Category Archives: Fantasy

Portal of a Thousand Worlds by Dave Duncan.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I am a fan of everything Asian, so when was asked to review a book set in alternative nineteen century China, I said, “Heck yeah!”. And for the most part, I loved the story. I have a few minor gripes that I will voice at the end of this review, but for the major part, this is a book I would recommend to my friends.

The Good Land is in trouble – the Bamboo Banner rebellion originated in the South and is slowly moving North towards the Heart of the World and the seat of the Empire. They claim that the young Emperor is dead, and that the Empress Mother hides that fact and rules in his name. And the natural disasters befalling the Good Land in the last years seem to corroborate their claim that the Eleventh Dynasty has lost the Mandate of Heaven – drought, then floods, then unusually cold winters threaten famine on a large portion of the Empire. Then an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude flattens cities and villages across the Good Land, killing millions and leaving even more homeless. The very foundations of the Empire are shaking, even though those living in the Inner Palace don’t seem to notice it.

But scholars know that all those disasters are the portents of a bigger event – the opening of the Portal of Worlds, a mysterious carving in the cliffs of the great mountain range that guards the northern border of the Good Land. It is said that once a millennium, that carving becomes a real door. It is unclear what comes out of it, but every time it brings a time of great upheaval and suffering and the change of the ruling dynasty…

There isn’t one single protagonist in this book. We follow the stories of several different characters instead. They come from different backgrounds and have different goals and aspirations.

We have several Gray Brothers, the Order officially in charge of all the funerary rites in the Good Land… and unofficially, the only sanctioned guild of assassins and spies in the Empire. Brother Silky is in charge of making a wealthy merchant even wealthier, even though he is also trying to advance a more personal cause of making a name for himself and founding his own family. Brother Butterfly Sword doesn’t want anything to do with assassinations, but ends up on a mission in the most dangerous place in the entire Empire – the Inner Palace itself.

We have several members of the Bamboo Banner, from the lowest of henchmen to the nephew of Bamboo himself.

And finally, we have the Firstborn and his small retinue, who are travelling towards the Portal of Worlds in the hopes that maybe, for the first time in thousands of years, the Firstborn will live long enough to see it open…

I loved all the characters, the good ones, the bad ones, the in-between ones. Because they were exactly like people around me – not entirely good or bad, but both at different times. They were flawed and petty, ambitious and self-serving, but capable of compassion and sacrifice at times as well. I am glad that at least some of them managed to accomplish their dreams in this time of turmoil, and I am sad that others didn’t survive the upheaval. This says a lot about the author’s writing skill that he managed to keep me invested in so many different characters, each with their own small story, all of which wove into one big tapestry that is this book. I enjoyed every minute I spent with them, and even though the book is 389 pages long, I never felt like it dragged.

In fact, I would have loved it to be a bit longer, which brings me to my first gripe with this book – the ending feels rushed and anticlimactic for the build-up we had during the rest of the story. I won’t put any details to avoid spoilers, but it basically goes like this: Portal opens. A certain character goes through. The rebels and the Imperial army don’t even meet in confrontation, even though they’ve been chasing each other for the best part of the story. Everybody goes home. The End.

This ending left more questions than it gave answers. Who was the Firstborn? Why was he stuck in the Fourth World for so long? It’s implied that it was a punishment, but for what? And why is that punishment suddenly over now instead of say a thousand years ago or a thousand years later? We get no answer to those questions.

My second gripe is with Bamboo, the leader of the Bamboo Banner. What was his ultimate goal, apart from toppling the existing dynasty? He had to know that an army of addicts would never stand a chance against trained soldiers with guns and cannons. Or was he so crazy that he didn’t care? Was all this just the ravings of a delusional megalomaniac or was he guided by greater forces? In any case, it seems suspicious that he would manage to gather such a big following in the first place, because he didn’t strike me as a very charismatic leader. I think that this whole storyline would have benefited from a bit more focus.

But despite those minor details, I really enjoyed this story and I would recommend it to my friends. If you are tired of the usual Western-based worlds and want to try something new and unique, this is definitely a book for you.

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

Battle Hill Bolero (Bone Street Rumba 3) by Daniel Jose Older.

Stars: 3 out of 5

I must admit that I’m disappointed with this book. I had loved Midnight Taxi Tango (which I reviewed as well), so I was looking forward to see what trouble Carlos, Sasha, Reza and Kia would manage to get themselves into next.

Well, bad news is, even though we still get Carlos and Sasha POVs, Kia is virtually non-existent in Battle Hill Bolero, and Reza seems to have taken a long sabbatical or something. Same goes for a few other characters I really liked from the previous books, like Baba Eddie. Instead, we are introduced to a plethora of new characters that seem to have come out of nowhere, like Krys, the River Giants and a bunch of other ghosts. Oh, they are interesting and fully fleshed out, but they seem tacked on to the story and spend most of the book on the outskirts of the main action, sorta hanging there with nothing particularly important to do until the last battle.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me, I really loved Krys. Once again, Mr. Older has a knack for creating wonderfully diverse characters that you WANT to follow. The problem is, the path Krys follows is barely tangent to the story for most of the book. So much so that her story feels disconnected from the main events.

And why is Caitlin even in this book? Her story was pretty much done with the destruction of the blattodeon at the end of Midnight Taxi Tango. Oh, we could have had an excellent revenge arc where she could have sought to destroy Carlos and Sasha for bringing down everything she’d worked for her entire life. Unfortunately, the author chose not to take that route. Instead, she is hangs on the outskirts of the story for most of the book and only plays an important role during the last battle, but even that story arc could have been taken out of the book entirely without any major damage to the story. Caitlin is a non-entity. She gets no personal development at all, which is rather surprising for an author who loves creating characters that feel so alive they jump out of the book page at you. Her only role in the book is to be a weapon and to distract Carlos from the main fight for a few minutes.

This is so disappointing because, like I already mentioned, she could have been so much more. Just imagine – a powerful necromancer going after the people who killed her family, destroyed the cult she had dedicated her entire life to and basically left her future in shambles. That warranted a whole book dedicated to the clash between these powers.

And this is where my major complaint about Battle Hill Bolero lies – the story. It doesn’t feel like the third book in a series and a direct continuation of Midnight Taxi Tango. When I started the book, I had to go on Amazon and make sure that I didn’t skip a couple more books in the series, because I was so confused with the direction of the story. By the end of Midnight Taxi Tango, Carlos, Sasha and their group had defeated the blattodeon and saved their children from a gruesome fate. Yes, there had been rumblings about the Council of the Dead among the ghosts, and Carlos didn’t particularly like his employers, but nothing even hinted at the full-out confrontation we start Battle Hill Bolero with. Where did that come from?

The author implies that only a few months passed between the two books, but for the situation to escalate like this, a lot of things must have happened. Things that aren’t even mentioned or explained. So the reader starts the book with a nagging feeling that they skipped an important portion of the story. As a result, I felt disconnected from most of the new characters. I was so busy trying to figure out the stakes and the whats and the whys of the situation to concentrate on the plethora of new characters that were thrown my way.

It is sad that this happened, because I truly loved this series; the diversity and complexity of the world; the vivid and interesting characters. But this book feels rushed and disjointed at the same time, which almost puts me off this series entirely. I might give the next book a read or I might not, but I won’t be eagerly waiting for it anymore.

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

Hidden Blade (The Soul Eater 1) by Pippa DaCosta.

Stars: 4 out of 5

Hidden Blade is the first book in a new series by Pippa DaCosta and it has all the ingredients I came to expect from this author after I read Chaos Rises (which I also reviewed): excellent worldbuilding, interesting (if not always likable) characters, and non-stop action.

Ace Dante has been banned from the Underworld and bound to the dark soul of the evilest sorceress he’d ever captured. Now they are condemned to walk this Earth together, because the death of one will bring the destruction of the other as well. So they decide to open a private investigation agency and help mortals in sticky situations where gods are involved.

Oh yes, this is a world where ancient deities never disappeared. They just adapted and morphed and are more powerful than ever. And they like to play games in which mortals have very little chances of winning. That’s where Ace comes in, offering what help he can to even the odds. But when Bastet, goddess of cats and Ace’s ex-wife asks for his help, Ace might just find himself in an impossible situation, because helping her means going against Osiris and Isis, and Osiris has a claim on Ace’s soul. A claim that Ace cannot deny. A compulsion that he simply cannot fight, no matter how much he tries, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

As far as first books go, Hidden Blade does an excellent job of introducing the protagonist and the world he lives in as well as showing us exactly what the stakes are. Ace isn’t a nice guy or even particularly a good guy, but he’s been placed into an impossible situation so the reader can’t help but empathize with the poor devil. And despite not being a good guy, he still tries to do the right thing in most situations, even when that means angering the god that can literally order your heart to stop beating at any moment.

Because Egyptian Gods are not very benevolent entities in this world. They are flawed and petty and all-powerful, which is a very bad combination. They can bestow a blessing or reap the supplicant’s heart out and eat it with the same ease, depending on their mood. And Osiris is the most powerful of the Gods, so making him your enemy is a royally bad idea.

As I mentioned above, the action is also relentless. The book is fast paced and keeps you at the edge of your sit all the way through. But even though the story barrels towards the inevitable conclusion at speeds way above the legal limit, it doesn’t feel rushed. Surprising, I know. We still get a glimpse into our characters’ pasts and the motivations behind their actions. We still slow down enough to look around this world and decide that yes, it’s something we would like to learn more about. We learn a bit about Ace, but aren’t given much clues as to what happened in the past that got him banned out of the Underworld and basically put on a leach by Osiris. And the events in the last quarter of the book have such an impact that now I NEED to pick up book 2 and see if Osiris will get what he deserves for what he did…

So to recap this rather rambling review, this book does an excellent job of introducing a new world and making the reader care for the characters. I would definitely recommend it to urban fantasy lovers. And I will pick up book 2 to see where the story goes.

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

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.

Winter Halo (Outcast book 2) by Keri Arthur.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

 

I had read and reviewed City of Light, the first book in the Outcast series, and I had absolutely loved it. So I awaited the next installment with no small amount of anticipation and, I must admit it, dread.

 

Why dread, might you ask? Because too often the second book in a series is the weakest, especially if book one was excellent, like it was here. The worldbuilding is set, the characters have been introduced, but it’s too early to start on the main conflict of the series, so book two is often a slump that can easily be skipped (I’m looking at you, October Daye).

 

So how did Winter Halo fare when it comes to the dreaded second book slump? It did better than most, but didn’t escape it entirely. The story moved forward, and we got another piece of the big puzzle, but the main premise of the book still felt… rather secondary.

 

The book picks up right where the first book left off, and there is no rest for the wicked, and no time for Tiger to lick wounds or reflect on the betrayal of some people she’d just began to trust. Yes, they managed to rescue the children held by the vampires, but at least five more are missing, and the odds of finding them alive are bad. And even though one of the people she’d agreed to work with just tried to kill her, Tiger wouldn’t be Tiger if she just stood by and let those children get hurt without at least trying to do something. So she chooses to ally herself with the shifters again, albeit reluctantly, and infiltrate Winter Halo, the company they had investigated in book 1…

 

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. I am still loving Tiger. She is a strong and kickass protagonist who knows her strengths and uses them to advance her cause. I love that she has a strong moral compass and a depth of compassion and love that not many “normal” people have, let alone other dechet. Her relationship with Cat and Bear, the two ghost children that are tied to her, is both heartwarming and incredibly sad. And I understand why she would go to the lengths she goes to find the missing children – She watched all the little dechet children in her care slaughtered and was unable to save them, and has to live with that guilt (and their ghosts), so she would rather die than watch another child hurt.

 

My problem is that this book does a poor job of following through with this premise. We start looking for those still missing children right off the bat. The author even tells us that their time is running out, so you would think that there would be some sense of urgency there? Nope. Tiger and her crew seem to meander all over the place and stumble into bigger plots along the way, and the mention of those children who are still missing is thrown here and there almost like an afterthought.

 

Second problem is that this particular storyline isn’t even resolved by the end of the book. SPOILER ALERT!!! The children are still missing by the end, and Tiger (and the reader) isn’t any closer to finding them than she was in the beginning.

 

And finally, what Tiger discovers in Winter Halo is so big that the destiny of a few children rather pales in comparison… yet it’s not properly addressed in the book or acknowledged by the characters. It’s like hey, the creatures from the rifts might be planning to take over our world and exterminate everyone who lives here, but let’s not talk about that, because the children are still missing…

 

On a positive note, Tiger eliminated yet another villain and, hopefully, threw a wrench in the group’s plans to destroy the world. And she had an honest talk with her love interest after which both decided to give the relationship a chance. Color me pleasantly surprised, because most series would have milked that sexual tension for at least another 2-3 books. I’m glad it’s resolved though, because that opens a new chapter in their relationship to explore – how will they deal with dating each other, coming from such different backgrounds and with such a history of hate and violence between their species? And even if it wasn’t for that, not many books choose to explore the difficulties and joys of two people trying to build something together after that initial “we love each other, let’s hook up” phase.

 

So my wish for the next book is this – let’s finally put that missing children plot to rest. Either find them already or write them off as casualties of this shadow war, but enough is enough. And let’s focus on the more pressing problem of some unknown baddies that have allies even inside the city government trying to destroy the world.

 

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

A Witch’s Kitchen by Dianna Sanchez.

Stars: 5 out  of 5

 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer at the beginning of my review – this is a children’s book. Well, a Middle Grade book, but the point is that this is not my usual reading fare. In fact, I stumbled upon this book by mistake: I loved the cover on Netgalley and requested it without looking for the intended audience. Glad I did, because I loved it!

Millie thinks she is a useless witch who can’t do proper magic. None of the spells her mother tries to teach her turn out right. In fact, the only thing she can do and loves to do is cook, much to her mother’s disappointment. But then she is enrolled into the Enchanted Forest School and discovers that there are other kinds of magic then the one her mother uses and that maybe she isn’t as useless as she thought. She also makes some friends and a few enemies and uncovers the truth about who her father really is.

The story sounds simple when summarized like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its simplicity, this is a wonderful story that touches on some important topics like the importance of friends, the struggle to meet expectations and the desire to fit in, the difficult choices one has to make when deciding to follow a different path in life. It also talks about things like bullying at school and split families.

Oh, and you can really tell that the author loves cooking just as much as Millie does. The descriptions of most of the dishes Millie made in this book had me salivating and running for the fridge, though sadly, I didn’t have anything as good there to treat myself with.

Millie is a wonderful protagonist. She is shy and very self-conscious because all her life she considered herself a failure, a disappointment and a source of shame for her mother. She has zero self-esteem because she’d been mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by the other witch apprentices because of her inability to cast any “normal” witch spells. But that rather brutal upbringing didn’t turn her into an embittered hag. She managed to remain a very sweet girl who loves making others feel better with her cooking skill.  I like how she more self-assured once she makes some friends in school. Growing up is a hard and often painful process during which you can learn some rather unpleasant truths about people you considered your heroes when you were a child. I like that Millie stands up to her mother and decides to undertake the dangerous journey into the Logical Realm (aka our world) to find the truth about her father.

The Magical Realm of the Enchanted Forest is delightfully fleshed out. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic because it’s a children’s book, but it’s still full of depth and colors and different magical inhabitants, friendly or otherwise. I loved the School and the different creatures that teach there , and I kinda wish the book spent more time there, a bit like the Harry Potter books in Hogwards. I mean the caretaker is a giant tree! The whole school is located on its branches. And the Headmistress is a dragon. I would have loved to see what other classes were taught there, because the few that we saw seemed really interesting. Not that I’m disappointed with Millie’s journey into the Logical Real either, but talking about that would be a huge spoiler, so why don’t you find out about it for yourselves?

I don’t have kids, but I think A Witch’s Kitchen would be an excellent book to read with your middle grader on those fall evenings when the air turns colder and the sun sets earlier and paying outside is out of the question. I think there is something to enjoy in this story for both children and adults. So go on, buy it! You won’t regret it!

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

Urban Shaman (The Walker Papers 1) by C. E. Murphy.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

 

I don’t give a one star review to a book very often. Usually, when a book is only worthy of one star in my opinion, it ends up in my DNF (Did Not Finish) pile, and I don’t write reviews on DNF because it wouldn’t be fair to the author if I reviewed something I didn’t finish.

 

But I actually stuck around until the very end of Urban Shaman, because I kept hoping that things would get better. Sadly, they didn’t, which is a shame, really, because the book is well written. There is plenty of action. I didn’t particularly hate the protagonist, even though I didn’t fall in love with her either. There are a few juicy pieces of worldbuilding that kept me interested and wanting to learn more… Problem is, the bad in this book outweighed the good, at least for me.

 

But first things first, Joanne Walker is a car mechanic working for the police department. She is also a mixt race, because her father was Native American and her mother Irish, though she knows little of either of those cultures (I’m not even sure it’s mentioned which Native American tribe her father belonged to, just that Joanne spent some time with the Native Americans in North Carolina). While on a plane back from Ireland where she attended her mother’s funeral, she spots a woman being chased by an armed man and decides to help as soon as the plane lands. This choice will change her life forever…

 

I can see you frowning in puzzlement and trying to re-read that last paragraph, but no, I didn’t make a mistake. Joanne spots a woman running away from a man armed with a knife FROM A DESCENDING plane. Wow, even Hawkeye from the Avengers would be impressed with that! Not only that, but she manages to triangulate the part of the city in which it happened “using basic math she learned at school” (I didn’t say that, the author did). Once again, I’m impressed. Even if I could see something this precise from a descending plane (again, the plane wasn’t even landing yet, but executing the descending approach), I would only have a vague idea where it happened even if I’m familiar with the city.

 

I kept hoping that this miraculous ability would be explained later in the book, but like most of the perks Joanne acquires, the only explanation we get goes along the lines of “it’s magic” or “it’s part of her shaman abilities”. I would be okay with that if there was a learning curve involved in discovering those shaman abilities, but that’s where this book is severely lacking.

 

Every time Joanne encounters a problem, a new ability lands on her lap to bail her out. Pierced by a sword and dying? No problem, let’s enter a trance and heal ourselves! Never mind that Joanne has never attempted a trance before or that healing people and repairing cars have very little in common.

 

Don’t know why the killer is targeting certain people? Let’s enter yet another trance, have an out of body experience and go talk to the ghosts of the victims. Never done that before? Not a problem. You’re a shaman. You instinctively know how to do things like that.

 

It’s that instinctive knowledge that I have a problem with. Shaman is like any other profession, if you think about it. Everyone starts not knowing what they are doing and become more and more proficient with training and experience. Knowledge doesn’t simply land in your lap when convenient. That’s lazy writing.

 

Another sign of lazy writing is how easily both Joanne and people around her accept the existence of the supernatural, even though this world is like ours – logical and materialistic, where supernatural elements stay hidden. Seriously, in the real world, the moment Joanne started spewing all that nonsense about the Wild Hunt and being a shaman to her direct supervisor, he would have called 911 and had her committed. Or he would have just driven her to the psychiatric ward himself, being a cop. Here, he just… accepts it. And he is only one in the long line of people who just take this in stride and roll with it. So much so that this complete non-resistance to the absurdity of the situation threw me completely out of the story on several occasions.

 

And finally, I find it extremely improbable that a person who, in her own words, has no knowledge of either of her parent’s cultures, manages to become an expert in both Celtic myths and Native American shamanism after a few trance induced dreams and a couple internet searches…

 

So to sum this rather extensive review up, this is a very disappointing first book in a series. The world has potential, but I have no desire to stick around and watch Joanne put yet another new ability out of her butt anytime her own rash actions get land her in danger. There are a lot of exciting series that I eagerly follow, but this isn’t one of them.