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.

A Night Without Stars (Commonwealth: Chronicle of the Fallers 2) by Peter F Hamilton.

Stars: 4 out of 5

 

A Night Without Stars is the second book in the Chronicle of the Fallers, but there are plenty of other books in the Commonwealth series, and I recommend them all.

 

At the end of The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which I reviewed here, Nigel detonated the quantumbuster in a desperate attempt to free Bienvenido from the Void. It worked… sort of. The Void spit Bienvenido back into the normal space, but beyond the fringe of the galaxy and millions of light years away from the Commonwealth with no means of sending a distress signal. Oh, and the Faller trees were spit out with them as well. Only now the tree ring is broken, so the Faller eggs fall all over the planet, not just in a ring.

 

A Night Without Stars begins roughly 300 years after that event, and it’s sad to say that Bienvenido’s society is just as totalitarian as ever. Slvasta’s paranoia took deep roots and poisoned the government system even years after his death. Humans with commonwealth genes allowing them to communicate with each other, derogatorily called Eliters, are persecuted. Any attempt to raise the technology level past the equivalent of Earth’s 1960s is foiled without mercy. And the news local media cover have little to do with actual facts and everything to do with propaganda.

 

According to this propaganda, the Faller treat is almost destroyed, since the government launches space missions to destroy Faller Trees every few months or so, and every single mission is successful. The few Faller eggs that reach the surface are dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly. Bienvenido will be free from the Fallers for good within the next hundred years or so.

 

The reality is that the equipment necessary for the space missions is outdated and held together with bootstraps and prayers. Even though most of the missions succeed at nuking the trees assigned to them, eggs fall all over Bienvenido from the remaining trees. The government has to means of tracking where they fall and what happens to them afterwards, because humans have abandoned all but one continent and a few small islands closest to it. The rest of the planet is free for Faller’s taking.

 

The higher ranking government workers know the truth – Bienvenido is lost. The Faller Apocalypse is not a myth spread by Eliters, but a reality. Time for humans on the planet is running out. Then, after another tree is destroyed over Bienvenido, the nuclear blast frees an old Commonwealth escape pod that lands on the planet bringing what might be Bienvenido’s only hope to survive the coming destruction.

 

The Commonwealth series remind me of the Culture Series by Iain M Banks, and I have an undying love for those. But even without that association, these books are a treat to read in their own right. I love that some of the characters I grew to know and love in book 1, like Kyssandra and Laura Brandt, are still around in this book, but even without them, the new characters are just as interesting to follow around. Nobody is entirely black or white. Everyone has their own flaws and weaknesses, but that makes them more engaging.

 

A Night Without Stars is darker and feels more hopeless than its predecessor, which is to be expected since the future of Bienvenido is rather bleak. The book is about 500 pages long, but it’s packed with action and suspense, so it doesn’t feel long. In fact, I kept turning the pages and I couldn’t put it down as the stakes grew higher and higher and I kept wondering if it was even possible to resolve this conflict with at least some of my favorite characters left standing at the end…

 

And this is where I had to dock one star on what would otherwise have been a perfect 5 star rating. The ending is… underwhelming. I won’t describe it because that would be a huge spoiler, but all the conflict and tension and the life or death stakes are resolved too neatly and too easily, in my opinion, without the characters having really earned that resolution.

 

But apart from that ending, this was an excellent book that I would recommend to my friends. And while I wait for the next book in the series, I think I will go back and start at the beginning with Pandora’s Star.

 

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

Confluence (Linesman 3) by S. K. Dunstall.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I have a particular fondness for this series even since I discovered Linesman, the first book in the series, which I have reviewed, as well as the second book. So I picked up Confluence with a certain amount of trepidation. Would it be as good as the previous books? Let me reassure you right now – it is.

The New Alliance might be in possession of the only alien fleet known to mankind and the only linesman who can communicate with that fleet, but that doesn’t mean they will automatically win a war.  There are outside powers that would stop at nothing to destroy it before the alien fleet is fully operational.

Trouble is brewing within the Alliance itself where many disparate worlds, some of which had been bitter enemies before, battle for dominance. Many of those worlds aren’t happy with the fact that Lancia has Ean Lambert’s contract, which means unlimited access to the alien ships. And while the Crown Princess of Lancia is more than happy to share the technological advances with her new allies, her father the Emperor seems to have a different opinion about what would make Lancia a power to be reckoned with.

So Princess Michelle has to play a dangerous political game to protect those she holds dear. A game that sends Radko on a secret mission right into the heart of the enemy territory.

And all Ean has problems of his own. The alien ships are a lot more self-aware than normal human ships and they are getting impatient. If Ean won’t provide them with a crew, they will start choosing their own crew. In fact, some of them have already started…

What I love about this series is that with each book we learn a little more about the lines and what they are capable of. Just because Ean can talk to line eleven on the alien ships doesn’t mean that he will automatically get all the answers. Lines don’t think like humans, so the most difficult part of his job is to translate what he wants the lines to do into concepts they can understand.

What did we learn about the lines and the ships in this book? That for the lines, ship doesn’t necessarily mean the captain, even though most of the time it is. But sometimes, it can be an unremarkable mechanic that had been working on that particular ship for years, or even a guard who’s been overseeing reconstruction works. We have also learned that ships become more aware the longer they had been crewed, especially if there are no inner conflict within the crew.

Apart from discovering new tidbits about the lines, this book also gives us some important and rather satisfying developments for our main characters and their relationships. I won’t get into details because that would be some big spoilers. Go read for yourselves.

I would just mention that with most of the inner conflicts and tensions out of the way by the end of Confluence, our characters can finally focus on the bigger issue that has been looming on the horizon since they discovered the Confluence fleet. Those powerful alien ships had been in a fight, and a vicious one from the damage they all sustained. A fight they were losing, since the whole fleet jumped into the Void and tried to flee the battle. So what were those aliens fighting against? And how long before their enemies decide to pursue them and discover the human planets, divided, almost defenseless and ripe for the taking?

I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to exploring this possibility and hope that the author will take us there in the next books.

PS. I received and 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.

Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

The end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to come with a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion or a natural disaster that wipes the majority of the population. In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, it starts with a high fever that has a 98% fatality rate in men, 99% in women, and 100% in newborn babies. And while researchers identify the virus causing this, nobody manages to find a cure before the loss of human life is so significant that all governmental structures simply crumble.

 

The survivors are faced with a bleak future for the human race – with every baby born stillborn or dying shortly after birth, most often killing the mother as well, they might well be the last generation on Earth. People react differently to this news, but one thing is certain – it’s not fun or save to be a woman in this brave new world. There are bands of desperate men roaming around the ruins of our civilization for whom a woman is nothing more than a rare commodity and a slave, to be used and sold for other commodities. And a pregnancy might as well be a death sentence.

 

Our protagonist used to work in the OBGYN department in a San Francisco Hospital, but being a midwife is a dying profession as things stand. She survived the fever, but woke up to a world where meeting another human being was often more dangerous than meeting a pack of wolves.

 

This books is written as a mix between a series of diary entries and normal third person exposition. Most of the entries are by our unnamed midwife, though we also get stories from other people she meets along the way. That was a nice touch, because it gives the reader different perspectives into what is happening. Not everyone reacts the same to the seeming end of the world, which is normal, and I appreciated that the readers got to witness this story through several lenses.

 

But the main narrator is, of course, our unnamed midwife, though she isn’t unnamed per se. It’s just that she uses different names during the story, depending on the circumstances. I think by the end of the book, even she doesn’t remember what her real name was…

 

But constant name changes notwithstanding, I really liked her. She is a fighter. She is not one to roll over and give up, just because the situation seems dire and the future even bleaker. She adapts, she changes what she can in herself when she can’t change the external factors, and she presses on.

 

If it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman, she will dress like a man. But unlike a lot of other female protagonists we see, she doesn’t merely cut her hair and dress in bulky clothes, she tries to act, behave and think like a man. She exercises to bulk up. She practices with guns and other weapons until shooting is almost an automatic response.

 

I like just how tough and resourceful she is. How self-reliant. But that doesn’t mean that she is okay with living by herself the rest of her life. One of the problems this book tackles is the slow insanity that grips you when you spend too much time cut out from the rest of the world. Humans are social animals. We need to be able to interact with other humans on a regular basis, even a little, even just to hear somebody else’s voice answering you from time to time. And I understand why our unnamed midwife choses to join a community in the end, no matter how distrustful she’d become of other humans.

 

My review might have made it sound like this book is rather bleak and depressing. It kinda is, since it is a post-apocalyptic novel, after all. However, the overall message is one of hope. Life will find a way, no matter how bleak the circumstances…

 

So all in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the post-ap genre and would like to read something more realistic than the usual zombie fare.

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.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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