Category Archives: Urban fantasy

Wakers (The Side Step Trilogy 1) by Orson Scott Card

Stars: 2 out of 5.

DNF at 70%, so you darn right I’m leaving a review for this, since I put so much effort into this book!

I am very disappointed. I loved The Ender’s Game by the same author so I had high hope for this story as well. 

And the beginning was pretty good actually: intriguing and suspenseful. I was along for the ride with Laz, and even his constant monologue and the tendency to over-analyze every little thing to death wasn’t all that annoying at first. He was looking for answers, after all, and we, as the reader were looking for them with him. Yes, the pacing was rather slow, but I was willing to forgive that as long as I got the answers I was looking for in the end.

Then Laz finally wakes up Ivy… and things took a nosedive from there. 

First of all, the pace, which was already slow, became glacial. I mean the story progression grinded to a halt to be replaced by pages and pages of mindless and mind-numbing dialogue between two obnoxious teenagers. It was pointless. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t bring ANYTHING useful to the story. It made my eyes roll back in my head and make me want to take a nap every time I opened the book. It’s an endless stream of verbal vomit between two people who I found more and more unlikeable the further in the book I got. 

Because most of the book is written in these horrible dialogues, the author does a lot of telling, but almost no showing. The characters debate scientific theories, explain to each other things that should be self-evident for them just so the reader can catch up with the science here. Problem is, the reader has checked out ten pages ago. 

I got no sense of the world, because the descriptions are almost non-existent. It’s all just Laz made a snide remark, Ivy retorted with something the author meant to sound smart, but just made her sound like a spoiled brat, Laz retaliated in the same fashion, blah, blah, blah…. twenty pages later we still haven’t learned anything new and the story hasn’t progressed an inch. Heck, I don’t even know what the dogs in the pack of four look like because mighty Laz didn’t care enough about it to talk about it.

I understand that this is a YA book, but I still didn’t particularly appreciate how all adults are described as complete idiots. Seriously, Laz and Ivy have this “better then everyone else” attitude to them when they talk to anybody else that would never have worked in the real world. You might be smart and possess a unique ability, but you are still a teenager, no you are a clone with fake memories, so if you talk to me this way, you will get smacked. I think that’s my biggest pet peeve with the author’s approach – you CAN create smart and resourceful teenagers without making them disrespectful at the same time. 

It made me hate the main characters more and more, and by the end I didn’t care about them or finding the answers to the big questions enough to read through the last 30% of obnoxious dialogue.

I will not continue with the series. I will definitely not recommend this book. And if this is the author’s new style of writing, I doubt I will try any of his newer book going forward. I’d rather re-read the Ender’s Game.

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

Shadow Shinjuku by Ryu Takeshi

 Stars: 3 out of 5

I have a hard time formulating my thoughts about this book. I liked it enough to stick around till the end, but it didn’t leave a big enough impact to consider it a really good book. 

There is one aspect I really loved, and that’s Tokyo as a whole and Shinjuku in particular. The author does a really good job describing the city, the atmosphere, the sights, the people who live in it. So much so that the city feels like its own entity and an integral part of the story. As an avid traveler who had been cooped up way to long because of Covid, I loved the chance to travel to a different place at least in my mind. And since I had visited Tokyo in 2018, some of the places described were familiar, like old friends.

Unfortunately, you need more than the atmosphere and a good description of the setting to make a good book. You also need a good story and engaging characters. In my opinion, this book is lacking in both those aspects. 

The story itself is not so bad. It’s about finding a purpose in life and a place where you belong. About family, both found and inherited. However, it starts really slow and meanders around aimlessly for over half of the book, just like Sato does. In fact, it doesn’t really pick up pace until about 60% into the book when the stuff with Kiki happens and Sato finally decides to do something apart from procrastinating.

And that is my second gripe with this book. Sato was just too passive a character to qualify for the role of a protagonist. As I mentioned, he spends over half the book just floating with the current, not engaged with the world at all, just observing it from the shadows. And I understand why the author wrote him this way and fully appreciate his transformation by the end of the book, but it really makes for a boring character to follow.

Also, since Sato doesn’t particularly care about any members of his “found family” for half the book, I found it hard to care for them as well. The bonds haven’t been established or properly showcased beforehand, so when bad things start to happen to them, there isn’t this sense of urgency and outrage that I should be feeling. In fact, I empathized with the dog more than I did with any other characters in this book, so that says something.

All in all, this was an interesting story and a good glimpse into a different culture. It would have been better if Sato had been more involved with the world around him from the get go.

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

The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater

 Stars: 5 out of 5

I absolutely loved this book, y’all! This gave me the same vibes as American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett, only with a much more reliable protagonist. 

Sadie’s mother was the Liar of Red Valley. A position that gave her a certain power with its inhabitants. They didn’t like her, they certainly didn’t trust her, but they still came to her and paid for her to tell lies on their behalf. But now she is dead, and Sadie needs to figure out how to become the next Liar. She also needs to find her mom’s ledger, keep all the other ledgers safe, oh, and save Red Valley from total destruction. No worries.

As I said, this book is what is often referred to as American weird. The world is very much like our own, but certain things lurk in the shadows that are not human. The people of Red Valley know about them, and they also know the rules that let everybody coexist more or less peacefully. Newcomers though… well, either they learn, or they don’t. The things in the shadows have to be fed from time to time too, after all.

I liked the atmosphere of Red Valley. This could be any run-down town in the American heartland. I drove through a lot of those. Closed and boarded up businesses on Main street, a couple cafes and diners barely surviving on local and sometimes tourist traffic, a few jobs supporting the local Walmart, drugs, alcohol, despair for the rest of the residents. The fact that there are some supernatural elements to this setup isn’t all that far-fetched. After all, what do we know about those other crumbling town all over our nation? All we see when we drive through are boarded up windows. There might be their own kinds of weird residents staring at us from within. 

Most of my enjoyment with this book came from following Sadie. She is a great protagonist right from the start. She is relatable. She is very human, even when faced with hard situations. I loved her and rooted for her from the get go. And I loved her even more once I discovered a few things about her that I won’t talk about because I don’t want to spoil it.

The book is also well-written. There is plenty of tension and the story moves at a good pace. It’s not so fast that the reader doesn’t have time to get to know the characters or take a breather between action scenes. It is also not so slow that the reader would get bored. All the information about Red Valley is introduced in measured dozes and exactly when needed, without resorting to the dreaded info-dumps. 

All in all, this is one my favorite books I read in 2022 so far and I highly recommend it.

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

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next 1) by Jasper Fforde

Stars: 5 out of 5

 I have a difficult time describing this book other than that I absolutely loved it! It’s well written and engaging, and the world is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’m not sure how to classify it. Is it alternate history? Is it urban fantasy? Is it steampunk? Or maybe a little bit of both and none of them at the same time? You see what I mean?

Thursday Next is a Litera Agent who investigates all sorts of literary crimes, which include forgery, book theft and other, more fantastical occurrences, like the kidnapping of famous literary characters straight out of a book and into the real world… or the disappearance of a real person into a book. Yes, things like that happen in Thursday’s world.

And what an interesting world it is. An alternate history Europe where the Crimean war never ended. Where there was no Russian revolution, and airplanes were never invented because why invent something new when blimps work perfectly fine? So it is a weird world that is similar to our in some ways (telephones, cars, etc.), but very different in others: it has a ChronoGuard branch of SpecOps after all, so time travel and time manipulation is a common practice. People use credit cards, but the names of the banks are as foreign to us as if they were written in Chinese. And names like Jack Shitt, Victor Analogy or Thursday Next are common and perfectly normal.

In fact, I could help but think that while Thursday was investigating book theft and manipulation of written narrative, her own world was also a book. Which, ironically, it is. I’m reading it. And it’s so fun to see the author kind of playing with this idea, even if it’s never mentioned. Usually writers try to make their created worlds convincing, so that the readers can get lost exploring this brand new plane of existence at their leisure and forget that they are reading a book. Don’t get me wrong, Thursday’s world is convincing. It has an inner logic. But it’s also very “bookish”. And it’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s a very fun and wild ride.

Part of my enjoyment for this book is due to our protagonist. Thursday Next is an awesome character! She is flawed and deeply wounded by her time fighting in Crimea. She can be stubborn and unyielding, but she is also smart and has a lot of heart. I was really rooting for her from the beginning. Plus, she has a pet dodo. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with a pet dodo! I am glad that Thursday managed to resolve some of her issues by the end of this book, even if that resolution was a little bit on the nose for me.

That might be the only small gripe for me – the villain in this book was very, almost comic-book, villainous. But that works well with the idea that Thursday’s world is also a book, so while I would have loved to have a little more depth to Hades’ character, he worked well for the story.

There are plenty of other interesting characters in this book that don’t get enough spotlight, in my opinion. And judging how well-written this book is, my thought is that they will be covered in the next books. Like we mention Spike and his job policing the vampire and werewolf population, but this isn’t expanded upon. Thursday acts like the existence of supernatural beings is common knowledge in this world, but again, the reader doesn’t get any other explanation. Hopefully, we will explore this aspect of the world more in subsequent books, because I quite like Spike.

There is also the case of Thursday seeing her older self in a rather bad situation and stashing a gun for her other self  to use. That scene doesn’t happen in the timeline of the first book, so I can only hope that this is something significant to the plot in the next instalments. 

All in all, I absolutely loved this book and I will definitely read the next book in the series just to see more of this crazy world and what happens to Thursday.

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 Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I’m always eager to discover new voices in literature, especially if they come from other cultures. Those authors always have very unique outlooks at life that you won’t find in our Western civilizations. It definitely broadens my horizon as a reader. So I was very eager to pick up this book when I saw it on NetGalley – a translation of an new Japanese author, and we have a talking cat who saves books? What is there not to like?

Well, the writing, as it turns out. 

The story itself is interesting and rather uplifting – we follow Rintaro, a very shy and introverted high school student, who is trying to deal with the sudden death of his grandfather, who had been his only family for all these years. It doesn’t help that Rintaro is a literal shut-in with severe social anxiety, and that the safe bubble that he’d built in his grandfather’s bookshop is about to burst. Then a talking cat appears and takes him on a fantastical adventure to save books and find his own voice. By the end of the journey, Rintaro finally discovers his own value and decides what he wants to do in life. 

It is a nice coming of age story that would definitely appeal to a younger audience… and a book I would never have picked up if I’d known it was aimed at the younger adult audience. I don’t read YA. This book just reaffirmed all the reasons why I don’t. 

The writing, as I had mentioned earlier, is simplistic at best. I don’t know if it’s due to so many nuances getting lost in translation, as they inevitably do, or if the original was written this way as well. It might have been, if it was intended for a 12+ audience, even if it was classified as General Fiction (Adult) on NetGalley.

Problem with this book is that it does a lot of telling and almost zero showing. Everything has to be spelled out for the reader. We are told how Rintaro feels and what he thinks of his few friends or people he encounters, but there is nothing in the writing that shows these reactions. It might also be that the author is Japanese, so he relies on Japanese stereotypes that would be familiar to a younger Japanese audience, but that are rather foreign to us. For example, Sayo, the class representative, came across as pushy, rude, and judgmental of Rintaro every time I read about her… Yet, he admires her for being a straight talker and very dedicated to her duties. And he just takes her verbal abuse like it’s normal. 

Another problem is that I can’t even visualize these characters. What does Rintaro look like? His only distinctive feature are his glasses that he likes to fiddle with. Same for Sayo. She could be any other Japanese high school student from the street and it wouldn’t make a difference. Or Akiba? Heck, the only character who gets a real description is Tiger the cat. Maybe that’s normal for Japanese novels. Maybe relying on common stereotypes is good enough for that audience. Me, it just left me rather bored. I felt like I was following a shadow play on the wall, where characters are blank cutouts. 

So all in all, it really wasn’t my cup of tea, even if it gave me a peak, of sorts, into the life of an insecure teenage boy living in a second hand book store somewhere in Japan. I wanted a bit more than that though, but it was probably just a matter of managing my expectations.

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

Goblin by Josh Malerman

 

Stars: 3 out of 5

This was a meh kind of book. It’s a series of short stories book ended by the story of a delivery driver bringing something terrifying to the city of Goblin. The short stories are related only by the location where they happen – the city of Goblin on the same particularly rainy day and night. 

I think that was one of the reasons the book was kinda meh to me. Yes, Goblin in itself is an interesting, if rather unhappy place. A place for the spirits. A place where humans were never supposed to settle and thrive. The short stories illustrate the eeriness of Goblin perfectly. Problem is, they don’t do much more than that. 

I read a book mostly for the characters and then for the worldbuilding. I notice that I tend to lose interest if I don’t have anybody to root for. If I don’t have a tour guide through the world the author is showing me. And that’s what happened here. Goblin is a fascinating place. Unfortunately, the people who live there are a lot less so.

We read stories of several different people who are not connected to each other, so it’s already hard to figure out why we should follow these characters or even care. Those stories are also not connected at all to the prolog, where a delivery driver is bringing something to Goblin. Something horrible… Well, Goblin already has plenty of horrible things. There is the Goblin police, the Witch of the North Woods, the owls, etc. So by the time that horrible thing finally reaches Goblin, it’s rather anticlimactic. It’s just another monster to add to a city already full of them. What’s the point?

Also, none of the stories we read about have any real resolutions, apart from the story of the man who was afraid of the ghosts. That one, we see to it’s logical conclusion. The rest of them leave is suspended in the air, without an explanation or a conclusion to them. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to say.  And the arrival of this great terrible thing in the end isn’t enough to satisfyingly end any of those stories. 

In conclusion, it was an okay book to pass the time with, but I probably won’t remember what it is about in a month or so. This is the third book by this author I’ve read and found rather underwhelming, so I think I’m just not the intended audience here. A lot of people love these books, so your mileage might vary. 

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

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

This book had so much promise! The premise was intriguing, and the book started strong with Vern on the run and not much explanation of what had happened but with a growing sense of urgency that even the reader could feel.

The book was good for the first half at least, while we followed Vern as she learned to live in the woods and tried to raiser her children by herself.

Unfortunately, by the second half of the book, the novelty of the story ran out, and I discovered a couple things that started gradually dampening my enjoyment of the book until they ruined it completely. I’m sad to say that I finished this as a hate read. I was so close to the end that I had to finish it just to say that I did.

First of all, the story just keeps circling the drain for most of the book. Vern knows that the answers to what’s happening to her are back in Cainland, but she never actually does anything to find them. She knows that the woods are not safe anymore for her little family, but her answer is to go back to civilization nilly willy and follow a dream. No recon beforehand, no explanation or basic training for her children before she subjects them to such a traumatic change. It’s a wonder she even got to her destination at all. The way they were dressed and the way they acted, she should have been picked up by cops almost immediately.

I think my biggest problem is Vern herself. I have never seen a more selfish and pig-headed protagonist in my life! It was okay in the beginning because she was young and on the run, overwhelmed by circumstances. Problem is, she never changes. She doesn’t grow up. She doesn’t evolve and mature. She stays the same bull-headed and selfish teenager throughout the book. She is stubborn, and prideful, and rebellious just for the sake of being rebellious, or that’s what it seems at times. She is the kind of person who would stick her arm in the fire and let it burn just because somebody told her not to do that. That’s just incredibly stupid.

She abandons her babies for nights at end alone… in the woods… in a makeshift shelter open to elements. She hurts the only person who had information about Cainland and what was happening to her, instead of listening and trying to get information out of her first. She pouts and shouts, instead of admitting that she can’t read, even though learning to read would help her find the answers she wants.

And the most infuriating part is, despite all those shortcomings and acts of tremendous idiocy, she always escapes scoot free. There are no dramatic consequences to her actions.

She leaves two newborns in the woods all night? Sure, they are all nice and safe in the morning. No animals found them and hurt them. They didn’t get cold or hungry and started crying. In fact, how the heck did they survive for 8 years in the woods and never once got sick with anything?

Vern literally walked them into a mall, dressed them in new clothes, grabbed essential… and just walked out? And the tags on the clothes didn’t’ set off the alarms? The security in the mall didn’t catch her? Right…

The further we venture into the story and out of the woods, the more implausible this lack of consequences gets. To the point that I didn’t even care for any of this anymore. Whatever Vern did, she would get out of it looking better than ever, with an “upgrade” to her supernatural abilities. If the protagonist has a “Mary Sue shield” around her, what’s the point reading her story?

The ending is even more underwhelming because it reads like the final boss level of a video game – Vern gets her maximum upgrades and goes to fight the bad guys who don’t stand a chance. Only it’s all kind of pointless at that point, pun intended.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t recommend this. There are better and more impactful stories out there that don’t need deux ex machina elements to keep the protagonist from dying because of her own stupidity.

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

A Master of Djin by P. Djeli Clark (Dead Djin Universe 1)

Stars: 3 out of 5

I really love this author’s short stories. I’ve read everything he published and each one of the stories was a solid 5 out 5 stars. So I was really looking forward to diving into this full length novel set in the same world as the Haunting of Tram Car 015.

Unfortunately, my high expectations were met with a disappointment. This has all the ingredients that made his short stories great… but the mixture isn’t quite setting right.

I think one of the reasons is that there isn’t enough plot here for a novel, so the author is putting a lot of filler to add to the word count. As a result, the narrative moves at a very sedate pace and feels rather disjointed. I caught myself wondering several times why the the author chose to stay with some minutia details for as long as he did.

When the narrative actually moves the story along, it’s all tight writing and nail-biting action. Unfortunately the “padding” kills that momentum every time. I constantly felt like the story was hitting the break every time it was starting to get good.

My other problem with this book was that I didn’t particularly care for the protagonist. Fatma spends most of the book worrying more about if her tie matches her outfit or what her lover is doing than doing actual detective work. As a result, she comes across as an irresponsible airhead, not a decorated investigator.

And speaking of detective work, Fatma is particularly bad at it in this book. To the point I started wondering exactly how she got her position. Did she get hired as the token female into an all male world? I’m sure that’s not the view the author intended to convey, but Fatma’s seeming ineptitude and worry about her wardrobe above anything else doesn’t make her seem like a capable character. Heck, all the major clues that move the story along are basically handed to her by other characters!

I think the author realized that his protagonist wasn’t doing much detecting, so he decided to give her a new partner. Who is also a female. Fresh out of the academy. Very eager to learn and to jump into action.

This could have been such a wonderful idea to explore – to have those two women used to being tough in a man’s world butt heads, learn how to cooperate, and slowly gel into a cohesive team. And in the beginning it really seemed like that would be the road the author would take… until it wasn’t.

The problem here is that he made the new recruit too perfect. She is skilled in martial arts, she is smart and reads several languages, she never looses her cool even in dreadful situations, and she knows and uncle/cousin/brother-in-law, etc. in any and all departments of Egyptian life. She is basically a glorified Mary Sue.

So we have a wishy washy protagonist paired with a Mary Sue and a story that draaaaaags over pages and pages… and the result is a big disappointment. I think I’ll still with this author’s shorter work for now.

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

The Night Girl by James Bow

Stars: 4 out of 5

I went into this book not really knowing what to expect. The description on NetGalley seemed appealing enough and the cover art was okay, but the story could have gone either way.

I’m glad that I gave it a chance though, because it turned out a quick and rewarding read. The story itself isn’t very original – girl moves into big city to escape her little town life and her overbearing mother, and makes a life for herself. She also discovers a cause worth fighting for, makes a few friends, and some enemies, and finds love in the process.

What I didn’t expect was that this story would have so much heart! I loved Perpetua almost from the first chapter. She is a very determined young lady who nevertheless has a very good sense of what is right and what is wrong. She also has the courage to stand up against what she perceives is wrong and won’t stand by when others are mistreated, even if that lands her in to trouble herself.

I liked the fact that all the characters here have real and mostly relatable motives for their actions. Nobody is evil just for the sake of being evil or because the story needs a villain. At first, you would think that the fairies are evil, since they basically forced goblins to live in fear and squalor for centuries. But then you come to understand why they did it. Fairies can pass for human, some goblins can as well, and those manage to integrate into society. But there are those who are too alien looking to ever be able to do that, so they have to hide. Because everyone involved still remembers the pitchforks, the cold iron, and the savagery of men, even if the war ended over a thousand years ago.

It is evident, at least to Perpetua and the readers, that the status quo cannot endure much longer, but both parties are too scared to change anything, because some of them were alive during that war.

My complaint about the resolution of this conflict is that it is too good to be true. With the events of 2020, I admit that I lost a lot of hope in the human race, so I tended to side with the fairies on this one. In real world, this would have ended in rivers of blood and riots on the streets, mass executions and ethnic purges, not mutual, if rather reluctant acceptance. But this is a fairy tale, so I will accept its rather naive happy ending. Maybe we need more positive books right now with all the ugliness in the world.

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