Category Archives: Fantasy

Black Stone Heart (The Obsidian Path 1) by Michael R. Fletcher

Stars: 5 out of 5

I don’t usually like grim dark as a genre, because most books are too grim and too dark for me (and yes, the pun is totally intended). What I mean is that most authors dish out gore and violence for the sake of it instead of integrating it into the plot. So after the gazillionth gruesome murder or ignoble rape, I as a reader become unsensitized to it. Plus, if horrible things (including death) can happen to any of the characters, you get less attached to them, so when bad things happen, you just shrug and move on. 

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s violent. But both of those things are integral to the story and the worldbuilding, not just written for shock value. So while I was squeamish in some parts of the book, and didn’t agree with a lot of the decisions the protagonist made, those were never out of character.

Now let’s talk about the two aspects that make or break a book for me: the worldbuilding and the characters.

The worldbuilding here is wonderful! You can feel the weight of history in the description of the cities and villages the protagonist is traveling through. We know that thousands of years ago, there was a vast and powerful empire that was ruled by the Demon Emperor. The empire was prosperous, but that prosperity came at the price of countless sacrificed souls that were fed to the demons who built and operated the cities, maintained the roads and made sure the vast imperial machine functioned properly. 

We don’t know what happened, but there was a horrible war that scarred the face of the earth and overthrew that demon empire, leaving empty cities that were still perfectly preserved and maintained by bound demons, but stepping into them meant death for simple mortals, because the wizards, who emerged victorious from this war, had eliminated all demonologists. Nobody was left to talk to demons.

It the world better or worse after the war? That would be for the reader to decide. Sure, no more innocent souls are sacrificed to the demons, but what’s left of humanity now lives in the equivalent of our Dark Ages. Poverty, disease, huge disparity in living conditions between the wizards and nobles and the rest of the populace. And this society is stagnant. The wizards are happy to keep the status quo. There had been no progress, no innovation, no effort to improve the living conditions in a thousand years since the Demon Empire fell. So you bet you this place is violent and dark.

Now let’s consider our protagonist. He is a blank slate at the beginning of the book. He literally emerges from the ground with no memories of who he was. But his willingness to kill and commit violence is there from the start. I would say that he doesn’t even bat an eyelash at his first 2 murders. He has some questions about his third one, the young boy, but it’s more in the vein of Was the old me really someone who could kill so easily, than in the vein of OMG what did I just do? I could have incapacitated and bound him. I didn’t have to kill him. 

The more we learn about Khraen’s past, the more we realize that he isn’t much better than the Demon Emperor he used to be, no matter if he keeps telling himself that he will be a better person. He is just as selfish, prone to anger, and ready to commit the worst of atrocities then justify them afterwards. I had to murder that woman because my undead girlfriend needed body part. And since she was already dead anyway, why not collect her soul to feed to a demon later? That sort of things. 

And the further in the story we go, the worst Khraen gets. No matter what justifications he invents in his mind for the horrible things he does, he is slowly become the same monster he sees in his shattered memories. Only the Demon Emperor committed his atrocities to  serve his god and to preserve and empire, the new Khraen just wants revenge on all the wizards who, in his eyes, betrayed him and took what’s his. Neither justification is valid, in my point of view.

Yet despite the violence and the increasingly unlikable protagonist, this book grabs you and keeps you hooked. I want to know what happened to the old Demon Emperor to make all of his allies turn against him. I want to know who shattered his obsidian heart. I want to know which necromancer has Henka’s heart or if she lied about it. I want to know what happens next, so I will definitely be buying the next book in the series.

Papa Lucy and the Boneman by Jason Fischer

 Stars: 3.5 out of 5

That was a very unusual book. I struggle to even put it in a category. Scifi? Fantasy? Post Apocalypse? Grim dark? A little bit of both with a bunch of other stuff mixed in?

I admit that I struggled with rating this book because there are certain aspects of it that I absolutely loved, and others that I was less than thrilled about. I had to make a compromise and settle on 3.5 stars.

Let’s talk about the thing I absolutely loved – the worldbuilding. This is a gritty and unforgiving world that wasn’t created for the human race. In fact, we learn pretty early on that humans came to this world as refugees from their own dimension that was facing immediate destruction. So even though the air is mostly breathable, the water potable, and the soil can grow imported crops, most of the native plant and wildlife can kill you in dozens of imaginative albeit rather painful ways. Not to mention that what livestock and crops the refugees brought with them have slowly been dying out or mutating beyond recognition through the centuries since their arrival.

This is a harsh world and you get a distinct feeling that the human race isn’t welcome there. If fact, it’s on borrowed time. Even without failing crops and livestock dying out, less and less people are born each year. Cities that were full of people and hope for a new future when they just arrived in this world now stand abandoned. Roads and highways are crumbling because if lack of use, and great feats of architecture that had once made life easier (like aqueducts and sewerage channels) are now broken and forgotten…

This general decay and desolation is very reminiscent of some of the darker works by Glen Cook, like the Black Company series, or the Dark Tower cycle by Stephen King. There is a sense of wrongness about the land, like the world had “moved on” and left the humans behind, to slowly die out. And of course, humans being humans, they find new and imaginative ways to abuse and kill each other. Did I mention this book is dark? Very, unforgivably dark.

This is where I will need to mention the part that I didn’t like, and that’s the characters. They are all absolutely depictable horrible excuses for human beings, especially those who fancy themselves gods instead. There isn’t a single one of them that has anything that even resembles a moral compass, and the atrocities they commit seemingly in passing were so bad at times that I found myself rooting for the natives. 

For me, it is rather hard to like a book when I just want to kill all of the protagonists to either put them out of their misery or to prevent them from committing any more atrocities. And in the case of the Boneman, who seems the least horrible of them all, his sin is the one of inaction. He sees the horrors his brother is committing. He saw all the horrors he committed in the past…  yet he follows him nevertheless. Like  fateful hound devoid of free will. Don’t’ know about you, but to me that’s a character that’s extremely annoying to read about.

I understand that the author’s idea was to show that his characters deserve the fates they will be getting and that the horrible actions they committed are counterbalanced by the harshness of their environment… Kinda like they deserve the prison they ended up with because they are all so horrible. 

I can appreciate that idea, but I don’t like it. Maybe because my tolerance for pain and suffering and people behaving like absolute Neanderthals has significantly lowered during these 2 pandemic years. I want to have at least one protagonist I can root for. I am not interested in following a bunch of villains and settle for the less villainous of them surviving in the end. 

But other readers might find this book right up their alley. So I would say give it a try, to discover an unusual world if nothing else.

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

The CAse of the Dragon-Bone Engine by Galadriel Coffeen

Stars: 4 out of 5

This was a very interesting and “light” read. And by light I don’t mean a dumbed down storyline, but the fact that this story was surprisingly devoid of angst and dark themes that seem to permeate most of modern books. Oh we have a few murders here and a rather gruesome accident, but despite that the story is refreshingly devoid of extra angst.

I must admit that I am intrigued by the world the author introduced. It’s slightly steampunky/Victorian maybe? And what glimpses we get of the worldbuilding only raise more questions. What are these dragon hives? Why are they only found on this mysterious continent? Speaking of that continent, how far North is it located that the sun barely rises for half a year? And if it’s that far North, why isn’t the weather colder than described? I understand that this is the first book in a new series, so I think the author did a good job giving us a glimpse into the world without huge infodumps, but dang, I want more answers! Which is one reason why I will most certainly pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

I also really liked our protagonist. Unlike some typical female heroines in urban fantasy, she is refreshingly mature and no-nonsense. She has a brain and she doesn’t hesitate to use it. She is educated and she has manners. If anything, she seems way more mature than her age, but I am not complaining.

I also liked that we don’t really have a romantic line woven into the story per se. Yes, she likes her partner, and he seems to like her, but we are spared the teenage hormones and angst that are so common to these types of books. Again, really refreshing. These two people are good partners who trust and respect each other first and foremost. The romance feels an organic development of the relationship they had built before then. I certainly am looking forward to see how it will evolve in future books.

The author also did a great job setting up the stage for the next books. While the main mystery of this book is resolved in the end, and the reader has the satisfaction of discovering who sabotaged the dragon-bone engine and why, bigger mysteries are just hinted at. Honestly, I really want to know who would have wanted to kill our protagonist’s father and why. Did it have anything to do with his research into the origins of magic? And if so, what did he discover that had him killed?

Anyway, I am definitely putting this series and this author on my To Be Watched list.

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

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

This book had so much promise! The premise was intriguing, and the book started strong with Vern on the run and not much explanation of what had happened but with a growing sense of urgency that even the reader could feel.

The book was good for the first half at least, while we followed Vern as she learned to live in the woods and tried to raiser her children by herself.

Unfortunately, by the second half of the book, the novelty of the story ran out, and I discovered a couple things that started gradually dampening my enjoyment of the book until they ruined it completely. I’m sad to say that I finished this as a hate read. I was so close to the end that I had to finish it just to say that I did.

First of all, the story just keeps circling the drain for most of the book. Vern knows that the answers to what’s happening to her are back in Cainland, but she never actually does anything to find them. She knows that the woods are not safe anymore for her little family, but her answer is to go back to civilization nilly willy and follow a dream. No recon beforehand, no explanation or basic training for her children before she subjects them to such a traumatic change. It’s a wonder she even got to her destination at all. The way they were dressed and the way they acted, she should have been picked up by cops almost immediately.

I think my biggest problem is Vern herself. I have never seen a more selfish and pig-headed protagonist in my life! It was okay in the beginning because she was young and on the run, overwhelmed by circumstances. Problem is, she never changes. She doesn’t grow up. She doesn’t evolve and mature. She stays the same bull-headed and selfish teenager throughout the book. She is stubborn, and prideful, and rebellious just for the sake of being rebellious, or that’s what it seems at times. She is the kind of person who would stick her arm in the fire and let it burn just because somebody told her not to do that. That’s just incredibly stupid.

She abandons her babies for nights at end alone… in the woods… in a makeshift shelter open to elements. She hurts the only person who had information about Cainland and what was happening to her, instead of listening and trying to get information out of her first. She pouts and shouts, instead of admitting that she can’t read, even though learning to read would help her find the answers she wants.

And the most infuriating part is, despite all those shortcomings and acts of tremendous idiocy, she always escapes scoot free. There are no dramatic consequences to her actions.

She leaves two newborns in the woods all night? Sure, they are all nice and safe in the morning. No animals found them and hurt them. They didn’t get cold or hungry and started crying. In fact, how the heck did they survive for 8 years in the woods and never once got sick with anything?

Vern literally walked them into a mall, dressed them in new clothes, grabbed essential… and just walked out? And the tags on the clothes didn’t’ set off the alarms? The security in the mall didn’t catch her? Right…

The further we venture into the story and out of the woods, the more implausible this lack of consequences gets. To the point that I didn’t even care for any of this anymore. Whatever Vern did, she would get out of it looking better than ever, with an “upgrade” to her supernatural abilities. If the protagonist has a “Mary Sue shield” around her, what’s the point reading her story?

The ending is even more underwhelming because it reads like the final boss level of a video game – Vern gets her maximum upgrades and goes to fight the bad guys who don’t stand a chance. Only it’s all kind of pointless at that point, pun intended.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t recommend this. There are better and more impactful stories out there that don’t need deux ex machina elements to keep the protagonist from dying because of her own stupidity.

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

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

Stars: 3 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.