Book Review: Pale Kings – by Micah Yongo

Lost Gods #2

Fantasy

Angry Robot; August 13, 2019

369 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Angry Robot. All opinions are my own.

Beware spoilers for Lost Gods! If you haven’t read it, well… I honestly wouldn’t recommend it. But if you want to maybe just skip to the summary at the end.

I read Lost Gods earlier this year as an intro to Micah Yongo’s world. But Pale Kings leaves a much better impression, acts like a much better series debut. Nothing to do about it, though, other than to read it.

Following the events of the first book, the Brotherhood of the Shedaím has been decimated. Ish. Decimated-ish (which I’ll address later). Anyway, after unearthing a powerful secret, the organization has been rocked to its very foundations. Daneel, following his betrayal and refusal to kill a child, shepherds said child—Noah—north in an effort to escape those that would still see him dead. Josef, still loyal to the Brotherhood, moves to protect the King, Sidon, who now sees enemies in every shadow. Beset by doubts, in fear for his life, Josef must help him before Sidon is lost to his own paranoia, or worse, is proven right. Neythan and Arianna travel south to the Summerlands in an attempt to translate the magi scroll. Caleb accompanies them, but grows more impatient by the day—those that saw his family dead still remain alive, and are growing more and more distant. Joram, exiled son of a dead king, is destined for greatness. So say the god that he dreams of, so say the voices that guide him. And yet with assassins and traitors all about, who can trust in fate or magic? For the gods are restless, and the fabled Pale Kings are said to once more walk the lands…

First off, and most importantly, technically Pale Kings is the sequel to Lost Gods. The character progression, the timeline—makes sense. Other things—like the story—seem completely different. You do not—NOT—have to read Lost Gods for Pale Kings to make sense. I read them both, and Lost Gods still doesn’t make complete sense to me. But, some debuts are just like that.

Speaking of the Shedaím, it is stated in the prologue that there are but four surviving members of the Brotherhood left: Josef, Neythan, Arianna, and Daneel. And yet over the course of the text, we run into other Shedaím all the bloody time. Even in this same prologue, it’s mentioned that Daneel is being hunted by the remnants of the Shedaím.

A very debatable aspect of scifi and fantasy is realism. Or, does the story feel like it could really happen? Obviously, since a lot of the elements in the setting, in the world, in the story are by nature fantastical… well, many would argue that realism in the story doesn’t matter. For example, something like prophecy or fate can be utilized to drive the story forward by the simple explanation that “it was all destined to be”. Occasionally, an author might need a trick—to get a character out of danger, or bring one back from death, or whatever—to progress the story. Sometimes this can be done with a simple stroke of good luck. Other times, the character may act out of character in order to preserve their own life, something that can be chalked up to fear or panic. Further still, it can be as easy as attributing something to destiny or fate or prophecy. An experienced author knows not to overuse these tricks, as the story can begin to feel improbable, unrealistic or just plain ridiculous. Micah Yongo may yet be an outstanding author, but he is not yet experienced.

This happens a lot in Pale Kings—especially towards the end. It’s explained away as previously unseen magic, previously unheard of technology, fate, luck, more luck, the will of the gods, and sometimes isn’t even addressed. While not a deal-breaker, it is something that I found annoying; an impediment to my enjoyment, a distraction from the story.

I enjoyed the story a lot more than Lost Gods. Sure, I found fault in Pale Kings, but on the whole, it was quite a bit better than the first one. We’ve ditched the whole “noble assassin” thing, and the frame-up/revenge thing, and I’m firmly of the mind that that’s for the better. I complained that the first story was one giant cliché, something that I cannot say about the second. While the plot had its flaws, it really was much better. Minus the Epilogue. If I’d’ve written this thing, I would’ve done a much worse job. But—BUT—I probably would’ve skipped the Epilogue as it really does nothing helpful. Left a bit of a sour taste, to be honest.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book—and not just the ones that controlled POV chapters. Actually, the whole world seems to have fleshed out quite a bit. Yongo’s always been fastidious in his description, but now it led me to picture a deep, vibrant world filled with interesting, unique people—instead of the detailed world filled with hollow sacks of flesh that Lost Gods displayed.

Another problem I had with Lost Gods was its pacing. In general, this is another aspect that Pale Kings improves upon with the classic slow build, hook, and sprint to the finish—with the exception of Neythan. His chapters continued their unevenness, with random and often confusing changes in pace.

TL;DR

I quite enjoyed Pale Kings despite its flaws. It was much better than the previous installment, which you really don’t need to read in order to understand #2. With a clear and detailed world, inhabited by unique and interesting characters and a story all but bereft of cliché, Pale Kings is a marked improvement upon Yongo’s debut. One I’d recommend reading if you need to buy it, even. It’s not perfect, with a less than believable story and a disappointing ending, but all in all, provides an entertaining adventure and raises my hopes for the third installment.

Book Review: Planetfall – by Emma Newman

Planetfall #1

Scifi

Ace Books; November 3, 2015

320 pages (PB)

2.5 / 5 ✪

Emma Newman has been on my TBR for a while, with the Planetfall series marked as one of her more popular offerings. For some reason.

Planetfall is the combination of two tales in one. The first is the story of Renata Ghali, and the secret that has haunted her for so many years. The secret, and what it has done to her. But it begins with a woman named Lee Suh-Mi. Renata’s friend, roommate, idol, obsession. It begins in years long past, when they were still on Earth.

The second story in a moment. But first, a scene is to be set. A lone human colony sits on an alien world, a spaceship in orbit above. Beside it sits an alien city—a vast, towering thing, dwarfing it—called God’s City. A number of colonists go about their morning routine, while two others separate from them. These two strike out from the city, to intercept a third. One coming from the plains without. A figure that looks familiar somehow, but definitely should not be there.

The second story is his. But it is told via Renata Ghali as well, the woman the first belongs to.

These two tales intertwine, providing an interlocking narrative that spans the text, often flipping back and forth multiple times in a single chapter. Ren seems to just faze out a lot. She will often randomly switch from one to the next without pause; mind stuck in the past while her body lives on in the present. This is meant to show her trauma, I assume, though it’s fairly confusing, especially at first.

But when I got used to it, nothing really distracted from the story itself. I mean, both. Themselves. And they’re both pretty interesting, though the first quickly becomes less about Suh and more about Ren. And when it does, it was less immersive scifi and more, well, vaguely-science-fictiony trauma. The story of the newcomer continues to deliver, though. Right up until the end, but we’ll get to that.

The newcomer introduces himself to both Ren and Mack—the de facto leaders of the colony. Though he looks the spitting image of Suh, he is far to young to be of their original crew. He claims to be the grandson of Suh-Mi, and has been living on the far side of the planet, the now lone survivor of a terrible accident suffered many years prior. Mack and Ren let him in, allow this Suh to begin integrating into the colony. And yet Mack is nervous—about who he is, about what he knows. And Ren… Ren is still haunted. By the other story, now bleeding over into this one.

Got it? Yeah? Cool.

I’m a fan of colonial books. Fiction, I mean. Scifi and fantasy ones especially. Something like Planetfall would always be on my radar and high up my TBR. I really would’ve liked more on the planet itself, more on the journey, more on the sheer… differentness of it all, but Planetfall did an adequate job of introducing a new world and populating it with adventure.

At first.

So… the ending sucks. It’s like the end of the Mass Effect series. It’s like Game of Thrones ending. It’s like… It doesn’t combine the two tales into one so much as abandon one and give the other one a totally unfulfilling conclusion. In my opinion, the last 10-15% one the text isn’t even worth reading—it’s that bad.

I wouldn’t say this ruins everything. As pissed as I was about the ending, the journey there was still enjoyable. More so, I’ve heard the rest of the series is better than the beginning. Even, since each novel seem to be connected vaguely at best (sharing only the same universe, really), I’d say read Planetfall as an intro, to tide you over, as an apart… but don’t expect it to set the tone for the series as a whole. Personally, I haven’t gotten to any of the others in sequence yet. My library only had the one. But I’m definitely planning to return to Emma Newman’s Planetfall universe… just not this book itself.

On Tap 08/21

Currently Reading

• Bloody Rose – by Nicholas Eames

I really liked Kings of the Wyld, and this is much the same so far. And yet, also so much more. I’ve teared up a number of times already (twice in the first three chapters, even), and expect that to continue through the end. But while tugging the heartstrings, the book also entertains and thrills, which should be more than enough reason to read it!

• Pale Kings – by Micah Yongo

While I didn’t so much enjoy Lost Gods, I thought it showed some potential, and since I was blessed with a free ARC of this I figured it was more than enough reason to give the author another try. So far, so good: the world has sharpened around the edges, the noble assassin nonsense is done with, and the description remains strong.

• The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding

This is actually my intro to Chris Wooding, though he’s been on my TBR for years. I was a bit dubious when confronted with this monster of a book, but so far it impresses. More than, even, I already can’t wait for the next one! Listening to this one, btw and the reader is truly suited for this role.

Book Review: Flex – by Ferrett Steinmetz

‘Mancer #1

Alt History, Urban Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 3, 2015

423 pages (PB)

4 / 5 ✪

When I see the word bureaucromancy, what comes to mind are singing muppets, dancing file folders, and papers flying around in a tornado. Somehow, when I try to picture this as a method used to fight evil, done by a skinny white guy with one foot—the whole thing falls apart. Actually, the entire book kept picturing Paul Tsabo as a Louis lookalike out of Left 4 Dead, made difficult by the author attempting to curtail my imagination with the constant reminders that Tsabo was white. Thrown in videogamemancy, crystallized magic that can be eaten, and, well, just all the bureaucracy… and here you have Flex.

Flex is an alternate history urban fantasy with an interesting (if bizarre) magic system. Its’ users—known as ‘Mancers—have the ability to affect time and space and the laws of physics with their magic, but these abilities are weak at best. Their real talent lies in the ability to concoct a solid-state, edible magic—called ‘Flex’—which endows the user with the ability to spit in the face of logic, reason, and physics and pretty much make their own destiny. Until it wears off and the Flux hits. And they typically die. Violently.

Former cop Paul Tsabo is an insurance adjustor working for Samaritan Mutual, specializing in any claim involving ‘mancy. Seeing as Samaritan doesn’t cover ‘mancy related cases, and since magic is a fickle beast in nature—Paul is in high demand. Not to mention, as a cop, Tsabo was responsible for many, many ‘Mancer arrests, until the time where he lost his foot and was forced to retire.

The scene opens with a murder. Anathema has begun her spree of terror—a killing via the Flux of her Flex—one death that will soon give way to many. And it starts with Paul Tsabo.

Though ‘Mancy kills the intro character and his date, it also saves Paul Tsabo and his daughter. And yet there’s an issue. Samaritan will (shockingly) not pay the reconstruction surgery for his daughter, Aliyah, who has been horribly burned. And so Paul is out to prove to them that he’s worth it: by hunting down and capturing Anathema. So begins the adventure that will lead Tsabo on a merry chase, kill hundreds of people, involve sex, more sex and so, so much violence.

It was a pretty good read—good plot, sub-standard setting and lore, interesting and unique characters—and one that I really don’t have too much issue with. My only real issue was with the sheer amount of sex and violence within. I was thoroughly unprepared for it. If you have any delicate sensibilities, be forewarned! Or maybe skip it. Otherwise… Flex is highly entertaining, if weird. I mean, it can be really, really strange sometimes. But it’s still good. I even took a two month break in the middle (there were a couple other books I really had to get through) and was able to pick back up as if nothing had happened.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s like a good beer: bold and refreshing, but not too complex.

Book Review: A Pilgrimage of Swords – by Anthony Ryan

Novella

Epic, Fantasy

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2019

128 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Subterranean Press. All opinions are my own.

So, a talking sword, a mysterious cast of players, a quest for one wish from a mad god. We follow Pilgrim and his talking sword on this quest, accompanied by only five other seekers and their guide, Priest. That’s Pilgrimage of Swords in a nutshell.

First off: I quite like the cover, even if it doesn’t prominently feature the hero of our tale—the talking sword.

Well, I didn’t care for the beginning, despite that it kinda tied in later on. I would’ve liked a bit more backstory or something before diving into the epic quest, or maybe even just begun the story at the doorstep on the temple where the quest begins. Instead we endure a chapter of mostly meaningless conversation—though it does give the sword a chance to be witty, so… I guess that’s good enough.

The end’s a good one, with a satisfying conclusion. The middle is what won me over, despite its beginnings, though. Fast moving, entertaining; a lovely bit of lore and action mix atop a post-apocalyptic backdrop.

More so, after a disappointing drop-off following Blood Song—truly beginning with Queen of Fire and then the Waking Fire—Ryan has delivered twice in a three months. A bit of hope is good every now and then.

After that, the story’s pretty entertaining. It’s somewhat lacking in description, being a novella and all, but it’s the quest itself that the story follows, and that’s what we see. The concept is pretty interesting, so much so that I left the world wanting more. I hope that Ryan returns to it in the future.

All in all, it’s definitely worth a look, assuming the price isn’t unreasonable. Right now I’m just seeing pre-orders for a hard cover, which is going at $40. Unless you’re a hardcore Ryan fan—I’d skip that. Maybe hold out for an ebook version at $4-7.

Book Review: Old Bones – by Preston & Child

Nora Kelly #1

Thriller, Mystery

Grand Central Publishing; August 20, 2019

384 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Grand Central. All opinions are my own.

Contains Minor Spoilers for previous Pendergast novels

The latest Preston & Child offering provides Nora Kelly with her own spinoff, featuring Corrie Swanson. In short, yeah, it’s… okay. I mean, it could’ve been a lot worse.

Seven years have passed since the events of Cemetery Dance. Dr. Nora Kelly has moved on to New Mexico, working as an archaeologist for the premier Santa Fe Archaeological Institute—though she has yet to move past the death of her husband, William J. Smithback. Here she has made a home, friends, a dog, memories, and yet much still eludes her.

Enter Clive Benton (NOT Guy Porter, as the blurb informs me)—Clive Benton—historian, Donner Party descendant, and lost gold enthusiast. He approaches Nora with an opportunity involving all three, and asks for the Institute to fund it. And for $20 million in lost gold, they are off on an epic adventure.

“The Lost Camp”, as Benton refers to it, is a third and as-of-yet undiscovered camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which had suffered rampant cannibalism, unnerving even when compared to the known camps fates. Hiring a small party of outfitters, wranglers, and graduate students, Nora and Benton are off to discern its fate. But something more than meets the eye is at work here, as Agent Corrie Swanson soon learns. Indeed, it may tie in to her case of grave desecrations, murder, and abduction happening in the present day. And the Party itself may have more to it than meets the eye.

So, I want to start at the end. Specifically, the end of the last 4 or 5 Pendergast books. They’ve been bad. The last two especially have turned a 180, introducing characters with no motive seen or heard in any of the story to that point, and listed them as somehow supernatural killers. Now, without too much of a spoiler—Old Bones doesn’t do that. The ending makes sense, and while the epilogue laid it on a little thick, nothing ridiculous occurs.

Next, let’s look at the story itself. A bit of a slow build; lots of bones, lots of Donner Party lore and supposition, interaction, investigation. Very little action or suspense. Somewhere around the halfway mark, things begin to move. Again, compared to the recent Pendergast books, I found it quite refreshing. It doesn’t rush, and it paints a competent picture. Sadly, Old Bones didn’t blow me away. It wasn’t a captivating read, a pulse-pounding thriller. But it was pretty good, and a relief compared to what we fans have endured lately.

Character-wise, I didn’t really care for Corrie, which is a shame, as I’ve always quite enjoyed her POVs. Nora’s too, for that matter. But while Nora continued to deliver in Old Bones, Corrie’s performance was a bit of a departure. Her chapters were a bit cliché. You know, the interagency feuds, the incompetent superiors, sexism, class structure, etc. In one scene, she relates to a witness to get them to open up in a fashion that’s been repeated waaaay too much in media. “‘The man’ likes music, just like me? Wow, I guess she’s alright, then. I should tell her what I didn’t tell anyone else”. Sigh. She was just a disappointment, in my opinion.

Bottomline, if you’re after a new and inventive supernatural thriller—this ain’t it. It’s a decent enough mystery-thriller, I suppose, especially if you’ve been reading the Pendergast series this entire time. Even feels like a bit of a triumph when compared to the latest books. They CAN still write. Honestly, I hope this new Kelly-Swanson spinoff delivers, I really do, because I think it’s time we think about cancelling the original.

On Tap 08/01

Currently Reading

• Old Bones – by Preston & Child

I’m about halfway through the Nora Kelly spinoff and… I dunno. I am enjoying the parts where she runs the show; the Donner Party lore and superstition for the most part; the setting and description and stuff. I just can’t stop thinking of how terrible the endings have been lately in the Pendergast books. But we’ll see.

• Age of War – by Michael J. Sullivan

I’ve been behind on Sullivan’s latest series, but am excited to dive back in! I believe this installment will showcase the series’ power-couple, but if we’ve learnt anything from Brangelina, it’s that they can’t last. With Age of Legend being pushed a bit from where he wanted, I might just be able to catch up before Age of Death drops.

Up Next

• Soulbinder – by Sebastien de Castell

Can’t say exactly why it took me so long to get to these, but I just roared through #3 so it must’ve been overdue. I just discovered that Crownbreaker—the 6th Spellslinger installment, out in October—will in fact be the series’ last. If you haven’t jumped on board for this adventure, now is definitely the time!

• Bloody Rose – by Nicholas Eames

I’m back east for a week, and this should help fill my time. It’s off my TBR, which I really need to shore down. Was inspired a bit by the Tackling the TBR a segment on Niki Hawkes’ blog. Which, incidentally, features both Charmcaster and Bloody Rose. Anyway, if you haven’t read the first, y’all should get on that, as Clay Cooper is a beast and Eames has created an awesome world.

Additional TBR

  1. The Thousand Names – by Django Wexler (Shadow Campaigns #1)
  2. In Shining Armor – by Elliott James (Pax Arcana #4)
  3. A Time of Blood – by John Gwynne (Of Blood and Bone #2)
  4. The Last Stormlord – by Glenda Larke (Watergivers #1)
  5. The Last Mortal Bond – by Brian Staveley (Unhewn Throne #3)