Music Monday – 5/31

So I was planning to have a Lights of Prague review up today, but no one wrote it for me, so we’ll do an impromptu Music Monday instead. Music Monday is a meme created by Drew over on his blog. And I have just the song for today—it released recently and I’ve been listening to it on repeat ever since.

Shaman’s Harvest is a southern rock band from Jefferson City, Missouri. I love this this one—with the stomp-clap, the ominous overtones and dark undertone, and maybe not so subtle references to death—along with the visuals it inspires. Death’s just another part of life, after all. It’s quite the haunting dirge, this one.

The Apocalypse Seven – by Gene Doucette (Review)

Standalone (?)

Scifi, Post Apocalyptic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; May 25, 2021

363 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin, Mariner and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

When the world ended, it wasn’t with a bang. It was with more of a… blah.

Thus passes the Whateverpocalypse—the end of the human race, where cities fall to ruin and the entire planet becomes overgrown. There seem to be no survivors, except those few that overslept the end of the world, awakening only after everything had already ended.

Carol and Robbie are students at Harvard—both freshmen, they awaken to find their dorms deserted and Cambridge around them in ruin. While Carol had spent her last night in, Robbie had gone out drinking. Neither remembered the world ending, but Robbie didn’t even recall stumbling home. And while disoriented, he’s barely in the dark at all compared to Carol—as she’s blind and all.

The two soon run across Touré—a twenty-something coder, and the only person excited by the prospect the end of the world presents. With him in tow, the group soon adds Bethany, a teen with a mysterious past and a helpful skillset (all of which suggesting a record). As they explore the ruins of Cambridge, the group soon discovers that the end of humanity is only the beginning of their poor luck. There’s also the lack of power, the packs of violent boars choking downtown, the freakish weather (including hailstorms, tornadoes, snowstorms and heat waves all in the same week), not to mention the horse-sized wolves.

Elsewhere, the world is little better. Paul is a non-denominational preacher living in backwater Vermont. He awakens to the apocalypse on Monday but it takes the man til Sunday to notice anything wrong. Once he does, he discovers a voice on the radio—the last sign of human life he’s seen. Soon he sets off for Boston, eager to meet Ananda, a former MIT adjunct, who remains picking through the ruins of her former campus for clues. Also there’s Win—an olympic hopeful stranded in the countryside. All leads eventually point to Boston, where the Apocalypse Seven might eventually meet, if they can survive the Whateverpocalypse long enough to find one another.

And even then, it’ll take all their combined effort to not only discover what ended the world, but to survive what comes next.

I do love a good apocalypse now and then. This one does it all without any undead, too, which is impressive. I was getting major Last of Us vibes from this—not so much the story, but the world. Those stolen moments between the cutscenes where nothing’s actively trying to kill you. The decaying, overgrown cities. The wildlife just milling about. The quiet. For the most part, this was a quiet apocalypse. One that provided a good premise, and then just let the story unfurl until The 7 (my shorthand for the survivors) finished filling it in. I can’t say enough about how much I loved the story. It combines a physical sense of loss and deterioration with the struggles of its survivors. Carol is missing her seeing-eye dog. Everyone’s lost family. Some are away from home. None are in their comfort zone. Mental breakdowns co-mingle with physical hardships. Loss with hope. The mystery of what’s befallen the world brings them all together, focuses them on something other than just trying to survive (well, except maybe Touré). And throughout it all there’s an undercurrent of lively—sometimes silly, sometimes dark, always entertaining—humor. Lots of jokes seemingly off the cuff. In conversation. During emergencies. At the literal end of the world. It all goes together exceptionally well—which I loved.

Despite this being the end of the world, it never seems all that hard to survive. I mean, there IS everything that’s trying to kill The 7 all the time, but otherwise. They’re helpfully stocked with Noot Bars—your lembas from LotR, grot from the Faithful and the Fallen, and a number of other things from other places. Noot is basically an foodstuff that never goes bad, has all the nutrients a body needs to live, and leaves something to be desired in the taste-department. So… basically an MRE. And since the young’uns are all stocked up, they’re not likely to starve to death. Win and Paul can hunt, but this is mostly glossed over shortly upon being introduced. Ananda’s nutrition is barely even addressed. I honestly would’ve expected a lot more survival from this story, but there’s comparatively little. It’s a tale more about the mystery, the strange happenings, and the atmosphere.

And the end of the world atmosphere is strong. It kept reminding me of the Last of Us or the like: huge sprawling metropolises empty of people, overrun by animals, overgrown and haunting as hell—except with out all the zombies. No zombies. Just the end of the world, and whatever happened to cause it. I have to say, while I eventually called the ending, the big reveal was nowhere near done after one twist. There were a number of other details that made the whole thing worth it twice-over, even though I did pretty much guess the overarching mystery. And even if you wouldn’t read this for the mystery of what happened, it’s a well-written apocalypse tale with a tense, spooky atmosphere and wolves the size of horses—recommending it is pretty much a no-brainer.

I would recommend skipping the epilogue. While it may provide a little closure, for me it raised more questions than it answered. And as I assume this is a standalone—you don’t need that in an ending. Everything was all well and truly wrapt up before—don’t ruin it.

TL;DR

The Apocalypse Seven is a thoroughly enjoyable post-apocalyptic science fiction dystopian set in a world teeming with life. Just empty of humanity. No undead, no super mutants, no robotic overlords. Just an overgrown world with desensitized wildlife and wolves the size of compact cars. And the mystery of how it got that way. Only seven survived (The 7) and they alone set out to solve this new world or die trying. Possessive of a tense, haunting atmosphere; a strong and immersive mystery; an all-too human cast complete with both strengths and weaknesses; and another twist even when you assume all’s been said and done—the Apocalypse Seven presents an excellent post-apocalyptic scifi and executes it just as well. While there’s comparatively little survival in terms of the Pincher-Martin-level I expected, the mystery and tension carries the story more than well enough. There’s little to hate about this one, and a lot to love.

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson (Review)

West of West #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit; December 3, 2019

499 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the first two books in the West of West trilogy

Finnbogi has grown up. During a journey where he fought two rattlecondas unarmed, controlled an army of pigeons with his mind, and made love with multiple women none of which has wanted to talk to him again—the lovable oaf has finally grown a pair and demanded a new nickname.

Now, as Finn the Deep, Finnbogi is slightly more experienced, but still the stupid, horny teenager we’ve come to know and love. But, as the Wootah and Owsla cross the Shining Mountains into the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of, shit’s about to get real. Or, as real as it can when you’re being chased by Telekinetic Sasquatch (Sasquatches? Sasquatch?).

What’s worse, upon reaching the far side of the mountains, the gang discovers something more terrifying than yetis with mind-bullets: flash floods, tornados, and hordes of terrifyingly huge monsters. And should they survive all of these terrors, the crew will have to figure out how to defeat a goddess who’s already killed all the other gods. Worse, they have to do this all WHILE saving everyone else AND not letting them all die.

Should be easy. Provided they don’t kill one another first.

Well, the end of the West of West trilogy comes both too early for my liking, but also too late. I’ll miss Finnbogi, Sassa, Wulf, Sofi, and the gang, kinda like how I miss how I’m not a dumbass, immature, constantly annoying teen anymore (incidentally, that’s also why I won’t miss them). But also in more legitimate ways. They did some growing up over the course of this trilogy, did the gang. And not just Finnbogi. And not just the Hardworkers. The Owsla have changed too. If you’re after a series with loads of lewdness, swearing, hilarity—but also excellent character development—look no further!

The hilarity and action were pretty much on par with the other books in the series, but there was a serious overtone to everything. The end of the world is looming, and the Wootah are faced with the decision of whether to grow up or die young. And while that’s not an issue for some of them, others may find it harder.

My favorite character remains Ottar. The little savior of the world is proving to be quite adorable—something that you really should’ve noticed on day one—and the hardship thrown on him by the world doesn’t seem to get him down. Sure, he’ll have a bad day (as we all do) but then will shrug it off like the champion he is. So while Finnbogi features some of the more embarrassing, hilarious, and somehow inspiring moments—Ottar has some of the more heartwarming ones.

In the evenings, they ate cactus and Nether Barr’s lizards. Grilled to a crisp, the reptiles were tasty. The old lady helped Ottar make his own net and the boy delighted in failing to catch lizards. When he finally did trap a little striped one with a long tail, he studied it carefully then let it go.

The biggest problem I had with Where Gods Fear to Go turns up at the end of all things. I called the biggest twist, turns out, but not the finer bits of it. And the finer points were rather a letdown. It didn’t ruin the series for me, nor the book even, but rather soured the conclusion a bit. But here—months after I finished the book—I more remember the conclusion for its epic and dramatic twists, battles, romances, and occasional action-packed cutscenes. There are a particular few that come to mind. Point is that while the biggest twist may’ve soured the ending a bit in the short term, it didn’t ruin the series for me past that. I’d totally go back and read it all again (time permitting)! And I’d like to think I’d enjoy everything just as much the second time around.

TL;DR

Where Gods Fear to Go concludes the West of West trilogy, where Finnbogi, Sassa, Sofi, and the rest of the Wootah and Owsla continue their journey west—over the Shining Mountains and across the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of to the Meadows, that place where the world is ending. And there’s certainly a reason behind it all. Big monsters and natural disasters abound—with a damned goddess at the center of it all. Like its predecessors, WGFtG is heavy on the action, sex, phallic puns, language and hilarity, but with more of a heavy overtone. It’s like the text keeps reminding them: “hey, the world is kinda ending and all, maybe focus on that?” But even the darker twist can’t spoil the fun this story brings. If you haven’t read the series but are intrigued and aren’t bothered by any of the above—hey, maybe give it a try. And if you’ve started the series but not finished—hey, maybe do that. It’s totally worth a look.

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #2

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; June 1, 2017

11hr 3min (audio)
381 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.2 / 5 ✪

British India, 1920.

The Kingdom of Sambalpore has grown rich off diamonds. But riches also breed resent. As a semi-autonomous entity within the Empire, the Maharajah is uncontested in his rule. But all things change.

When the Maharajah’s heir-apparent is assassinated on a visit to Kolkata, it’s up to Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee to discover why. The mystery leads the two into the heart of Sambalpore, and embroils the pair in the politics of the court. Within days their suspect list practically grows to encompass the entire kingdom. From a ruthless playboy now in line for the throne, to the third-in-line and his highly ambitious mother, to a power hunger advisor or a cult of religious fanatics, to a missing Englishman and the a secret so valuable it’s worth not killing for once, but twice—everyone’s a suspect. And everything is suspect.

As the pair of detectives get further embroiled, it soon becomes clear that while the former prince was well-liked, nearly anyone would benefit in some way from his demise. And the deeper they dig into the case, the larger the stakes get. It seems that very few people actually WANT Wyndham to solve the case, but as the death toll continues to grow, it’s clear that the murders won’t stop until the Captain does just that.

Some familiar faces, some action, and a really deep mystery await them—in Sambalpore.

The followup to A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil marks the return of Wyndham and Banerjee, as well as a few more familiar faces. While the Empire hub of Kolkata was left largely unexplored in Book 1, Book #2 instead chooses to whisk us off to an autonomous kingdom within the Raj, where tensions are higher, riches are flowing, and Englishmen can’t necessarily do as they please. Thus it’s more difficult for Wyndham to investigate—and easier for the kingdom to stonewall him. So begins a long and intricate (even sometimes convoluted) story to get to the heart of the matter. Seriously, there’s so much going on here that I started to get lost towards the end. As the number of threads exploded and the suspect list grew and grew, it’s really hard to keep a full handle on everything (at least, it was for me). But before everything gets too much, Wyndham is able to whittle the list down, eventually tying everything up in a way that somehow left me with relatively few unanswered questions. Questions that I suspect will be (mostly) addressed in the sequel.

The ending here surprised me. I mean, as I spent a decent chunk of the second half so completely at sea, that’s not really surprising. But, after my initial guess turned out to be wrong, my second and third quickly followed. When the end came it nearly blindsided me. I was waaaay off. But it wasn’t because of any information that was withheld, or sprung upon us at the last minute. It was all there—I just failed to put it all together. But I was listening to this while playing video games, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got overwhelmed. Not to mention the change of locale, politics, religion (it’s still Hinduism, but with a different major deity, and—I’m really not familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon to get into this), and tone. There’s a lot to keep track of. But if you’ve read A Rising Man you’ll be good. Mostly.

Annie returns in Book #2, though things between her and Sam aren’t the whirlwind romance we spent #1 hinting at. Something about accusing a girl of aiding and abetting a murder really seemed to sour their relationship. But Wyndham is giving it his best, so maybe they’ll recover. Or maybe she’ll run off an marry a Maharajah.

Again, I loved Malk Williams’ performance as Captain Wyndham, although his return to the series is a bit bittersweet. See, after this one, the very talented but undeniably different Simon Bubb takes over as Wyndham, and it’s going to be an adjustment—unless it isn’t. Because Simon Bubb is always the reader if you live over in the UK, but for some reason it’s Williams here in the US for two books. Bubb returns for #4—again at least in the UK, as the audio of Death in the East isn’t out in the US yet. For some reason.

TL;DR

An intricate, occasionally convoluted tale regarding the assassination of a prince, a kingdom whose future remains in the balance, plus the many, many secrets worth killing for in the Kingdom of Sambalpore. If you’re not familiar with Colonial India, this series does a lovely job of taking the reader back to experience just what it’d’ve been like to go for a visit—if you were an Englishman, at least. The religious and political tension, the ethnic tensions, the press of bodies, the heat and humidity, the unwashed masses—Mukherjee really does an excellent job of painting a picture of Colonial life. And death, for that matter. The mystery is more than worth the price of admission, as the twists and turns kept me guessing up until the end. I love how the character of Wyndham—and Banerjee as well—are evolving, and hope they continue to progress in the next installment, Smoke and Ashes.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Jenny Zemanek is the artist for this amazing cover—she actually handles all of Patrick’s covers.

Darkstar Dimension #1

Fantasy, Adventure

Self-published; October 5, 2019

236 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Min’s first command was supposed to be an easy one. The First Officer has a ship, a seasoned crew, a straightforward objective. A simple voyage of scientific discovery with a likely captaincy awaiting upon return. But somehow Min has screwed it up. And the worst thing is that she’s not even sure how.

One minute she and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal were sailing through the heavens east of New Windward. The next they are plummeting towards an unfamiliar, shadowy sea far below. For somehow the magic that powers the skyship has been drained.

Even should they survive the fall, Min and the crew will find a world of endless twilight, with an onyx sea that spans the entire horizon—and even stretches to the sky above. Here, the sable sea is filled with luminous fish, a violet and neon sun that hangs in the center of the void, and an old man that calls the dark and Tyrian dimension home.

Also, there’s a dragon the size of a small continent.

To escape the Darkstar Dimension, Min must draw upon all the lessons from her training, explore the dimension and bring all its resources to bear, hobnob with the locals, and somehow escape the hungry dragon that seems deadset on the bite-sized morsels that have stumbled into its home. And even then—it may not be enough. For who knows what secrets the Darkstar holds, and the price one must pay to learn them?

So… this was a pleasant surprise! The Darkstar Dimension is a basically a rave. A shadowy sea full of purple glowsticks and glowing fish. A bunch of people running around under a vibrant neon star, trying not to get eaten by a huge dragon. There’s mayhem, murder, mutiny—all that’s missing is trance music.

The sense of adventure is amazing. The Darkstar Dimension is a mystical and mysterious place, full of wonder and adventure to be had! And that’s even before we get to the rifts surrounding it—passageways to unique worlds, each one more interesting than the last. The Darkstar Dimension itself steals the show however, as even now I can envision this electric amethyst world when I close my eyes; swim in the oceans amidst a school of glowing fish, or hitch a ride atop a turtlemoth. I’d compare it to Doors of Sleep, but with a fantasy-theme instead of the other’s science fiction. We get to enjoy more of the adventure and wonder in this compared to Doors, as the places and sights all weave into the story quite nicely, rather than taking a backseat when the plot takes center stage.

It’s not a perfect ride, as the story is frequently too convenient, and occasionally like something out of a movie, skipping from action-sequence to action-sequence (particularly later on). Neither of these things bothered me much, though. Honestly, my biggest complaint was that time often slowed way too damned much to be realistic—something that’s done to give the characters more time to assess a situation and find a workaround. I’ve really no serious issues with The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon, and cannot wait to read the next one!

TL;DR

I picked up Flight of the Darkstar Dragon from Benedict Patrick’s Kickstarter last year. It was included along with all his Yarnsworld stories in a kinda “complete works bundle” thing. I honestly forgot I had it for a while, and didn’t know it was unrelated to the rest for even longer. After generally enjoying most of my time in his Yarnsworld novels, I expected Flight of the Darkstar Dragon to be an interesting little read, maybe even enjoyable. But I never expected it to blow me away. Where Yarnsworld focuses on the horror and the creepy folktales, Darkstar focuses instead on the adventure and the unknown. There’s still a tense atmosphere and a riveting story, but it manifests in a very different way. Rather than struggling to picture some barely-formed horror that goes bump in the night, this had me flying through violet skies on the back of a massive dragon while neon fish floated all around. Exploring new worlds and meeting new creatures while all the time anticipating the return to the lovely-rendered Darkstar Dimension afterwards. While I can’t promise you’ll like it, love it, or adore it—I will say that if your experience is anything like my own, you won’t regret the time you’ve spent in the Darkstar Dimension. And furthermore, you’ll jump at the prospect of going back. Incidentally, the Return of the Whale Fleet—Book #2 of this particular series—is currently live on Kickstarter, and it’s just a matter of time until we can return to this incredible world!

The Shadow of the Gods – by John Gwynne (Review)

Bloodsworn Saga #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; May 4, 2021 (US)
Orbit; May 6, 2021 (UK)

505 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

The gods are dead. The world is broken.

Three hundred years have passed since the old gods fell, breaking and reshaping the world in their passing. Monsters roam the land—a remnant of the world before. Petty kings and queens have seized control and now vie for whatever power has been left behind. Myths and legends, bones of the fallen gods, and children born of their tainted blood—the Jarls compete for whatever will distinguish them from the rest, all with the same aim: to write their story to be told alongside the old gods before them.

Orka has had her fill of power. Having long since escaped the world of blood and kings, she and her husband now live in the wilds with their young bairn. But she can’t escape the past, nor the machinations of those seeking more power.

Varg has worn a collar his entire life, since both he and his sister were sold to a wealthy landowner as thralls. Ever since Varg has been satisfied to survive—until his sister was killed. His quest to avenge Frøya’s murder will take him to places he never imagined, and find family he never knew existed.

Elvar is a mercenary, seeking to write her own saga in the blood of her enemies. Hired to find an escaped thrall, her band comes into possession of the man’s wife and child, who eventually lead them on a quest to unearth a myth—and the power and glory that it holds.

It seems that the better a book is, the harder it becomes for me to talk about it. And this one is absolutely amazing. Surely by now you’ve seen some hype for it, some 5 star reviews and—if you’ve yet to experience it yourself—are wondering if it’s really all that good. Well, it is. It really, really is.

Shadow of the Gods is truly a masterclass in execution. The world-building is on par with that of the Banished Lands, as the Bloodsworn Saga introduces us to a lush land of Vikings, monsters and gods—all seeking power and glory. While I wouldn’t call SotG a dark fantasy, the descriptions do lend quite a bit of darkness to the story, so much so that in my imagination, the world always carried a bit of a dusky cast. Shadowy forests, deep fjords, seedy taverns and slums, brochs, longhouses and earthworks all added to the dark, Viking feel so much that the entire thing rendered in my head like some ambient Wardruna video.

They were moving through a land of tree-cloaked hills and shadow-dark valleys, of sun-drenched meadows and rivers winding and glistening like jewel-crusted serpents that coiled through the land. The new-risen sun blazed bright as Arg stepped out on to a hillside of rolling meadow and left the trees behind him.

Above her rainclouds shredded and blew across the sky like tattered banners.

The description really is amazing. Each setting is rendered in such detail that I felt as if I’d been there and was just reliving the memory.

As with most of his books, SotG emphasizes the dishonor of the bow, so all combat is restricted to a close-quarters brawl. This, combined with the description and style of writing, made everything feel so much more immersive, almost as if I was experiencing something from memory rather than reading about it. Through the setting and world-building and detail, this one really came alive, and I can’t find the right words to convey just how amazing this was!

TL;DR

While I’m not sure yet if I loved it quite as much as Ruin, Shadow of the Gods is certainly one of the best books of the year and on the shortlist of my all-time favorites. I mean, I’m sure I could rave about this for another page or two and it wouldn’t convey anything more than “you should read it, it’s really that good”—so I’m going to leave it at that. But, yeah, you should read it. It’s really THAT good.

If you don’t believe me and need some more convincing, here’re some other reviews that you might want to look at:

Powder & PageSwords & SpectresSpace & SorceryRealms of My Mind