Cursed – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #2

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; May 29, 2012

277 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

7 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Fated, Book #1 of the Alex Verus series, and possible minor spoilers for Book #2, Cursed.

Ever since the fallout with the Fateweaver, Alex has been keeping his head down, immersing himself in work at his Camden shop and doing his best to play mentor to an unorthodox apprentice. Yet neither has been working out too well.

Now that he’s on the Council’s radar, it’s only a matter of time before they come calling—so Alex has been picking up odd jobs from his contact Talisid, and planning for what happens if SHTF. Unfortunately, it seems he’s underestimated them.

Caught in the middle of a clash between Light and Dark, Alex signs on to investigate a rumor of mages harvesting magical creatures for their life-force—a process as dangerous as it is disgusting. As he doesn’t want the research to fall into the wrong hands (or any hands, preferably), Alex is set on destroying the process before any other magical creatures can die. But it seems he’s underestimated just how much some mages are willing to go for a chance at more power. And while they’ll happily kill him in order to gain it, is he willing to do the same in order to prevent its use? Or will he step aside while his new allies grow much stronger, and maybe him as well?

Sonder was looking in my direction as I walked back into the room. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard a bang.”
“Rats.”
“And something that sounded like a scream?”
“Big rats.”

Better than the first one, albeit with a slower start and a slightly more divergent plot. Still, when it all comes together the story takes off. A couple missteps relating to later books and the blending of plot lines ruin what could’ve been a better sophomore effort, but I promise you, the series does get better the later in it one reads.

While a better read than Fated, Cursed is still not yet indicative of Jacka hitting his stride. The plot is certainly more intricate than the fairly straightforward fetch quest of its predecessor, but “more intricate” does not always mean “better”. Indeed, with a slower start and a more divergent plot, Cursed gets bogged down in expectation and ends up a muddle of threads and plot-lines—and something which confuses the lore come later books. That said, with far better character personality and development, it really gets the series moving from some pair of related books to something which one day might comprise a good series. And hey—it does.

Despite its quagmire of plot-devices and threads, Cursed is never a challenge to read—at least once past the 40-page mark. Make it there and you shouldn’t have any more problems. It’s not that making it through these first forty is all that difficult; it’s an interesting setup, building up the plot via lore that would’ve been nice in the first book. It’s just that, unlike the previous entry, Cursed doesn’t stamp on the accelerator and leave it to get the reader immersed. Instead, it builds events up a bit—then stomps down.

I really don’t have too many thoughts on this one. I mean, it shows the classic “sophomore slump” common to new series, but the “slump” isn’t any worse than the original. In fact in some ways it’s better. My recollection is still that the series only goes up from here, but I suppose I should amend that now. While I know that later books get to be the kind of thing you can devour in about a day—it’s not quite here yet. But “nothing after Fated gets any worse” doesn’t sound as good. Taken (Book #3), I remember as being really good, Hidden (Book #5) taking everything to another level. As for Books 4 & 6… well, I guess we’ll just have to see. Check back next month for the review of Taken, and for more on Benedict Jacka.

Updates (February 2022)

Instead of a Beautiful World of Books this week I thought I’d do a couple updates for those interested.

First, regarding Black Heart:

You can purchase the entirety of Black Heart via DriveThru (an entity I’d honestly never heard of before). It provides a PDF and EPUB version of each of the three parts, each for a price of $2.99. In total the book would run you about $9, but there’s no omnibus version available quite yet. So you can head over there or to his Patreon. Supposedly there will be a MOBI version in the coming weeks, but I don’t know if it’ll be an omnibus or not, nor any details on the price.

SECOND, I recently hit 100 reviews on NetGalley, something I’ve had my eye on for the last few months. Hilariously enough, my 100th review for them was a book I somewhere between DNFed and skimmed to the end, one of only a handful I didn’t read in full. Yup, I read 94 out of those 100 to their fruition, just this one didn’t make the cut. If you were curious, these six are:

  • Driftwood – by Marie Brennan

I found this aimless, meandering, bland and boring. I tried on FOUR separate occasions to make it through this, but it was not to be. Somewhere within these interconnected tales are the story of Last, someone who’s different depending on who you ask. As such, there’s no character development, no WORLD development, and really no overarching plot to speak of. I honestly can say that I don’t even know what Driftwood is about, except that it’s about $10 too expensive.

  • By Force Alone – by Lavie Tildar

A retelling of the Arthurian legend, I hated each and every one of the characters, and I kinda have a thing about the Arthurian legends, so this was an unwelcome retelling. I’m not opposed to grimdark like some are, but keep them out of my childhood fantasies, please.

I’ve recently read a bit of some of the author’s other work and I can confirm that he (his style) might just not be for me.

  • Highfire – by Eoin Colfer

A kids’ author whose debut in adult fantasy I found course for no reason other than it seems to be he thinks that’s what adults are, sweary for pretty much the same non-reason, and thoroughly uninteresting. It’s supposed to be comedic, but falls for short of that. And as a fantasy… I mean, he somehow included a swamp dragon that was boring to read about. I barely made it past the 15% mark of this, and wouldn’t recommend it for anyone.

  • Ghosts of Gotham – by Craig Schaefer

I actually posted a review of this DNF shortly before I decided to stop reviewing DNFs on this blog. You can go check it out if you’re interested, but the short of it was that the story completely started over at the 1/3 mark and I couldn’t be bothered to care enough to join it. Literally the best thing I found about this was its cover.

  • Hitchhiking Through Fire – by Brent McKnight

This was a cut-and-paste generic post-apocalypse “thriller” that was bland and uninventive, but also uneventful as well. There are zombies and society has broken down and all the older generation remembers the “end times” but the younger generation seems to have devolved really quickly to the point of anarchy. It just… it reads like the backdrop for a bad B-movie. Like one that was direct to DVD because they couldn’t be asked to air it on Syfy channel.

  • Ranger of Marzanna – by Jon Skovron

This is the only book on this list I was legitimately disappointed by. So much so that it hurt to DNF it. I loved Skovron’s previous trilogy the Empire of Storms, but this was… just bad. I kicked down the door in the early pages—and then just stopped. There was no action to be seen through the next 200+ pages. It was too political, too slow, and too cold for me. I’d happily go back and read Hope and Red (I have, in fact) before I’d attempt this one again.

THIRDLY

I’m nearing the 500 view mark for The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan, which would make it my first post to eclipse this mark. As of writing it has 490 views—the most by a decent margin, as 76 below it is the closest competitor in Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan at 414. After that there’s a significant drop to 3rd which is Forged – by Benedict Jacka at 270.

It’s not really about the views or visitors for me, though. I mean, it’d be nice to have in the 1000’s of readers and subscribers so I could finally get on Tor’s good side, but honestly that’s the only reason I could think of to want that. Otherwise… I didn’t get into this for the numbers. I mean, the ARCs are definitely one of the main reasons I’m still here—I spend considerably less on books than I used to—and since I don’t make a ton of money, that’s a big motivator. The main reason I’m in this is to connect and talk about my favorite reads. With actual, like, people.

Yup. Y’all motivate me. Try not to screw it up, eh;)

Anyway, your regularly scheduled programming will return in likely a few weeks. My birthday is the first week of March and I probably won’t write anything more for then, just do a couple of silly or music posts. Or maybe I’ll just skip it and be lazy. After that… I haven’t decided what I’m doing going forward, as I have some employment issues coming in March/April and might do a little freelancing across the state (which, if you’re not familiar with the geography of Montana, is gigantic—about the size of Norway; bigger than Germany, New Zealand, or Japan), so it might cause me to be a little erratic on here. But we’ll see, I guess.

A Psalm for the Well-Built – by Becky Chambers (Review)

Monk & Robot #1

Science Fiction, Novella

Tor.com; July 13, 2021

160 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
StoryGraph
Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

A Psalm for the Well-Built, the sixth book I’ve read by Becky Chambers, left me with some of the most lasting messages I’ve ever had from a book—although were maybe not the ones that she intended to. Let’s get into it.

Countless years before, the robots of Panga gained their sentience. They didn’t speak, didn’t kill their former masters—they simply laid down their tools and walked out of the factories, disappearing into the wilderness beyond the bounds of human civilization. Since then, no one has seen or heard from them, and life has carried on.

Sibling Dex serves as a monk of Allalae, the Summer Bear. Driven by something they can’t explain—a thought, a feeling, a longing for something more, something different, not to mention a distinct longing for the sound of crickets—Dex abruptly changes their focus to that of a tea monk wandering the outer villages on the frontier. It’s a big change from life in the City: an ox-bike and a wagon instead of their usual quarters; a life lived without the hustle and bustle, without the press of buildings, and crowds of people; the bounds of civilization giving way to the wilds of nature.

But there are no crickets.

Spurned by this, Sibling Dex abandons the hinterlands for the expanse of the outer wilderness in hopes of finding one of the lost orthopterans. It is here that they meet the robot.

The robot that is seeking humans. More specifically, their answer to one very important question: “What do people need?”

Unfortunately this is something that changes depending on who you ask, and when. Thus the robot will need to ask it a lot, all the time. Starting, obviously, with Sibling Dex.

Without constructs, you will unravel few mysteries. Without knowledge of the mysteries, your constructs will fail. These pursuits are what makes us, but without comfort, you will lack the strength to sustain either.

The story of this was something that hit close to home for me, as I’m sure it will for so many of my generation. So many people who are feeling lost, or are longing for something more, something different. After all this is one of the reasons why people are quitting their jobs nowadays to live life on the road, one day at a time, simultaneously looking for something simpler yet something more. After reading the first chapter I spent a sleepless night simply wondering over my life, my choices, and what the solution to it all might be. Honestly, I feel like it’s this message—rather than the one that emerges from the plot at the Well-Built’s conclusion—that has stuck with me. This quest for… something, that Sibling Dex finds themselves on. But then that’s not entirely unexpected; it’s a theme prevalent in so much of Chambers fiction—a search for meaning.

Once we get into the plot a bit more and the story starts to unfold, however, there’s a new theme. A philosophical one I’m seeing a lot more of lately. One that flaunts conventional religion and belief and custom as old-world. While I won’t get into my own particular (and odd, variable) beliefs on the subject, I will say that I found it just a bit too preachy for my tastes, whether or not I share the author’s belief. (Again, I won’t get into that here. Feel free to email me if you’re interested, want to argue about something, want to piss me off, or you’re just bored, I guess.) Because I read books for fun—and any particularly judgy tone never helped.

Other parts of the philosophy I didn’t mind—such as the urge to fix the planet before it’s ruined from climate-change and the like—but is sure to alienate others. And other bits that came across as jokes but might not have been, or vice versa.

“Is this typical of people, to apologize to things you kill?”

“Yeah.”

“Hm!” the robot said with interest. It looked at the plate of vegetables. “Did you apologize to each of these plants individually as you harvested them, or in aggregate?”

“We… don’t apologize to plants.”

“Why not?”

See, laugh if you want, but this is one of the reasons I’m not a vegetarian.

TL;DR

I did enjoy the jaunt through nature, seeing and feeling the world that Chambers’ has built—both those of the robots’ and humans’ making. The story itself was good but a little underwhelming in its conclusion. Now I know it’s a novella, and there is a promise of more in the future, but still I would’ve liked the story to leave me with more of a lasting imprint than the question: “What am I doing with my life?” But given how late the robot enters the story, I’m not surprised we didn’t get much. Still, I enjoyed the leads, especially Sibling Dex, and would certainly spend more time with them. I loved the world, and the ideas, and the peace that so much of the text instilled (interspersed with snippets attempting to convince me my life was a lie, which weren’t something I could fully discount, so…) Overall… I’d definitely still count it as a win. Something I’d recommend. Something I’d like to see more of.

With an ebook price of $11 (or £7.40 if you live in the UK, 9,40€ in the EU) and a length under 200 pages, this isn’t something I would recommend buying, just to read it. If you read it and want to own it—great! Knock yourself out. Otherwise, maybe get it on sale or something. I picked up a copy from my local library, which is also a good idea. I think you can also get it through Scribd, which I’ve only just discovered, so I’m unclear exactly. Personally I wouldn’t recommend paying the Tordotcom price for an ebook, but hey, it’s your money.

Return of the Whalefleet – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Darkstar Dimension #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-Published (Kickstarter Edition); December 12, 2021

length/page count N/A

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon (Darkstar Book #1)! Or maybe just check out my Review for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon first;)

Just what is the price of survival?

This is the very question First Officer Choi Minjun and her crew have been trying to answer. For months they’ve been trapped in the mysterious Darkstar dimension, with its violet oceans and glowing fish, floating rocks and peculiar gravity, turtlemoths and gigantic dragon alone for company. They’ve made a kind of home for themselves with the rift’s only other human resident—Brightest, an old man who was been living in the dimension for decades—but it is a far cry from New Windward.

Although… they’re not technically “trapped”. Min and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal can leave whenever they want. In fact, they’ve been doing it for months—traveling to and from the Darkstar dimension via the numerous rifts that orbit the star itself. Unfortunately, while these rifts visit upon untold worlds, none of them will return the crew to their home.That can only be reached through a particular rift, one that only comes once every few years. And until it does, the Narwhal will be staying put.

But Min and the crew have been busy.

There’s not enough to live on in the Darkstar dimension. Other than a few tiny islets and oceans full of tasteless, glowing fish, the place is fairly sparse. Thus the crew have been busy scavenging from other dimensions—while chronicling their experiences within.

While traversing the rifts is rife with danger, it is also myriad in wonders. The best example of this is the Whalefleet: a race of interdimensional travelers sailing across the sky upon the backs of massive, luminous whales. Their passage has continued for months; a constant and aloof, untouchable by the crew despite their best efforts.

But it turns out Min and her crew weren’t alone in the dimension after all. When a mysterious force reaches out and attacks the Whalefleet, the crew is faced with an impossible choice: stand-by as these peaceful travelers are wiped out, or intervene and risk the attention of the ancient horror that haunts the Darkstar—one not even the dragon is willing to face.

“He?” Min said, looking at Loom again, unable to find any… features that would suggest a particular gender. “Loom is a ‘he’?” She lowered her voice, feeling the colour rush to her cheeks. “How can you tell?”

“Silly. He’s glowing green, isn’t he? Clearly a boy.”

If you haven’t read any of Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld before, know that his novels often have an eerie, unsettling feel, complete with dark overtones and a story that doesn’t always work out too well for anyone. It’s often not bleak enough to be grimdark, but it’s certainly not your classic “and they lived happily ever after” fantasy. It’s dark fantasy-horror, pure and simple. When Flight of the Darkstar Dragon released, it seemed as though the author might be graduating to something else. This book featured a perilous but triumphant story, with themes of hope and perseverance playing a major role. But if you took that as a sign the author was turning over a new leaf, Return of the Whalefleet has just adequately dashed these hopes.

But while Book #1 seemed to be presenting the Darkstar as a temporary prison, it was one with limitless potential for adventure, exploration, and discovery. Sure, there would be danger, but also thrills, boons, and maybe even a new way home within the rifts. And if everything else failed, the crew could always escape to the (relative) safety of the Darkstar.

Only the Darkstar isn’t the haven that it appeared. Sure, there’s the dragon the size of a small moon to consider, but it turns out the real horrors have always been there, lurking just out of sight the entire time. There’s definitely more of a horror vibe to Flight of the that seemed to be absent from Return of the. But again, if you’ve read the author before this series, this shouldn’t surprise you. And shouldn’t disappoint either.

It’s not a huge leap, and one that returning fans should take in stride. I found that this darker overtone made the place seem like more of a challenge, more a test of survival than the adventure its predecessor depicted. It’s a little like the jump from Lord of the Flies to Pincher Martin. If you loved one, you probably loved the other; but which did you enjoy more? Both are about survival, but one has much more to distract the reader from this—and the other is much darker. But even if I were challenged, I’m not sure I could say which I enjoyed more. Yes, I know they’re unrelated story-wise, but both books are in the same vein and by the same author. Plus they relate really well to the question at hand. That being: Flight of the was inauspicious but ultimately hopeful while Return of the is much more morose albeit with the same adventure and thrill—but which is better?

While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I did its predecessor, it wasn’t down to the darker twist to the tale. Instead, it’s how the story seems to get sidetracked from the main event, particularly by exploring the rifts themselves. And this shouldn’t be the case, particularly because there’s no reason this should be a problem. If the plot to this was simply “explore and survive” á la William Golding—I’d be down with it. But the main setup at the end of Flight of the Darkstar Dragon really implied that the Whalefleet would take center stage—something that the title itself all but confirmed. And yet, we’re too distracted to notice it for way too long.

The beginning and the end focus on side issues, details that—while interesting—don’t directly connect to the tale Return of the is trying to tell. That being the return of the Whalefleet. Also I think the buildup in the previous book about the Whalefleet’s majesty and awe was a bit of a letdown, as this just didn’t wow with its description of the travelers’ procession. That said, had Flight of the not built my expectations quite so much, and the title of Return of the made me anticipate these more—I don’t think it would’ve let me down quite like it did. Just like I doubt I’d’ve noticed the off-topic distraction but for the book’s size. Yet there’s more than enough to love about Return of the Whalefleet: new allies, new enemies, new adventures, history and development of our returning cast and crew. The ancient horrors themselves were a particular favorite of mine; the entire buildup was amazing, but when they were described in detail it cast a noticeable chill up my spine. The haunting descriptions of these will stick with me, I think, more than so many one-offs in other books. Not that these are a one-off—that remains to be seen.

TL;DR

If you’d never read Benedict Patrick before, you might be forgiven in thinking that the Darkstar series took an abrupt 180 from its start in Flight of the Darkstar Dragon. If you had, on the other hand, the creepier, darker tone to Return of the Whalefleet shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, it might even come as a relief; a sign that the author still has it, can still tell a spine-tingling tale. Either way, this entry certainly marks a turning point for the series. But just where it’s headed exactly… I don’t know. Despite the change of tone (or perhaps because of it) this is still a great read. While held back by a slightly longer detour from the main plot than you might see in other books of its length, when the author does focus on the Whalefleet and the story surrounding it, I had no problem becoming immersed in it. The setting continues to be vibrant (albeit a wee bit more shadowy than before), the plot intriguing, and the overall adventure a thrill. While it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, I have no problem at all recommending Return of the Whalefleet! If you’re new to the series, I would definitely start with Book #1, but returning fans should be able to dive right in. Look out for Book #3—The Game of Many Worlds—hopefully releasing sometime in the next year. Can’t wait!

The Tchaikovsky Novella – Beautiful World of Books

I seems like every year I’m reading one or two Tchaikovsky novellas a year, thinking “Wow, I should really read more of his stuff”—only to read more of his full-length novels and thinking “Wow, why do I like this guy again?” Now, I’ve heard that it’s mostly his recent stuff that’s the problem. That it’s too dry and political. And dry. And boring. Now I’ve also heard that Shards of Earth is different; a return to his older work, his better stuff.

Still, Adrian Tchaikovsky has been pumping out one or two good novellas a year, which is quite impressive considering he’s also writing full-length stuff. For the last four years I’ve read one per—all of which have been excellent—a trend that has extended through this year. So here’s the art of the Tchaikovsky Novella:

And there they are: all the Tchaikovsky novellas from recent years! Do you have more to mention that I failed to include? I probably missed some, the way the guy keeps churning them out. Personally, I’ve read 5 of these 9 so far (the final five, while I haven’t read the first four: Ironclads, Elder Race and either Expert System ones). How many have you read? Or even heard of? And if you’ve never heard of Ogres before now, don’t worry—Tchaikovsky’s latest novella comes out the 15th of March, 2022. And it is as excellent as his recent work, I assure you;)

The Tenant – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #1

Mystery, Thriller

Gallery Books; January 14, 2020

368 pages (ebook)
10hr 21m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph

Author Instagram

3.5 / 5 ✪

I wouldn’t exactly class this as “Scandinavian dark” (or true Nordic) noir, but it’s not exactly bright and sunny, insomuch as murder mysteries ever are.

After a young woman is discovered brutally murdered in her downstairs apartment, we get our introduction to Police Detectives Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner. They make up part of the Copenhagen homicide department, and are seen as a dynamic duo (if only because their names rhyme).

First thing they notice are the intricate patterns painstakingly carved into her face. Add to it the depraved, if “artistic”, juxtaposed nature of the crime—is all it takes for the pair to decide that they’re not dealing with a typical killer, instead one whose lust for murder is likely not yet sated. All done even before they discover the victim’s name.

Julie Stender was a tenant at the flat of Esther de Laurenti; landlady, patron of the arts, and budding novelist. As it so happens, Julie was a key character in Esther’s new crime novel. She was, in fact, the murder victim.

But is Esther the murderer, or is she just another victim? People certainly have done stranger things for fame, but the detectives question if she had the physical prowess to restrain the girl, let alone carve her up. And while her novel featured Julie as its lone victim—it remains unpublished. In fact, only a chosen few had access to it, and after interviewing them, Kørner and Werner are left with no great options. Almost everyone connected to the crime has an alibi. Except Esther. But has she blurred the lines between art and insanity, or are Kørner and Werner seeking a different killer, one that may yet strike again?

I picked this up after reading Mogsy’s review of it—where she classes it as a bit of a classic whodunnit. And after reading it… yeah, I’m inclined to agree. If you’re not familiar with Nordic Noir, then you’re in for an experience. Not that I would class this as nordic noir—it’s not as dark as Ragnar Jónasson or Jo Nesbø—it’s more of a crime thriller, mystery with dark Scandinavian vibes, but it’s not too gritty. But then Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world. And you can kinda tell from this—if only by contrast.

The characters are fairly well developed and grow and change over the course of the text—or, well, Kørner does. And Esther, I suppose. I really would’ve expected a well-thought out character like Anette Werner to experience more growth, but don’t get to know her very well in this. While this is remedied in the second book, I really would’ve liked to see more from one of the two title characters. Jeppe certainly has his time in the spotlight; it’s a shame that Anette doesn’t share it.

Though a crime drama, noir mystery, thriller what-have-you, the Tenant is about more than the murder of Julie Stender. Yes, we get to explore Julie’s life—all the choices that led to this, that made her her, that ultimately contributed to her life and death and the fallout from each—but we get to see a lot more besides. Esther gets more time in the spotlight than I was expecting (while as I’ve previously mentioned Anette Werner does not). She actually makes quite an interesting character, though most of what we’re focused on (as she is as well) is the murder itself. Jeppe Kørner, on the other hand, gets to live more than just the case. We see a career cop, fresh off a divorce that’s almost ruined his life. His attempt to get his life together while attempting to avoid alienating all the people his still cares about is one that many of us can relate to—even if we haven’t all been through a messy divorce. Through this book, Kørner tries to compartmentalize the case from his personal life, with varying levels of success. His love, sex, social, and private lives are all laid bare. Though his job may not have always been so deeply connected to his identity before his life came to shambles, one thing becomes increasingly clear: it’s not just another case. This time, it really is personal.

TL;DR

Overall, this was a great read and a good crime thriller. It’s not perfect, but combines an interesting story and adequately perplexing mystery with realistic characters and an immersive setting. Though Copenhagen may be one of the fabled happiest cities in the world, the whole story has a decidedly dark twist to it—something that the story is decidedly better for! Though some aspects—character depth and development, especially—could certainly do with improvement, their deficiencies were more understandable (if not entirely forgivable) given that it is a debut series. If you’re not familiar with nordic noir, this is an excellent place to start as it’s not quite the bleak torrent that you might find in other such contemporary works.

The series continues with The Butterfly House, Book #2 of Kørner & Werner, out since 2018.

Diablo Mesa – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #3

Thriller

Grand Central Publishing; February 15, 2022

368 pages (ebook)

Author Website
GoodreadsStoryGraph

3.0 – 3.5 / 5 ✪

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

Yeah, there’s a reason I couldn’t land on an exact rating for this one. Read on to find out why.

If you’re not familiar with the series or wonder how we’ve gotten to this point, here are my reviews of the first two books:

Old Bones (Nora Kelly #1) Review

The Scorpion’s Tail (Nora Kelly #2) Review

Nora Kelly has a job to do—it’s just not the one she ever expected.

Former lead archaeologist at the esteemed Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, she is approached by Luccas Tappan, a wealthy and eccentric billionaire and incidentally the reason that she is “formerly” at the Institute at all. See, only hours before Nora was asked to lead a dig at the Roswell Site—perhaps the site of the single greatest conspiracy in American history. Unwilling to be mocked for the rest of her probably short career as “that alien archaeologist”, she refused. But then, the Institute wasn’t really asking at all. And Nora wasn’t backing down.

Enter Lucas Tappan, handsome and persuasive billionaire who’s ready to write Nora a blank check in return for her services. Yeah, a blank check. From a billionaire. And even for a successful archaeologist like Nora Kelly, it’s really, really hard to say no to that.

And so she leads the dig to uncover what really happened at Roswell. But she’s going to need some help.

After her initial excavations uncover a couple of murder victims, Special Agent Corrie Swanson is asked to investigate. But what she finds only begets more questions than answers. And after carrying on with her own excavation, Nora’s path does as well. But just what exactly is going on in Roswell? And is it really aliens? And is there really a government conspiracy that will threaten the lives of the entire team, or will the desert—and the little grey beings—claim them first?

What makes a good series? After starring as a mainstay in Preston & Child’s Pendergast series for several of the first ten books, Nora Kelly was granted her own spinoff, and given her own co-star, Corrie Swanson, who played second fiddle to Pendergast in several more. The premier, Old Bones, was pretty good, but far from captivating, falling especially flat in its last third. A few leaps in logic really ruined what could have been a great debut.

Three-quarters of the followup, Scorpion’s Tail, wowed me. But again, the final hundred or so pages were quite a letdown. It makes some rather large leaps of faith with little or no evidence or justification beyond gut-feeling behind them. It was still an interesting read—just not a great one.

Which brings us to Diablo Mesa.

This one started out interesting. An excavation of the Roswell crash site? A possible government conspiracy? A bit of danger, adventure, and romance thrown in? Yeah, sounds like a pretty great read!

Which it very much was—for the first 75%.

Then it crashed and burned. Much like the alien spacecraft—I mean, “weather balloon”. And also like the rest of the series before it; all failing at the same point in each book.

So what can I really say about it? As it turns out, not a whole lot. Until that three-quarters mark, I was pretty much captivated. It was a great read; despite the obvious government conspiracy, despite the alien buildup, despite the kinda ridiculous romance(s), despite all the technical terms and archaeological process (take it from a former archaeologist: it ain’t interesting. Archaeology is a bit like war—99% of it is incredibly boring).

And so when it failed—at the 75% mark, like I KNEW it would—it was a disappointment. And so much of one that that’s most of what I remember about it, nearly two weeks later. Not the plot, not the thrill, not the conclusion (that really tried to turn that failure around)—but the failure itself. This one collapsed for the same reasons as those before it: gut-instincts and ridiculous leaps of faith. The resulting chaos was a mixture of bad plans and terrible logic, and the resulting fallout almost unbelievable chance working up to a happy ending. Happy, so long as your favorite character wasn’t any of the bit parts. In other reviews I might clock these as spoilers, but they’ve been done time and again in this series (and the Pendergast before it, at that), so I’ve pretty much come to expect them. So when I say that Diablo Mesa is a solid 3 to 3.5 star book, believe me that no one is more disappointed by this than I am.

TL;DR

75% of Diablo Mesa was gripping, thrilling, and a middle-finger to those two books before it. Or to most of the last half-dozen of Preston & Child thrillers. It was going to succeed where they could not. Not make the same mistakes, not falter in the final stretch, turn the entire series around and finish out an amazing story. But then. A leap of faith. Impossible logic. Another ridiculous, underdog story and a plan that would never work on paper but somehow ends up doing just that.

I mean… it’s really frustrating. This one fails in the exact same spot as the two before it. And even though the ending is actually, legitimately good—it’s not chilling in the way it should have been. Upon finishing Diablo Mesa I had the same reaction that I have writing this review nearly two weeks later: disappointment. Because it could have been great. But it was ruined for the same reasons, at the same time as those before it.

Beautiful World of Books – Traitor Son Cycle

This week’s beautiful covers come courtesy of Miles Cameron, for his gritty, high fantasy epic series, The Traitor Son Cycle. These five books are highly intensive (sometimes too much so) and amazingly detailed, with unrivaled weapons and equipment expertise coming out of the Dark Ages. There is a bit of a mid-series lull, but it both opens and closes very strongly. The covers are also quite lovely, though while the US (Orbit) ones tend to focus on the title character Red Knight himself, the UK (Gollancz) instead include some mythical beast for him to fight. Well, you’ll see.

Orbit Books

These are strong and gritty knightly poses. As the quote on the cover of the first book states: Forget George and the Dragon. Forget fancy knights and daring deeds. Slaying dragons is a BLOODY business. These covers are very much like that. There’s a very dose of black around the edges, and shadows galore. There’s a knight in full armor, a sword stained red. It’s almost like the artist knew that their work would adorn a grimdark series. While I do like the Gollancz covers better for their inclusion of a beast or two, I do vastly prefer the font on these covers!

Gollancz

These… well, I like these a lot better. Yes, I actually prefer the use of black and shadow in the US covers that help convey the gritty tone of the texts, but it’s hard for me to argue with the UK’s rendition of mythical beasts. Especially A Plague of Swords—because who doesn’t just love a kraken?

Well, that’s this week’s pick for beautiful covers! Next week I’ll once again be featuring the work of Miles Cameron in his second fantasy series, Masters & Mages, so get hyped for that! If you’re familiar with them—great! Because I haven’t actually read those. These, I loved—mostly. But they’re a bit dense and take a while to get through. And they can get a bit dry when the author descends into one of his military equipment or court etiquette spiels. I’d still definitely recommend the Traitor Son Cycle, especially for lovers of high fantasy and grimdark alike, just be forewarned that it can be a bit… heavy, at times. Hope you liked these covers! But which set did you prefer? And have you read these books, or want to read them?

Mickey7 – by Edward Ashton (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Cloning, Aliens

St. Martin’s Press; February 15, 2022 (US)
Solaris; February 17, 2022 (UK)

304 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
Author Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press, Solaris, and Rebellion for providing me with an ARC! This in no way affects my review. All opinions are my own.

Mickey7 is an Expendable, as was Mickey6 before him. And Mickey5 before them. All the way back to Mickey Barnes, a historian from Midgard with no options, no useful skills, and no other choice but to volunteer for his position on the expedition to colonize the ice world Niflheim. For Expendable was the only position he qualified for, the only one the expedition had trouble filling. For one would have to be insane to to volunteer for it. Insane, or desperate.

While an Expendable is the least desirable gig on a colonyship, it’s also a vital position. They can go where robots cannot—into the active core of a fusion engine. The can work systems meant for human hands—such as outside the radiation shielding on a spaceship. They can scout the deepest tunnels or highest mountains where a machine might otherwise be destroyed by acclimate weather or disaster. Not that an Expendable can’t be destroyed. They certainly can; it’s an integral part of the job. But while machines have advanced quite far by this point, an Expendable holds one key advantage over them: they’re cheaper.

Thus Mickey is scanned and reconstructed every time his predecessor dies—over and over til the expedition runs out of material to clone him or dangerous jobs for him to do. And it’s not likely they’ll ever run out of danger on Niflheim, where if the temperature doesn’t kill you, the insect-like natives probably will. But when Mickey7 falls down a hole into one of the deepest tunnels on Niflheim, he does the one thing his crew had never expected.

He survives.

And upon returning to base, Mickey7 comes across Mickey8—something no Expendable should ever see. For not even serial killers or child-rapists are loathed as much as duplicates, and if Mickey is discovered, then both of them can kiss their existence goodbye—something neither want, but what Mickey7 has gradually come to fear. For now he’s pretty sure that when his life ends, it won’t restart again when he’s Mickey9. After all, he can’t very well be Mickey8, can he?

But when the native species begins snatching humans from Niflheim, it’s up to the Mickeys to save the day by doing the one thing all Expendables are good for: dying.

He runs both hands back through his hair.

“I don’t know… I don’t know… they didn’t cover this situation in training.”

That’s the truth, anyway. Training was one hundred percent about dying. I don’t remember them dedicating much time at all to staying alive.

When I started Mickey7, I figured it’d be a nice diversion from all the fantasy that came in January, a quick read to start of the hectic month of releases February promises to be. But while I certainly got through it quick, Mickey7 left a lasting impression. In fact, it’s not only the best book I’ve read thus far in 2022, and one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in some time, it’s also probably the best clone-themed book I’ve read, well, ever.

We follow Mickey’s POV throughout; he’s the one and only lead (told in third person). But which Mickey? That’s the trouble when dealing with clones. Which is the real one? Or are any “real” at all? Well, the book actually addresses this (and more) all while following one (or more!) Mickeys through their adventures within.

When talking about a science fiction thriller that specializes in cloning, the characters are really where you want to start. How are the clones as characters? Do they feel real, do they feel human? Now there’s almost always a sect in any given story that is against the idea of cloning. Usually religious or moral or philosophical. This is no different. The “Natalists” in this view clones as abominations, empty shells pretending to be human, and a mockery of all that God intended. For his part, while Mickey Barnes was never a natalist, by the point he reaches Mickey7, he’s not sure what to believe. And while most of the characters in this are quite strong, it’s Mickey7’s examination of his past and future states that make him so compelling.

Is he real? Well, certainly he can feel and die, so probably. But is HE Mickey Barnes? He can remember Mickey Barnes, along with all of his experiences as Mickeys 2 through 6, but only the parts that he uploaded to the cloning device. Otherwise, watching through his supposed memories from that time might as well be viewing the visions of a madman. An Expendable’s main duty is to die, and by the point that the text starts, Mickey7 has come to fear death. Over the course of the text, Mickey7 will share his current situation with memories of “his” past (via typically alternating chapters). While some of these did feel a bit like info dumps, the only time I was really bothered by this was toward the end, where I felt them sapping from the pace of the story. Otherwise they’re short or relevant enough that I didn’t think they detracted from the plot. In fact most often they added to it, and I actually came to look forward to them—be it either discovering what had happened as Mickey4 or 5 and how they died, or understanding just a little bit more of the lore surrounding the universe. One of my personal favorites is further on, when we discover just what makes duplicates so universally despised.

The supporting cast is also quite good. In a colony of 200ish, Mickey knows pretty much everyone’s names. But he’s not on great terms with them all. Especially given his job as an Expendable and all. Which makes total sense. If some dude dies all the time, you’re probably not going to be thrilled to spend a lot of time around him. But he’s got a girlfriend, a best friend, some acquaintances, and a whole lot of people who hate him. While not all the named faces get fulfilling roles, the named characters that Mickey does get on with (or very much doesn’t) have backstories, motivations, and ambitions all their own. Everyone has a different motive; which works well together in a story all about survival.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. Okay, so… there are two of us. Step 1) Don’t tell anyone. Check. No one knows—probably. 2) Keep anyone from finding out. Also check. One of us will probably die soon; Expendable and all. But with a crew of only a couple hundred and a small colony, there are only so many places to hide. 3) Don’t make it worse. No problem. In these science fiction thriller nobody ever makes any bad decisions. It’ll be fine.

So the story is all about mitigating and dealing with what follows, when things don’t go exactly to plan. Because when has anything ever worked out 100% like you thought it would—in real life, or a fictional dystopian world inhabited by ice monsters? As expected, Mickey7 blends excitement with humor. Very well, actually. It’s often dark humor, which I found paired quite well with the somewhat ominous tone of the story. Niflheim—as you might guess from the name (especially if you’re at least somewhat familiar with Norse mythos)—ain’t exactly a cheery place. So what follows is a tale of disaster mitigation that’s part comedy, mystery, thriller, adventure set on a scifi hellscape with hostile aliens and the constant threat of death—that’s also being deconstructed as part of a clone’s philosophical crisis. With… himself.

If nothing else I’ve said convinces you to try this book, I guess let it be the age-old question: will we get to see a Mickey9?

TL;DR

My average reading rate for a 300-odd book is about a week. It usually takes me time to warm up to the lead, the characters, the story, and really get into the swing of things. I finished Mickey7 in just over a day. That alone should tell you something. If not, maybe the clone questioning his humanity while trying to avoid actually, physically strangling himself trope will do it. Or that it has really very good ratings thus far. Or that it’s a story of damage mitigation set on an frozen world with hostile aliens where the entire environment is out to kill the colonists, but a multiple is the one thing that they can’t stand. Or that—in spite of how all of that sounds—it actually comes off as damn well realistic …should hopefully be enough to get you to give this a try. I loved it. I hope you do, too.

The Last Legacy – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Fable #3

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Wednesday Books; September 7, 2021 (US)
Titan; January 18, 2022 (UK)

327 pages (ebook)
8hr 16m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my bias. Many thanks to Titan for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When Bryn Roth relocates from her childhood home of Nimsmire to the port of Bastian, she does it to take her place in the Roth Household, on the expectation that not only will she be welcomed with open arms, but these people—her kin—will soon become the family she never knew. After all, it’s everything she was raised to believe. And, when Henrik summoned her via letter on her eighteenth birthday, it all but confirmed this. Bastian, the Roth household were her destiny, her birthright. One that Bryn is prepared to prove she is due.

But life—as it so often does—fails to live up to Bryn’s dreams.

While Henrik now holds a Merchant’s Ring, it doesn’t take Bryn long to learn that the family is still embroiled in the underworld, still cloaked in shadow. But with Bryn on board, the family is at last trying to legitimize. And Henrik needs Bryn to do so.

This is Bryn’s chance to achieve everything she’s ever dreamed, and she’ll do almost anything to see it through.

Almost. For what Henrik has in mind not only banks on skills she doesn’t possess, but also twists her sense of morality. And that’s just to begin with. For it turns out what Bryn thinks is the entire plan for her is just the start. Henrik has much more in store for her, and Bryn is forced to ask herself an important question: are her dreams worth so much that she’s willing to sacrifice everything, even her own life and freedom to achieve them?

But there’s also a footnote. One in the form of a mysterious and often brusque silversmith. Even after a few days in Bastian Bryn can’t stand looking at him. Though once she does… she can’t look away. But the silversmith isn’t family, and is the one thing that’s off limits to her. As if that was ever something to have stopped a Roth.

The Last Legacy is the third installment in the Fable series, but can easily be read as a standalone. While some of the characters are shared, the narrator changes from the first two entries (Fable to Bryn), and there are only very minor spoilers to the rest of the sequence. Bryn’s own story is set after Fable’s own, after the events at the end of Namesake. Some things will be clearer if you read those others first, but there’s nothing (much) earthshaking that you’ll miss should you decide to skip ahead. Nothing that will spoil Fable’s own story, at least.

With a plot that was better than that of the first two books, and a message that was much, more clearer, the Last Legacy was born to be a much better read. True, the romance isn’t as good, so if you read a story just for the romance you may be disappointed. Seeing as how I don’t, it wasn’t too big a deal, but whatever “romance” is in this seems to be just explained away with the old adage: “love is blind; it doesn’t have to make sense”. Which is good, because it very much doesn’t, especially at first.

I think my favorite character in the Last Legacy is Henrik. It’s not because I relate to or admire him—the man’s an ass. But he’s so complicated; it’s hard not to be fascinated by him. The man will do anything to protect and guide his family to success, but he will also allow none to cross him, including his blood. He has a hard but bleeding heart, and will go to the ends of the earth for his family—even for Bryn, whom he has not seen since she was a child. But then he’ll turn around and sacrifice anyone in order to achieve his goals, blood be damned. It’s this split personality, this seemingly contradicting nature that makes him so fascinating!

At first, I actually took it for bad writing. But he’s written so consistently—flipping between the two extremes often at the drop of a pin. Above everything, Henrik is ambitious. He’s willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone in order to achieve this ambition. But under it all, he has the desire to be loved by his kin, and often looks after them with the care and love of a doting parent—so long as it does not clash with his ambition. I’m not sure you’ll have met anyone like this before, but I have, and Henrik’s portrayal is spot on. So spot on that it’s both mesmerizing and incredibly unnerving.

I’m just going to skirt the edge of the romance here as I don’t want to complain about it constantly. Bryn shows up. She and Ezra butt heads. Then she can’t get enough of him and vice versa. And by unspoken consent they’re destined to fall head over heels—with little to no actual contact. Yes, I’ve heard of love at first sight. This isn’t it. It’s more… loathing at first sight, then love at fifth or sixth. The 180˚ isn’t gradual, but it’s not instantaneous either. It’s just abrupt—and annoying.

The Last Legacy is very much a book about dreams; what Bryn wants, what she’ll accept instead, how her dreams change and grow when confronted with reality, and at last of what achieving these dreams will cost her. For in life it’s so rare to have one concrete, consistent, never-changing dream. So often to be human is to waffle; to question what one wants, to wrestle with the consequences of achieving it. This is the real plot of the Last Legacy—and it changes with the development of Bryn’s own character. But what does she want, and what will she accept? Whether Bryn wants something she can’t have is a ridiculous question; we all want something that we can’t have, that will never come to pass. Just some of us accept this, while others don’t. Will Bryn accept what she can’t have and move on, or persist in achieving something that will never happen, even as her world crumbles around her?

Audio Note: As usual, Suzy Jackson does an excellent job in her portrayal of Bryn. It was so easy to imagine Bryn’s closeted, often sheltered upbringing and her subsequent transformation upon the streets of Bastian. Should you read this as an ebook or physical book, or an audiobook instead, I doubt it’ll make much difference. No matter your preference, the world comes to life quite well!