Category Archives: Reviews

Lockdown (Escape from Furnace 1) by Alexander Gordon Smith

Stars: 5 out of 5

This was terrifying y’all! 

My problem with a lot of horror books is that the characters in them are either not fully realized or so unpleasant that sometimes you wish the monsters got them, so it’s hard to root for them. Not so in this book. The author has a knack for writing reliable characters that feel real. Are they good people? Not by a long stretch, but neither are they bad people. They are kids. They are teenage boys trapped in a nightmare and left to fend for themselves. Of course there will be acts of extreme cruelty involved.

The premise itself is terrifying in its inhumanity. Imagine locking away children, since some of them are barely 10 years old. For Life. With no possibility of appeal and parole. In an underground prison. And they are never allowed visitors. As far as humanity is concerned, the prisoners cease to be human and become property as soon as they cross the gates into Furnace. What should have happened to society for the public to think that a prison like that was normal or even welcome? What happened that parents would agree to something like that? That human right activists aren’t up in arms and railing against this?

So the children stuck in Furnace have no hope, and no future. That in itself would be terrifying. No wonder they form gangs and lash out against each other – they are all desperate and, frankly, they don’t have anything to loose anymore. Now add to that the cruelty of the guards and their indifference to the violence happening between inmates. Oh, and things worst then guards prowl the halls at night, and sometimes they take prisoners. Those taken never come back, or if they do, they are changed. 

Like I said, just the premise would have made for a terrifying book, but what distinguishes it from other horror stories and YA books is that the author has a knack for writing relatable characters. I got to know and care for Alex, Donovan, Zee, and a few others. I grew to like them. So the sheer terror of their everyday existence in Furnace hit closer to home. They weren’t just two-dimensional characters destined to die in horrible ways just to add to the horror factor. Those were kids I cared about. I mean even Morty being taken was hard. The loss of another character closer to the end of the book was a real gut punch. 

The action is also pretty tight in this book. There are no slumps, and the sense of dread grows the closer you get to the ending. And while the ending provides some kind of resolution to the immediate issue of the book, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The most important of them being – where they actually able to escape and what will they do now that they did?

I am definitely invested in the characters and the world this author has created, so I will be picking up the next book in the series. In fact, I put the whole series on my TBR list.

The Bladed Faith (The Vagrant Gods 1) by David Dalglish

Stars: 2 out of 5

DNF at 45%.

There are the makings of a good book in there, that’s why I am not giving it a one star review, but the execution was sorely lacking, at least for my taste.

First of all, it drags. Even the battles move slowly and the narrative parts between them are never-ending. We get a long training montage at the beginning of the book that was interesting for the first 10 pages, but rapidly lost my goodwill after it dragged and dragged. 

I think the reason for that is because even though the characters acquire new skills and evolve physically, they never grow mentally. I found that the character development is next to null in this book. I never got to bond with the characters because I was never allowed in their heads. What drives them? 

Why does Cyrus decide to endure this harsh training? Just because he was told that he could become the avenger of his people? He didn’t strike me as someone that selfless and patriotic at the beginning of the book. I would understand this better is I was privy to his inner thoughts and doubts instead of just his relentless training. 

Same goes for all the other characters. They are kind of there and going through the motions, but I can’t picture them in my head. They are not “alive” to me. I am a character-driven reader, I don’t do well with books that lack those. I can forgive a lot of flaws and plot-holes as long as I’m invested in the characters. Here, I wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting ideas in this book. The whole idea of the origin of divinity is one I would have loved to know more about. This is one of the reasons I kept reading for as long as I did. But then I caught myself skipping pages upon pages and stopping just to read the major plot points. That’s when I knew that it was time to abandon ship. 

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

A Plain-Dealing Villain (Daniel Faust 4) by Craig Schaefer

Stars: 4 out of  5.

I think this series is getting better with each new book, which is an exciting occurrence. I’ve seen too many series putter out after the first few books because the author didn’t plan the overarching arc well enough or just ran out of ideas, but has contracted to write more books. I’m glad to say that it’s not the case here. It really feels like there is a solid plan behind these books and things that seemed unimportant or barely mentioned in previous books suddenly come to play in the next books. I like it when I can trust the author to take me for a wild ride and not loose sight of the destination.

My only compliant here is that it starts a bit slow, with an aborted robbery and way too much time being interrogated/shadowed by Harmony Black in the beginning of the book. Once Faust arrives in Chicago and the action picks up, the book become a lot more interesting. 

What I have noticed is that I only truly get invested in these books when the gang is all together. Daniel Faust by himself tends to charge in without thinking, make a complete mess of the situation, then try to fix what he broke in the first place. Like Pixie told him in this book, you never fix anything, you just try to mitigate the damage. The true magic happens when Cormy and Mama Margaux and Pixie and even Caitlin are there to help him. That’s when the cons come to life, that’s when the books become an adrenaline-packed ride. And it’s a true joy to watch them work together, help each other, trust each other and pull of seemingly impossible things. 

I am also glad that the insta-love between Faust and Caitlin is finally qustioned in this book. I’ve been saying since book one that this felt unnatural to me, and it seems that I’m right. I hope this gets further development in future books, because this is the definition of a toxic relationship – when one of the participants is basically manipulated into feeling what he does. I don’t care about justifications or that Caitlin loves him too now, this relationship started with a lie. This at least needs to be addressed between them if there is any future in this.

There are some interesting new plotlines to explore in future books, like the looming hostile takeover of Las Vegas by the Chicago Outfit, which would definitely be a bloody affair. And of course this new shadowy figure pulling the ropes behind the latest heist. Who is he and what is his end goal? What kind of ritual are his minions preparing for? And how will Daniel clear his name from the murder he’s been framed for, and will he do it in time to help his friends?

I am definitely picking up the next book in the series.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Stars: 5 out of 5

I am continuing my dive into my TBR list. This book was languishing on my list since 2014, and I’m really not sure why I didn’t read it sooner. I even had the ebook on my Kindle and all that… Anyway, I finally got to it and I’m happy that I did.

Neil Gaiman is an absolute master at writing books about children that are interesting for both children and adults. I loved his Coraline and the Graveyard book. They were engrossing and at times horrifying, but also very genuine. Same happened with this book. 

The author has a rare gift of capturing the magic of childhood without turning it into something extraordinary. In fact, the very ordinary way he describes some rather extraordinary (and often terrifying) things that happen to his characters is what makes his books so impactful. This books brings me back to my childhood, when the world was new and I didn’t know the rules, so even most ordinary places could be magical doorways to other world. A tree in the backyard could be a castle and the pond at the end of the lane could be an ocean.

Children see a lot more then adults do, because they haven’t accepted the norms society and adulthood imposes on them yet, and adults readers should be reminded that there still wonders in this world that science and technology cannot explain. And that those wonders aren’t good or evil, they just are. They behave in accordance to their nature, and they don’t particularly care about human norms and rules, so interacting with them is always a gamble.

I loved that our protagonist is just a little boy who loves to read and is more comfortable in his own imaginary world with his books than with other children. He isn’t a genius. He isn’t the chosen one. He is just a kid who stumbles into something extraordinary and tries to cope with it the best he can. He isn’t particularly brave or strong, but he has enough courage to stand up for himself and say it when the situation doesn’t feel right. And standing up to an adult, especially if that adult is your parent, is the most terrifying thing in the world when you are a child. Most of us forget that when we grow up. 

That’s why the most terrifying experience in this whole story wasn’t even Ursula or the hunger birds. It was the fact that his father tried to drown him in the bathtub. Whether he was enthralled by Ursula or she’d just played on his baser instincts doesn’t matter. When the person who is supposed to protect and support you tries to kill you, it shatters something inside of you. I’m glad the Hempstock snipped that night out of his memories.

All in all, this is a wonderful story about the fact that the extraordinary lives next door to us, you just have to look carefully for it. Question is, do you really want to venture down that lane?

Empire of Exiles (Books of the Usurper 1) by Erin M. Evans

Stars: 4 out of 5

Sometimes you pick up a book because you like the cover or the blurb and discover a hidden gem. This is what happened to me with Empire of Exiles. I haven’t read other books by this author, so this book was a surprise hit for me. Now I have a new series to look forward to and a new author to follow!

I loved how complex and “lived in” this world feels. There is history there. There is a past. The different races feel distinct but also plausible, with their own religions, philosophies and physical attributes that don’t feel shoehorned into the story just for the sake of diversity. I would love to explore Semilla more in future books. 

The empire itself is an interesting construct. Like the title of the book says, it’s an empire of exiles or of refugees, since all the races who call it home fled their native lands facing extermination by a common enemy – the changelings. Desperation and the threat of extermination are sure to force people to cooperate, but I love what they created out of the ashes. An empire that assimilated all these religions and philosophies and let them coexist. 

This world wouldn’t be as memorable if it wasn’t populated by such vivid characters. I loved all of the protagonists in this story. They felt real. Sure, they had their quirks and their moments of weakness, but they always felt like people. I couldn’t help but feel Quill’s pain and confusion when his best friend dies in front of him after committing a crime that was completely out of character for him. I rooted for Amadea the more I discovered the depth of horror her childhood has been. Seriously, how did she manage to piece herself together and remain a functional human being after everything she’d been subjected to? I loved all the specialists in the archives and was truly worried about them when their affinities seemed to overwhelm them.

Speaking of the Archives, what a wonderful concept! A central repository of all the knowledge those fleeing nations brought to Semilla when they arrived ahead of a horde of changellings. Where all scrolls, works of art, religious text and everything else is perfectly preserved for future generations.

The magical system is also rather unique. I would like to learn more about it in future books. Especially what differentiates a specialist from a sorcerer, and is that what Yinnii is now? How would that affect the rest of her life?

My only complaint about this book is that the budding love stories feel forced. I mean, there is way too much blushing and stuttering during conversations. I would understand that from teenagers like Quill and Yinnii, but Amadea is in her thirties, so why does she behave like a hormonal teenager who never had a crush? That read so false that it took me out of the story.

Other then that small complaint though, I absolutely loved this book. I can’t wait to explore this world more in the next installments. There are still a lot of questions left unanswered, after all. Like is the world behind the Salt Wall really as desolate as we are lead to believe? What really happened with the changellings? What was the Usurper’s endgame and why did he need Amadea for it? I’m definitely picking up the next book.

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

The Best Thing You Can Steal (Gideon Sable 1) by Simon R Green

Stars: 3 out of 5

I love me a good heist and I am always excited to read about London in urban fantasy. It’s such an ancient and wonderful city that adding a magical element only adds to it’s fascination. So I dived into this series without reservation and read this book in a day. 

So what’s my verdict? It’s popcorn stuff. It’s a fun little romp through a fictional magical London, full of action and never a dull moment… It’s also pretty light on substance. I mean the whole book is about introducing the team, then explaining the plan, then executing the heist. Pretty straightforward.

And that’s the biggest drawback of this story, I think – I would expect a plan to fail, things to go wrong forcing the team to improvise. And while it does a little, none of the drawbacks seem dangerous or earthshattering. Ultimately, the plan goes exactly as formulated in our protagonist’s head. I never worried about the characters being in danger, because they really weren’t.

Part of the issue is that all of the characters are so overpowered that it’s hard to imagine that anything can truly hurt them. I mean the Damned has the armor of angels. The Wild Card can alter reality as it pleases him. The Ghost is a ghost, so bullets can’t hurt him. The only real humans are Anny Anybody and our protagonist, but the author never puts them in real danger. 

Finally, the villain himself is rather underwhelming all things considered. We spend the whole book building him up as this ruthless horrible person, someone extremely overpowered and who is in possession of unimaginable artifacts… What we get at the end is a mustache-swirling Bond villain who monologues about how villainous he is for about 10 pages, then gets beaten by a McGuffin. 

As I said, don’t read this book if you are looking for a memorable villain and edge of your seat action with high stakes and life and death situations. However, if you are looking for a quick read to take to the beach with you or to your morning commute – this definitely fits the bill. And while I seem critical, I did like it well enough to continue with the series. 

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Stars: 3 out of 5

For about 80% of this book I thought it would be a solid 5 stars… then the weird codas happened that turned me completely off. But since I was engaged with the story and the characters for most of the book, I am willing to still give it 3 stars.

Most of us watched Star Trek and noticed that nameless redshirt crewmember that usually dies horribly on an away mission in almost every episode, right? Well, what happens if the story is told from the perspective of some of those redshirts? Suddenly, they aren’t nameless anymore. Suddenly, they have a backstory, needs and wants, and friends. And they start wondering why so many of their crewmembers die so horribly on this one ship and not the others. Or why their commanding officers survive encounters that should have killed them ten times over. Not only do they wonder about it, but they decide to right that wrong once they discover the truth, no matter how crazy it seems.

I really got attached to these characters and was just as intrigued as they were to discover what was happening on the Intrepid. It’s an interesting take on the weekly scifi shows that kill off random characters just for shock value. You know that the core team (usually the captain and officers on the bridge) would always survive to the end of the episode, but what happens to the rest of the crew? More importantly, how do they feel about this? Well, how would you feel if you work on a spaceship where any mission suddenly becomes a life and death crisis, laws of physics and space-time stop applying, and your superior officers behave in a very strange manner from time to time. Oh, and don’t forget the Box. No wonder everyone is terrified. No wonder everyone is hiding when the call comes for an away mission crew members. They might be just extras on a show, but to themselves, they are people, and they don’t want to die.

I wanted them to find a solution to this problem and finally lead their lives on a normal Intrepid, not a ship constantly overtaken by the Narrative. So I was very shocked when that story abruptly ends on a rather negative note and we get “real” life codas instead. Honestly? I don’t care that the main writer for the show has writers block now or how he manages to overcome it. I don’t care that the actress who played Jenkins’ wife in real life finds her happy ever after. I did care a little about Hester’s transformation into Matthew, but that was about the only satisfying closure in this book.

So what had started as a fun story left me frustrated and even annoyed by the end. I know some readers would appreciate this breaking of the fourth wall, but I would have rather gotten more closure with the characters I had grown to love.

Flotsam (Peridot Shift 1) by R J Theodore

Stars: 2 out of 5

DNF at 45%.

There is a good book hidden somewhere in there. Unfortunately, it’s buried under tons of overwritten plot and bad characterization. It feels like this story isn’t quite done yet. It need more time to “cook” in the author’s head, or maybe a strong developmental edit.

The premise is fascinating: a whole planet shattered by a cataclysm that left it in chunks. Yet somehow life still exists there. There is atmosphere and gravity even if that revolves around the “islands” – floating bits of planet. There are five “gods” that remade their respective people in some ways to facilitate their adaptation to this new environment. And these deities are not fictional. They exist, they interact with others sometimes. There is a mysterious ring and some even more mysterious aliens. And the crew of a smuggler’s ship caught in the middle of all of that. Sounds interesting? Sounds like lots of fun and action, doesn’t it?

That promise kept me going for almost half the book. That’s when I realized that the flaws of the book made it almost impossible to enjoy the story. I was skimming most of the chapters just to get to the juicy bits, but even those weren’t enough to keep me interested.

This book is horribly overwritten – I don’t need descriptions of what every character is wearing and all the weapons they have unless it’s relevant to the story. And while yes, I’m interested about how Sub Rosa was founded, I don’t need 6 pages of exposition about it. This kills the momentum and makes the book a chore to read.

The other problem is the extremely stilled and unnatural dialogue. The characters don’t talk like people. In fact, most of the time, the characters barely talk. The protagonist talks and assumes what her crew is about to say from their posture or the look in their eyes, when they barely said a word or two before she interrupts them. This is extremely irritating and makes the protagonist look unstable, even unhinged sometimes. Prone to mood swings and quick to lash out… without any provocation. 

This impression comes from the fact that the author tells us everything, but is very bad at showing it. So the author tells us that the crew is being insubordinate and even disrespectful, but nothing in the scene actually “shows” us that. Half the time, when I read those scenes, I came away confused – exactly why did the protagonist lash out? Nothing in the dialogue provoked that response. I don’t really want to follow a character I don’t like and can’t understand.

All of these flaws just kept adding up and by the time I decided to say goodbye to the book, I was just not getting any enjoyment out of the experience.

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

The Final Empire (Mistborn 1) by Brandon Sanderson

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

If you can give one thing to Brandon Sanderson, it’s that he has a knack for creating unique and complex magical systems. Allomancy is a delight to read about and you can see that a lot of thought went into figuring out how this system would work and what its rules and limitations are. I love a well-thought out world where the author abides by the rules they created. It makes the world feel more real. Sure, it’s not our world, but something like that could exist somewhere.

I also like a good heist story, and what is bigger than organizing a heist to rob the supreme ruler of the Final Empire? I love the preparations and the unfolding of plans and contingencies when the original plans inevitably fail. I even liked the couple twist we had towards the end. 

So why did I give this book 3.5 stars then if I liked so many things? 

Well, a good world and plot are important for my enjoyment of a book, but I am also very character-driven. I need good characters to follow to fully enjoy a book. Unfortunately, Mr. Sanderson wasn’t very good at creating memorable characters, at least in his earlier books. No, actually, let me rephrase that, because it’s not entirely true. He wasn’t very good at creating memorable protagonists. 

Again, this is just a question of personal preference, but I really didn’t like Vin. She read a bit too much like a YA heroine for me: ball of insecurities that turns out to be a special snowflake, instalove, knows everything better than people who have years more experience than she does, etc. I mean some of the stuff she pulled with the nobility should have gotten her severely reprimanded by her crewmates at the very least. Instead they just shrug and give her a pat on the head. 

In fact, Vin’s arc was the most boring part of this book. I didn’t care about the balls, the gowns, and her budding love for the wonderful nobleman’s son. Especially since his characterization is rather weak. I honestly don’t think that putting a young boy with book knowledge and no experience in charge of reconstructing an entire empire is rather foolish.

The characters I liked were Kelsier and his gang of thieves with a heart of gold. They were “real”. They were interesting. There was criminally too little of them in the book. If we had cut out the balls and winy Vin and added more about Kelsier’s planning and plotting, it would have made a much better book, in my opinion. Then again, I don’t read YA, so any YA tropes make me burst in hives. 

As it stands though, this book made me interested in the world and eager to read the next installment to find out the answers to some of the questions that were left untold – what was the Deepness? Where do the mists come from? Why is the sun red instead of yellow now and why is ash falling from the sky? What really happened at the Well of Ascension one thousand years ago?

I want to learn about that, even if that means I will have to follow Vin once again. Let’s just hope the events at the end of this book made her more mature.

Ashes of the Sun (Burningblade and Silvereye 1) by Django Wexler

Stars: 4 out of 5

This is the third series I have picked up by this author and I can say with confidence that Django Wexler is a creator of worlds, which is good praise in my books. Each of his series has a very distinct feel, with an original world and engaging characters. 

I loved a glimpse of the world in this book, where humans live on the ruins of a war between two Elder races – the Chosen and the Ghouls, who had been intent on mutual annihilation. The Ghouls unleashed the Plague that wiped out the Chosen, but not before they bombed the ghoul underground cities into oblivion. That was 400 years ago. Humanity inherited a planet full of ruins, broken weapons, and magical artifacts. And also plaguespawn – an unfortunate side-effect of the Plague. These monsters have just one purpose – attack anything living and assimilated it, and they prefer humans. Unfortunately, they are also all over the place, so humanity lives in cities and walled villages, and travel is dangerous…

I also really liked both of our siblings – Maya and Gyre. Even though they are on the opposite ends of this conflict, it’s really hard to say who is right and who is wrong. They both believe in their own truths. They are both decent people deep inside. They are also very young, so they still see the world in black and white, even though they allowed a few shades of gray in the end which helped them find a compromise long enough to get out of a very bad situation they were in. 

I liked that they both felt “alive” to me. No, I didn’t agree with all of their actions, especially with what Gyre did in Deepfyre, but I understood their motivations. To me, that’s the most important part. I might not like the character or agree with them, but I need their actions to make sense with what I know about them. That’s exactly what I get every time I pick up a Django Wexler book. 

Of course, there are still a lot of questions left unanswered – who or what is that black spider that Maya keeps encountering. How did it get ahold of Jaedia? What is the Thing on Maya’s chest and why does the spider call her an experiment? What are the plaguespawn and are they really the by-product of the Plague? Are the Chosen really gone? And a lot more. 

So this book accomplishes what a first book in a series is supposed to do – introduces an interesting world with engaging characters and left us with enough questions to pick up the next book. Well done, Mr. Wexler, well done. I am definitely continuing with this series. 

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