Tag Archives: 5 stars

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance 2) by Naomi Novik

Stars: 5 out of 5

This is an excellent continuation of the Scholomance series. It picks up moments after the end of book one and its ominous warning and leaves El and her friends with a plethora of new problems. The most pressing of which is getting ready for graduation. They all know what is waiting for them down in the graduation hall and that not all of them will make it out alive. It’s time to form alliances and play your cards right. Because surviving graduation is only the first step. If you are lucky enough, you might also get a spot in an enclave after.

I loved El’s character growth in this book. Her slow realization that she had friends she can rely on. And her bigger realization that surviving graduation on her own isn’t enough anymore. She also wants to make sure her friends survive. And most of the other graduates as well, even if some of them are from enclaves, but she is finding out that they are good people after all, flawed, entitles, clueless as to how life is for non-enclavers, but not intrinsically bad. 

It was also interesting to see her progressively feel more and more responsible for the first years that she had to have classes with. To come to the realization that they would have to deal with graduation as well in four years, and that the cleaning measures they had repaired might break again before their graduation. And if that happened, they would have to face a room full of hungry mals and no El or Orion to protect them… El is finally learning how to care about people other than herself and it’s a wonderful thing to see. That’s character growth at its best. 

The stakes felt real in this book as well. Graduation is coming whether our characters want it or not, and they have to work together to survive it. I loved how this idea slowly dawned on everybody and how people finally started cooperating. And that when El came up with her insane plan, mostly everyone backed her up. Granted, the fact that the Scholomance itself was actively encouraging them to be useful was a good inciting factor as well.

Speaking of the Scholomance, loved the revelation that the school was, if not sentient, then at least aware. That all these years, it’s been trying to fulfill its purpose the best it could, even with failing security measures and cleaning spells in the graduation hall. Even if that meant mercilessly training the kids in its charge so that they stood at least a chance to survive graduation. Even if that meant paring the week and feeding them to the mals, so that the strong had a better chance at making it out alive. I mean what an impossible conundrum – it’s tasked to protect all the gifted children of the world… and is forced to make tough choices to protect at least some of them.

The ending was heartbreaking. I really hope that we haven’t seen the last of Orion. On a different note, I love that this didn’t evolve like the typical YA love story.  In fact, romantic interests are the least of our characters problems in this series so far. Sure, they pair up, do the typical teenage things, but it’s not the focus of the story, and I’m glad about it.

All in all, I’m loving this series so far. It’s a well-constructed world with complex characters that you can’t help but empathize with. 

A Deadly Education (The Scholomance 1) by Naomi Novik

Stars: 5 out of 5

This is not your ordinary magic academy book. In fact, I doubt Harry Potter would have survived past the first night in Scholomance, because he wouldn’t have been an enclave kid, but just a looser like El. 

In fact, the world of Scholomance is rather bleak and unforgiving. Being a wizard isn’t something to be excited about, unless you have the privilege to be born in an enclave. Eighty percent of wizard children born outside of enclaves don’t survive to puberty, yet alone adulthood. Why? Because they are considered tasty treats for the myriads of mals roaming the world, looking for a snack. And a kid who barely started manifesting his magic doesn’t have the skills to defend themselves from the mals. So the solution was to create the Scholomance – a magical school that would also serve as shelter for those children lucky enough to be chosen to attend. They would have four years to learn and hone their skills. All they had to do was survive the graduation. Sure, people died there as well, but the survival rates were a lot higher than risking it on your own in the outside world instead.

This paints a grim picture doesn’t it? It’s also a fascinating take on a secluded magical community leaving alongside normal human population, or “mundanes” as they call them. I also loved the explanation why it was so much harder to do magic when surrounded by normal people. The idea of belief influencing the potency of spells is rather unique. 

Oh, and our protagonist is no Harry Potter either. Well, scratch that. She kind of is, I guess? In the sense that she is a chosen one and has a whole prophecy about her. Granted the prophecy goes along the lines of doom and gloom and bringing death to all enclaves. No wonder she is bitter and distrustful. No wonder she is a loner who assumes the worst of people. It also doesn’t help that most of the spells she gets from the school are spells of mass destruction or subjugation, as befitted a Dark Overlord… which she desperately doesn’t want to be. Add all that, and El is a bundle of bitterness with a soft mushy core under all that armor. She is a delight to follow in her slow progression from a loner to someone who finds a purpose and even real friends.

The concept of mana vs malia is also rather unique. I don’t often encounter this conundrum in other books about magic, but if you think about it, it makes sense – you can’t create something out of nothing. So any spell you cast has to be fueled by something. Mana is the fuel you build on your own. Malia is something you syphon out of the world around you – animals, plants… other people. It’s easy to get and you can have an almost unlimited pool of it… if you decide to be evil. Of course, prolonged use of malia corrupts your soul and body, and you risk having your insides rot in the long run, but it gives you a lot of power before that happens.

I found the whole concept of Scholomance fascinating. A school with no adult supervision, no teachers, no vacations. You get in via portal and you get out four years later, if you survive the mals in the school and the Graduation. Between then – the school teaches you by providing books and classes that it thinks you might need. And don’t even think about not completing homework on falling behind on your classes. First, you won’t be allowed in the dinning hall… then accidents will start happen. In other words – you learn or you die. I’d say that staying alive is the best motivation a student could need.

I am glad I was recommended this book. Even though it’s classified as YA, and yes, it has some typical YA elements, it lacks those that I despise the most: inta-love, love triangles, and protagonists too entitled or too stupid to live. This book is smart, intriguing and you can’t help but root for the characters even if El tends to get stuck on her grievances a lot and seems to run in circles before making a decision. But she is what, 16 in this book? So I would give her some slack.

All in all, I am really looking forward to diving in deeper into this world in the next book. And I will certainly check out other books by this author.

Into the Broken Lands by Tanya Huff

Stars: 5 out of 5

I absolutely loved this story! The setting is unique and the characters are memorable. Exactly what I need in a fantasy book. 

This story is in fact two stories told parallel to each other. One is about the journey of a young heir to a powerful city, charged with bringing magical fuel out of the Broken Lands to keep the flame going that protects his city. The other one is of his uncle who undertook the same journey over 50 years ago. The common denominator for both stories is Nonnie – the last living weapon created by the mages before they annihilated each other and created the Broken Lands.

It is interesting to follow two similar journeys of two different parties of characters. Their mission is the same. Their destination is the same. They are going into the same lands… but their stories are as different as the Broken Lands themselves.

The Broken Lands, what an intriguing concept! Image a land created by magic, and then scarred by the same magic during a horrible war. There are fixed points in the landscape – places that stay the same, no matter what happens. Everything else is… malleable, mutable, and definitely hostile to outsiders. See, the road between two fixed points can take a day during the first journey and meander for four during the next one. It can cross a lush forest one time and become a murderous swamp other. Landscape, weather, and even time are not set in stone. 

This makes both journeys fascinating. Just because Ryan and his crew have the accounts of his uncle’s journey, their own adventure takes a different turn. They never cross the same landscape, apart from those fixed points. And I think that is the point of this book, no pun intended: each team gets their own share of trials, tailored specifically to them, like that dark tunnel in the cave that was the second fixed point. The Broken Lands force them to confront their own fears and insecurities an emerge on the other end changed. Some for the better, some for the worse, but always as a consequence of their own choices.

That’s another thing I loved about this book. There isn’t a big bad to fight against here. Yes, the mages who created the Broken Lands were horrible beings (I wouldn’t even call them human by now), but they are dead. The horrors they left behind stay in the Broken Lands. There isn’t immediate danger to the lands around them (apart from some incursions). Our protagonists choose to cross the boundary and travel these lands, so all the horrors they encounter are the consequence of their own choices. You could say that what they find in the Broken Lands is a confrontation with themselves. It’s a crucible, in which they either crumble or are mended into a better version of themselves.

And all the characters are memorable, even those you begin to hate by the end of the book. Which is no small feat, considering that we have two distinct groups of around eight people each (even though not all of them make it back out of the Broken Lands). They all felt distinct and “alive”, and I mourned those who were left in the Broken Lands along with their surviving companions, because they weren’t just numbers, they were people.

Nonnie is the glue that holds his story together. It’s amazing to see how much she’d grown between the story journeys – from a weapon that barely spoke and didn’t even consider herself as a person, who could have feelings and desires, and who was forced to undertake the trip into the Broken Lands, to someone fully accepted into a community, valued and respected, who chose to accompany this new group because of a promise she’d made to a friend. And she knows that the Broken Lands test people both physically and mentally, so she lets her companions make sometimes stupid choice because she knows they need to go through those trials. Like she lets Ryan find out for himself what his precious fuel really is, and make his own decision about what he wants to do with that knowledge. Just like she let his uncle fifty years ago.

I will definitely check out other books by Tanya Huff because I was impressed with her imagination and storytelling. 

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

The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

 Stars: 5 out of 5

This was a surprise winner for me. I picked it up on whim and because the cover was so cool. I didn’t expect much of the story apart from space horror. I got that alright, but I also got surprisingly a lot of heart.

Imagine for a moment that you are on board of a generation ship that is running out of resources and no matter how many times you do the math, it all points to the same thing: we won’t reach Earth before our air and food runs out. Add to that that the ship is traveling through a literal minefield deployed by two unknown alien species at war with each other. The humans are just collateral damage in this battle, but it hurts the ship and their chances of survival all the same, because we don’t have the technology to detect and avoid the mines. Then add to that the fact that they unknowingly picked up a hitchhiker or two when they left the colony. And those hitchhikers are fond of human flesh. Yes, the sum total is one terrifying ride.

What I didn’t expect, is that this short novel, more a novella, would be populated by fleshed out characters I would sympathize and root for.  Jacklyn “Jack” Albright is an amazing character. She feels real. She has her flaws and insecurities and moments of pettiness or self-doubt, but she is also courageous and willing to do the right thing even if doing so means facing off with a terrifying monster that tears people apart like they were paper cutouts. She is trying her best to keep her crew together and prevent her ship from falling apart after each space mine, or “engagement” they encounter. She is overwhelmed and terrified, but she still tries everything she can to face the new treat when it arises. That’s what a true captain is, unlike her father who chose to abandon them in this trying time. 

As I had mentioned, the book is very short, and I devoured it in a lazy afternoon reading session. And I ended up loving the story and all the characters and wanting to know more. Like why had the colonists decided to attempt a doomed voyage back to Earth? What had gone wrong in the new colony? Especially since the existence of the native species was just speculation, from what I could understand. Who are those spacefaring aliens waging war across the stars? They seem to have technology eons above what humanity can master.  I really hope that the author will revisit this universe in her future books. 

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

City of Stone and Silence (The Wells of Sorcery 2) by Django Wexler

 Stars 5 out of 5.

If anything, book 2 is even better than book 1. Since the backstory and worldbuilding had already been established in book 1, we can jump right into the story here. And what story it is! We thought that just reaching the garden and surviving the Rot had been a challenge. Well it’s nothing compared to what awaits our friends from Soliton when it reaches its destination.

I love the fact that Isoka underwent tremendous character growth in the last book, and it continues here. She went from being this ruthless, unfeeling person who was only out for herself and and her sister to becoming a reluctant leader who actually cares about the people she ended up in charge of.  This change makes her a lot more relatable and, while I’m sure she had that compassion hidden deep down inside her anyway, it is slowly coming out thanks to Meroe. Meroe loves Isoka, but she also constantly challenges her and makes her take a long and harsh look at her actions. And she leads by example. My only complaint about this book is that we don’t get quite enough Meroe awesomeness. 

We also get to really meet Isoka’s sister Tori in this book. In book one, we only got a glimpse of her through Isoka’s eyes, and she seemed exactly what Isoka wanted her to be: a beautiful and innocent upper-class girl far detached from all the filth and violence of the streets. In this book, we get to live in her head as well. And we find out that she is far from innocent and definitely far from detached. The innocence is a façade that she is putting up for her sister and the retainers she’d hired, but underneath is a thoughtful and determined young lady. There is no malice in that act, mind you. Tori knows that seeing her happy and pure off the filth Isoka has to wade through every day makes her sister happy. So she gives her that happiness. Because she remembers the cold and the hunger and the brutality of the streets, and she remembers everything her big sister had to sacrifice to keep her safe.  And she loves her for it. 

I admit that Tori was the biggest surprise in this book for me. From the glimpse we had of her in book 1, she’d appeared very shallow and young. But we get to follow a young woman with a heart of gold and spine of steel in this book. I can truly say that both sisters are exceptional. I can’t wait to see them reunited at last and delivering their own brand of justice to those who wronged them.

And I can’t wait to jump into the last book in the trilogy. This is a must read. If you like a thoughtfully created world and wonderfully flawed characters, pick up this series.

Terminal Peace (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse 3) by Jim C Hines

Stars: 5 out of 5

This was an excellent ending to what turned out to be a very good series. I will definitely check out other books by this author, because as far as introductions go, the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse knocked it out of the park.

This book effectively resolves the main issue of the first two books – the seemingly unresolvable Prodryan treat. How do you prevail over a species who considers all other species as inferior and the whole universe as their own playground, ripe for the taking? Where conquest is woven into the very DNA of a Prodryan? The only way to beat that is genocide, at least according to the Krakau Alliance. And we found out exactly to what lengths the Krakau are willing to go to accomplish that in the previous two books. But Marion “Mops” Adamapoulos and her crew might just have another solution…

I loved how unpredictable these books are. Every time I think I know the course which the story will take, the author manages to surprise me with a completely different resolution. I admit that I still have doubts about the feasibility of the solution proposed at the end of this book, but I admit that it’s beautifully accomplished. What solution? you might ask. Well, read the book to find out.

Mops also had a big obstacle to overcome in this book. One that is very personal and very terminal. It was both uplifting and bittersweet to embark on this journey with her and to see her slowly come to grips with her own condition and her place in the big picture. Mops grew a lot as a leader and a human being throughout the series. 

So did all the other characters as well. I was particularly impressed with how far Kumar came from the obsessive-compulsive cleaner he’d been in book 1. The great part is that he is still obsessive-compulsive, but he had matured as a person and discovered some inner depths that I frankly didn’t know he had. That’s the great thing about this series – the characters evolve and mature, but they fundamentally stay themselves. The growth is believable. They still act in character and the decisions they make are believable based on what we know of them. 

I admit that up until almost the end was wasn’t sure what kind of solution our crew would find to the Protryan problem short of full-on genocide or chemically altering an entire species which would also be a different kind of genocide. As I had mentioned earlier, the solution is quite beautifully done, even if I have doubts it would last long-term. I would be interested to see how it works out, if the author decides to revisit this world again in his later works. 

There are a number of characters I would like to follow up on, including Mops and all the Librarians on Earth. We end this book on a hopeful note, with a real cure for feral humanity. This is huge. How would that work out? A whole civilization to rebuild and hordes of feral humans to cure and re-educate. That’s a big task. Also, how will this new alliance work? How would the Prodryans interact with other species when they aren’t trying to conquer them?

All in all, this was a very good story – fast paced and full of twists and turns and engaging characters. And the Jynx are furry little balls of awesome.

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

The Thousand Eyes (The Serpent Gates 2) by A. K. Larkwood

 Stars: 5 out of 5

I had absolutely loved the fist book (and you can read my review here), so I had picked up this book with a certain amount of trepidation. Too often the second book in a series is much weaker than the fist one, serving just as sort of filler before the grand showdown in book 3. I am happy to report that that is not the case here. The second book is just as good as the first one. I am also happy that the author decided to turn this into a duology. We get to finish the journey with all our characters and wrap up all of their paths in more or less neat fashion. 

I will try to avoid spoilers, but let me just say that this book went in to a direction I wasn’t expecting at all, but that’s what made it such a fun and engaging read as well. I really didn’t know where the author would be taking the characters next, but I was so invested in their fates that I was happily along for the ride. Just be warned that the book turns rather dark at some points and things happen to both our characters and the people around them that would be considered nightmarish. 

This book raises several important questions. What is the definition of self? Is self-consciousness set in stone or can it evolve over time and circumstances? What happens when two different entities merge as one? Does one effectively dominate and destroy the other? Do they share the body and take turns? Or do they blend into something new, a combination of both entities? And what makes us human? Can divinities experience love and compassion? Can they change? 

It also asks the important question of how far would you go to save the person you care about. Does the desire to protect the one you love excuse the horrible things you have to do to keep them safe or to just remain by their side? Also, is the lack of compassion and a complete self-absorption the fault of a divine presence, or was it already part of the human soul that merged with it? So many important questions and so many different fates interwoven into this tory. I loved that each characters chose their own, often rather unique answer to them. Because everyone’s story is different. Just like in life. 

It’s an interesting story to navigate along with Czorwe, Tal, and Shutmili, because they are all seeking answers to those questions in their own deeply personal ways. I am also glad that everyone gets a (sort of) happy ending despite all the hardships fate puts them through along the way. Especially Tal, because the poor boy has suffered enough. 

All in all, it was a wonderful world that I enjoyed discovering alongside all characters. I wouldn’t mind revisiting it someday just to discover more strange worlds in the broken maze, even if the stories are told by a different set of characters. I will definitely be following this author closely and check out their new books.

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

Terminal Uprising (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse 2) by Jim C Hines

Stars: 5 out of 5.

The second book in the series didn’t disappoint either. It continues the story started in book 1 and amps up the stakes! 

The story picks up a couple months after the events of the last book where Mops and the crew of Pufferfish almost single-handedly saved the Krakau homeworld. Did they get thanked for that? Of course not. They are on the run, declared criminals in the Alliance. Their ship is falling apart and their future seems bleak. They really have no choice but to accept the highly illegal mission Admiral Pachelbel gives them in exchange for funds to keep the spaceship flight-worthy. Even if this mission brings them back to a place none of them wants to come back to – Earth.

We finally get to go back to Earth and the ruins of human civilization. And it’s made even more painful by the fact that we now know that humanity hadn’t destroyed itself, that the Krakau were directly responsible for destroying a whole civilization, then keeping it quiet for over 200 years.

It’s very interesting to see our ragtag band of characters confront this place of their biggest fears, but also grow and mature both as individuals and also as a group of people who had been thrown together by circumstances, but end up becoming a surrogate family. They count on each other, they understand each other’s flaws and strengths and they protect each other. That is wonderful to see in a book.

And of course, all the ingenious and non-standard ways they come up with to resolve some pretty dire situations is a delight to read about. Not to mention the dry and often dark humor that permeates this book and helps the reader and the characters survive some pretty horrible things.

I also loved the Librarians! It was a very nice touch to discover that not all humans turned feral. That a very small percentage of the population was immune to the Krakau venom. And that those survivors banded together not only to keep each other safe, but also to try and preserve all the knowledge of the human civilization for future human or whomever discovers Earth in the following centuries. It was also wonderful to see that the Librarians even had a program for helping feral humans.

It was wonderful to see those “non-altered” humans interact with our “cured” humans, because until that comparison, I didn’t fully realize just how different they were physiologically. Yes, if you look at it from the real humans’ perspective, the feral humans are basically zombies – lower body temperature, black blood that coagulates almost as soon as it touches the air, unable to feel pain, so they keep going even when the body is broken, and guided only by they most primal instincts. And restored humans keep all the physical attributes, but regain their intelligence on top of it. No wonder the rest of the galaxy fears those unkillable savages!

The story itself is also well-done in this book. This is the case where we can ask ourselves how far is too far when trying to save the world. Does the need of the many really outweigh the need of the few? Where is that thin line that separates us from the monster we are fighting against? I won’t spoil it any more than this. Just go read the book!

Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse 1) by Jim C Hines

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I think I discovered my new favorite space opera series! This book is funny, witty, and very-well constructed. We get alien races, world-shattering conspiracies, a galaxy on the brink of an all out war… and a group of janitors stuck in the midst of it all.

I really loved the fact that our would-be heroes are not highly trained infantry soldiers (well, apart from Monroe, who was infantry, but got injured so badly, half his body is is artificial). They are just a team of janitors on a spaceship that happen to be the only group still standing and in their right mind when a biological weapon is deployed against the entire crew. And even that is mostly due to chance. 

It’s interesting to see this group of people finding most unusual solutions to their problems and utilizing the full extent of their cleaning knowledge to effectively neutralize their reverted comrades without killing them, and to keep the giant ship afloat the best they can… not to mention, unearth a conspiracy, thwart a genocide and save an entire planet. I’d say that makes them pretty amazing, actually, especially for a species of aggressive monkeys that the rest of the aliens consider barely sentient.

Let’s mention that little twist, shall we? This story is set after humanity pretty much destroyed itself by turning all known humans into ferals. I would say it’s an equivalent of zombies, only the infected are not dead and do not decay. They are stronger, faster, don’t feel pain, can survive anything short of a decapitation… and are devoid of intelligence. They are basically driven by one instinct – hunt for food. And food can be anything – other humans, animals, aliens, trees, rocks, you name it. 

Once another alien species, the Krakau, figures out how to cure those feral humans, they realize that they have a loyal and virtually unstoppable army at the tip of their tentacles. No wonder the mere mention of humans instills fear in the hearts of other alien species. Only not everything is as it seems and humanity saviors might not be as innocent as they are portrayed to be. For more information on that matter, read the book.

I loved all the characters I encountered in this book, especially Mops and her crew. They have their own quirks, but they are all very relatable and likeable. and Puffy, don’t get me started on Puffy!

This is definitely a series worth reading for the story, the (somewhat dark) humor, the wonderful characters. I am definitely picking up book 2.

Defiant (Towers Trilogy 2) by Karina Sumner-Smith

Stars: 5 out of 5

I remember absolutely loving Radiant, the first book in the series, so I came to this one with a certain amount of trepidation. Often the middle books in a trilogy are the weakest, because they only serve as a bridge between the beginning and the inevitable resolution in book 3. I’m glad to see that this was not the case with the Towers trilogy. The second book expands on the story of the first one and does an excellent job of showing us different facets of this world.

And what world it is! I think this is one of the most unique post-apocalyptical settings I’ve seen in books or movies. A world where the person’s inner magic is the currency by which they are judged. The more magically powerful you are, the better your life will be. The most magically-adept people live in the comfort of the floating Towers, the least magical people are forced to scrape by in the ruined Lower City sprawling under their shadow. And there are different strata within the Lower City as well. It’s a complex and fascinating system. There is even a version of zombies there, and I loved that their existence is given an explanation that makes sense. 

I love it when the world abides by the rules defined by the author, or there is a good explanation when those rules are broken. This is always a sign that the author put a lot of thought into the creation of their world and story, and I respect that. I also love slowly discovering those rules and learning more about the world the characters live in. This book gave me that in spades.

And I think both Xhea and Shai are excellent characters. I love their interactions and their friendship. It’s rare to find a YA book that focuses on a healthy female friendship instead of a romance. We need more of those. That friendship and attachment shines through the entire book even though Shai and Xhea spend most of it apart. This forced separation was used to advance the story. It made both Xhea and Shai confront their fears and insecurities and decide what they stand for. They both discovered that there are lines they are not willing to cross and that there are people they care about. 

We also learned a lot more about the origin of the Towers and Xhea’s black magic. And also about why things are so dire in Lower City despite the efforts of its citizens to make improvements. 

I am very interested to see the conclusion of this story in book 3. So far, this is one of my favorite series.