Tag Archives: book 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.

Battle Hill Bolero (Bone Street Rumba 3) by Daniel Jose Older.

Stars: 3 out of 5

I must admit that I’m disappointed with this book. I had loved Midnight Taxi Tango (which I reviewed as well), so I was looking forward to see what trouble Carlos, Sasha, Reza and Kia would manage to get themselves into next.

Well, bad news is, even though we still get Carlos and Sasha POVs, Kia is virtually non-existent in Battle Hill Bolero, and Reza seems to have taken a long sabbatical or something. Same goes for a few other characters I really liked from the previous books, like Baba Eddie. Instead, we are introduced to a plethora of new characters that seem to have come out of nowhere, like Krys, the River Giants and a bunch of other ghosts. Oh, they are interesting and fully fleshed out, but they seem tacked on to the story and spend most of the book on the outskirts of the main action, sorta hanging there with nothing particularly important to do until the last battle.

Oh, don’t misunderstand me, I really loved Krys. Once again, Mr. Older has a knack for creating wonderfully diverse characters that you WANT to follow. The problem is, the path Krys follows is barely tangent to the story for most of the book. So much so that her story feels disconnected from the main events.

And why is Caitlin even in this book? Her story was pretty much done with the destruction of the blattodeon at the end of Midnight Taxi Tango. Oh, we could have had an excellent revenge arc where she could have sought to destroy Carlos and Sasha for bringing down everything she’d worked for her entire life. Unfortunately, the author chose not to take that route. Instead, she is hangs on the outskirts of the story for most of the book and only plays an important role during the last battle, but even that story arc could have been taken out of the book entirely without any major damage to the story. Caitlin is a non-entity. She gets no personal development at all, which is rather surprising for an author who loves creating characters that feel so alive they jump out of the book page at you. Her only role in the book is to be a weapon and to distract Carlos from the main fight for a few minutes.

This is so disappointing because, like I already mentioned, she could have been so much more. Just imagine – a powerful necromancer going after the people who killed her family, destroyed the cult she had dedicated her entire life to and basically left her future in shambles. That warranted a whole book dedicated to the clash between these powers.

And this is where my major complaint about Battle Hill Bolero lies – the story. It doesn’t feel like the third book in a series and a direct continuation of Midnight Taxi Tango. When I started the book, I had to go on Amazon and make sure that I didn’t skip a couple more books in the series, because I was so confused with the direction of the story. By the end of Midnight Taxi Tango, Carlos, Sasha and their group had defeated the blattodeon and saved their children from a gruesome fate. Yes, there had been rumblings about the Council of the Dead among the ghosts, and Carlos didn’t particularly like his employers, but nothing even hinted at the full-out confrontation we start Battle Hill Bolero with. Where did that come from?

The author implies that only a few months passed between the two books, but for the situation to escalate like this, a lot of things must have happened. Things that aren’t even mentioned or explained. So the reader starts the book with a nagging feeling that they skipped an important portion of the story. As a result, I felt disconnected from most of the new characters. I was so busy trying to figure out the stakes and the whats and the whys of the situation to concentrate on the plethora of new characters that were thrown my way.

It is sad that this happened, because I truly loved this series; the diversity and complexity of the world; the vivid and interesting characters. But this book feels rushed and disjointed at the same time, which almost puts me off this series entirely. I might give the next book a read or I might not, but I won’t be eagerly waiting for it anymore.

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

Wake of Vultures (The Shadow 1) by Lila Bowen.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

I absolutely loved this book, and I would give it 6 stars if my rating scale went that far. It’s a mesmerizing mixture of western, fantasy and horror that captured my imagination and had me remembering Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (which has a special place in my heart, so that’s the best praise there is).

Nettie Lonesome has never seen anything past the farm of her adoptive parents who treat her more like a slave. She is part black and part Indian, abandoned when she was just a baby, unwanted by anyone in the world, or so her adoptive parents claim. And she believed them until one fateful night when a stranger with teeth longer and sharper than any human should have attacks her in the barn and crumbles into sand when she manages to kill him. Now she sees things that other people can’t see. And a ghost on a black horse has sworn to haunt her until the end of time if she doesn’t go West and kill the Cannibal Owl, a monster who’s been stealing children from every village in Durango country.

Remember when Roland walked through a desert in his pursuit of the Man in Black in The Gunslinger? Well, Nettie Lonesome lives in that harsh desert, with all its horrors and small victories. Here the terrain is unforgiving, and the people are but specks in the sand, hiding in their small villages. Monsters are real. And the Cannibal Owl is a monster that even other monsters fear.

Wake of Vultures would have been good just for the excellent world building alone, but when you add a strong protagonist to the mix, it becomes simply awesome. Nettie Lonesome is tough as nails. She’d learned early on that she could only rely on her own wits and sharpshooting skills, so she doesn’t yield easy and she definitely doesn’t take any bullshit from anybody. The flip side of this is that it’s extremely hard for her to accept help and trust anyone who offers that help, because in her life everything always came with strings attached. So she is suspicious of anyone she meets and can be extremely pigheaded at times.

But what I love the most about Nettie is that she doesn’t let others define who she is. She’s always been the odd one out – not white, not black, not even brown, but a strange mixture of everything. She was born a woman, but prefers living her life as a man, because she finds nothing in common with the women she’s seen in the little village she spent her life in. She is attracted to both men and women and finds no shame in that. She is who she is and she won’t bend to the rules of a society that has rejected her since her birth just because of the color of her skin.

In addition to an excellent world and strong protagonist, the story is fast-paced and interesting, and the secondary characters are complex if not always likable. They are flawed and human, even if some of them are technically monsters.

I would recommend this book for anyone who loved the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, or to anyone who simply wants to read a gripping story set in an unusual world. As for me, I can’t wait to see where Nettie’s journey will lead her so I’m ready to sink my teeth in to the Conspiracy of Ravens.

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

A Night Without Stars (Commonwealth: Chronicle of the Fallers 2) by Peter F Hamilton.

Stars: 4 out of 5

 

A Night Without Stars is the second book in the Chronicle of the Fallers, but there are plenty of other books in the Commonwealth series, and I recommend them all.

 

At the end of The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which I reviewed here, Nigel detonated the quantumbuster in a desperate attempt to free Bienvenido from the Void. It worked… sort of. The Void spit Bienvenido back into the normal space, but beyond the fringe of the galaxy and millions of light years away from the Commonwealth with no means of sending a distress signal. Oh, and the Faller trees were spit out with them as well. Only now the tree ring is broken, so the Faller eggs fall all over the planet, not just in a ring.

 

A Night Without Stars begins roughly 300 years after that event, and it’s sad to say that Bienvenido’s society is just as totalitarian as ever. Slvasta’s paranoia took deep roots and poisoned the government system even years after his death. Humans with commonwealth genes allowing them to communicate with each other, derogatorily called Eliters, are persecuted. Any attempt to raise the technology level past the equivalent of Earth’s 1960s is foiled without mercy. And the news local media cover have little to do with actual facts and everything to do with propaganda.

 

According to this propaganda, the Faller treat is almost destroyed, since the government launches space missions to destroy Faller Trees every few months or so, and every single mission is successful. The few Faller eggs that reach the surface are dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly. Bienvenido will be free from the Fallers for good within the next hundred years or so.

 

The reality is that the equipment necessary for the space missions is outdated and held together with bootstraps and prayers. Even though most of the missions succeed at nuking the trees assigned to them, eggs fall all over Bienvenido from the remaining trees. The government has to means of tracking where they fall and what happens to them afterwards, because humans have abandoned all but one continent and a few small islands closest to it. The rest of the planet is free for Faller’s taking.

 

The higher ranking government workers know the truth – Bienvenido is lost. The Faller Apocalypse is not a myth spread by Eliters, but a reality. Time for humans on the planet is running out. Then, after another tree is destroyed over Bienvenido, the nuclear blast frees an old Commonwealth escape pod that lands on the planet bringing what might be Bienvenido’s only hope to survive the coming destruction.

 

The Commonwealth series remind me of the Culture Series by Iain M Banks, and I have an undying love for those. But even without that association, these books are a treat to read in their own right. I love that some of the characters I grew to know and love in book 1, like Kyssandra and Laura Brandt, are still around in this book, but even without them, the new characters are just as interesting to follow around. Nobody is entirely black or white. Everyone has their own flaws and weaknesses, but that makes them more engaging.

 

A Night Without Stars is darker and feels more hopeless than its predecessor, which is to be expected since the future of Bienvenido is rather bleak. The book is about 500 pages long, but it’s packed with action and suspense, so it doesn’t feel long. In fact, I kept turning the pages and I couldn’t put it down as the stakes grew higher and higher and I kept wondering if it was even possible to resolve this conflict with at least some of my favorite characters left standing at the end…

 

And this is where I had to dock one star on what would otherwise have been a perfect 5 star rating. The ending is… underwhelming. I won’t describe it because that would be a huge spoiler, but all the conflict and tension and the life or death stakes are resolved too neatly and too easily, in my opinion, without the characters having really earned that resolution.

 

But apart from that ending, this was an excellent book that I would recommend to my friends. And while I wait for the next book in the series, I think I will go back and start at the beginning with Pandora’s Star.

 

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

Winter Halo (Outcast book 2) by Keri Arthur.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

 

I had read and reviewed City of Light, the first book in the Outcast series, and I had absolutely loved it. So I awaited the next installment with no small amount of anticipation and, I must admit it, dread.

 

Why dread, might you ask? Because too often the second book in a series is the weakest, especially if book one was excellent, like it was here. The worldbuilding is set, the characters have been introduced, but it’s too early to start on the main conflict of the series, so book two is often a slump that can easily be skipped (I’m looking at you, October Daye).

 

So how did Winter Halo fare when it comes to the dreaded second book slump? It did better than most, but didn’t escape it entirely. The story moved forward, and we got another piece of the big puzzle, but the main premise of the book still felt… rather secondary.

 

The book picks up right where the first book left off, and there is no rest for the wicked, and no time for Tiger to lick wounds or reflect on the betrayal of some people she’d just began to trust. Yes, they managed to rescue the children held by the vampires, but at least five more are missing, and the odds of finding them alive are bad. And even though one of the people she’d agreed to work with just tried to kill her, Tiger wouldn’t be Tiger if she just stood by and let those children get hurt without at least trying to do something. So she chooses to ally herself with the shifters again, albeit reluctantly, and infiltrate Winter Halo, the company they had investigated in book 1…

 

I have a love-hate relationship with this book. I am still loving Tiger. She is a strong and kickass protagonist who knows her strengths and uses them to advance her cause. I love that she has a strong moral compass and a depth of compassion and love that not many “normal” people have, let alone other dechet. Her relationship with Cat and Bear, the two ghost children that are tied to her, is both heartwarming and incredibly sad. And I understand why she would go to the lengths she goes to find the missing children – She watched all the little dechet children in her care slaughtered and was unable to save them, and has to live with that guilt (and their ghosts), so she would rather die than watch another child hurt.

 

My problem is that this book does a poor job of following through with this premise. We start looking for those still missing children right off the bat. The author even tells us that their time is running out, so you would think that there would be some sense of urgency there? Nope. Tiger and her crew seem to meander all over the place and stumble into bigger plots along the way, and the mention of those children who are still missing is thrown here and there almost like an afterthought.

 

Second problem is that this particular storyline isn’t even resolved by the end of the book. SPOILER ALERT!!! The children are still missing by the end, and Tiger (and the reader) isn’t any closer to finding them than she was in the beginning.

 

And finally, what Tiger discovers in Winter Halo is so big that the destiny of a few children rather pales in comparison… yet it’s not properly addressed in the book or acknowledged by the characters. It’s like hey, the creatures from the rifts might be planning to take over our world and exterminate everyone who lives here, but let’s not talk about that, because the children are still missing…

 

On a positive note, Tiger eliminated yet another villain and, hopefully, threw a wrench in the group’s plans to destroy the world. And she had an honest talk with her love interest after which both decided to give the relationship a chance. Color me pleasantly surprised, because most series would have milked that sexual tension for at least another 2-3 books. I’m glad it’s resolved though, because that opens a new chapter in their relationship to explore – how will they deal with dating each other, coming from such different backgrounds and with such a history of hate and violence between their species? And even if it wasn’t for that, not many books choose to explore the difficulties and joys of two people trying to build something together after that initial “we love each other, let’s hook up” phase.

 

So my wish for the next book is this – let’s finally put that missing children plot to rest. Either find them already or write them off as casualties of this shadow war, but enough is enough. And let’s focus on the more pressing problem of some unknown baddies that have allies even inside the city government trying to destroy the world.

 

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

Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

The end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to come with a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion or a natural disaster that wipes the majority of the population. In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, it starts with a high fever that has a 98% fatality rate in men, 99% in women, and 100% in newborn babies. And while researchers identify the virus causing this, nobody manages to find a cure before the loss of human life is so significant that all governmental structures simply crumble.

 

The survivors are faced with a bleak future for the human race – with every baby born stillborn or dying shortly after birth, most often killing the mother as well, they might well be the last generation on Earth. People react differently to this news, but one thing is certain – it’s not fun or save to be a woman in this brave new world. There are bands of desperate men roaming around the ruins of our civilization for whom a woman is nothing more than a rare commodity and a slave, to be used and sold for other commodities. And a pregnancy might as well be a death sentence.

 

Our protagonist used to work in the OBGYN department in a San Francisco Hospital, but being a midwife is a dying profession as things stand. She survived the fever, but woke up to a world where meeting another human being was often more dangerous than meeting a pack of wolves.

 

This books is written as a mix between a series of diary entries and normal third person exposition. Most of the entries are by our unnamed midwife, though we also get stories from other people she meets along the way. That was a nice touch, because it gives the reader different perspectives into what is happening. Not everyone reacts the same to the seeming end of the world, which is normal, and I appreciated that the readers got to witness this story through several lenses.

 

But the main narrator is, of course, our unnamed midwife, though she isn’t unnamed per se. It’s just that she uses different names during the story, depending on the circumstances. I think by the end of the book, even she doesn’t remember what her real name was…

 

But constant name changes notwithstanding, I really liked her. She is a fighter. She is not one to roll over and give up, just because the situation seems dire and the future even bleaker. She adapts, she changes what she can in herself when she can’t change the external factors, and she presses on.

 

If it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman, she will dress like a man. But unlike a lot of other female protagonists we see, she doesn’t merely cut her hair and dress in bulky clothes, she tries to act, behave and think like a man. She exercises to bulk up. She practices with guns and other weapons until shooting is almost an automatic response.

 

I like just how tough and resourceful she is. How self-reliant. But that doesn’t mean that she is okay with living by herself the rest of her life. One of the problems this book tackles is the slow insanity that grips you when you spend too much time cut out from the rest of the world. Humans are social animals. We need to be able to interact with other humans on a regular basis, even a little, even just to hear somebody else’s voice answering you from time to time. And I understand why our unnamed midwife choses to join a community in the end, no matter how distrustful she’d become of other humans.

 

My review might have made it sound like this book is rather bleak and depressing. It kinda is, since it is a post-apocalyptic novel, after all. However, the overall message is one of hope. Life will find a way, no matter how bleak the circumstances…

 

So all in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the post-ap genre and would like to read something more realistic than the usual zombie fare.

A Witch’s Kitchen by Dianna Sanchez.

Stars: 5 out  of 5

 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer at the beginning of my review – this is a children’s book. Well, a Middle Grade book, but the point is that this is not my usual reading fare. In fact, I stumbled upon this book by mistake: I loved the cover on Netgalley and requested it without looking for the intended audience. Glad I did, because I loved it!

Millie thinks she is a useless witch who can’t do proper magic. None of the spells her mother tries to teach her turn out right. In fact, the only thing she can do and loves to do is cook, much to her mother’s disappointment. But then she is enrolled into the Enchanted Forest School and discovers that there are other kinds of magic then the one her mother uses and that maybe she isn’t as useless as she thought. She also makes some friends and a few enemies and uncovers the truth about who her father really is.

The story sounds simple when summarized like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its simplicity, this is a wonderful story that touches on some important topics like the importance of friends, the struggle to meet expectations and the desire to fit in, the difficult choices one has to make when deciding to follow a different path in life. It also talks about things like bullying at school and split families.

Oh, and you can really tell that the author loves cooking just as much as Millie does. The descriptions of most of the dishes Millie made in this book had me salivating and running for the fridge, though sadly, I didn’t have anything as good there to treat myself with.

Millie is a wonderful protagonist. She is shy and very self-conscious because all her life she considered herself a failure, a disappointment and a source of shame for her mother. She has zero self-esteem because she’d been mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by the other witch apprentices because of her inability to cast any “normal” witch spells. But that rather brutal upbringing didn’t turn her into an embittered hag. She managed to remain a very sweet girl who loves making others feel better with her cooking skill.  I like how she more self-assured once she makes some friends in school. Growing up is a hard and often painful process during which you can learn some rather unpleasant truths about people you considered your heroes when you were a child. I like that Millie stands up to her mother and decides to undertake the dangerous journey into the Logical Realm (aka our world) to find the truth about her father.

The Magical Realm of the Enchanted Forest is delightfully fleshed out. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic because it’s a children’s book, but it’s still full of depth and colors and different magical inhabitants, friendly or otherwise. I loved the School and the different creatures that teach there , and I kinda wish the book spent more time there, a bit like the Harry Potter books in Hogwards. I mean the caretaker is a giant tree! The whole school is located on its branches. And the Headmistress is a dragon. I would have loved to see what other classes were taught there, because the few that we saw seemed really interesting. Not that I’m disappointed with Millie’s journey into the Logical Real either, but talking about that would be a huge spoiler, so why don’t you find out about it for yourselves?

I don’t have kids, but I think A Witch’s Kitchen would be an excellent book to read with your middle grader on those fall evenings when the air turns colder and the sun sets earlier and paying outside is out of the question. I think there is something to enjoy in this story for both children and adults. So go on, buy it! You won’t regret it!

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