The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarers #4

Scifi, Space Opera

Harper Voyager; April 20, 2021 (US)
Hodder & Stoughton; February 18, 2021 (UK)

368 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to HarperCollins, Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Note: In an odd turn, I was granted TWO review copies of this, one by each publisher. Um, can’t complain. Therefore, two reviews. They say the same thing, just published two months apart. I’m not trying to capitalize twice on this, I just wasn’t sure how exactly to handle it.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth and final book in the Wayfarers series, a collection of semi-related novels all taking place in the same universe. One of my favorite all-time series, the Wayfarers teaches hope, love and acceptance, while still managing to relate to everyday life, despite the fact that it’s set hundreds of years in the future.

I fully expect that Becky Chambers was sitting around during the pandemic, relaxing and pondering new projects, when some of her friends called her up or messaged her with “the world NEEDS more Wayfarers”. Enter the Galaxy, and the Ground Within [hereby known as simply The Ground Within].

Gora once lived an nondescript existence. The only planet orbiting an unremarkable star, it held no air, no water, no native life or valuable minerals. If not for a series of wormholes, it might not have gotten any attention whatsoever.

As a popular stopover on the intergalactic highway, Gora is a pseudo-truck stop. Here, at the Five-Hop One-Stop, long haul traders, travelers, and spacers alike can stretch their appendages, shake out their hair, and let their lamella breathe.

When a freak tech failure leads to Gora being locked down, interstellar traffic grinds to a halt, at least for the travelers stuck in the system. And specifically for five such spacers at the Five-Hop. Now these strangers (three travelers and the two hosts) must band together to survive—or at least to stave off boredom—or they will fall divided.

The Ground Within is a particularly remarkable book, as it predominantly features no humans, at least among the main cast. As such, I occasionally felt myself (my imagination, at least) come ungrounded as my mind boggled to accurately picture all the non-conforming life. Not that we’re left completely in the dark. Among the main cast are a few species that you’re likely familiar with, should you have read any of the other three books—not to mention one character in particular that has appeared in a previous book, albeit briefly.

The Ground Within is also remarkable as it doesn’t so much feature an overarching plot, per say. I mean, there IS a plot, obviously, it’s just not the typical space opera kind. Instead it’s written in more of the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet approach of “here’s a subset of characters, here’re their problems, let’s put them in a room and hash everything out”. Which it does, to varying degrees of success.

The main issue is that with no overarching force driving the story, it’s prone to wander aimlessly. Which it does—or feels like it does—for a decent chunk of the book. I often found myself asking “where is this going?” only for the plot to resolve itself in an odd, often roundabout way, or by ditching one path and abruptly taking another, only to return later on. It’s… Becky Chambers is good at this approach. Not to say that it’s when she’s at her best, but she can make it work. And does. There are bumps along the road, however. Once or twice I even considered giving it up, as nothing was happening and I couldn’t see where we were heading. But in the end I stuck it out and was glad I did.

I teared up. Again. Four books and the author has caused me to tear up in each one. I guess that’s as good a measure of success as any other. Although occasionally aimless and often wandering, The Ground Within delivers again. I know Chambers has said time and again that this is the last Wayfarers entry. But if there is one more in the future—maybe we’ll have another lockdown or something—I would like to see it be more guided.

TL;DR

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the Wayfarers finale you didn’t know you needed. I mean, you KNEW you NEEDED one, you just didn’t know this was it. Possessed of an odd, often leisurely pace, the story seems to wander aimlessly throughout, in no hurry to reach any destination, and even with no concrete destination in mind. This is a particularly remarkable novel, for the reason that there are no humans amongst the main cast. But despite this, Becky Chambers manages to tell a full, amazing story that does not disappoint in the end. While not up to the level of #2 or 3, I cannot recommend The Galaxy, and the Ground Within enough as an emotional, thought-provoking read, combining messages of hope and acceptance. It provides a fitting resolution to the Wayfarers series, and one that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did!

On Tap 4/14

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – by Benedict Patrick

Goodreads

Picked this one up via Patrick’s Kickstarter last year, and finally found a minute to give it a try. As he has another Kickstarter launching for the Darkstar books (later this month), figured it was high time I give it a go. While I’m only 1/3 through, the plot combines fantasy and mystery with a lovely-rendered setting, and highly immersive story. I’m absolutely loving it thus far!

Min’s first command out of the academy might just be her last. When a routine mission goes arwy, Min and her crew are deposited in a mysterious world with no idea how they got there or how they can escape. But they must survive the Darkstar first to have any hope of returning home. Oh, and there’s a country-sized dragon waiting to eat them if they let their guard down.

The Alien Stars – by Tim Pratt

Goodreads

An ARC I completely forgot I had! Many thanks to the people over at Angry Robot for this one! A collection of three novellas set in the Axiom Universe, supposedly interconnected at that—I haven’t read anything of Pratt besides the Doors of Sleep, but I liked that, so… here we are. One in and so far I needn’t’ve worried. The plot was fairly straight forward, and an interesting read. Here’s hoping the rest continue to impress!

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee

Goodreads

The second Sam Wyndham mystery returns to Colonial India with the assassination of a Maharajah’s son. The events surrounding the prince’s death lead the Englishman and his deputy into a kingdom riven with internal conflict. Where they must find the murderer before the murderer finds them.

Just started this one, so I can’t speak to how it is yet. But the narrator, Malk Williams, really brings the character of Wyndham to life!

Note: In reviewing the narrator’s name for this, I discovered that apparently this is the last Wyndham novel with him as the voice of our hero which is a tremendous disappointment. While I know Simon Bubb is an excellent narrator as well, I be sad to see Williams go.

The Glass Breaks – by A.J. Smith (Review)

Form & Void #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus; March 19, 2018

512 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.0 / 5 ✪

Chained to the rocks and left for the tide, Duncan Greenfire will either become a Sea Wolf—or he’ll die trying. All that stands between the 17 year old and death is the realm of Void, and his ability to cross the Glass into it. But as powerful as Duncan is—it’s a raw power, one that he can’t always control. And after two days doing little more than trying to survive, he has little enough power left. But when the dawn comes, and Duncan is still alive, his initiation is complete. He is a Sea Wolf, now and forever.

It’s been 167 years since the Sea Wolves and their Eastron kin sailed across the sea to take the Pure Lands by force. With an ability to step between the realms of Form and Void, their strength was unparalleled and the natives folded before their might. In the years since, their rule has become absolute. But the Eastron are now fractured: the People of Ice hide on their northern isles, the Kneeling Wolves sulk in the shadows of Big Brother, the Dark Brethren sit in regimented and orderly rows upon the Father, the Winterlords kneel to their Always King on the Isle of the Setting Sun, and the Sea Wolves who lounge on the Isle of Nibonay. None of these masters are terribly benevolent, least of which the Sea Wolves; they raid and slaughter the Pure Ones on a whim, cull their populace, seeing the natives as little more than beasts—and their Eastron kin as little better.

But as Duncan joins their ranks, he discovers the Sea Wolves may not be everything he’s ever wished of them—a sentiment echoed by Duelist Adeline Brand. She and her brother Arthur are two of the most well-known and brutal Duelists of their clan, bathing in blood and booze in equal measure. And yet Adeline harbors doubts about the Sea Wolves, the same ones Duncan is currently confronting. These come to a head when the two are dispatched on separate secret missions for the clan: Duncan to the Isle of Nowhere, seat of the People of Ice; Adeline to the Bay of Bliss, on the other side of the Isle of Nibonay. But where Adeline unearths a threat that will surely mean the doom of her and all the other Eastron in the Pure Lands, Duncan uncovers a conspiracy that may yet save them all. For certain powers have known of this threat for generations, and have been working to stop it. But the question remains: will they succeed, or will the Sea Wolves and their kin be wiped from the world instead?

This took quite a turn from where I was expecting it. The Sea Wolves—as you probably might guess after reading my description—are not nice, friendly people. They are racist, genocidal monsters, who have “generously” allowed the Pure Ones to live on their ancestral lands, all while raiding, pillaging, and slaughtering them as they see fit. Or whenever they’re bored. They do this through their marshal skill and ability to break the Glass, something the Pure Ones can’t do. The Glass and the Realm of Void are an interesting if not wholly unique system of magic, where crossing over from Form to Void means essentially traversing the spirit world (one that more or less parallels the realm of Form) and either manipulating the spirits of the Void or harnessing their energy for their own.

It was a little refreshing to read a story from the villains’ perspective, as the Sea Wolves are definitely it. Even if matters complicate and sympathies change over the course of the book, it cannot be said that the Sea Wolves aren’t the bad guys. They definitely are. Or, well, one of them.

Another twist is that Duncan is kinda an ass. He’s immature, willful, whiny, thickheaded, but mostly just annoying. Like, really, really annoying. But only about half the time. It’s not that his chapters are necessarily awful to read, more that he constantly makes the dumbest choices. This really isn’t much of a spoiler as he will do it early and often. So it’s both really interesting as a plot device and really frustrating to watch him do it. It’s the equivalent of trying to stop someone from jumping off a bridge by shooting them in the head—technically effective, but not in any circumstances acceptable behavior. He’ll also constantly proclaim that he’s a Sea Wolf. Seriously, all the damn time. At first I found this repetitive and unrealistic but then realized how realistic it actually was. Duncan’s a young, immature boy that never had a childhood and only really craves his father’s approval. Despite the fact that he hates the man. And all he’s ever wanted was to be a Sea Wolf. But now that he is, it’s not living up to his expectations. It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t feel accepted. Plus, he doesn’t feel worthy of it. So he continually asserts that he IS a Sea Wolf, on and on, because he’s just a scared, lost kid who no one has ever shown any kindness. A scared, lost kid with too much power and no control over it.

Either that or I’m overthinking it and he’s just a poorly developed character, suffering from a bad, repetitive style of writing.

While I had mixed feelings about Smith’s other series—the Long War—one thing that’s not up for debate is the world-building. Which was top notch. Similarly, Form & Void has a very well constructed world. Albeit one somewhat bereft of people. Though there are plenty of warriors (Pure Ones, Eastron, Sea Wolves, etc), there aren’t a whole lot of common folk mentioned. I mean, I assume they’re around, just we barely ever see them. Otherwise, the world itself, its history, its geography—is all amazing. No issue at all.

The story itself is pretty good as well. It’s full of twists and turns, typically not following the path I expected (insomuch as the idiotic things Duncan does can be considered plot twists), though it did pretty much end like I’d’ve guessed. I absolutely no problem reading the book as Adeline and Duncan make a pretty good pair. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses—though Duncan’s are far more weaknesses than strengths—and compliment one another rather well. You’ll get sections of one or the other: four straight chapters from Duncan’s POV, then the same from Adeline’s (both in 1st person), and on and on.

The characters themselves are another reason to read the Glass Breaks. Other than Adeline and Duncan there are dozens of other well-developed characters, each with their own motivations and backstory. And they’re all expendable, even the ones that you think are too important to die. All in all, it’s a great start to the series, though one I’d like to see fine-tuned a bit for the sequel.

TL;DR

The Glass Breaks is the start of an interesting new fantasy series from the author of the Long War. Long ago, the Sea Wolves crossed the ocean and found a new home. Once there, they brutally subjugated the natives and have continued to raid and slaughter them for the next hundred and fifty years. Enter Duncan Greenfire and Adeline Brand, Sea Wolves of the Severed Hand. Each dispatched on their own secret mission, they discover conspiracies that will doom the Sea Wolves, but might also save them. The world-building and characters are the strongest aspect of the Glass Breaks, and though Duncan can be seriously annoying at times, his stupidity comes in handy through some twists I couldn’t’ve seen coming. While there can be needless violence and somewhat repetitive internal monologues at times, there’s also a tense, mysterious atmosphere and uncommon, interesting magic system. Combined with a good story and epic (though occasionally over-the-top) dramatic and action sequences, the Glass Breaks is a great series debut, one that I enjoyed far more than I thought I would. Recommended!

The Glass Breaks is also free on kindle unlimited, if that’s your kind of thing. Form & Void continues with The Sword Falls, out May 1, 2020.

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #1

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; May 5, 2016

390 pages (ebook)

11hr 37m (audio)

Goodreads

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

The year is 1919.

The Great War has ended. The British Empire spans the globe. Former Scotland Yard Detective Sam Wyndham has recently returned home from the continent to find the life he lived pre-war is at an end. All the friends he shipped out with are dead. As is his young wife, Sarah, to whom he was wed not two days before leaving for the war. With nowhere to turn, Sam soon finds himself in the gutter, addicted to the morphine they’d given him to dull the pain of his war wounds. After the morphine runs out, he turns to opium—a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.

A chance telegram saves Sam’s life. A few months later, Sam Wyndham sets foot on the Indian subcontinent for the first time. His new life as a Captain in the Imperial Police Force in Bengal to begin on the second of April, one day after his arrival. A week later, the body of a senior official is found in the sewer, a note in his mouth warning of a potential insurrection among the natives.

So begins an investigation that will drag Wyndham all across Kolkata (Calcutta)—from the slums packed with native Indians to the upscale mansions of the British Elite, from seedy opium dens to the jungles of the rural countryside. A son of the empire and a native son rub elbows in the Imperial Police, while an intoxicating woman split between both worlds may yet steal his heart away. From natives to expats, Wyndham must choose his allies wisely, as there’s no telling which allegiance they hold any more than whose pocket they may be in. The only certainty is that Wyndham must solve this murder and soon, before tensions between the Indians and the Empire boil over.

I stumbled upon A Rising Man while shopping for a Christmas present for my father. While I ultimately did not get him this, I ended up buying it for myself as it sounded so interesting. A historical mystery, A Rising Man does a pretty good job of transporting us to Colonial India—a melting pot of English “civility” and native “savagery”. With Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Indians, and more alike all forced together by the hands of capitalism, Colonial India feels like a caldera waiting to erupt. Abir Mukherjee does an incredible job capturing the atmosphere of the place: the tensions, the humidity, the jungle and predators and flies, the wealth and poverty all jammed together. It’s quite good.

The mystery itself toes the line between fascinating and convoluted, with so enough twists and turns that kept me on my toes throughout. While everything is a bit thick and murky at the outset, the waters eventually cleared enough for me to get a handle on everything as the mystery progressed. While I did call one major reveal very early on, it actually took me quite some time to figure out whodunnit in time for the conclusion. The pacing was a bit stop-start, but I realize that’s a tough ratio to hit, especially for a new author and in a debut series. While it’s not a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot calibre mystery, A Rising Man kept me easily entertained throughout, and guessing until the final page was turned.

One final note on A Rising Man is the issues it tackles. The story takes place at a global crossroads, where many historically rival cultures compete with one that is very heterogeneous, and used to having its own way. At the time it would’ve been one of the few places on earth with so many different cultures locked in a war against homogenization, as opposed to somewhere like Colonial America where everything seemed to just blend together (well, not everything, sadly). From bigotry to religious discrimination to who and whom its acceptable to love, the story is really set at a very interesting—if incredibly tense—time period. While it does an adequate job of addressing the tension between the English and Bengali people, I would like to see more of the region’s minorities in ethnicity and religion in later books. Additionally, I really would’ve liked to have more of a look into the caste system at this time—which is only rarely mentioned, but never focused on.

TL;DR

A Rising Man combines historical fiction with a complex and engrossing mystery with twists and turns enough to have me guessing until the very end. Though Sam Wyndham isn’t the greatest narrator, he does an adequate job of tackling both the investigation and the region’s tensions. He’s also a bit of git. But while you probably won’t buy A Rising Man for the romance or action, the mystery itself is more than enough of a reason to. All combined with a one of a kind setting that finds opulent wealth rubbing shoulders with crippling poverty and a melting pot of cultures, religions, ideals, and ethnicities, makes A Rising Man a great read, and a mystery you won’t want to put down until the last page is turned.

The Sam Wyndham series continues with A Necessary Evil, out since 2017. I can’t wait to continue this series!

Instinct – by Jason M. Hough (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Mystery

Skybound Books; April 6, 2021

336 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Skybound Books and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 602.

Actually no, scratch that.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 665.

I honestly have no idea who wrote the official blurb. Clearly, they didn’t read the book.

Officer Mary Whittaker is the town’s latest resident, and was the 666th resident when she moved two months back. A few of the more superstitious townsfolk still avoid her on the street and cast dirty looks as they mutter behind her back. Most didn’t take the omen at face value.

But perhaps they should’ve.

As the population of Silvertown begins to decline.

The story begins with a funeral. Johnny Rogers, a certified homebody falls to his death after a spontaneous midnight hike. A few weeks later, a hiker terrified of animals dies after trying to hug a bear. Then a helicopter parent ditches her toddlers to have lunch with a complete stranger.

From there, things… just get weirder. It seems as if many of the townsfolk—Mary included—have lost their survival instincts. But as Whittaker continues to dig into the investigation, a conspiracy begins to take form. One that threatens not only Silvertown, but the world itself. And it’s up to Mary to stop it.

Wow. So this one was… quite something.

Up to the 2/3 mark, I was quite invested. Instinct contains a fairly interesting mystery, with a slow build that had me wrapt up through the first big reveal. The revelation that the townsfolk were losing their instincts due to something unknown was an interesting turn, if a bit confusing. The tense and mysterious atmosphere that permeates the text through its 75% mark is nothing short of masterful, and provided me with more than enough reason to keep going even after things got a little… weird.

The main issues start around the halfway mark. Let’s begin with the first big reveal. It was too revealing. It was so obvious who was behind the conspiracy that I knew inside of the first few chapters. So when the curtain is pulled back late in the story—well, mind-blowing it was not.

My second issue was with the setting. A small and isolated town in the mountains is a picture perfect backdrop for a grassroots conspiracy, but it has to actually feel like a small, mountain town in Washington. And to me it didn’t. Now the author lives in Seattle. And I’m not sure he did enough research on the setting before he dove right in. Early on, there’s a hiker that gets mauled by a bear. Now that’s definitely strange, yeah, as bears are usually more afraid of you than you are of them. And they point this out. But mostly they focus on “What was the bear even doing here?” Bears are all over the Pacific Northwest. For one to turn up on the outskirts of a small, rural, mountain town is hardly new. But this is a big clue, apparently. And gets revisited more than once. Our town has one main street. And six-hundred odd people. Which is pointed out. But then a lone car leaves the middle of town, the townsfolk lose sight of it before it reaches the end. A majority of the tale involves roughly two dozen people, with the rest of the community conspicuously absent. In the beginning Silvertown is billed as “one of those towns where everyone knows everyone”, but by the end 95% of the townsfolk remain AWOL.

Speaking of the end, you know how in some stories there’s a lot of jumping from one outlandish conclusion to the next, only for our heroine to hatch an insane plan that probably shouldn’t work but somehow does, and then pass out only to wake up and have everything be magically solved for them. They’re patted on the back, good guys win, life back to normal. It’s done all the time. And I’m sick of it. It’s convenient, sure, but lame. Now, I’m not saying that Instinct does this, but if it did, it probably would’ve soured me on the whole ending.

The real problem with Instinct is its consistency. Now, it was pretty consistent in the first half. The second half less so. As the plot makes the turn for home however, it really goes to pieces. Previously held rules about the conspiracy are broken. It’s going to be hard to get into this with no spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s say we have a Coke. It can only be called a Soft drink so long as it has carbonation and sweetener. And it can only be called a Cola if it is a soft drink that has the proper flavorings. It can only be called a Coke if it is a cola that is made and distributed by the proper company (yes, I know these are generalizations—please bear with me). Now suppose all of these things were rules everyone adhered to. And that all the people of Silvertown prefer to drink Coke. Over everything. They’ll drink other cola, but only if there’s no Coke. They’ll even drink other soft drinks, so long as there’s neither any Coke or other colas around. Get it? Good, but in the latter half of Instinct, all we thought we knew about soda is thrown out the window. There’s a chase scene. Our heroine snags an RC out of the mini-fridge despite the fact that there’s a Coke right next to it. There’s an angry mob. Armed with pitchforks and ginger ale, the citizens storm the town—ignoring the gigantic truck full of Coke parked by the side of the road. There’s a celebration at the bar. Citizens raise mugs of beer in toast while their bottles of Coke go flat beside them.

Get the picture? While for the first half of Instinct everyone eschews Pepsi in favor of dying of thirst while in the second half people are eyeing Mr. Pib with intense longing. And in the back half people are even occasionally drinking water. The rules are forgotten, but in the end they’re back, and no one seems to notice they’d been broken at all.

TL;DR

Instinct is a tense, atmospheric mystery that quietly transforms into an interesting and thought-provoking thriller that makes your head hurt as you try to wrap it around just what it is that’s going on in Silvertown. At least, the first half is, anyway. Up to the 65% mark, I was pretty well invested in it. But wow did it ever go to pieces quick. Among the issues include an unrealistic setting, a strange pacing, a conspiracy that doesn’t really work, a cheap and disappointing ending, and an instigator so diabolically and comically evil they might as well have horns. My biggest problem was with the consistency. Instinct works, until it doesn’t. Until the rules are bent to make some of the more outlandish ideas work. Until the same rules are broken, and then reinstituted again like nothing happened. I asked for a Coke—and got a dozen raw eggs. Better in some ways, but not in others.

April 2021

Well, Spring is here! It might even stop snowing soon. April kicks off a decently busy couple of months reading-wise; not a ton of ARCs to get through this month, but I’ve a little prep reading for things that release next month, and then four books that drop between April 27th and May 4th.

ARCs

Instinct – by Jason M. Hough (4 • 06)

Goodreads

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington. Population 602 (for now).

Despite its small size, the small mountain town is home to more conspiracy theories than any other place in America. Officer Mary Whittaker is slowly acclimating to the daily weirdness of life here, but when the chief of police takes a leave of absence, she is left alone to confront a series of abnormal incidents–strange even by Silvertown standards.

An “indoor kid” who abhors nature dies on a random midnight walkabout with no explanation.

A hiker is found dead on a trail, smiling serenely after being mauled by a bear.

A woman known for being a helicopter parent abandons her toddler twins without a second thought.

It’s almost as if the townsfolk are losing their survival instinct, one by one…

As Whittaker digs deeper into her investigation, she uncovers a larger conspiracy with more twists and turns than a mountain road, and danger around every corner. To save Silvertown, she must distinguish the truth from paranoia-fueled lies before she ends up losing her own instincts…and her life!

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within – by Becky Chambers (4 • 20)

Goodreads

Well, I don’t have the US cover here (because I prefer the UK one), and I realize this has already come out in the UK, but this return to the Wayfarers universe comes out in the US this month, so here it is. I was actually provided copies of this by both Harper Voyager and Hodder & Stoughton, so prepare for a second review of this around the 20th. It maaay look quite familiar, actually.

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.

Fugitive Telemetry – by Martha Wells (4 • 27)

Goodreads

When Murderbot discovers a dead body on Preservation Station, it knows it is going to have to assist station security to determine who the body is (was), how they were killed (that should be relatively straightforward, at least), and why (because apparently that matters to a lot of people—who knew?)

Yes, the unthinkable is about to happen: Murderbot must voluntarily speak to humans!

Again!

Murder By Other Means – by John Scalzi (4 • 30)

Goodreads

This second entry in the Dispatcher series is already out in audio, but is getting its own lovely release in physical and ebook formats from Subterranean Press.

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

Other Releases

The Girl and the Mountain – by Mark Lawrence (4 • 13)

The second Book of the Ice, even though I haven’t read the first one, I’m still excited about the release of #2.

Goodreads

On the planet Abeth there is only the ice. And the Black Rock.

For generations the priests of the Black Rock have reached out from their mountain to steer the fate of the ice tribes. With their Hidden God, their magic and their iron, the priests’ rule has never been questioned. But when ice triber Yaz challenged their authority, she was torn away from the only life she had ever known, and forced to find a new path for herself.

Yaz has lost her friends and found her enemies. She has a mountain to climb, and even if she can break the Hidden God’s power, her dream of a green world lies impossibly far to the south, across a vast emptiness of ice. Before the journey can even start, she has to find out what happened to the ones she loves and save those that can be saved.

Abeth holds its secrets close, but the stars shine brighter for Yaz and she means to unlock the truth.

Way of the Argosi – by Sebastien de Castell (4 • 15)

I’m quite excited about this prequel to the Spellslinger series, and will have to read it once it gets a US debut. That said, I absolutely LOVE the Hot Key Book covers.

Goodreads

Stealing, swindling, and gambling with her own life just to survive, Ferius will risk anything to avenge herself on the zealous young mage who haunts her every waking hour.

But then she meets the incomparable Durral Brown, a wandering philosopher gifted in the arts of violence who instead overcomes his opponents with shrewdness and compassion. Does this charismatic and infuriating man hold the key to defeating her enemies, or will he lead her down a path that will destroy her very soul?

Through this outstanding tale of swashbuckling action, magical intrigue, and dazzling wit, follow Ferius along the Way of the Argosi and enter a world of magic and mystery unlike any other.

The Queen of Izmoroz – by Jon Skovron (4 • 20)

Though I only made it through a quarter of Book #1 of the Goddess War, I’m still somewhat interested in this. I’d have to… well, not “read” it, so much as “skim” it to catch up in time for Izmoroz.

Goodreads

Sonya has brought a foreign army to free her country from imperial rule, but her allies may have other goals in the second book of this thrilling epic fantasy trilogy from Jon Skovron.

The first battle is over, but war yet looms on the horizon. Sonya and her allies–the foreign Uaine and their armies of the undead–have beaten back the imperial soldiers from the capital city. Now they have the rest of the country to free.

Meanwhile, her brother the famed wizard Sebastian has retreated with the imperial forces to regroup and lick his wounds. Betrayed by his sister and his wife, the beautiful noblewoman Galina, he will regain control of his life and his country at any cost.

Music

Vultures Die Alone – Arion (4 • 09)

Again, while I’m sure I’ll find other music I love this month, Arion is the only band I recognize with an album out. This power metal band has a more melodic style and almost no death growls compared to so many of their Finnish metal compatriots. So glad that they made it through 2020 without disbanding.

Currently Reading

The Glass Breaks – by A.J. Smith

Goodreads

Seventeen-year-old Duncan Greenfire is alive. Three hours ago, he was chained to the rocks and submerged as the incoming tide washed over his head. Now the waters are receding and Duncan’s continued survival has completed his initiation as a Sea Wolf. It is the 167th year of the Dark Age, 167 years since the Sea Wolves and their Eastron kin arrived from across the sea. The Sea Wolves and Eastrons can break the glass and step into the void, slipping from the real world and reappearing wherever they wish. Wielding their power, they conquered the native Pure Ones and established their own Kingdom. Walking between the worlds of Form and Void, the Sea Wolves glorify in piracy and slaughter. Their rule is absolute, but young Duncan Greenfire will discover a conspiracy to end their dominion, a conspiracy to shatter the glass that separates the worlds of Form and Void and unleash a primeval chaos across the world.

So after the second half of March ended with me reading nothing for two weeks only to finish two books in the last three days, we’re taking things a little more slowly to start April. Only reading the one book, and my third by A.J. Smith: the Glass Breaks. About halfway through and I have to say I’m enjoying it a lot more than I expected to given my struggles with his last series. Book #2—the Sword Falls—(which I thought was coming out last month) actually comes out on May 1st. I have this nasty habit of requesting the second book in a series I’m interested in before I read the first one, which uh… Well, here’s hoping it pays off.

Gaming

Even though I did manage to finish Hitman, March was pretty much a bust. I had so much trouble concentrating on ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. And so I ended up watching past streams of PUBG on Eurogamer. I then I was like “well, I got the game for free at some point, might as well try it”. And… it’s okay. I suck at FPS, especially multiplayer ones, but this one is… okay. I mean, I’m never completing it and I’m never going to get anywhere near half the achievements for it, but it is kinda entertaining me at the moment, which is the important bit.

Life

Not playing much and not reading much at the moment. Not sleeping much, either. Which has been especially problematic with regards to the first two.

Been trying to recruit another person to help me out here during those periods I have no motivation. My sister didn’t catch on, which was disappointing, but oh well. Should have another trial review here in a… well, sometime, which hopefully will work out better. My friend is incredibly skeptical and stubborn about the whole thing though, so I’m not holding my breath. She’s always been really stubborn, though.

Spring has sprung here, and the weather continues to fluctuate wildly between sun and snow. Which it does a lot of in Montana, to be fair. We routinely get snow 10-11 months of the year. And the weather is a fickle thing, often changing on a dime. If nothing else, it’s been a bit warmer when I have to work outside. Though not much.

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

The Founders #2

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Del Rey; April 21, 2020

493 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Warning: Contains spoilers for Foundryside (and, oddly enough, Gears of War 2)

In Foundryside, Sancia Grado and her ragtag team of allies managed to save the city of Tevanne from destruction, carving out a chunk of it for themselves in the meantime. Three years later, the Mountain lies in ruin and the campos feud with one another to fill the power vacuum left following its destruction.

I’ll be honest though. Don’t remember a ton of what happened in the first book. I remember Sancia—the master thief able to see scrivings—and I remember Clef—the talking key with the heart of gold (because he’s made of gold you see). There was something with one of the campos, a fire, infiltrating the Mountain and… that’s about it.

Anyway, skip ahead three years and you’ll find Sancia passing time within the scriving firm of Foundryside, intermittently stealing, innovating, and making out with her girlfriend, Berenice. None too soon after we rejoin Sancia, the Foundrysiders execute a bold play to steal from one of the campos in a desperate attempt to secure their future and the first step in their plan to liberate Tevanne from the grip of the merchant houses.

But no sooner do they return home in triumph—ready for a drink and a quick toss—then a new threat looms on the horizon. A new, and infinitely larger threat.

In a stunning move, the Dandolo campo has seen fit to resurrect Craesedes Magnus, First of the Hierophants, basically a god in all but name. And the legendary scriver is coming straight to Tevanne. While the Foundrysiders aren’t sure why the Dandolos have done this, or what exactly it is that the First Hierophant intends, they are sure that they don’t want to know anything about it. But instead of fleeing the city, they decide to stay and fight.

For while the Foundrysiders can’t match the legendary hierophant himself, they may know someone who can. Though to save their city Sancia and the gang may just have to tie themselves to an even greater threat than Craesedes Magnus—for what can stand up to a god but another god?

Straight out of the gate the story got rolling with a thrilling heist. It was great to see Sancia and the gang doing what they do best—stealing things and running away. And it gave us time to reconnect with the characters we might’ve somehow forgotten. Be it Orso, former campo child and the outfit’s brains; Bernice, the beautiful and genius scriver Sancia has fallen for; Gregor, strong and silent, another scrived human with blood staining his shadow; and Clef, pretty much just a key now. A key that won’t open any door.

From there we get on to the meat of the matter—resurrecting a god. Or attempting to stop one. Turns out, it’s not an easy thing to do. Through this part the atmosphere grows tense, the story mysterious, dark. Then everything kicks off for good when Craesedes Magnus rolls up.

I hate to say it, but my favorite character in Shorefall is probably the dark god himself. He certainly acts like an ancient immortal—someone who’s seen and done everything and lived through worse. But also there’s a hidden agenda to him. And his endgame turns out to be a twist I ddi not see coming, something truly surprising for something so close to invincible and powerful as he. Moreover, it’s his relationship with Sancia herself—also Gregor, and some of the others from the Dandolo campo—that makes his character so interesting. I won’t give any more about him away, but to say he’s a truly great character with a depth that profoundly surprised me.

I don’t have too many issues with Shorefall. Mostly it’s a lot of fun. A great read with a lovely world and interesting characters. But I do miss Clef. His banter with Sancia was one of the things that made Foundryside such a great read (and pretty much the only thing I remembered about the book prior to reading its successor). While Bennett does attempt to do a similar thing in Shorefall using some of the other characters, it just doesn’t have the same appeal that the Sancia-Clef relationship had. The dialogue here is more cumbersome, and more empty. While I never got sick of Clef and Sancia no matter what the pair were discussing, that doesn’t hold true for Sancia and pretty much anyone else.

The tale is more rollicking fun, but with a darker, more somber mood to it. The world is changing, and not necessarily for the better as all Foundrysiders hoped. With an awakened god looming on the horizon the team feels more powerless than ever before. It’s like the moment in Gears 2 where they use a gigantic rock worm to sink Jacinto, and fly away knowing that while they “won”, their one and only home now lies in ruin. Even when there is brightness and joy in Shorefall, there is also some sorrow.

TL;DR

With a darker, somber atmosphere, Shorefall is the predecessor that makes you feel, makes you care about the world of Tevanne. While it doesn’t have the same back-and-forth, carefree dialogue of the original, Shorefall takes you to a few more grey areas, a few more moments of weakness on its journey of hope and despair. It’s not exactly a dark book, but it does have its moments. It’s a tale of love and friendship, but also of half-truths and two evils. It’s half mad-dash, half atmospheric thriller, and half powder keg. See? This book gives you 150% and doesn’t disappoint—if that’s not a reason to read it I don’t know what is.

The Dispatcher – by John Scalzi (Review)

The Dispatcher #1

Scifi, Novella

Subterranean Press; April 20, 2017

128 pages (ebook)

2hr 18min (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

Taylor Barnes was the first to die. About 8 years prior to the present, he and his wife were in Iceland celebrating their anniversary. Unbeknownst to him, she had been having an affair and was preparing to leave him, but had been unable to summon the courage to confront him about it. And one day while out hiking in Iceland, she finds a workaround—and pushes Taylor off a cliff to his death. The next thing he knows, Taylor wakes up at home: confused, disoriented, but very much alive.

Soon after murder victims stop dying, soldiers start waking up at home after being shot or blown up, death row inmates cheat death the moment their sentence is carried out. In 999 out of 1000 cases, those murdered come back to life. After 8 years, there’s a whole system to the chaos.

Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher—a professional assassin tasked with humanely disposing of people in the throes of death. But not all Dispatchers are so conscientious. As with any profession, this one harbors a dark side, where its purveyors exist in a moral grey area. When a fellow Dispatcher goes missing, Valdez teams up with the police to find his friend before it’s too late—and while doing so is forced to confront all the dealings his fellow Dispatcher had his hands in. But while he may cheat death the first time, even Dispatchers aren’t immune when a natural, non-violent death comes a-knocking.

For the most part, I found the Dispatcher a lovely read with an engrossing story, a concise conclusion, and an interesting, well-thought-out premise. It’s a fairly short read—only a little over two hours (if you go the audio route and 1x speed)—and I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world before being whisked away. While the mystery is a rather compelling one, it’s hampered by the time constraint, and everything seems to come to Valdez a bit too easily because of this. We’re presented with the issue, then we learn about it, and arrive at the conclusion. There’s very little detective work, chasing leads, ghosts, or dead ends.

This may not be the detective story you’ve always wanted. The one that turns your brain inside-out before ultimately blowing your mind as it concludes its journey. But it’s interesting, entertaining, and leaves no thread un… unthreaded? Seeing as how there is light at the end of the tunnel, I’m happy to give this a recommendation. With another Dispatcher novella coming out soon (through Subterranean Press—though it’s already out in audio), we may yet be able to explore more of the world, and jump back behind the eyes of Tony Valdez.

Motivation

Ughhh so little motivation. So little free time. Never enough sleep. Reading hasn’t been going great.

So, that’s where I’ve been. I’m sure I’ll get over it… at some point.

The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 9, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.9 / 5 ✪ – Almost perfect!

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot #AngryRobot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In the mountain village of Heyne Town, there exists a tree known as the Hope Tree. Here, before they are due to give birth, women will leave blankets, food or provisions outside the village—just in case. In case their children are born as stryga.

Stryga (or strzyga or strzygón in Slavic mythology) are children born with two hearts. The first heart is their primary, human one—tying them to humanity and the path of normalcy and righteousness. The second is a much darker heart connected to a second soul, one that indulges its evil desires and preys on humanity. If a stryga were to follow the darker desires of its second heart even once, it would never be able to stop, turning this human into a dark demon. Although, in Heyne Town, all born with two hearts are considered evil and banished upon birth. Thus their parents faced a choice—to abandon their child outside the village; to dispose of them some other way; or to join their inhuman offspring in seclusion, never to set foot in the village again on pain of death.

Nineteen years ago, Miriat and her newborn Salka were exiled from Heyne Town, and taken to the remote haven where all exiled stryga live. Here they live in squalor, unable to leave and hated by the outside world. Here they are taught to control their darker nature, to never once listen to their second heart.

But Salka is young and headstrong. When she is exiled to the far off Windry Pass for a moment of weakness, she must do everything she can just to survive. But as the snow piles high and the temperature plummets, food becomes scarce and predators start to hunt humans as prey, Salka will be forced into a no-win situation: will she use her second heart to survive, or pay the ultimate price for the sake of her human soul?

By in large I really enjoyed the Second Bell. While I’d heard of strygas before, Gabriela Houston introduces a fresh take on the creature more often depicted as a monster in other media. In Slavic lore, it refers to a child born with two hearts and two souls, the second pair of which transforms it into a demon much alike a vampire. In the Witcher, a striga is a child cursed before birth. It is born a demon—a foul-smelling, heavily-muscled monster that runs about on all fours and violently attacks anything that wanders too near its lair. Houston’s take on the stryga humanizes it tremendously compared to these, as the child must only suppress the desires of its second heart in order to retain its humanity. Even so, not all parts of the legend seem to hold true. As with any other story, what is fact and what isn’t is open to interpretation. The villagers in Heyne Town fear and loathe all strigoi in equal measure. Whether or not they have ver indulged their second heart is immaterial. All are evil.

Note: I’ve been talking a lot about stryga being cursed children, born with two hearts. This is true, but not complete. While the affliction dooms from birth, strigoi will grow up like anything does. The only cure (in this book, at least) is death. Likewise, one can’t catch stryga. You’re either born one or you’re not—there’s no in-between.

The Second Bell is all about the story and its characters. Salka and Miriat share a unique relationship that should be quite relatable, and yet unlike any other. While they are obviously kin, only one is human. Her mother is Salka’s link to her humanity—by refusing to indulge her second heart, she feels closer to her mother, to her humanity, but in denying it she feels like she is cutting off a part of her own soul. The Second Bell is therefore a tale of what it means to be human. Salka is Miriat’s child and her whole world. But if her daughter were to listen to her demon heart, would she lose her humanity, the main connection she has to her mother? The Second Bell is also a tale of a mother and a daughter, and their bond.

While the world-building of this story was a bit patchwork, I understand the choice was instead to focus on the story of Salka and Miriat, the story of what it means to be human. Still, I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world. There are some things—like the tree and the dola and more—though the entire world seems like it was built for ‘men and strygoi, but nothing more. While the story centers on the strygoi, they cannot possibly by the only legend in this land: I would’ve liked to hear about some of the others, if only just in passing. The land itself was often painted in greens and browns and white, rather than showing any real detail.

Otherwise, I really have no other notes. The story was good and thorough and made for a quick and immersive read, while still leaving lasting connotations after the book is finished. I hope to see more from the author and this world!