers and enslaved all demons. Magic is strictly regulated for warlocks and sorcerers. Only Blackwood witches hiding inside magical forests are allowed to do free magic. And they’re all women.

Adrian Blackwood has been given to warlocks as a child to train with them, a concession Blackwood witches do to keep their freedom. But he escaped and trained as a witch, and the warlocks have hunted him ever since. He’s come to the other side of the States to Seattle to grow his own Blackwood forest, to lure the warlocks there and fight them once and for all.

He hires security that turns out to be four free demons who really shouldn’t exist, as all are enslaved by warlocks. Their leader, Bex, turns out to be more than meets the eye, and she draws the ire of the heavens on them too in addition to the warlocks. Fighting Gilgamesh is something she’s been doing for a long time, but for the first time, she has magical help.

This was a good start to a series. The world is interesting and based on a fresh mythology, and Adrian’s magic is fascinating. Adrian and Bex are great characters with backstories that were only brushed here. A romance may be building between them, but it’s only hinted at here. Side characters, Bex’s demon team and Adrians familiar Boston, remained a bit one-dimensional, but perhaps we get to know them better in following books.

Nevertheless, this didn’t hit me quite as hard as Aaron’s previous UF series set in post-apocalyptic Detroit. The pace was slow, the third person point of view was distancing, and there was no proper plot that the characters would be driving, just events. This is sort of a two-act book, where there is preparation for an event that is known from the start, and then the event, the final battle. No highs, lows, or turning points in between. It feels short an act and low on emotions.  The ending is good though, and sets the war to come. It’ll be interesting to see how the odd group pulls that off.

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

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Dreadful by Caitlin Rozakis: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Dreadful by Caitlin Rozakis

Dreadful is a delightful debut novel by Caitlin Rozakis. It’s set in a rather embarrassing castle of Dread Lord Gavrax, an evil wizard who has lost his memory. He has no recollection of his past, let alone that morning, which turns out to be very problematic. Because his past self has made some plans.

Gav, as he decides to call himself, is middle-aged and not very successful dark wizard or respected among his peers, as he soon discovers. But he’s feared by his goblin staff, which embarrasses him greatly. He’s also embarrassed by his choice in décor and clothing. But he soon finds out Dread Lord is only as dreaded as he appears.

He seems to have some anger management issues he doesn’t know the roots of, but which make him want to burn people around him to death, something he struggles to overcome. He also has a village to manage that is very poor thanks to his past self’s lousy decisions, which he decides to rectify. And worst of all, he has a princess in his dungeon.

His past self has teamed with other dark wizards for something nefarious he doesn’t remember. It involves the princess that his current self has come to like and respect quite a lot. So, it’s up to him to rescue her or failing that, she’ll have to rescue herself. Easier said than done when heroes from all over the kingdom are rushing to her rescue by trying to kill him, and dark wizards more powerful than him are determined to stop him.

This was a fun story with all sorts of shenanigans that kept me guessing to the end. Gav stumbles in and out of problems that are mostly his past self’s making, with rather surprising results. Along the way, he comes to learn a lot about his goblin staff and women, whom he suspects his old self had no respect for. He’s earnest about his desire to change for the better, but it’s not easy. And all the while he fears that if he gets his memories back, he’ll revert to his old evil self.

Gav is rather endearing in his quest for redemption. It isn’t easy and involves a lot of soul searching and some hard conversations with the princess who holds him accountable for his past self. His constant commentary about women’s looks and bodies became a bit off-putting at some point though, as if they only exist to be looked at despite his attempts to see them as people with agency. His friendship with the princess is fairly one-sided, it seemed, and she never quite becomes what she could be. The goblin staff, on the other hand, is delightful in their earnest willingness to help him change.

The ending is good and, since this appears to be a stand-alone, conclusive. Gav rises to the occasion in a manner I didn’t see happening at the beginning of the book, and the story leaves everyone in a better place. All in all, a good story of friendship and redemption that will delight me for a long time.

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

Monday, May 20, 2024

How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler

I’ve been waiting for a good western take on Asian isekai genre for so long that I eventually had to write one myself. It’s such a popular genre in Asia that it’s surprising it hasn’t taken in the west. The few western versions that I’ve read have tried to imitate the originals, but they lack the charm and whimsy. But now there’s How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler. It takes the idea of isekai and makes it thoroughly its own.

For those not familiar with the term, in isekai light novels and mangas a person from the modern world is transported to a secondary world, a book, game or fantasy world, either bodily or as a character there, and has to adapt to a new reality. Sometimes there’s a time loop element where the character starts over every time they die. Sometimes their life is improved by the change, sometimes they set out to make the changes themself with the knowledge they have.

Davi is from the modern-day US, she thinks. She doesn’t quite remember anymore, because she’s been in a fantasy world for a better part of a millennium. She was brought there by a wizard as the saviour of the humans from the Dark Lord, and has died hundreds of times in the service of the Kingdom, only to return to the moment she arrived to this word to start again.

Now she’s had enough. Clearly, she isn’t the saviour, because she hasn’t managed to save the Kingdom in all this time. It’s time to switch teams to the winning side. She’ll become the Dark Lord. Easier said than done, because Dark Lords aren’t human. They’re wilder: orcs, werewolves, snake people and other humanoid beasts that don’t look at all like human. But she has an ace in her sleeve. She can pass as a wilder the way humans can’t.

It takes several efforts—and deaths—to get the ball rolling. She recruits a small band of orcs and sets out to build herself a horde to attend a convocation where they choose the next Dark Lord. The way is difficult, geographically and politically, but she prevails, liberating the oppressed and growing her army as she goes—mostly accidentally. And the farther she advances, the more important it becomes that she doesn’t die. Because then everything will reset and she’ll have to start again, and the events have been so fantastical that she couldn’t possibly recreate them again.

But the possibility of starting over is there. Until it isn’t.

This was a great start to a series. Davi is a fairly typical sarcastic UF heroine who runs a constant commentary (in footnotes, which was a tad difficult in an ebook) and references pop culture she really shouldn’t remember, as she doesn’t even remember where she’s from. She’s probably not entirely sane, but who would be after being tortured to death several hundred times, but she’s clever and tenacious. However, part of her grit comes from the knowledge that she can just give up and start again. Until she can’t. The paradigm change is hard on her, but she’s not alone to handle it.

In her quest to become the Dark Lord, Davi accidentally builds herself a family. They’re supposed to be minions, but they’re friends and lovers (she’s permanently horny). The side-characters remain a little distant, as Davi is very self-absorbed in her narrative, but they’re nice and more humane than the humans she’s tried to save all these centuries.

The book is a bit too long though. It’s heavy reading with all the gore and commentary, and the plot advances slowly. Part of the charm of light novels is their shorter length and longer series that don’t really mind pesky things like story arcs. It might’ve worked here too, if it hadn’t been necessary to bring the first book to a turning point to suit western traditions. Now it took me surprisingly long to wade it through to the end.

Ending isn’t a cliffhanger, but it puts Davi on crossroads in her quest. It’ll be interesting to see how she’ll handle the turn her life has taken.

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

Friday, May 03, 2024

The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

The Brides of High Hill is book five of The Singing Hills Cycle of stand-alone fantasy novellas set in an empire that resembles ancient China. I haven’t read the earlier stories, but that wasn’t necessary, although I might have appreciated some elements more if I’d read them.

Cleric Chih finds themself travelling with a family who is escorting their daughter, Pham Nhung, to be married to a wealthy man. The daughter has insisted they accompany her, and they have agreed. Their job is to collect stories, and this is a good opportunity, even though their neixing, a memory spirit that looks like a bird, isn’t with them on this journey to record the stories. The reader is given a notion her absence is meaningful, but nothing more is said about it, other than that Chih misses her.

The bride-to-be is in high spirits, both eager to be married and frightened of the prospect. Chih does their best to support her. But the moment they enter the estate of the groom who is several decades older than Nhung, Chih gets a notion things aren’t as they ought to be. Reader soon suspects this is a retelling of Bluebeard, with scores of missing wives. But when the monsters appear, rather abruptly, they come from a different direction entirely.

This was a delightful, slightly spooky novella, easily read in one sitting. Chih was an interesting character, even though we don’t learn much about them. They are a recurring character though, so earlier books might have more. Their struggle to get out of the web they don’t even know they’re in is fairly abrupt, and the reader is taken slightly by a surprise, but it worked for a story this length. The atmosphere could’ve been spookier though, as the novella is advertised as a gothic mystery. Now it was a fairly pleasant read with a gory end. But I’m intrigued enough to check out the earlier stories in the series.

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


Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun vol. 5 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Husky and His Wite Cat Shizun vol. 5 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

The most satisfying volume so far, emotionally. It’s the wedding of Nangong Si, Chu Wanning’s former disciple, and Song Qiutong, Mo Ran’s wife in his previous life whom he hates. The reader was given to understand already in the previous volume that something big was going to happen during the wedding, but it went beyond even that.

The pre-wedding feast is ruined by accusations of a masked intruder, that Song Qiutong has not been chaste and that she’s carried a relationship with Nangong Si’s best friend, Ye Wangxi, who saved her from being sold as a slave. That led to a stunning revelation that I didn’t see coming. But it was only a start.

A rift opens to a demon realm, and when Mo Ran and Chu Wanning go to investigate, they learn it’s done by the enemy they’ve been chasing for years. But the truth behind their identity is nothing either them or the reader expect, and the reason for their actions comes a bit out of the blue. But what is revealed causes a literal inferno that sends everyone to fleeing for their lives.

Mo Ran and Chu Wanning take shelter in a remote fishing village and there we finally come to the best part: feelings. Both are really bad expressing them, and both believe their feelings aren’t returned, so there’s a lot of angst to get past before we get a confession. Nothing happens, but it’s very satisfying nonetheless.

There’s no cliff-hanger ending this time, but nothing is solved yet. And the way things were left, taking back their confessions is entirely possible too. I’ll have to read on to find out.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Disabled Tyrant’s Beloved Pet Fish vol. 1 by Xue Shan Fei Hu: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Disabled Tyrant's Beloved Pet Fish by Xue Shan Fei Hu

I bought this book solely on the title, The Disabled Tyrant’s Beloved Pet Fish. I had to find out how that could possibly be a romance. I hoped for a bonkers story. What I got was rather sweet.

Li Yu is an 18-year-old man from modern China who has been reading a historical novel about a tyrant who butchers his way on the throne. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in the book’s world as a humble carp who is about to be eaten, first as a soup and then by a cat. Only a chance in the form of the fifth prince Mu Tianchi, also called Prince Jing, saves him from that fate. And that’s not all. Li Yu is part of a computer game where the system gives him tasks. His main task is to stop Prince Jing from becoming a tyrant. If he succeeds, he can become a human again.

Prince Jing is twenty and the only surviving son by the empress and therefore of higher birth than the other princes, but he’s mute and so isn’t considered a successor for the throne. But he is the tyrant who will take the throne by force. Armed with his knowledge of the story from the book and his cute antics as a fish, Li Yu sets out to complete the tasks given to him. As a reward, he gets all sorts of useful things. One of them is the ability to turn into a human for an hour each day.

The story is mostly about palace intrigue. The second and third princes compete for the throne and they’re not above treachery and tricks. But thanks to Li Yu, their plans go wrong one after another. He ends up changing Prince Jing too, who spends more and more time with his fish. The prince is also hunting for a mysterious young man who shows up in his room at oddest times, only to disappear without a trace. The first volume ends when he finally figures out who the mystery man is.

Li Yu was a fun character—and a very odd fish. He can survive out of water amazingly long times, and jump out of his tank whenever he wants. Prince Jing came across rather lonely, which is mostly his own making, as he drives everyone away. His muteness isn’t a gimmick that is overcome in convenient places. He has a eunuch who speaks for him.

The man and the fish form a friendship of sorts, and the prince might even be having romantic feelings for the young man visiting his rooms. They’re vague and innocent though, and nothing more than a drunken kiss takes place. But was it the boy or the fish who did the kissing, Li Yu would very much like to know.

This was a funny, coherent, and well written story, which isn’t always the case with web novels. There are no repetitions or inconsistencies, and the pace was good. It ends with a small cliff-hanger in the middle of a scene, and I absolutely have to read more.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Death in the Spires by K. J. Charles: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Death in the Spires by KJ Charles

Death in the Spires is excellent historical fiction and an enjoyable murder mystery. It takes place in the early 1890s Oxford and London in 1905, and follows Jeremy Kite, a government clerk who loses his job when an anonymous letter accuses him of a murder that took place in Oxford ten years earlier. Incensed, he decides to investigate once and for all.

Jem is a son of a factory worker, who with the help of a scholarship manages to get to Oxford to study mathematics, an achievement that was out of grasp of most working class people at the time. He’s short, clubfooted and doesn’t know the rules and manners of the place that is mostly populated by upper class white men who do not tolerate difference. He doesn’t have great expectations for his time there, but on his first day, he meets Toby Feynsham, a grandson of a marquis who takes him and other unusual people—for the era—under his wing, like a black man studying to become a doctor, two women (one of whom is Toby’s sister) and an (almost) openly gay man.

Against all odds, Jem has magical time in Oxford with his group of friends. He excels in his studies and even participates in activities like the rowing team. And then, three years later, right before the finals, Toby is murdered. It happens after a huge row between the group, and in a manner that the friends know that only one of them could’ve done it. But they keep their mouths shut and the murder goes unsolved. It breaks the group and they never meet again.

Jem’s life is destroyed by it. He has a breakdown and can’t graduate. He works for pittance at jobs he hates, and every now and then gets fired when rumours about the murder surface. So he starts to investigate, even though everyone he contacts tells him to leave be. To his surprise and sorrow, while the rest of the group seem successful, the murder has ruined their lives too, one way or another. And no one wants to talk.

Jem returns to Oxford, reluctantly, and connects with his old love, which somehow makes things worse, as Nick is among the suspects too. Little by little, he forms a picture of what took place. It turns out, Toby wasn’t the wonderful person he believed and may even have brought the death on himself, and all his friends had secrets that could’ve made them the killer. But no matter the reasons, Jem knows only truth will release their group from the limbo their lives have become. Not everyone agrees, and Jem’s life is suddenly in danger.

This was a wonderful, melancholy story of friendship, lost loves and missed chances. Like in Brideshead Revisited, the reader gets a vivid glimpse into a lost world of aristocratic academia, and the contrast with Jem’s dreary later life is great. Jem with his health issues is a lovely, dignified character who carries the story perfectly. His friends, flawed and all, are people who matter to him greatly. The reader doesn’t really want anyone to be the killer, to see them hang, and neither does Jem.

Luckily, this is a story where truth and justice aren’t the same thing. We get both. The ending is absolutely satisfying, and it leaves the reader with a hope that from now on, Jem’s life will improve and everyone will live happily ever after—whatever that may mean for them.

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

Saturday, April 06, 2024

The Fascination by Essie Fox: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

The Fascination by Essie Fox

The Fascination is a stand-alone historical novel set in Victorian England. It’s about the seedier underside of the society, the fascination of Victorians with macabre and everything different. It’s about found families and acceptance too, and written well enough that I was wavering between three and four stars. And then, in the last paragraph, the author slaps the reader with a wet dishrag, yelling “April Fools. Question everything you’ve read.” So here I am, questioning.

The setting is Victorian only because the author says so. The descriptions are sparse and could be from any era. Author especially fails to grasp the material culture and the value of money. It’s difficult to believe that a travelling musician could have a large house with papered walls and rooms for several people, and a boat too, without independent means, which there apparently weren’t. A penniless apprentice of an anatomist definitely can’t afford tailor-made suits (in plural) and colourful silk waistcoats. A troupe of freaks doesn’t get to perform in one of the finest theatres in London, and they do not get costumes made of fresh materials for every production. The book is set in a fantasy, where these things are possible so that the reader can feel happy for the characters and where they end up in life. It almost worked.

There are two point of view characters, Keziah, whose chapters are told in first person past tense, and Theo, whose chapters are in third person present tense, which took a moment to get used to. For all that the reader gets an insight in Keziah, she’s curiously bland. She doesn’t have interests, skills, hopes or dreams until at the very end. She exists solely to tell the story of her twin sister, Tilly.

A violent incident in Tilly’s childhood has stopped her growth when she was five. She’s an adult woman in a child’s body. But she’s beautiful, can sing, and loves to perform, so she has found a place on stage. The plot revolves mostly around her, her addiction to opium and her abduction by evil people who covet everything different.

We only get Keziah’s view of Tilly. She observes her constantly, yet not once does she wonder what Tilly’s life is like, being different and constantly gawped at. We’re not given scenes either, where people would treat Tilly, or the other different characters, badly. It’s presumed. There are no descriptions of everyday life where Tilly’s life might be difficult because of her size. The idea is probably to show Keziah’s acceptance of her sister the way she is, but it comes across as wilful blindness.

That is doubly so when it comes to Theo, and it’s a deliberate choice by the author. He’s a grandson of an aristocrat who gets thrown out of his home without a penny when the grandfather finally manages to produce a male heir. Lord Seabrook has an unhealthy fascination with the macabre and his collections include human specimen preserved in formaldehyde. It doesn’t come as a surprise that he turns out to be the bad guy of the story.

Theo is saved by his governess who arranges him an apprenticeship with an anatomist, a disgraced doctor who runs a museum of macabre. Theo wants to become a doctor, but lack of funds makes it impossible. Or that’s what the reader is given to understand.

The last paragraph of the story reveals that Theo is physically different too. Since the author wants to keep it a secret, I won’t reveal how—though other reviewers have done so. By leaving the revelation at the end, the author probably wants the reader to question their prejudices. Keziah certainly points it out.

But it doesn’t work. The reader needs a chance to realise their prejudices exist and that’s only possible if they know the pertinent facts about the character and can work them along the way. Even if the author doesn’t want to state the difference outright, there were plenty of chances for giving the reader hints, to make them question their understanding of Theo along the way.

Theo is a point of view character who never questions his difference, doesn’t rue it or wonder if it hinders his chances in life. He doesn’t ask if he’ll ever end up as a specimen in his grandfather’s collections. He’s utterly indifferent about it. The author fails to get inside the character to show the reader what it feels like to be different in a society that reviles those that aren’t perfect. He turns out to be gay too, which we only find out from another character, not him.

According to Keziah, people don’t notice Theo’s difference, because he’s such a charismatic person. But he’s not. He’s reticent and apologetic, colourful waistcoats and all. And so, instead of turning the mirror at the reader, the last sentence screams GAWP, and we gawp. And we see that Aleski, the character with hirsutism is only accepted as a bedfellow after he shaves his face, and Martha only gets the life she’s dreamed of after her cleft mouth is operated. The reader is disgusted, but not with Theo who is a lovely person, or the other characters, except maybe Keziah. The reader is disgusted with the book and its author.

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

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Play of Shadows by Sebastien de Castell: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Play of Shadows by Sebastien de Castell

Play of Shadows starts the Court of Shadows series, a spin-off of de Castell’s Greatcoats series. I hadn’t read it, or the prequel to Play of Shadows, but that wasn’t necessary. The earlier series is set in the kingdom of Tristia, and this book takes place in a small duchy of Jereste there.

Damelas Chademantaigne is a grandson of two Greatcoats, famed magistrates and duellists of the kingdom, but he’s more of a coward. The book starts with him fleeing from a duel with the deadliest duellist of Jereste, the Vixen. He hides in a theatre and claims to be an actor there, which by the laws of the duchy grants him immunity. He’s safe, for now.

A year later, he’s still with the troupe, playing two-line bit parts. Then one night, during a history play about the duchy’s greatest hero and greatest traitor, he suddenly delivers lines he has no recollection of saying. It turns out he’s channelling the spirit of the traitor. And the Duke wants to hear what he has to say.

The duchy is in chaos. A private militia, Iron Orchids, has all but taken Jereste over. The duke wants to find out where they come from and who controls them. And he believes the answer lies in the past. So, night after night, the troupe has to stage the play that evolves and comes to life with whatever Damelas channels. And the more he learns, the more in danger he and those he holds dear are. The truth might very well see all of them dead.

This was a good book with great characters. Damelas especially turned out to be more than he believed himself capable of. It’s about a found family too, with unlikely people coming together. I liked Beretto best, but the women didn’t quite reach the potential of their interesting jobs.

The plot, however, left me wanting. The stakes were low, and the path to the goal was out of the hands of the characters. Learning who controls the Iron Orchids wasn’t that interesting to begin with, and the truth was a let-down. There was no antagonist to fight against, just a nameless mob, so the conflicts were mere street fights that didn’t really lead to anything but a body count. But the wrap-up in the (amazingly long) epilogue was satisfying. It sets the next book too, but I’m not entirely sure I’ll continue with the series.

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

Friday, March 29, 2024

Guardian: Zhen Hun vol. 2 by Priest: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Guardian vol.2 by priest

Volume 2 of Guardian continues where the previous left off, after the events where Zhao Yunlan has learned the true identity of Shen Wei. It hasn’t lessened his interest in the other man, but Shen Wei keeps his guard up.

It’s the lunar New Year, and the time of year when the ghosts and humans alike have their merits tallied. Guo Changcheng, the intern at the Special Investigations Department, gets another learning experience when the group goes after a resentful spirit. He’s still timid and easily frightened, but we learn that he has abundance of merits, whereas Chu Shuzhi, the zombie investigator at SID doesn’t have enough to end his 300 years of service.

It’s also the time of year to visit the family. Zhao Yunlan brings Shen Wei to meet his parents, shocking them by coming out to them. He doesn’t let their opinions stop him—or Shen Wei’s reluctance either. He’s already bought them a house even, and is contemplating forcefully moving the other man there, only to stop at the last moment after learning the secret about their relationship Shen Wei has kept.

Shen Wei is still searching for the four hallowed artifacts that could release the great seal. This time, the Merit Brush makes an appearance and he and Zhao Yunlan both go after it, though Shen Wei tries to stop the other man. He knows that it will reveal the true identity of Zhao Yunlan to him. It puts a strain between the men, but it also brings their relationship to a turning point.

This wasn’t as action filled as the first volume. There’s only one investigation that is solved fairly easily. The rest is taken up by personal issues of the characters, and Zhao Yunlan investigating his true identity from the Chinese creation mythologies. The volume ends before we learn what he truly thinks of the revelations. The relationship between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei remains rather one-sided, and we don’t learn either, where it stands after their first night together (especially since it’s a bit of a shock to Zhao Yunlan.) I’m eager to find out.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Thousand Autumns vol. 4 by Meng Xi Shi: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Thousand Autumns vol 4 by Meng Xi Shi

The story of Shen Qiao, the good Daoist cultivator, and Yan Wushi, the leader of the demonic cultivating sect, has reached the second to last volume. After the excitement at the end of the last volume, the start of this one is fairly calm. Shen Qiao takes Yuwen Song, the last heir of the previous emperor, to safety with the Bixia Sect. Life for them would be serene even, if Yan Wushi didn’t insist on accompanying them.

Yan Wushi has had a great change of mind—or heart—since the previous book. All of a sudden, Shen Qiao is the most wonderful and perfect person in the world for him, and he’s determined to make the younger man his in a very forceful way. Shen Qiao is equally determined not to believe a word that comes out of Yan Wushi’s mouth, and he most definitely won’t open his heart after the way Yan Wushi broke it earlier by betraying him.

The political turmoil catches with them when they attend the Sword Trial Conference where the rankings of the cultivation world are determined with several battle scenes. An old grandmaster, long believed dead, shows up. And he’s someone even Yan Wushi isn’t willing to face. So he whisks Shen Qiao away, and the pair head to save another contender to the throne. The book ends in the middle of a scene again, before that storyline finds conclusion.

This was the most romance filled book so far, if one can call it such. At least for the first time, it dominated the narrative, and we get Yan Wushi’s point of view of things. But it’s difficult to see how everything could be solved between the men in the last book that’s left, the misunderstandings and mistrust are so strong. But I’m definitely eager to find out.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Cascade Failure by L. M. Sagas: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Cascade Failure by L.M. Sagas

Cascade Failure starts Ambit’s Run sci-fi series. It’s set in a far-future, space-faring galaxy that still has a connection to perfectly liveable Earth. Everything worth anything is owned by Trust, which aims at making profit no matter the human cost. They’re only kept in reign by the Union who protects the labourers. Between them, as a sort of a police and military, is the Guild.

Jal is a deserted Guild ranger. He’s been modified genetically for mining work, and is stronger and faster than others, with eyes that can see in the dark. He’s fleeing from something towards an unknown goal, and for that, he needs a ride. He thinks he’s landed on a ship that has no connection to the Guild, but turns out he’s wrong. And it’s not a coincidence he’s on the ship.

Ambit is a small Guild vessel that takes on riskier jobs at the edges of the galaxy, and looks the part. Her captain is Eoan, a sentient AI with holographic projections and a yearn to learn everything, especially about humans. XO is Saint, a gruff former Earth soldier turned Guild ranger. He’s Jal’s former commanding officer and there’s huge baggage between the men, though their relationship is never made very clear. Then there’s Nash, who is both the mechanic and the doctor and equally good at both. She likes feng shui and crocheting in her spare time.

The crew’s plan to take Jal to be court marshalled takes a turn when they answer a distress call. They find Anke, a chirpy programmer who’s learned of a Trust code that destroys terraformed planets in mere moments. She has a counter code. She just needs to test it. The crew decides to help her. Things don’t go as planned.

This is a very character-driven sci-fi. Each character is given their point of view chapters, and much time is spent in interpersonal relationships. No romances, though there are some hints that could’ve been made stronger and clearer for bigger emotional punches later.

The focus is on Jal and Saint with their past. We learn why Jal deserted, but his life since is sort of glossed over. He emerges as my favourite, though there’s a huge gap in how his chapters present him and how others see him. Anke too, has a clear role. Nash and Eoan didn’t necessarily need their own chapters, they slow things down, but Eoan goes through a transforming event, which was good to see from their point of view.

The plot is fairly straightforward, sort of secondary, and a bit slow, but good. Nothing is black and white, and the bad guys aren’t necessarily bad, or are bad in an understandable way. There are betrayals and sacrifices, and the solutions aren’t easy. The biggest reward for the reader doesn’t come from the plot, but from the characters themselves.

This might have been a four-star book, but it’s so well-written and balanced, especially for a debut, that it gets full five stars. The ending hints at the crew’s next mission. I’m definitely going to read that too.

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

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Jumpnauts by Hao Jingfang: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

Jumpnauts by Hao Jingfang

Jumpnauts is set in near future where a war has split the world into two factions. In the middle of this, a signal from space is detected that’s fast-approaching earth. Three young Chinese, two men and a woman, with their own interests in the matter decide to investigate.

I was looking for a modern sci-fi with a fresh take from a new, non-western perspective. This wasn’t that book. The premise is tired and went out of fashion with von Däniken in the 70s. The idea that humanity is too stupid to evolve without outside help would require a truly innovative take to make it work. This wasn’t it. Not even our imagination is our own, and the icons of Chinese culture like the dragon (loong) are just reflections of alien cultures. The book doesnt even ask what made those aliens so much better that they can evolve, but humans cant? Moreover, they havent even evolved beyond wars.

The three main characters, Jiang Liu, Yun Fan and Qi Fei, were really annoying with absolutely nothing to redeem themselves. The reader never gets a proper reading of them. They’re emotionless (like absolutely zero emotional response to anything, be it space, aliens or a scolding mother) and don’t have any inner monologues that would explain their actions and reactions. For the first third, we’re stuck with some sort of triangle drama that doesn’t even exist. Yun Fan said no, and the two men weren’t even truly interested in her. They just needed a reason for constant cockfighting.

The story doesn’t really pick up when the three finally manage to get to space to meet the aliens. The past is rehashed again, and then the story pauses for a philosophising of the garden variety. Everything ends with a kumbaya moment where all the humanitys differences are put aside for a chance for space exploration.

But above all, the book is boring. The narrative has no driving force from the inside. The characters react to outside prompts and are pushed by them through the story. Not once do they rise above themselves or evolve (and no, the mind-reading ability doesn’t count.) In the end, the reader is left empty.

Learning from the author’s bio that she’s a physicist and economist explains a lot about her attitude to humans as an afterthought and passengers in their own story—and why Yun Fan would be such a bad archaeologist. But the author is not much of a physicist either. I’m all for innovative take in science when it comes to fiction; it doesn’t have to be based in real world science. But it has to be consistent within the book. Here, it’s best seen like cultivation magic in Chinese webnovel xianxias. Whatever suits the narrative at any given moment.

The writing is only marginally better than in xianxias too (and Ive given five stars for far messier of those), and the translation by Ken Liu can do only so much with the childish narrative. I’ll stick with xianxias with their jumpy narrative and bad translations. At least there’s emotional reward in those.

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

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Remnants of Filth vol. 3 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Remnants of Filth vol 3 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

Volume 3 of Remnants of Filth offered a heartbreak after a heartbreak. I’ll try to review it without great spoilers, but continue at your own discretion.

The story picks up on the burial mountain where Mo Xi is paying respects to his father. Gu Mang, feeling the need to show Mo Xi that he can become a good person again, sets to ask forgiveness in front of all ten thousand graves on the burial mountain. This even though Mo Xi tells him that no matter how good he becomes, he’ll be executed in the end.

And Mo Xi is right: people aren’t swayed by Gu Mang’s show of humility. Things might have continued like they have so far, with Mo Xi frustrated with Gu Mang, whose memory remains poor, but then Yue Chenqing goes missing. The emperor orders Mo Xi to go rescue him with his Fourth Uncle Murong Chui and half-brother Jiang Yexue, and Gu Mang has to come along too. It’s an uncomfortable journey, as Murong Chui and Jiang Yexue don’t get along at all, and Gu Mang remembers some of the more embarrassing things.

They locate Yue Chenqing to an island of bat demons, but the rescue mission goes sideways. In the heat of the battle, Gu Mang and Mo Xi have a chance to observe the events of the past, namely the moment Gu Mang decides to defect.

It’s a revelation in many ways to Mo Xi. He learns things about Gu Mang he had been too young to understand at the time, and gets some insight into why Gu Mang defected, though he has now more questions than before. And he realises exactly how the emperor sees Gu Mang and what his role in Gu Mang’s defection was. All of it is heartbreaking; more so, because Mo Xi has no way to help Gu Mang or console him.

Mo Xi is greatly shaken by what he learns, but since the battle is on, he has no time to reflect. Gu Mang is changed too. But not back to the man Mo Xi knew before. The final heartbreak comes when Mo Xi finally gathers courage to ask Gu Mang if he ever loved him. The book ends before we get the answer. It’ll be an agony to wait for the next volume.