The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – by P. Djèlí Clark (Review)

Dead Djinn Universe #0.3

Steampunk, Fantasy, Novella

Tor.com; February 19, 2019

96 pages (ebook)
3hr 22m (audiobook)

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7 / 10 ✪

Cairo, 1912

The case seemed simple enough at first: simply handling the exorcism of a possessed tram car. Only… why would anything want to possess a tram car? Agent Hamed Nasr can’t remember such a thing ever happening before. Yet upon visiting the scene, he cannot argue with the facts. The tram car is certainly possessed.

So he and his new partner Onsi Youssef set out to clear up the whole mess. Though of course it’s never that simple.

For while Cairo is the center of the civilized world, the society is not as placid as one might believe. A burgeoning suffrage movement led by the city’s women; the idea that machines are sentient beings held as slaves; secret societies worshipping forgotten gods—magic and society have coexisted til now due to necessity, but any one of these issues threatens to tear the city apart. All of them at once… Hamed and Onsi need to exorcise this entity as quickly as possible, or else.

This was my first peek at P. Djèlí Clark—and it was pretty good. Interesting, entertaining. Not too heavy, not too light. The detective angle works (mostly), until it doesn’t. It begins well, but eventually feels like its bitten off more than it can chew. So when it wraps up, it feels very sudden. And then it’s over. And… doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

The best thing about a good novella is that it can make you want to explore the entire world to the fullest. Just a glimpse is often enough to make me go and binge the entire series. While the Haunting of Tram Car 015 was interesting and entertaining, it didn’t leave me needing more. I’m not saying that it instantly forgettable, nor did it leave a bad aftertaste, just… it doesn’t leave much of an impression. Not a lasting one, at least. It was a good read, and I remember that it was a decently good read—just no specifics. Nothing that I especially liked or disliked. It was just a little… thin, like someone stuck up some cardboard cutouts to set the scene and called it a day. Again, it’s quite a good read—so long as you don’t dig too deep.

For a one hundred page novella, this is kinda steep. Which fits the Tor.com model, I guess. Rather than complain about it (again), I’ll just note that it’s $8 for an ebook / $10 for an audiobook and (in my opinion) probably not good enough to warrant the cost. So, find this on sale, from the library, or some streaming service. Heck, if you’re a fan of the series you might not care about the cost at all. Generally I’d recommend it, but not at full price.

The Wheel of Time – The Fall of Jordan (Beautiful World of Books)

So, sorry for the break. I forgot about how much of an insane month May was release-wise, and just how many UK releases I had that were scheduled on Thursdays. Plus, I’ve been feeling particularly unenergetic (non-energetic?), so I didn’t try to squeeze them in even though I really could have.

In addition, I’ve reworked the schedule slightly, as “the Lore & World of” that I originally had scheduled 4th turned out to be only two books. Seriously, I swear that there were more, but if that’s true I couldn’t find them recently.

Therefore, I’m going to repeat Books 8 & 9 and combine the with 10 & 11—the last two that Jordan fully wrote before his untimely death. And I’m going to throw the covers for the “Lore & World of” in at the beginning.

LORE & WORLD COMPANION BOOKS

TOR ORIGINALS

ORBIT ORIGINALS

TOR 2ND VERSION

ORBIT 2ND EDITION

LITTLE BROWN/TOR 3RD VERSIONS

You know, as much as I’m nostalgic for the Tom Dogherty ones (the Tor 1st Editions), I’m starting to come around on the others. In fact, I’d say I probably like a pair of these better than the originals, which I always felt were a bit bland at this stage. Specifically, the Tor 2nd and 3rd’s probably take it, though to be honest the Orbit originals aren’t too bad (the Orbit 2nd’s continue to be bland, boring, and worse than the 1st’s). If I had to pick between the two… I’d be torn. I like the 3rd version of Crossroads better, but prefer the 2nd for Knife of to all others. I’ll can’t wait to see the complete sets here in a couple weeks to make my final call. What about you, which do you prefer?

And, in case you really had to ask, yeah, the World of’s cover is waaaaay better than the super generic Companion’s.

The Jasmine Throne – by Tasha Suri (Review)

Burning Kingdoms #1

Fantasy

Orbit Books; June 8, 2021

533 pages (ebook)
19hr 43m (audiobook)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

The Empire was born in sacrifice wreathed in flame. Lifetimes before, the Yaksa nearly swallowed the world in darkness. and their devoted followers the Ahiranyi In the end, it was the Mothers sacrifice which saved the world. If the Mothers had not given themselves willingly to the flames, the Age of Flowers would never have ended.

Malini is a princess of the Empire. Years before, she was to be given to the eternal flames in order to purify herself and all women, so that the Mothers continuing sacrifice would not be in vain. However, Malini refused to ascend to the fires and was exiled, imprisoned atop the Hirana by her brother, the Emperor. Now she spends her days in isolation in her foe’s ancient sanctuary, temple to the deathless waters that once served as their most powerful magics.

When Priya was young, the temple atop the Hirana burned. A gutter-rat turned maidservant, Priya is satisfied with a life of drudgery lived in the shadows, terrified that anyone learn her secrets. So terrified that she even hides them from herself. Once a maid to the regent’s wife, Priya reluctantly accepts a job tending to the temple rooms atop the Hirana, now occupied by the exiled princess. The job pays more in a day than she makes in a week, as maids must ascend and descend the deadly path to Hirana each day, careful not only to survive the journey but more so to never cross paths with the princess herself.

Well, somewhat careful.

When the inevitable does come to pass, however, Malini not only discovers Priya but also stumbles upon her true nature. Both are women cast from their true path; both would give up everything to find their way again. And together, they very well may.

It may have taken me a bit to get lost in the Jasmine Throne, but once I did I was well and truly gone. The world passed by while Priya and Malini and Akosh weaved their webs and sang their stories, and the tide of the Deathless Waters carried me away.

Full disclosure: I listened to (read) this while playing Cyberpunk, only stopping when I was exhausted or had to go to work. It was truly a surreal experience—for a good chunk of its 20+ hours—so much so that I completely lost myself to the story, and often ended up wandering aimlessly around Night City doing nothing but listening to the adventure unfold.

The Jasmine Throne is truly a story built for and driven by its characters. So much so that the setting took quite a while to permeate the story. It took me the longest time to discover just what the Hirana was, how it related to the plot, or just why it was so dangerous. It just seemed that the plot had taken a backseat to its characters. At least for a time. I really only noticed the setting when Rao’s POV rolled around. I don’t know whether that was because he’s a weaker character than Priya or Malini or Ashok (which he is), or because his chapters are just more oriented toward the setting than others.

Once the everything gets set up and the story (particularly that between Priya and Malini) gets interesting, there’s not much else to steal the focus away from them. This means that though it’s quite hard to put down, the characters that aren’t the big four—of Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika—seem to detract from the plot rather than add anything to it. It’s not that I don’t care about their input, it’s just… they distract from what’s going on. I realize that their contribution pays some dividends in the end, but I’d argue that it’s not enough to justify the albeit slight distraction they provide.

I guess it’s a good thing that these characters don’t get a ton of time in the spotlight. Priya has more chapters to her name than everyone else (excluding Malini) combined. And with the these two pretty much controlling the story… well, it turns out quite nicely.

TL;DR

The Jasmine Throne is very much a story driven by its characters. Though some of the bit characters (other, less involved POVs) are immediately forgettable, the main characters (Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika) make up for them easily enough. And since these control around three-quarters of the book… let’s just say they more than make up for it. In classic fantasy form, it takes its time setting the scene, introducing its world—not to mention the characters therein—before getting down to the plot, the romance, and the world at large. And to be fair, this works quite well. While it took me a little to get into the tale, once I did it was a lovely time. Even the romance, which is usually not my favorite. All in all, the Jasmine Throne proves an entertaining start to a new series! One I’ll be more than happy to continue.

The Burning Kingdoms continue with The Oleander Sword, out in August of 2022.

The Tindalos Asset – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #3

Horror, Novella, Scifi

Tor.com; October 13, 2020

176 pages (ebook)
4hr 35m (audiobook)

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3.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for… actually, amazingly I don’t think there are any spoilers for the previous books in the series. Take from that what you will.

The Signalman reprises his role from Agents of Dreamland. He’s joined by a fresh-faced partner. Ellison Nicodemo also returns in what just may be her swan song. But I suppose the same could be said of mankind.

A series of paranormal events plagues the Earth, portent of the looming apocalypse. Squid are born to human mothers. Planes fill with water while in flight. Whales are discovered beached thousands of miles inland.

The time has come for this motley team to face the end of the world.

…I think. It’s kinda hard to tell.

The Tindalos Asset gets excellent ratings and reviews on Goodreads, but I think I know why. Anyone that made it through Black Helicopters and was excited to continue the series is bound to love the Book #3 more. I mean, even I loved the Tindalos Asset waaay more than the one that came before it. Though that’s not to say it’s any good. I’m the kind of person that made it through Black Helicopters and thought “well, #3 can’t possibly be any worse”—which isn’t really the best reason to continue a series, I know.

The Tindalos Asset is like Fringe meets… whatever Book #2 was about. I’d say it’s a motley start to a new series, but unfortunately it’s the final one. So, as the conclusion to a series, well, it sucks. Bonus points for the Fringe connection though. I know what happened at the end. It just didn’t make any sense why or how.

There’s a romance, kinda. But it doesn’t make any more sense than anything else in this series. I mean, weren’t there aliens at some point? What happened to them? They’re… really not in this installment. There are hints, yes—but nothing concrete; nothing even remotely approaching clear. Of the romance however: no hints. There’s some sex between the Signalman and his partner, but it’s more raw, less romantic. Does little more than peg him as human—something the other entries just left as a open question. As a romance it’s really lacking, but the only thing I felt indicative of the term. That said, this isn’t who the romance is really between (the Signalman and his partner, I mean), so I don’t know what to tell you. I really hope that this isn’t how the author thinks people flirt.

So, do I recommend this? Nope. I mean, it’s better than Black Helicopters, but that’s a really low bar. The ending was an adequate conclusion to the series, but I’ve no idea how we got to that point, and I read the damned things. But again, it’s better than what directly preceded it. There’s a (mostly) coherent plot. It actually connects to events and characters from Agents of Dreamland. There’s actually some character development, which was a complete surprise. Some of it even makes sense. But yeah, there is no lasting sense of completion or achievement. Sad to say, but the best part of this book—no, this entire series—is likely the end. When it ended.

By the way, did I mention this is $8 for an ebook? Totally not worth it.

The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (Review)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

Fantasy, Retelling

Orbit Books; May 17, 2022

538 pages (ebook)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

After reading this the only thing I regret is not trying to get a physical ARC of it. Although, I suppose that’s what money is for, right?


King of the Forty Thieves, they called him. Hero. But the strangest was the third title, which he’d never heard before: the Stardust Thief. It was worse than the other titles because it was proof that everyone knew what Omar truly was: a man who stole jinn lives. A killer dressed in silver blood. ‘

In a world of desert and shifting sands, Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant—a collector and dealer in rare and illegal magic items. As her trade implies, Loulie avoids the spotlight, doing business on the black market or in the shadows. Something she and her enigmatic jinn bodyguard Qadir have been managing for years. But when she inadvertently saves the life of the sultan’s youngest son, her trade is brought to the forefront. Forcibly.

The sultan—grateful for the Merchant saving his son (twice, in fact)—offers her a reward: her life, in exchange for a mythical jinn artifact lost somewhere in the Sandsea, its sands the border between jinn and human lands. The artifact, a wish-granting lamp, is worth a kingdom—if it exists at all. And should she returns with the lamp, Loulie will be showered with gold—you know, if it exists. Return with out it, however, or attempt to flee, and her life will be forfeit.

To aid the Merchant in this endeavor—as well as make certain she doesn’t try to flee—the sultan sends his youngest son, the same Loulie twice saved, along with an elite guard.

But surprisingly, the lamp turns out to be more trouble than just being mythical, lost, and infamous. And Loulie’s path more treacherous. Ghouls, rogue jinn, demons from the past, jinn hunters, enemies and allies, and the shifting and enchanted sands of the Sandsea are but some of the obstacles the foursome face. Yet Loulie really has no choice but to press on, lest this quest be her last.


Legend had it that after slaughtering the marid, the humans hung their corpses from the tops of the cliffs, and there had been so much silver blood running down the rocks, it had transformed into a cascading stream of water. Sometimes, when Loulie stared hard at the streams winding through the city, she thought they glittered like stardust.

It was beautiful, and it was horrible.

In the Stardust Thief, jinn bleed silver. Wherever their blood falls, life blossoms. It has the power to paint the desert green, heal wounds, or even restore the dying to life. This twist, along with so many others, prevented the book from being both a straightforward retelling, and a facsimile of so many others.

It also prevents the landscape from becoming too… dull. Tans and browns and reds and oranges aren’t necessarily dull, but after a while they do kinda make one long for a blue or two to break up the monotony. Maybe that’s why kohl was so popular. Point is, bleed a jinn or ten around one spot and you’ve got yourself a new forest. Or an everlasting river, as seen in the above excerpt.

As with really good reads, it’s hard for me to talk about what exactly I loved most about the Stardust Thief. I mean… there are just soooo many things! The retelling of various legends especially—not only those incorporated into the plot, but also those included as legends in their own right and told via storytellers, or in interludes—gave the world a tenuous connection to our own, while never confusing just which side of the looking glass the reader was on. It’s good to see so many tales from One Thousand and One Nights included in a single work, not just a retelling of Ali Baba or Aladdin or Shahrazad or the like. Yes, I know that other books aimed to do the same, but I’d argue that by in large, the results were nowhere near as good.

I feel like I should mention the characters too, but I’ve no idea where to start on them. Their depth is impressive, as each and every lead has a thorough backstory—both based in legend and written lore. I was really impressed at just how well they all worked together; amidst the chaos and battle there were hints of unlikely friendship and romance, though you could never tell just who was threatening to fall in love with whom.

TL;DR

This seems entirely worthless, as the review part wasn’t very long and mostly had to do with me gushing about how much I loved the story. Yeah, so that’s pretty much it. Whole-hearted recommendation, hands down. But is it worth the…? Yes. Are you sure? What about the…? Yes, that too. And the audiobook? Not sure about that, exactly. This one supposedly features a full cast, and even one terrible voice-actor can ruin the whole thing. But if I could just direct you back to the other forms of text, maybe try one of those.

Yeah, so I’m gonna wrap this up, as it’s pretty much just me rambling. Read this. It’s sooo good! The only downside I can think of is that you’ll have to wait another year for Book #2.

Hide – by Kiersten White (Review)

Standalone

Horror, Thiller

Del Rey; May 24, 2022

256 pages (ebook)

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9 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

They took a cow with them. Why did they take a cow?

The challenge: spend a week hiding in an abandoned amusement park. Fourteen contestants enter; only one leaves a victor. But that winner takes home $50,000. Two contestants are removed per day until the last remains.

Say nothing else about Mack—there’s not much to say, after all—say that she is a survivor. When her father stalked the halls of their family home with a bloody knife, Mack hid. She hid; he didn’t find her. This competition is no different—don’t get caught. It’s why she’s alive, after all. Why she’s alive and her family isn’t.

Brandon doesn’t have much of a family either—less, ever since his Grandmother died. But he’s always tried to stay optimistic. He has a great job, working as a gas station attendant in Pocatello. This competition isn’t about the money for him; it’s about the experience. He doesn’t care if he wins or not, the draw for him is the adventure, and the friends he makes along the way.

Ava is an Instagram fitness model. Constantly glued to her social media accounts, she’s only in the competition to build her following. She’ll last a few days, she’s sure—make a name for herself, maybe hook up with a hot guy—but when she goes, it’ll be a spectacle, something that everyone will be talking about for years to come.

Jaden is in it to win it. He has a solid plan, and the skills to make it happen. Nothing’s going to get in the way of his dream of owning a gym—and that 50k is going to make it happen. He’ll use anyone and anything he has to to be the last one standing—after all, it’s only a game.

A veteran. An up and coming actress. An author with nothing to write. A perpetual intern. A YouTuber. An app designer. A silversmith. A graffiti artist. A solar-panel salesman. And one who is lost, in every sense of the word.

But only one of them is going to win. Or are they?


“It’s a ride,” LeGrand answers. “I saw Jaden hide there on the first day. It’s a good spot.”

“That kind of ride?” Mack asks.

LeGrand shrugs. “Dunno. I’ve never been to a place like this.”

Brandon laughs. “No one’s ever been to a place like this.”

So, I quite liked this. I mean, it wasn’t perfect, but as a quick thriller, with growing horror elements that eventually transform into a full-blown nightmare. All in all, it was quite good.

Hide starts out as a competition. Fourteen enter; but only one leaves. Victorious, at least. There’s $50,000—not a ton, but nothing to scoff at either. Enough prize money to keep everyone motivated. Enough to keep everyone’s attention off the fine print.

Then it starts to read like Survivor meets Supernatural. The sense of unease gradually growing until it all spirals out of control. A few twists thrown in—including one that I got particularly excited about—help keep it quick and easy to read even when the two for the day are gone, and I was worried the pace might lag. Which it never seems to.

There’s a little lore to go around. The barest amount of backstory on the park, on all the contestants. Both expand the further we move into the competition. Of course, with the survivors of the early days enjoying more and more screen time. That’s pretty much how I expected it to go, and didn’t have a problem with the way the information came out. Instead of big info-dumps to slow down the pace, there are just little bits here and there. Glimpses of lives lived. Of the amusement park itself. Thought it all worked pretty well that way.

It’s a quick read, and took me a couple days once I really got into it. As usual, it’s the conclusion that was a bit off for me. But horror tends to work like that for me. Some of the decisions here just boggle the mind (but then, that’s horror for you; far be it from me to judge someone’s decision-making when the blood is pumping and the bodies dropping)—but there’s one in particular seemed to be made simply for the reason that the author needed the story to head in the direction they’d set the ending. For the most part the ending was pleasing. There were a few minor loose ends left open, but I figured they weren’t getting tied-off anyhow, so it didn’t disappoint me too much.

TL;DR

Hide is quite the horror show, a thrill ride that gets going quick and then doesn’t let up. Reading like Survivor meets Supernatural, there’s little enough horror to begin with, but once the competition gets rolling there are more than enough questions to go around. They start small, but soon spiral, until everything is out of control. I really don’t have much to say about this. I thought it all worked quite well together: the growing backstory blending with the present; the characters are wild cards—some believe what they’ve been told, others question everything, some just don’t care. There wasn’t a whole lot of character development or growth, but with such a large cast, in a world where knowledge comes piecemeal and commands a high price—it didn’t really bother me. I came in expecting a quick thrill ride with some horrory bits. And I was not disappointed. My advice is as follows: don’t read too much into it, you’ll be fine.

The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (Review)

Unnamed Sequence #1

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Gollancz; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)
(US release TBA)

346 pages (ebook)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Orion Publishing for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

On the dark side of the Shadowpass, a rebellion is brewing. Refugees from the war have been flooding across, even now trickling into cities farther and farther from the border. On the edge of the world sits the Nest—built into the side of a cliff, it signifies the path to enlightenment and transcendence—home to a fortress full of mages, the polar opposite to everything the rebels stand for.

Equality, unity, everyone is provided for and given a voice: something the mages in the city are willing to die to avoid. The ungifted are accepted, though while they are judged according to their wealth, none will ever be equal to a mage. Lacuants—former mages who’ve had the magic burned out of them—are second-class citizens, pitied and tolerated as beggars. Kher aren’t even that much. Treated as animals, beasts of burden, they are despised and mistrusted—while being welcomed by the rebels with open arms. Halfbreeds are something worse.

Isha arrives as a refugee, brought to the Nest by a master mage in order to join the fortress academy. But while she may have blended in with the rest of the rabble, she’ll never fit in with the other mages. Kher tattoos brand her as an outcast, a halfbreed—something barely tolerated—though her magic define her as something else. Fleeing memories as much as the war, her past is a mystery even to her, though she’ll have to confront it sooner or later.

Tatters past haunts him daily. Marked by the golden collar of a slave, he flees something more tangible than Isha. Once a rebel, he knows there’s more to the war than unity and equality. An owned mage residing outside of the Nest, he trains students in mindbrawl for coin while existing in the shadows of society. And in the shadows he plans to remain.

But then Tatters meets Isha.

A human with a Kher brand; another wearing a collar of gold. One destined to be singled out her entire life; the other too far beneath to be noticed. But an unlikely bond forms between the two. Tatters is sure he’s seen her tattoo before, but can’t place it. Tatters is the key to something in her past, and Isha is desperate to learn. But as the rebellion carves its way towards the city, they are faced with an impossible choice between two evils.

The Collarbound didn’t start especially well.

It was slow, vague, a bit dull really. Featuring a unique take on magic—where mages engage in mindbrawls in order to dominate or control their foes, or even the common ungifted—that was certainly an interesting concept, but never really came together for me. There are no fireballs or explosions. No lights and sounds. Just scenes and images aimed at undermining their opponents’ thoughts. But at least it was something different; a good attempt.

The world is a bit sparse at the outset, as the reader is thrown in and expects to catch up. There really aren’t a whole lot of info-dumps—the lore and world-building simply percolate from the plot as the story progresses. Thus it takes a good 50-70 pages in order for things to really get rolling. About the time that the Kher make their way into the spotlight.

And everything takes off.

The Kher are a bit like humans crossed with kudu. Anthropomophic kudu. I mean, I pictured them as having dark, ebony skin, curling horns—maybe a bit like a tiefling. Can’t remember if that’s how the author described them or not. Doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. They’re human enough that they can breed, and they’re instrumental in the story.

At the time, I noted that we really should’ve gotten into it with the Kher earlier. As dull as I found the mindbrawls, Kher society was what really made the book for me. While Tatters and Isha were initially brought together by the mindlinking, the Kher are what bind them. Afterwards we really get into the Kher story, the war, the rebels, the bind that ties Isha and Tatters. And the story takes off.

In the beginnings of the text we are presented with some vague notion of the rebels, the war—but these things are harder to care about at the time. The world was still new and vague. The war is far from the Nest. The rebels are small-time, but growing, all the while soaking the fields in blood. Rebels bad, mages good. The further the story progresses, the more interesting things get. The mages are still painted in a pleasing light on occasion, and the rebels routinely vilified. But the mages aren’t the saviors they’re made out to be at the start. Their treatment of the Khers, even the Lightborn—beings made of colored light that flit to and fro from across the Edge to the awe of the common folk—leaves a lot to be desired. But at least they’re not watering the country with the blood of farmers.

As the text progresses, the waters muddy. And the story impresses more and more. After the 30% mark I was fully invested. Despite that I never warmed up to the mindbrawl magic-system, I never had one more thought of abandoning the book. Like more than a few debut fantasies, there’s a good story within, it just takes a bit of time to get to it.

I hope that the sequel will get going from the outset, and that we warm the mindbrawl concept up a bit. With these two changes—we’d be looking at a much more immersive, interesting, and engrossing tale. The story continues in Book #2—the Eyas, currently TBA.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Zachary King is the only Asian kid at his school in small-town Maine. While he never exactly fit in in New York, here Zach is truly aberrant. What he wants—what he craves—is to fit in, something that he’s spent all his time and energy trying to do.

Which is, of course, when he discovers that he’s the chosen host for the First Emperor of China.

The bad news is that the only reason the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) has left his eternal paradise is that China—and the world—is in danger. The worse news is that only Zach (and a couple other vessels hosting Emperors) can save it, preferably in time to save Zach mother, who’s had her soul stolen. The worst news is that to save it they must return to China: the place Zach was born, the place he lived before the government killed his father. The good news is that the revelation makes his problems seem pretty petty by comparison.

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, rather than manifesting within Zach, has instead possessed his AR gaming headset. Meaning that the Emperor cannot make use of his heavenly powers, nor his ability to, say, speak Mandarin. Thus Zach must rely on the help of his new allies Simon and Melissa (the hosts for the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian (李世民 和 武曌)) if he’s to save the day.

But things are more complicated than Zach could possibly imagine. Which he must make sense of if he’s going to save his mother—and the world.

“No,” Qin Shi Huang replied, “I was a regular person in my mortal life. I mostly relied on the cooperation of my ancestors in the underworld to plug the portal. But after I transcended my physical flesh—“
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong quipped.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”

Huangdi (黃帝) was a mythical (and possibly historical) Han Emperor who ruled early China in the mid-3rd millennia BC. While primarily remaining a hero out of myth and legend for thousands of years, lately he’s been a bit co-opted by the Han nationalism movement, which is completely different from Chinese history. I mean, it’s part of China’s history, but the Han are not what makes China China. In Taiwan, the Yellow Emperor stands as a symbol of reunification with the mainland, as he’s still worshipped there. And—let’s just say it’s complicated. Chinese history is complicated.

And somehow, the author decides to make him the bad guy. At least, initially, until the world devolves into a haze of grey on grey madness—a little bit heavy for a kids’ book. I mean, that’s seriously ballsy.

Not uninteresting, just not my kind of book. It was rather muddied in the middle by the amount of different plots and deceptions—made the story hard to follow. The info dumps of everything from technology to Chinese history and mythology slowed things down a little, but were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t overly ruin the pacing. Unfortunately, with so many of them throughout the text, they further obfuscated an already muddy river that seemed to be flowing in too many directions as it was. What I mean is that not only was it really hard to keep up with the story, it was even harder to find out what was going on. And once I got lost I pretty much stayed lost, despite rereading sections to figure it out.

It definitely delivered on the promise of a Yu-Gi-Oh style tale. Zachary Ing and the Dragon Emperor reads like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and a Chinese History lesson. Except one with all the really bad bits left out. Honestly, that description doesn’t sound too bad, but the story was mostly more confusing than I’d’ve thought. That said, Yu-Gi-Oh is also more confusing than I thought it would’ve been, so it was likely intentional. There were possessions, virtual games, more possessions, and bizarre twists to up the action even amid an already action-heavy sequence. Problem is, I’m not a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, so this kind of chaotic plot didn’t work for me. I picked this one up because I enjoy the occasional MG adventure, and I really liked the author’s debut novel.

The thing is, for how much this starts like a Yu-Gi-Oh mashup, it dissolves pretty quickly. The corresponding game of Mythrealm is mentioned at first only to familiarize readers with the VR goggles and basics of pop culture—and then dropped in order to relate the trip through Chinese history. Only… with just how much Mythrealm seems to involve the story (at first, at least), I would’ve expected to see more of it. But after the first few chapters it’s barely mentioned again.

I did manage to learn a few words (well, ONE word), though I can’t imagine it’ll ever come up in conversation. Nor will I ever manage to get the tones right.

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

If you picked up Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor hoping for: a mashup of Yu-Gi-Oh and Percy Jackson; a new and exciting episodic series where anything can happen and routinely does; a MG adventure that tackles tougher issues than good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and delves straight into the world of grey; or a crash course in Chinese mythology and history (depending heavily on what your definition of “Chinese” is)—then, honestly, you probably won’t be disappointed. If, however, you picked this up because you enjoyed the author’s debut, or hoped for something a little bit deeper than the surface layer of Chinese history (of ghosts, legends, and curses), well, you may be slightly less impressed. Regardless, you’re sure to find a well written (if not terribly well organized) story about a boy and his place in the world. It may be confusing at times (because, well, it is) (most of the time, in fact), but there’s never a dull moment, and never any time to take a breath. If you’re able to follow the plot I kinda suspect you’ll love it—but I could not follow it and got left behind. And never really got back on board.

結束

Equinox – by David Towsey (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Head of Zeus; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)

368 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

In a world where identity changes with the rising and setting of the sun, you can never know who to to trust, or just what anyone is hiding. With two beings within the same body, relationships between night and day have been stretched to such an extreme that they might be different worlds altogether. But when one personality changes to another—the world remains the same.

Christophor Morden is a special investigator of the King of Reikova. Awoken early one night, he is called to the city prison where he’s confronted by a grisly sight. A young man has ripped their eyes out in a fit of madness—though the madness might be justified. Why? Well, because behind their eyeballs, teeth were growing.

What Christophor hopes is an aberration turns out to be more common than any would like to admit. Rumors and strange tales out of the south—of witches and magic, of demons and unfaithful, of a war brewing on the kingdom’s borders. But the only thing he can substantiate are the teeth. The teeth are very much real. And they didn’t come into the boy’s eye sockets naturally.

And so he is dispatched to Drekenford—a village on the southern border—to hunt down whatever’s responsible for this dark magic. But what he finds there will cost Christophor—in more ways than one.

Alexander understands his night-brother’s call as a special investigator, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. A musician himself, Christophor’s day-brother often haunts the common houses, theaters, and taverns of Esteberg, where he plies his trade. Yet when Christophor is sent south, Alexander has no choice but to follow. Though what he finds there may cost Alexander more than his trade. For when his night-brother unearths the witch, Alexander will end up doing everything in his power to save her, the King’s justice be damned.

The unfaithful lose sight of themselves;
The sword shrivels to flakes of snow;
The law devours its history;
The stone moves on water;
The broken heart bleeds gold.

The more time I spent in the world of Equinox, the more it grew on me. Starting out as a fairly generic city in a generic world, it instantly loses points with the recycling of various real-world subjects to cover where its own world-building breaks down. I’m really torn on this—it’s very much a love/hate relationship; there’s a really good story within and what it does well is done really well, but… well, you’ll see.

Catholicism is the dominant religion of the kingdom, a fact that isn’t remotely explained despite all the questions it brings to mind. Did Christ have a night-brother? Is the whole night/day cycle mentioned in scripture? Is this actually Earth rather than a different world? None of these are answered. In fact, the author seems to go out of his way to avoid these questions, as any debate that comes to center on religion at all gets shut down quickly. The whole night/day cycle suffers the same fate—and so we never get more than the barest glimpse into why or how this system works. While it’s a fascinating concept, the lack of literally any explanation surrounding it ruin what could’ve been an innovative and unique twist.

Honestly, with the amount of questions the system alone raises that are completely ignored, I feel like I could write a whole new book. While I’m assuming that’s the reason the author doesn’t address the subject at all, it just comes off as lazy. He should’ve addressed one or two of the more important points, rather than completely ignoring them all.

For example: how does the body function on zero sleep? Is the day/night thing recent, or eternal? How does an unchanged Earth religion account for literally any of this?

Throughout the text, the various day/night personalities complain about their counterparts. Like it’s a new thing. Like it’s not written into religion (which, if it had been around very long at all, it must’ve been). Grrrraaahhh—writing the review for this is making me rage at the dozens of unanswered questions I have about the concept. Which I’ll try not to address any further.

At its heart, Equinox is a story of witchcraft and witch hunting. Chistophor lives in the shadow, but walks with the light—having arrested 34 witches over his lifetime. And yet this might be the most dangerous of the lot, as it puts he and his day-brother at odds. Despite my issues with the world, the unanswered questions, the characters, the development, the unanswered questions—I know that there is a good story somewhere in here. Even with all the issues I had bouncing around in my head, I never once thought of abandoning this. I was able to buckle down and focus on the story, and let it drink me in.

And so brings the third book in as many days that I’m on the fence about. I had some issues with this book (okay, LOTS AND LOTS of issues), but I legitimately enjoyed it too. There were some parts that were a bit cringeworthy, but they were few and far between. The day/night cycle was fascinating, despite being unformed and unfounded. The world was interesting as well, despite being a bad copy of Earth. The end was good, despite the ending being a bit confusing and hectic. I love the cover, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price. If you were going to rip it off and stick it on the wall—…maybe? But as a book to display… I’d really prefer if it were better.

Beautiful World of Books – The First Third of 2022

We’ll get back to the Wheel of Time next week, but today I wanted to do something a wee bit different. See, I really enjoyed last year’s recap post where I laid out the covers of all the books I’d read in 2021, so I figured I’d do one each quarter of 2022!

Except, well, I kinda missed the whole quarter thing, so maybe I’ll do thirds instead. Anyway, these are all the books I’ve read this year. Enjoy!