Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The Book of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Book of Ile-Rien by Martha Wells

This is a combined edition of the first two books in Ile-Rien series, The Element of Fire and The Death of the Necromancer. Both were originally published in the 90s, and were received well. They’ve been revised here and are the author’s preferred edition.

First book is set in a renaissance or baroque type of royal court of Ile-Rien where tensions are high between the dowager queen, her rather useless son the king, the current queen, and the king’s favourite courtier. That alone would’ve made an interesting story of palace intrigue, but added to it are a conspiracy by a sorcerer, attack by the unseelie court of fayres, and the illegitimate daughter of the previous king by the fayre queen of Air and Darkness who returns after several years of exile. And at the centre of everything is the captain of the Queen’s Guard, Thomas Boniface, whose job it is to maintain order and keep both queens safe.

Kade’s return pushes several conflicts and conspiracies to light, and before anyone realises, there’s a battle for life and death going on. The enemy is rather vague and changes constantly, as the conspirators betray each other for their own gain, keeping the reader guessing as much as Boniface. When the dust settles, things have changed for everyone, and not always for the better.

This was a good and compact stand-alone story with high stakes, interesting characters and a bit of romance which I didn’t entirely feel. It’s a May-December one between Kade and Boniface that felt slightly icky even though she’s 24, mostly because Kade behaved like a capricious child. Luckily it was left to the end of the book, so I could let it go.

The second book takes place a century later in the same city. The world has advanced in leaps, and this one is a Gaslamp novel with gothic vibes and aesthetics, complete with séances and rambling manors. It doesn’t really build on the first book, even the magic has changed, and the focus is on the world of demimonde as much as the aristocracy.

Nicholas Valiarde is a successful thief and man of mystery posing as an art dealer. He’s lost his foster father to a conspiracy, and has spent the years since planning a revenge against the man he thinks is responsible for it. With his team, he’s worked hard and everything is ready for the final act in his revenge. And then things start to go wrong.

A man arrives who claims to know who Nicholas is. Even worse, he has items Nicholas’s father has invented that should’ve been destroyed. Nicholas has no choice but to go after the man. What should’ve been a quick kill turns into a full-blown investigation into necromancy and other forbidden arts that is as ghoulish as it’s difficult to solve. And to make matters worse, Nicholas himself is being hunted by an investigator.

This too was a compact, standalone story with great characters and an intriguing story. Interestingly enough, I’d tried to read The Death of the Necromancer years ago and hadn’t managed more than three chapters before giving up. Mostly, if I recall, because I couldn’t get into the world at all. Reading the books back-to-back, it was easier to understand the second book too, even though the worlds are completely different, and I rushed through it.

I would give the first book four stars (it was a tad confusing with too large a cast) and the latter five stars. As a whole, they get five stars for being well-written, imaginative and able to tell their stories in a concise manner that didn’t leave anything out and didn’t have anything unnecessary either. The characters were great and the world was interesting. There are other Ile-Rien books too, and I’ll have to give them a try after this.

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

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture Vol. 3 by Mikage Sawamura: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture by Mikage Sawamura

Volume 3 of Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture is called A Tale of Curses and Blessings. This light novel series of paranormal cozy mysteries is set in contemporary Japan. It follows Naoya Fukamachi, a first-year student at Seiwa University in Tokyo, and an associate professor of folklore, Akira Takatsuki, who specialises in urban legends and ghost stories. Naoya helps the professor to explore all sorts of paranormal incidents, all of which have had very mundane explanations so far, much to the excitable professor’s disappointment.

As the title tells, the third volume is about curses. Naoya’s classmate believes he’s been cursed because he didn’t forward a chain letter, so Naoya brings him to the professor who solves it in a very Takatsuki manner. Then the pair investigates a ghost story at a nearby library. The ghost leaves ciphers in books and whoever finds them is cursed if they fail to solve them. That turned out to have a lovely and sad explanation.

Third mystery takes Naoya, Takatsuki and his detective friend Kenji ‘KenKen’ Sasakura out of Tokyo to a remote mountain village. They’re supposed to be on a winter break, but Takatsuki has heard of a cave with a demon buried in it and wants to see it for himself. When they find bones that belong to a human, they suddenly have a mystery to solve. That too, turned out to be very sad.

The volume ends with a lovely bonus story from KenKen’s point of view, where he remembers how he and Akira first met when they were six and formed a friendship that’s lasted thirty years. It has a spooky ghost story too, that might shed light to why Akira is special—if only KenKen would reveal it to him.

In addition to mysteries, we learn more about Takatsuki. He hides a personal tragedy behind constant smiles and taking delight in all the small things, like hot chocolate with marshmallows. But the glimpses behind the scenes make the reader want to give him a tight hug and never let go. There is something dark in him too, which Naoya discovers to his horror, though it’s unclear yet if Takatsuki himself knows about it. Since Naoya and KenKen are determined to protect him at all costs, mostly from himself, neither of them will likely tell him.

Naoya, the point of view character, is more involved this time round instead of a mere observer that remains a bit distant. He realises that his time at the university has changed him, and that he might have made friends even. He’s not willing to admit it though, as all friends he makes usually leave him when they learn that he can hear their lies. He tells a few fibs himself, much to his distress. But best of all, he realises he’s become friends with Takatsuki beyond a mere student-professor relationship. Those looking for a romance will be disappointed though—unless the last line in KenKen’s story hints at that.

As always, I read this too fast and now have to wait for the next volume. Luckily there are several volumes to be translated still. I’m looking forward to reading them all.

p.s. If you’re buying this series on Amazon, there’s a glitch which directs to the manga of the series when purchasing the ebook. The volume number is the same, but contents obviously aren’t. Paperback links direct to the correct book. Other retailers don’t have the same problem, so maybe favour them. The problem isn’t unique to this series on Amazon; many light novels with manga adaptations have the glitch.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Case File Compendium vol 1 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Case File Compendium by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

Case File Compendium is a long-awaited official translation of the Chinese webnovel Bing An Ben by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou, a prolific author of historical danmei fantasies. Unlike their other series, this book has a contemporary Chinese setting and doesn’t have fantasy elements.

He Yu is a 19-year-old university student in the imaginary city of Huzhou (basically Shanghai.) He’s recently returned from living several years abroad, and wants to reconnect with the girl he’s loved for a long time, Xie Xue. She’s teaching screenwriting at the university, so that’s what he’ll study too. She’s several years older than him though, and only sees him as a childhood friend.

Xie Quingcheng is 32, a former doctor and current professor of medicine at a nearby university. He’s Xie Xue’s brother, and He Yu’s former doctor. He Yu suffers from an extremely rare (and imaginary) condition that’ll eventually drive him insane, if he doesn’t learn to control his emotions. And love, especially unrequited, isn’t good for him.

The premise of the three being connected throws the men constantly together. They don’t like each other much, and don’t really understand each other either, even though Xie Quingcheng is the only person who truly knows what He Yu is like and what is required of him so that he can remain sane. Both are extremely homophobic too, so even friendship under the guise of looking after a former patient isn’t likely. The first volume only sets the stage for their relationship.

Mostly, the book is a bit of a mess. A lot of things happen, a background conspiracy emerges, people come and go, and random stories pop up that have nothing to do with the characters or the plot. It takes a long time for the basic story to form and the reader to get the hang of the two men, especially since—in the manner of webnovels—their characters and backstories keep changing to fit the plot.

It’s amazing how much Xie Quingcheng has done for a relatively young man (though He Yu keeps calling him middle-aged), and how sane He Yu is for a psychopath. They’re fairly likeable characters nonetheless, and oddly well-suited for one another for such different people. The age gap is pronounced, but I didn’t find it problematic.

Contemporary China is an interesting setting. It remains kind of vague though, and I kept wishing there would be more of it. It’s mostly about the divide between the rich and poor, and traditional, patriarchal society and modern values—or the lack of them.

Despite the slow start, the story becomes fairly compelling towards the end, lifting it from a three-star book to a four-star one. The first volume ends at a small cliffhanger that comes out of the blue. However, since it is about the background plot, it’s not terribly annoying. The game between the two men has only started, and I’m interested in reading where it’ll lead.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

At First Spite by Olivia Dade: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

At First Spite by Olivia Dade

At First Spite starts the Harlot’s Bay series of contemporary romances. In the first book, Athena Greydon moves to Harlot’s Bay, into the house she had bought for her husband-to-be as a wedding present, only for him to call off the wedding. Now she’s stuck with the house and mortgage, and to her horror, she’s next-door neighbours with her ex’s brother who caused the breakup.

Matthew Vine had a good reason to make his brother call off the wedding: Johnny wasn’t mature enough for Athena. He just didn’t think to tell her that. And he’s not about to admit, not even to himself, that he’s interested in her himself.

At first, Athena’s anger with Matthew makes her push him away, but little by little, the two become friends. He feels responsible for her and acts accordingly, which occasionally annoys her. But when she becomes depressed, he’s there for her. There’s not much romance as such until after the half point, when she has recovered, with a bit of drama when Matthew feels he needs to choose between his brother and her.

This was a lovely, grownup romance, though slow and much too long. Both MCs are closer to forty with lived lives and baggage. They behave their age too, and not like teenagers, like so often happens in these ‘mature’ romances. Nevertheless, both needed to grow up, and some grovelling had to happen, before the happily ever after. Emotions were fairly steady, but its a good romance for those who want more mature characters.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennet: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Tainted Cup by Robert Jackson Bennet

The Tainted Cup starts the Shadow of the Leviathan series of fantasy mysteries. As always, Jackson Bennet has created a wonderfully innovative world that isn’t a mere backdrop but an integral part of the story, and characters that the reader can root for.

The story is set in a vast empire lined by the sea at one edge, where each wet season huge leviathans try to enter the land, kept at bay by a wall. All the efforts of the empire, especially the military, is directed at protecting the people from these creatures. But they’re useful too, as their blood is used for modifying and genetically manipulating everything from people to animals and plants.

Dinios Kol is an engraver, a person whose brain has been altered to remember absolutely everything. He’s been assigned as an assistant to Ana Dolabra, a criminal investigator banished to a tiny village near the sea. She’s susceptible to outward stimulus and goes blindfolded most of the time. And she never visits the crime scenes herself. That’s why she has Kol.

A puzzling murder has happened in a manor of one of the most influential families in the empire. A tree has burst from inside a visiting military officer. The crime doesn’t take Dolabra long to figure out, but then there turns out to be more of these murders, which takes the pair to the town nearest to the seawall where the military is preparing for the wet season.

This was an excellent book and an intriguing mystery. Told from the point of view of Dinios Kol, the mystery deepens and its scope widens at every turn. He’s the perfect protagonist for the story, curious, single-minded and persistent. With his ability to remember everything, he conducts a steady investigation. But solving the crime is left for his boss. She’s a Sherlock Holmes type of person who makes huge deductive leaps that leave others puzzled, the reader included. But she definitely finds the truth in the end.

It's also a warning about the human manipulation of nature. At every turn, the story relies on the consequences of altering the people and the nature, and the toll of the endless war against the leviathans. I have a notion they’ll turn out to be both more important and less destructive than the people believe.

Despite the gruesome nature of the murders, the story has a cozy feel to it. Kol goes about his investigation, making friends and finding new things about himself and his abilities. There’s even a bit of romance for him, if too briefly. The ending sends the pair for more adventures. I hope there will be an entire series of the two solving crimes around the empire.

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

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Legacy of Temptation by Larissa Ione: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Legacy of Temptation by Larissa Ione

Legacy of Temptation starts a new Demonica spin-off series, Demonica Birthright. I’ve been reading these books since they first began to appear 16 years ago, and although this one has a 30-year time-jump, the complex world and the characters are the same, and everything felt familiar.

The premise is the same too: humans still hate and mistrust demons, and at the centre of the hatred and misinformation is the Aegis agency. It felt a bit dated—haven’t they learned anything in thirty years?—but the plot that was based on the hatred worked fine.

Demons have their own agency, DART, for fighting evil demons. An exchange program between the two brings humans in the middle of demons, and things don’t go well. The focus is on Logan, the son of one of the four horsemen, Thanatos, and Eva, a spokesperson for the Aegis. She’s the typical brainwashed hater that the series has introduced before, difficult to like at first, but with demon trouble of her own. And she does change in the end. Logan is the typical hothead hero with a good heart.

A romance happens, sort of. The two barely interact during the first third of the book, and right after things start to warm up, the plot takes a turn that basically ruins the chances for any romance. Logan and Eva spend most of the book apart, dealing with their own family dramas and other emergencies, and the romance is very much like an afterthought. The spicy scenes are stolen moments in the middle of drama, sex for sex’s sake, and they don’t feel very romantic. It’s not the emotional rollercoaster of the earlier books, but love is declared and a happy ending is had, so I guess it’s a romance.

But the book is full of supernatural action of other kind. Lilith is on the loose, causing trouble for Logan. A demon colleague of his is about to turn permanently evil, and the hunt for him is on too. And there’s trouble brewing in heaven, with different point of view characters. It makes for an exciting book, but it also feels like a setup for the series to come. There will be interesting action. I hope there will be better romances too.

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

He Who Drowned the World concludes The Radiant Emperor duology that began with She Who Became the Sun. The first book was so brilliant that when it came time to read the sequel, I postponed it for months in fear that it wouldn’t live up to the first. I shouldn’t have worried.

In the second book, Zhu Chongba, the orphan girl turned a boy monk who assumed her brother’s destiny along with his name and gender, has become the Radiant King, Zhu Yuanzhang. But she has a long way to go to defeat the Mongols and becoming the emperor. She has the Heavenly Mandate, but she isn’t the only one and the fight for the throne is fierce.

A battle after a battle follows. Zhu Yuanzhang is outnumbered, but she is resourceful and she has an unexpected—and unwilling—ally, the eunuch general Ouyang who is driven by his need to revenge his father and kill the Great Khan. The two are mirrors of each other, in their destinies and the perceived wrongness of their bodies, but only Zhu is willing to accept it.

The journey to the throne is difficult and unexpected. The death of the Great Khan isn’t what Ouyang imagined, and the Great Khan Zhu has to face isn’t who she thought he would be either. But after all the death and sacrifices, after believing she would do anything for her destiny, Zhu learns in the end that there is a sacrifice she isn’t willing to make.

This was a great book. It’s heavy on war campaigns and court intrigue, which aren’t my favourites, but the attention is always on the characters, which makes everything interesting. The contenders for the throne aren’t nice people and some of their fates are well-deserved, but the reader still feels sympathy for them. And after disliking Ma in the first book, she rose to be my favourite.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t the mind-blowing experience of the first book. Zhu Yuanzhang has assumed her role as a man so thoroughly it doesn’t cause any internal problems for her, not even when she has to pretend to be a woman. She even thinks of herself as her unlike in the first book.

But she isn’t quite as single-minded as in the first book either, driven by fear of being found out. She grows with her experiences, and learns to question the sacrifices and her destiny, which culminates in the perfect final scene. Had it gone any other way, I would’ve been seriously disappointed. Now I can imagine that as the first emperor of the Ming dynasty she would’ve been both fierce and compassionate.

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

Friday, January 26, 2024

Pillar of Ash by H.M. Long: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Pillar of Ash by H.M. Long

Pillar of Ash is the fourth book in The Four Pillars fantasy series. It used to be Hall of Smoke series, but for this final book they’ve changed the series name for some reason. It’s a Norsk inspired fantasy world according to the author, though not in such an obvious way that readers would easily recognize the inspiration. I took it to be a mix of Native American, Asian and Roman cultures; mostly tribal with direct interaction with gods, and one large empire in constant war with them.

First two books followed Hessa, an Eang warrior who set out to kill false gods. Third book followed Thray, Hessa’s adopted niece as she journeyed to north to find her origins. Fourth book follows Hessa’s twins Yske and Berin.

Yske is a healer who has learned her trade with Aita, a former goddess of healing. She’s partaken in the secrets of the Hall of Smoke and received godlike features herself. When her excitable twin informs her that he’ll form an expedition party to search the edge of the world, she goes with him to keep everyone safe. As a parting gift, Aita gives her the ability to miraculously heal almost every wound. But it comes with a great cost.

It’s not an easy journey and Yske’s skills are often needed. The final task waits at the edge of the world. She needs to revive a near immortal who has been resting in ice for several years, someone who has personal meaning for her. But if she does it, she’ll launch the end of the world.

The book is told in Yske’s point of view and the reader follows as she struggles with the consequences of her healing powers. Her patients aren’t always grateful and the reader is left wondering why she bothers. Berin especially is so annoying that only a sister could love him enough to travel to the edge of the world for him.

In hindsight, nothing really happens in the book until the party reaches their destination. There are creatures to fight and a journey to endure. But something is constantly going on, so it doesn’t matter. The entire plot happens in the last third of the book. There’s a great build-up to the world ending—and then it’s dealt with a literal deus ex machina solution that Yske has no part in. She and the reader are left to watch it from the side.

Thinking of the series as a whole, none of the follow-ups rose to the brilliance of the first book. Thray and Yske didn’t have Hessa’s trauma and rage that propelled her to journey to kill the false gods. Yske’s motivation for following her brother wasn’t compelling, and although she grew to be an interesting character, she relied too much on her godly gift to be a similar underdog facing the gods as her mother was.

Nevertheless, the book was a good conclusion to the series. Things were nicely tied up and this reader is satisfied. Still, there’s a lot to explore in the world yet, so if the author decides to continue, I’ll definitely read more.

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

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Stars of Chaos vol 2 by priest: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Stars of Chaos by priest

The second volume of the Chinese steampunk series Stars of Chaos: Sha Po Lang starts with a four-year time jump, which is a good decision. Chang Geng, the fourth prince of the empire, is now twenty and has grown into a fine young man. He’s spent the intervening years studying everything possible from martial arts and military tactics to medicine and accounting. All this for his godfather Gu Yun, because nothing has diminished his infatuation with the military genius marquis.

For his part, Gu Yun has spent the four years securing the silk road to bolster the economics and the coffers of the empire. But despite his efforts, the country is getting poorer and more unstable.

The two reunite by chance and from there on, they’re constantly dealing with a disaster after another. First, it’s bandits smuggling violet gold, the coveted substance powering the mechanical devices, which has larger political implications. Then it’s the inner politics of the empire, which leads to the emperor falling out with Gu Yun. And before they know it, there’s an invading army outside the empire’s borders.

During all this, Chang Geng and Gu Yun work side by side. The younger man has a sharp mind and has travelled all over the country, getting a good understanding of how things are. It constantly baffles his godfather, but he soon learns to rely on Chang Geng’s suggestions. The men grow to be more or less equal in standing, although Chang Geng takes a role of a caretaker, looking after Gu Yun who still suffers from the effects of a poisoning.

But there’s tension between them too. Chang Geng makes his feelings known to Gu Yun, who cannot accept them. They keep throwing him off though, forcing him to see the younger man in a new light. The romance didn’t go anywhere yet, but it had a nudge to the right direction.

Mostly, the narrative was dominated by politics and war. It’s a confusing mess and would’ve benefited from a map to clear some things out, but well-written and fast-paced, keeping the reader’s interest. The volume ends at a difficult place for the empire and the pair. I’ll definitely need to read on to find out how they’ll solve everything.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Market of 100 Fortunes by Marie Brennan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Market of 100 Fortunes by Marie Brennan

The Market of 100 Fortunes is the third Legend of Five Rings game world book by Brennan. They follow Isao Ryotora and Asako Sekken, two samurais of Rokugan Empire, a priest and a scholar who are drawn into dangerous supernatural situations. I’ve read them back-to-back and have liked them all, but this was perhaps the weakest one.

Ryotora and Sekken are preparing to travel to the Dragon Clan’s lands together to marry there, when an urgent request from Sayashi, the cat spirit who has been their reluctant helper in both cases, calls them to Crane Clan lands. But when they arrive there, she’s disappeared.

She may be in the market of 100 fortunes, a place no one believes exists. The men start to investigate with the help of a Scorpion magistrate who may have an agenda of her own, and a little orphan girl. Turns out, finding the market is easy. Getting out of there less so.

This was slightly less interesting read than before. In the earlier books, the men had full chapters in their point of view, which gave a lot of space for character development. Here, the point of view changes in the middle of the chapter, leaving less room for the characters, as the plot dominates the pace. It would’ve required more drama early on to keep a reader’s interest. Now it took a bit too long before anything happened.

There are also a couple of chapters from Sayashi’s point of view. She wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hoped, and I felt they didn’t really add anything worthwhile. At the very least, the reason for her actions should’ve been brought up earlier on to make the great revelation at the end work better. Now it came a bit out of blue and didn’t have the impact it could’ve had.

Nevertheless, once the mystery got going, it was intriguing. Again, the solution wasn’t easy, requiring great sacrifices. The men worked on their peculiar connection, coming to terms with it, and their relationship remained the best part of the book. The ending was good, and gave a notion that this is the last book. If that’s the case, I’m happy with where the men ended up. But I’d really like to read more.

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

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Restorer's Home Omnibus Vol 2 by Kim Sang-Yeop: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Restorer's Home Omnibus vol 2. by Kim Sang-Yeop

The second omnibus of this Korean comic series contains volumes 3 and 4, requests 14 to 27 to restore items; a hefty reading of 400 pages. Sungwoo Yoo, the high school student with a supernatural ability to see spirits in items and restore them, can’t catch a break. He’s still permanently broke trying to maintain the huge traditional Korean mansion after his father disappeared, and feed the horde of ghosts of an ancient king who needs Sungwoo to restore special items to gain back his powers.

This is a fun mix of Koran history, restoration details, high school life, and manga antics. Sungwoo makes a couple of new (reluctant) friends, helps people in their troubles, saves an ancient site from destruction, and restores a few items. He even manages to restore enough of the king’s items for him to briefly return to his true form, and he’s not at all what I—or Sungwoo—expected him to be. But more needs to be done.

His father is still a no-show, but he sends Sungwoo the king’s artefacts regularly, so he’s alive. And the mother who hasn’t even been mentioned before, features briefly in Sungwoo’s memories. The cliffhanger ending seems to hint of her return. And it might not be a good thing.

I liked this as much as the first volume. The black and white illustrations are good, stories were interesting, the pace wasn’t quite as hectic as in the first, Sungwoo’s fate didn’t jump up and down as badly, and the king and his horde were even helpful occasionally. I’m definitely interested in reading more.

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

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The Game of 100 Candles by Marie Brennan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Game of 100 Candles by Marie Brennan

The Legend of 100 Candles is the second Legend of the Five Rings novel by Brennan that I’ve read, and I like it even better than the first. Two years have passed since the events of the first book, and Ryotora and Sekken have spent most of it apart. Both are still suffering from the consequences of Sekken’s sacrifice, but true to their natures, neither has told the other about it.

Now Ryotora has come to Sekken’s home town to negotiate about the fate of the shrine that they’ve saved. Court intrigue isn’t Ryotora’s strong suit, but he has Sekken there to help him. And then things start to go wrong when an evening of story-telling leads to a strange sleeping curse. It’s time for the men to investigate.

This was a great story. Both men struggle with their feelings, their duty as samurais, and their health. And when they figure out the reason for their poor health, things become even more muddled. The romance doesn’t have much room to grow; rather, the men figure out what they need to do to uphold their duty and feelings on their own. The end result is satisfying, if brief.

The mystery, once it presents itself at 30% mark, is intriguing and difficult to solve, made more difficult by politics and family demands. And once again, Ryotora saves the day.

This was fairly different in style and pace from the first book, the focus on characters rather than the mystery. I like where it took both men, individually and together. Side characters were interesting and multi-dimensional. The end for the men was left rather open, and I absolutely must read more.

Monday, January 08, 2024

The Night Parade of 100 Demons by Marie Brennan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Night Parade of 100 Demons by Marie Brennan

The Night Parade of 100 Demons is set in the Legend of the Five Rings game world, but the game or its events don’t feature in any way. This is the second series I’ve read and I’m still so ignorant about the game that I don’t even know what the five rings of the legend are. The books work fine without.

The stories take place in an Asia-inspired, pre-industrial empire that is divided into smaller vassal territories ruled by clans that are fairly independent and culturally diverse. The Asian elements work very well, even though neither author that I’ve read is Asian. There are enough modern elements in the mix, like the equality of genders and acceptance of same sex relationships, that the reader doesn’t really question the authenticity of the details that might be authors’ inventions.

This is a supernatural mystery that takes place in a remote mountain village of Seibo Mura in the Dragon Clan’s lands near the border to the Phoenix Clan. For two full moons, a horde of evil spirits have descended on the village, killing people and destroying everything. The villagers have asked for help and the nearest official has sent a samurai to investigate.

Agasha no Isao Ryotora is an itinerant samurai of the Dragon Clan and of fairly low standing among samurais. He’s not a warrior but a priest capable of communicating with spirits. When he arrives, he discovers that another samurai is already there, an aristocratic Asako Sekken of the Phoenix Clan. He’s not a warrior either but a scholar. Combining their knowledge of the spirit world, they set out to investigate.

It’s not an easy investigation, as all the people who might know about the lore and spirits of the village are dead. It’s a trial and error, and it’s made more difficult because both men are keeping secrets from one another.

Ryotora’s secret is that he’s been adopted to a samurai family from that village. He’s already lost a lover when he confessed his low birth status, and he’s not about to face the same humiliation. Sekken’s secret is that he’s not there by accident. He’s been haunted by a spirit dog and it’s lured him there. Of the two secrets, Sekken’s turn out to be more important for solving the problem.

This was a rather slow-paced mystery told in both men’s point of view. There are no great highs and lows along the way, but the investigation never stalls and something is constantly happening. Along the way, the men become friends and develop deeper feelings too, but neither of them is about to bring it up, mostly for the secrets they keep. It’s very slow burn, but their feelings have a crucial role in saving the village, so it’s well-woven in the story anyway.

The book is rich in Japanese mythology of evil spirits. Brennan is an anthropologist and she’s done a thorough research. None of the creatures—or other special Japanese words—are explained in the narrative, and while I didn’t know any of them, it didn’t mar my enjoyment. However, there’s a glossary of the creatures at the back for those who need to know.

Otherwise, the descriptions are sparse. I don’t know the ages of the main characters—I barely know what they look like—and the village remained vague to the end. But the narrative flows so well I didn’t miss the detailed descriptions all that much. I like the world, and I liked both Ryotora and Sekken. I have the next two books in the series waiting and I’ll definitely read on.

Friday, January 05, 2024

Thousand Autumns vol. 3 by Meng Xi Shi: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Thousand Autumns by Meng Xi Shi

Thousand Autumns, the story of Shen Qiao, the pure and good Daoist cultivator, and Yan Wushi, the leader of the demonic cultivation sect, set in imaginary 6th century Chinese empire has reached its third volume. It continues where the previous one left, Shen Qiao rushing to save Yan Wushi from an ambush he couldn’t possibly survive—only to arrive too late.

Yan Wushi’s enemies learn that they and Shen Qiao are on opposing sides politically too, no matter what Shen Qiao thinks of Yan Wushi personally. Reluctantly, they give his body to Shen Qiao who has now made powerful enemies. But Yan Wushi is not dead.

Tides have turned for the two men. It’s now Shen Qiao’s turn to nurture Yan Wushi back to health. It’s not an easy task and comes with a curious twist. A head injury surfaces multiple personalities in Yan Wushi, most of whom are more likable than the man himself. Some tender feelings rise, but those hoping for a proper romance are again disappointed. In the end, the original personality returns and Yan Wushi pulls yet another shitty move, leaving Shen Qiao to deal with the political ramifications of what his alleged death has caused.

This was a great volume. Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi spent most of it together, and even though there weren’t many scenes from the latter’s point of view, there were some insights into him. Mostly though, it’s still the story of Shen Qiao growing to become the most powerful martial artist in the realm. There were even more battle scenes than before where he fights against an overwhelming enemy, surprising them with his skills. The volume ends after one such scene, not quite with a cliffhanger but leaving everything open-ended. It’s impossible to tell where the story is going from here, but I’ll definitely read on to find out.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

My reading year 2023

I spent the last week of 2023 on vacation and didn’t have time to publish a summary post of my reading year, so here it is now. I had a mixed year, reading-wise. On one hand, I made a personal record of titles read in a year, 230 by official Goodreads count, 52 of which I reviewed on this blog. On the other, I struggled to pick up and finish books.

Part of the problem is my shortening attention span. Even the most engaging books can lose my attention in the middle of a scene, and less-engaging books take eons to finish—if I finish them. Especially the review copies I received from NetGalley and Edelweiss suffered for this, leading to a back-log of books I haven’t even started. But partly it’s because I’ve grown bored with the same books I’ve read for years.

What saved my reading year were new genres for me, like Chinese xianxia boylove novels, Japanese light novels, and online manga and manhwa. The first xianxia I picked up randomly at a local bookstore the year before based on the cover. It turned out to be Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, and like millions of westerns in the past few years, I was swept away by it and the TV adaptation too.

I read 27 xianxias or Chinese boylove novels last year. There aren’t all that many of them officially translated and available commercially, so it didn’t take long to catch up. Next year will be slower in those, as I have to wait for them to be translated.

My favourites were Husky and His White Cat Shizun by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou, of which four volumes have been translated; Thousand Autumns by Meng Xi Shi (currently reading volume 3), Golden Terrace by Cang Wu Bin Bai, of which I’ve read the first volume so far, and a modern romance The Missing Piece by Kun Yi Wei Lou. On top of the m/m romances, they’re wonderful insights into (fantasy) Chinese past, and cultures that are refreshingly different from the western ones that I usually read. However, curiously enough, similar books by westernised Asian authors failed to engage me completely.

Japanese manga and Korean manhwa were an accidental addition to my reading. I requested review copies at random, realised they’re more fun to read from a tablet than in print (not that my eyesight is that poor, but still), and went a bit overboard with them. In total, I read 145 comic volumes that I added to my Goodreads count, but there were many more that I didn’t, several ongoing webtoons included.

Most of the review copies that I received were such that I only read the first volume and didn’t continue with the series. But there were interesting and fun pieces among them too, like The Restorer's Home by Kim Sang-yeop, a mix of modern and historical Korean culture, and What's Wrong with Secretary Kim? by MyeongMi Kim and GyeongYun Jeong, which I had to start reading online as translations weren’t published fast enough. Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo is also one of my new favourites, with ten volumes translated and published so far.

Japanese light novels were a mixed bunch. Some were rather bad books with lousy translations, but there was a gem among them that I continued with after receiving a review copy of the first volume from Edelweiss. Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture by Mikage Sawamura is a fun series of paranormal mysteries set in modern Japan, with two volumes and one manga volume translated so far.

Outside Asian light literature, I read my usual fares. Favourites included Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, which managed to be a fresh take of the dark academy genre; System Collapse by Martha Wells (Murderbot never fails me), and Foxglove King by Hannah F. Whitten, a more traditional romantic fantasy. Dead Country by Max Gladstone started a new series set in his Craft Sequence world, and Translation State by Ann Leckie returned to her Imperial Radch world.

All in all, a good reading year, if a very different from previous years. I’ll continue with my Asian streak this year too, with xianxias, light novels and mangas, but there are new books coming from my favourite authors too. I’ve pledged to read 150 books this year in Goodreads reading challenge. I’ll review as many of them here as I have time, so keep an eye on this space. The rest I’ll review on Goodreads.