Category Archives: Fantasy

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.

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.

The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan (The Seven Swords #2)

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

I liked this book better than the first one, which I reviewed here.

One of the reasons is that there are a lot less characters, so the author gets the chance to focus a bit more on each of them. So they actually feel like people instead of cardboard cutouts. It helps that we already met Seeker and Pilgrim in the first book, so the author doesn’t have to reintroduce us to them. He can focus on fleshing them out more instead.

This is where comes my first complaint. Pilgrim is the only one deserving fleshing out and a back story, it seems. Oh, we dwelve into his past plenty in this book. We even learn how he got bound to his demin sword. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting and I welcomed the knowledge… I just wish the author would have done the same with Seeker.

As it stands, she is still the mysterious beast master who is looking for her kidnapped daughter. Deadly with a now, masterful in animal control, silent and not very fleshed out. We don’t even get to learn her name, unlike Pilgrim. Oh, and we still haven’t found her daughter, imagine that. I hope that the author pays her more attention in the next book, because she is an interesting character who deserves to come out of Pilgrim’s shadow and get a voice of her own.

The world continues to be imaginative and intriguing. Therr are gods, demons, ancient heroes, and strange cartographers who are much older than they appear. I’m not entirely sure how all this fits together just yet, but I’m happy to stick along for the ride. As ling as the hints thrown here and there in the books end up fitting into a coherent picture in the end.

Can’t help but notice that so far all Pilgrim and Seeker did in their quest was bring ruin and destruction to magical places that had stood for millennia. I hope that’s not a trend. Otherwise by the time Pilgrim assembles all the cursed swords, the world would be in ruins.

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

The Night Girl by James Bow

Stars: 4 out of 5

I went into this book not really knowing what to expect. The description on NetGalley seemed appealing enough and the cover art was okay, but the story could have gone either way.

I’m glad that I gave it a chance though, because it turned out a quick and rewarding read. The story itself isn’t very original – girl moves into big city to escape her little town life and her overbearing mother, and makes a life for herself. She also discovers a cause worth fighting for, makes a few friends, and some enemies, and finds love in the process.

What I didn’t expect was that this story would have so much heart! I loved Perpetua almost from the first chapter. She is a very determined young lady who nevertheless has a very good sense of what is right and what is wrong. She also has the courage to stand up against what she perceives is wrong and won’t stand by when others are mistreated, even if that lands her in to trouble herself.

I liked the fact that all the characters here have real and mostly relatable motives for their actions. Nobody is evil just for the sake of being evil or because the story needs a villain. At first, you would think that the fairies are evil, since they basically forced goblins to live in fear and squalor for centuries. But then you come to understand why they did it. Fairies can pass for human, some goblins can as well, and those manage to integrate into society. But there are those who are too alien looking to ever be able to do that, so they have to hide. Because everyone involved still remembers the pitchforks, the cold iron, and the savagery of men, even if the war ended over a thousand years ago.

It is evident, at least to Perpetua and the readers, that the status quo cannot endure much longer, but both parties are too scared to change anything, because some of them were alive during that war.

My complaint about the resolution of this conflict is that it is too good to be true. With the events of 2020, I admit that I lost a lot of hope in the human race, so I tended to side with the fairies on this one. In real world, this would have ended in rivers of blood and riots on the streets, mass executions and ethnic purges, not mutual, if rather reluctant acceptance. But this is a fairy tale, so I will accept its rather naive happy ending. Maybe we need more positive books right now with all the ugliness in the world.

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

Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card

Stars: 2 out of 5.

Sometimes even authors we like disappoint us. Ender’s Game is still close to the top of my list of favorite scifi books. I re-read it several times since I discovered it in my tender teens and had my mind blown away. So to say that I was excited to get my hands on this new book by Orson Scott Card is an understatement. I couldn’t wait to read it! I dove into it as soon as I got it! And… I don’t know… I guess I am not the right audience for his YA books.

I mean the story itself had potential. Kids with micropowers and being ostracized because of them? Excellent. A support group that lets them explore those powers and find useful applications for them or at least to come to terms with having them? Very good. A commentary on friendship and the concept of found family? I’m along for the ride. Add to it a missing person case and cooperation with the police, and this sounded like the perfect book.

Unfortunately, even though these sounded like great individual elements, the mixture turned out to be rather underwhelming. Even though the book is very well written and easy to read, I had several problems with the story.

First of all, the incessant banter between the characters. For a solitary kid, Ezekiel sure talks a lot. While some of it was fun and relevant to the story, but most of it is just that… banter that has nothing to do with the story itself and just fills page after page with words. I think the author wanted to show us how his protagonist thinks and feels by making him talk about irrelevant stuff, but to me it was mostly a snooze fest. I found myself skipping pages upon pages of dialogues that could have been cut without loosing any story at all.

My second problem is with Ezekiel himself. Some of his actions, especially towards the end of the book, make no sense. He is almost 17, not 12. He is painted to be a thoughtful and smart kid… yet he chooses to ditch a cop, who is armed and trained to take down criminals, and go rescue his friend with his dad instead who is… a butcher and doesn’t even own a gun. And that after he HEARD at least 2 criminals being at the place his friend is held at. Two unarmed civilians against criminals who are known to torture and kill their victims. Right. What can go wrong?

And deriving from that second frustration is my next one – there are no consequences to this stupidest move of the century. This whole rescue and taking down of the villains goes way too easily and bloodlessly. The resolution isn’t on par with the stakes. At no point during the book did I feel a real sense of danger or worry for the characters. I understand that this is YA, but the author describes serious crimes here: sex trafficking, kidnapping, murder, etc. Yet the language is so sanitized that it doesn’t grip you. The incessant dialogues about nothing inter-spaced in the story might also be at fault.

Finally, I found that apart from Ezekiel, his dad, and his friend, none of the other characters were particularly developed. The micropower support group kids had no personality beyond their individual powers. Heck, I can’t even remember their names. The cop was… a cop who really wanted to save that little girl and was willing to use unconventional methods to do it. Other than that, he is a blank page. And the school counselor? Why was she even in the story to begin with?

So in the end, this book was a disappointment. The brew didn’t turn out quite like I had expected. Maybe because of the addition of too many different ingredients. I think I might go re-read Ender’s Game.

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

The Ten thousand doors of january by Alix E. Harrow

Stars: 3.5 rounded up.

January is an in-between kind of girl. Born to a black father and a probably white mother in the early 1900s, raised by a wealthy patron in huge house full of treasures and wonders pilfered from around the world by her father. Her status is in-between also – not quite a pupil, not quite a servant, maybe a rare find too alive to go into a display case? Until she finds a leather-bound book and opens a door that leads into a different world…

This book is about discovering your own worth and coming into your own strength. It’s about realizing that if you spend your life cutting vital parts of yourself just to fit in to a rigid mold that somebody else created for you, you might look like a perfect little girl on the outside, but you will feel empty and miserable inside.

January tried very hard to be what Mr. Locke expected her to be – silent, almost invisible, perfectly well behaved. A breathing, living doll. What else was she supposed to do when her father was never there to tell her otherwise and when her whole world depended on the good graces of that distant and almighty man who took her and her father in when she was just an infant? But all this time she had felt lonely, empty, miserable, like half of her has been cut off and shut in one of the glass cabinets filling the Locke House.

So when she picks up the silver knife and writes letters into her own flesh, she doesn’t only open a door to a different reality – she also throws open the door to her own cell, the one Mr. Locke had been building around her since her childhood. By stepping through the threshold between worlds, she sets herself free to be what she wants to be – wild and free, and fearless, a wanderer of worlds.

This book is also about our perception of ourselves and the world around us, and about how often things are not what they seem to be. Monsters can hide behind perfectly benign masks. A meek half-blooded girl can turn into a fierce untamed spirit that will blow open all kinds of doors.

I liked this story a lot, but I felt like the beginning dragged. I understand that we needed to immerse ourselves in the oppressive structure of January’s early existence in Locke House, but I feel that this part could have been condensed without loosing much of the effect. She could have found that book earlier. She could have read it over a longer period of time. That way we wouldn’t have had chapter after chapter of seemingly unrelated story wedged into the part of January’s narrative that had just started picking up speed, suspense and tension. It really kills the flow of the book and was a source of frustration for me.

Once the issue of the book is finally over and we don’t get the endless interruptions in the narrative flow, the story picks up speed and becomes much more interesting. There is suspense, there are high stakes and satisfying conclusions. The ending was maybe too neatly wrapped up in a little pink bow for my taste, but I am a cynic at heart, so don’t mind me.

My other complaint about this book is that the only really fleshed-out characters are January, her parents, and her dog Bad (short for Sinbad), and the parents aren’t even present for 90% of the story. All other characters are walking labels put there to advance the story. The mysterious, maybe good, maybe bad Mr. Locke, who serves as a father figure for January in her real father’s continued absence. There is the inevitable love interest, and the mysterious lady protector/friend that was sent by her real father… They never develop personalities outside of those stereotypes. That’s probably why I was more upset when the bad people hurt Bad then when they threatened to hurt January’s love interest (heck, after finishing the book, I can’t even remember his name).

But despite those two gripes, this was a rather enjoyable book. I liked the world, I loved the fact that unlike a lot of urban fantasies now, it’s set in the past century, not in our modern times. I liked the story of one in-between girl deciding to forge her own path and create her own destiny instead of conforming to the image everyone else had of her.

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

A pilgrimage of swords by Anthony ryan (The Seven Swords #1)

Stars: 3 out of 5.

This was an okay novella. From what I understood, it serves as a prequel or introduction to a new series, and as such, it did a good job introducing the main character, Pilgrim, as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse into the world he inhabits.

Unfortunately, the story fell rather short for me. We follow the journey of several characters who are thrown together because all of them chose to undertake a pilgrimage into the domain of a mad god, in the hope that he will grant their most sacred wish. As such, they should all have their own stories, right? Something that pushed them to this act of desperation. And desperation it is, because nobody ever returned from the realm of the Mad God…

Yet, we don’t really SEE those characters, because because they don’t have personalities of their own. They are cutouts with labels put on top of them – the terminally sick woman and her grieve-stricken husband, the fierce huntress searching for a lost loved one, etc. It doesn’t help that we follow this journey through the Pilgrim’s eyes and his voice is just as bland as the description of the other characters. Seriously, the only character with any grain of personality in this book is the cursed sword. He is a homicidal demon, but at least he has some nuances.

As such, it’s hard to empathize with the characters, and if some of them die gruesome deaths, I just shrugged and read along. I think the only character I felt any empathy for was Priest, but mostly because I never learned what his purpose for this pilgrimage was. What was he going to ask of his god? Why had he volunteered to lead this doomed group?

My other problem was that I couldn’t figure out Pilgrim’s motivation either. For seeing this story entirely from his POV, we get no insight into his inner thoughts. Apart from the banter with his cursed sword, there is nothing. He is painted as this ruthless killer, a scourge upon the world, but his actions go against that picture. Also, his reaction when discovering Book’s true identity in the later part of the story goes against his whole character, especially when we learn in the last page of this story that he dedicated his life to destroying that particular church and its adepts.

I liked the little I saw of the worldbuilding and the hints at other cultures and religions inhabiting it, but I’m not sure I liked that enough to follow Pilgrim for a whole book or a whole series.

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

cinders on the wind by louis emery (The tapestry of retha 1)

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I made it halfway through the book before I decided that enough was enough. Unfortunately, I am DNFing this one. I’m sure there is a good story somewhere in there, but even after reading half the book, I’m still waiting for it to grip me. The author would have benefited from a good content editor, because this book suffers from a lot of pitfalls rookie authors encounter:

1. Infodumps. We got literally the whole geopolitical introduction to the world in the first few pages. Problem with that? My eyes glazed over after a few paragraphs. I didn’t know those countries or kings or events, so I didn’t know to CARE about remembering them. So when they are mentioned again a few chapters later, I’m lost. I already forgot who was fighting with whom and why.

2. Endless flashbacks. Every time a character is introduced, we get a 4-6 pages flashback that explains their story, their motivation and what brought them to the moment in time we are reading about. EVERY SINGLE TIME!!! We are in the middle of an action scene, there is a build up in tension, then bham! new character… and a snooze-fest of a flashback. Yes, let’s kill the pace of an already very slow moving story even more.

3. Lots of tell, not enough show. You might have inferred that from the infodumps and flashbacks, but the author doesn’t know how to show very well. Or thinks that the reader isn’t intelligent enough to understand the character’s reactions and actions unless it’s fully explained to them. Trust me, the reader is smarter than you think, and being spoon fed the information is very annoying. 

4. The blurb is misleading. That young Seer mentioned in the blurb? Haven’t heard or seen her after the first 3 chapters or so. The Kingsguard that is supposed to protect her on her journey? He is off to a neighboring kingdom waging war for his king. There is no mention of that journey and I am halfway through the book. Instead we have 4 characters stuck in different locations doing seemingly unconnected things. There is talk of a rebellion, but who is rebelling, and who is attacking whom is cryptic to me. Probably because my brain switched off during the 6 page infodump in chapter one.

5. I don’t think the author has a very clear idea about his own mythology and divine system. He mentions that the main divinity is the Dragonmother and that there are a bunch of minor gods. The kingdom where most of the action takes place worships the Dragonmother… yet their elite soldiers are called God’s Burden? Yes, with a capital G…

So after wading through half the book and battling with the above mentioned irritating details, I am throwing the towel. This is not for me.

PS. I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for a honest review. Sorry, it had to be negative

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.