Category Archives: Dark fantasy

The Mad Trinkets by Cameron Scott Kirk

 Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I honestly don’t understand all the 5 stars ratings and raving reviews for this book. I didn’t see complex characters or well-realized world. All I saw was gratuitous violence, oversexualization, and very wobbly worldbuilding.

My biggest pet peeve is the worldbuilding, actually. I am a firm believer that in fantasy, you either create your own world with its own geography, mythology and religions, or you use our world, but very carefully. Then it’s called alternative history anyway. 

What we have in this book is a complete mess. It’s set up in the fictional land of White Cloud, where two kings rule and an evil Hungry King had been defeated barely a year ago. Of him, we don’t know much. He was a cannibal, maybe? He had magic, maybe? Who knows. We never get any details on him apart from a few mentions… There is a tall mountain, and a city at the border of a vast desert, and maybe evil metal that fell from the sky. With me so far? Okay. All that is good. All that paints an interesting and fictional world…

And then we get the mention of God and Jesus Christ and real places like Jerusalem. One of the characters is a Norsewoman… who carries a katana. No, seriously, a real Japanese katana… and was given a Japanese name. So are we in our world or some kind of invented one? If we are in the real world, then where exactly is this land of White Cloud on the map of our world? When are these events taking place in reference to our present time? And if it’s NOT our world, why mention a religion from our world? Especially since it has no influence on this story whatsoever? Why give your Viking woman a Japanese katana? Again, it isn’t relevant to the story. All it does is kick me out of the story and irritates me, because I can only suspend my disbelief so far.

The characters are also nothing to write home about. All the women are good and righteous, even in their anger and thirst for vengeance. Other than that, we are not privy to their inner thoughts or desires. All men are overly sexualized pigs… apart from a few obviously good guys who somehow overcome their base nature by the end. Again, we aren’t particularly privy to their thoughts either. 

By the end of the book, I sincerely couldn’t care less for any of the characters. I skimmed the last 10% of the book just to get to the end of the story. This hasn’t become a DNF only because I was almost at the end and I was too stubborn to quit. Honestly, won’t recommend this.

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

City of Stone and Silence (The Wells of Sorcery 2) by Django Wexler

 Stars 5 out of 5.

If anything, book 2 is even better than book 1. Since the backstory and worldbuilding had already been established in book 1, we can jump right into the story here. And what story it is! We thought that just reaching the garden and surviving the Rot had been a challenge. Well it’s nothing compared to what awaits our friends from Soliton when it reaches its destination.

I love the fact that Isoka underwent tremendous character growth in the last book, and it continues here. She went from being this ruthless, unfeeling person who was only out for herself and and her sister to becoming a reluctant leader who actually cares about the people she ended up in charge of.  This change makes her a lot more relatable and, while I’m sure she had that compassion hidden deep down inside her anyway, it is slowly coming out thanks to Meroe. Meroe loves Isoka, but she also constantly challenges her and makes her take a long and harsh look at her actions. And she leads by example. My only complaint about this book is that we don’t get quite enough Meroe awesomeness. 

We also get to really meet Isoka’s sister Tori in this book. In book one, we only got a glimpse of her through Isoka’s eyes, and she seemed exactly what Isoka wanted her to be: a beautiful and innocent upper-class girl far detached from all the filth and violence of the streets. In this book, we get to live in her head as well. And we find out that she is far from innocent and definitely far from detached. The innocence is a façade that she is putting up for her sister and the retainers she’d hired, but underneath is a thoughtful and determined young lady. There is no malice in that act, mind you. Tori knows that seeing her happy and pure off the filth Isoka has to wade through every day makes her sister happy. So she gives her that happiness. Because she remembers the cold and the hunger and the brutality of the streets, and she remembers everything her big sister had to sacrifice to keep her safe.  And she loves her for it. 

I admit that Tori was the biggest surprise in this book for me. From the glimpse we had of her in book 1, she’d appeared very shallow and young. But we get to follow a young woman with a heart of gold and spine of steel in this book. I can truly say that both sisters are exceptional. I can’t wait to see them reunited at last and delivering their own brand of justice to those who wronged them.

And I can’t wait to jump into the last book in the trilogy. This is a must read. If you like a thoughtfully created world and wonderfully flawed characters, pick up this series.

Shadebringer by Grayson W Hooper

Stars: 2 out of 5

I added one extra star for the originality of the premise. A soldier who dies during the Vietnam war ends up in a sort of transitional afterlife world where souls are supposed to heal and deal with their hang-ups before they transition into Heaven or Hell or reincarnate, depending on their religious preferences. Oh, and all the souls in this world are soldiers from all the wars ever fought on Earth. This could have been such an awesome story! I was so looking forward to exploring that! Unfortunately, the execution was mediocre at best.

The story takes a long time to get up to speed. I mean, the protagonist doesn’t even end up in Irgendwo until about 40% into the book. Until then we have a long and tedious account of him fighting in Vietnam. Well, by fighting I mean drinking, cursing, and being a total ass to his subordinates in Vietnam. We don’t get much actual fighting. And when we do, the fight sequences are confusing and not particularly well written.

Once we finally get to Irgendwo, the story doesn’t get much better. The author tells us a lot, but doesn’t show anything. He also doesn’t particularly explain how his world works. We travel through a desert and some woods and reach mountains, but there is no sense of scale. At one point it says that it’s days to the sulfur caves from the city where the protagonist is, yet it seems like an army of over two thousand people covers that distance almost instantaneously. I mean imagine the logistics involved in moving this many people over a long distance? Provisions, tents, etc.? Nope, no mention of that. They cover the distance seemingly by magic.

Speaking of magic. Apparently, there is such a ting in Irgendwo, but how it works is never explained. It’s like, here, put your hands like this and throw a fireball. Look at that, it works! There is mention of necromancers, and scryers, but how any of this works is never explained.

Nothing is explained or actually SHOWN. We are told that the people of Mora are evil and want to destroy this world, but apart from a brief scene where the protagonist witnesses a public hanging, I saw nothing that proves this supposed evilness. Or the goodness of the other guys… who force conscript anyone coming to their city. But it’s for a good cause, because the author said they are the good guys…

Also, we have soldiers from different conflicts throughout human history, including the most recent ones like WW1 and WW2. Heck, the protagonist died in Vietnam… yet all their weapons and armor are stuck in the middle ages. We have swords and maces and bows, but no guns? Why? Once again, nothing is explained. 

I think by now you can see the trend here.

I could have forgiven the lack of decent worldbuilding and explanation, if the characters were interesting. Unfortunately, that is not the case. All the secondary characters have the personalities of a cardboard cutout. And the cutout isn’t of a real person, but of a cartoon. Seriously, I can hardly remember their names, yet alone their descriptions. 

The main protagonist doesn’t fare much better. I found him extremely unlikable. He comes across as an entitled asshole who thinks that he is better than everyone else, so he treat them like dirt. Oh, and he gets away with this because he is the Chosen One. He is so quick to pass judgement on people based on their appearance or actions, yet we have seen him being a horrible excuse for a human being during his time in Vietnam… yet he considers himself so good and righteous. I wanted to slap him or throttle him for most of the book.

I quit reading at 85%, smack in the middle of the last decisive battle that was supposed to decide the fate of Irgendwo, because I realized that I simply didn’t care one way or another. I wasn’t invested in this story and the people. I couldn’t care less if that portal was closed or if the Children (which we know next to nothing about) were finally going to invade and burn everything to the ground. As far as I’m concerned, they are welcome to it.

This is supposed to be the first book in a new series, but I have no interest in picking up the next one. Me and Irgendwo are parting ways.

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

The Thousand Eyes (The Serpent Gates 2) by A. K. Larkwood

 Stars: 5 out of 5

I had absolutely loved the fist book (and you can read my review here), so I had picked up this book with a certain amount of trepidation. Too often the second book in a series is much weaker than the fist one, serving just as sort of filler before the grand showdown in book 3. I am happy to report that that is not the case here. The second book is just as good as the first one. I am also happy that the author decided to turn this into a duology. We get to finish the journey with all our characters and wrap up all of their paths in more or less neat fashion. 

I will try to avoid spoilers, but let me just say that this book went in to a direction I wasn’t expecting at all, but that’s what made it such a fun and engaging read as well. I really didn’t know where the author would be taking the characters next, but I was so invested in their fates that I was happily along for the ride. Just be warned that the book turns rather dark at some points and things happen to both our characters and the people around them that would be considered nightmarish. 

This book raises several important questions. What is the definition of self? Is self-consciousness set in stone or can it evolve over time and circumstances? What happens when two different entities merge as one? Does one effectively dominate and destroy the other? Do they share the body and take turns? Or do they blend into something new, a combination of both entities? And what makes us human? Can divinities experience love and compassion? Can they change? 

It also asks the important question of how far would you go to save the person you care about. Does the desire to protect the one you love excuse the horrible things you have to do to keep them safe or to just remain by their side? Also, is the lack of compassion and a complete self-absorption the fault of a divine presence, or was it already part of the human soul that merged with it? So many important questions and so many different fates interwoven into this tory. I loved that each characters chose their own, often rather unique answer to them. Because everyone’s story is different. Just like in life. 

It’s an interesting story to navigate along with Czorwe, Tal, and Shutmili, because they are all seeking answers to those questions in their own deeply personal ways. I am also glad that everyone gets a (sort of) happy ending despite all the hardships fate puts them through along the way. Especially Tal, because the poor boy has suffered enough. 

All in all, it was a wonderful world that I enjoyed discovering alongside all characters. I wouldn’t mind revisiting it someday just to discover more strange worlds in the broken maze, even if the stories are told by a different set of characters. I will definitely be following this author closely and check out their new books.

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

The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne 1) by Brian Staveley

Stars: 3 out of 5

This was an okay book, but nothing special. I mean, it kept me engaged enough to plod through 600+ pages, but it never got me engaged enough to be truly invested in the story. 

The world is interesting, and I really wanted to read more about it. I also realized that this was a sequel to an existing trilogy, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to understand the world. From what I could gather, this story follows a different set of characters anyway.

So why did I give this only three stars? I had two problems with it. 

The first one is the pacing. There is no sense of urgency, no real stakes for our characters. Gwenna is sent to the butt end of the world to recover kettral eggs, but there is no timeline on this. We are told that the empire is falling apart and that restoring the kettral is crucial in saving it, but nowhere in the book are we given an indication that the fall is imminent. We are TOLD that it’s the case, but we aren’t SHOWN. It’s hard to be invested in a quest when the stakes aren’t known. Gwenna could take years to get those eggs back, and the empire might still stand. Who knows? The readers certainly don’t. 

Same problem with Ruc’s storyline. We are told at the beginning of the book that this supernatural badass “First” is coming with an army and he will subjugate this city… then we don’t hear from him at all until the very end of the book. Again, we are TOLD. We are shown a dead messenger who didn’t even try to resist and some kind of bat creature who, supposedly, killed several people before it was captured. We are TOLD that, but we don’t see that happening. So again, the stakes are unclear. The urgency is minimal. Especially since we spent the entire book in one place – the Arena. The characters kept talking about escaping, but never really actively doing anything about it (apart from almost at the very end). So there is this big army coming, and we keep hearing that Ruc and Bien need to escape the city… yet they are still in the Arena every time the narrative comes back to them.

As for Akiil’s storyline, I still have no clue why it was even necessary to include it, apart from that one little seed at the end. Other than that, he was my least favorite of the characters, so reading through his POVs was a slog. One of the reasons is that I can’t understand his motivation. I figured out Gwenna and was onboard for her slow descent into depression and cheered when she finally clawed her way out of it. I was mildly sympathetic to Ruc’s efforts to suppress his violent tendencies, but Akiil? I still have no clue what motivates him. It honestly felt like he was making bad choices just for the sake of making bad choices. And that whole ark with the Captain and Skinny Gwenn? I’m not even sure what the point of that was…

So all in all, I was engaged enough to finish this book, but I’m not sure if I am invested enough to pick up the next one, or to go back and read the original trilogy.

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

City of Songs (The Seven Swords 3) by Anthony Ryan

Stars: 4 out of 5

This book is the best in the series so far. I think it’s because we got the exposition and character background out of the way in the first two books, so the author is free to just tell his story. And it is a compelling story, no doubt about that.

I think what I like the most about this series the fascinating and complex world our characters inhabit. It feels complex and interesting. There are hints at deeper events and history there that the reader has yet to discover. It feels real. It feels like something I wouldn’t mind exploring further. I think this is the reason I keep coming back to these books. The characters are okay, but I don’t feel a deep connection to them. But they places they travel to are unique and worth exploring.

On a different note, this is the third city our characters destroyed so far… that’s an alarming trend, I would say. Yes, this time they weren’t directly responsible for the mass murder and mayhem, but they were still there and maybe served as a catalyst for the events. I’m a little afraid that by the time they finally collect all seven swords, there will be nothing left of the world to save.

I admit that I like the companions Pilgrim is assembling around himself, though I would still love Seeker to have a more layered role than the hunter with arrows that kills bad things. Heck, even the new member to join the team at the end of this book is more complex than her. I think that does a disservice to the story, because we are supposed to care about her search for her daughter, but we simply… don’t. I just hope that the author will give her a chance to shine in the next book.

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

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

 Stars: 5 out of 5

Most epic fantasy books end with our mighty heroes defeating the big bad and riding into the sunset and their happy ever after. But ask yourself this question – what happens after the sun sets? What does that ever after look like? Especially if you spent years preparing for this one battle, dedicated your whole life to it. If you walked from it physically and mentally scarred and lost your heart in the process? This is what this book is about. 

Kreya was the leader of the Five Heroes of Vos, the brave crew who defeated the nefarious bone maker Eklor… but that was 25 years ago. And she lost everything in that battle – she lost her husband, who took a fatal arrow trying to protect one of their friends. This death broke Kreya – they were supposed to spend their life together after this battle, to travel the world and experience life to the fullest, to see and do everything they had put on hold while they were saving the world. They were supposed to grow old together. Now Kreya had 25 solitary years trying to resurrect her dead husband using the research of the very monster they sacrificed so much to defeat.

It was interesting to see that famed ever after and follow a band of heroes in their lives after the main story had seemingly ended. I found the portrayal of how these people would try to rebuild their lives after such a traumatic event very realistic. Some try to rebuild their lives and become successful, and never ever think about the war again. Some found a family and find happiness in a quiet life. Some are so broken that their mind fractures over time, and some, like Kreya, put their entire life on hold in order to bring back the person they love.

I also loved that even though they hadn’t seen each other in years, when one of them needs help, they all gather around that person and offer all the help they can. Sure, some will grumble about it, but they will still do it. That’s what true friends are. And like true heroes, when a new evil threatens their country, they will still rise to the occasion.

As you can see, I absolutely loved the characters. All six of our heroes are very human, with their flaws and their battle scars. And yes, I include Stren’s wife in this, because she is just as much part of the crew this time around as the original 5. They make mistakes, they doubt themselves, they don’t want to be responsible for saving the world again, but they still do it when they realize that nobody else will. 

I would have loved a bit more details about the world. It’s mentioned that Vos is built entirely on mountaintops, that a perpetual mist shrouds the valleys between the peaks and monsters live in that mist. I would have loved to learn a bit more about that. Is this a natural occurrence? Is this the result of some ancient war? Are other countries like that as well or not? Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions.

But this gripe notwithstanding, this was an excellent book. I highly recommend it for fantasy fans out there.

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

The Moonsteel Crown (Dominion 1) by Stephen Deas

Stars: 5 out of 5

I must admit that I loved this book, despite a couple flaws. But those flaws are too small to mention and didn’t take anything from the sheer pleasure of discovering the rich world the author created and following the characters. 

I think that the characters are the biggest strength of this book. We follow three of them: Seth, a failed priest, Fingers, a thief and pickpocket, and Myla, a sun-monk on the run from her past. They are all flawed. All three have their own fears, hang-ups, and delusions. They aren’t good people by any means, but neither are they bad. They are very human and relatable, even if I had the urge to smack Fingers upside the head on more than one occasion. But truth be told, I have that urge with some of my real life friends as well.

It is truly a delight to follow these three characters through the story and watch them make mistakes, do stupid, and sometimes rather ugly things to each other, and be fully invested in their lives. Because they are human and relatable. Because I understood their motives and I wanted to see them find some kind of meaning to their lives. Not to mention, I wanted them to survive the events of this book so that they could find that meaning.

 I would say that one of the flaws is that the villains are less developed. We get more background with Sulfane eventually, so we understand what makes him do what he does. We don’t get much about Blackhand. He doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. He is ruthless and doesn’t hesitate to double-cross his friends and allies when it suits him. He treats even the members of his own gang like shit most of the time, especially Seth. So I had to wonder why people like Fings and Wil were so loyal to him? Why go to any lengths to rescue him after everything he’s done? I would understand this if Blackhand was ruthless to the outsiders but fair and protective of his own crew, but we never get an indication of that. In fact, he is a shit leader, no matter how you look at it. But that’s a small flaw.

I loved the worldbuilding in this book. Even though the action takes place in one city – Varr (and around it), we get a feeling for a much waster world with a rich and ancient history. Even Varr is a city of many layers, with ruins, palaces, temples and hovels, and forgotten catacombs, that point towards thousands of years of civilization.

I liked that we are introduced to this world organically, through conversations between characters, through snippets in books and stories, through small mentions relevant to the story itself. There are no info-dumps or characters telling each other things they should know just for the benefit of the reader. That way the reader discovers more about the world gradually and is kept interested in learning more. In fact, I definitely want to read the next book and find out more about Dead Men and mages and what happened to the Baleful Eye in the sky. 

While I don’t particularly approve the route Seth chose by the end of this book, and I see the enormous potential for abuse and the risk of him turning into a monster worse than Blackhand, I definitely want to learn more about the secrets he uncovered.

So all in all, this is an excellent first book in a series. It tells a complete story, introduces interesting characters, and makes you want to pick up the next installment. 

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

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

It pains me to give a less than stellar rating to Max Gladstone, but this is the first book of his I’ve been disappointed with. How can a book about found family, road trip, end of the world, parallel universes and so on be so… boring?

I loved this author’s Craft series. They are wonderfully imaginative and full of interesting characters and thought provoking concepts. So of course I jumped on the chance to get an ARC of this through NetGalley. And my initial state while I was reading this book, before the boredom set in, was that of bewilderment. Is this the author who wowed me with his other books? Am I reading this wrong? What is going on?

Oh, there are glimpses of the author I love in this story. There are moments that are tightly written and intensely terrifying. Like when the Cowboy first becomes aware of Sarah on the interstate, or the confrontation at the Best Western, or when Zelda is in the bug-infested tunnels under an alt New York. Those scenes had me at the edge of my seat, with my heart in my throat, terrified for the well-being of the characters…

Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance are few and far between. And they are bogged down by pages and pages of flashbacks, introspections, inner dialog about how miserable the characters are and how they think that the world is ending. It’s self-pity and self-recrimination on page upon page upon page. So you get this brilliant scene when the action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and the characters in danger… then you have 50 pages of inner monolog topped with a flashback on their first journey. Momentum – shot dead, not by the cowboy in a white hat, but by sheer boredom. In fact, I think that the book is at least 200 pages too long. My Kindle assured me that it was 400 pages long, but it felt like one of those 1000+ pages door stoppers – never-ending.

I think this approach would have worked if I cared for any of the characters, but I didn’t. They are all unlikeable, selfish people who wear their failures like a badge of honor and wallow in self-pity for most of the book. And since the reader has to follow them and be privy to their most inner thoughts, it makes for a very painful read, and not in a good way. 

Also, it is constantly hinted that their first journey to find the crossroads went horribly wrong and resulted in Sal’s downfall, but the book drags the actual story over pages and pages of hints and self-pity. By the time we actually learn what happened it feels… anti-climatic? I was like, “So all this misery is because of this? Are you kidding me?” Not a good thing when Sal’s downfall and Zelda’s guilt about it are the cornerstone of this story. 

By the end of the book I was so bored with the story, that I just skimmed through the last 10%. Also not good. The ending is supposed to be rewarding. It’s supposed to justify the effort the reader put into sticking with 400 pages of story. It was anything but that. And the big reveal and twist wasn’t all that shocking either. 

When I had finished the other books of this author, I had a sense of satisfaction and joy. I had wanted to savor the story, to re-read passages that I liked the most. When I finished Last Exit, all I had is a sense of relief that the slog was finally over and that I could delete the ARC from my Kindle. 

I will not recommend this book. Max Gladstone is a wonderful author though, so I suggest you read his Craft series instead. 

The Black Coast (The God-King Chronicles 1) by Mike Brooks

 

Stars: 2 out of 5

DNF at 51%

This book suffers from the first book in a series syndrome. The author is so excited to introduce the reader to his brand new world, that he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the first book. This leads to a book that is a hefty 700 pages long… that are a slug to read. 

I know there is a story there, but it’s so muddled by the different side-stories and a multitude of different POVs that it progresses at a glacial pace. Well, glaciers move faster than this story, actually. I mean, when I called it quits at 50%, only two weeks narrative time had passed, and only a handful things had happened.

As I already mentioned, this story has too many narrators. I counted at least 8 or 9 different protagonists whose POVs we are privy to. That would work if they all contributed to the same story. Unfortunately, at least 4 of them (that I remember) are narrating events that don’t even happen on the same continent, that I could tell. And have no connection whatsoever to the main events in the story. Maybe the connection becomes evident later in the book, but seriously, if I can’t tell why half of the characters are even in the story after reading half of the book, something is wrong with the plotting. 

It doesn’t help that of all the protagonists, I was truly interested in maybe 2 or 3. Daimon, Saana, and her daughter. They felt fleshed out. I could understand their motives and desires. The rest of the cast? Cardboard cutouts, all of them. I couldn’t care less about them or their stories, especially since they mostly had nothing to do with the main story.

This book would have benefited with sticking with the main story of the Raiders coming to ask asylum from the very people they had been pillaging for generations. Cut all the other POVs out. Put them in the next book in the series if you want, but don’t muddy the waters unnecessarily. This forced cohabitation story was so ripe with conflicts and possibilities! It had so much potential for violence, reconciliation, and character growth! It would have made an excellent book all by itself.

My other problem with this book is the dialogue. I get what the author tried to do, and the idea that different cultures have different languages and different ways to defining genders (one culture has 9 of them) is fun and exciting in theory… but the execution of that was less than stelar.

How do the character define which gender they are and where they stand in the hierarchy of their society? By talking about themselves in third person. I mean seriously! After the tenth “This lord wants you to do this” or “This woman/sister/daughter is telling her brother/father this”, I wanted to scream. After 400 pages of this? I wanted to throw the book at the wall. Since it’s an eBook on my kindle, I had to refrain myself.

This doesn’t sound natural. It makes for stilted and convoluted dialog that grated so much on my nerves that it took me out of the story every time.

Finally, since so little time was spent on the main storyline, the author didn’t explore any of the cultural and historical conflicts that should have arisen between the two people. Oh, some of those conflicts are mentioned… then resolved in what seems like minutes. It’s all too tidy and civilized, when it’s never so in real life. I mean slavery was abolished over 200 years ago, but the repercussions are still felt in modern USA even now. Don’t underestimate the potential for violence the human race has. This easy resolution makes the story less believable and it lessens the stakes. 

But even though I DNFed this, I cannot give this story a one star rating. There is potential here. The world seems really interesting. And dragons! Well, more like dinosaurs, but still. This book would have benefited from a good developmental edit that would have cut the fat, tightened the plot, and moved the extraneous storylines out. As it stands, however, I am not interested enough to continue with the series.

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