Category Archives: Dark fantasy

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

Stars: 5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake of Vultures (The Shadow 1) by Lila Bowen.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I absolutely loved this book, and I would give it 6 stars if my rating scale went that far. It’s a mesmerizing mixture of western, fantasy and horror that captured my imagination and had me remembering Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (which has a special place in my heart, so that’s the best praise there is).

Nettie Lonesome has never seen anything past the farm of her adoptive parents who treat her more like a slave. She is part black and part Indian, abandoned when she was just a baby, unwanted by anyone in the world, or so her adoptive parents claim. And she believed them until one fateful night when a stranger with teeth longer and sharper than any human should have attacks her in the barn and crumbles into sand when she manages to kill him. Now she sees things that other people can’t see. And a ghost on a black horse has sworn to haunt her until the end of time if she doesn’t go West and kill the Cannibal Owl, a monster who’s been stealing children from every village in Durango country.

Remember when Roland walked through a desert in his pursuit of the Man in Black in The Gunslinger? Well, Nettie Lonesome lives in that harsh desert, with all its horrors and small victories. Here the terrain is unforgiving, and the people are but specks in the sand, hiding in their small villages. Monsters are real. And the Cannibal Owl is a monster that even other monsters fear.

Wake of Vultures would have been good just for the excellent world building alone, but when you add a strong protagonist to the mix, it becomes simply awesome. Nettie Lonesome is tough as nails. She’d learned early on that she could only rely on her own wits and sharpshooting skills, so she doesn’t yield easy and she definitely doesn’t take any bullshit from anybody. The flip side of this is that it’s extremely hard for her to accept help and trust anyone who offers that help, because in her life everything always came with strings attached. So she is suspicious of anyone she meets and can be extremely pigheaded at times.

But what I love the most about Nettie is that she doesn’t let others define who she is. She’s always been the odd one out – not white, not black, not even brown, but a strange mixture of everything. She was born a woman, but prefers living her life as a man, because she finds nothing in common with the women she’s seen in the little village she spent her life in. She is attracted to both men and women and finds no shame in that. She is who she is and she won’t bend to the rules of a society that has rejected her since her birth just because of the color of her skin.

In addition to an excellent world and strong protagonist, the story is fast-paced and interesting, and the secondary characters are complex if not always likable. They are flawed and human, even if some of them are technically monsters.

I would recommend this book for anyone who loved the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, or to anyone who simply wants to read a gripping story set in an unusual world. As for me, I can’t wait to see where Nettie’s journey will lead her so I’m ready to sink my teeth in to the Conspiracy of Ravens.

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

The Emperor’s Railroad (The Dreaming Cities 1) by Guy Haley.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you a little gem in post-apocalyptic genre? This is a relatively short novella (only a little over 100 pages long), but it’s packed full of goodies: huge and very interesting world, a great catastrophe the cause of which is not fully explained, strange beings that might or might not be angels, a mysterious knight, and an engaging narrator. What else would you need for a wonderful book?

Our narrator, Abney, is a 12-year-old boy, and the whole story is told through the prism of his knowledge and perception, even though he tells it as an old man, many years later. And this is important to know, because Abney’s world had not extended past his little town until it got destroyed by the living dead. He is thrown into this vast and dangerous world after a traumatic event and armed only with the stories and beliefs his mother instilled into him.

So to him the Angels are supreme and perfect beings. God is almighty and everything that happened to mankind, from the war that destroyed all the cities of old to the plague of walking dead and even the dragon, is his punishment for the hubris of men of old. And Quinn is a Knight, which to little Abney makes him about just as legendary as the Dreaming Cities and the Angels themselves.

Even though this novella is a story of Abney’s journey through the perilous Kingdom of Virginia to the village of Winfort and the safety of his cousin’s home, it’s also Abney’s journey towards adulthood, complete with disillusionment, injustice and loss. The Angels are not as perfect as he believed them to be. God’s justice isn’t always just. And Knights are not the noble warriors almost larger than life he’d pictured them to be.

I loved this book. It’s a small glance into a rich and complex world, but just because it’s a small story of a little boy traveling a short distance (a mere 50 miles or so) through dangerous country to reach a new town, it doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting. In fact, it manages to introduce this world without resorting to info dumps and leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction, because Abney’s journey is done, but also with a head full of questions about what the heck happened to make the world this way and what the Dreaming Cities really are.

I can’t wait to pick up the next book in the series because I want to know more about this world. Who are those Angels? Are they really winged beings sent down by God or are they robots, AIs or aliens something like that like Quinn implied? Speaking of Quinn, what promise did he break that he  is seeking penance for? And who is the person he is determined to find in a place that everybody thinks is a dead wasteland? And what are the Knights? From what Abney described, Quinn has a lot more stamina and healing speed than any normal human should have.

A first book in a series did a good job when it managed to tell a compelling and self-sufficient story AND leave you with enough questions to want to pick up the next book. I say good job, Mr.  Haley, because I can’t wait to read the next one

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

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


Stars: 5 out of 5

Before I dive into this review, I need to mention that I absolutely loved the first book in the series City of Stairs, which I also reviewed. So I opened City of Blades with a certain amount of trepidation. Would it live up to the hype of the first book or would it leave  me disappointed? Well, I’m happy to say that this book is everything I loved in book 1 and then some!

Imagine a world where gods are as real as the mortals who worship them. Where they actually listen and respond to their worshipers. Where miracles are part of the everyday life. Where divine intervention is as common as rain or wind. This is the Divine Empire who ruled the continent and its colonies with a firm and bloody hand  for millennia…

Until Saypur, a small insular nation, invented a weapon that could kill the Divinities. Now the Empire crumbles as its gods lie dead and its great cities are in ruins, with entire chunks simply vanishing into oblivion when the miracles sustaining them stopped working. Saypur firmly believes in science and technological progress and everything remotely divine is outlawed, and worship is a crime deserving capital punishment.

The first book dealt with the aftermath of that great war that saw the death of all Divinities and changed the world in some spectacular ways. The second book asks another important question. Each God had created some kind of afterlife for their worshipers, so what happens to those afterlives and those countless souls when that Divinity dies? And what happens to the dead now that there is no afterlife waiting for them?

The protagonist of this book is someone we’ve already met in City of Stairs – General Turyin Mulaghesh, and I must say that she is just as kick ass as she was in the first book, but now that we can actually look inside her head, she also because a lot more human and endearing.

Mulaghesh is a woman adrift – she quit her post as General and went into early retirement, but the problem is that she doesn’t know how to be anything but a soldier. So all she can do is slowly drink herself to death and hope that alcohol will keep the nightmares at bay and let her sleep once in a while. When Shara offers her a chance to get back into action, she gripes and whines, but goes anyway.

I love Turyin. She is tired and disillusioned, and tormented by the past battles she fought and the people she killed. And then she lands in Voortyashtan, a city in ruins, a city whose god is dead, a city that is most hated by the Saypuri because Voortya was the goddess of war and death whose Sentinels terrorized their land for centuries. Only certain events let her believe that the goddess of death might not be as dead as she seems, and that the dead themselves don’t want to stay quiet anymore.

I think City of Blades is a bit darker than City of Stairs, because it deals with darker topics, like the meaning of war and when our actions done during war time cross the line between necessity and into atrocity. It deals with death and loss and hope and redemption. Our protagonist is broken and the city in which she arrives is broken as well, but maybe both can glue some pieces together and find a semblance of peace by the end of the story…

I am in love with this world! I want to know more about it, I want around Bulikov and Voorthyashtan, I want to read the old stories and have a chat with Shara over a steaming cup of a spicy Saypuri drink. And it’s all thanks to Mr. Bennett’s wonderful imagination and amazing writing. My only complaint is that I’m done with book 2 and I have to wait a year for book 3. Write faster Mr. Bennett!! 🙂

I am a fervent advocate of this series and I will recommend it to everyone who wants an original world populated by interesting characters and who wants to read a gripping story that asks some thought-provoking questions.

And you don’t need to have read City of Stairs to enjoy City of Blades, because it can be read as a standalone, but I would highly recommend reading both books.

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

The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath by Ishbelle Bee.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

I fell in love with this book. Absolutely and totally. But this will also be one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write so far. Not because the book is bad obviously, since I loved it, but because it’s so different from anything else I’ve read recently. Heck, I don’t even know what genre to put this book into. Gothic? Fairy tale? Horror? New weird? It’s all of that and none of it at the same time. The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath is a genre of its own, that can be summarized by three words: Weird, wicked, wonderful.

 

First of all, this book tells several different stories, some shorter, some longer, but all of them are intertwined and influencing each other.

 

The first story is about Mirror who is and isn’t a little girl. When she was 12, her grandfather locked her inside a big clock painted with ladybirds. When Constable Goliath rescued her out of the clock several months later, she was no longer human, but something else entirely. What, nobody knows, not even her. And Goliath himself is not entirely human either. He is a shapeshifter who can become may other things, like a great big bear or a giant eagle.

 

The second story is about Mr. Loveheart, who used to be an ordinary little boy until the day his aunt poisoned his mother, and Mr. Fingers, the king of the underworld, killed his father and took him into his domain. Now Loveheart has eyes black as tar, wears red hearts on all his clothes and isn’t entirely sure that he still has a heart. He is also pretty sure that he is at least half-mad.

 

When Mirror appears in London, Mr. Fingers sends Loveheart to find her, because he wants to eat her heart and capture the soul she holds inside her. The soul from inside the grandfather clock.

 

This books reads like a fairy tale in parts, but not the sanitized and cheerful version of fairy tales that we got used to see from Disney. No it’s the real deal, the Brothers Grim and Andersen tales where the Little Mermaid sacrifices her life to save her Prince in the end and he never even learns that she loved him.

 

It’s also part horror story, because some really horrible and macabre things happen to all the characters. I mean, the little girl who became Mirror died inside that clock before she became something else. And one of Mr. Fingers other “sons” is the famous Jack the Ripper.

 

I loved the language in which this story is written. It’s simple and clear, but beautiful and poetic at the same time. I could really see, feel and smell everything the author described. And those pictures were strangely beautiful and scary at the same time.

 

This whole book was similar to one of those strangely vivid dreams you have sometimes. Dreams that are so real that they cling to you like smoke tendrils even after you wake up and leave you with the feeling that you had touched a secret world in your sleep.

 

I admit that this kind of book is not for everyone. Some will probably hate it or think it’s too weird for them. But I would definitely recommend it to everyone who used to love fairy tales when they were a child. My opinion: definitely a must read and re-read!

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

The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga 1) by Kameron Hurley.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

There are books that you fall in love with since the very first page. There are books that take time for you to warm up to. There are also books that absolutely fail to keep your interest. Then there are books that have such an enormous potential that you WANT to love them, but have some flaws that seriously dampen that love.

Well, The Mirror Empire falls into that last category. There is so much to love in this book! The world Kameron Hurley has created is fascinatingly complex and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the fantasy genre before. Too often, we see endless iterations on the worn out theme of elves, dwarves and magicians. Nothing of the sorts here, thankfully. The races are unique and very distinct and they live in a world like nothing I have seen before. It’s wonderfully alien and complex and a delight to explore.

The magic system is rather unique as well. I don’t think I have read about mages who depend on one of the multiple satellites that orbit this world for their powers. Which makes for an interesting dynamic, with different magical schools coming to power with the ascendance of their satellite and waning into obscurity for a few decades when their star moves away.

So as you see, there is a lot in this book to love, at least for me. The problem is that there is TOO MUCH stuffed in one book. Too many locations, too many characters, too many plot lines at once. And because of that, there is not enough worldbuilding. Yes, I never thought I would voice that particular complaint about a book, but with so many things happening simultaneously in so many places, the author doesn’t have time to concentrate on any of them.

The reader is left stumbling from character to character, trying to puzzle out who all those people are and what part of the world they are in and how the heck does it all tie in together? It’s annoying at first and gets extremely frustrating after a while when you discover that almost nothing will be explained the further you get into the book. We will just continue switching POVs and jumping from story to story, desperately trying to figure out how it all falls into the big picture. Usually, I don’t mind doing the leg work. It can even be exciting. The problem with this book is that so many seemingly unconnected stories are told at once, it’s hard to keep up.

And with so many characters to follow, the author doesn’t have time to dive deep and really develop any of them. As a result, I didn’t feel connected to any of them at all. And if I can’t connect to the characters, it takes away a lot of the tension from the story. Because I can’t worry about the fate of a character I don’t empathize with. I think the book would have been noticeably better with half the characters. At least, we would have been able to spend more time with each one of them and get to know them better.

So what’s the take away from this review, you might ask? Is this book worth reading? I think so. Even if it’s only for the wonderfully complex world Kameron Hurley has created. It’s refreshingly new. But if you like character-driven narrative like I do, this book might not be for you.

Time Patrol (Area 51: The Nightstalkers) by Bob Mayer.

Stars: 3 out of 5.

This book has a lot going for it. It has time travel / time slip. It has secret organizations dedicated to correct attempts to change our timeline in the present and the past and other secret organization protecting unsuspecting citizens from things that go bump in the night. And all this is supported by some interesting and not too farfetched scientific explanations… All in all, it was an entertaining read.

So why did I only give this book 3 stars? Several reasons, some of which are probably due to the fact that I am new to the series and have never read any other books about the Nightstalkers.

I am not familiar with the characters. I haven’t had time to get to know and love this rag-tag team. So Scout was the only person I could more or less emphasize with because she is also relatively new to the team and gets a little bit of character development. All the others? I could care less if they live or die, so even the death of one of them in the first third of the book didn’t have the dramatic effect it probably should have had on me.

So my first advice would be: don’t make my mistake and go read the first 3 books in the series before getting to Time Patrol. I’m sure that for a reader who has followed the Nightstalkers through many adventures and learned about them in the other books, the death I am talking about was a blow.

My other problem with this book has nothing to do with the fact that I’m not familiar with the world or the series. I found the pacing to be very slow, especially in the first third of the book. We start with the Time Patrol disappearing, but then we have several chapters describing how the various members of the Nightstalkers experience little time slips and inconsistencies due to that disappearance.  While that might be relevant to the story, it also completely kills the forward momentum, because by the time we finally get back to the Time Patrol, it’s 100 pages down the road and I have been yawning through the last 30 of them.

But this complaint put aside, I actually liked the world Bob Mayer has created. The idea of a Time Patrol that would track and correct attempts at changing our timeline throughout history needs to be explored more. I loved the fact that the time patrol has agents in different times, or that arts is the surest way to communicate and send messages about possible changes in the timeline, because art, unlike anything else, survives the ravages of time.

I also loved the concept of parallel universes or timelines and the space between, where things and people who disappear from our timelines sometimes end up. In fact, I liked those concepts so much that I’m debating about going back and getting the first book in the series to familiarize myself with this team and this world some more.

So my final verdict for Time patrol is – very good book for those who are already familiar with the series, but will probably be off-putting for those who aren’t, like me.

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley.