Tag Archives: ARCs

The Unspoken Name (The Serpent Gates 1) by A. K. Larkwood

Stars: solid 5 out of 5.

This book has it all – wonderfully weird and detailed world (or worlds?), wonderfully flawed and detailed characters, and a story that keeps you reading. I often struggle with fantasy books because they are so formulistic and predictable, well The Unspoken Name is neither, I’m happy to say. I will definitely be looking forward to more books in this series.

The world described in this book is wonderfully complex and broken. It’s a multitude of worlds, actually, instead of a single one, connected together by a Maze with portal-like Gates leading in and out of it. Some worlds are thriving with life and culture, some are dead and decaying… some are somewhere in between. There are hints at a war between gods that destroyed worlds and shattered the Maze, as well as killing some of them (and the races that worshiped them as well).

And the races populating these worlds are as diverse as their environments, and they worship different gods as well. In fact, magic exists in this world (the existence of portals might have hinted at that), but it is tied firmly to the deity which grants the magical talent to the practitioner… and it exerts a heavy price. See, holding and channeling that much divine essence eventually kills the mage, how soon depends on how often they use that magic and how much power they spend at once. So yes, magic can be deadly and devastating, but most mages will think twice before unleashing it. After all, who wants to end up with goo for insides because you used too much divine power?

I also loved Czorwe, our protagonist and her journey of self-discovery in this book. Her whole life until about the second half of this book has been one of self-negation in the service of someone else. She grew up knowing that she would be sacrificed to her god when she turned 12 and fully accepting that outcome. Then when a mage persuades her to leave with him instead of going through with the sacrifice, she dedicated her whole life to helping him achieve his goals. She never questions why she is doing this, never thinks about what she wants for herself. For the first part of this book, she is just a tool molded and wielded by someone else’s will. Just like she was back in the temple when she was the bride of the Unspoken Name.

I love that this passivity and total disregard of her own desires progressively changes when she discovers someone who she cares about and genuinely wants to help. She finally acts for herself and discovers that she is capable of a lot more than she thought and that she is worthy of love and affection for who she is, not what she can do. I hope that we will see more of Csorwe and her friend in the next books.

And I will definitely be looking for the next books in the series, because even though this book answered one of the mysteries it introduced, there are a gazillion more that can be explored. Not to mention that the Unspoken Name is not done with his runaway bride, not at all.

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

The Last Watch (The Divide Series 1) by J. S. Dewes

Stars: 5 out of 5

I think I found my new favorite scifi series, and I have been looking for one for a long time.

This book has it all, at least in my opinion – great worldbuilding, multifaceted characters, high stakes, and non-stop action.

Worldbuilding: I love when the author progressively introduces me to their world and does it right. You won’t find any infodumps here. You won’t have characters rehashing events or concepts that they SHOULD already know just for the sake of telling the reader what’s going on. No, sir, no ma’am. We get thrown off the deep end along with Cav, one of our protagonists, who was just sent to the Divide, or the butt of nowhere to serve along with the Sentinels, another bunch of criminals and misfits that the rest of the world would rather forget. It is stressful and confusing at first, but the puzzle of this world gets assembled one little piece at a time, and I found myself fascinated by it. I really want to know more about this world and the aliens and what lies beyond the Divide, if there is anything.

Characters: Cav is a genius in some things, and a complete idiot in others, like human interaction and keeping his mouth shut. He was a spoiled prince who just wanted to stick one to his uncle and rebel against his control… and never thought all the consequences through. That’s one of his biggest weaknesses – he doesn’t respect authority and he doesn’t think about consequences. But he isn’t a complete moron either. He learns, he adapts, and he definitely becomes a better human being by the end of the story. I was really rooting for him throughout the book.

But my biggest favorite is Adequin. She is such a wonderfully complex and flawed character. She tries her best to keep her derelict ship from falling apart and her crew of misfits from killing each other and themselves. She thinks that she isn’t cut for command, because she was just a pilot, but when shit hits the fan and thousands of lives depend on her, she picks up the mantle and does the impossible to keep as many of these people safe as she can.

There are a lot of other supporting characters that stand out, and you can’t help but like them for their quirks and flaws that make them so alive, it’s refreshing. Unfortunately, not all of them will make it to the last page of this book, and I admit that I felt the death of some of them rather deeply.

So we have an interesting world and great characters, which would already rate a book very high in my opinion, but add to that a great story, and you have me hooked. I know book one has barely come out, but I am so ready for the next one!

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

Sleepless by Louise Mumford

Stars: hesitating between 2 and 2.5 out of 5.

This book had such promise! The idea behind it was excellent and the blurb drew me in. Even the beginning was rather exciting. I was really pumped about reading it for about the first 35-40% of the book… Then things went downhill.

There were several reasons for this quick fall from grace, at least for me.

First of all, to create a good mystery, you need tension. To create a good horror story, you need to create the atmosphere of constant unease, when the reader and the characters know that something is wrong, but the tension is slowly winding up, like a tightening spring. Or you can have monsters jumping out of the dark and eating your face off… whatever works. The point is, it has to be scary but BELIEVABLE within the rules and limits of the world the author created.

This is were this book fails spectacularly. All the characters, especially the villains, have never heard of the word “logic”. They turn form a group of sleep study researchers into murderers seemingly in the blink of an eye. So the protagonist is asking questions about an apparition she saw in the ruins? Let’s take her there and try to kill her! But we already moved the crazy patient in a different location, so she won’t find anything. Why kill her? Oh, who cares, let’s just kill her anyway because reasons. Not to mention who is the genius that decided a ruined monastery was the perfect place to keep a sedated patient chained to a hospital bed? When you have a perfectly functional remote lighthouse on the island that has the advantage of having a roof and all the walls intact?

Also, the main premise of this book is completely destroyed about 40% in. So the protagonist is suffering from chronic sleeplessness. She can’t fall asleep… like ever. She does on 1 to 2 hours to sometimes zero a night. She’s been to all kinds of sleep studies and tried all sleep aids under the sun, right? She signs up for this experiment out of desperation… Yet not a week into this study, she is told that she doesn’t have a sleep problem. She has an internal clock problem instead. Meaning, she falls asleep between 7am and 10am instead of doing it night like normal people. Really? All the other doctors hadn’t noticed that? SHE didn’t notice that she can actually sleep on weekends when she doesn’t have to get up for work? Find a different job. Work second or night shift and your problem is solved…

The technology itself is explained rather badly. Nobody would give Thea a straight answer about how it works or what exactly they will do to her… yet she goes along it it all the same. I get it that you are desperate, but this borders on stupid.

But the nail in the coffin of this book for me was the protagonist herself. I can (usually) suffer through a bad plot if the protagonist is believable or likeable. Or suffer a bad protagonist if the story is amazing, but I can’t do both.

Thea is the type of protagonist who let’s the story happen to them, instead of creating that story with her actions. She spends about 90% of the story in an indecisive stupor, doubting herself, terrified, or simply going along with the flow. She is dragged from one place or another, from one plot point to the next by other people or circumstances. When she needs to act, she freezes and watches the action unfold around her. Granted, this is probably a realistic depiction of what an average person would do when presented with these kind of circumstances… but I read fiction to escape from reality. I want to read about characters who take action, even if with disasters consequences instead of being dragged behind the train of the story like so much useless baggage.

So I’m sorry, but this book and I had a rather messy and angry divorce and I hate-read it to the end.

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

Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

Stars: 2 out of 5 for the novelty of the idea.

DNFed at 85%. Yes, I know, I was so close to the finish… I really tried to power through, I promise.

It had a fun beginning and an interesting premise. It was fast paced and fun during their attack on NY and their escape from Manhattan afterwards.

It got boring and yawn inducing during the time on the boat. Too much drama and blatant insubordination. I’m not sure about the author’s background, but spetsnaz are ELITE forces, a bit like Navy SEALS. The shit Gulag was pulling in this book would have gotten him shot back in Afghanistan already… and to add insult to injury, Vadim is an idiot incapable of leading a pack of 5 year old’s, least of all a squad of elite soldiers. He has no authority, no personal charisma, and he doesn’t command respect. He is a joke. Fraulein was a more believable commander than him. Come on, author, you could do better than this.

But even the more than subpar protagonist would have been okay. I was looking for gruesome zombie fun, after all… only we didn’t really get much of it after the escape from NY. Mostly it’s people vs. people with the walking dead as a distraction.

Also, the author seems to forget his protagonists are zombies half the time, only remembering their “condition” when it’s convenient. They go from barely being able to keep their sanity every time they are in proximity of human beings to spending weeks with over 100 live humans on a boat. Not to mention that Princess is still alive and by the end, it didn’t seem to bother the rest of them anymore.

Not to mention that being zombies doesn’t make them superpowered. They are dead. They should start decomposing by now. And there is only so much punishment a dead body can take before it isn’t functional anymore. Yet they walk, talk, shoot, etc. without any problems even over a week after turning… after being shot at, beaten, etc. Yeah, my disbelief meter was slowly reaching boiling point.

At this point, I was still resolved to drag myself painfully across the finish line. But then the author introduced fake (and not so fake) Nazis… in 1980s England. Yeah, no. The level of stupid just overwhelmed my desire to finish the book. Welcome to the DNF graveyard.

PS: Thanks to Netgalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

“Loved loved loved it!” were my thoughts when I finished this book as I ran around my living room excitedly, happy that I got the chance to read this excellent book before it was officially published (thanks for the ARC, Netgalley.)

This is one of those rare books that managers to portray strong female characters without making them bitchy, slutty, or catty, and without having them hate on any other females around them and lust over anything with a dick that walks into their line of sight. Unfortunately, I have read a lot of authors who think that this is what a “strong female character” is supposed to be.

I have also read, or tried to read and failed horribly, a lot of feminist and “break the patriarchy” novels that assume that to be a strong woman, you need to hate on anything that has a Y chromosome. I’m very glad that it is not the case with Persephone Station. Men are mentioned in this world, but their presence is not important to the story. And I am very glad that the main villain in this is also a woman. Too often we see this trope when a strong female protagonist has to go against a grotesque caricature of a male villain that is painted as such a horrible human being that you have to wonder how his mother didn’t smother him in his crib.

Here we have a smothering of female, male, non-binary, and genderfluid characters that all have flaws and motivations and are all portrayed as believable human (and alien) beings. And I love the fact that they fit perfectly in this world the author created. That human, alien, or artificial, they are all perfectly three-dimensional.

I also loved the strong friendships portrayed in this book. The crew of Kurosawa is a group of broken misfits that love each other and support each other like family. I admit that I cried when Kurosawa crashed, because this ship had the Firefly vibes with the same warmth of a found home and family.

So after all this gushing praise, why didn’t I give it a full 5 stars? I have a couple minor gripes about the story.

Firstly, I think the Emissaries could have been developed slightly better. I mean, at one point Vicinia says that their colony isn’t sustainable without imports from the human settlement… And I wondered why? They are native to Persephone. They lived on that planet way before it was colonized… so this statement makes absolutely no sense. So yes, I would have loved to see a little more of the planet and native Emissary settlements other than the one we saw and that was specifically adapted for humans.

My second gripe is with the ending. I don’t want to put any spoilers, but the solution to all their problems seemed very deus ex machina to me, and it literally was. It felt a little bit too simple and anticlimactic to me after the very tense and nerve-wracking events that lead to it.

These two points non-withstanding, I loved this book. I would definitely read the sequel if one is in the works, because I think this world has potential to become a series. There are still many stories to explore. Who is Zhang? What will Kennedy do now? What will happen with Persephone now that the existence of the Emissaries is known? How are Rosie doing?

Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower by Tamsyn Muir

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

The princess in a tower guarded by a dragon and the prince who has to battle the monster in order to rescue her is a classical fairy tale trope.

But what happens if the dragon crunched up all the princes and no more are coming to your rescue? What if instead winter is coming and the tower is decidedly NOT equipped with hot water, heat, or insulation? What if a diet of milk, bread, and oranges is fine for a couple weeks, but decidedly NOT good after a few months? There comes a time when even the meekest princess will have to make a choice: either try to confront the monsters in the tower and make it to the bottom, or choose the fast and fatal drop out of her window. So Floralinda opens the door to her room and changes her destiny forever.

It was interesting to see Floralinda slowly transforming from a princess to someone in charge of her own destiny. It was certainly subverting a trope. It was also interesting to see the different monsters populating the levels of the tower, even if thinking that an untrained girl could succeed where numerous princes failed was rather unrealistic. But hey, it’s still a fairy tale after all.

Speaking of fairy tales, I wouldn’t recommend reading it to younger children. Some descriptions are rather… graphic, and Floralinda is forced to do some things that might shock younger minds. She has to go down a tower full of monsters, after all.

I am not satisfied with the ending though. Floralinda fights so hard to be free of this tower. She literally transforms herself into a different person to survive this and triumph over all the monsters… and the author chooses to leave her in the tower? Why??? She earned her freedom. She could have gone and done anything with her life, but the author decided to keep her exactly where she started? That didn’t sit well with me.

But all in all it was a short and sweet read that helped me pass a rainy afternoon, but Floralinda deserved better than the ending she got.

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

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan 2) by Arkady Martine

Stars: 5 out of 5

First, a necessary disclosure: this is book 2 of a duology, so I would strongly recommend reading book 1 (which I reviewed here) before you jump into this one. Can you read it as a stand alone? Probably… but you will miss out on a lot of context and dramatic events that brought our characters to where they are in this book.

The story picks up two months after the end of the first book. Lsel Station got what they wanted – the Teixcalaan Empire is now at war with the mysterious aliens that had been disappearing their ships in the darkness of the void. Mahit is back on Lsel, but the place she grew up in doesn’t feel like home anymore, especially with the secret she is carrying about the sabotage of her imago machine and the unorthodox method she used to repair it.

And back in the City, the new Emperor is now forced to win a war she didn’t want, while also fighting the clock and dagger fights with officials of different departments that didn’t particularly want her on the throne… like the ministry of War, who she needs to fight this war instead of her.

We get to follow some of the characters that we came to know and love from the first book, like Mahit and Three Seagrass, who end up in the middle of the action once again, trying to find a common ground with an alien species so different that they don’t even have a language per se and who don’t consider individual deaths as anything of consequence.

We are also introduced to new characters, some of which we briefly saw in the first book, like Eleven Antidote, the 90% clone of the late Emperor. I must admit that I absolutely loved his POV in this book. He is eleven years old, but he is not a typical child. He’s been brought up and educated as a clone of the Emperor, so he never had a real childhood. He is also very smart and precautious, and he likes to think things through and solve mysteries. And I loved the courage and determination he showed when he acted to right what he was convinced was a wrong, even though he was going against the orders or the current Emperor by doing so.

Another wonderful new character is Twelve Cicada, who is the second in command to Nine Hibiscus, the fleet commander charged with wining the war against an enemy who can appear in and out of subspace and spit a substance that dissolves ships along with the pilots. I loved the relationship between these two and how they complemented and tempered each other. And I found highly satisfying the fact that Twelve Cicada was the one to find a solution to this conflict in the end.

This book touches several important themes. What exactly is the price of civilization and isolationism? Can you be a person even though you aren’t “civilized” in the eyes of your opponent? To Teixacaalisim, everyone else is a barbarian, including other humans, so the encounter with something even more alien has them unsettled and unable to react properly.

Who are you in the end as an individual, when your home station feels like hostile environment, but the Empire you longed to belong to all your life threatens to swallow you whole and kill your individuality? That is the question Mahit grapples with in this book.

And finally, is destroying a whole planet a price an Emperor is willing to pay to maybe end a conflict before it becomes a war of attrition? Or is that an act too atrocious even for Teixcalaan? What legacy do you want to leave for your descendants? That’s the problem Eleven Antidote grapples with.

There are multiple layers in this book, so it’s hard to address them all without spoilers. My advice is, read this duology. Go by the first book and read that while you wait on the second one to come out in March 2021.

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

The Fractured Void (Twilight Imperium #1) by Tim Pratt

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

I admit that this was a fun and lighthearted romp of a novel.

As far as first books in a series go, it fulfilled its function rather well – it introduced the world and the characters that live in it without it ever filling like an infodump.

The world is fascinating. We have different planets, and a lot of different alien species that have learned to co-exist in a way that seems very natural. The way they operate, talk and interact with each other never feels forced. Also, all alien species described fit well into their environment, like the “squid” people who live on two planets that are covered by oceans.

This is what attracted me the most to this book. I love when the author knows their world. He doesn’t have to give us an infodump on it for the reader to see that. The little hints thrown here and there along the story show the reader that there is much more history to explore and that the author knows what’s going on. There is background there. Things happen for a reason. I would love to explore this galaxy a bit more in the next books.

But the worldbuilding is only part of the magic formula. The other ingredient is the characters. And I admit that this part didn’t work quite as well for me.

I liked the Duval Devils alright, even though they seemed a little over the top in their piratey brashness from time to time. They seemed like a group of misfits at first, posturing in front of each other and trying to look cool. But I admit that they gelled as a team somewhere halfway through the book, probably because they finally had a common goal and a common detestable person to hate. I think Tib was my favorite character in this book. She is smart, she is efficient, and her sarcasm is right up my alley.

I really didn’t click with the duo that was opposing them. I know Azad and Severine were supposed to represent two strong female characters, but… I don’t know… I think Azad’s complete lack of scruples or any moral compass at all did her no favor. She has all the markings of a psychopath, and I have never been particularly found of those. The author kept them alive for a reason, so my guess is they will play a part in future books, but honestly, I could care less.

The author takes home the 2020 award for creating the most detestable character of the year, and he isn’t even a villain in a true sense of the term. Thales is a despicable, nasty piece of work. He is a megalomaniac with a huge chip on his shoulder who never forgets any offense, real or perceived, towards his fragile ego. I admit that I cheered a little when our good captain punched him in the face. And I definitely felt good when he got what he deserved at the end of the novel.

My problem with this book is that it feels like a big prologue rather than a first book in a series. The set up for the real conflict happens in the last two chapters and in the epilogue. Yes, it was fun to see the Duval Devils wheezing around the known galaxy assembling parts for the wormhole device, but it’s only set up. The bad guys are introduced only in the last chapters, so the end of the book feels rather anticlimactic. Yes, Thales got what he deserved, but the damage is already done, and the REAL STORY starts now. Only it doesn’t because the book ends.

I like this book well enough to pick up the next one in the series, because the writing was fun and light and there was a good balance between action and exposition. Hopefully, I will like the characters of the next installment better than this one.

PS: I received a free copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Stars: 5 out of 5

This is by far one of the best books I’ve read in 2020, and I have read over 90 books so far this year.

Here is the premise: multiverse travel is possible thanks to the technology discovered by a brilliant inventor on what is called Earth Zero. Unfortunately, in order to traverse the space between worlds and survive the integration into the new reality, the traveler needs to be dead on the other side. So basically, you can only travel to worlds in which the local version of you is already dead, otherwise it would be like trying to push yourself into a space that is already occupied. The results are… bloody and definitely fatal to the traversee.

So even though scientists are biting at the bit to go and explore different versions of reality, most of them come from wealthy backgrounds, which means they are alive in almost all those realities. So people from disadvantaged backgrounds make the best traversees. People who live in poverty and hunger, in war thorn villages, and places ravaged by disease.

Cara, our protagonist, is one of those people. She is dead in all but a handful of the 300 or so worlds that can be visited from Earth 0. She is worth something to the company she works for precisely because she is so worthless to the rest of reality that it’s a miracle she survived at all.

I loved Cara as a characters. She is deeply flawed and has a huge chip on her shoulder. She is convinced that she is worthless, that she is scum, that doesn’t deserve love, affection, or even happiness. Part of it is because of her upbringing, part of it is because she studied how all of the other versions of herself died, part of it is because she has a secret she is ashamed of.

This perception of unworthiness taints Cara’s view of everything in the world as well as her relationships with people she loves. And it’s infuriating and painful to watch sometimes. She immediately assumes the worse in any situation and acts on that assumption, often creating conflict where there wasn’t any or hurting people who didn’t mean any harm to her.

A lot of times I just wanted to shake her and tell her to just stop assuming and actually TALK to people. Especially when it comes to her relationship with Dell. She loves Dell, but she had decided that Dell doesn’t reciprocate the feeling, that she is either indifferent or flat out hates her instead. And she decided that without even talking to Dell about it. Really? A lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings could have been averted if those two had sat down and talked things through at least once.

It was very interesting and satisfying to see Cara grow as a person. She starts the book as someone only looking out for herself. Someone who is trying so hard to fit in with the citizens of the City that she is shunting everything that remind her of her roots. It’s very fulfilling to see her realize that those roots make her who she is now. That she is worthy of love and admiration as a person she is, not just as a commodity that can hop between worlds.

I like that by embracing those roots she realizes that there is only so much that her moral compass would let her do, and when she stumbles into a dangerous plot and has a choice to make between going along and living in comfort and being ashamed of herself for it, or going with her conscience and trying to stop the people responsible, and probably die in the process, she chooses the later.

There are a lot of important themes in this book. What is the value of human life? What length would you go to to pursue your dream? Can people change, and more importantly, can your perception of people change based on their actions?

And the most important message of all, I think – you can find happiness if you accept yourself fully, flaws and all.

2020 has been a difficult year for all of us, and I found that message of hope was extremely timely and uplifting.

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

The Kraken’s Tooth by Anthony Ryan (The Seven Swords #2)

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

I liked this book better than the first one, which I reviewed here.

One of the reasons is that there are a lot less characters, so the author gets the chance to focus a bit more on each of them. So they actually feel like people instead of cardboard cutouts. It helps that we already met Seeker and Pilgrim in the first book, so the author doesn’t have to reintroduce us to them. He can focus on fleshing them out more instead.

This is where comes my first complaint. Pilgrim is the only one deserving fleshing out and a back story, it seems. Oh, we dwelve into his past plenty in this book. We even learn how he got bound to his demin sword. Don’t get me wrong, it’s interesting and I welcomed the knowledge… I just wish the author would have done the same with Seeker.

As it stands, she is still the mysterious beast master who is looking for her kidnapped daughter. Deadly with a now, masterful in animal control, silent and not very fleshed out. We don’t even get to learn her name, unlike Pilgrim. Oh, and we still haven’t found her daughter, imagine that. I hope that the author pays her more attention in the next book, because she is an interesting character who deserves to come out of Pilgrim’s shadow and get a voice of her own.

The world continues to be imaginative and intriguing. Therr are gods, demons, ancient heroes, and strange cartographers who are much older than they appear. I’m not entirely sure how all this fits together just yet, but I’m happy to stick along for the ride. As ling as the hints thrown here and there in the books end up fitting into a coherent picture in the end.

Can’t help but notice that so far all Pilgrim and Seeker did in their quest was bring ruin and destruction to magical places that had stood for millennia. I hope that’s not a trend. Otherwise by the time Pilgrim assembles all the cursed swords, the world would be in ruins.

PS: I received an advanced copy of the book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.