Tag Archives: ARCs

Graveyard Shift by Michael F Haspil.

Stars: 5 out of 5

Alex and Marcus are detectives at the Nocturne Squad in modern day Miami.  Except in this Miami, vampires live in the open and are considered as much citizens of the United States as humans are, obeying the same laws and enjoying the same rights. Oh and “vampire” is not a politically correct word. They are called nocturnes, and the Nocturne Squad is in charge of investigating all crimes perpetrated by and against nocturnes.

Oh I forgot to mention that Marcus is a few thousand years old vampire who knew Julius Ceasar, and Alex is even older than that. He is the mummy of pharaoh Menkaure, cursed to walk this world until the end of times…

I have been spoiled with excellent first books in new series lately and Graveyard Shift is no exception. I love the world; I love the main characters. I really have nothing to complain about.

So the worldbuiding. After the discovery and mass production Hemo-Synth, an artificial blood substitute, the vampires revealed their existence to the general public. And thanks to a successful PR campaign, they even persuaded said general public that they weren’t a danger to anyone and that human and vampires could coexist peacefully.

I like how much thought the author put into this idea. If vampires are regular citizens now, they also need regular jobs and places to live, places to go to relax and have fun, places to buy their artificial blood at. So there is a huge economical shift worldwide – the world literally never sleeps. Everything is open 24/7. Humans work during the day, and vampires do the same jobs at night. Even the smallest bodegas and grocery shops carry Hemo-Synth blood on their shelves.

And there is a bigger legislative shift as well. What was considered a monster and a creature of legend before is now a citizen of the United States. Staking a nocturne through the heart and cutting their head off will land you behind bars for premeditated murder just as easily as shooting a regular guy through the head. Now there are laws and procedures in place to deal with the paranormal citizens. Which calls for nocturne cops, or the Nocturne Squad.

Alex and Marcus are a few thousand years old each, and it shows in their generally pessimistic outlook on life and the world in general. But where Marcus tends to be mostly broody, Alex exhibits a pronounced lack of interest for anything. Alex, or Mankaure, has pretty much grown tired of petty human squabbles that never change, no matter how many millennia pass him by. He does his job not because he likes it or needs the money, but because the shadow powers that stand behind the government  said so. And since those powers have a certain set of canopic jars in their possession that Alex might possibly not be able to exist without, he has no choice but to comply. It is implies that they hold something against Marcus as well but what that is Alex never asked his partner.

There is also no love lost between the two. Alex thinks (for good reason) that all vampires are predators and ruthless killers, no matter the tamed and friendly picture the media are painting of them. A wolf in sheep’s skin is still a wolf. And Marcus… well Marcus is an Ancient who thrives in secrets within secrets, and who lives for intrigue and conspiracies. And also doesn’t care about anybody but himself.

And at the same time, those two have a grudging respect for one another and sufficient trust that their partner will have their back in a bad situation. After all, they had been partners for the better half of a century: first as part of a secret organization called UMBRA in charge of eliminating the vampires, and that killing them is frowned upon by society, as cops trying to uphold law and order.

I also love how dark and gritty this world is. These vampires are the sparkly type with a tortured soul. They are ruthless predators who prefer real blood to the synthetic thing whenever possible. And while some are content to visit bleeder bars and take a little from willing participants, others prefer the trill of the hunt and the kill, and a bit of torture thrown in the mix as well…

The story itself was really well done. It kept you at the edge of your sit from the very first page. And since I couldn’t help but love the characters, I was hoping for their survival and well being.  And while this books story arrived to a rather satisfying resolution, it left a lot of questions as to what will happen next, which is an excellent tactic for a first book in a series.

I want to know what happens to Alex and Marcus now. I want to see the fallout the events in this book have on human-vampire relations. And I want to learn more about Father Aguirre and his church. And is it really possible for vampires to grow back their soul?

So good job Mr. Haspil, good job. I am a fan now and I am eagerly awaiting the next book.

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

City of Miracles (The Divine Cities 3) by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Stars: 5 out of 5

I love the Divine Cities series and I await every new book with great trepidation and excitement, because I know that Robert Jackson Bennett won’t disappoint. I read and reviewed the two previous books as well, if you are interested to read my opinions: City of Stairs and City of Blades.

City of Miracles is the closing chapter in the stories of a lot of characters that I grew to know and love in the two previous books, so I have a bitter-sweet feeling upon finishing this book. Even if the author continues this series, it will be a different world with different characters, because the events in this book brought the end of an era and paved the road for a new one.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still pick up the next book with just as much trepidation and will be excited to see the direction in which this world will evolve, but it will sure feel empty without Shara and Sigrud and all the others…

Sigrud had been hiding, moving from place to place, from one meaningless job to another, just waiting for Shara to call him back. Instead, he learns one day that the former Prime Minister Shara Komayd had been assassinated. And Sigrud sets out on a journey of revenge, doing what he does best – track and kill those who killed his friend. Only there is a lot more at stake than anyone could have imagined, because all these years Shara had been waging a secret war with a Divinity, and the outcome of this war will change the world.

When previous books were about the Divine wars and its casualties, as well as the guilt of the survivors, City of Miracles is about lost souls. It’s about the war orphans, both human and Divine, whose lives had been shattered by war and who can’t quite fit in this brave new world.

We know that the Radj killed all of the Divinities except one, but what happened to the multitude of Divine children that those Divinities created in the thousands of years of their existence? It was assumed that they simply vanished when their parent Divinities died or were hunted down and exterminated as well. And the most powerful ones certainly met that fate. But what of the weaker ones? The unimportant ones that didn’t have their own followers and had always lived in the shadow of their powerful siblings and parents?

Turns out they survived. Kolkan hid them, made them seem human, erased all memories of their divine nature. He hoped to bring them all back once the war was over and he came out of hiding himself, but we all know how that played out in City of Stairs. So those children, those orphans, are condemned to drift from orphanage to orphanage, from family to family, never aging, never remembering their past, their memories resetting every time their families start to wonder why the child they adopted 7-8 years ago didn’t seem to age. Yes, they survived, but isn’t that a terrible price to pay?

But what happens when some of those Divine children remember who they are? What happens if one of them was captured by the new regime and tortured for years? Wouldn’t he want revenge when he escaped?

I think this book, more than the previous two, shows that no matter what happens to the world, no matter what horrors, humans will find a way to survive, adapt and move past it. And the biggest proof of that is the city of Bulikov – we saw it in ruins in City of Stairs, its citizens beaten down and oppressed, yet in City of Miracles, merely 50 years later, it’s a thriving metropolis again, where the old and the new are intertwined and found a way to coexist. Or Voortyashtan, where Signe’s dream of opening the river to ship traffic again is finally a reality, even if Signe died without seeing it happen…

Legacy is another recurring theme in this book. What do we leave behind when we die? Signe left a dream of an engineering miracle and others made it a reality. Shara spent her whole life trying to change Saypur and bring peace to the continent, and she succeeded. Even Kolkan managed to leave a legacy by saving all those Divine children from certain death.

I think this is the strongest message of this book. That we need to live our lives in such a way that we leave behind a positive legacy, instead of a destructive one, even if this legacy is important only to our family and friends…

So to summarize, this book is a must read, but I would recommend starting at the beginning of the series with City of Stairs, following up with City of Blades, and finishing off with City of Miracles.

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

For a short 84 pages novella, Agents of Dreamland sure felt like one long read. Long and pointless.

You are probably not used to such harsh judgements in my reviews, since I usually try to find at least something positive in the books I read. So let me explain why I’m so negative this time.

The story is about the agent of some secret government organization dealing with the unexplained and the paranormal who discovers what at first glance seems like cult mass suicide, but turns out to be the beginning of the end of humanity. Some kind of alien fungus that would destroy humanity and pave the way for a different life form. Sounds like it could be an interesting story, right? I certainly thought so when I read the blurb and picked up the book.

Well, don’t get your hopes up. The story goes nowhere after that. I’m not joking. They discover the bodies of the cultist and one survivor. They take the survivor to a secured facility where she dies in an explosion of alien spores. It’s implied that this is the curtain call for humanity. The End.

Even that little bit of story could have been interesting if the characters were engaging enough to empathize with or the stakes high enough to create tension. Unfortunately, we get neither. In fact, I think that by giving one of her characters the ability to cast her mind both into the past and the future, the author effectively shot herself in the foot and killed her story.

So this character can get “unstuck” from the present and let her mind travel to all the moments she lived in the past or will live in the future. She goes into the future and sees that in the year 2043, human civilization is pretty much extinct, the remaining humans infected and changed beyond recognition by the fungus, and aliens are controlling the skies. She sees all that and chooses not to say a word about it to anybody. But the author includes a detailed description of her little trip into the future before the middle of the book…

That right there killed the story for me. If the end of the world is coming anyway, nothing the Signalman or his colleagues from Albany do has any meaning. There are no stakes anymore. So what’s the point of the story? Any (minimal) investment I still had in it plunged to zero on my “How much do I care about what happens next” meter. And when the novella ended with a non-ending that didn’t resolve anything, I wasn’t really surprised or particularly disappointed.

I came for an interesting horror story he blurb had promised. I got lots of allegories and similes and countless references to obscure black and white movies and the Beatles sprinkled with a bit of mythology. From what I understand, the author tried to write a Lovecraftian story. In my opinion, that attempt failed.

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

Halfway Dead by Terry Maggert.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

Once in a while you come across a book that gets you really excited about reading it because it starts with a great character who has a distinct voice and who seems to be telling a compelling story… then either goes horribly wrong halfway through or simply veers into meh category.

Sadly, this is exactly what happened with Halfway Dead. This book had so much promise! We are introduced to Carlie in the middle of action, when she goes for a little clean up job and tackles a pair of wendigos who moved close to her beloved town of Halfway with clearly nefarious intentions. She is efficient and self-reliant during that encounter, never losing her cool. We get an excellent introduction to our protagonist and an “on the job” explanation of how her magic works. She has a distinctive voice and she has sass.

At that point, I was invested in the story and ready to follow Carlie wherever her adventures or misadventures lead her. Unfortunately, the story starts unraveling pretty much right after that initial introduction.

Some random dude by the name of Major Pickford approaches her to help him find a grove of ancient chestnut trees. I would be ok with that if this plot point was presented better than it was. First, this Major appears in one scene where he hires Carlie to find those trees then disappears and is NEVER SEEN AGAIN for the rest of the book. Second, the story he feeds Carlie about why he wants those trees is so fantabulous that you really have to be stupid to believe it. Yet, Carlie believes and accepts without doing too much research to verify if what Major says is true. Author, why? You just showed us that your protagonist is a smart cookie when she handled the wendigos, but this scene undid all that good work.

At this point I was still determined to see this story through, even if my investment in it had gone down a notch, but it only gets worse afterwards.

Carlie goes to the local library and does a little bit of research into that mysterious grove of trees and discovers that it has ties to her family… and a ghost speaks to her from an old photograph and asked her to come find him. As a motivation for our protagonist to venture forth, that’s pretty good. Only it fails to confer any urgency to the situation. If you think about it, Carlie really has no stakes in this matter. Both the trees and the ghost had been there for three hundred years, so they will still be there whether she goes now or waits a few more decades.

The other problem is that when the next random stranger approaches her and tells her that Major basically fed her a load of lies, she still agreed to go into the mountains with this new stranger instead. Girl, where is your brain? Didn’t the situation just prove to you that there is a lot more at stake than you think or know and that you shouldn’t take anybody at face value? Sure, she calls the company this guy supposedly works for, but what proof those she have that she really talked to the CEO of that company? Also, how often do we call a multimillion dollar corporation and get to speak to the CEO directly as soon as we ask for it?

But my biggest frustration with this book are the dialogues. They don’t make sense. People just don’t speak and behave like that in real life. They all speak in riddles. They all go pages and pages of talk to say nothing that would advance the plot or explain the situation. And Carlie just accepts this avoidance and clear change of subject as a given. On more than one occasion, I wanted to reach into the page and slap some sense into both her and whomever she was talking to.

Add to that the sluggish pace at which the story is moving and the many interruptions to admire the scenery or get an excursion into the land’s (and the character’s) past, and you get a book that I ended up almost hate-reading until the end. And I did it only because I had a review to write and I don’t review books I don’t finish.

So to summarize, Halfway Dead is a book that had such great promise, but sort of unraveled halfway through like a badly knit sweater, leaving me with a lot of frustration at its unrealized potential and a conundrum as to how to rate it. I loved the first 1/4 of it. I was okay with the next 2/4. I would never have made it through the last 1/4 if I didn’t have a review to write.

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

Etched in Bone (The Others 5) by Anne Bishop.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I love this series. I love the worldbuilding; I love the characters; I love the stories in each subsequent book. So I can’t help to be excited when I got my hands on Etched in Bone. “What are Meg and Simon up to now?” I ask myself. And let me tell you, they both made big steps in this book, both individually and towards each other, but we’ll get to that in due time.

First, a bit of shameless self-promotion. I have been following this series since its debut, so if you are interested in reading my other reviews, just click on the links: book one, book two, book three, book four.

How much human should the terra indigene keep? This is the question that Simon and all the Others at the Lakeside courtyard have to answer. And that answer is not only for the Elders who took an interested in Meg and the curious relationship terra indigene and humans have in the courtyard. No, Simon, Vlad and the others need to decide for themselves as well. Since terra indigene transform to take the traits of the strongest predators, they can become too human and risk losing part of what makes them wolfguard or sanginati. So how much human is too much? Not only in the numbers of the human pack that now lives in the courtyard and relies on its resources, but also in the interactions they have with those humans and how much they allow themselves to change.

The theme of change is central to this book. Simon and the courtyard Others struggle to determine just how much they need and want to change now that they have Meg and the human pack to think about. The humans living in Lakeside are face with a much steeper change of circumstances now that the terra indigene have reclaimed most of the lands. Meg and the other cassandra sangue are trying to choose a way of speaking prophesy that doesn’t involve cutting…

And Meg has their own struggles and her own choices to make as well. She has found a place where she belongs and people (human and other) she considers friends and family, so it’s only natural for her to want to fit in, to be as normal as possible. She wants to do everything they can do and she doesn’t want to cause them more problems than necessary. Unfortunately, in her desire to be normal, she forgets that she is not normal and can’t really be normal – she is cassandra sangue.

Simon has to come to terms with his own feelings towards Meg and what that means both for him and for the courtyard. I’m glad that he finally decides to be upfront with Meg about this, and that they approach the situation like responsible adults and talk it out, even if it takes some rather traumatic events for them to get to that conversation.

The other important theme in Etched in Bone is that evil doesn’t always act overtly. It can present a perfectly harmless façade to the world. And that one bad apple can sour the whole barrel, or in this case one individual can threaten the peaceful existence inside Lakeside’s human pack. To the Elders, the arrival of Morty’s brother is nothing more than an interesting development in their quest to understand humans. They are perfectly happy to observe and not interfere, letting the human pack deal with this intrusion. Unfortunately, they also want to keep him in the Courtyard for observation, so the humans can’t do the one logical thing that would help them deal with this toxic person – cast him out.

This decision almost ends in disaster and teacher the Elders a valuable lesson – just because they are Namid’s teeth and claws, it doesn’t make them infallible. They can make mistakes and live with the consequences. And that sometimes what seems like a small stone falling off a cliff can trigger a landslide.

All in all, I loved the progress all of the characters made in this book and I am excited to see where they will go from here. The others, at least in Lakeside and around the Simple Folk villages, are starting to treat their humans as a valuable part of the pack. Lakeside humans are actively working on restoring as much order and cooperation as they can in their city. Cassandra sangue finally learn how to survive outside of their cells and hopefully not die after a thousand cuts telling prophecies. Let’s see where the next book takes us.

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

Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I’m always excited when I find a new book that makes me stay up all night reading because I simply can’t put it down. I’m doubly excited when that book is the first in a brand new series. Hunger Makes the Wolf is both those things. Needless to say that I’m absolutely in love, but I promise to keep my fangirling to a minimum and try to explain to you why I thought this book was so good.

Humans have conquered the stars and colonized countless planets. All this was made possible thanks to Rift travel. But the secret to successful rift travel is in the hands of TransRifts Inc, the company that has absolute monopoly over both rift ships and the weathermen who make sure that they make it through the rifts in one piece and unaltered. Needless to say that nothing moves around the universe without TransRifts’ approval.

Tanegawa’s World is a closed planet owned by TransRifts and corporate law is the only law that exists there. Tanegawa is barely terraformed enough to sustain life, and would not be inhabited at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s the only known world that produces minerals needed to build transrift ships. Those who live on this harsh and unforgiving desert world have two choices: work in the mines or become a farmer. And if you don’t keep your head down and do exactly what TransRift officials tell you to do, you get blacklisted, which means you can’t work anywhere, so your choices are to die of hunger and exposure or join one of the rowing bands of brigands which, in most cases, means die a violent death in the near future anyway.

Hob Ravani arrived on Tanegawa as a stowaway on one of the rift ships when she was a kid. Luckily for her, she was taken in by Nick Ravani, leader of a bikers gang called the Ghost Wolves. For ten years, she’d managed to stay under the radar from TransRift authorities, as much as a band of mercenaries can stay under the radar, but when they discover the body of Nick’s younger brother in the desert, Hob knows that things are about to change. Because he’s been hot in the back and left to die in the dunes, and his daughter is missing. The Ghost Wolves are on a war path, but even they can’t imagine the consequences of their revenge and the ugly secrets about TransRift, the Weathermen, and Tanegawa that they are about to drag into the light…

First things first, I have a confession to make. I absolutely love Hob Ravani! She is the perfect embodiment of this harsh world she lives in – stubborn, tough as nails, ragged and half starved, and fiercely loyal to those she considers family. She can be hard and unyielding, just like the desert she lives in. She will not run from danger but meet it head first, with a defiant grin on her face and her guns blazing…

I also love that this impulsiveness and unwillingness to compromise and listen to reason has landed her in trouble before. In fact, she starts this book as the lowest man on the totem pole with the Ghost Wolves because one of her impulse decisions almost had them all killed three years prior. What makes Hob a good protagonist is that she acknowledges her mistakes. She doesn’t try to blame her shortcomings on others or on the circumstances. In fact, nobody is harsher on herself than Hob. She knows she screwed up. She swore to never be that stupid again. And even though most of the Ghost Wolves have forgiven her transgression, she hasn’t forgiven herself yet. But even though that mistake makes Hob doubt herself at times, I love that when push comes to shove, she takes the reins of command and does what needs to be done. But she does it after weighting the pros and cons and fully aware of the consequences.

Mag Ravani, Hob’s adopted cousin, couldn’t be more different, but is a strong woman as well. Unlike Hob, Mag is calm and thoughtful. She doesn’t rush into things head first. She sits down and analyses the situation from all angles before she decides on the best course of action. Where Hob is fire, Mag is water. The kind of water in an underground river – a lifesaver for desert dwellers but can drag you under and drown you in its dark current as well. And nobody will hear you screw underground.

I love the fact that Hob and Mag genuinely love each other. They are sisters and they are friends, and even though the events of three years ago cast a shadow over their relationship, they talk about it like adults and manage to move past it. And they have each other’s backs. They work together.

Even though Hob and Mag are the main protagonists of this book, the story is full of other interesting characters that I enjoyed following. All the Ghost Wolves, and especially Coyote. The special agent who infiltrated TransRift and bit more than he can chew. The Bone Collector… I want to know more about them. I want to know more about Tanegawa and I want to know what happens to Hob and the Ghost Wolves after their epic confrontation with TransRift at the end of the book. So I pray and hope that there is a second book somewhere in my near future, because I’m in love with this world.

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.