A Master of Djin by P. Djeli Clark (Dead Djin Universe 1)

Stars: 3 out of 5

I really love this author’s short stories. I’ve read everything he published and each one of the stories was a solid 5 out 5 stars. So I was really looking forward to diving into this full length novel set in the same world as the Haunting of Tram Car 015.

Unfortunately, my high expectations were met with a disappointment. This has all the ingredients that made his short stories great… but the mixture isn’t quite setting right.

I think one of the reasons is that there isn’t enough plot here for a novel, so the author is putting a lot of filler to add to the word count. As a result, the narrative moves at a very sedate pace and feels rather disjointed. I caught myself wondering several times why the the author chose to stay with some minutia details for as long as he did.

When the narrative actually moves the story along, it’s all tight writing and nail-biting action. Unfortunately the “padding” kills that momentum every time. I constantly felt like the story was hitting the break every time it was starting to get good.

My other problem with this book was that I didn’t particularly care for the protagonist. Fatma spends most of the book worrying more about if her tie matches her outfit or what her lover is doing than doing actual detective work. As a result, she comes across as an irresponsible airhead, not a decorated investigator.

And speaking of detective work, Fatma is particularly bad at it in this book. To the point I started wondering exactly how she got her position. Did she get hired as the token female into an all male world? I’m sure that’s not the view the author intended to convey, but Fatma’s seeming ineptitude and worry about her wardrobe above anything else doesn’t make her seem like a capable character. Heck, all the major clues that move the story along are basically handed to her by other characters!

I think the author realized that his protagonist wasn’t doing much detecting, so he decided to give her a new partner. Who is also a female. Fresh out of the academy. Very eager to learn and to jump into action.

This could have been such a wonderful idea to explore – to have those two women used to being tough in a man’s world butt heads, learn how to cooperate, and slowly gel into a cohesive team. And in the beginning it really seemed like that would be the road the author would take… until it wasn’t.

The problem here is that he made the new recruit too perfect. She is skilled in martial arts, she is smart and reads several languages, she never looses her cool even in dreadful situations, and she knows and uncle/cousin/brother-in-law, etc. in any and all departments of Egyptian life. She is basically a glorified Mary Sue.

So we have a wishy washy protagonist paired with a Mary Sue and a story that draaaaaags over pages and pages… and the result is a big disappointment. I think I’ll still with this author’s shorter work for now.

PS: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Glow by Tim Jordan

Stars: between 3 and 3.5 out of 5

This book has magnificent worldbuilding and a rather scary view of what the human race could become in the near future if we continue or technological race for “improvements” without stopping to consider just how much damage we do to our planet and to ourselves in the process. So yes, I had much fun exploring the world created in this book.

The characters, however, were another story altogether. Granted, there were some interesting ones, like Rex or Elaine up in her crumbling ivory tower of an orbital. The major problem though is that there were simply too many of them. It’s like the author tried to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks with this book. Too many ideas, too many plot lines, too many characters.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t give enough attention to ALL his characters, so while some character arcs get satisfying (or at least plausible) resolutions, others are left hanging or shoehorned into other character stories as an after thought.

For example, what was the point of Mira in this book, Beyond having Rex realize that he could care and defend someone other than himself? Why bring her back into the story over and over again?

What was the point of Jaxx by the way? It spends the whole book hunting down the star river and merrily murdering and disassembling humans along the way (granted, that was fun to watch and to read about its thought process while this was happening), but then, when he has the river… he lets it go? What was the point of this character and this particular storyline? In fact, what was the point of the confrontation between the orbital and the artificial construct up in space? It brings nothing to the story itself and dies in the most stupid manner in the end.

And there are a lot of examples of those headscratching characters whose motivations and importance to the story aren’t clear even in the end. That’s what happens when you try to tell too many stories in one book. General confusion and hanging plot lines…

Even the ending, despite its explosions, confrontations, and general destruction and mayhem, is underwhelming. It doesn’t bring any resolution to the story of the star river, the McGuffin that was so important to the future of mankind, or so we are told throughout the book… it stays inactivated in the brain of a man-dog. Oh, and why was it so important by the way? No real explanation apart from doom and gloom prophecies is given.

And what was the whole point of Glow, that drug that the book was named for? Again, no explanation is given.

In summary, I loved the world the author created, but the story itself was confusing and meandering and the ending failed to deliver resolution or any emotional impact. Apart from Elaine. She got exactly what she deserved.

PS: I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Dead Space by Kali Wallace

Stars: 5 out of 5

I have been lucky with my scifi books in 2021 so far and Dead Space continues the trend.

It is an interesting murder and conspiracy mystery written in a very claustrophobic setting – a mining facility on a small asteroid, what can be more claustrophobic than that? But what makes this story so engaging is the protagonist.

Sometimes you think that you have your whole life ahead of you. You have dreams, you have a job you love, you are on a mission that will change the world… and then you watch your whole life crash and burn around you in a single agonizing moment. This is what happened to our protagonist.

To say that Hester is broken is an euphemism. The terrible explosion that destroyed her brilliant future left her with a body that is half organic and half machine… something that has never been done before to that extent. She is in constant pain from human joints rubbing against unyielding metal and a human brain trying to make sense of input submitted by a robotic eye, but that is only scratching the surface… Hester also has severe psychological trauma after her ordeal and PTSD is only part of it. And the fact that she is now stuck in a thankless job she is way overqualified for, on a dismal little asteroid far away from Earth, trying to pay off the gigantic medical debt that only keeps growing… well, you can understand that her view of the world around her is rather bleak.

I liked Hester, even though being in her head was rather hard sometimes because of how hopeless and jaded she sounded, but honestly, can you blame her? But even despite her bleak state of mind, she still tries to do her job as a crime analyst the best she can. And when another survivor of the crash that destroyed her future is murdered, she does everything she can to understand what happened.

I also love that once she understands that the situation is far worse than a simple murder, she does everything she can to keep the people she works with safe, even if that means going on a walk on the surface of an asteroid in an EVA suit and facing her biggest fear – the open vacuum.

The ending wraps up the main mystery in a quite satisfactory manner and gives us a couple more answers about what happened to Hester’s ship along the way. And Hester grows emotionally and psychologically during this ordeal, and might I say, gets a little bit of closure in the end? And even though her situation is just as bleak by the end of the book, she has made peace with it, because she knows that her biggest creation is free in the universe to do what she created it to do – explore.

PS: I received an advanced copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates 1) by A. K. Larkwood

Stars: solid 5 out of 5.

This book has it all – wonderfully weird and detailed world (or worlds?), wonderfully flawed and detailed characters, and a story that keeps you reading. I often struggle with fantasy books because they are so formulistic and predictable, well The Unspoken Name is neither, I’m happy to say. I will definitely be looking forward to more books in this series.

The world described in this book is wonderfully complex and broken. It’s a multitude of worlds, actually, instead of a single one, connected together by a Maze with portal-like Gates leading in and out of it. Some worlds are thriving with life and culture, some are dead and decaying… some are somewhere in between. There are hints at a war between gods that destroyed worlds and shattered the Maze, as well as killing some of them (and the races that worshiped them as well).

And the races populating these worlds are as diverse as their environments, and they worship different gods as well. In fact, magic exists in this world (the existence of portals might have hinted at that), but it is tied firmly to the deity which grants the magical talent to the practitioner… and it exerts a heavy price. See, holding and channeling that much divine essence eventually kills the mage, how soon depends on how often they use that magic and how much power they spend at once. So yes, magic can be deadly and devastating, but most mages will think twice before unleashing it. After all, who wants to end up with goo for insides because you used too much divine power?

I also loved Czorwe, our protagonist and her journey of self-discovery in this book. Her whole life until about the second half of this book has been one of self-negation in the service of someone else. She grew up knowing that she would be sacrificed to her god when she turned 12 and fully accepting that outcome. Then when a mage persuades her to leave with him instead of going through with the sacrifice, she dedicated her whole life to helping him achieve his goals. She never questions why she is doing this, never thinks about what she wants for herself. For the first part of this book, she is just a tool molded and wielded by someone else’s will. Just like she was back in the temple when she was the bride of the Unspoken Name.

I love that this passivity and total disregard of her own desires progressively changes when she discovers someone who she cares about and genuinely wants to help. She finally acts for herself and discovers that she is capable of a lot more than she thought and that she is worthy of love and affection for who she is, not what she can do. I hope that we will see more of Csorwe and her friend in the next books.

And I will definitely be looking for the next books in the series, because even though this book answered one of the mysteries it introduced, there are a gazillion more that can be explored. Not to mention that the Unspoken Name is not done with his runaway bride, not at all.

PS: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Last Watch (The Divide Series 1) by J. S. Dewes

Stars: 5 out of 5

I think I found my new favorite scifi series, and I have been looking for one for a long time.

This book has it all, at least in my opinion – great worldbuilding, multifaceted characters, high stakes, and non-stop action.

Worldbuilding: I love when the author progressively introduces me to their world and does it right. You won’t find any infodumps here. You won’t have characters rehashing events or concepts that they SHOULD already know just for the sake of telling the reader what’s going on. No, sir, no ma’am. We get thrown off the deep end along with Cav, one of our protagonists, who was just sent to the Divide, or the butt of nowhere to serve along with the Sentinels, another bunch of criminals and misfits that the rest of the world would rather forget. It is stressful and confusing at first, but the puzzle of this world gets assembled one little piece at a time, and I found myself fascinated by it. I really want to know more about this world and the aliens and what lies beyond the Divide, if there is anything.

Characters: Cav is a genius in some things, and a complete idiot in others, like human interaction and keeping his mouth shut. He was a spoiled prince who just wanted to stick one to his uncle and rebel against his control… and never thought all the consequences through. That’s one of his biggest weaknesses – he doesn’t respect authority and he doesn’t think about consequences. But he isn’t a complete moron either. He learns, he adapts, and he definitely becomes a better human being by the end of the story. I was really rooting for him throughout the book.

But my biggest favorite is Adequin. She is such a wonderfully complex and flawed character. She tries her best to keep her derelict ship from falling apart and her crew of misfits from killing each other and themselves. She thinks that she isn’t cut for command, because she was just a pilot, but when shit hits the fan and thousands of lives depend on her, she picks up the mantle and does the impossible to keep as many of these people safe as she can.

There are a lot of other supporting characters that stand out, and you can’t help but like them for their quirks and flaws that make them so alive, it’s refreshing. Unfortunately, not all of them will make it to the last page of this book, and I admit that I felt the death of some of them rather deeply.

So we have an interesting world and great characters, which would already rate a book very high in my opinion, but add to that a great story, and you have me hooked. I know book one has barely come out, but I am so ready for the next one!

PS: I received an advanced copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sleepless by Louise Mumford

Stars: hesitating between 2 and 2.5 out of 5.

This book had such promise! The idea behind it was excellent and the blurb drew me in. Even the beginning was rather exciting. I was really pumped about reading it for about the first 35-40% of the book… Then things went downhill.

There were several reasons for this quick fall from grace, at least for me.

First of all, to create a good mystery, you need tension. To create a good horror story, you need to create the atmosphere of constant unease, when the reader and the characters know that something is wrong, but the tension is slowly winding up, like a tightening spring. Or you can have monsters jumping out of the dark and eating your face off… whatever works. The point is, it has to be scary but BELIEVABLE within the rules and limits of the world the author created.

This is were this book fails spectacularly. All the characters, especially the villains, have never heard of the word “logic”. They turn form a group of sleep study researchers into murderers seemingly in the blink of an eye. So the protagonist is asking questions about an apparition she saw in the ruins? Let’s take her there and try to kill her! But we already moved the crazy patient in a different location, so she won’t find anything. Why kill her? Oh, who cares, let’s just kill her anyway because reasons. Not to mention who is the genius that decided a ruined monastery was the perfect place to keep a sedated patient chained to a hospital bed? When you have a perfectly functional remote lighthouse on the island that has the advantage of having a roof and all the walls intact?

Also, the main premise of this book is completely destroyed about 40% in. So the protagonist is suffering from chronic sleeplessness. She can’t fall asleep… like ever. She does on 1 to 2 hours to sometimes zero a night. She’s been to all kinds of sleep studies and tried all sleep aids under the sun, right? She signs up for this experiment out of desperation… Yet not a week into this study, she is told that she doesn’t have a sleep problem. She has an internal clock problem instead. Meaning, she falls asleep between 7am and 10am instead of doing it night like normal people. Really? All the other doctors hadn’t noticed that? SHE didn’t notice that she can actually sleep on weekends when she doesn’t have to get up for work? Find a different job. Work second or night shift and your problem is solved…

The technology itself is explained rather badly. Nobody would give Thea a straight answer about how it works or what exactly they will do to her… yet she goes along it it all the same. I get it that you are desperate, but this borders on stupid.

But the nail in the coffin of this book for me was the protagonist herself. I can (usually) suffer through a bad plot if the protagonist is believable or likeable. Or suffer a bad protagonist if the story is amazing, but I can’t do both.

Thea is the type of protagonist who let’s the story happen to them, instead of creating that story with her actions. She spends about 90% of the story in an indecisive stupor, doubting herself, terrified, or simply going along with the flow. She is dragged from one place or another, from one plot point to the next by other people or circumstances. When she needs to act, she freezes and watches the action unfold around her. Granted, this is probably a realistic depiction of what an average person would do when presented with these kind of circumstances… but I read fiction to escape from reality. I want to read about characters who take action, even if with disasters consequences instead of being dragged behind the train of the story like so much useless baggage.

So I’m sorry, but this book and I had a rather messy and angry divorce and I hate-read it to the end.

PS: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

Stars: 2 out of 5 for the novelty of the idea.

DNFed at 85%. Yes, I know, I was so close to the finish… I really tried to power through, I promise.

It had a fun beginning and an interesting premise. It was fast paced and fun during their attack on NY and their escape from Manhattan afterwards.

It got boring and yawn inducing during the time on the boat. Too much drama and blatant insubordination. I’m not sure about the author’s background, but spetsnaz are ELITE forces, a bit like Navy SEALS. The shit Gulag was pulling in this book would have gotten him shot back in Afghanistan already… and to add insult to injury, Vadim is an idiot incapable of leading a pack of 5 year old’s, least of all a squad of elite soldiers. He has no authority, no personal charisma, and he doesn’t command respect. He is a joke. Fraulein was a more believable commander than him. Come on, author, you could do better than this.

But even the more than subpar protagonist would have been okay. I was looking for gruesome zombie fun, after all… only we didn’t really get much of it after the escape from NY. Mostly it’s people vs. people with the walking dead as a distraction.

Also, the author seems to forget his protagonists are zombies half the time, only remembering their “condition” when it’s convenient. They go from barely being able to keep their sanity every time they are in proximity of human beings to spending weeks with over 100 live humans on a boat. Not to mention that Princess is still alive and by the end, it didn’t seem to bother the rest of them anymore.

Not to mention that being zombies doesn’t make them superpowered. They are dead. They should start decomposing by now. And there is only so much punishment a dead body can take before it isn’t functional anymore. Yet they walk, talk, shoot, etc. without any problems even over a week after turning… after being shot at, beaten, etc. Yeah, my disbelief meter was slowly reaching boiling point.

At this point, I was still resolved to drag myself painfully across the finish line. But then the author introduced fake (and not so fake) Nazis… in 1980s England. Yeah, no. The level of stupid just overwhelmed my desire to finish the book. Welcome to the DNF graveyard.

PS: Thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

“Loved loved loved it!” were my thoughts when I finished this book as I ran around my living room excitedly, happy that I got the chance to read this excellent book before it was officially published (thanks for the ARC, Netgalley.)

This is one of those rare books that managers to portray strong female characters without making them bitchy, slutty, or catty, and without having them hate on any other females around them and lust over anything with a dick that walks into their line of sight. Unfortunately, I have read a lot of authors who think that this is what a “strong female character” is supposed to be.

I have also read, or tried to read and failed horribly, a lot of feminist and “break the patriarchy” novels that assume that to be a strong woman, you need to hate on anything that has a Y chromosome. I’m very glad that it is not the case with Persephone Station. Men are mentioned in this world, but their presence is not important to the story. And I am very glad that the main villain in this is also a woman. Too often we see this trope when a strong female protagonist has to go against a grotesque caricature of a male villain that is painted as such a horrible human being that you have to wonder how his mother didn’t smother him in his crib.

Here we have a smothering of female, male, non-binary, and genderfluid characters that all have flaws and motivations and are all portrayed as believable human (and alien) beings. And I love the fact that they fit perfectly in this world the author created. That human, alien, or artificial, they are all perfectly three-dimensional.

I also loved the strong friendships portrayed in this book. The crew of Kurosawa is a group of broken misfits that love each other and support each other like family. I admit that I cried when Kurosawa crashed, because this ship had the Firefly vibes with the same warmth of a found home and family.

So after all this gushing praise, why didn’t I give it a full 5 stars? I have a couple minor gripes about the story.

Firstly, I think the Emissaries could have been developed slightly better. I mean, at one point Vicinia says that their colony isn’t sustainable without imports from the human settlement… And I wondered why? They are native to Persephone. They lived on that planet way before it was colonized… so this statement makes absolutely no sense. So yes, I would have loved to see a little more of the planet and native Emissary settlements other than the one we saw and that was specifically adapted for humans.

My second gripe is with the ending. I don’t want to put any spoilers, but the solution to all their problems seemed very deus ex machina to me, and it literally was. It felt a little bit too simple and anticlimactic to me after the very tense and nerve-wracking events that lead to it.

These two points non-withstanding, I loved this book. I would definitely read the sequel if one is in the works, because I think this world has potential to become a series. There are still many stories to explore. Who is Zhang? What will Kennedy do now? What will happen with Persephone now that the existence of the Emissaries is known? How are Rosie doing?

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

The princess in a tower guarded by a dragon and the prince who has to battle the monster in order to rescue her is a classical fairy tale trope.

But what happens if the dragon crunched up all the princes and no more are coming to your rescue? What if instead winter is coming and the tower is decidedly NOT equipped with hot water, heat, or insulation? What if a diet of milk, bread, and oranges is fine for a couple weeks, but decidedly NOT good after a few months? There comes a time when even the meekest princess will have to make a choice: either try to confront the monsters in the tower and make it to the bottom, or choose the fast and fatal drop out of her window. So Floralinda opens the door to her room and changes her destiny forever.

It was interesting to see Floralinda slowly transforming from a princess to someone in charge of her own destiny. It was certainly subverting a trope. It was also interesting to see the different monsters populating the levels of the tower, even if thinking that an untrained girl could succeed where numerous princes failed was rather unrealistic. But hey, it’s still a fairy tale after all.

Speaking of fairy tales, I wouldn’t recommend reading it to younger children. Some descriptions are rather… graphic, and Floralinda is forced to do some things that might shock younger minds. She has to go down a tower full of monsters, after all.

I am not satisfied with the ending though. Floralinda fights so hard to be free of this tower. She literally transforms herself into a different person to survive this and triumph over all the monsters… and the author chooses to leave her in the tower? Why??? She earned her freedom. She could have gone and done anything with her life, but the author decided to keep her exactly where she started? That didn’t sit well with me.

But all in all it was a short and sweet read that helped me pass a rainy afternoon, but Floralinda deserved better than the ending she got.

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan 2) by Arkady Martine

Stars: 5 out of 5

First, a necessary disclosure: this is book 2 of a duology, so I would strongly recommend reading book 1 (which I reviewed here) before you jump into this one. Can you read it as a stand alone? Probably… but you will miss out on a lot of context and dramatic events that brought our characters to where they are in this book.

The story picks up two months after the end of the first book. Lsel Station got what they wanted – the Teixcalaan Empire is now at war with the mysterious aliens that had been disappearing their ships in the darkness of the void. Mahit is back on Lsel, but the place she grew up in doesn’t feel like home anymore, especially with the secret she is carrying about the sabotage of her imago machine and the unorthodox method she used to repair it.

And back in the City, the new Emperor is now forced to win a war she didn’t want, while also fighting the clock and dagger fights with officials of different departments that didn’t particularly want her on the throne… like the ministry of War, who she needs to fight this war instead of her.

We get to follow some of the characters that we came to know and love from the first book, like Mahit and Three Seagrass, who end up in the middle of the action once again, trying to find a common ground with an alien species so different that they don’t even have a language per se and who don’t consider individual deaths as anything of consequence.

We are also introduced to new characters, some of which we briefly saw in the first book, like Eleven Antidote, the 90% clone of the late Emperor. I must admit that I absolutely loved his POV in this book. He is eleven years old, but he is not a typical child. He’s been brought up and educated as a clone of the Emperor, so he never had a real childhood. He is also very smart and precautious, and he likes to think things through and solve mysteries. And I loved the courage and determination he showed when he acted to right what he was convinced was a wrong, even though he was going against the orders or the current Emperor by doing so.

Another wonderful new character is Twelve Cicada, who is the second in command to Nine Hibiscus, the fleet commander charged with wining the war against an enemy who can appear in and out of subspace and spit a substance that dissolves ships along with the pilots. I loved the relationship between these two and how they complemented and tempered each other. And I found highly satisfying the fact that Twelve Cicada was the one to find a solution to this conflict in the end.

This book touches several important themes. What exactly is the price of civilization and isolationism? Can you be a person even though you aren’t “civilized” in the eyes of your opponent? To Teixacaalisim, everyone else is a barbarian, including other humans, so the encounter with something even more alien has them unsettled and unable to react properly.

Who are you in the end as an individual, when your home station feels like hostile environment, but the Empire you longed to belong to all your life threatens to swallow you whole and kill your individuality? That is the question Mahit grapples with in this book.

And finally, is destroying a whole planet a price an Emperor is willing to pay to maybe end a conflict before it becomes a war of attrition? Or is that an act too atrocious even for Teixcalaan? What legacy do you want to leave for your descendants? That’s the problem Eleven Antidote grapples with.

There are multiple layers in this book, so it’s hard to address them all without spoilers. My advice is, read this duology. Go by the first book and read that while you wait on the second one to come out in March 2021.

PS: I received an advanced copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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