Tag Archives: book reviews

Winter’s Reach (Revanche Cycle 1) by Craig Schaefer

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Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

This is an interesting start of a new (to me) series with nice worldbuilding and depth. The world is reminiscent of Renaissance Europe with it’s domination of the Church, the Holy City and byzantine political intrigue. Everyone has an ulterior motive, there are plans within plans, and conspiracies abound.

I liked all the characters, which is an important criteria of just how much I will enjoy the book. They aren’t all good people. In fact, I would argue that most of them aren’t particularly good, and all of them are out of their own personal gain in some shape or form. But they feel real, with their own good qualities and flaws. And I understand their motivations. Which made me invested in their struggles.

I especially liked Felix who went through a crucible of fire in Winter’s Reach and emerged stronger, but also more ruthless. And Amadeo, the dying Pope’s confessor and oldest friend, who is thorn between trying to fulfil a promise he made to his old friend and the realization that putting his the Pope’s son on the throne will be the end of, well, everything. 

I loved that there are plots within plots, and some plots are thwarted, and others succeed… but not exactly in a manner the organizers expected. And nobody is safe. Bad things happen to seemingly good characters, and death can come in an instant. Seemingly good people can be forced to do horrible things and bargain with powers they barely understand. Nothing is black and white, but all different shades of gray instead. This makes the book interesting, and the stakes ever so high for our characters. 

My only complaint about this book is that there are a lot of plotlines left unresolved. This book just sets the stage for the series, so don’t expect a nifty little conclusion at the end of it. We are introduced to the world and the characters. The lines are drawn and the armies are gathering, but you will have to read the following books to understand how it all gets resolved. Which I am more than happy to do, by the way, because this series seems amazing, and I want to know what happens to my favorite characters… and whether or not the villains in this story get their just desserts.

A Blade Through Time (Desolada 1) by Louis Kalman

DNF at 48%

This book started so strong. The first chapter was intense and full of danger and tension… Unfortunately the rest of the book that I managed to wade through before I gave up wasn’t as good.

We start with a vicious attack and a young boy who lost everything in the space of a day, almost died, and discovered that he can rewind time. So he flees the city and vows to master his time-shifting gift enough to come back and save his family. Wonderful premise for what could have been a great story. 

But that potential is wasted, because absolutely nothing happens for the next half of the book. Leones gets to the philosophers… and the story comes to a grinding halt. We have pages upon pages of Leones training with weapons, or drinking and gambling in an opium den, or just brooding around. He does nothing productive. He doesn’t even explore the city he ended up with beyond the philosopher’s gardens and the gambling dens. He doesn’t try to find out what happened in the city he fled. He only uses his time rewinding ability when it’s convenient for him. And he mops around and he feels sorry for himself. It’s boring.

I think I wouldn’t have been as boring if this part of the book was populated with interesting characters, but Leones is so self-absorbed that he barely pays attention to anyone besides himself, and only if those people can serve him in some shape or form. As a result, the other apprentices are barely described. I don’t know anything about them beyond their names and physical appearance. And because Leones never bothers to ask, I don’t know anything about their pasts or their aspirations. Heck, I don’t even know what most of them do outside of the philosophers’ gardens. 

As a result, they seem more like cardboard cutouts then real people that I should care about. Even when Leones’s maybe girlfriend is assassinated, which should be a big traumatic discovery for him, my reaction was very lackluster. Probably because Leones didn’t particularly grieve for her either. 

Speaking of which, Leones as a character didn’t work for me at all. He is depicted as being completely detached from his feelings. He is either a sociopath, or so traumatized by what happened in chapter 1 that he can’t allow himself to feel anything for anyone. If it’s the later, it’s not made clear enough in the book, so he comes across as self-absorbed, selfish, and unfeeling. Not a character I want to spend a whole book with.

By the time the action finally picked up in the book, and things were finally starting to happen, I realized that I simply wasn’t interested enough to continue. I mean one of the characters seemed to have been erased from existence, but I couldn’t’ are less. So I decided to call it quits, because I didn’t care how this story ended enough to invest any more time into it.

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

Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Stars: 3 out of 5.

I feel bad giving this book less than a stellar rating, because it raises some pretty important issues about inclusion and the casual mistreatment of those who are different. It also talks about trauma and healing and finding your purpose in life. So all the things that should be right up my alley, right? Yes this book left me pretty much cold. 

I see several problems with the narrative that made it so this book didn’t work for me.

First, there is too much going on. There are demons ready to buy your soul and the competitive world of violin music. There are aliens escaping the collapse of a distant civilization. There is a traumatized transgender kid who is trying to find her way in this world that has never showed her kindness. There is the Queen of Hell, who already damned the souls of six of her most brilliant violin students and only need to collect one more to buy back her own.

On each own, all these stories would make a wonderful book. Reading about Katrina finding her own voice and melting the Queen of Hell’s heart in the process would have been wonderful. Reading about Lan Thran building a new life on Earth for her family and finding a modicum of happiness. And also realizing that music might be just the thing that could heal the soul of her dying civilization. Or even reading about the strange and cutthroat world of violin competitions and the violin repair shop owner who had the power to repair and exorcise cursed violins. And it is also a story about immigrants and refugees who are trying to rebuild a life on distant shores, as demonstrated by the Asian diaspora in California. 

Unfortunately, mashing them all together into the same narrative did a disservice to all of the stories. First, it felt like a clash of ideas, but more importantly, there wasn’t enough time to develop each story to the extent that it needed to be developed. There were too many characters to keep track of, as a result, almost none of them felt fleshed out. I could honestly say that the only two characters that felt “alive” to me were Katrina and Shirley. Ironic, isn’t it, considering Shirley is an AI?

As it stands, I felt like all the stories were underdeveloped then forcibly woven together to create a happy ending. 

Also, I found that for a book that seemingly had such high stakes – the souls of two women in jeopardy, aliens fleeing the destruction of their civilization, etc. I never felt any urgency in the narrative. We are told that the stakes are high, but we aren’t shown that. Apart from that last competition where Katrina plays her heart out, I never felt like any of the characters were in real danger. 

It might also be because violence is glossed over or threated with a passing shrug and nothing else in this story. Katrina is raped by her roommate and it is barely mentioned afterwards. I mean, she was betrayed by someone she trusted, yet again, but we will not dwell into that? Or when Lan’s son casually kills a civilian and then Lan just disintegrates his friends so that they wouldn’t go to the police? There is no aftermath for her for that. Oh, we just killed four people. Oh well, moving on. That felt very callous to me, especially in a story that talks about how music can heal our souls.

The ending is also something I didn’t like about this book. I understand the author’s desire to end the story on a good note, to create a happy ever after ending. Unfortunately, it cheapens Katrina’s sacrifice and self-realization during the violin competition, and also Shizuka’s real sacrifice after it, when she chose to forfeit her soul instead of damning Katrina. Shizuka was bound to Hell. That was the choice and the sacrifice she’d willingly made. It would have made for a heart-breaking, but beautiful ending of the book. One that I would have remembered and praised. Getting her out of that bargain by cope out space aliens was wrong, in my opinion. It sends the message that no matter what horrible things you did in your life, you can always escape punishment if you have the right friends. 

I would also argue that the way this book treated Katrina’s trauma was very “fairy tale” ending as well. She has severe PTSD from all the abuse she’d suffered from her family and those around her. She has self-loathing and self-image issues. Winning one competition and finding her music won’t solve all that. Finding one person who loves and support you helps, but doesn’t eliminate the trauma. Katrina needs serious therapy and years of work and recovery to be whole. Yet that part is completely glossed over. 

So yes, I like all the ideas in this book and a deep dive into violins and music was fascinating. I just didn’t particularly like how they were blended together in this book. 

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

The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

 Stars: 5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Stars 5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Binds the Pack (The Ghost Wolves 2) by Alex Wells

Stars: 3 out of 5

I am ashamed to say that it took me almost 2 years to finish this book. According to Goodreads, I started reading on August 20, 2020… Well, I finished it on July 30, 2022. It’s not the longest I had dragged a book on my currently reading list, but it comes close.

And you know what? I am not sure why it took me so long. I loved the first book. I devoured it in two days. I was fascinated by the world, the magic, the characters… Especially Hob and her band of ragtag Wolves and the Bone Collector.

And therein lies the problem, I think. I liked Hob. I wanted to follow her and maybe also find out what happened to Coyote and how he would cope with the changes. Unfortunately, I got very little of that in this book. In fact, I got almost zero on Coyote at all, which is really disappointing. I mean he is back with the Wolves and helping Hob, but we don’t dwell over the profound changes he underwent at the end of the last book or the consequences for him. It’s the same old Coyote, just with a lust for blood… That was disappointing. And I get that there is a bigger story there and that Coyote is only slightly important to it, but it was still disappointing.

The book is divided between three main POVs (with the inclusion of a couple unimportant ones here and there). We follow Mag, Shige, and Hob. Unfortunately, I couldn’t care less for Mag even in the first book, and she gets a lion’s share of page time in this one. Shige isn’t much more interesting to me either. Listening to him whining about his upbringing and his fate and not doing anything to change it gets old fast. And listening to him dwelling in his jealousy for his brother who had actually left is even more irritating. As far as I’m concerned, he could have died in that desert and I wouldn’t have shed a tear.

So this leaves only one POV I was excited to read… and Hob gets very little coverage. Of the three narrators, we stay with her the least until the final battle. I would be excited every time I got to Hob’s narratives, but they would end up way too quickly and I would have to slog through Mag’s troubles with the miners or Shige’s ineffective meddling with TransRift while he was becoming the Weatherman’s puppet… and my interest would disappear to the point where I would put the book down for a few months. And that’s why it took me two years to read 416 pages.

I still think it’s a decent book. I just wish we had learned a bit more about this strange world and that the characters I liked had a bit more screen time. But if you like Mag or Shige, you should breeze through this book pretty quickly and enjoy it.

Exodus Towers (Dire Earth Cycle 2) by Jason M Hough

Stars: 3 out of 5

I am not too sure about this series, to tell the truth. My husband read all the books and loved them, and I am… struggling. 

I mean the premise is wonderful and the worldbuilding is cool, but there is just something missing for me. 

I think it’s just because all the characters are so cookie cutter. The main guys is all good and heroic. The villains are very black and white and villainous just for the sake of it, it seems. The female characters… with the exception of Samantha, they have no personality. They are just there to incite our protagonist towards a particular set of actions or a decision. Neither of them have any agency on their own. I was willing to overlook that in the first book, because it had the thankless task of establishing the world and setting up the protagonist. Plus, it was this author’s debut novel. It is however getting a lot harder to let that slide in this book. 

It doesn’t help that the story doesn’t go anywhere in a hurry. I had the impression that some episodes were added just because the author thought they would be cool, but they didn’t really advance the main story. Case in point, the attempted invasion of the camp by immunes. Yes, that was a heart-ponding conflict for the 100 pages it lasted, but it ultimately didn’t advance the story. The leader was killed, most immunes ran away, and the settlers were left to rebuild their community. What was the purpose of that? It has no impact that I could see on the main plot. It did make the book seem endless and meandering though.

As a result, the book didn’t accomplish half of what it set out to do, even after 540-some pages. Samantha’s story arc is barely started. We only recovered one out of five artifacts that fell on Earth in the first book. When I finished reading, I felt like this book was a half-finished tapestry with loose treads flapping in the wind. 

All in all, I don’t know if I will continue with the series. I mean, I still want to know why the builders did this to Earth and humanity, but I am starting to care less and less about the characters. I might check out the next book, just because I’ve already bought it, but if it doesn’t improve after that, I will call it quits.

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.

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.