Deadly Spells (Prospero’s War 3) by Jaye Wells

Stars: 5 out of 5.

This book was intense and by far the best in the series so far. The stakes were high, the murders gruesome, and Prospero and Morales finally came to terms with their mutual attraction. Oh, and it was fast-paced and un-put-downable as well.

I love that Kate’s relationship with her little brother continues to evolve. Kate has been a helicopter parent for too long. Out of necessity, for sure, but she is slowly learning to let go of the control. She is starting to understand that Danny is a growing person with his own opinions and a moral compass, and that in order to receive his trust, she needs to extend some trust first. We also see that being an Adept in a rich school full of Mundanes isn’t as glamorous as it’s painted to be.

I am also happy that her relationship with Morales finally evolved, and that she stopped running away from her feelings. Those two are a good team, and they understand each other a lot better then other people understand them, because they both have been through some very though things. They have each other’s back and they understand that both of them are broken, but more importantly, they know when to give each other space. 

We finally learn what truly happened to Kate’s mom. While it was a shock, I’m glad that Kate can finally let go of the guilt she’s been carrying for 10 years. She didn’t kill her mother. But it also reinforces that she did the right thing when she walked away from the coven and turned her back on that life. I mean none of the people in her past were exactly outstanding members of the human race.

My only regret is that Volos managed to get out of the mess he’s created without a scratch… yet again. I think the author is trying to keep the reader ambivalent about him. She is trying to portray him as someone who has good intentions but the execution can be rather catastrophic. Well, we know that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And in Volos’s case, he is NOT a good person. And I really really hope that he gets everything that he deserves eventually.

Also, it seems like someone is steadily eliminating the leaders of the main covens in Babylon. We have one in each book so far, or so. Question is who and why? Someone is trying to consolidate magical power over the city. I hope we get our answer in the next book.

Malice House by Megan Shepherd

Stars: 2 out of 5.

This book started so well. I was engaged and a little creeped out for the first 25% of the book. Then I was bored for the next 50% of so, because the book dragged its feet and bogged down in little insignificant things. Then it took a swan dive off the cliff and lost any goodwill I had left for the story.

 And now I’m sitting here, looking at raving 5 and 4 star reviews, and don’t understand what other people found so great about it. The story is convoluted and full of plot holes, some of which I can’t ignore no matter how much I suspend my disbelief.

First of all, I don’t think the author ever had to try and survive with almost no money. I mean Haven gets paid maybe 300 dollars per movie summary she does. And as the story progresses, she does less and less of them. She mentions a couple times that her bank account is very close to the red. So how can she afford gas, electric, wi-fi when she install is, food, etc.? Why is her first impulse, when she gets 900 bucks for the typewriter, to go order expensive cameras from Amazon? She doesn’t know what the meaning of frugal is to save her life.

Haven herself is an extremely unlikeable character who is so full of herself that assumes everything revolves around her. By the end of the book I seriously was rooting for the monsters. She is very judgmental and suspicious of other people for no particular reason. Her over the top reaction to the Ink Drinker’s comment on her art was very telling in that regard. 

She also makes decisions that make no sense. Why the heck would you go digging in the woods behind your property in the middle of the night? When to do that you have to climb up a ladder and jump on the other side of the fence… with a hurt ankle? Why don’t you take your cellphone with you? Why would you basically commit breaking and entering when you go check on Kylie? AND steal her laptop? AND steal a weapon from the neighbors? Why won’t you report the disappearance to the police??? 

Why do you decide that going into an isolated house to confront a possible murderer alone is a good idea? Yes, you have a stolen hunting riffle. Do you even know how to use it? The author told us several times how Haven never was an outdoorsy type. That she never went camping, yet alone hunting. How can she be sure she’ll be able to load and fire that riffle? I an assure you it’s not as easy as they show it in the movies. 

Also, who gives a total stranger her spare key just because she is attracted to him and he smells nice? Girl, you don’t know anything about him or his past. You saw him burn something big in his backyard in the middle of the night, but sure, give him access to your home.

The only reason I gave this 2 stars instead of 1 is because the little snippets from Bedtime Stories for Monsters before each chapter are amazing. I would have gladly read a whole book just about that. They were weird and mesmerizing, and much better written than the rest of the book. 

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

Warded by JB McDonald

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

It’s always interesting to pick up a book written in a world other than the traditional European medieval fantasy. In this case, I think I can see some African roots. To me, that was a breath of fresh air, because I could set aside all of my expectations as to how this story would unfold and just enjoy discovering something new.

The characters are interesting enough, though Jahal started getting on my nerves after a while with his constant repetition that he is not a warrior but a healer. He finds the courage to fight when it counts though. Dalak is… supposed to be alien, I guess. But she mostly comes across as a petulant child who does as she pleases and doesn’t listen to anyone, not even her minder. Isn’t she supposed to be at least a century old? Anaye is by far my favorite – complex and broken, but also very loving and human.

The story itself could have benefited from a good re-read or a good editor. Some passages are really confusing. This is especially the case with the final battle between Dalak and the demon. It’s written in such a confusing way that half the time I wasn’t really sure what was going on. 

However, the biggest weakness of this book is that the story is too short. The the author doesn’t have time to explore the world in the details it deserves. There are mentions of demons that only come at night, and that human eye cannot see. There is a mention of two moons. There is even mention of ancient ruins belonging to a different and forgotten civilization… But we never dig any further than that.

So is this a different planet than Earth? Are the demons the native species? Are humans descendants of some colonists that landed on this planet, so the ruins are all that remain of their advanced civilization? Have demons always been there? If so, how did the humans even manage to survive that long? From the little we know, not every village has a warder like Dalak, so how do they defend themselves? It’s repeated several times that a human cannot kill a demon. And if just breathing the spores of a dying demon results in the creation of a child like Dalak, why aren’t there more of them? Why isn’t this known? 

In fact, there is no sense of a bigger world in this story. We have these two villages in the jungle. Are there more? Anaye mentions at the beginning of the story that they get refugees sometimes, but it’s never mentioned again. So is humanity reduced to just a series of isolated villages that barely communicate? Are there bigger cities? What about trade? Surely, the population must move around at least a little or there is danger of interbreeding? Those are all the questions I would have loved to have answers to in this story, or at least hints of an answer, but then again, I love digging into the lore of a world the author created. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. 

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

A Pale Box on a Distant Shore (Red Kingdom 0.5) by P. J. Nwosu

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

This is a fascinating book. It almost reads like a cross between a poem and a fevered dream, but in a good way. Rarely have I been so entranced by the world depicted in a book.

There are character driven books, there are story driven books, there are books that incorporate a bit of both. Then there are books that try to introduce us to a new world or concept more than they care about characters. I am not saying that this book is the later, because there is a solid detective story here, and the characters are engaging enough. But to me, the description of the world in which those characters live is the most important part here.

And that description is so well done! It permeates every page, weaving organically into the story, so that it never appears tedious. It creates an image of a fascinating world of arctic winds and white snow, of gray seas and red bones, of big white motes fluttering against buildings darkened by soot and landing on burning corpses. A world growing on the ruins of an older civilization, where a night can turn hollow, and an inverted moon would rise, and dead giants will stalk the shallow waters off shore. This is a harsh and unforgiving world, but it’s also very beautiful, in a cruel kind of way.

There are so many fascinating little details about the different religions and superstitions, about how different castes of people are living on Death City Island. The bone miners who wear red copper masks and white furs of a long dead animal, and risk their lives to mine the red bones of a giant who died off shore of the Death City. The merchant caste that wears silver masks and drapes themselves in layers of embroidered silks…

I liked Soldier Honnan Skyin and his relentless pursuit of a babe killer. Even when everyone told him to let it go. Even when a deadly epidemic was sweeping the island, killing thousands. Even when they ran out of pale boxes to burn the death at sea and had to resort to communal pyres in the middle of dead villages, Honnan still followed the clues he could find and stubbornly investigated this murder. And I’m really glad he did, because he brought to justice a monster worse than the black lung. 

All in all, this is a successful introduction to a brand new world. Now I definitely want to read the first book in the Red Kingdom series. Because while this book is still part of that universe, Death City Island is at the very outskirt of the Red Kingdom, so the customs and traditions are slightly different and watered down. Some of the details Honnan mentions about mainland are rather intriguing.

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

Steelheart (Reckoners 1) by Brandon Sanderson

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Brandon Sanderson is one of my all time favorite authors, because the amount of work he puts into creating distinctive new worlds with wonderful internal logic is amazing. When I pick up one of his books, I know I will discover a complex magical system that works in the parameters of his world. I know that there won’t be any deus ex machina, and that all the actions and consequences will make sense. So his books are a pleasure to read.

The premise of Steelheart reminded me a little of the TV series The Boys, only taken to the extreme. Imagine that all of a sudden certain people had super powers. Only with those super powers comes an absolute sense of self-entitlement and complete disregard for human life. The results is… apocalyptical, so say the least. The world as we know it is no more. Powerful Epics rule their domains (be it a city, a town, or another piece of land) with savagery and not a care for the normal humans who happen to live on their soil. Sometimes they engage in bloody battles with each other to try an conquer what they consider a better piece of real estate. The victims are again normal humans caught in the crossfire. 

And there really is nothing normal humans can do about it, because most high Epics have unbelievable powers and are virtually unkillable, unless you know their particular weakness and can simulate all the circumstances that trigger it. That weakness is unique for each Epic and often doesn’t even make sense.

This is a bleak and violent world, aptly impersonated by the city of Newcago, where the buildings and even the soil they stand on have been turned to steel, and the sky is shrouded in perpetual night. Where people live in underground tunnels and scuttle away from Epics like rats. Enter David and the Reckoners – normal humans who have one goal in life – killing Epics. 

I lot of reviews I read found David an annoying character, but I must disagree. Yes, his bad puns and inexistent social skills are sometimes painful to read, but this makes sense for his character. All his life, he’s been driven by a singular purpose – to kill Steelheart and avenge the murder of his father. So everything he did was to advance that goal. He is extremely smart and driven, but he is also somewhere on the autistic spectrum, in my opinion. So interacting with people seems awkward, even painful to him. And deciphering their emotions is harder than gathering intelligence on Epics. Let’s also not forget that he is only 18 in this book, so basically a kid that grew up in less than ideal circumstances. Yes, his infatuation with Megan was a bit cringy at times, but that’s what you would expect from a socially inept teenager towards his first crush. I loved David.

I liked the other members of the Reckoners. They are each one weird in their own way, but they make this teamwork work. Their banter and interactions were fun to read about. It was also fascinating to watch them study an Epic, figure out their weakness, then implement a carefully crafted plan to eliminate them… Then the plan would inevitably go wrong and lots of improvisation would issue. 

I loved that there is a hint of an explanation of why all the Epics are such awful human beings. I hope that this idea will be explored further in the future books, and knowing Sanderson, it absolutely will. And I will be along for the ride.

The Jasmine Throne (The Burning Kingdoms 1) by Tasha Suri

Stars: 3 out of 5

I have mixed feelings about this book. There are things that I absolutely loved, and there are aspects that left me cold or that I found rather underwhelming. However, nothing made me mad or made me hate the book, hence the middle of the road, perfectly serviceable 3 stars rating.

The world Tasha Suri created is fascinating and complex. I liked the different religions and customs. Some are truly monstrous though. The yaksa in particular are absolutely fascinating. What were they, really? Where did they go? Are they really gone for good or, as Pryia’s encounter in the deathless waters suggests, they still exist somewhere and are ready to come back. And what is that corruption that is killing crops and people and spreading to the rest of the kingdom? I definitely want to know more about that, because to me, it’s more interesting than the intrigues and politicking of men.

My biggest complaint is that this book is way too long. I understand that as the first book in a series it has the unthankful job of setting up the world and explaining the lore, but this exposition bogs down the story something bad, especially in the first almost half of the book. We spend so much time in the beginning setting up the characters and explaining their pasts, that it gets very boring. Nothing happens. Everyone just spins their wheels for half a book. I even considered DNFing this around 45%.

I’m glad I didn’t though, because the story finally picks up in the second half of the book and moves at a pretty good clip. Things start happening, battles are fought and lost (or won), and the story is set up nicely for the next book in the series. I can’t help but think that this book would have been so much better if the beginning moved slightly faster as well.

Another issue I have with this story is that out of the main protagonists, Malini seems the weakest. She spends about 60% of the story imprisoned, drugged, and basically helpless. Not an agent of her own story, but somebody that the events just happen to. A passive observer, so to say. Pryia, and Ashok, and everyone else are acting and reacting to what’s happening, making plans and fighting their own battles. And Malini… Malini sleeps in a drugged sleep or is having withdrawals from that drug later on.

The problem that causes is the credibility of the character. Rao seems to admire her a lot. We are told that she single-handedly orchestrated a coup against her brother the Emperor. We are told that she is cunning, educated, and very smart… Yet we see none of that until very late in the book. So instead of being a strong and capable person, Malini comes across as a damsel in distress. That is not a trope I particularly like.

She became a more interesting character later in the book when she was allowed to actually act and react, so I have hopes that she will get more page time and better character development in the next book.

As it stands, I am on the fence whether I want to pick up the next book in the series or not. I might give it a try to see if the pacing issues have been fixed, and if we learn more about the yaksa.

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

Enter the Darkness by Sarah Budd

Stars: 2 out of 5.

I don’t understand all the glowing reviews for this book on Goodreads. I found it boring as fish. For a relatively short 200 page book it, it draaaaged and almost put me to sleep several times. I felt like just reaching the ending was an uphill battle.

My biggest issue was the multitude of grammatical and stylistic errors. I mean, English isn’t my first language, but I’m pretty sure having verbs both in present and past tense in the same paragraph isn’t grammatically sound. It’s jarring to the eye when you read the book, that’s for sure. It creates a cognitive confusion that took me out of the story completely a few times.

Add to that the head hopping that happened in a few places, when the chapter was clearly titles as being from the point of view of one character, but there would be paragraphs that described how another character felt or what they thought. As far as I know, none of the protagonists are omniscient, or telepathic, so how could they know that?

My second issue is that I didn’t care for any of the characters. Yes, they had issues. Yes, the author tried hard to make us understand what moved them and make us empathize. Unfortunately, she failed, at least in my case. Being privy to their inner monologues didn’t make me like them more, but made me annoyed with them at times. Especially Garth. The thoughts that went through his head were downright creepy and disturbing at times. He is certified stalker material. No wonder he had no friends or girlfriend.

Finally, as I mentioned, the story drags. The pacing is very uneven. The first 50-60% of the book is basically set up, then the events unfold at breakneck speed. Honestly, we didn’t’ need that much set up. We could have spent more time in the caves to advance the actual story instead of flashbacks into the pasts of our protagonists. A lot of that information wasn’t necessary. What little we actually needed could have been woven organically into the narrative. As it was, I almost DNFed the book at about halfway point. 

I added one extra star for the description of the caves. You can see that the author did her research. That place is fascinating. Now I really want to visit.

I guess if you did “mesh” with the characters and didn’t mind grammatical errors, this books could be a good read for you.

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

Cursed Moon (Prospero’s War 2) by Jaye Wells

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I am liking this series so far. The first book was a surprise hit for me, and the second book continues the streak of good luck. 

The action picks up several weeks after the events of the first book, and leaves Kate with a lot of guilt and frustration over what happened and what she was forced to do (and then cover up). That frustration slowly builds up during this book until it all comes to a boiling point and explodes all over her relationships with the people she cares most about. It was messy, it was frustrating to watch, and I wanted to cuff her around the head a few times for being a dick, but I never stopped caring. That’s a sign of a good book right there – when the character behaves like a dick, and you still care because you understand what’s going on and where she is coming from.

I loved the concept of the Blue Moon, and the effect it would have on Adepts vs Mundane people. Or that magic would be stronger and more chaotic during that phase. Not only did that raze the stakes for our characters, but it also dialed all their feelings up. And when emotions run high, things are bound to get messy. But, like Baba said, the Blue Moon can also be a blessing in disguise, because it shakes up the status quo.

By the end of this book Kate finally came to terms with her past and her magic, which made her stronger as a person. She also cleared the air with her brother and Pam. Hopefully, their relationships will be healthier going forward. 

I also have to mention that Baba is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters. She is far from being this cookie old lady that cooks homemade remedies and plays bingo at the community center. I think both Kate and the reader tend to forget that she had a long and eventful life before she got to enjoy her twilight years, and this book showcases that very well. Baba is the one who sees through Kate’s bulls&^t and calls her on it. Baba is the one who doesn’t judge, just nudges her in the right direction and gives some very good advice. I honestly want to know more about Baba now!

Of course, this book also left us with more questions than answers. What really happened to Kate’s mother, and why does it scare Uncle Abe so much? Who financed Dionysus and “aimed” him at Babylon? What is Uncle Abe’s end game? And what does John Volos really want?

I guess I will need to pick up the next book to find out. And I will gladly do that.

Empire of Shadows (Bhinian Empire 2) by Miriam Forster

Stars: 3 out of 5

It would be a mistake to call this book the second in this series, because it’s not a continuation of book one. More of a prequel, actually. But that’s not explained until the epilogue, so I experienced a sense of confusion when I started reading this. In book 1, we were following Nisha who was heading for the capital. This books stars with a completely different character, and there is no mention of Nisha until, yet again, the epilogue. So I spent a good while wondering how the two books were related instead of just enjoying the story for what it was. I think if that was mentioned upfront, my satisfaction with this book would have been better.

Now, as far as the story itself goes, it’s typical YA fare, but on the better side of the spectrum. At least we aren’t tortured with the dreaded love triangle in this one. My problem is that I found the supporting characters more interesting than the two protagonists. 

Let’s be honest, for someone who trained for four years to be a bodyguard, and who is a weretiger to boot, Mara really sucks at her job. I can’t remember even one instance when she successfully protected her charge in this book. The tiger to tiger confrontation at the end of the book doesn’t count, because the author was leading towards it almost since the beginning. When I look back at Mara’s actions in this book, all I can remember is her standing there in impotent rage when her charges are being endangered, or struggling with her tiger instincts and needing a rescue of her own. Honestly, she is more a damsel in distress in this book than a protector, and that’s frustrating. 

I liked Emil slightly better, and he gets progressively better as the book goes on, once he finally stands up to his father and realizes what is important to him.

I didn’t particularly like the instalove story between Mara and Emil either. They talked twice. He gave her a gift. Suddenly, they can’t stop thinking about each other, and he is the only person who can prevent her from turning when she is hurt. Yeah, nope, not for me.

The side characters are a lot more interesting than those two! I would have loved to see more of Rhivati and her grandmother. Especially, her grandmother! And the tea vendors! What an amazing concept! I would love to read a book about them and their unofficial “king”. As it stands, they are a woefully underutilized concept. Same goes for the Jade caste. 

As it stands, I found that the story resolution was a little bit too easy and convenient. With the bad people one-dimensionally villainous, and the good people one-dimensionally good and forgiving. And it seems like a lot got glossed over in the end as well. Emil and his brother actively participated in a plot to overthrow the Emperor, yet they were not judged or tried for it. The main conspirator fled the city, yet there is no mention of anyone looking for him and bringing him to justice. It almost feels like the Emperor didn’t care. “Ha-ha, my city got invaded and a lot of people died, oh, and I’m one heir short now, but no worries, life goes on.” This was honestly unfulfilling.

Also, I don’t agree with the ending. Having Rhivati conveniently die to release Mara from her oath so that she can go have a happy ever after with Emil is the worst copout I’ve seen in a while. Why even make her take that oath in the first place? I would have loved to see her struggle with her duties to Rhivati and her love for Emil, who can’t remain in the city without renouncing his people and his way of life. How would they have maintained their relationship against these odds? That would have been a book worth reading. 

PS: On the plus side, at least now we know who Nisha’s parents are.