Tag Archives: 4 stars

Welcome to Outcast Station by Jeanne Adams and Nancy Northcott.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

This book is composed of two distinct novellas which tell two distinct stories. The only thing that connects them is the location – Paradise Station, better known as Outcast Station, a backwater space station orbiting a backwater planet.

The Accidental Plague by Jeanne Adams tells the story of Bvax Scientist Ravinisha Trentham, who has lived all her life as an outcast simply because of the planet she was born on. Her compatriots once conspired to overthrow the global governmental system and the rest of the planets haven’t forgotten about it, even 60-some years later. It doesn’t matter that Ravi doesn’t embrace the same beliefs, she looks like one of the outcasts, so she is treated like one.

Even though she finished her apprenticeship as a Bvax Scientist with flying colors; even though she was the best in her class; the dispatch to Outcast Station is the best she could hope for. But, as Jeanne Adams slowly shows us in her story, even outcasts can build a place they can call home. Ravi’s story is one of hope. She begins by being sneered at and belittled, but proves her worth, helps the station and finally becomes a respected member of the small community.

The protagonist of The New Badge by Nancy Northcott is the complete opposite of Ravi. Hank Tremaine was a successful marshal on one of the inner planets… until he crossed the wrong person and landed at Outcast Station as punishment. While for Ravi this assignment is a chance to prove her worth, Hank considers it more like a prison sentence – unpleasant, but if he keeps a low profile, he might be paroled sooner rather than later.

Hank is fully resolved to do his job and keep his head down and stay out of trouble. Unfortunately for him, trouble finds him as soon as he lands on the planet. Now Hank is faced with a moral dilemma: agree with his superior officers and do a half-hearted investigation, or dig more and incur their wrath, thus  annihilating his chances of getting transferred out of this back-end of the known space early.

While the two novellas have no common characters, they cover very similar themes: The courage it takes to stay true to your convictions despite the circumstances, even if abandoning them would make your life easier. The realization that there are bad people, but also good people even on a backwater station like Paradise, and that friends and allies can be found in the most unlikely places. And finally that home is what you make of it.

I liked the world of Outcast Station and the characters that inhabit it. I especially liked the concept of The Accidental Plague that with humanity spreading throughout the galaxy and interacting with other species, there is a need for a strict disease control and prevention protocol. After all, a space station is a very fragile ecosystem where viruses and pathogens would spread like fire. Without strict control and rapid response protocols put in place by Bvax scientists, a thriving station could transform into a tin can full of dead bodies in a matter of weeks.

So why did I give this book four stars instead of five? Because there are several plot lines in both stories that are started, but never resolved. Like the whole conversation between the station master and an unnamed individual about some shady deals going on (smuggling maybe?), and a couple others.

Now I haven’t read any other books by these authors, so I don’t know if those two novellas are part of a bigger series where all those questions are answered. To me, this is a standalone volume, so I would have appreciated to have all the loose ends tied when I turned the last page of the book.

This little complaint aside, I enjoyed both stories and wouldn’t mind revisiting Outcast Station again if the authors decide to write more.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wrong Side of Hell (The DeathSpeaker Codex 1) by Sonya Bateman.

Stars: 4 out of 5

 

What a fun fast read it’s been!

Gideon Black is a body mover, which means he is the person who chauffeurs the dead from hospitals to funerary homes, or from crime scenes to the morgue. He works nights, lives out of his van, and prefers the company of dead people to the company of the living. At least, the dead don’t talk back… until one night the corpse of the cop he killed does exactly that. And after that things go from bad to worse for Gideon.

I liked how fast-paced and easy to read this book is. The action starts on page one and doesn’t let go until the very end. Gideon is thrown head first into this new dangerous reality where fae and werewolves and boogeymen are real and are hunted down like vermin by a powerful organization called Milus Dei. Moreover, he discovers that he isn’t who he thought he was and that his family (who are awful people by the way) isn’t his real family. Oh, and Milus Dei wants him at all costs because he is the DeathSpeaker.

A lot to process in such a short time you would say? You would be right. And it’s even harder to come to terms with this when your life suddenly becomes one nightmarish race for survival.

I must say that I like Gideon a lot as the protagonist. He has a sense of humor, even if it’s gallows humor most of the time, and he doesn’t sit and mope around when life throws him a curve ball. I like how he simply refuses to give up, no matter how many times he is beaten down. He just gets up, dusts himself off and keeps going, or crawls forward if he can’t walk anymore. I also love that his resilience is explained by his backstory and well-woven into the plot. He comes from a family where weakness wasn’t tolerated. He’d lived through terrible abuse and had learned to grit his teeth and ignore the pain, and grin at the face of the enemy through bloodied lips and broken teeth. So even though his upbringing was horrible, he wouldn’t have survived this story if it had been any different. I love it when a tragic backstory isn’t just thrown into the book for character angst but is a driving force shaping his actions.

As I had mentioned before, it was a fast read… a bit too fast for my taste actually. This is the first book in a new series, and as such, it has to establish the world and the characters and make us want to follow along. In my opinion, the book did well on the last two, but not so much on the first one. We get almost no worldbuilding at all. All we learn is that there are the Others, who include fae, werewolves, boogeymen (excuse me, boogeypersons, let’s be politically correct here) and some other unidentified supernaturals, and there is the Milus Dei – a human organization dedicated solely to the destruction of the Others… And that’s it.

How did the Others end up in our world? How did the Milus Dei come to be? Why do they hate each other so much? Why does Abe trust Gideon so much that he is willing to cover up for him even when his direct superior gives him the order to arrest him?  Who are the boogeypeople? We’ve only seen one so far and he seems more powerful than even a fae noble. Are there more? How didn’t they take over the world yet if they possess such power? Not to mention that we get almost no backstory on any of the characters apart from Gideon and Taeral and maybe Sadie. It raises so many questions and gives no answers at all.

So while this book is a fast and fun read, it leaves you with the impression that you just ran in a dead sprint through a glass tunnel that allowed you very small and unsatisfying glimpses into what seems like a rather interesting world. I wanted to slow down and have a better look, but the story wouldn’t let me.

But all in all, I admit that the book accomplished its purpose – I want to read the next one in the series. I just hope that we would slow down a bit and get a chance to learn more about this world and the characters.

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

Of Scions and Men by Courtney Sloan.


Stars: 4 out of 5.

Of Scions and Men is the first book in a new urban fantasy series and as such, it does a good job in introducing the readers to the world and the characters who inhabit it.

And that’s no small feat, I can tell you. First books in a series have the thankless job of showing the reader a brand new world and making sure that they love the protagonist enough to stick not only until the end of one book, but to keep reading the series, AND they need to do that while avoiding info dumps and expositions and still telling an interesting story. So I’m always happy when a start a new series and am hooked from the get go.

So what is this world that Rowan inhabits? This is a world where the war against terror escalated into a full blown all out Third World War and threatened to wipe the human race off the face of the Earth. Supernatural beings like vampires and shifters, who had until then been content to stay in the shadows and make normal people believe they didn’t exist, decided to intervene and put a stop to the massacre, because, in the case of vampires, they were reluctant to lose their food source. By the time vampires took control of the world and bought order and peace again (in a rather ruthless and bloody fashion, I must admit), most of the planet was a smoldering radioactive mess. And humans aren’t in charge of anything, not even their own lives anymore.

Rowan Brady sold her life, her career and her blood when she chose to become a vampire’s Scion, but it was the only way she could ensure that her brother would have a roof over his head and enough food to eat every day. And even though the loss of freedom and the obligation to give a pint of blood a week to her master is a bitter pill to swallow, in exchange Rowan got a job she loves with the police, making sure that supernaturals don’t engage in illegal blood trade.

I like Rowan and her relationship with Devon. I like how she tries to make the best out of a bad situation and preserve every sliver of independence she can while basically having Devon in her head and thoughts 24 / 7. I like that she always relies on herself and doesn’t flash her scion get out of jail card left and right. I like that she is a truly though and capable protagonist.

I like the fact that Devon isn’t your typical domineering selfish and rather violent male lead we usually get in those kind of books. If fact, as vampire masters go, he is a good one to be scioned to.

I do have a few gripes with this book though, hence the 4 out of 5 stars.

The first one is with Lyle. Lyle is gay and flamboyantly so, since even his true form is a blue jay. He could have been such an interesting character if he’d been fleshed out instead of being a walking assembly of clichés. As he stands now, he is more of a plot point and trusty sidekick to Rowan, always there to help her out and listen to her problems. That’s annoying. I want to know what makes him tick. I want to know his backstory. I want to know what pushed him to display his orientation so blatantly in a world where being gay is greatly frowned upon. Why did he choose to come out of the closet and become an outcast? Hopefully, we will discover more about Lyle in the next books because that’s one character I could really fall in love with.

My second gripe is with Rowan’s constant resentment towards Devon and the fact that she became a scion. I would understand that if she’d been forced to do that against her will, but she CHOSE to become a scion. Yes, it was for her brother’s sake, but still, nobody bent her arm or held her at gunpoint when she agreed to this. And it makes even less sense that she would rail against Devon instead of her little brother whom she is making all those sacrifices for. Also, this reaction is rather out of character for her, at least in my opinion. Rowan is a person used to making tough decisions and owning to the consequences, so rehashing this resentment over and over again gets old really fast.

But all in all, this is a solid first instalment of a new series and I will certainly look forward to the next book. And I would recommend it to lovers of urban fantasy.

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