Top 12 of 2021

Welcome to My Top Books of 2021! It’s been quite the year, and I’ve had more than enough time to read again this year, as my immune system hasn’t been the same since I had COVID—in 2020. Lots of sick time this year, and lots of strange work hours, and lots of canceled plans meant lots of reading time. Which wasn’t all bad, tbh.

While I might try to knock out a Most Anticipated list for the first half or quarter or third or whatever 2022, that’ll have to wait until we’re done sending off 2021. So without further ado…

12 – TIE

Rabbits – by Terry Miles

Standalone

GoodreadsReview

The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston

Standalone

GoodreadsReview

Couldn’t make up my mind between these two standalones—both authorial debuts of 2021! Rabbits told an exciting if ofttimes confusing tale of a competition you didn’t know was happening unless you were in it, and maybe not even then. Indeed you could march all the way to your grave not knowing you were playing! On the other side, The Second Bell told of a child born with two hearts—one a normal human heart, the other a darker, blacker one. I also loved this story of Slavic folklore, but I must admit it didn’t leave a very lasting impression.

11

The Lights of Prague – by Nicole Jarvis

Standalone

GoodreadsReview

The Lights of Prague is a tale of love and vampires in a dark and gothic city. Another debut work, this is a great read for people just off the Empire of the Vampire, or someone after something with a dark, romantic twist that also provides plenty of action, mystery, and thrill. Though I initially rated it a bit lower than some of these others, it left a lasting impression.

10

How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying – by Frank Hyman

Goodreads • Review

The first of two non-fiction offerings, How to Forage for Mushrooms is a beginner’s guide for how to forage for mushrooms “without dying”. I had planned to read this and then forage and then, having not died, review it. Turns out, while incredibly helpful and interesting, quite a lot of the mushrooms in here are found on either the East coast, West coast, or Heartland. And since I live firmly in the Rockies, most were already out of season by the time I read it. So the foraging will have to wait for the spring. But it’s still a good read for any wannabe mycologists out there!

9

Blood of Chosen – by Django Wexler

Burningblade & Silvereye #2

GoodreadsReview

The followup to my Book of 2020 failed to live up to its somewhat unfair standard that Ashes of the Sun set last year. But still was a thoroughly interesting, thoroughly exciting tale of a brother and sister torn apart, on either side of a war that they each are beginning to feel like little more than pawns in. Possessive of a deep, vivid and richly built science fiction world, this fantasy blends the genres into something that I can’t exactly class, but could definitely fall in love with.

8

Nowhere to Hide – by Nell Pattison

Standalone

GoodreadsReview

Seven friends, seven POVs, seven would-be killers. All horrible people. I was disgusted by each and every one before the book ended. But found that I could relate to most of them, as well. A lovely thriller that you’ll either love or hate, Nowhere to Hide slides into #8 on my list, just missing out on the Top 7 by virtue of having a rating lower than perfect at 4.8.

7

Extraterrestrial – by Avi Loeb

GoodreadsReview

My second “non-fiction” read of the year blurs the line between non- and fiction. It’s a science/astronomy entry by physicist Avi Loeb, and discusses the—in his opinion—very real, obvious existence of extraterrestrial life. Now, I do believe in aliens, but not in the old-fashioned sense of the little green men and abductions and the like. I just feel that the human (and often religious) stance that we’re alone in the universe is the height of hubris, a misplaced one at that. Regardless of my own opinions—which Loeb doesn’t particularly share—Extraterrestrial is a good read for anyone who has never tried to justify the existence of extraterrestrial life through scientific means. I will note that at times the text gets into dense scientific terms and mathematics, but Loeb often takes the time to simplify it afterwards for the casual reader.

6

Voidbreaker – by David Dalglish

The Keepers #3

GoodreadsReview

The final (?) volume of the Keepers trilogy wraps up the war between the humans and dragon-sired in a way I’d never have seen coming. There’s nothing simple about this one. No real winners. Many, many losers. Blood, death, flame, unrest, and chaos. Lots of chaos. I love a good dark, chaotic read, particularly when it keeps its head. I’ve now read double-digits of Dalglish’s books and I’ve the feeling that while these were as close to perfect as imaginable, the best are still yet to come.

5

Firesky – by Mark de Jager

Chronicles of Stratus #2

GoodreadsReview

Firesky concludes the Chronicles of Stratus with a roar—one that shakes the world to its core. I treated the Chronicles as one long volume as Infernal just up and left off in the middle of the original tale. As such, these are best read back-to-back, though there is a recap for those who chose not to do this. The fact is that Stratus is possessed of a unique and interesting voice, one that reflects just the kind of man he is. I cannot recommend this adventure enough, particularly as an audiobook! To be fair, Firesky’s ’21 release was a reissue, but as I’d never read it, I treated it as new for this year.

4

The Pariah – by Anthony Ryan

Covenant of Steel #1

GoodreadsReview

The Top 4 were impossible choices. My favorite books of the year that could’ve fitted into any of the places 1-4. I spent far too much of my time on this and still am not 100% happy with my choices. But… close enough. The Pariah leads the way at #4, as Ryan’s books often start out strong but ultimately suffer a sophomore slump (or, as much of a slump you get when going from 6/5 to 4.5/5 stars). Alwyn Scribe was quite the character to read despite his conflicted feelings, deeply human flaws, and foolish, idiotic hope in the face of what would generally be overwhelming cynicism. The world-building is top notch, the characters deep and well-thought-out, and the story amazing.

3

Power doesn’t need a purpose:
Power is its own purpose.
It is the only goal that has value in itself,
because it is the means by which all other goals are achieved.

Risen – by Benedict Jacka

Alex Verus #12

GoodreadsReview

Originally my #2, I bumped it to 3 after consulting what I took away from each book and just how perfect an ending it was considering all the factors. While I’m happy to report that the Alex Verus saga ended incredibly well considering there were a dozen books in it—it wasn’t perfect. Very few things are. But over the same amount of pages, I counted its imperfection enough to send it down a space (though I’m really just nitpicking at this point). Honestly, I’m thrilled that this series ended so well! There’s no Dresden Droop, or whatever you’d like to call it. It’s a five-star read for sure, one that’s more than worth the wait!

2

‘ When at last the fields do wither,
When the stricken fade;
The Gods shall pass beyond the veil,
And the land shall be remade. ‘

A Desert Torn Asunder – by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Song of the Shattered Sands #6

GoodreadsReview

Where Risen wasn’t the perfect conclusion to the Alex Verus series, A Desert Torn Asunder isn’t the perfect ending to the Shattered Sands either. But it was damn close. The simple fact is that the ending stuck with me in such detail that it jumped to #2. The world-building and story were so amazing that they almost could have won it the year, but ultimately had to settle for second. Thing is that I’ve adored the Shattered Sands despite the minor missteps that have plagued the series. But it’s awful hard to complain about a series repeatedly churning out 4.5 star entries. Particularly when it ends on such a high note.

1

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 Varg stepped out on to a hillside of rolling meadow and left the trees behind him.

The Shadow of the Gods – by John Gwynne

Bloodsworn Saga #1

GoodreadsReview

What ultimately ensconced Shadow of the Gods at #1 was that I had nothing negative to say about it. Absolutely nothing. It not only lived up to the hype: this book killed it. It wasn’t the perfect read (no read is absolutely perfect) but it was as close as money can buy. The world-building, the characters, the lore, the journey, the story, the execution—this has it all. And it’s still only the first of a series. I cannot wait to see where the story leads, but like Ashes of the Sun before it, Shadow of the Gods has set the bar so high that its sequel cannot possibly live up to the expectations. Unless it does.

Hope y’all enjoyed it! If you’re a reader, I hope you’ve enjoyed at least a few of these, but if you’ve yet to discover any, I can only pray that you end up liking them half as much as I did! If you’re a blogger, I can’t wait to see your own lists and picks for this year! If you’re either or neither or both, I’d love to hear what you thought! Or anything you’d like to see more of, or any other comments or questions you have! Rest easy, 2021—you tried, that’s enough.

Top Existing Books I Read in 2021

Part One of my best books of the year, with a few shoutouts as well. Stay tuned for my favorite new books of the year, coming soon! Been dealing with vertigo this holiday season, so we’re gonna leave it at that. Let me know how you like the list, and if you’ve read any of these, eh?

Honorable Mentions

#6

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett

2020

GoodreadsReview

The followup to Foundryside, Shorefall is the return to… wow I can’t even remember the name. See, I remember really liking it, and I remember the story and plot and characters, but all the place names are just gone. And I refuse to look them up now. Anywho~ in Shorefall we learn the best way to fight a rogue god. And that’d by resurrecting another to fight it of course. The chaos that ensues is completely normal and expected, if entertaining.

#5

Mexican Gothic – by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

2020

Goodreads • Review

It’s really hard to fault everyone who told me to read Mexican Gothic over and over and over again. Possessed of a haunting story in a mysterious setting and a plot that involves hallucinations, ghosts, and eugenics, this is quite the read. It probably would’ve done better if I was a bigger fan of horror, but as it happens really held its own through the end. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more like this, and maybe even listen to what people tell me to read from now on. Special thanks to Jade and Ola for finally getting me to read it!

#4

Outpost – by W. Michael Gear

2018

GoodreadsReview

If you pick the series that I wish I’d have dug more into this year, Donovan would be in the Top, well… One. While I only made it through Outpost, the first in the series, it featured an entirely alien world, full of flora and fauna both that want you dead, existing colonists that want you dead, and circumstances that want you dead. But a story you very much want to see through to the end. A vibrant setting, interesting characters, and vivid world-building top the list of reasons to read Outpost, but they don’t just stop there. Props to Mogsy and Tammy for finally getting me on this one!

#3

Malice – by John Gwynne

2012

Goodreads

This was the third time I’ve read Malice, and it continues to be great—though not on par with the rest of the series following it. But that’s really how you want it: for the first entry of your coming-of-age tale to be the weakest link. I mean, it’s still a good read. Quite a good read, in fact, but this time around I found myself skipping some of Corban’s less entertaining moments to read more about Camlin and Veradis. Not that that’s surprising for a me, but the books I truly love throughout I’ll sit down to reread a chapter I loved and find myself still reading on from that part an hour or so hence.

#2

Wyndham & Banerjee Mysteries – by Abir Mukherjee

2016 • 2017 • 2018

A Rising Man – GoodreadsReview

A Necessary Evil – GoodreadsReview

Smoke and Ashes – Goodreads • Review

There were a couple new series I discovered this year that have impressed me, and the better of the two comes in here at #2. While City of the Lost (Rockton #1) was on par with any of the Wyndham novels, its sequels were most certainly not. If you love a good mystery, set in historical British India no less, then I’d definitely recommend this series, which is five books long at present (though only three are out on audio—four if you’re shopping the European store). While I’ve only read three thus far, there has been no low point, and honestly they just keep getting better.

#1

Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – by Benedict Patrick

2019

GoodreadsReview

This is a bit of a surprise. When I first started putting this list together, the Darkstar Dragon maxed out at #3. Only when I typed it up did it suddenly jump to number one; after I re-examined what made it a killer read for me. And just like that I relived the adventure with Min and her crew. Last year when I optimistically threw some money at a Kickstarter I had no idea that I’d discover what has proved to be one of my new favorite authors, but here we are! And I still have a handful of Yarnsworld stories to read through before the release of Return of the Whalefleet—Darkstar #2—early next year.

My Top Novellas of 2021

Welcome to List Season! It is among my most favorite times of the year, where we bloggers wind down the year by the numbers and choose our favorite titles from another year of reading! There’s usually a bit of general overlap, but also quite a bit of gems that haven’t made it onto other’s lists—be they too obscure, too late in a series, or just because not one of us can possibly keep up with all the releases in a single year. This year I’ve decided to do several lists (assuming I follow through), including a Top New Books, Top Old Books, and Top Novellas. In addition, I’ll still be featuring a Christmas Buying Guide like I did last year (and which I thoroughly enjoyed making), but it’ll be a post-Christmas thing designed for gift cards or gifts that might’ve fallen through the cracks.

But first, the Top Novellas!

Each is from 2021, and I’ve had to read them. Otherwise… well, you’ll see! Hope you like them!

#6

Remote Control – by Nnedi Okorafor

GoodreadsReview

$11 ebook / 156 pg

The first entry of this list comes from a novella I picked up from my local library during Scifi Month, as I felt I didn’t have enough science fiction to read otherwise. While not a fan of Binti, I quite enjoyed Remote Control, which is set in a slightly futuristic Ghana, and features extraterrestrial tech, or magic, or something, all revolving around the life of a wee lass, Fatima. It was weird and it was interesting and it was unusual, and it made a for a great read! I do remember it was a wee bit expensive however, so maybe try to find it at a discount.

#5

The Alien Stars – by Tim Pratt

GoodreadsReview

$7 ebook (omnibus edition) / 238 pg

Available as part of an omnibus of three novellas from Pratt’s Axiom universe, the Alien Stars is both the title of the triptych and the third volume within, respectively. For purposes of this #5 spot, I’m referring only to the 3rd novella in the volume, though I’m happy to report the first story was also a good read (don’t get me started on #2)! Try though I might, I couldn’t find it anywhere other than in the omnibus volume, though you may be able to get it on his Patreon somewhere. Anyway, it’s a good read. ‘Nough said.

#4

The Loyalist Witch Novellas – by D.B. Jackson

The Witch’s Storm – GoodreadsReview

The Cloud Prison – GoodreadsReview

The Adams Gambit – Goodreads

$3/each ebooks / ~100 pg/each

I may’ve only gotten through two of the trilogy this year, but I’ve no doubt that as long as the third continues in the same vein that it’ll make it on this list as well. All in all, the Loyalist Witch was an amazing return to the world of Ethan Kaille, albeit to find a very different thieftaker than we’d seen in years past. Ethan has changed—and Boston has changed right along with it. If you’re returning fans of Thieftaker, these are a must-read, but welcome newcomers to the series as well. While originally released as a trilogy of novellas, the entire set is now available in a complete volume, as you can see HERE.

#3

Fugitive Telemetry – by Martha Wells

GoodreadsReview

$12 ebook / 176 pg

2021 marked a return to the world of Murderbot, albeit one before the release of the full-length novel, Network Effect. It was great getting back in the groove with our old pal Murderbot and their trust issues and social anxiety, something I’d quite like to see more of in the future. But I’d also like to see where they go from here, and how they evolve as a… well… “person”.

#2

One Day All This Will Be Yours – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

GoodreadsReview

$10 ebook / 192 pg

This is starting to feel like a yearly thing, where I choose one of Tchaikovsky’s novellas for my ‘Favorites’ list. And so I guess 2021 is no different, for it features a pair of his novellas, including one that has been met with so much critical success in Elder Race—and this little one published back in March. Elder Race did not make this list (mostly because I didn’t read it), but there was no worry in Tchaikovsky missing out altogether, as this quaint little time traveling story has not one, but THREE Jack the Rippers.

#1

City of Songs – by Anthony Ryan

GoodreadsReview

$5 ebook / 160 pg

The third issue in the Seven Swords series, and Anthony Ryan has produced his best novella yet. Exiled King Guyime and his allies come to the fabled City of Songs seeking a missing child, an additional five demon blades, and redemption. By this point in the series, the world-building has started to flesh out a bit, and has left me with the need to see and explore more of this world of wonders that the author has built. I’ve very little negative to say about the series thus far which—after reading several of Ryan’s other novellas set elsewhere—is about the highest praise I can give. So do yourself a favor and pick this one up (or, if you haven’t read the first, maybe start here with my review of it: A Pilgrimage of Swords).

Well, that’s the list, hope you enjoyed it! I must say that it was only after finishing up that I looked up the price on many of these and—daaaamn. Remember when all novellas were $1-5? Tor.com has really raised the price, haven’t they? All the more reason for me to recommend the City of Songs, as it’s one of the three with a sane price tag (for the length).

Beautiful World of Books – All the Books I Read in 2021

I’ve read [however many] books this year!

I’ve no idea exactly how many books I’ve read. I had some serious trouble working this out and kept forgetting books and taking them out and reworking them all and trying to sort it so that the covers I liked most were featured in the bigger slots. Okay, okay, I read 64 books. Hopefully I read another to counterbalance Murder by Other Means so it doesn’t look so silly on its own there (I DID, I just forgot to add it in lol). Otherwise, just enjoy the covers and take them all in! Did you read many of these? Did you read ANY of these? What’s your favorite?

Forest of Souls – by Lori M. Lee (Review)

Shamanborn #1

Fantasy, YA

Page Street Kids; June 23, 2020

10hr 43m (audiobook)
403 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing—abandoned as a child and brought up in the Evewynian Kingdom, she has no family, no people, and no idea where she belongs. But she’s been working all her life to change that.

Now, as one of the favored apprentices of the Shadow, the Queen’s spymaster, she aims to cement her place in the kingdom, and carve out a page of her own in its history books. But such rarely goes to plan.

When out on a military assignment, Sirscha and her best friend Saengo sneak off to a tea house in order to conduct Shadow business, only to be ambushed by a pair of shamans intent on killing Sirscha. They kill Saengo instead.

And then somehow, Sirscha restores her friend to life.

Soon revealed as Shamanborn herself, Sirscha must flee from the same kingdom she grew up in and has trained to serve her whole life. Instead she and Saengo must travel to the domain of the Spider King, traversing the Dead Wood in a desperate attempt to prove her worth to the Queen, and the kingdom itself.

But her path is not so simple as that. Shadows lurk around every corner, plots that would see her—or worse, Saengo—dead. Sirscha doesn’t know who to trust, nor friend from enemy. She knows that she needs allies, however, but not whom to turn to. She must traverse this dangerous new environment with just her best friend to help, while the kingdoms grow ever closer to war around her.

There’s nothing too confusing about the plot of Forest of Souls. A coming-of-age fantasy set in an interesting if not overly unique fantasy world, it all boils down to a quest, something that Sirscha needs to accomplish in order to return to the kingdom. See, not long into the book, our hero is revealed as a Shamanborn; her power awakening when she restores Saengo to life. Shamans are reviled in Evewyn, ever since their part in the death of the Queen’s parents…? I think? (I read this as an audiobook, and I’m a bit foggy on the details here. I tried to look it up in reviews/previews/sneak-peeks but of course that didn’t work) Sufficient to say that a few shamans did something awful, and the Queen seems content to take that out on the rest of them. And so Sirscha has to find a way to make herself indispensable to the Queen if she ever wants to return home. Which she does… at first.

The complicated thing about Sirscha is that she’s a bit of a hypocrite. Brought up believing (to some extent) that shamans were the cause of all of Evewyn’s problems, once she is revealed as one, it doesn’t take her long to complete a full-180 and buy completely into shaman nationalism as it were. She goes from blaming the shamans to blaming the kingdom for the exact same things so quickly that’s strange to see. There is a little conflict of identity, but it’s all sorted out before lunch. But this leads me to one of my biggest issues with this book: the character development.

The characters are a mixed bag. Sirscha is deep and intricate, with her own motivation and backstory and ideals that are somewhere between relevant to completely different than anyone else’s. As such, Prince Meilek and Theyen stand out because their motivations are shrouded in mystery, much like their actions and desires. The Queen and Spider King as well are deep in their own right, even though we don’t see too much of them. Everyone else is just… forgettable. This includes Saengo. Despite being billed as Sirscha’s best friend and confidant, the only link to her past and vital to her future in more ways than one—she doesn’t really get that much screen time. Sirscha is always brushing her off to go somewhere or do something on her own. And while Saengo is on screen about half the time, we really don’t know too much about her. The text glosses over her family and her feelings with their predicament, but she really gets less in-depth analysis than someone like the Spider King, despite being billed as an integral part of Sirscha’s world.

As I said, the characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Which leads me to their relationships and development. There’s really no romance in Forest of Souls, which is refreshing. It seems every single YA fantasy I read has to set up some unrealistic romance that has no way of working out, except of course it does. The few exceptions to this feature something more like a classical romance, a love-triangle, quadrangle, or full-on orgy. There are a few hints of possible future romance in this, but that’s it. For the most part we focus on Sirscha and Saengo’s relationship—which is deep and meaningful in a way that Saengo’s character isn’t. It’s really quite odd. And while the relationships change and develop over the course of the story, the characters really don’t. Almost zero character growth or development. Sirscha goes from blaming one faction to blaming another faction almost overnight, but there’s no real thought-process behind it. It seems more like a snap decision is made: here’s what we’re doing. No one else shows anymore development than her—something I’d like to see change in the second book.

TL;DR

All in all Forest of Souls is an enjoyable fantasy adventure with an interesting concept and a slow-building but ultimately satisfying story, that touts friendship and love over romance and sex but ends without any real meaningful connection from it. It’s… a complicated one to describe. I really enjoyed so many things about it—from the story to the mystery to the world itself, most of the characters with their own depth and motivations and peculiarities, the mixed bag of emotions and questions that was Sirscha herself. But it also had its downsides; from the lack of any real character-development to the disappointment of Saengo as any sort of character at all, to Sirscha’s actions that often seemed to have no forethought while others seemed the complete opposite but for the same reasons.

I mean, well, I did quite like it, but Forest of Souls was not without its issues. It’s quite an odd read, really, a mixed bag of mostly good ideas and execution, albeit with a few glaring and frankly strange choices that hold it back from greatness. Let’s hope these are addressed in the sequel—Broken Web, out since the summer of 2021—a book that I do plan on reading. The reactions to this one are all over the map, with no one anywhere near a consensus on where to rate it. So… I’d still recommend Forest of Souls, but maybe try to pick it up on sale, or from the library?

Legends of the First Empire – The Beautiful World of Books

Like last week’s post about the Riyria Revelations and Chronicles, this one also centers on the world of Elan, specifically the early days of the interactions between ‘Men and Dwarves and Elves and Ghazel. Back when the world was young empires rose and fell, the races jockeyed for land, the borders of later civilizations slowly feel into place. It’s quite the picturesque land, if the covers have anything to say about it.

First we have the Legends of the First Empire, a six-book series, the former half of which were somewhat disappointing, though latter half were much more impressive and memorable.

Okay so I may’ve put them down slightly out of order, but in my defense I knew that. I really prefer the Age of Legend cover to that of the Age of Empyre—the witch’s hut versus the big, semi-friendly not-dragon. Anyway, next we have the three covers from the Rise and Fall, a trilogy which takes place some years following the events of the Legends of the First Empire. I’ve yet to start the series (I know, I know), but there’s only the one book out. These covers are equally if not more amazing than those above, despite the fact that two of them are unpublished and are only out in beta-form, low resolution images.

I honestly have to say that if the story of these is ANYTHING like what’s gracing the covers, it’s going to be a memorable adventure. More likely, Marc Simonetti (who did the covers for the last two books of the Riyria Chronicles and the six Legends of the Final Empire ones, is finally becoming intimately aware of the world he’s trying to capture, thus his attempts to recreate it are just getting better and better. Of all the Sullivans thus far (23?) these last three are my favorites. They’re just… stunning.

What were your favorites? And how did they compare to last week’s covers? Have you read/do you plan to read any of these? I’ve reviews posted for the Legends series if you’re interested! As before, HERE‘S a link to Marc Simonetti’s store, where you can browse/purchase his prints for your very own.

As always, have an excellent weekend and see you all next week for more Beautiful Books!

A Dead-End Job – by Justin Alcala (Review)

Death’s Hitman #1

Urban Fantasy, Supernatural

Parliament House; October 5, 2021

283 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Parliament House and NetGalley, through which they provided me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

A somewhat novel take on the Grim Reaper trope—where Death is replaced by a mortal for whatever reason—A Dead-End Job isn’t exactly generic, but it’s certainly not new either. I’d call it unique, if only because I’ve never read anything quite like it. It does try a lot of things, but.. well, you’ll see.

Death is hurting—he needs a vacation. Badly. Thanks to automation, the job pretty much takes care of itself nowadays. People die, the souls turn over, and march their own way through to the afterlife. But Death’s job isn’t so simple as it used to be. Because where there is a system in place with rules and regulations, there will always people trying to cheat the system. It’s those that cause Death most of his headaches, and take up most of his time.

So in order to go on holiday, Death must find someone to take up his mantle for just a little while. So he hires a hitman to do it.

And not just any hitman—the best there is. Okay, well, maybe not her. Instead he picks Buck Palasinksia, the most recent hitman to take a bullet through the skull. Buck wasn’t a bad shot in his day, and feels reasonably certain he can do the job. Plus, he’s dead, which makes him perfect for the job.

Now all he has to do is take out Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, and all the other would-be cheaters while Death is off sipping Coronas on the beach.

When the author first started writing A Dead-End Job in 2019, it was nothing more than the idea of a hard-boiled hitman working for a comical Grim Reaper. What came out the other side was a former vet, working as a hitman to support the kid he picked up off the street, throwing humor around to help him make it through the day. Now, in practice I honestly think this sounds like a decent book. In reality however… it just didn’t work for me. Now there’s a lot to love about this book—really, there is—I just didn’t love it.

My objection to it began in the prologue (which is never good), a prologue which I nearly didn’t finish. I’ve never enjoyed the “Grim Reaper in a cubicle” depiction, and it just isn’t ever likely to work on me. Now, that’s a pretty important part of this book, but it wasn’t in the blurb so how was I to know? I felt that Dead-End Job tried a lot of things—none of which worked much better than the setting for me. Buck is a former vet turned hitman, something that was never adequately explained. The kid he picks up along the way joins the picture only after he was killed, so it had nothing to do with supporting her. The references, puns, catch-phrases, and comedic one-liners pretty much define Buck as a character. And were the only depth I ever saw from him. The hitman/thief with a heart of gold is something that I’ve seen too often, and yet another thing I’ve never bought into. This combined with the world and Buck’s brand of cheap 90’s humor pretty much ruined it for me.

Thus A Dead-End Job pretty much follows in a straightforward manner until just before the end, where it does turn an impressive twist. The trouble was that by that point I was just too far gone to care. The ending itself wasn’t bad, but after 250 pages of bad puns and one-liners, it didn’t manage to awaken any sort of enjoyment from me. Like I said before, this may be a good book; it tries a lot of different things, combines death and comedy with the weight of responsibility. I just didn’t feel like it did any of these particularly well, and wasn’t for me regardless.

TL;DR

A Dead-End Job might not be the most interesting take on a mortal replacing the Grim Reaper, nor the most humorous. It’s not the most thrilling, nor the most mysterious. But it might just be… the newest? I really don’t have a lot to say about this book, other than that it didn’t work for me. It definitely didn’t work. It tries a lot of things: combining the weight of parenting with the seriousness of mortality, joins a hard-boiled hitman with an almost comedically disarming Death, and cobbles the whole thing together with puns, catch-phrases, and references fresh out of the 90’s. While I didn’t feel like it managed any of these particularly well, it also didn’t ruin them. Not exactly. I mean, most of these things have already been ruined for me, so the whole thing was pretty much doomed from the start. Maybe you’ll like it better, though. If you’re the kinda person that enjoys any two of the above tropes, maybe give it a shot. Otherwise, maybe don’t.

Note: As of reviewing, A Dead-End Job has a 4.42 rating on Goodreads, with a dozen five-star ratings and generic reviews from non-mainstream authors. Now I’m not saying that these people just provided a 5 star review to help boost the ratings and help out a fellow author… I’m just saying that it’s a wee bit suspicious. That’s all. I was actually going to go into more depth with this, but… I dunno, I am a little sympathetic. It’s hard to get your book out there when you’re on your own, when you don’t have a big publicity engine behind you—who am I to judge someone who’s just trying to help out their colleague? Who wants nothing more to follow their dreams and succeed, even if all the odds seemed stacked against them? So… while I wouldn’t recommend this, you can still give it a try yourself. Just, maybe wait til it’s on sale.

And maybe look for a more in-depth exploration of this later on.

Firesky / Chronicles of Stratus – by Mark de Jager (Review)

The Chronicles of Stratus #2

Fantasy, Dragons

Solaris (Rebellion); December 7, 2021

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

Firesky

13hr 56m (audiobook)
544 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Chronicles of Stratus

994 pages (ebooks)
26hr 50m (audiobooks)

5 / 5 ✪

Infernal Review

Evil is motivation. You cannot ward against motivation, only the acts that they motivate.

This was a troublesome review to write. The formatting alone was a nightmare. See, I loved the book, but there were some issues that made it different from my normal reviews, so I had to change up the style I usually employ. Let me explain.

The English release of Firesky, the second and (most likely) final installment of the Chronicles of Stratus, works to complete the journey that began in a desert surrounded by vultures, so many moons before. In Infernal we follow Stratus, who does not know who or what he is. Following the revelation of his true nature at the end of Infernal, Firesky begins with a reckoning.

The problem is that other than this revelation, there’s no reason to break at the end of Infernal. The overarching plot is not resolved. No storylines are resolved. The only thing that changes is that now Stratus knows who and what he really is—and while the former might be a surprise, the latter is something that he’d been suspecting for some time. Therefore, I’d suggest treating the Chronicles as two parts to one whole. Two books in a single installment, like how the Lord of the Rings is split into three, or how the Stormlight Archive books are usually split in two (in Europe, at least). If you read it like this, with just a break in the middle, it removes 90% of my complaints about the books. Still, if you decide to read them as two distinct works, Firesky has a helpful recap to remind you of what happened before, so you can just jump right in.

So, honestly, I can pretty much just end right now with a 5 ✪ recommendation that you go out and get the Chronicles—since they’re both out and can be read as one.

So, just go get it.

Go on.

Still here? Might as well do a recap of Firesky, including some very minor spoilers. If you want to avoid these, just skip to the TL;DR.

We begin with Stratus. The Dead Wind. The Destroyer.

The from waking moments of Infernal, we knew that Stratus wasn’t human. While we weren’t absolutely sure of what he was until the end of Book #1, the signs were all there for us to follow and likely by the end wasn’t a very startling revelation to anyone.

Regardless, in the interest of spoilers—since I’m treating the Chronicles as one volume separated into two parts—I’ll just skip the revelations and set the scene.

One enemy has fallen. But they were just a pawn of the bigger threat, one that Stratus has already faced before. It was this foe that led to him waking in a strange form with no memory, a battle he could only run and hide from rather than fight. But there is no running this time. And nowhere to hide.

Stratus wants revenge. And he will get it, one way or another.

Okay, so after that incredibly vague recap, we’re set to start Book #2. Firesky wraps up Stratus’ journey quite nicely, and rounds out the adventures of his allies as well. While there may be room on the end for one of these allies to take over the narrative, I think we’ve wrapped up Stratus’ journey.

TL;DR

Honestly, even if you follow the obvious signs and blurbs between Books 1-2 and discern Stratus’ secret, it’s still a great read. Think I had him pegged a quarter of the way through Infernal and the adventure was still amazing! In fact, my biggest issue with the first entry is how it ended—how it just left off following our somewhat startling revelation—and if you consider the Chronicles as a single volume it removes all of this. Actually… that’s the ONLY thing I have to complain about. Otherwise, Firesky was a 5 star read. Taken as a SINGLE entity with a break in-between, the Chronicles of Stratus is a 5 star book, one that I recommend to any lovers of fantasy around! Again, go get it!

Audio Note: I LOVED Obioma Ugoala’s performance as Stratus! Sometimes an narrator just reads a book—using their same tone of voice with the same inflection throughout. But sometimes a narrator seems to connect with the characters on a more personal level (the 1st person POV really seems to help with this one) which helps bring them to life all the more. Ugoala was able to manage both Stratus’ subtlety and obtuseness not to mention his inhuman humor in a way I found just so perfect! I would absolutely recommend this as an audiobook, one that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did!

Discordia – by Kristyn Merbeth (Review)

Nova Vita Protocol #3

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; December 7, 2021

464 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the Nova Vita Protocol Books 1 & 2.

Review of Fortuna (NV#1)

Review of Memoria (NV#2)

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

While I usually try to abstain from language in my reviews, some of the quotes below may contain some. If you foul language is a deal-breaker for you, maybe don’t read this book.

All I had to do was… absolutely nothing. But I couldn’t even get that right. It seems I’m always finding new and improved ways to fuck everything up.

The Kaisers return to space, after the events of Memoria leave them homeless. But while they are together as a family, they are not all together as a crew. Following his betrayal during the war on Nibiru, Orion is back, where he is more or less welcomed with open arms. Daniil, on the other hand, is less so. The former Titan Sergeant may be a war criminal, but his motives are not trusted—even by Corvus, who knows him better than anyone.

Likewise, the crew of the Memoria are not universally trusted or welcomed among the planets of Nova Vita. On Nibiru, the IA has declared them all fugitives and war criminals, despite their hero-status among most of the populace. On Pax, their documents are not accepted, and are still waiting for permission to land on the largely desert world. On Deva, they are… tolerated, so long as they have something to offer: mostly consisting of goods scavenged from Gaia and Titan—the two worlds where they are most welcome. But even that is about to change.

As the system readies for war once again, the Kaisers go from simple war criminals to something more, and are almost universally hunted. Only Pax (which still won’t let them land) isn’t actively trying to capture or kill them. All for the forbidden intel they’ve gathered on the Primus—knowledge that is worth far more than just their lives. But while this information may finally do them in, it may yet save them, and the entire system of Nova Vita as well.

I was more afraid to fight than I ever have been before, because I have never wanted to live more than I do today.

Discordia concludes the Nova Vita Protocol, wrapping up all major storylines with a nice bow and flourish, while leaving a return to the universe possible, if not evident. The story is definitely the reason to read this one, especially if you’ve been following it from Fortuna. I certainly had some issues with the book, but really none with the story itself. If nothing else, Kristyn Merbeth knows how to tell a story, and does her best not to leave anything out when wrapping it all up.

But while I’ve enjoyed the Nova Vita protocol thus far, it hasn’t exactly been perfect. In fact, one of my main complaints thus far has been that the planets don’t really feel like planets. As the Kaisers fly through the system, they visit each world, every time landing in the same city or port, and at no time really exploring anywhere else. Yes, there are a few exceptions to this rule—in Fortuna, we did visit two whole locations on Titan, but then were quickly removed from the planet entirely; in Memoria, there was a bit of roving around Nibiru, but it was mostly just the ocean, and there wasn’t any further description of anything else—but coming into Discordia, it seemed that there was but one city on every planet, and nothing else worth caring about. I am happy to say that this is not the case for the third book …to a point. When landing on Gaia and Deva and Nibiru, we still only land in the same city, but manage to explore a little more of the worlds themselves. But… just the area surrounding the capitals. A little. Pax actually features more than one city, though little description is given to either, so they might as well be the same. There hasn’t been any real effort made to make the planets seem like, well, planets. It more feels like we’re moving between three or four cities, while nothing outside their limits matters.

In fact, while Discordia does try to correct the issues I had with its previous installments, the attempts never seemed all that comprehensive. In fact, it tries to do some many new things, that it kinda gets in its own way. The exploration is one; there is an attempt to expand the worlds, but not all that much. There’re more glimpses into the history of expansion into Nova Vita, but not many. The non-romantic, non-familial relationships do take center stage early in the text, but then are never really revisited. All in all, there is an attempt at expanding the scope of the universe—but it’s a bit of a half-assed attempt.

The romance is another thing I’d like to address. Though Memoria may’ve cleared up Scorpia’s love-triangle, Discordia comes back with its own in the form of Corvus. Now, I’m not a big fan of love-triangles (or romance (as a genre), really), but Corvus’ was done extremely well. Whereas the continuing romance between Shey and Scorpia begins to feel a bit forced, the one involving Corvus is just the opposite. It is subtle and enigmatic, blossoming in the background over all the books, before really becoming something tangible in the latter half of the third. Just as Scorpia’s caused me to lose interest, Corvus’ reinvigorated it. (That said, I did appreciate the effort the author made to illustrate that the Scorpia-Shey thing was far from a storybook romance—that it took time and effort, went thing bad spells and indifference and anger and strife. At the end it did feel more real, though still a bit forced).

TL;DR

Overall… Discordia was quite the mixed bag. It’s certainly a must-read for anyone who’s reached this point of the series, though if you didn’t like the content of the books thus far, you’re not going to be any happier with the conclusion. While the final book in the Nova Vita Protocol did try to address some of my major issues with the preceding entries, it didn’t really try too hard. There’s a bit more exploration of the planets outside their one hub, but not too much and not too far. There’s a bit more detail and lore, but nothing important, and not all that much. The romance replaces one love-triangle with another—although this one is entirely more well done. It’s… urrrgh. Frustrating to describe. I’d recommend Discordia for fans of the series, or those who’ve gotten through Book #2 and want to see where it all ends. For those who’ve yet to start the series… while the story of Nova Vita is strong, it’s really the only thing that is. The rest isn’t bad, exactly… just maybe don’t expect too much.