Category Archives: Fantasy

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

Mona’s life has been a mess ever since a car accident took her unborn baby from her. Since then, she’s been drifting town to town, shitty job to shitty job, with no idea what to do with herself. Until she goes to her father’s funeral and discovers that her mother, who killed herself when Mona was seven years old, had owned a house in a little New Mexico town called Wink. At first glance, Wink seems like a perfect little American town where everybody is happy and friendly, and time stopped somewhere in the 1970s. Only nobody ever leaves, and walking outside at night is strongly discouraged…

 

This is a difficult review to write because a huge part of what makes the book excellent is the mystery behind the town and the identity of some of its inhabitants. So I can’t dwell on the story too much as to not reveal any spoilers. Let me just say that the idea is original and the execution is very well done. For more details, get the book and read it for yourselves. You won’t regret it, I promise.

 

So since I cannot talk about the story, let me talk about Mona Bright. I love me a strong independent heroine and I’m happy to say that Mona is one.

Yes, She had an unhappy childhood with a harsh and distant father and a mentally unstable mother, so human interaction doesn’t come easy for her. She chose to be a cop because her life until then was more about weapons and hunting with her father than about dolls and socializing with other people her age. She isn’t good at that, at socializing. But she is very good at shooting things and making split second decisions under pressure. She tried to create something she never had – a happy family with a husband who loved her and a little girl she wanted to love and cherish like her mother never cherished her. Only that dream was cut short by a drunk driver running a red light.

 

By the time she learns about the property her mother owned in Wink, Mona really has nothing to lose, so it’s easy for her to pack all her possessions into the trunk of her car and drive to the middle of nowhere to a town that doesn’t show on any maps except a few local ones, and all that in the hope that this house and this town would give her a glimpse into her mother’s past. All she wants is to see that time when her mother was a happy, accomplished scientist, not a broken ruin scared of her own shadow.

 

My description might have made you think that Mona is all doom and gloom and maybe not someone you would want to follow for 300 pages, but you would be wrong. Yes, Mona is not exactly the soul of a party and she tends to lean on the pessimistic side, but she never lies to herself. And she doesn’t bend. When threatened or attacked, she gives as much as she gets.

 

And when what she finds in Wink leaves her with more questions than answers, she doesn’t hesitate to dig deeper, even if what she uncovers suggests things that should be impossible. In fact, I would argue that Mona is the only person who could have done what needed to be done in Wink because she was the only one willing not to play by the rules…

 

I loved this book. It was fast-paced and interesting and never predictable. And I’m glad that the author chose to leave it as a standalone. The story is done. What happens to Mona after Wink is entirely up to her, and just like the ending suggests, the possibilities are endless.

 

So why did I give this book 4 stars instead of 5? Two things. First, the fact that the author chose to tell this story in third person present tense threw me off at the beginning and made it harder to get into the story. I got used to it eventually, but this stylistic choice can be a turn off for some readers. Second, I found some of the POVs rather useless to the story. A character would hijack the story for a small section to never reappear again until the grand finale.

 

But overall, I would strongly suggest this book to all my friends and readers who love a good science fiction mystery or urban fantasy, because this can kinda sorta be considered both and neither. Just get the book and find out for yourselves.

Graveyard Shift by Michael F Haspil.

Stars: 5 out of 5

Alex and Marcus are detectives at the Nocturne Squad in modern day Miami.  Except in this Miami, vampires live in the open and are considered as much citizens of the United States as humans are, obeying the same laws and enjoying the same rights. Oh and “vampire” is not a politically correct word. They are called nocturnes, and the Nocturne Squad is in charge of investigating all crimes perpetrated by and against nocturnes.

Oh I forgot to mention that Marcus is a few thousand years old vampire who knew Julius Ceasar, and Alex is even older than that. He is the mummy of pharaoh Menkaure, cursed to walk this world until the end of times…

I have been spoiled with excellent first books in new series lately and Graveyard Shift is no exception. I love the world; I love the main characters. I really have nothing to complain about.

So the worldbuiding. After the discovery and mass production Hemo-Synth, an artificial blood substitute, the vampires revealed their existence to the general public. And thanks to a successful PR campaign, they even persuaded said general public that they weren’t a danger to anyone and that human and vampires could coexist peacefully.

I like how much thought the author put into this idea. If vampires are regular citizens now, they also need regular jobs and places to live, places to go to relax and have fun, places to buy their artificial blood at. So there is a huge economical shift worldwide – the world literally never sleeps. Everything is open 24/7. Humans work during the day, and vampires do the same jobs at night. Even the smallest bodegas and grocery shops carry Hemo-Synth blood on their shelves.

And there is a bigger legislative shift as well. What was considered a monster and a creature of legend before is now a citizen of the United States. Staking a nocturne through the heart and cutting their head off will land you behind bars for premeditated murder just as easily as shooting a regular guy through the head. Now there are laws and procedures in place to deal with the paranormal citizens. Which calls for nocturne cops, or the Nocturne Squad.

Alex and Marcus are a few thousand years old each, and it shows in their generally pessimistic outlook on life and the world in general. But where Marcus tends to be mostly broody, Alex exhibits a pronounced lack of interest for anything. Alex, or Mankaure, has pretty much grown tired of petty human squabbles that never change, no matter how many millennia pass him by. He does his job not because he likes it or needs the money, but because the shadow powers that stand behind the government  said so. And since those powers have a certain set of canopic jars in their possession that Alex might possibly not be able to exist without, he has no choice but to comply. It is implies that they hold something against Marcus as well but what that is Alex never asked his partner.

There is also no love lost between the two. Alex thinks (for good reason) that all vampires are predators and ruthless killers, no matter the tamed and friendly picture the media are painting of them. A wolf in sheep’s skin is still a wolf. And Marcus… well Marcus is an Ancient who thrives in secrets within secrets, and who lives for intrigue and conspiracies. And also doesn’t care about anybody but himself.

And at the same time, those two have a grudging respect for one another and sufficient trust that their partner will have their back in a bad situation. After all, they had been partners for the better half of a century: first as part of a secret organization called UMBRA in charge of eliminating the vampires, and that killing them is frowned upon by society, as cops trying to uphold law and order.

I also love how dark and gritty this world is. These vampires are the sparkly type with a tortured soul. They are ruthless predators who prefer real blood to the synthetic thing whenever possible. And while some are content to visit bleeder bars and take a little from willing participants, others prefer the trill of the hunt and the kill, and a bit of torture thrown in the mix as well…

The story itself was really well done. It kept you at the edge of your sit from the very first page. And since I couldn’t help but love the characters, I was hoping for their survival and well being.  And while this books story arrived to a rather satisfying resolution, it left a lot of questions as to what will happen next, which is an excellent tactic for a first book in a series.

I want to know what happens to Alex and Marcus now. I want to see the fallout the events in this book have on human-vampire relations. And I want to learn more about Father Aguirre and his church. And is it really possible for vampires to grow back their soul?

So good job Mr. Haspil, good job. I am a fan now and I am eagerly awaiting the next book.

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

Speaker of the Lost (Lark Nation book1) by Clara Coulson.

Stars: 5 out of 5

Robbie was down on his luck: he’d fought with his girlfriend because he’d had seven beers which was one too many as far as she was concerned. So she took the car and left him stranded at his friend’s house, with no other way to get home but to hike five long miles on a small country road in the middle of the night. Little did he know that his day would soon get from bad to worse. First he lost his girlfriend and his wheels. Then he lost his head… in a very literal and final way.

Now Stella Newport, rookie agent at the FBI’s Paranormal Squad is sent to Bismuth, Maine, to investigate what looks like an attack by a headless horseman. And to make things worse, her partner is Oswald Bolton, who doesn’t keep the same partner for more than a couple months before they beg to transfer or have a nervous breakdown…

I love when the first book in a new series manages the often impossible task of introducing the world, the characters and their backstories, AND manages to tell a compelling story as well. Speaker of the Lost does exactly that.

This book shows us a world much like our own, where normal citizens don’t believe in magic  or the existence of supernatural creatures called the fae. Apart from those few people who can actually perform real magic and even open the gateways between our world and the world of the fae to allow them to step over into our dimension. Usually, because the sorcerers needs something from those fae. And that something is usually rather nefarious for everyone else. Good thing is, the fae demand a rather steep price for their services, often up and not limited to the death of the summoner upon competition of the contract. Another good thing is that the government is aware of their existence as well and even has a few special agencies in charge of paranormal crimes.

The story itself starts as a simple murder, albeit executed by paranormal means, but turns out to be much more sinister and far-reaching than our protagonists had expected. The good people of sleepy Bismuth keep some dark secrets indeed, and the town will never be the same after the investigation is closed.

Speaking of protagonists. This story is told from the alternating point of view of both Oz and Stella, and I must admit that the author did a very good job of creating two very distinctive characters with distinctive voices.

Stella is a joy to read about. She is smart. She is resourceful. She calls Oz on his bull%$#t and she isn’t afraid to let him know when he crosses a line. She is strong and she knows her own worth, but she is also very human. She can be overconfident and has a tendency to rush into things without thinking them through, but she isn’t afraid to acknowledge her mistakes and learn from them.

Oz on the other hand can come across as a total ass, and most of the time he does act like one. A lot of times on purpose because he doesn’t want to be saddled with yet another partner that will turn tail and run in a few weeks or days. He doesn’t want to get attached to another partner and feel responsible for them again. And there are reasons for that. I won’t spoiler here, but let’s just say that the few hints we get about Oz’s backstory explain most of his behavior. I actually cheered for him when he gradually warmed up to Stella, because I understood just how hard it was for him to trust somebody again. Or to allow himself to care for somebody again, because he was scared that he would fail to protect them.

I also liked this new twist on the headless horseman myth and how it was woven into the bigger meta of this particular world.

So as I said at the beginning, this book did an excellent job of getting me interested in the world and invested in the characters. It wrapped up the story of the dullahan and the sorcerer who summoned him, but also hinted at a bigger disaster that is yet to come. And I want to read about it. I want to see Oz and Stella working as equal partners, bickering and helping each other, and being awesome. So when is the next book coming out?

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

The Glamour Thieves (Blue Unicorn Book 1) by Don Allmon.

Stars: 2 out of 5.

This book could have been great. It could have been the first book in a new series that I would have really wanted to follow. It had so much potential… and the fact that it frittered it away is extremely frustrating.

The little bit of worlbuilding we get hints at an interesting world. It’s set in the future, so technologies are quite advanced, especially augmented reality, implants, and the connection to the World Wide Web that allows you to experience VR with all five senses. But we also get mentions of a worldwide catastrophe that changed something in the people’s genome so that some were able to do magic. Oh, and orcs and elves became a reality.

There is so much potential in this! The author could have hooked me and kept me going if only he’d thrown a few more hints here and there about that catastrophe, or more about how the orcs and elves became so common place. Where they always there, but just hiding? Or did they come through the cracks in reality at the same time as humans became capable of magic? Or are they also a result of human mutation? Sadly, we get no answers.

I would have loved to have more background on JT and Austin, on their relationship, on what actually really happened three years ago that made them split. We get mentions here and there. We know they were part of a group of thieves and a heist went bad. We know that Austin’s sister died… and nothing else. There is a mention that they were set up, and that another one of their members died as well, but we never learn anything else. What happened? There is a small mention that JT and Austin were captured and experimented on, but by whom? How did they escape? Just dwelling in those questions could have made an awesome book. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Instead we get a book in which every character is obsessed with sex. This is a short 133 pages book, and the actual plot fits in maybe a third of that length. The rest is characters either having sex or thinking about having sex, or obsessing about whether their maybe on and off partner is having sex with someone else. There is so much sexual content in it that at one point I had to go back to Netgalley and check whether I had clicked on the erotica bookshelf by mistake when I selected the book, but no, it’s listed under Science Fiction and Fantasy…

And I would have been okay with some sexual content if it was justified. But when the characters are running for their life from the Triad, I would think they would be more worried about staying alive and figuring out how to get out of the mess they are in instead of jumping each other’s bones. This is just such an unrealistic reaction that it threw me right out of the story.

My other problem with this book is Austin. I hated  him as a character, and since a lot of the narrative was from his point of view, getting through his chapters was a challenge. He is incredibly self-centered. He wants JT because he wants things to go back to how they were, and JT always had his back. He lies, cheats and uses underhanded techniques to get him to agree to this one last job, even though he can clearly see that JT has created a new life for himself. He has a legitimate business that he loves, and he has a protégé he is responsible for. But no, Austin doesn’t care, if he wreaks his friend’s life. He doesn’t even ask himself whether what he is doing will harm JT. Not once. The thought of considering somebody else’s interest apart from his own doesn’t even cross his mind. With Austin, everything is about Austin.

The second thing I hate about Austin is how twisted his sexual desires are. Like that scene in the orc night club. What he did to the bouncer cannot be called anything but rape. No matter how he justifies it, he used his glamour to force that orc to do what he did. And Austin’s thoughts in that moment were exactly what any other rapist would voice to justify his actions – I only exacerbate the desire that’s already there, my glamour wouldn’t have worked if he didn’t want it… No. Just NO. Rape is rape and there is no excuse!

As I mentioned, the book had potential, but the lack of plot and my intense dislike for one of the main characters made it so I have no desire to find out more about this world. That’s one series I will pass on.

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

City of Miracles (The Divine Cities 3) by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Stars: 5 out of 5

I love the Divine Cities series and I await every new book with great trepidation and excitement, because I know that Robert Jackson Bennett won’t disappoint. I read and reviewed the two previous books as well, if you are interested to read my opinions: City of Stairs and City of Blades.

City of Miracles is the closing chapter in the stories of a lot of characters that I grew to know and love in the two previous books, so I have a bitter-sweet feeling upon finishing this book. Even if the author continues this series, it will be a different world with different characters, because the events in this book brought the end of an era and paved the road for a new one.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still pick up the next book with just as much trepidation and will be excited to see the direction in which this world will evolve, but it will sure feel empty without Shara and Sigrud and all the others…

Sigrud had been hiding, moving from place to place, from one meaningless job to another, just waiting for Shara to call him back. Instead, he learns one day that the former Prime Minister Shara Komayd had been assassinated. And Sigrud sets out on a journey of revenge, doing what he does best – track and kill those who killed his friend. Only there is a lot more at stake than anyone could have imagined, because all these years Shara had been waging a secret war with a Divinity, and the outcome of this war will change the world.

When previous books were about the Divine wars and its casualties, as well as the guilt of the survivors, City of Miracles is about lost souls. It’s about the war orphans, both human and Divine, whose lives had been shattered by war and who can’t quite fit in this brave new world.

We know that the Radj killed all of the Divinities except one, but what happened to the multitude of Divine children that those Divinities created in the thousands of years of their existence? It was assumed that they simply vanished when their parent Divinities died or were hunted down and exterminated as well. And the most powerful ones certainly met that fate. But what of the weaker ones? The unimportant ones that didn’t have their own followers and had always lived in the shadow of their powerful siblings and parents?

Turns out they survived. Kolkan hid them, made them seem human, erased all memories of their divine nature. He hoped to bring them all back once the war was over and he came out of hiding himself, but we all know how that played out in City of Stairs. So those children, those orphans, are condemned to drift from orphanage to orphanage, from family to family, never aging, never remembering their past, their memories resetting every time their families start to wonder why the child they adopted 7-8 years ago didn’t seem to age. Yes, they survived, but isn’t that a terrible price to pay?

But what happens when some of those Divine children remember who they are? What happens if one of them was captured by the new regime and tortured for years? Wouldn’t he want revenge when he escaped?

I think this book, more than the previous two, shows that no matter what happens to the world, no matter what horrors, humans will find a way to survive, adapt and move past it. And the biggest proof of that is the city of Bulikov – we saw it in ruins in City of Stairs, its citizens beaten down and oppressed, yet in City of Miracles, merely 50 years later, it’s a thriving metropolis again, where the old and the new are intertwined and found a way to coexist. Or Voortyashtan, where Signe’s dream of opening the river to ship traffic again is finally a reality, even if Signe died without seeing it happen…

Legacy is another recurring theme in this book. What do we leave behind when we die? Signe left a dream of an engineering miracle and others made it a reality. Shara spent her whole life trying to change Saypur and bring peace to the continent, and she succeeded. Even Kolkan managed to leave a legacy by saving all those Divine children from certain death.

I think this is the strongest message of this book. That we need to live our lives in such a way that we leave behind a positive legacy, instead of a destructive one, even if this legacy is important only to our family and friends…

So to summarize, this book is a must read, but I would recommend starting at the beginning of the series with City of Stairs, following up with City of Blades, and finishing off with City of Miracles.

Borderline (the Arcadia Project 1) by Mishell Baker.

Stars: 5 out of 5

A year ago, Millie listened to the little voice in her head telling her that her life is worthless and stepped off a roof. She survived, but lost both her legs and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Now she lives in a mental institution and is pretty sure that both her promising filmmaking career and her life is pretty much over. That is until she gets a second chance to make something out of her disaster when she accepts to work for the Arcadia Project.

When you read the blurb for Borderline, it sounds like a generic urban fantasy series. Even the supernatural creatures are generic – fae have been done before. You might be tempted to dismiss this book right away, but that would be a big mistake because you would lose the opportunity to read a very good story.

I picked up this book almost as an afterthought. Nothing in my reading pile sounded good at the time and Amazon put this in the “Also Bought” suggestions, so I gave it a go, not expecting much… I finished it in one day. I literally only stopped long enough to eat and didn’t move of my couch until I turned the last page. Good thing it was a Saturday.

I loved this book. I loved the story. I loved Millie. I loved all the secondary characters. I loved the setting and the world they lived in.

Mishell Baker has an interesting take on the fae and their influence on our world. In Borderline, every creative person has a muse, who is a fae. It’s a symbiotic relationship – the fae gives his or her human inspiration to create art, write books, film movies, and so on. In exchange, the fae who are paired with a human become capable of logical thinking and can grasp such disciplines as mathematics, architecture, engineering, etc. There is a quid pro quo in this relationship with both parties gaining something from each other.

I like that the longer the fae stays on Earth, the more “assimilated” it becomes, slowly losing its creativeness while it acquires more logical aptitudes. That’s why the Acradia Project has rules and regulations in place. That’s why they keep track of all the fae and follow a strict schedule as to when and for how long they can remain on Earth.

It’s not often that you find a disabled protagonist in a book, especially one that doesn’t transform into a disabled superhero by the end of the book or whose disability is conveniently forgotten about or set aside when the plot needs it.

Millie is not like that. She isn’t just token broken. As a double amputee, she faces a lot of everyday challenges and the book doesn’t gloss over that or give her a sudden ability to levitate. She also has a serious mental illness that impacts her everyday life and her interactions with everyone she encounters. You can see that the author did some in depth research into borderline personality disorder and thought about how this illness will impact the plot.

I like that despite the challenges that she faces, Millie has a very serious and down to earth approach to her life and her struggles. Apart from that first fateful jump off a roof, she never exhibits more suicidal tendencies. Once she learns she is a borderline, she learns everything she can about both the illness and the coping mechanisms that would help her function in society. I love the fact that when Millie has episodes, she is rational enough to understand what is happening and that she even tries to apply the techniques she learned to try and deescalate the situation. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t, but it’s nice to see a protagonist who tries to lead a normal life despite everything.

The story is well written and fast paced, and if you are anything like me, it will grip you and not let you go until the end.

So I will definitely recommend Borderline to all my friends and I can’t wait to pick up Phantom Pains, the second book in the series.

Halfway Dead by Terry Maggert.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

Once in a while you come across a book that gets you really excited about reading it because it starts with a great character who has a distinct voice and who seems to be telling a compelling story… then either goes horribly wrong halfway through or simply veers into meh category.

Sadly, this is exactly what happened with Halfway Dead. This book had so much promise! We are introduced to Carlie in the middle of action, when she goes for a little clean up job and tackles a pair of wendigos who moved close to her beloved town of Halfway with clearly nefarious intentions. She is efficient and self-reliant during that encounter, never losing her cool. We get an excellent introduction to our protagonist and an “on the job” explanation of how her magic works. She has a distinctive voice and she has sass.

At that point, I was invested in the story and ready to follow Carlie wherever her adventures or misadventures lead her. Unfortunately, the story starts unraveling pretty much right after that initial introduction.

Some random dude by the name of Major Pickford approaches her to help him find a grove of ancient chestnut trees. I would be ok with that if this plot point was presented better than it was. First, this Major appears in one scene where he hires Carlie to find those trees then disappears and is NEVER SEEN AGAIN for the rest of the book. Second, the story he feeds Carlie about why he wants those trees is so fantabulous that you really have to be stupid to believe it. Yet, Carlie believes and accepts without doing too much research to verify if what Major says is true. Author, why? You just showed us that your protagonist is a smart cookie when she handled the wendigos, but this scene undid all that good work.

At this point I was still determined to see this story through, even if my investment in it had gone down a notch, but it only gets worse afterwards.

Carlie goes to the local library and does a little bit of research into that mysterious grove of trees and discovers that it has ties to her family… and a ghost speaks to her from an old photograph and asked her to come find him. As a motivation for our protagonist to venture forth, that’s pretty good. Only it fails to confer any urgency to the situation. If you think about it, Carlie really has no stakes in this matter. Both the trees and the ghost had been there for three hundred years, so they will still be there whether she goes now or waits a few more decades.

The other problem is that when the next random stranger approaches her and tells her that Major basically fed her a load of lies, she still agreed to go into the mountains with this new stranger instead. Girl, where is your brain? Didn’t the situation just prove to you that there is a lot more at stake than you think or know and that you shouldn’t take anybody at face value? Sure, she calls the company this guy supposedly works for, but what proof those she have that she really talked to the CEO of that company? Also, how often do we call a multimillion dollar corporation and get to speak to the CEO directly as soon as we ask for it?

But my biggest frustration with this book are the dialogues. They don’t make sense. People just don’t speak and behave like that in real life. They all speak in riddles. They all go pages and pages of talk to say nothing that would advance the plot or explain the situation. And Carlie just accepts this avoidance and clear change of subject as a given. On more than one occasion, I wanted to reach into the page and slap some sense into both her and whomever she was talking to.

Add to that the sluggish pace at which the story is moving and the many interruptions to admire the scenery or get an excursion into the land’s (and the character’s) past, and you get a book that I ended up almost hate-reading until the end. And I did it only because I had a review to write and I don’t review books I don’t finish.

So to summarize, Halfway Dead is a book that had such great promise, but sort of unraveled halfway through like a badly knit sweater, leaving me with a lot of frustration at its unrealized potential and a conundrum as to how to rate it. I loved the first 1/4 of it. I was okay with the next 2/4. I would never have made it through the last 1/4 if I didn’t have a review to write.

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

Etched in Bone (The Others 5) by Anne Bishop.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I love this series. I love the worldbuilding; I love the characters; I love the stories in each subsequent book. So I can’t help to be excited when I got my hands on Etched in Bone. “What are Meg and Simon up to now?” I ask myself. And let me tell you, they both made big steps in this book, both individually and towards each other, but we’ll get to that in due time.

First, a bit of shameless self-promotion. I have been following this series since its debut, so if you are interested in reading my other reviews, just click on the links: book one, book two, book three, book four.

How much human should the terra indigene keep? This is the question that Simon and all the Others at the Lakeside courtyard have to answer. And that answer is not only for the Elders who took an interested in Meg and the curious relationship terra indigene and humans have in the courtyard. No, Simon, Vlad and the others need to decide for themselves as well. Since terra indigene transform to take the traits of the strongest predators, they can become too human and risk losing part of what makes them wolfguard or sanginati. So how much human is too much? Not only in the numbers of the human pack that now lives in the courtyard and relies on its resources, but also in the interactions they have with those humans and how much they allow themselves to change.

The theme of change is central to this book. Simon and the courtyard Others struggle to determine just how much they need and want to change now that they have Meg and the human pack to think about. The humans living in Lakeside are face with a much steeper change of circumstances now that the terra indigene have reclaimed most of the lands. Meg and the other cassandra sangue are trying to choose a way of speaking prophesy that doesn’t involve cutting…

And Meg has their own struggles and her own choices to make as well. She has found a place where she belongs and people (human and other) she considers friends and family, so it’s only natural for her to want to fit in, to be as normal as possible. She wants to do everything they can do and she doesn’t want to cause them more problems than necessary. Unfortunately, in her desire to be normal, she forgets that she is not normal and can’t really be normal – she is cassandra sangue.

Simon has to come to terms with his own feelings towards Meg and what that means both for him and for the courtyard. I’m glad that he finally decides to be upfront with Meg about this, and that they approach the situation like responsible adults and talk it out, even if it takes some rather traumatic events for them to get to that conversation.

The other important theme in Etched in Bone is that evil doesn’t always act overtly. It can present a perfectly harmless façade to the world. And that one bad apple can sour the whole barrel, or in this case one individual can threaten the peaceful existence inside Lakeside’s human pack. To the Elders, the arrival of Morty’s brother is nothing more than an interesting development in their quest to understand humans. They are perfectly happy to observe and not interfere, letting the human pack deal with this intrusion. Unfortunately, they also want to keep him in the Courtyard for observation, so the humans can’t do the one logical thing that would help them deal with this toxic person – cast him out.

This decision almost ends in disaster and teacher the Elders a valuable lesson – just because they are Namid’s teeth and claws, it doesn’t make them infallible. They can make mistakes and live with the consequences. And that sometimes what seems like a small stone falling off a cliff can trigger a landslide.

All in all, I loved the progress all of the characters made in this book and I am excited to see where they will go from here. The others, at least in Lakeside and around the Simple Folk villages, are starting to treat their humans as a valuable part of the pack. Lakeside humans are actively working on restoring as much order and cooperation as they can in their city. Cassandra sangue finally learn how to survive outside of their cells and hopefully not die after a thousand cuts telling prophecies. Let’s see where the next book takes us.

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

Portal of a Thousand Worlds by Dave Duncan.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I am a fan of everything Asian, so when was asked to review a book set in alternative nineteen century China, I said, “Heck yeah!”. And for the most part, I loved the story. I have a few minor gripes that I will voice at the end of this review, but for the major part, this is a book I would recommend to my friends.

The Good Land is in trouble – the Bamboo Banner rebellion originated in the South and is slowly moving North towards the Heart of the World and the seat of the Empire. They claim that the young Emperor is dead, and that the Empress Mother hides that fact and rules in his name. And the natural disasters befalling the Good Land in the last years seem to corroborate their claim that the Eleventh Dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven – drought, then floods, then unusually cold winters threaten famine on a large portion of the Empire. Then an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude flattens cities and villages across the Good Land, killing millions and leaving even more homeless. The very foundations of the Empire are shaking, even though those living in the Inner Palace don’t seem to notice it.

But scholars know that all those disasters are the portents of a bigger event – the opening of the Portal of Worlds, a mysterious carving in the cliffs of the great mountain range that guards the northern border of the Good Land. It is said that once a millennium, that carving becomes a real door. It is unclear what comes out of it, but every time it brings a time of great upheaval and suffering and the change of the ruling dynasty…

There isn’t one single protagonist in this book. We follow the stories of several different characters instead. They come from different backgrounds and have different goals and aspirations.

We have several Gray Brothers, the Order officially in charge of all the funerary rites in the Good Land… and unofficially, the only sanctioned guild of assassins and spies in the Empire. Brother Silky is in charge of making a wealthy merchant even wealthier, even though he is also trying to advance a more personal cause of making a name for himself and founding his own family. Brother Butterfly Sword doesn’t want anything to do with assassinations, but ends up on a mission in the most dangerous place in the entire Empire – the Inner Palace itself.

We have several members of the Bamboo Banner, from the lowest of henchmen to the nephew of Bamboo himself.

And finally, we have the Firstborn and his small retinue, who are travelling towards the Portal of Worlds in the hopes that maybe, for the first time in thousands of years, the Firstborn will live long enough to see it open…

I loved all the characters, the good ones, the bad ones, the in-between ones. Because they were exactly like people around me – not entirely good or bad, but both at different times. They were flawed and petty, ambitious and self-serving, but capable of compassion and sacrifice at times as well. I am glad that at least some of them managed to accomplish their dreams in this time of turmoil, and I am sad that others didn’t survive the upheaval. This says a lot about the author’s writing skill that he managed to keep me invested in so many different characters, each with their own small story, all of which wove into one big tapestry that is this book. I enjoyed every minute I spent with them, and even though the book is 389 pages long, I never felt like it dragged.

In fact, I would have loved it to be a bit longer, which brings me to my first gripe with this book – the ending feels rushed and anticlimactic for the build-up we had during the rest of the story. I won’t put any details to avoid spoilers, but it basically goes like this: Portal opens. A certain character goes through. The rebels and the Imperial army don’t even meet in confrontation, even though they’ve been chasing each other for the best part of the story. Everybody goes home. The End.

This ending left more questions than it gave answers. Who was the Firstborn? Why was he stuck in the Fourth World for so long? It’s implied that it was a punishment, but for what? And why is that punishment suddenly over now instead of say a thousand years ago or a thousand years later? We get no answer to those questions.

My second gripe is with Bamboo, the leader of the Bamboo Banner. What was his ultimate goal, apart from toppling the existing dynasty? He had to know that an army of addicts would never stand a chance against trained soldiers with guns and cannons. Or was he so crazy that he didn’t care? Was all this just the ravings of a delusional megalomaniac or was he guided by greater forces? In any case, it seems suspicious that he would manage to gather such a big following in the first place, because he didn’t strike me as a very charismatic leader. I think that this whole storyline would have benefited from a bit more focus.

But despite those minor details, I really enjoyed this story and I would recommend it to my friends. If you are tired of the usual Western-based worlds and want to try something new and unique, this is definitely a book for you.

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

Battle Hill Bolero (Bone Street Rumba 3) by Daniel Jose Older.

Stars: 3 out of 5

I must admit that I’m disappointed with this book. I had loved Midnight Taxi Tango (which I reviewed as well), so I was looking forward to see what trouble Carlos, Sasha, Reza and Kia would manage to get themselves into next.

Well, bad news is, even though we still get Carlos and Sasha POVs, Kia is virtually non-existent in Battle Hill Bolero, and Reza seems to have taken a long sabbatical or something. Same goes for a few other characters I really liked from the previous books, like Baba Eddie. Instead, we are introduced to a plethora of new characters that seem to have come out of nowhere, like Krys, the River Giants and a bunch of other ghosts. Oh, they are interesting and fully fleshed out, but they seem tacked on to the story and spend most of the book on the outskirts of the main action, sorta hanging there with nothing particularly important to do until the last battle.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me, I really loved Krys. Once again, Mr. Older has a knack for creating wonderfully diverse characters that you WANT to follow. The problem is, the path Krys follows is barely tangent to the story for most of the book. So much so that her story feels disconnected from the main events.

And why is Caitlin even in this book? Her story was pretty much done with the destruction of the blattodeon at the end of Midnight Taxi Tango. Oh, we could have had an excellent revenge arc where she could have sought to destroy Carlos and Sasha for bringing down everything she’d worked for her entire life. Unfortunately, the author chose not to take that route. Instead, she is hangs on the outskirts of the story for most of the book and only plays an important role during the last battle, but even that story arc could have been taken out of the book entirely without any major damage to the story. Caitlin is a non-entity. She gets no personal development at all, which is rather surprising for an author who loves creating characters that feel so alive they jump out of the book page at you. Her only role in the book is to be a weapon and to distract Carlos from the main fight for a few minutes.

This is so disappointing because, like I already mentioned, she could have been so much more. Just imagine – a powerful necromancer going after the people who killed her family, destroyed the cult she had dedicated her entire life to and basically left her future in shambles. That warranted a whole book dedicated to the clash between these powers.

And this is where my major complaint about Battle Hill Bolero lies – the story. It doesn’t feel like the third book in a series and a direct continuation of Midnight Taxi Tango. When I started the book, I had to go on Amazon and make sure that I didn’t skip a couple more books in the series, because I was so confused with the direction of the story. By the end of Midnight Taxi Tango, Carlos, Sasha and their group had defeated the blattodeon and saved their children from a gruesome fate. Yes, there had been rumblings about the Council of the Dead among the ghosts, and Carlos didn’t particularly like his employers, but nothing even hinted at the full-out confrontation we start Battle Hill Bolero with. Where did that come from?

The author implies that only a few months passed between the two books, but for the situation to escalate like this, a lot of things must have happened. Things that aren’t even mentioned or explained. So the reader starts the book with a nagging feeling that they skipped an important portion of the story. As a result, I felt disconnected from most of the new characters. I was so busy trying to figure out the stakes and the whats and the whys of the situation to concentrate on the plethora of new characters that were thrown my way.

It is sad that this happened, because I truly loved this series; the diversity and complexity of the world; the vivid and interesting characters. But this book feels rushed and disjointed at the same time, which almost puts me off this series entirely. I might give the next book a read or I might not, but I won’t be eagerly waiting for it anymore.

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