Category Archives: Dark fantasy

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.

Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans

Stars: 5 out of 5

This review is for the ARC of the book I have received courtesy of NetGalley.

I am in love with this book and I’m not afraid to admit it. Vietnam War meets a fantasy world? It could have crashed and burned if it had been poorly executed. Fortunately for me, Chris Evans pulled this off masterfully, and the end result is a book that I found very hard to put down.

The premise Of Bone and Thunder is quite simple: the Kingdom is waging war in Luitox, a strange tropical land full of “savages” that the brave army of the Kingdom came to liberate from the Forrest Collective. That’s the official story anyway, but to most of the characters in this book, that propaganda is irrelevant. What matters to them is whether they will live to see another day and whether their squad will make it out alive as well.

I loved the fact that the author didn’t go into rhetorics or political explanations of this war in the Lux. Instead, he chose to tell this story through the eyes of regular soldiers, those forced to fight and die for ideals they don’t understand in a land that is absolutely foreign to them, against an enemy that knows the terrain and can literally disappear at will.

There isn’t one single protagonist in this book. We follow several characters instead. There is  Carny, a young crossbowman and his fellow soldiers from the Red Shield. The young thaum Jawn, who arrives to the Lux full of ideals and dreams of glory which are soon shattered against the gory reality of war. Obsidian flock leader Vorly and his thaum Breeze who fly real fire-breathing dragons called rags. And several other unique characters.

We see the war through their eyes; we follow them from simple skirmish to battle to desperate fight for survival, and we see them change. And that’s the biggest strength of this book. All the characters we follow are flawed in their own way. Jawn is naïve but also arrogant; Carny is an addict who doesn’t care about anything and anyone but himself; and the only thing Vorly cares about is his rags. And the other members of the Red Shield squad were just as bad. I hated some of them at the beginning of the book…

Yet they change, they evolve, they grow on you, so much so that you start cheering for them, hoping that they will make it out of one desperate situation after another in one piece. And when some of them die, it really hurts, like you have just lost a good friend.

With subtle strokes of the brush, the author also showed us how a ragtag group of men transforms into brothers in arms. You can see the moment when concern or individual safety is overruled  by concern for the safety of fellow squad members. When the words “leave no man behind” suddenly become a moto to live by. And Carny gives up the drugs and assumes the mantle of Squad Leader because there is nobody else left to do it. Vorly risks his life and the life of his precious rag to help the troops on the ground he had transported so many times that he grew to consider his own. And Jawn risks both his life and his sanity to defeat enemy thaums  before they annihilate the small army surrounded by an enemy force twice its size in the valley of Bone and Thunder. And the words “Anything for the greater good” gain a truly sinister meaning.

 Of Bone and Thunder is the story of a big war described through a multitude of small, almost personal wars, and that’s what makes it so powerful. This book leaves a lasting impression long after you finished reading.

So my advice is read this book. Definitely and without reservation.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

This review is for the ARC I have received curtesy of NetGalley.

I must admit that I am rather frustrated with this book.

On one hand, I loved the premise of We Are All Completely Fine.

We’ve all read stories about that Lone Hero, or that Boy or Girl who survived his / her brush with the supernatural and often malevolent forces that lurk in the shadows.  But we never hear about how those people get to live after that. They cannot be normal again. All of them bear scars from their encounters, physical or emotional, or both. All of them know that the world isn’t a safe place; that powerful and cruel Beings lurk just on the other side of the veil, eager to swallow it whole. They are permanently altered by the ordeal they survived, and they feel lost in  this life, because how can you resume a normal life if you are not entirely normal anymore?

So imagine a support group organized explicitly for those souls so broken by their encounter with the supernatural that they are unable to heal on their own. This is a wonderful idea, and it’s brilliantly executed in this book. I loved the dynamics inside this group, and how Daryl Gregory slowly transformed those six broken and solitary people into a working group. How anger and distrust, and even contempt and outright hostility, slowly mutated into acceptance, mutual support and even respect.

And I loved the characters. They are all different and they bear their scars in different ways, but their reactions are believable. Stan is so scared of being ridiculed because of his infirmity that he  prefers to throw it into people’s faces as a pre-emptive strike and to be loud and obnoxious about it. And Gretta is on the opposite side of the spectrum – she is always covered from head to toe to hide the symbols carved into her flesh. And the other four characters also have fascinating stories that I would have loved to read more about.

So yes, the book has an intriguing premise and interesting characters, but I was left feeling cheated when I finished it. Like the author dropped the ball at the very end of a perfect story.

First of all, this book feels too short. It would have done much better as a full-blown novel instead of a novella. Right now, we have an excellent build-up, which takes about three quarters of the book, but the climax and the aftermath feel rushed. It’s like the author ran out of steam and tossed everything into the last 20 pages, just to get it over with.

Secondly, the frequent change of POV is somewhat confusing. Each chapter starts with a royal “we”, as in “we as the group” and so on. But then it promptly switches to third person and hops into the head of one of the characters. So I was left wondering who is really telling this story? Who is that “we”?

And my last complaint is that the ending brings to real resolution to any of the characters, except maybe Barbara. But even with her, the question of that final etching was left unanswered. The rest of the cast didn’t even get that.

It reads like a cliffhanger designed to make the reader purchase the next book in the series. If that is the case, then I’m eagerly awaiting the next book, because I want to know what happens to his rag tag bunch after the therapy. But if it’s a stand-alone, then I can’t help but feel cheated. Please tell me there is more to the story than that?

Those problems notwithstanding, I would still recommend We Are All Completely Fine. It’s a fast and entertaining read, and the characters are people that you want to stick around for. I just wish I could have stayed in their world for a little bit longer.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Stars: 5 out of 5

I received an ARC of this book for free from NetGalley.

There are books that grip you and don’t let you go until you read the very last line on the very last page. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is one such book. I finished it in three days, which is no small feat for me, considering that I have a full time job, a family and my own writing fighting for my time most of the days.

So what is City of Stairs about? Bulikov used to be called the Seat of the World, the city where all six Divinities governing the Continent resided. But the Divinities had been slain 80 years ago, and the Continent was invaded by the people who used to be their former slaves. The passing of the Divinities laid waste to the land, with whole cities disappearing, collapsing or shrinking in the blink of an eye. Even the climate has undergone a drastic change, and the whole land went from being a lush tropical paradise to a frozen wasteland.

The city of Bulikov suffered the most damage. Even 80 years later, it lies in shambles. Its citizens are the poorest on the Continent, the infrastructure is non-existent and the living conditions are atrocious. And the invaders intend to keep it that way, as punishment for everything they had to suffer at the hands of the citizen of Bulikov and their Divinities.

But the citizens of Bulikov remember their glory days. Hatered and discontent brews in the streets and the whole city is a powder keg ready to explode. Will the murder of Efrem Pangyui, celebrated Saypuri historian, be the spark that ignites the city and starts yet another war?

The world created by Robert Jackson Bennett is absolutely fascinating. Each of the six Divinities had their own creation myths and rules by which the world functioned, and those rules were absolute in the zone of their influence. But when they died, all those different view of reality clashed together and produced the Blink, when entire parts of the continent simply vanished; others got warped beyond recognition while those realities fought for dominance. It’s a broke and strange world that we get to explore along with the characters of this story.

Speaking of characters, I absolutely loved Shara and Sigurd, her secretary / bodyguard / enforcer. They are interesting characters with their own flaws and strengths, and I was genuinely engaged with their stories and problems. But the book doesn’t rely solely on its main protagonists. The secondary characters are also memorable and “alive”. You love them or you hate them, but they don’t leave you indifferent.

Most of all, I found the general ideas behind this story extremely compelling and thought-provoking: do the Divinities create their followers or are they created by them? Or is it a two-way relationship? Can they break free from each other without losing their identity? Can whole nations become obsolete along with their Divinity? Is change really such a bad thing? All those questions apply not only to the fictional world of City of Stairs, but to ours as well…

I am glad I found this story and go to read the ARC before the release. I also heard that the author is working on the second book, so I’m definitely placing it on my “books to watch for” list. My advice is – go buy City of Stairs, it’s a guaranteed good read.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Prince of thorns

2 out of 5 stars.

I must admit that my mind is rather divided about this book. Usually I either like the book and finish it, or I don’t like the book and I abandon it. I finished Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence… but I am not sure I liked it.

The world-building is interesting. It is a medieval fantasy world in some aspects, but there are hints that this world survived on the ruins of our modern world. The castles the new kings and barons live in are built on the stumps of buildings that were made of reinforced concrete. There is a whole vault full of chemical weapons guarded by an artificial intelligence that has gone half-mad in the thousand or so so years of solitude. There are also hints that some horrible cataclysm took the life of so many people at once, that it tore the veil between life and death wide open, and now all kinds of undead stuff is bleeding back into our world. So all in all, the world is interesting, and I would have loved to discover more of it, but not enough to pick up the next book in the series. And the fault for my lack of enthusiasm lies square at the feet of the protagonist.

Prince Jorg is a psychopath, pure and simple. He is also a rapist, a torturer and a ruthless killer. And he doesn’t regret any of the horrible things he has done. Worse, he seems to enjoy them. And he is only 14 years old.  Yes, he has had to go through the horrible experience of watching his mother and younger brother getting slaughtered while he hung helpless and almost crucified in the hooks of a hook-briar bush. Yes, he survives only to see his father do nothing to avenge the murders. The author and the reader could find plenty of excuses for Jorg to have turned up the way he did. But do I want to follow the adventures of a murderous psychopath? Not really, no.

I would have stuck with the series if there had been any other characters to follow, even secondary ones. Unfortunately, all of them are unremarkable. They are only there to play second fiddle to Jorg. I mean, I still don’t understand why the captain of the Palace Guard sent to find the young prince would stick with him for four years and watch him and his merry band of bandits pillage, rape, murder, and burn his way up and down the highroad. Why would he still be loyal to the twisted monster his prince turned into? If you consider what little we see of this character’s believes, that makes no sense at all. The only logic for this is – the author wanted it this way.

So my conclusion is – this is an intriguing world, but I have no desire to watch young Jorg continue his glorious march from King to Emperor, probably leaving death and devastation in his wake, just because he felt like it.