Top Ten of 2019

This is actually my 4th or 5th attempt at a Year’s Best list. A few were too long (one had 25 books) others were too short (5 books), some too restrictive and others too broad. I was going to do a 2019 Only list, but I ended up scrapping that last. While most of my favorites for the year were released THIS year, this year I probably read more newly released books than ever before. And while only 3 of my Top 10 come from before this year, they include 2 of my Top 3. So I cut it to 10. I could probably throw in a few honorable mentions, but then I’d invariably get carried and we’d be here all day. So it’s 10. Just 10. There’ll be links to both the Goodreads page and my reviews for each book, in case you’d like to check out either. Otherwise, I hope you’ll enjoy the list and maybe comment. While I liked most of 2019, the end was just painful. Horribly, terribly painful. I hope that whomever and wherever you are, your year was much better, and ended more gracefully. Can’t wait for 2020! But first, here’s to 2019:

10. Beneath the Twisted Trees – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (2019)

GoodreadsReview

To begin the list, Beneath the Twisted Trees is Book #4 of the Song of the Shattered Sands. Out in 2019, it was a fantastic ride filled will vivid storytelling and epic world-building. Continuing the story of Çeda on her journey to destroy the Kings of Sharakai, I cannot recommend this series enough. Bradley Beaulieu’s attention to detail has always been on-point, but The Shattered Sands impressive still.

9. The Imaginary Corpse – by Tyler Hayes (2019)

GoodreadsReview

Again thanks to Angry Robot for this ARC! I’d never even heard of Tyler Hayes at all until I got this book—but the Imaginary Corpse absolutely blew me away. An imaginative and fun world filled with adorable and cuddly characters, including one of my favorites of all time: Tippy. Combining the dark noir of the classic gumshoe with the cuteness and fun of something out of the Great Mouse Detective, I’d recommend this story for pretty much everyone, easily one of my favs for the year!

8. Age of Legend – by Michael J. Sullivan (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I hated the ending to Age of War soooo much, I threw the damned book at the wall. I loved the Age of Legend so much, I had to keep myself from starting the Age of Death right upon finishing it. A darker beginning gives way to an epic adventure—a Michael J. Sullivan specialty. My main issue with this book comes with its own warning: there’s a cliffhanger (another Sullivan specialty), so you’ll likely want to read the next one right away. Which, if you didn’t back the Kickstarter, might be an issue. So maybe wait until February to read them. Or prepare to suffer the consequences.

7. Blackwing – by Ed McDonald (2017)

GoodreadsReview

Blackwing was originally published in 2017, but served as my intro to the Ed McDonald, and the Raven’s Mark trilogy, which concluded in 2019. It actually took me three tries to get past page 30, but once I did, I was captivated. A thrilling adventure in a new world—Blackwing definitely puts the… ‘A’ in adventure? Something like that. Whatever. If you haven’t read it, it’s really cool.

6. Soulkeeper – by David Dalglish (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I loved Dalglish’s Shadowdance series—and while Skyborn underwhelmed me—Soulkeeper won me back. If I’d needed winning back, I guess. A new fantasy adventure, with a classic fantasy appeal, this book nailed the characters, the world-building and the nostalgia for me. The only thing I took issue with was the dialogue, but it wasn’t a detail that ruined the story. Didn’t even leave a bad aftertaste. Can’t wait for Ravencaller in 2020!

5. Walking to Aldebaran – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I’m usually hit-or-miss on novellas and short-stories. Anything that half-asses a proper length adventure. For Adrian Tchaikovsky, however—I’ll make an exception. A light but surprisingly deep read, Aldebaran follows smartass astronaut Gary Rendell as he explores an alien artefact at the edge of our solar system. I loved the adventure and wit, the exploration of the unknown, the tone Tchaikovsky uses to describe the world, even didn’t mind the shortness of the tale—really my only issue was the price.

4. Fallen – by Benedict Jacka (2019)

GoodreadsReview

The tenth Alex Verus book is my favorite thus far. We’ve hit a pretty good stride with that, as so were Books 7, 8 and 9 upon their releases. Fallen is the best of the bunch, though. As Alex’s adventure nears its completion, the story is getting deliciously dark (though not Grimdark), enough to convince Verus that a dozen books is enough. I assume, at least. Ten books down, and Alex must become something else, something MORE, in order to move forward. I love the direction this series has gone and can’t wait to see where it goes next!

3. The Fall of Dragons – by Miles Cameron (2017)

Goodreads • Review

The final book in the Traitor Son Cycle leads off my Top 3. The Red Knight has gone through trials and travails; found and lost and found love once more; crossed untold lands, worlds, filled with mysterious and terrifying beasts; fought battles, wars and emerged bloodied, but unbeaten. And yet the enemy remains. Fall of Dragons is the epic—and immensely satisfying—conclusion. If you haven’t read it—or any of the other Traitor Son books… well, they’re just amazing. It’s an epic, incredible, awe inspiring adventure. Sometimes the detail and language can be a bit dense, but by Book 5 I was more than used to it. I’m not a fan of endings; I know that all good stories must end, but sometimes I wish the adventure would just continue forever and ever. Fall of Dragons ends well. It isn’t necessarily happy—but it’s such an ending! A must read.

Note: I apparently haven’t review this yet, since I read it before this whole blog thing took hold. Hopefully I’ll get to that soon.

2. Crowfall – by Ed McDonald (2019)

GoodreadsReview

Where Blackwing (#7, pay attention) began the Raven’s Mark trilogy, Crowfall ends it. Though I didn’t love Ravencry, both Books 1 & 3 effectively blew my mind—more than enough for them to make this list. But where Blackwing suffered from the uncertainty that begins a new series, Crowfall shows that McDonald knew where he was going with it. Or maybe he got, really, really lucky. All the pieces of Galharrow’s adventure came together in this book, and the resulting story was amazing. There’s little more that I can say except: Read this. I loved it, and I hope you will too.

1. The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding (2018)

GoodreadsReview

In a year where most of my favorite reads were new releases, my top choice harkens from the year prior. The Ember Blade is an epic tale, 800+ pages of classic fantasy adventure. A new world to explore, new characters to know and love, new details, new subplots, new love, new loss. Book 1 of the Darkwater Legacy was a coming-of-age epic that had it all—fantastic creatures, villains, heroes, love, purpose and adventure, so much adventure! While I wasn’t completely sold from the start, about a quarter way through my time with this tome, I was way past stopping. While it may seem like a classic coming-of-age tale, The Ember Blade mixes new with old, light fantasy with dark, to come up with something amazing and special—something that I hope you’ll love just as much as I did.

TBR – December

Top 4

  1. Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan (Legends of the First Empire #5)
  2. The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan (Map of Unknown Things #2)
  3. Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell (Spellslinger #5)
  4. Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Age of Dread #3)

Next 4

  1. The Grey Bastards – by Jonathan French (Lot Lands #1)
  2. The Bone Ships – by R.J. Barker (Tide Child #1)
  3. Dispel Illusion – by Mark Lawrence (Impossible Times #3)
  4. Babylon’s Ashes – by James S.A. Corey (The Expanse #6)

Last 4

  1. Vengeful – by V.E. Schwab (Villains #2)
  2. Rotherweird – by Andrew Caldecott (Rotherweird #1)
  3. After Atlas – by Emma Newman (Planetfall #2)
  4. The Wastelanders – by Kristyn Merbeth (Wastelanders Omnibus)

TBR Finished Since November

  1. Ship of Smoke and Steel – by Django Wexler (Wells of Sorcery #1)

Only one off this last month, so I shifted things around a bit to bring up some new books. As usual, my TBR is faaaaaar from lacking. In other news, I just got my Christmas Cold, which sucks. I’m usually sick for Christmas ON Christmas, but whatever—maybe I’ll try out New Year’s. No flu this year, though, which is a plus.

Have you read any of these—any I should skip? Any that I should bump up? Any that are super AAAAWESOME? Let me know!

Books I couldn’t finish in 2019

I DNF a fair amount of books, whether I’m not in the right mood, or not sleeping well, or they don’t speak to me. Or maybe they just suck. In 2019 I started and failed to finish 21 books, though I’d read 1 of them before. Of these, 9 were by authors I’d previously read, and 2 were by Yoon Ha Lee. I hope to give 9 of them another shot, but for sure will get back to 4 of them. In addition to 10 books that began new series, I failed to get through one Book #2, two #3’s, and one #4.

Here are a few notable ones:

1. Ghosts of Gotham – by Craig Schaefer

What began as a thriller with supernatural elements took a hard turn into fantasy and it was so abrupt that I… lost it. The story. Or the plot. Or the… whatever. I tried to continue, but everything was completely different. It was like beginning a totally new story at the halfway mark. It was really weird. DNF on page 213

2. The Dark Blood – by A.J. Smith

After I was fairly critical of the Black Guard, A.J. Smith reached out to me saying he was sorry I didn’t like it, but hoped I’d be willing to give his world another go in the future. The world-building was actually really good in book #1—not my problem with it at all, so I acquiesced. Book #2 was actually a lot more enjoyable. Until I got to the end of the first part and just kind of drifted away from it. Eventually it got shelved, and I’m not really sure why. Hopefully I’ll get back to it soon, but we’ll see. DNF at page 111

3. An Easy Death – by Charlaine Harris

After trying to force my way through this for 1.5 months, I finally admitted it wasn’t working. Thing is, I can’t for the life of me tell you why. It’s only a 300 page book, after all. I’m really gutted by this because I’ve heard such great things about it! I just couldn’t get into it. Recently I’ve had issues with losing focus on books, so I’m hoping to revisit it later. Maybe I’m feeling a bit burned out this year. DNF on page 132

4. The Quantum Thief – by Hannu Rajaniemi

I’ve always wanted to read the Jean le Flambeur series, but that’s not likely to happen anymore. Truth is, I found The Quantum Thief boring, unfocused and disjointed. After the first tenth I couldn’t’ve even told you what was happening, or what HAD happened. DNF at 11%

5. The Buried Giant – by Kazuo Ishiguro

I got this as a library book and was intrigued by some much of it. The description, the cover, the first chapter…. then we got to the actual story. I think. It was… dry, to say the least. Very little happened. I lost interest and eventually the loan expired. Doubt I’ll ever get back to it. DNF at 14%

6. Nation – by Terry Pratchett

I love Terry Pratchett’s work! From Discworld to the Carpet People, Dodger and more, I love his humor, wit, adventurous writing and creativity. Ergo, Nation was quite the surprise. I wasn’t in love with the beginning, nor the middle, but I powered through because… well, because it was by Terry Pratchett! I was certain that the story would get better, and I’d start having fun. Except I never did. DNF at 74%

7. Magebane – by Stephen Aryan

This is another one I’ll give multiple more attempts. I’ve loved everything Aryan’s offered thus far and the end of his second trilogy should’ve been a no-brainer. But after my third attempt to get past page 50 failed… I shelved it. For now. DNF at page 43

8. Brief Cases – by Jim Butcher

I’m in Dresden Files withdrawal. That must be it. That’s the only reason I can think of to have a Dresden-themed, Jim Butcher book on this list. The only solving it has got to be a full-length new adventure. The short stories are good, interesting and all but… they’re just not doing it. Plus, I’d read the Bigfoot ones before. DNF at 28%

Blood Tally – by Brian McClellan (Review)

Valkyrie Collections #2

Urban Fantasy

February 11, 2020

200ish pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

The fictitious Cleveland Brian McClellan has painted has not grown much more realistic, but that’s okay. The story of Blood Tally—like that of Uncanny Collateral—is quick, clever, and entertaining; the real clincher. While I didn’t enjoy all the time I spent in the OtherOps arena, I loved far more than I loathed, which is well worth it in my book.

Blood Tally is a little longer than Uncanny Collateral’s 151 pages, though with the ebook it’s kinda hard to tell how much. I’d guesstimate it at around 200 pages or so.

Alex Fitz is a reaper, a soul collection agent for the Valkyrie Corporation. He is also a slave—illegally bought and sold to the company owner back when he was a child. For years, Alex has been searching for his birth parents, the contract they signed, and some, any way to get free. While little has changed in that arena, Blood Tally opens with an unusual case—one that hits way too close to home. A vampire has come to Valkyrie in search of his runaway thrall. While technically a would-be vampire, Alek knows thralls are little more than slaves to their lord before their conversion to full-on vampirehood. While he would normally opt out of a case like this one, this time Alek has little choice. His master has her own deal in place, to betray their original client, Boris Novak, to one of the vampire lords, a guy named Ruthven.

While Alek has little choice but to go along with the scheme, it seems that more than just Boris has been holding out on him. Indeed, soon it seems to him that Lord Ruthven and Alek’s boss, Ada, have their own agendas. Agendas that have little room for a certain reaper.

Thus Alek must uncover their secrets while trying to conceal his own—in the form of the mysterious jinn, Maggie. He might still win the day, but to do so he must live long enough to determine just what a “Blood Tally” is, why both his employers are willing to kill for it, and what to do with the information even if he manages to find it. It’s hard to tell friend from foe in the latest Valkyrie Collections entry, which features a lot of vampires, a sphinx, a rogue witch, and a whole mess of secrets worth killing over. Oh, and the fate of the world itself might be at stake.

With the first book, I noted that while I had no problem reading it, McClellan didn’t exactly go out of his way to try to make the “real world” very realistic. That holds true for Blood Tally—where the supernatural is again commonplace, while at the same time a (maybe?) secret from the rest of the world. I mean, I was assuming it was, but this really hasn’t been touched through the first two books. I can’t tell if it’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kinda story, or if the author just hasn’t addressed it because he hasn’t wanted to get into it. Either way, there was an awkward kind of uncertainty to everything, at least for me.

While Uncanny Collateral centered heavily on Alek—a lone reaper with no backup and few friends—Blood Tally instead tells Alek’s story, a reaper amidst a small cast of friends and allies. I mean, it’s still 1st PPOV, but instead of Alek and Maggie alone, we are treated to a few other recurring, non-hostile characters. Nick, the hired gun (necromancer) from the first book is back, albeit in an uncertain role. There’re a few other supernatural creatures who may turn into allies or friends, if they can go the whole story without trying to kill Alek. Maggie is still around, though their banter wasn’t as central as it was in Uncanny Collateral.

TL;DR

The second Valkyrie Collections delivers right where the first left off. If you liked the first, you’ll love the second, and vice-versa. While a bit fast-and-loose with the state of affairs of muggles and Cleveland and the world itself, Blood Tally does an adequate job of world-building through a basic framework of pictures and lines and color thrown in. Though it’s not the vibrant, vivid, description-heavy fantasy I may be used to, Blood Tally is an exciting, interesting adventure that I never had any trouble reading. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter—which, I mean, right?—then you’ll have to wait until February 11, 2020 to read it. Good luck!

Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #2

Fantasy, YA

Roaring Brook Press; February 5, 2019

377 pages (ebook); 8hr 30m (audio)

3.75 / 5 ✪

In the Valley of Fire, Arlo Finch swept in and stole our hearts: his different colored eyes; his exiled father; his migratory home; his quiet, worrisome demeanor. And then came the Long Woods, where Arlo came into his own. If the Valley of Fire is where he found his calling, the Lake of the Moon should be where he grows up. And it is, to an extent.

What Remains of Arlo Finch

Following the events In the Valley of Fire, Arlo has made a home for himself in Pine Mountain. While the Eldrich have ceased making attempts on his life, they’ve not yet forgotten him. Something is coming. Even with the mysterious warning from Fox, Arlo can feel it. And as the summer months loom, so does his feeling of unease.

But with the summer comes summer camp. And for Arlo and his friends in Blue Patrol, that means Rangers.

Even before he departs for camp, Arlo begins to notice some peculiar happenings. First, Connor’s cousin visits him with a warning. Then, a strange man confronts him in the diner, a conversation Arlo has no memory of. And of course there is the troll. The troll, and the other Blue Patrol. All of it is leading to something—but what, Arlo knows not.

Enter the Lake of the Moon.

The Lake of the Moon hosts the Ranger’s Summer Camp, complete with an enchanting ancient lake in possession of its own monster, a variety of summer activities and classes, a lovely mountain forest that connects to the Long Wood, a host of spirits that call it home, and a mystery surrounding its history—and that of Yellow Patrol.

But the camp also comes with its own problems. An addition to the tight-knit patrol. A squabble involving Arlo’s two closest friends. A scare for Connor—which sees him leave camp early. Dissent from within the troop. A mystery, a conspiracy, and another Blue Patrol. To navigate these, Arlo Finch must discover what it means to be a True Ranger, or die trying.

Sadly, Arlo Finch’s second adventure wasn’t nearly as compelling as his first. While it shows a lot of heart, the events surrounding Lake of the Moon were just too confusing to be anywhere near as exciting. The adventure is still fun, imaginative and mysterious, and continues the series well enough, setting up a dramatic adventure for Book #3. But overall it’s a step down from The Valley of Fire.

The time travel I object to the most. For a children’s adventure… I dunno, I’m torn. Part of me wants to say it’s pure fun and excitement. The other part claims it’s way too confusing. The ending doesn’t make much sense, little more than the lead-in to it. For me, I felt that the time-travel was ill-advised for this point in the series. It wasn’t well explained—even though, if it HAD been really well explained, I feel like it would’ve been too much for the intended audience. It just… it wasn’t a good choice for this book.

I don’t really want to focus too much on the characters, on the development, on the world-building or anything else. For anything early-YA Fantasy like this, or Children’s Fiction—it’s not important. The intention is to be a fun, fast-paced adventure with just enough mystery to keep the focus. And The Lake of the Moon does this. Up until the end, where it’s confusing.

The Lake of the Moon provides a lovely setting compared to Pine Mountain. Not that Pine Mountain was bad, just inconsistent. It provided an off-the-grid, small town setting without most of the typical limitations. It was quaint, if under utilized. Comparing it to something like Gravity Falls… it really could’ve provided more adventure, more mystery. The Lake of the Moon revitalizes the series’ setting. A typical summer camp, with atypical features. It works very well with the story (up til the end, as I’ve said). Something new, pretty, and a bit mysterious.

TL;DR

Where Arlo Finch triumphed in the Valley of Fire, Arlo Finch struggles through the Lake of the Moon. While most of the story was fun, exciting and mysterious—the conclusion lets everything down, due to some a convoluted mess of time-travel and thriller nonsense to tie everything together. Arlo is in the process of becoming a hero, but we’ll just have to see where his legend goes from here. While I still think Lake of the Moon was a step down from the original, it’s still a fun, interesting read. Again, James Patrick Cronin delivers an excellent narration, capturing Arlo Finch and embodying him to a T. Honestly, I’m torn as to whether it’s too much for the children the story’s intended for. It confused me, but I probably overthought it. Plus, I’m not great at anything time-travel. I’d still recommend it, the roughly 8.5 hour adventure doing just enough to keep me entertained without growing too deep or messy.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows, the third book in the series, is due out February 4, 2020.

Ship of Smoke and Steel – by Django Wexler (Review)

Wells of Sorcery #1

Fantasy, YA, Teen

Tor Teen; January 22, 2019

366 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the latest offering from Django Wexler, a YA/Teen fantasy novel with adventure and romantic elements. A bit of a mashup, it involves some mystery, combat and suspense as well. Some of these it does very well, while others it fails at spectacularly. While I definitely enjoyed my time spent reading it, SoSaS wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as I would’ve thought after the first third. While hardly a slog, some sections were weighed down by clumsy, uneven pacing or slowed by the melding of two stories that just didn’t fit.

But let’s get into it.

In the slums of Kahnzoka, 18-year-old Isoka once ran collections for a shadowy crime lord. One that may or may not have also been her. A Melos adept, she used her combat magics to cut her way through anyone or thing that opposed her. But when her secret was discovered, Isoka was snatched up by the Empire, and given an impossible choice. To steal a legendary ghost ship for the Empire—something that is almost surely a suicide mission—or to turn her back on the one person Isoka truly loves: her little sister, Tori.

Soliton is more myth than ship. It makes berth in Kahnzoka once a year, where the adepts and sensitives of the city are sacrificed to help swell its ranks. Isoka is one such sacrifice. Infiltrating the ship under the orders of the Empire, she’ll have one year to deliver them Soliton, or lose Tori forever. But the task is a daunting one. And as you may’ve guessed, it begins from the bottom.

Thrown in with a ragtag group of misfits, Isoka’s mission looks doomed from the start. But—as these misfits show their character (and Isoka nearly dies)—she soon comes upon an opportunity for advancement. One she can’t afford to pass up. But on a ship of magic users and sensitives, how can she tell friend from foe? And what else may be lurking, ready to pounce?

As a teen fantasy adventure, SoSaS impresses. I loved the new and mystical sights; the mysterious ship Soliton, the creatures onboard, the descriptions, the Vile Rot, the wonder and adventure and twists and turns. Isoka’s journey is a bleak and bloody one to be sure, but the vibrance of the world itself makes up for her heavy handed approach to life. Soliton doesn’t seem like a ship, encompassing vast swaths of mysterious and unexplored heights, depths, and decks. Truly a world in itself, the ship is a triumphant creation, pulled off by Wexler through what I suspect is a time-honed combination of skill and luck, tempered with a wild imagination.

The story itself is… good. It’’s a little lame at first, if I’m honest. Kahnzoka isn’t the best backdrop, and the initial plot of blackmail and an impossible task, then a ragtag group of misfits seemed a bit cut-and-paste. Once aboard Soliton, the story really takes off. While beneath it all, there’s still the rather unimaginative blackmail machination driving everything—the story of Soliton itself steals the show. Now, though the ending itself is a little less than spectacular, the journey there is well enough worth it.

The romance, however, is a complete dud. Unless an awkward, fumbling teen romance is a thing that people actually WANT to read about. Now, Isoka has no problems cavorting with the opposite sex. At least when screwing them. It’s the fairer sex that’s the root of her issues. Specifically, one certain princess. This is the focus of the book’s romance. And personally it makes me cringe. Not the same-sex attraction, but the way that it is rendered. It reminds me of a simpler, more awkward, complicated, adolescent time when everything was all puberty, puberty, PUBERTY. It certainly does NOT make for an entertaining read.

The magic and combat of SoSaS is where the action is. The Wells of Sorcery—eight of them, at least—make for an entertaining combination of combat and tactics. When these Wells are combined in a single person, the opportunities for different styles of attack are nearly endless. Here, Wexler has built an impressive arsenal of potential magical powers and techniques that is certainly worth a look. That said, I felt that it was undersold in the book. The story gives a brief overview of the Wells, but little detail is given to anything beyond Melos. I would’ve liked to see more depth from the magic, especially beyond mere combat. The Lost Well (Eddica, the Well of Spirits) is well featured in the mystery around Soliton, but not very well explained. Actually, this is about par—the other Wells are similarly underused, vague and ill explained. We’re left with just a basic understanding of the magic; little beyond how to kill things.

SoSaS doesn’t feature a cliffhanger or anything, but the ending is less than perfect. For days afterwards I felt too disappointed to start this review, preferring to put it off while I searched for any fulfillment the text had yet to offer. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that it’s abrupt. There’s little feeling of resolution—the story falling flat after such a great buildup. I’m still enthusiastic for the next one, just not excited. I want to read it and all, but it can wait.

TL;DR

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the latest addition to Wexler’s family, a Teen/YA novel that takes two different perspectives of a girl—Isoka—and attempts to weave them into a single story. The resulting adventure is fantastic. With flashy magic and brutal combat that helps support a lush and vibrant world aboard the mysterious Soliton, which is more continent than ship. The story of one girl’s quest to save her sister, at whatever cost. The resulting love-story doesn’t work. With cringe-worthy scenes that disrupt pacing, will-they won’t-they moments abound—as Isoka travels the length of the world to find love. I suppose it IS a teen novel, and nothing screams puberty more than this romance. Combined, the two tales make one halfway decent story, just don’t expect too much. The conclusion, as well, could’ve used an overhaul. I left SoSaS feeling unfulfilled, even disappointed, as Wexler usually does a better job at resolution. While Ship of Smoke and Steel is well worth a look as a fantasy adventure, it’s worth little as a well-rounded tale. There’s action, combat, adventure, mystery and suspense, but anything beyond the hitting of things is rather lackluster. As is the magic itself. Full of color and flair, the Wells are skirted over—no real detail, nothing in-depth, and little seen other than with Melos itself.

The short of it: Ship of Smoke and Steel underwhelmed me. I definitely enjoyed the adventure—and would recommend the book for that alone—but a well-rounded fantasy it is not. While I am looking forward to the sequel, I honestly expect more from it.

City of Stone and Silence comes out January 7, 2020.

On Tap 12/12

Currently Reading

Blood Tally – by Brian McClellan

The second Valkyrie Collections book actually came out last month for Kickstarter backers, but unfortunately I was busy being sick and weak and um, not reading. Anyway, though I just started I’m already pretty hyped to get into it.

Up Next

• An Easy Death – by Charlaine Harris

Second or third time I’ve picked this one up, but I’m still excited to crack it. With Gunnie Rose #2 out in January, a full adventure awaits!

• The Fall of the Readers – by Django Wexler

Actually lost my library loan at 50% so I’ve had to re-request it. The final chapters of Alice’s adventure await. It’s the year of Django, apparently.

Gaming

This War of Mine

So I’ve been replaying This War of Mine and it’s still as atmospheric and bleak as before. A survival and resource management game, you take on the lives of a small group of survivors amidst a war-torn city. Through scavenging, trading and stealing you must either see them through the war, or find a way to escape the city. I’m actually approaching the two week mark in my most recent save and it’s this first that I’ve neither killed anyone nor lost one of my survivors to them. Of course, there’s a long way to go yet.

I haven’t yet played any of the DLC “stories” yet, and I’m honestly not interested in doing so. Haven’t heard great things about them, and the story set by the survivors is more than engrossing enough. I’d more than recommend the game, or just donating to War Child. Or both.

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #1

YA, Fantasy

Roaring Brook Press; February 6, 2018

326 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Arlo Finch is 12. After his father fled to China, his family moved around a lot, passing between cities like the trees in a forest. Eventually, they made their way to Pine Mountain. But Pine Mountain isn’t like any of the rest. Indeed, it’s not a city at all—the town doesn’t appear on most maps, there’s little to no cell service, and trees vastly outnumber the residents. That said, this quaint little hamlet might just be the break that Arlo and his family need. The new start that they deserve.

Arlo, despite having an old man’s name, is an immediately relatable character—at least to me. I share some of his worrying, his anxiety, his love for adventure, open spaces and nature. After one day of moving to Pine Mountain, Arlo knows he’s going to love it there, as long as the world doesn’t try to kill him very much. And the world obliges. His uncle doesn’t immediately change into a bear and kill them. A rockslide doesn’t destroy the house, trapping them all inside. A mountain lion doesn’t unlock the front door, sneak upstairs, and attack Arlo. At least, it hasn’t yet.

For his part, Arlo does his best to avoid everyone and remain aloof and friendless. He does a lousy job at it, however, as within a week he already has a pair of friends and a new hobby to consume all of his non-homework time: Rangers.

Rangers is sort of like Scouts, albeit a Scouts dipped in magic and sweetened by the supernatural. You see, Pine Mountain (among other places) is home to the mysterious Long Wood, a transition point between our world and many others. Due to its isolation and locale in the mountains of Colorado, Pine Mountain sits right on the doorstep of the Long Wood, a place where the veil is thinnest, where someone can stumble right through and end up—anywhere. Rangers shares its knowledge of the inhabitants and ways of the Long Wood, so that its members might survive it. Rangers is built around “the Wonder”—the supernatural thread that connects our world to the Long Wood. Due to its locale, there is quite a lot of Wonder in Pine Mountain.

But there is more to the Long Wood than magic and mystery. Before long, Arlo has worn out his welcome in Pine Mountain—and the world goes back to trying to kill him. Actively, this time. For there is something different about Arlo Finch, something that the Long Wood may awaken, if he survives long enough to see it.

Arlo Finch turned out to be just what I needed.

In a month (well, a second month) where I’ve been dealing with health and illness, reading anything has proven difficult. Focusing on anything an impossible challenge. My stomach has been bothering me constantly. Nauseous most of the time. Had little enough sleep and no energy besides. My thoughts have been fractured, making writing anything coherent a challenge. Arlo Finch was light enough that I didn’t have to focus all my energy on it, but possessive of an entertaining and immersive story that kept me consistently involved. John August did a magnificent job on this one, a YA that toes the line between an immersive, detailed mystery and a light fantasy adventure. James Patrick Cronin was an exceptional narrator, effortlessly bringing Arlo’s story to life.

It wasn’t perfect, but near enough that my nitpicking will wear little upon it. A few points consistently bothered me, probably because I’m an adult, waaay over analyzing a kid’s book. But whatever. The first is that August clearly doesn’t live in the area he’s trying to recapture. There’s nothing wrong with that—I realize that residing in a place and recreating it are not the same thing. Furthermore, I doubt that Brandon Sanderson actually lives in the Cosmere, like, all the time. It’s just that August’s rendition of the place doesn’t really fit. The town has actual buildings. It has THREE full Ranger troops. It actually has SOME cell service. And mountain lions, though it’s too high for them. As someone who lives in a nowhere adjacent locale, my worldview and his butted heads. I guess I’m complaining that August didn’t do enough research, or didn’t make his setting believable, but hey—kid’s book, it’s probably fine,.

It’s the story itself that makes In the Valley of Fire a must-read. The story, and Arlo himself.

It’s an adventure that embodies the Ranger’s Vow: loyal, brave, kind and true. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. Though the plot mostly follows the Rangers, the story revolves around Arlo himself. Him, and his life. His idiosyncrasies. His heterochomia iridum—his two different colored eyes. His personality, his journey. If Arlo was a superhero—or if that’s what he’s to become—then this is his origin story.

TL;DR

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire is a lovely adventure reminiscent of Gravity Falls and Percy Jackson. A light but immersive YA tale, filled with excitement and steeped in mystery, this tells the tale of Arlo’s origin story, his move to Pine Mountain, and his first involvement in Rangers. Everything that comes before—it all started here. Arlo is quite the lead; full of character, strong yet with all the flaws borne of youth, humanity. I loved the audiobook: raced through it in 2-3 days, then moved on to #2 and did the same. It’s short, light, fun—a great YA adventure. And exactly what I needed.

Book #2, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon continues the series with the third installment, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows, due out in February 2020.