The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – by Rod Duncan (Review)

The Map of Unknown Things #3

Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History

Angry Robot; January 14, 2020

400 pages (ebook)

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Beware spoilers for the previous Elizabeth Barnabus books! Though hopefully Fugitive and Vanishing Man spoiler-free!

While I was divided on my intro to Elizabeth Barnabus in Queen of All Crows—the next book in the Map of Unknown Things completely blew me away. The description, the setting, the world-building, the tension all sold me on continuing the series. While the characters changed, two things remained constant—Elizabeth, and her devotion to the Gas-Lit Empire. In fact, while we have seen some detractors over the past two books, none have really taken center stage like they do in The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man (FatVM) follows directly on the heels of The Outlaw and the Upstart King (OatUK), picking up after Elizabeth and her friends escape Newfoundland to the (relative) safety of the mainland. There, they are immediately confronted by the Patent Office who are very interested about their time upon the difficult-to-reach island. And while Elizabeth isn’t interested in talking, the Patent Office holds all the cards to ensure that she eventually will.

But when Julia and Tinker break free from their hold, Elizabeth herself is left out in the cold. And even Patent Agent and her lover John Farthing can’t help her this time. Elizabeth is left with just two options: to flee the Gas-Lit Empire and set her old life behind, or to find something they want even more than her. Then she realizes that these two choices may yet become one. With just her mysterious pistol and a stolen wallet for company, Elizabeth heads west.

Enter Edwin Barnabus, Elizabeth’s long lost brother.

While the Patent Office is keeping the Gas-Lit Empire mired firmly in the past, those outside it are pushing innovation. None as much as in Oregon, where a kingdom built on both new innovation and old magic waits. The same kingdom that had its hands in Newfoundland’s advancement. The same kingdom where Elias manufactured his deadly explosive. And the very kingdom Elizabeth approaches, seeking her brother.

Years prior, Edwin and his mother fled the confines of the Gas-Lit Empire, leaving behind Elizabeth and her father for reasons unknown. Now, Edwin serves as the court magician to the King of the Oregon Territory, seeking to destroy the very empire that he once called his home. And with their weapons and innovation, war is not just a possibility. More like a certainty. But how and when is still up in the air. And when his sister comes knocking, how will her views affect Edwin’s own? Or will the ties that once held them together fray under the differences of their beliefs, leading not only the siblings—but the world itself—to war?

⚙ ⚙

I want to begin at the close. No spoilers, though. While Rod Duncan has stated that this is the final Elizabeth Barnabus novel, the ending itself isn’t cut and dry. It’s definitely open-ended. And there’s certainly room for a sequel. While the ending of the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man wasn’t the ending I was expecting going into the book, it IS an ending, finishing the tale of Elizabeth and her friends. At least, there’s resolution. For them, if not the world. And while Elizabeth may (or may not) return in the future, I was more than satisfied with the conclusion of FatVM. And yet, as I expected the FatVM to conclude the war that had been brewing since Book 1 of the Map of Unknown Things, the ending disappointed me.

And that both begins and ends my issues with this book. Though it may have faltered somewhat in the end, FatVM is still an amazing read—and one that cannot be missed.

Where Queen of All Crows begins the series with a stumble, the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man ends it with a flourish. In my opinion, the second book is where nearly everything came together: the world-building, the detail, the story. QoAC was a bit of a mixed bag—a faltering story, an uneven pace, a shaky lead. OatUK improved across the board, with only its character development lacking success. And that’s because only Elizabeth really returned, and there was a major disconnect between the events of Books #1 and 2. The same thing can’t be said of the break between #2 and 3. Mostly, because there really isn’t any break. Only a short time separates the events in Newfoundland from those in America, and nothing important is skipped over in the interim. Thus, the character that is Elizabeth continues to develop—her story continuing to unfold even while Edwin’s own fills in around it.

The interaction between the two siblings is fascinating. I was really wondering how they’d get on when they met, as Edwin’s views are night and day from Elizabeth’s own. They share blood, but little else. While I can’t go into any detail without spoilers, just take my word that their interactions alone make the entire story worth reading. Will it be a fight to the end, or a hug-of-war? Read it to find out!

Again, I haven’t read the original trilogy—the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire—but I’ve heard that the entire thing takes place with England. Meanwhile, every book in The Map of Unknown Things takes us somewhere new, beyond the borders of the Empire. First it was the Atlantic Ocean, next Newfoundland. FatVM finds us across the continent in Oregon. It’s a very well constructed adventure when told from multiple POVs, as the last two books prove. Where the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire showed us what life was like within, the Map of Unknown Things shows us life without—all setting up what I have to imagine will be an epic conclusion (if Duncan chooses to write it). Otherwise, it’s left to the imagination to fill in the gaps.

Neither the story nor world-building faltered at all from its high in Book 2. While we’ve moved location, the attention to detail did not wane in between, casting Oregon in an interesting and unique light. Though not much time is spent in the forest, the mountains and weather of the Pacific Northwest play a major role in setting the mood. And progressing the story. And while I didn’t feel transported to the Pacific NW in the same way I did to Newfoundland, I found that it didn’t bother me. The castle—where a good portion of the story takes place—is full of intrigue and is story-rich, making the time outside feel like exciting side-trips rather than breaks from a stifling prison. While not relevant to the story itself, the area surrounding the Kingdom of Oregon is a fascinating place (as I well know)—and one that I would’ve liked to see more of. Perhaps… in the future?

If I haven’t raved enough about how much I loved this book til now—don’t be fooled. I absolutely adored it, despite its few faults. Up to 90% mark, it was looking like a solid 5-star read. And while it let my expectations down in the final pages, the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man is a triumph, ending Elizabeth’s story in style—albeit in a manner that also leaves the door very much open for more. An intensely satisfying conclusion that satisfies while somehow leaving the reader wanting for more. But more of the world itself, not of the text.

TL;DR

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man finishes Elizabeth Barnabus’s journey with a flourish—her greatest adventure yet, both involving her brother and a war not yet fought. But be forewarned: while this DOES end Elizabeth’s own story, it DOES NOT tie up all the loose ends of the world itself. If you went into this expecting war, prepare to be disappointed. If you went into this expecting an amazing story that tugged at the heart-strings, prepare to feel vindicated. And if you went into this with no illusions whatsoever, prepare to be surprised. While it does falter slightly at the end, the Fugitive and the Vanishing Man is an amazing read throughout, building upon the Outlaw and the Upstart King’s improved story, world-building and character development, while somehow adding its own unique flair. If you haven’t yet begun Elizabeth’s story, maybe start at the beginning. If you’re up to date but waiting to see if Duncan laid an egg here—don’t worry, he didn’t.

TBR – January 2020

Currently Reading

• Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell (Spellslinger #5)

Highly recommended. Even at Book 5, the Spellslinger series continues to deliver. In this penultimate entry, Kellen is one step closer to discovering his father’s plans for the Jan’Tep Kingdom and the fate of the world itself. If you haven’t given it a try: you really should. If you already finished: I’ll try to catch up soon.

Top TBR for January-February

Witchsign is the 1st entry in the Ashen Torment trilogy (by Den Patrick), which introduces a new world where the sign of the witch is feared and children with the mark are exiled, never to return. Blood of Empire wraps up the Gods of Blood & Powder, by Brian McClellan, which sees every thread from Vlora, Styke, and Michel tie up- I can’t wait to get into this! The Shattered Crown is the 2nd in the Steelhaven trilogy by R.S. Ford. I recently revisited the first book and it renewed my interest for the series, and thss gets top-billing this month! And finally the Age of Death by MJS clear up that whole cliffhanger left by Age of Legend (at least it better!) while simultaneously setting us up for the series finale later this year.

Have you read any of these? Are you excited to read any of them? Any other previous books that I’ve missed and should totally get into? Let me know!

TBR Read Since December

• An Easy Death – by Charlaine Harris (Gunnie Rose #1)

• The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan (Map of Unknown Things #2)

So I’ve finished 2 since December and have started on my first from the Top TBR of 2020 list. Two in a month isn’t terrible for me, and though I’d like to have more in February, it isn’t likely to happen as I’ve more than a few ARCs to get through. Hopefully I’ll get through a few though and knock out half of this year’s list by the end of 2020.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan (Review)

Map of Unknown Things #2

Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History

Angry Robot; January 8, 2019

371 pages (PB)

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was somewhat divided on my intro to Elizabeth Barnabus after coming late to the party in The Queen of All Crows, Book 1 of the Map of Unknown Things but #4 of her combined journey.

I joined the adventures of Elizabeth Barnabus late—reading the Queen of All Crows last year without making my way through the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy first. I’m guessing that this was an important factor in my divided opinion of the book; it felt like there were some inside jokes I wasn’t privy to, some extensive backstory I was missing out on, so many elements that just weren’t explained properly or fully. And yet, without reading the Gas-Lit trilogy first, how could I say for sure? Maybe these things weren’t a side-effect of my skipping straight to the Map of Unknown Things, maybe the Queen of All Crows was just underwhelming and poorly explained.

I already had a copy of The Outlaw and the Upstart King upon finishing Book #1, but it took me a little to get to it. Truth was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue the series. I found Queen of All Crows a bit of a slog: exciting bits, suspenseful bits, interspersed with long, uninviting text between. I’m happy to report that I had no such issue with Book #2.

Last we saw Elizabeth Barnabus, she and her two friends had boarded a skiff and fled the battle before them, making course instead for the sunny shores of Nova Scotia. And yet, not all went according to plan. The Outlaw and the Upstart King begins shortly after Queen of All Crows leaves off, but instead of Nova Scotia, it find Elizabeth in Newfoundland, a tavern maid with apparent slave-markings. And yet the story doesn’t begin with her.

Elias was once of the Blood—family of one of the ruling class in Newfoundland. He wanted for nothing, he answered to no one, he sat near in line to the Protector’s chair, not outside the realm of possibility that he’d one day rule his clan. And yet, life did not go his way. Cast out for cheating at cards—something Elias swore he didn’t do—he had his thumbs chopped off and found himself disowned, landless, and wanted by every man on the isle. Blood are respected for being rulers, yet feared and hated in equal measure as well. When one is cast out, it’s basically a death sentence, with any man, woman or child eligible to collect the bounty should they take the outlaw first.

And yet, somehow Elias escaped Newfoundland, a feat no other could pull off. For a notorious isolationist land like Newfoundland, his feat was not only unique, it’s worth its weight it gold. For if he could escape, maybe someone could get in the same way, bringing weapons, food or men—anything to break the uneasy truce between the various Protectors, giving one of them the upper hand. Such a thing could even make that man King. King of Newfoundland. So, yes—Elias’s secret is worth much, and he knows it. For what Elias wants above all else is vengeance—upon the men that falsely accused him, the men that cast him out, those that took his thumbs, cast him out and stole his life away. But he only has the one card, and he must wait to play it.

Enter the Upstart Patron Jago, born into a long line of fishermen and laborers, somehow he has risen to the rank of Patron, though in little but name. Oh, he HAS power—enough to keep the commonfolk in line, enough to keep the other clans at bay—but the title means little to his compeers. He would do anything for more power and fame. Anything for a shot at his one true dream: King of Newfoundland. Anything. Even consorting with Elias No-Thumbs.

And then there’s Elizabeth Barnabus. Stranded on Newfoundland. Taken as a slave-apparent by the locals. Forced to work in a tavern. Awaiting her opportunity to escape the unescapable isle—an opportunity she may’ve just lucked into.

With all the pieces in place, three desperate plays are made, each with their own aim. But not everyone can get what they want—this game has but one winner. And which one shall it be?

⚙ ⚙

I really enjoyed the Outlaw and the Upstart King, in all the ways I didn’t the first book. While I felt that the Queen of All Crows borrowed heavily upon the trilogy that came before, OatUK barely referenced the previous book at all, making it all but possible that the previous book hadn’t existed, at least early on. While it may not sound like it, this made for a more immersive experience: as I was able to really get into the story without having to constantly relate back to the previous book for clues. Now there are some points later on that ties the story in to what happened before, but they are few and far between. If anything, OatUK feels like a brand new, episodic adventure—y’know, one that tells a concentrated, complete story while also managing to further the overarching plot in the end. It really feels like your favorite TV show; a contained, satisfying adventure that moves the season’s storyline along while also managing to tell a completely separate story at the same time.

In QoAC, Elizabeth Barnabus shouldered the entire story. While it’s certainly something she could pull off (I assume she did it for most of the first trilogy, right?), I found that her story was often at odds with the main plot of the book. Not just that they didn’t align, but that they often competed for focus. It’s one thing to have two stories playing off one another in a way that somehow tells both better, but a completely different thing to have two stories butt heads continually, distracting the reader from what’s going on. I never connected well with either story, and so the overarching plot of the first book largely felt hollow to me. In OatUK, Elizabeth shares the load with Elias. And while Elias probably gets more screen time than her, their stories meld together quite nicely in a way those in the previous entry never did. For much of the text, Elias’s journey is Elizabeth’s and vice-versa. Their paths are aligned. Their destinies are… right.

The world-building I felt even improved on that of the previous book. Newfoundland is a new place with a new feel, completely unseen from anything that was learned in the Gas-Lit trilogy—but then so was QoAC. But while QoAC takes place mostly on ships or the open ocean, OatUK is entirely on land. The island of Newfoundland provides an excellent setting for this adventure, one that Duncan has redesigned from the ground up to fit the story he tells. I’ve never actually been to Newfoundland IRL, but I doubt it’s anything like this. Well, maybe the tides and landforms and whatnot.

The greatest issue I had was with the characters. In Queen of All Crows we got to know Elizabeth and Julia and Tinker better over the course of the book. While I felt like a lot of detail was absent from the original trilogy—especially fleshing out Elizabeth—it’s true a fair amount of time went in to getting to know our main cast. The various villains, maybe-villains, part-time-villains, and occasional allies never got much backstory. They all felt fairly uninspired, grey, lacking next to the main crew. I felt like OatUK did a better job in humanizing the would-be villains; they felt more real, more substantial, and I better connected with them. And of course Elias is well fleshed-out, most of his backstory being key to the current matters at hand.

And yet, it wasn’t a complete success. Any of his previous life that wasn’t directly relevant to the story was skipped over. I was left quite a few times with questions about his previous life—questions that would never be answered. More so, we don’t deal with Elizabeth’s past anywhere near as much as we did before. In QoAC, honestly I felt her past was skipped over a fair amount, just assuming we’d read the original trilogy. In OatUK, her past is barely referenced at all. I realize that since it IS the 2nd in a trilogy, that Duncan would assume that we’d read the previous installment, and would likely leave a lot of that detail out. But he doesn’t provide us any further detail that’s absent from the first book either. In QoAC, it seemed that her backstory was lightly touched on. In OatUK, it’s all but ignored. Likewise, Tinker and Julia don’t appear as anywhere near the characters they were in Book #1. While Tinker does appear in the text occasionally, he’s nowhere near as dynamic and amazing as the boy we saw before. Julia, on the other hand, is barely even mentioned, spending most the the book off-screen.

TL;DR

The Outlaw and the Upstart King succeeded in virtually every way I felt Queen of All Crows failed. The introduction of Elias as a lead definitely helped. Where Elizabeth was alone in leading the first tale, her and Elias come together in the second to tell the story in tandem, which works quite nicely. While both characters have their own agendas, for a good chunk of the time they happen to align, keeping the reader’s eyes ahead, instead of attempting to focus on two, very different plots. The Queen of All Crows felt like just a progression of the original trilogy, but the sequel tells a contained and complete story that—while it required no real knowledge of any of the previous stories—still managed to further the overarching plot of the Map of Unknown Things. Meanwhile, the world-building continues to improve. The isle of Newfoundland provides a lovely backdrop for the plot—which Duncan has masterfully rebuilt in this alternate history to suit his story. The only issue with the story is in its characters. While Elias and the Newfoundlanders (Newfoundlandians?) fleshed out quite well, neither Elizabeth nor her friends came across as well as they did in the last book. It’s as if in trying to tell this new story better, the author forgot to keep developing his existing characters to match.

All in all, highly recommended! An amazing piece by Rod Duncan—even more than I ever could of hoped after being disappointed with Book #1. The Outlaw and the Upstart King provides a lovely cover as well—complements of the talented Amazing15 group (who only knew of 14 entities more amazing than they). The Map of Unknown Things concludes with The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man, out earlier this week, January 14, 2020, which promises to be the final episode in Elizabeth Barnabus’s journey.

The Palace of Glass – by Django Wexler (Review)

The Forbidden Library #3

Fantasy, YA

Kathy Dawson Books; April 12, 2016

368 pages (ebook); 8hr 15min (audio)

4 / 5 ✪

The Palace of Glass encapsulates what I love about fantasy in general. Adventure, new worlds, new imagination, action, wit, and epic quests. While I was a little less thrilled by the back half of the story, nor the manner in which it transitioned from one portion to the next, the third book in the Forbidden Library series was still a must read for me. I want to mention right away—Cassandra Morris does an excellent job reading Alice! She plays an excellent part, equal parts excitement and trepidation, with more than her fair share of determination. A perfect Alice!

Following the events of The Mad Apprentice, Alice is left with a terrible choice. Whether to continue to accept her father’s killer as her master, or to turn against him knowing full well it will likely mean her death. For she now knows what fate befalls apprentices that betray their masters. And yet, this is a fight Alice knows she can’t avoid. Because—really—there is no choice.

She’s not alone in this fight, however. The labyrinthine Ending has her back—at least kind of. She provides Alice a spell that might just imprison Geryon if Alice can catch him unaware. But the spell is specific, and she’ll only have one shot at it. Now, the spell will bind her uncle, but Alice needs somewhere to put him afterwards. As she can’t imagine killing him—despite what he did to her father—Alice requires a certain item to help her defeat him. Specifically, a certain book. A prison book.

Lucky for her, Geryon is called away, leaving Alice in charge in his stead. Unfortunately, she has but a week before he returns. And the prison book she requires lies deep, deep within the magical realms of the library itself. But even if Alice can get in and retrieve it, AND escape with her life all in the space of one week, will she have the fortitude to use it? Her anger is great, but time dampens all wounds. And even should she succeed in imprisoning Geryon—what then? Who will run the library in his absence? And what will Alice do, when her uncle’s fellow Readers fall upon her, seeking revenge?

So much stress for someone so young. Or anyone, really.

The Palace of Glass actually tells two stories in one. The first involves Alice and her revenge upon her uncle, who—rather than actually killing her father like she claimed, more just let him die (so, still a dick, but not exactly as big of one). While I’m trying to be all enigmatic and non-spoilery about it, I think you can guess what happens. Yup, she returns from her adventures to find Geryon waiting, then they have a dance battle to decide the fate of the library. Ending MCs. The second part of the story deals with the fallout from this epic dance battle. The other readers, feeling the explosion of magic (beats) from the library, deploy in force, sensing blood in the water. The winner is forced to defend themselves and the library, maybe with help from the creatures within. And maybe some other friends.

Both stories are good. The disconnect, however, is a bit awkward. I mean, it’s worse to review without trying to spoil, but the transition between the two tales doesn’t exactly flow great. I had to actually take a little break in between the parts because I had trouble just jumping from one to the next. It’s not that everything changes—but several things do. We go from realms of magical worlds, magical creatures and amazing, little-seen worlds—to the library, with humans, hip hop dance beats, and labyrinthine. Labyrinthines? Labyrinthine? It’s under an umbrella of magic, but still. The stories are different, the motivations and actions and results are mostly different. There’s just a bit of a hiccup here, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Just a bit awkward.

The characters of the Forbidden Library continue to be my favorite aspect of the series. Don’t get me wrong—I love the adventure. The magic. The story. But the characters are all unique, interesting, and propelled by their own motivations. Their interactions are key to the success of the story (or in this case BOTH stories), and the story IS a success. I especially love Alice, which is great since she’s the lead. Inherently likable, but also human. Now, there isn’t a whole lot of character development, but this is a YA (or middle-grade) series, so I really didn’t expect much. It is disappointing, though. The other old Readers make an appearance, along with a whole host of magical creatures. The labyrinthine Ending and Ashes are back, as are several familiar faces among the apprentices. There’s also one important guest star, whom I won’t spoil.

The creatures and realms of PoG stole the show for me. While the characters are the stars of the series, the adventure is the highlight of the book. Wexler does an excellent job of painting alien worlds, creatures, which my mind was more than happy to run with. While the exploration of new and unique is pretty much confined to the first half of the book, don’t worry—there’s plenty of excitement and surprises waiting in the second half.

TL;DR

Despite trying to tell two stories in one, The Palace of Glass is another successful entry in the Forbidden Library quartet. Mostly, it pulls it off. A small disconnect exists between the two tales, though nothing too distracting. As usual, the reader Cassandra Morris is a great help to the story—not to mention an excellent Alice—moving everything along even when the pacing got uneven. The characters are the real reason to read this book. As in the rest of the series, the characters are key, providing interesting interactions, dynamic, conversation and wit. Just don’t expect too much in the way of development. This is a YA series, after all. Recommended to everyone, but specifically fans of adventure, YA, or fans of Wexler’s other books. If you haven’t read any of the series, I’d recommend starting at the beginning. And since I’ve now finished it I can say—don’t worry, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Forbidden Library quartet concludes with The Fall of the Readers, out since 2017.

A Longer Fall – by Charlaine Harris (Review)

Gunnie Rose #2

Fantasy, Thriller, Western

Saga Press; January 14, 2020

304 pages (ebook)

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both Saga Press and NetGalley for the review copy! All opinions are my own.

A Longer Fall is the second Gunnie Rose book by Charlaine Harris; set in a olden but fractured United States, where people behave much the same way they do today. Differently.

Lizbeth Rose, fresh off the trouble with wizards and blood and death from An Easy Death, has joined up with a new crew, this one just as inherently disposable as the last. And we’re not through the first chapter before bodies start dropping. Hired to deliver a crate of mysterious origin and product to Dixie, Lizbeth and the crew hop a train and set off east. But when the train is hijacked (or blown up) and half her new crew murdered, Lizbeth must once more pick up the pieces, carrying through with the job in place of her friends.

But life is a lot different in Dixie, where a person is judged more on their skin color and gender than on how well they can shoot. To navigate the politics and bias, Lizbeth must fit in. And to fit in, she has to take on a disguise. Luckily, there’s someone familiar around to help her deal. Enter the Grigori Wizard, Eli Savarov.

He is more than happy to see Lizbeth around, having been dispatched to Dixie on his very own secret mission. But will his intervention save her life, or just muddle it up more? And even if they locate the crate, what will Lizbeth do about it? And—maybe more importantly—Eli?

Okay… so where do I start?

I like Lizbeth Rose as a character. I find her kind of brooding and immature and rough around the edges, but hey, she’s young. And human. So that’s that. Now, I like Eli Savarov as a character. His interactions with Lizbeth provide an excellent dynamic. More so, even, in this book than the last. I would never have put him in this book, though. I mean, I didn’t really care for the story itself, but we’ll get to that later. This is about establishing a likable, new character for a potentially lengthy, episodic series. And it is. The ending proves it. Introducing the same surprise character in back to back books makes it less of a surprise. Even more so if they’re a love interest, which Eli definitely is. Shouldn’t have used him in the second book, pretty much.

The story. At first, the story of A Longer Fall is pretty catchy. Stolen crate full of unknown goods by a mysterious assailant. Shady dealings in Dixie. A familiar face, a good team dynamic, enough action. It actually took me a while to figure out why exactly the story put me off. The answer is complicated. This really would’ve worked better as a suspense or horror novel, but it’s not written like one. There’s not enough expense. Or horror. The pace is too quick for that. The thriller-fantasy aspect that worked so well in the last novel doesn’t work here. And once the pace really starts to pick up, the thrill just isn’t there. The mystery is good, but it’s never really explained. Even in the end.

The plot itself is… what is it? In the beginning it was lacking. Details were few and far between. A detailed, well-written setting is absent once again. Description is once more at a minimum, with more time given to dialogue. If one were to build suspense from the mystery within—that would be one thing. But it’s mostly not. There’s dialogue up to the action-y parts, and that’s it. Little substance is ever given to the mystery, or the suspense.

The story begins to fall apart around the three-quarters mark. Before that, some interesting and curious choices were made. There were plot-holes, questions left unanswered. I had a pretty good handle on what was going on, but then some things happened. Off-the-wall things. Without spoilers, it’s hard to describe. But the ending was weird. Not what happened, just how we got there. It felt unrealistic. To say the least. Definitely felt forced. And then, like the author just wanted to continue writing an episodic, shoot-em-up series.

This choice (or choices) ruined a lot for me. Up to this point, the book wasn’t that bad. The characters were certainly a plus. Lizbeth had quite an arc, though I won’t get into it. And definite character development. Then we get to 75% and it all goes out the window. Later, she even pulls a full 180. On a dime.

Dixie provides an interesting setting. I did NOT like it. It wasn’t badly written or anything. It’s just, that time, it… it’s, well… An old southern feel. Women and men have different places. Different roles. And never shall the two meet. “Coloreds” are often treated like dirt, following the abolition of slavery. But in a place like Dixie, which had seen the fall of the Union government—why did it stay abolished? Reading through, there certainly doesn’t seem like there’s a reason. But it’s never addressed, never explained. I hated Dixie. HATED it. Not just because of the inequality, the feel, the description—but because there are so many things about it left unexplained. So many holes in the world-building. It was just a classic southern place, with inequality and plantations and drawl. BECAUSE. I didn’t think An Easy Death did a great job of world-building Texoma, so right when we had the option of fixing it up in Book #2—we turn around and half-ass some other place.

TL;DR

A Longer Fall probably seemed like a better idea than it ever turned out to be. A thriller that just didn’t thrill. A mystery that left too many questions unanswered. A bit of character development and growth thrown out at the end for no discernible reason. A frankly lazy bit of world-building. The ending definitely soured me. More, I guess. I wasn’t in love with the book before, but we were cruising toward a 3 or so star rating. And then the last quarter killed it. It’s not like I’d expected a happy ending, but the end here was forced. It’ll continue the series, though it will certainly continue without me. I can’t recommend this, but it appears I’m one of the few. Oh well, to each their own.

Top TBR for 2020

I’m going to handle my TBR a little differently this year. I’ll still do monthly updates, but they’ll be shorter, consisting of books I really want to read in a given month. At best I can maybe get through 5-7 books per month, so it doesn’t make sense to post a list of 12 or more. Not sure what form the TBR will take, but I’ll still do something. To keep track. To keep motivated. To hope others have the same interests or read the same books. What follows is a list of books off my TBR that I really, really want to get to this year. I could’ve numbered them, but who am I to judge their worth? I want to read all of them, ideally by the end of 2020. If I were to pick out any noteworthy, they are these: Age of Death, since the last one ended in a cliffhanger; Witchsign, as the cover is so dang beautiful; and the Shattered Crown, as my recent review of Herald of the Storm has reawakened my desire to read it. I can’t promise you’ll see a review for any of them by the end of the month, but maybe one?

It’s going to be a good year, hopefully. Since I spent the first 10 days sick—things can only get better (one would think). There’ll be changes, tragedy, triumph—and lots of just normal life in between. As always, feel free to drop by, talk books, and get lost from the world for a little. If I don’t hear from you, I hope it’s a good year for everyone, and that you all explore readways (yes, I made that up) that make you happy!

Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan (Legends of the First Empire #5)

The penultimate novel in the Legends of the First Empire series finds the war between humans and elves not yet done. Both sides struggle for an advantage, while a few still fight for peace. The epic conclusion is coming—who will survive?

Metro 2035 – by Dmitry Glukhosvky (Metro #3)

The final Metro novel features the events of Metro: Last Light, with Artyom at the head trying to lead his people from the metro and back onto the surface at last.

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson (West of West #3)

The final book in the West of West trilogy finds the Hardworkers amidst the Shining Mountains, still trying to get to The Meadows, to save the world.

Queenslayer & Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell (Spellslinger #5-6)

The Spellslinger series winds down as Kellen and Reichis try to prevent a war. Kellen has been through a lot, but the final chapters of his journey may be the hardest yet. It all comes down to what he wants, and what he’ll do to prevent the war.

Witchsign – by Den Patrick (Ashen Torment #1)

Seventy-five years since the dragons rule on the world ended, children are still born that bear the mark of the arcane. These children are taken—never to be heard from again. When Steiner is taken, he assumes his life to be at an end. But the truth may not be easy for him to handle—or the world survive.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers (Standalone)

A handful of researchers looks to study alien worlds to find which are suitable for colonization. There findings may seal the fate of the human race.

The Spider’s War – by Daniel Abraham (Dagger & Coin #5)

Geder’s war has encompassed the world. But victory still escapes him. As the world’s races seek to avoid the fallout from the war, Cithrin, Marcus and Clara fight to turn the tide—before it’s too late.

After Atlas – by Emma Newman (Planetfall #2)

Carlos Moreno’s life was changed when Atlas left earth to search for God among the stars. Now investigating the murder of one of the most powerful men on Earth, he must attempt to set his past aside to solve the crime. Though that may be more difficult than he’s ever imagined.

The Grey Bastards – by Jonathan French (Lot Lands #1)

Jackal commands the Grey Bastards, but his sights are set much higher than just that. However when all he has worked for seems set to come to fruition, something threatens to tear it all down. A captive, an elf girl, tests not only his loyalties, but his sense of self. Now Jackal must discover what it is he truly wants—and seize it.

Senlin Ascends – by Josiah Bancroft (Books of Babel #1)

The Tower of Babel is the greatest wonder in all the world. Soon after arriving for his honeymoon, Senlin is separated from his new wife and must do whatever it takes to find her. But it may take all his wits to simply survive.

Blood of Empire – by Brian McClellan (Gods of Blood & Powder #3)

The Dynize have seized the Godstone, while Ben Styke has gone and invaded Dynize. Wars still wage and adventure still abounds in the final entry of the Gods of Blood & Powder.

Vengeful – by V.E. Schwab (Villains #2)

Despite being killed, Victor is still angry. Despite being imprisoned, Eli is still forever. And they have so much to work out.

Babylon’s Ashes – by James S.A. Corey (The Expanse #6)

Earth has been crippled by the Free Navy. As the planet scrambles to right itself, life goes on in the rest of the solar system. But without—through the gate network—something lurks. What happens next may change everything and, as usual, James Holden is at the center of it.

The Flames of Shadam Khoreh – by Bradley Beaulieu (Lays of Anuskaya #3)

As Nikandr and Atiana continue to search for Nasim, the war on the isles still wages. In fact, it has spread to the mainland. But as the rifts and wasting grow stronger, the world itself may be threatened with destruction. Will Nikandr succeed in closing the rifts, or will the world change once and for all?

The Shattered Crown – by Richard Ford (Steelhaven #2)

The King is dead. His daughter is untested, but now wears the Steel Crown. And a vast horde is descending upon the city.

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Age of Dread #3)

Plague ravages the world. Darkness looms behind it, threatening to engulf all. Mages and men and gods alike must band together to stop the coming darkness—if it can be stopped.

The Bone Ships – by R.J. Barker (Tide Child #1)

For centuries, the denizens of the Hundred Isles have used dragon bones to build their ships. These ships form the strength of their armada in the war for dominion of the isles. The dragons disappeared long before, until only recently when one was spotted in a distant sea. Now the race is on to find it, as whoever controls the dragon will surely win the war.

Has anyone read any of these, or are you hoping to? Let me know! Also, how ’bout that Witchsign cover, eh? It’s pretty spectacular!

Herald of the Storm – by Richard Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #1

Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy

Headline; August, 2013

392 pages (PB)

3.5 / 5 ✪

Welcome to Steelhaven, the new fantasy epic by Richard Ford (or R.S. Ford), the author of the War of the Archons trilogy. Once a beacon of strength and hope amidst the Free States, the great city of Steelhaven is now under threat. King Cael leads their combined armies against the threat, but while the King is away, the city has begun to fester—black magic and criminals tearing the city apart from within. And when the enemy’s Herald comes, the city of Steelhaven is in for the fight of its existence.

Massoum Abbasi has arrived in Steelhaven. Herald of Amon Tugha, he has come to the city on a mission. Here, he comes upon a few dark allies. An assassin and his two sons—Forest and River. River lives to serve his father and the dark lord, but one single act of rebellion may yet ruin it all.

Janessa is the princess of Steelhaven, and as such, her entire life has been mapped. She will court and marry, birth sons, grow old and die far from home, alone and friendless, while her husband flirts with scullery maids and her children war and die. But there is a problem with this grand plan. Janessa, only daughter to King Cael, is already in love, with a man no father would approve. But will she follow her heart, or her father’s plan? She has a difficult choice, even as the world around her falls to ruin.

Waylian is a journeyman magistra, but without magic, he might as well not be. Apprenticed to notorious Red Witch, his life isn’t looking up. Outcast and laughingstock, he must forge ahead, for despite his lack of magic, the fate of Steelhaven may very well fall to him.

Rag has never had anything. A cutpurse and thief, she and her band of friends rove the streets in search of coin, food, and survival. She has lost friends before—such is the life of an orphan. But when Rag loses a unlikely friend, her world overturns. And suddenly survival isn’t enough anymore.

With the fate of Steelhaven at its center, all these character arcs come together to tell its story—whether the city survives the day, or falls to ruin. Welcome, then, to Steelhaven.

First thing I want to point out is that this is just under 400 pages. And all those characters above? That’s not it. In addition to them, there are a trio more: Keira, a temple Shieldmaiden; Nobul, a blacksmith turned soldier; and Merrick, a gambler. And a bad one at that. The first seven chapters (spanning 61 pages) introduce a new character. Chapter 9 introduces another. Not that these characters aren’t interesting or anything, it’s just that the book’s beginning is a bit…. hectic. A bit unfocused. Eight POVs—as Massoum really only has one here and there—is fine, but for such a short book, it’s inadvisable. Indeed, Herald of the Storm is interesting, but it really only gets exciting once you get into it a bit. There’s really no hook in the beginning to keep you reading. I had to fight to get past the first quarter or so, before everything familiarized. Every POV IS interesting, but there are so many of them! It’s a bit overwhelming.

The second thing I want to talk about in HotS is the story. It’s a good one, but. 8 POVs creates a nice contrast, a lovingly crafted tale that once I settled into was quite easy to read. But since the book is so short, everything has to tie up quickly in the end. Like, abruptly. So much so that it really doesn’t. Not that there’s a cliffhanger, exactly, but more that the ending feels… open. Unfulfilling. Like it’s really just a build-up for Book 2. Which would be fine, except that when you have to wait a year between publications, it’s easy to lose interest. I have the second book, but I’ve never gotten to it. Steelhaven was interesting, but it was so easy to lose track of the story when there’s so little settled.

Now I want to talk about the characters. As I mentioned before, there really are too many for the length. The author really should’ve axed some of them. But I understand why he didn’t. For most stories, I have my most and least favorite POVs. Some I look forward to, others I might dread. HotS… I liked Waylian, River and Rag the most. I wasn’t a huge fan of Kaira, though I didn’t dread her chapters. I pretty much liked everyone else. And their arcs all tie-in very nicely. Now, not all them resolve in Book #1, but that’s different. I trust that the author had a plan for them spanning the trilogy, and assume their individual stories are important for the outcome of the overall story. The character building and development are pretty top-notch. There were even a few instances of growth throughout the book, which I would’ve expected to feel unnatural or forced in such a small space. But they don’t. They’re really very well written and designed.

The world is also fairly well built. Though it reminds me a bit of Landfall from The Boy with the Porcelain Blade. What is shown of the world is lively, vivid. In this case, that’s Steelhaven. What isn’t shown, really isn’t mentioned. Landfall is covered in a thick fog. It’s mentioned, but not much. The world outside Steelhaven might as well not even exist. So, the world-building of Herald of the Storm is pretty amazing, but incomplete. Very incomplete. I don’t know if the story ventures outside Steelhaven in the second installment, though I’m interested to see how the world-building changes in the next story. Or, if it does at all.

TL;DR

Overall I was pleased with Herald of the Storm, once I got into it. But it certainly wasn’t ideal. The world-building and character development was top-notch. There was even character growth, despite the shortness of the book. This establishes the characters as the novel’s greatest strength. But they are also it’s greatest weakness. Eight distinct POVs take a lot of time to introduce. When done one after the other, this can often lead to a disconnected, tepid introduction. This is certainly the case with Herald of the Storm, where the first 15% is a slog, and the next nearly as painful, waiting while the story settles in to a good rhythm. But once it gets going, the story is another strength. The end is a bit of a let down, though hopefully that’s solved in the sequel. I guess I don’t really have an answer whether the read’s worth it. Not yet. I’ll have to see how I like the 2nd one yet. It’s on my Top TBR for the year. Hopefully, after I read it, it’ll be enough to recommend Herald of the Storm, but we’ll see.

Steelhaven continues with The Shattered Crown. If you’d rather try something else by Ford, I’ve heard good things about the War of the Archons. Book #1, A Demon in Silver, was published in 2018 by Titan.

On Tap 01/09

Currently Reading

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan

The second Map of Unknown Things I’m liking far more than the first—but still have a ways to go yet. I think the story’s better, so far. It’s not that Elizabeth can’t carry an entire book, but I think she does better with a divided load. Book Three is out next week!

A Longer Fall – by Charlaine Harris

The language is still bugging me, but that’s apparently Harris’s thing, so I doubt it’ll get any better. Just getting into the story now and… I dunno how it’s going to work. I’ve heard it’s not as good as the first, but… Review to come!

The Fall of the Readers – by Django Wexler

Alice’s swan song. So far so good. Listening to it right now, actually. Probably my favorite book of the year so far.

Up Next

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – by Rod Duncan

Assuming #2 works out well. Here’s hoping 🤞

Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Legend left off with a bit of a cliffhanger. Can’t wait to jump back in to the adventure! I literally kinda want to start it now. But… no, must wait.

Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell

#5 of the Spellslinger series finds Kellen and Reichis… I dunno what they’re doing actually. Probably getting in trouble. I guess we’ll find out!

Have you read any of these? How are they? Anything else I need to look out for or add to my TBR? Let me know!

Otherwise

As a side note, I’m still sick—which is just awesome. It’s really cutting into my sleep, and my reading. I’ll have a TBR for the year out later this week, or early next. Then maybe a Spring Releases thing. Otherwise it’s just reading and sleeping. And maybe some work.

An Easy Death – by Charlaine Harris (Review)

Gunnie Rose #1

Thriller, Fantasy

Pocket Books; October 2, 2018

306 pages (HC)

3 / 5 ✪

An Easy Death is the hundredth book (or so) by Charlaine Harris, and the first in the Gunnie Rose sequence, following Lizbeth Rose, gunnie for hire. Despite the hype and the glowing recommendations of my friends and family, I had quite the issue with this novel. Took me almost two full months to get through. Not a bad read, really, but it certainly wasn’t perfect.

The fractured remnants of the United States host the scene for An Easy Death. Lizbeth Rose and her crew run protection gigs mostly, escorting families to and from new nations with the former US. But when her most recent job goes awry, Lizbeth Rose finds herself alone and outgunned. But she still has a job to do. And say one thing about Gunnie Rose, say she never abandons a mission.

But when the job is done, what will Rose do?

A pair of Russian wizards find her an answer, willing to pay top dollar to find the daughter of an outcast. Something about saving the life of their Tsar. But this mission could hit closer to home than Rose knows—and the Gunnie already knows too much about it. For she’s hiding secrets of her own, secrets that might make the wizards see her in a different light. But she takes on the job anyhow, because of course she does.

I think my biggest problem with An Easy Death is the language. Gunnie Rose is short, and I don’t just mean the length. Written like a thriller, description is clipped, minimal. The story is the big ticket here—the story and nothing more. An while the story is good—very good, in fact—it couldn’t carry everything. The Boy with the Porcelain Blade might just be the loveliest novel I’ve ever read. Writing-wise. Every word specifically chosen, no two repeated in the same sentence, the same paragraph. Reading it was like watching an awe-inspiring dance. A dance of words. But the story sucked. I mean, not “sucked”, it just wasn’t great. An Easy Death may well be its polar opposite. Subpar writing, good story. Now, I’ve read other books with amazing stories and poor writing. Like, bad grammar, misspellings, mistakes, punctuation and well, other issues. An Easy Death doesn’t suffer from any of these, it just doesn’t have good description or language. In my opinion.

Another issue I had with the language is the dialogue. Not all of it, mind. Mostly it’s fine. Western, easy talk, with clipped, familiar language. But sometimes phrases don’t make a lick of sense. Like, none. Of course it’s when I go looking for them that I can’t find any examples. Sufficient to say that some ill dialogue can interrupt the flow of a story, even a good one. And when the world around it is built in shades of grey… well, it just didn’t work for me.

Characters were something that I was torn on. Lizbeth Rose was the strongest. As the lead, this was unsurprising. Next strongest were the two wizards—Eli and Paulina. But mostly Eli. Otherwise, there was Rose’s mother, and… no one. Harris built a few of her characters the strongest. Fortunately, they’re the ones we spend 95% of the time with. Other characters come and go—never really seen and easily forgotten. Little backstory, no detail. No even a flash in the pan. Just there and gone. I… I’m torn on this. On one hand, the story has complete, well made characters. Really no arcs to speak of, but the tale’s a short one. I’m looking forward to some kind of development between the first Gunnie Rose and the second. On the other hand… I felt like the plot of An Easy Death suffered because of it. Because of the lack of detail. Because of the shadow world. Because of the crowd of faceless characters.

The story was An Easy Death’s strongest feature. I have no complaints here. We get into the main story 60 pages in. The next 240 are a tear, pretty much up to the end. I had some trouble in the interim, but I’m like that sometimes. And there might’ve been extenuating circumstances, that we won’t get into. A thrill ride, certainly, an entertaining read by itself. No issues.

TL;DR

An Easy Death features an inspired story set in an uninspiring wasteland. A hit or miss equation, it missed me. The story may be an amazing thriller, but the world-building is absolute shit. It’s bad. Like, really bad. I’m interested to see what the 2nd Gunnie Rose is like. So far I’m ~10% in, and it’s okay. Another rollercoaster, but once again light on detail. But it’s waaay too soon to judge. I hope to find some character development, some world-building the first book just glossed over. I want to count Gunnie Rose as a potentially good fantasy series. But, it’s not happening. Frankly, An Easy Death summarizes my feeling for thrillers in general; an exciting ride while you’re there, but possessing no lasting appeal and is easily forgotten. I was hoping for more out of #2… but was ultimately disappointed. So, my recommendation: if you like fantasy and thrillers, give it a read. I know people who’ve liked it. I’m just not one of them.

A Longer Fall, Gunnie Rose #2, comes out January 14, 2020.

Summer Frost – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Cyberpunk

Amazon Publishing; September 17, 2019

75 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

A heavy dose of I, Robot with the same dash of mystery and intrigue set to a suspense-thriller pace, Summer Frost may be a novella, but it reads like an adventure all on its own, staying with the reader far beyond finishing the final page. Free to Prime members, this 75 page novella by Blake Crouch may just be the best short I’ve ever read. The story of a burgeoning AI, testing its bonds and its creators’ hold, is classic Asimov. The story itself is quite reminiscent of I, Robot, but with so much new and “modern” influences. Told in the usual Blake Crouch thriller model, Summer Frost is a joyride from beginning to end, especially when the story picks up and the manual is thrown out the window.

Max was built to die. A minor NPC in an innovative game world, it is to be the sacrifice that sets the player’s story in motion. Thousands of times, Max has died, though lately the NPC has seemed to have caught a bug. Playing off-script, the NPC has to exploring the game, testing the bonds and limits of the world itself. Even more recently, it even murdered its would-be killer, flipping the script completely.

When an intrigued Riley extracts Max’s code for examination, a curious thing happens. The NPC grows and expands, becoming something more than just a character in a game. It is removed from the game entirely, dedicated its own servers and allowed to grow under strict and watchful eyes. As Riley spends more and more time working with Max, something even more curious occurs. A relationship develops between the two—something emotional, something new.

But as Riley spends more and more time with the aim of introducing Max to the real world, her world begins to fray at the edges. Max has become Riley’s obsession, obscuring all else in her life. The emotional relationship between the two becomes something different, something… MORE.But even as Riley races to introduce Max to her world, doubt presses in. Will Max be able to feel the physical world around it? Will people accept the AI as an entity, or will they treat it as nothing more than a tool, something to be used and abused to their own ends? And how much can Riley trust those around her, in respect to Max? All Riley knows is that she believes in her creation, and that’s all that matters.

This all went rather how I expected it. And without giving much away, that’s all I can say about that. Despite offering only slight surprises, Summer Frost was intensely enjoyable, only a disappointment in its length. Took me a couple hours to run through the story, the first time. Considerably less the second. A classic Crouch thriller, I had no problem reading it, devouring the text in a single day. Twice.

Despite being Crouch written, I didn’t have an issue with really anything else. In other works of his, I’ve had a issue with the science. That it’s much more fiction than science. That it makes dubious sense at best. That the more you think about it, the less it holds together. With Summer Frost I didn’t have such an issue. Maybe because I was vining pretty hard on I, Robot, which I totally love. But still.

TL;DR

Summer Frost is definitely worth a go. If you haven’t read Blake Crouch before, this novella gives a satisfying glimpse of his writing ability. If you’ve already read some Crouch, well what should I say? It’s more of the same. Summer Frost gives off a pretty high I, Robot vibe. It’s an immensely entertaining story, satisfying even days after I completed it. While it’s a fairly short read—requiring only an hour and change to cruise through—Summer Frost is more an experience than a story, one that pretty much begs for a high-dive into Asimov fiction upon completion.