Category Archives: Dark fantasy

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.

Foundryside (The Founders 1) By Robert Jackson BEnnett

Stars: 4 out of 5

Robert Jackson Bennett is a Creator of Worlds, and yes, the capital letters are fully intended here. Every time his new book comes out, I am amazed at this man’s imagination. His Divine Cities trilogy is in the top 10 of my most favorite series ever. That worldbuilding was absolutely top notch and like nothing I had ever read before. And he delivers again with Foundryside.

Imagine a world where certain words inscribed into inanimate objects can give the truly magical characteristics? A few glyphs put on a carriage wheels can persuade that wheel that it is going downhill, even if it’s on a flat surface, so the wheel will roll forward even if in reality it goes uphill. What you get is a self-propelling carriage that doesn’t need horses or engines. Imagine the implications for such a technology? Imagine how rich and powerful the Merchant Houses who control this art have become? No wonder they guard their glyphs and techniques with murderous jealousy.

Now imagine a person who, through a horrible and inhumane experiment, can interact with these scribed objects and sometimes use them in ways not intended by their creators. That would make Sancia a very good thief indeed… Until she is commissioned to steal an object from a heavily guarded warehouse. Now all the merchant houses want her dead, and everyone wants the artifact in her possession. All Sancia wants is to stay alive.

I loved everything about this story – the worldbuilding,  the characters, the tension and the seemingly overwhelming odds our protagonists face. I also liked that ultimately this is a story of transformation. Yes, objects are transformed by the art of scrivening, but more importantly, human beings are transformed by the circumstances and encounters they make during that book. Sancia is the best example of it. She starts the story as a loner who doesn’t trust anyone and struggles with her ability, considering it more of a curse than anything else. She comes to the end of this book as an almost different person – she has found friends and has mastered her ability, but she has also found a purpose. And a group of misfits was transformed into a found family as well. But not all the transformations are good ones, unfortunately, because one good man was transformed into a mindless monster, though I think there is still hope for him and he will come back in future books.

The reason why I gave this book 4 instead of 5 stars is because the protagonists seem less mature than in the author’s other series, even though the book isn’t categorized as YA, so that was a little off-putting for me, but that’s only my preference, since I’m not much into young adult books. Hopefully, Sancia will do more maturing in the next books of the series because I definitely want to check them out.

If you like great worldbuilding, like I do. If you like fast paced stories with twists and turns and wonderfully flawed characters, you should definitely check out this book.

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

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 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.

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.

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.