Tag Archives: ARCs

The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne 1) by Brian Staveley

Stars: 3 out of 5

This was an okay book, but nothing special. I mean, it kept me engaged enough to plod through 600+ pages, but it never got me engaged enough to be truly invested in the story. 

The world is interesting, and I really wanted to read more about it. I also realized that this was a sequel to an existing trilogy, but I don’t think you need to have read the previous books to understand the world. From what I could gather, this story follows a different set of characters anyway.

So why did I give this only three stars? I had two problems with it. 

The first one is the pacing. There is no sense of urgency, no real stakes for our characters. Gwenna is sent to the butt end of the world to recover kettral eggs, but there is no timeline on this. We are told that the empire is falling apart and that restoring the kettral is crucial in saving it, but nowhere in the book are we given an indication that the fall is imminent. We are TOLD that it’s the case, but we aren’t SHOWN. It’s hard to be invested in a quest when the stakes aren’t known. Gwenna could take years to get those eggs back, and the empire might still stand. Who knows? The readers certainly don’t. 

Same problem with Ruc’s storyline. We are told at the beginning of the book that this supernatural badass “First” is coming with an army and he will subjugate this city… then we don’t hear from him at all until the very end of the book. Again, we are TOLD. We are shown a dead messenger who didn’t even try to resist and some kind of bat creature who, supposedly, killed several people before it was captured. We are TOLD that, but we don’t see that happening. So again, the stakes are unclear. The urgency is minimal. Especially since we spent the entire book in one place – the Arena. The characters kept talking about escaping, but never really actively doing anything about it (apart from almost at the very end). So there is this big army coming, and we keep hearing that Ruc and Bien need to escape the city… yet they are still in the Arena every time the narrative comes back to them.

As for Akiil’s storyline, I still have no clue why it was even necessary to include it, apart from that one little seed at the end. Other than that, he was my least favorite of the characters, so reading through his POVs was a slog. One of the reasons is that I can’t understand his motivation. I figured out Gwenna and was onboard for her slow descent into depression and cheered when she finally clawed her way out of it. I was mildly sympathetic to Ruc’s efforts to suppress his violent tendencies, but Akiil? I still have no clue what motivates him. It honestly felt like he was making bad choices just for the sake of making bad choices. And that whole ark with the Captain and Skinny Gwenn? I’m not even sure what the point of that was…

So all in all, I was engaged enough to finish this book, but I’m not sure if I am invested enough to pick up the next one, or to go back and read the original trilogy.

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

Wakers (The Side Step Trilogy 1) by Orson Scott Card

Stars: 2 out of 5.

DNF at 70%, so you darn right I’m leaving a review for this, since I put so much effort into this book!

I am very disappointed. I loved The Ender’s Game by the same author so I had high hope for this story as well. 

And the beginning was pretty good actually: intriguing and suspenseful. I was along for the ride with Laz, and even his constant monologue and the tendency to over-analyze every little thing to death wasn’t all that annoying at first. He was looking for answers, after all, and we, as the reader were looking for them with him. Yes, the pacing was rather slow, but I was willing to forgive that as long as I got the answers I was looking for in the end.

Then Laz finally wakes up Ivy… and things took a nosedive from there. 

First of all, the pace, which was already slow, became glacial. I mean the story progression grinded to a halt to be replaced by pages and pages of mindless and mind-numbing dialogue between two obnoxious teenagers. It was pointless. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t bring ANYTHING useful to the story. It made my eyes roll back in my head and make me want to take a nap every time I opened the book. It’s an endless stream of verbal vomit between two people who I found more and more unlikeable the further in the book I got. 

Because most of the book is written in these horrible dialogues, the author does a lot of telling, but almost no showing. The characters debate scientific theories, explain to each other things that should be self-evident for them just so the reader can catch up with the science here. Problem is, the reader has checked out ten pages ago. 

I got no sense of the world, because the descriptions are almost non-existent. It’s all just Laz made a snide remark, Ivy retorted with something the author meant to sound smart, but just made her sound like a spoiled brat, Laz retaliated in the same fashion, blah, blah, blah…. twenty pages later we still haven’t learned anything new and the story hasn’t progressed an inch. Heck, I don’t even know what the dogs in the pack of four look like because mighty Laz didn’t care enough about it to talk about it.

I understand that this is a YA book, but I still didn’t particularly appreciate how all adults are described as complete idiots. Seriously, Laz and Ivy have this “better then everyone else” attitude to them when they talk to anybody else that would never have worked in the real world. You might be smart and possess a unique ability, but you are still a teenager, no you are a clone with fake memories, so if you talk to me this way, you will get smacked. I think that’s my biggest pet peeve with the author’s approach – you CAN create smart and resourceful teenagers without making them disrespectful at the same time. 

It made me hate the main characters more and more, and by the end I didn’t care about them or finding the answers to the big questions enough to read through the last 30% of obnoxious dialogue.

I will not continue with the series. I will definitely not recommend this book. And if this is the author’s new style of writing, I doubt I will try any of his newer book going forward. I’d rather re-read the Ender’s Game.

PS: I received a free copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

In the Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

This was an interesting book. More a collection of unrelated stories than one continuous story, a bit like the Thousand and One Nights. 

This collection of stories helped showcase this strange world that the author has created without having our main characters travel around it. It’s an interesting approach. And a very unique world that uses some of the mythological creatures from our world but in a different way, so the world described is both familiar and very different. Plus, I always love discovering authors who come from different cultures and can share them with me.  So this is the aspect of the book that I absolutely loved.

However, the fact that we have a series of disjointed stories happening in different parts of this world and with characters that aren’t linked together makes it hard to empathize with those characters. We only see them for a brief moment in time, with usually no real insight at their past and no way of following them past the end of their short story, so it’s hard to care for them during that short period of time. And since the “main” storyline is just the vehicle for those other stories, it’s hard to care for Anima and Vessel as well. We simply don’t spend enough time with any of the characters to get attached and to care about what happens to them. 

I would have also loved to have more answers to the questions raised in some of those stories. For example, the very first one about the revenants. Just how many are there? What are the consequences of having such beings roam the countryside? Or the mermaids? What happens there? Or what happens to the Sky empire now that the duarchy has fallen? The author drops hint to what could be amazing stories worth expanding further upon… but it goes nowhere. 

In comparison, the main story about Anima didn’t particularly captivate me. It lacked depth. We needed to explore more of Ora and see the different citizens that live in it. We should have concentrated on that instead of getting glimpses of this city amidst stories from faraway places. I think spreading the attention too thin did all of those stories a disservice.

All in all though, I am intrigued by this world and this author. I wouldn’t mind reading more books set in this world. I just hope that this time the author picks one story and sticks to it.

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

City of Songs (The Seven Swords 3) by Anthony Ryan

Stars: 4 out of 5

This book is the best in the series so far. I think it’s because we got the exposition and character background out of the way in the first two books, so the author is free to just tell his story. And it is a compelling story, no doubt about that.

I think what I like the most about this series the fascinating and complex world our characters inhabit. It feels complex and interesting. There are hints at deeper events and history there that the reader has yet to discover. It feels real. It feels like something I wouldn’t mind exploring further. I think this is the reason I keep coming back to these books. The characters are okay, but I don’t feel a deep connection to them. But they places they travel to are unique and worth exploring.

On a different note, this is the third city our characters destroyed so far… that’s an alarming trend, I would say. Yes, this time they weren’t directly responsible for the mass murder and mayhem, but they were still there and maybe served as a catalyst for the events. I’m a little afraid that by the time they finally collect all seven swords, there will be nothing left of the world to save.

I admit that I like the companions Pilgrim is assembling around himself, though I would still love Seeker to have a more layered role than the hunter with arrows that kills bad things. Heck, even the new member to join the team at the end of this book is more complex than her. I think that does a disservice to the story, because we are supposed to care about her search for her daughter, but we simply… don’t. I just hope that the author will give her a chance to shine in the next book.

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

Shadow Shinjuku by Ryu Takeshi

 Stars: 3 out of 5

I have a hard time formulating my thoughts about this book. I liked it enough to stick around till the end, but it didn’t leave a big enough impact to consider it a really good book. 

There is one aspect I really loved, and that’s Tokyo as a whole and Shinjuku in particular. The author does a really good job describing the city, the atmosphere, the sights, the people who live in it. So much so that the city feels like its own entity and an integral part of the story. As an avid traveler who had been cooped up way to long because of Covid, I loved the chance to travel to a different place at least in my mind. And since I had visited Tokyo in 2018, some of the places described were familiar, like old friends.

Unfortunately, you need more than the atmosphere and a good description of the setting to make a good book. You also need a good story and engaging characters. In my opinion, this book is lacking in both those aspects. 

The story itself is not so bad. It’s about finding a purpose in life and a place where you belong. About family, both found and inherited. However, it starts really slow and meanders around aimlessly for over half of the book, just like Sato does. In fact, it doesn’t really pick up pace until about 60% into the book when the stuff with Kiki happens and Sato finally decides to do something apart from procrastinating.

And that is my second gripe with this book. Sato was just too passive a character to qualify for the role of a protagonist. As I mentioned, he spends over half the book just floating with the current, not engaged with the world at all, just observing it from the shadows. And I understand why the author wrote him this way and fully appreciate his transformation by the end of the book, but it really makes for a boring character to follow.

Also, since Sato doesn’t particularly care about any members of his “found family” for half the book, I found it hard to care for them as well. The bonds haven’t been established or properly showcased beforehand, so when bad things start to happen to them, there isn’t this sense of urgency and outrage that I should be feeling. In fact, I empathized with the dog more than I did with any other characters in this book, so that says something.

All in all, this was an interesting story and a good glimpse into a different culture. It would have been better if Sato had been more involved with the world around him from the get go.

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

The Liar of Red Valley by Walter Goodwater

 Stars: 5 out of 5

I absolutely loved this book, y’all! This gave me the same vibes as American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett, only with a much more reliable protagonist. 

Sadie’s mother was the Liar of Red Valley. A position that gave her a certain power with its inhabitants. They didn’t like her, they certainly didn’t trust her, but they still came to her and paid for her to tell lies on their behalf. But now she is dead, and Sadie needs to figure out how to become the next Liar. She also needs to find her mom’s ledger, keep all the other ledgers safe, oh, and save Red Valley from total destruction. No worries.

As I said, this book is what is often referred to as American weird. The world is very much like our own, but certain things lurk in the shadows that are not human. The people of Red Valley know about them, and they also know the rules that let everybody coexist more or less peacefully. Newcomers though… well, either they learn, or they don’t. The things in the shadows have to be fed from time to time too, after all.

I liked the atmosphere of Red Valley. This could be any run-down town in the American heartland. I drove through a lot of those. Closed and boarded up businesses on Main street, a couple cafes and diners barely surviving on local and sometimes tourist traffic, a few jobs supporting the local Walmart, drugs, alcohol, despair for the rest of the residents. The fact that there are some supernatural elements to this setup isn’t all that far-fetched. After all, what do we know about those other crumbling town all over our nation? All we see when we drive through are boarded up windows. There might be their own kinds of weird residents staring at us from within. 

Most of my enjoyment with this book came from following Sadie. She is a great protagonist right from the start. She is relatable. She is very human, even when faced with hard situations. I loved her and rooted for her from the get go. And I loved her even more once I discovered a few things about her that I won’t talk about because I don’t want to spoil it.

The book is also well-written. There is plenty of tension and the story moves at a good pace. It’s not so fast that the reader doesn’t have time to get to know the characters or take a breather between action scenes. It is also not so slow that the reader would get bored. All the information about Red Valley is introduced in measured dozes and exactly when needed, without resorting to the dreaded info-dumps. 

All in all, this is one my favorite books I read in 2022 so far and I highly recommend it.

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

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

 Stars: 5 out of 5

Most epic fantasy books end with our mighty heroes defeating the big bad and riding into the sunset and their happy ever after. But ask yourself this question – what happens after the sun sets? What does that ever after look like? Especially if you spent years preparing for this one battle, dedicated your whole life to it. If you walked from it physically and mentally scarred and lost your heart in the process? This is what this book is about. 

Kreya was the leader of the Five Heroes of Vos, the brave crew who defeated the nefarious bone maker Eklor… but that was 25 years ago. And she lost everything in that battle – she lost her husband, who took a fatal arrow trying to protect one of their friends. This death broke Kreya – they were supposed to spend their life together after this battle, to travel the world and experience life to the fullest, to see and do everything they had put on hold while they were saving the world. They were supposed to grow old together. Now Kreya had 25 solitary years trying to resurrect her dead husband using the research of the very monster they sacrificed so much to defeat.

It was interesting to see that famed ever after and follow a band of heroes in their lives after the main story had seemingly ended. I found the portrayal of how these people would try to rebuild their lives after such a traumatic event very realistic. Some try to rebuild their lives and become successful, and never ever think about the war again. Some found a family and find happiness in a quiet life. Some are so broken that their mind fractures over time, and some, like Kreya, put their entire life on hold in order to bring back the person they love.

I also loved that even though they hadn’t seen each other in years, when one of them needs help, they all gather around that person and offer all the help they can. Sure, some will grumble about it, but they will still do it. That’s what true friends are. And like true heroes, when a new evil threatens their country, they will still rise to the occasion.

As you can see, I absolutely loved the characters. All six of our heroes are very human, with their flaws and their battle scars. And yes, I include Stren’s wife in this, because she is just as much part of the crew this time around as the original 5. They make mistakes, they doubt themselves, they don’t want to be responsible for saving the world again, but they still do it when they realize that nobody else will. 

I would have loved a bit more details about the world. It’s mentioned that Vos is built entirely on mountaintops, that a perpetual mist shrouds the valleys between the peaks and monsters live in that mist. I would have loved to learn a bit more about that. Is this a natural occurrence? Is this the result of some ancient war? Are other countries like that as well or not? Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions.

But this gripe notwithstanding, this was an excellent book. I highly recommend it for fantasy fans out there.

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

The Moonsteel Crown (Dominion 1) by Stephen Deas

Stars: 5 out of 5

I must admit that I loved this book, despite a couple flaws. But those flaws are too small to mention and didn’t take anything from the sheer pleasure of discovering the rich world the author created and following the characters. 

I think that the characters are the biggest strength of this book. We follow three of them: Seth, a failed priest, Fingers, a thief and pickpocket, and Myla, a sun-monk on the run from her past. They are all flawed. All three have their own fears, hang-ups, and delusions. They aren’t good people by any means, but neither are they bad. They are very human and relatable, even if I had the urge to smack Fingers upside the head on more than one occasion. But truth be told, I have that urge with some of my real life friends as well.

It is truly a delight to follow these three characters through the story and watch them make mistakes, do stupid, and sometimes rather ugly things to each other, and be fully invested in their lives. Because they are human and relatable. Because I understood their motives and I wanted to see them find some kind of meaning to their lives. Not to mention, I wanted them to survive the events of this book so that they could find that meaning.

 I would say that one of the flaws is that the villains are less developed. We get more background with Sulfane eventually, so we understand what makes him do what he does. We don’t get much about Blackhand. He doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. He is ruthless and doesn’t hesitate to double-cross his friends and allies when it suits him. He treats even the members of his own gang like shit most of the time, especially Seth. So I had to wonder why people like Fings and Wil were so loyal to him? Why go to any lengths to rescue him after everything he’s done? I would understand this if Blackhand was ruthless to the outsiders but fair and protective of his own crew, but we never get an indication of that. In fact, he is a shit leader, no matter how you look at it. But that’s a small flaw.

I loved the worldbuilding in this book. Even though the action takes place in one city – Varr (and around it), we get a feeling for a much waster world with a rich and ancient history. Even Varr is a city of many layers, with ruins, palaces, temples and hovels, and forgotten catacombs, that point towards thousands of years of civilization.

I liked that we are introduced to this world organically, through conversations between characters, through snippets in books and stories, through small mentions relevant to the story itself. There are no info-dumps or characters telling each other things they should know just for the benefit of the reader. That way the reader discovers more about the world gradually and is kept interested in learning more. In fact, I definitely want to read the next book and find out more about Dead Men and mages and what happened to the Baleful Eye in the sky. 

While I don’t particularly approve the route Seth chose by the end of this book, and I see the enormous potential for abuse and the risk of him turning into a monster worse than Blackhand, I definitely want to learn more about the secrets he uncovered.

So all in all, this is an excellent first book in a series. It tells a complete story, introduces interesting characters, and makes you want to pick up the next installment. 

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

Midnight, Water City (Water City 1) by Chris McKinney

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

Honestly, my reaction after finishing this book is “meh.” 

I went into this book excited about the premise. An underwater city? Humanity averting the end of the world for once? This sounded so exciting! Unfortunately, we spend little to no time at all in the actual underwater city. 

And the worldbuilding isn’t really fleshed out at all. So the mankind mostly lives underwater to stay safe from solar flares? Okay, I get get onboard with that if you explain to me how that works. How did we manage to combat the enormous pressure in the ocean depths? How do we deal with the endless night, the decompression, etc.? Our protagonist seems to zip in and out of the deepest ocean reaches to the highest mountain in a matter of minutes with no visible side effects. 

Also, how are those seascrapers built? That hints at significant advances in engineering and construction materials, especially considering that today we can barely explore the depths in what amounts to an extremely reinforced safe with small windows. Yet 100 years from now, after some major wars and natural catastrophes, mind you, humanity can build penthouses at the bottom of the ocean that are about 80% reinforced glass. I know this is sci-fi. I am ready to suspend my disbelief, but the author needs to throw me a bone – some kind of explanation is in order.

That’s a trend for every scientific advancement in this book. Things happen because they need to happen for the story, and no thought is given to how feasible they are. This approach really undermines the credibility of the story and the worldbuilding starts to wobble and break around the edges. 

But the biggest problem with this book for me is that I couldn’t care less for any of the characters. Quite frankly, they are all horrible human beings. 

The protagonist used to be a killer for hire. Yes, he killed for the greater good, or at least that’s how he justifies it, but he is still a cold-blooded murderer. Add to that that he is on his fourth marriage and and his fourth kid. He’s lost all contact with his previous wives after the divorce (apart from the one that was killed), and doesn’t even know what happened to his children. He even mentions in the story that he is in the same country as his first ex-wife at one point, but has no desire to check on them. He basically ignores his current wife and avoids his daughter, because “children never interested him.” What a wonderful human being! /end sarcasm.

And the woman he works for is even worse, especially if the story about her lying about the Killing Rock is true. Akira Kimura is a sociopath and a megalomaniac who has zero concern for anyone but herself. Her daughter is even worse. 

So the protagonist’s constant devotion to Akira feels more and more twisted and sick, the further the story progresses and the more we learn about that individual. And his unwillingness to kill Ascalon also makes no sense at all. In fact, the whole ending is a perfect example of a protagonist robbed of his agency. He didn’t make the decision in the end, circumstances did it for him, which makes the payoff extremely unsatisfying in my eyes.

All in all, this wasn’t a book I will remember. And this certainly wasn’t on of the best books I read in 2022. It was okay. It kept me interested enough to finish it, but that’s about it. I’m certainly not interested enough to pick up the next book in the series.

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

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

It pains me to give a less than stellar rating to Max Gladstone, but this is the first book of his I’ve been disappointed with. How can a book about found family, road trip, end of the world, parallel universes and so on be so… boring?

I loved this author’s Craft series. They are wonderfully imaginative and full of interesting characters and thought provoking concepts. So of course I jumped on the chance to get an ARC of this through NetGalley. And my initial state while I was reading this book, before the boredom set in, was that of bewilderment. Is this the author who wowed me with his other books? Am I reading this wrong? What is going on?

Oh, there are glimpses of the author I love in this story. There are moments that are tightly written and intensely terrifying. Like when the Cowboy first becomes aware of Sarah on the interstate, or the confrontation at the Best Western, or when Zelda is in the bug-infested tunnels under an alt New York. Those scenes had me at the edge of my seat, with my heart in my throat, terrified for the well-being of the characters…

Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance are few and far between. And they are bogged down by pages and pages of flashbacks, introspections, inner dialog about how miserable the characters are and how they think that the world is ending. It’s self-pity and self-recrimination on page upon page upon page. So you get this brilliant scene when the action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and the characters in danger… then you have 50 pages of inner monolog topped with a flashback on their first journey. Momentum – shot dead, not by the cowboy in a white hat, but by sheer boredom. In fact, I think that the book is at least 200 pages too long. My Kindle assured me that it was 400 pages long, but it felt like one of those 1000+ pages door stoppers – never-ending.

I think this approach would have worked if I cared for any of the characters, but I didn’t. They are all unlikeable, selfish people who wear their failures like a badge of honor and wallow in self-pity for most of the book. And since the reader has to follow them and be privy to their most inner thoughts, it makes for a very painful read, and not in a good way. 

Also, it is constantly hinted that their first journey to find the crossroads went horribly wrong and resulted in Sal’s downfall, but the book drags the actual story over pages and pages of hints and self-pity. By the time we actually learn what happened it feels… anti-climatic? I was like, “So all this misery is because of this? Are you kidding me?” Not a good thing when Sal’s downfall and Zelda’s guilt about it are the cornerstone of this story. 

By the end of the book I was so bored with the story, that I just skimmed through the last 10%. Also not good. The ending is supposed to be rewarding. It’s supposed to justify the effort the reader put into sticking with 400 pages of story. It was anything but that. And the big reveal and twist wasn’t all that shocking either. 

When I had finished the other books of this author, I had a sense of satisfaction and joy. I had wanted to savor the story, to re-read passages that I liked the most. When I finished Last Exit, all I had is a sense of relief that the slog was finally over and that I could delete the ARC from my Kindle. 

I will not recommend this book. Max Gladstone is a wonderful author though, so I suggest you read his Craft series instead.