My Top 10 New Books of 2020

I was actually a bit surprised by how this all shook out. Several of my choices were extremely easy ones (1-7), and then slightly more difficult (8), and then really chaotically hard (9-10). I’m honestly a little shocked that the Black Song by Anthony Ryan didn’t make it onto this list, but when I finished ranking them, it’d somehow ended up at #11. Anyway, let me explain.

Welcome to the first (second) wrap-up list of the year. These are ten of the best new books (books that came out in 2020) I read this year. In part they are ranked based on the rating I gave them, but also I took into account the lasting memory of each read as well. So, like, I initially rated The Black Song as 4.2 / 5 and Seven Endless Forests as 4 / 5, but while I certainly enjoyed the story of the second Raven’s Blade, I better remembered SEF as having a lovely world with an interesting story to boot. And in part since this was a hard year for everyone, the more light, adventurous of the two seems to’ve won out. Maybe that makes sense and maybe it doesn’t, but here we go anyhow:

10

Seven Endless Forests – by April G. Tucholke

One of the more carefree and generally fun stories of the year, SEF also provides such a lovely cover (did I mention I like green?).

On the heels of a devastating plague, Torvi’s sister, Morgunn, is stolen from the family farm by Uther, a flame-loving Fremish wolf-priest who leads a pack of ragged, starving girls. Torvi leaves the only home she’s ever known, and joins a shaven-skulled druid and a band of roaming Elsh artists known as the Butcher Bards. They set out on a quest to rescue Torvi’s sister, and find a mythical sword.

9

Age of Empyre – by Michael J. Sullivan

The final entry in the Legends of the First Empire comes in at #9 after concluding a fantastic six-book story with some twists I didn’t see coming.

A DOOR OPENS. AN ARMY OF DRAGONS ADVANCES. AND THE FATE OF THE LIVING RESTS WITH THE DEAD.

After obtaining the secret to creating dragons, the leader of the Fhrey has turned the tide of war once more—but gaining the advantage has come at a terrible price. While Imaly plots to overthrow the fane for transgressions against his people, a mystic and a Keeper are the only hope for the Rhunes. Time is short, and the future of both races hangs in the balance. In this exciting conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire series, the Great War finally comes to a climactic end, and with it dawns a new era—The Age of Empyre.

8

Peace Talks – by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Drought ends in a big way! Peace Talks features a return to the same world we readers have loved for 15 books. Yes, Harry Dresden’s back—plus a mystery, a battle, and a world to save.

When the Supernatural nations of the world meet up to negotiate an end to ongoing hostilities, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, joins the White Council’s security team to make sure the talks stay civil. But can he succeed, when dark political manipulations threaten the very existence of Chicago–and all he holds dear?

7

Network Effect – by Martha Wells

The first full-length Murderbot novel delivers on the level of sarcasm and awkwardness I’ve come to love, while existing for twice the usual duration.

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

6

The God Game – by Danny Tobey

Probably the most addictive thriller I’ve read in some time, I read the God Game in two days, and enjoyed every second of it.

You are invited!
Come inside and play with G.O.D.
Bring your friends!
It’s fun!
But remember the rules. Win and ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE.™ Lose, you die!

With those words, Charlie and his friends enter the G.O.D. Game, a video game run by underground hackers and controlled by a mysterious AI that believes it’s God. Through their phone-screens and high-tech glasses, the teens’ realities blur with a virtual world of creeping vines, smoldering torches, runes, glyphs, gods, and mythical creatures. When they accomplish a mission, the game rewards them with expensive tech, revenge on high-school tormentors, and cash flowing from ATMs. Slaying a hydra and drawing a bloody pentagram as payment to a Greek god seem harmless at first. Fun even.

But then the threatening messages start. Worship me. Obey me. Complete a mission, however cruel, or the game reveals their secrets and crushes their dreams. Tasks that seemed harmless at first take on deadly consequences. Mysterious packages show up at their homes. Shadowy figures start following them, appearing around corners, attacking them in parking garages. Who else is playing this game, and how far will they go to win?

5

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – by Rod Duncan

Hailing from all the way back in January, I’d actually forgotten that this came out THIS YEAR. The conclusion to the Map of Unknown Things rounds out the Top 5, with a literal bang.

Ladies and gentlemen, for the very final time, Elizabeth and Edwin Barnabus will perform the grand illusion of the Vanishing Man.

Elizabeth Barnabus is a mutineer and a murderer. So they say. The noose awaits in Liverpool as punishment for her crimes. But they’ll have to catch her first.

Disguised as a labourer, Elizabeth flees west across America, following a rumour of her long-lost family. Crossing the border into the wilds of the Oregon Territory, she discovers a mustering army, a king who believes he is destined to conquer the world, and a weapon so powerful that it could bring the age of reason crashing down.

In a land where politics and prophecy are one and the same, the fate of the Gas-Lit Empire may come to rest on the perfect execution of a conjuring trick…

4

Ravencaller – by David Dalglish

The second book in the Keepers trilogy introduces ravencallers, a whole lot of monsters, and even more drama. With the final book out in 2021, if you haven’t tried David Dalglish yet, when’s a better time?

When ancient magic suddenly returns to his land, a warrior priest must protect his world from monsters that were once only legend in the second book of USA Today bestseller David Dalglish’s epic fantasy trilogy.

Magical creatures are attacking the capital city, seeking to retake what was once theirs, and no one is safe. Ancient cultists have cursed the highest members of the Church, turning them into twisted abominations. The only hope for a cure lies with Adria Eveson. To learn the cure, she must befriend an imprisoned cultist, and guard her heart against his seductive promises and twisted logic.
The fate of all races, human and magical, rests in her hands, and in the choices she makes. Should she choose wrong, only one person stands in her way: her brother, the Soulkeeper Devin Eveson.

Honorable Mentions

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan, The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan, The Constant Rabbit – by Jasper Fforde, Every Sky a Grave – by Jay Posey, The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky, When Jackals Storm the Walls – by Bradley P. Beaulieu.

3

Forged – by Benedict Jacka

One of my more recent reads, the penultimate (I love that word) in the Alex Verus series delivers exactly where Fallen left off. A darker, more powerful Alex surprises and shocks, while maintaining the status of greatest British action hero since Daniel Craig.

To protect his friends, Mage Alex Verus has had to change–and embrace his dark side. But the life mage Anne has changed too, and made a bond with a dangerous power. She’s going after everyone she’s got a grudge against–and it’s a long list.

In the meantime, Alex has to deal with his arch-enemy, Levistus. The Council’s death squads are hunting Alex as well as Anne, and the only way for Alex to stop them is to end his long war with Levistus and the Council, by whatever means necessary. It will take everything Alex has to stay a step ahead of the Council and stop Anne from letting the world burn.

2

Automatic Reload – by Ferrett Steinmetz

Part of me views this as just the right book at the right time—but most of me doesn’t care. A heavy dose of action and cyberpunk, panic attacks, and just the right amount of romance, I definitely enjoyed this more than anyone I know. And I’m okay with that.

In the near-future, automation is king, and Mat is the top mercenary working the black market. He’s your solider’s solider, with military-grade weapons instead of arms…and a haunted past that keeps him awake at night. On a mission that promises the biggest score of his life, he discovers that the top secret shipment he’s been sent to guard is not a package, but a person: Silvia.

Silvia is genetically-altered to be the deadliest woman on the planet–her only weakness is her panic disorder. When Mat decides to free her, both of them become targets of the most powerful shadow organization in the world. They go on the lam, determined to stop a sinister plot to create more super assassins like Silvia. Between bloody gunfights, rampant car chases and drone attacks, Mat and Silvia team up to survive…and unexpectedly realize their messed up brain-chemistry cannot overpower their very real chemistry.

1

Ashes of the Sun – by Django Wexler

So it’s Number 1, is it? Could’ve probably told you this when I read it. I adored this new fantasy by Wexler, combining a brother-sister combo with a shot of vengeance and a added punch of adventure. Nothing seems to go as planned and everything surprises. Loved it! Can’t WAIT for the next one!

Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

And so concludes our broadcast day. Stay tuned for many more lists, maybe a couple reviews, and a cookie or two. Hope you’ve enjoyed this year—I sure haven’t. But maybe your Christmas will help you forget all that. Happy Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and more everyone!

Forged – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #11

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; November 24, 2020

294 pages (Paperback)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for the Alex Verus series through Book #10, major spoilers for Fallen (Book #10).

Fallen introduced us to a new, darker Alex Verus. Recently blacklisted by the Council, he acquired the Fateweaver in a desperate attempt to stay alive, managing not only to do so but also becoming a major power player in the process. A confrontation at the end of Book #10 sees him survive a shootout with Richard, Anne, Deleo and Sal Sarque—while also somehow managing to affect events such that each of these agents either become unaligned or very, very dead.

Our favorite new antihero returns in Forged, the penultimate installment of the Alex Verus saga. When we were introduced to Alex in Fated, he was a former dark mage of middling power, trying to do nothing more than stay off the Council’s radar. It’s safe to say that his life has changed quite a bit since. Once he tried to do the right thing, avoiding conflict at all costs. Now an outlaw, Alex has embraced his darker side. So, when Anne goes rogue and uses the power of her Djinn to settle some scores, Alex decides to do the same, starting with his nemesis from Book #1—Levistus.

And with Council death squads hunting him and his former lover, the Fateweaver slowly devouring his right arm, and Deleo now using every scrap of her power (and time) to find and kill him—the time has never been better. Um, apparently.

But the path to Levistus is not an easy one. Nor do you become one of the most powerful mages in the land by mere happenstance. But Alex’s plan—nay, his very life itself—rests on his ability to take Levistus down. Which he will—or die trying.

I quite like the abrupt change of pace in the last few books. The darkness and depth of Alex’s soul has been hinted at from Day 1, but to see him come full circle has not only been impressive and a little bit terrifying—it’s been gratifying as well. In the Dresden Files, it seems Harry’s always struggling with the evil within. Be it from the Blackened Denarius, the Winter Mantle, the darkness he’s seen and the power he’s gained, Dresden always seems to repress and overcome it. Now, while I’m not complaining about him controlling his darker urges, I AM calling him a little goody two-boots. And where the Dresden Files leads, many more series have followed. Thus it’s refreshing to see someone finally embrace their darker side, if only to see where it leads.

And the darker Alex Verus is cold and calculated. Not to mention a little scary. But with Alex embracing the “darkness” within, there’s something more terrifying on show than just his coldness or lack of emotion—and it’s his efficiency. When there’s little holding him back, Alex is scary good. Both definitely good and definitely… scary. There’s definitely something of a Ludonarrative Dissonance to it. For Alex has no shortage of bodies in his wake. Yet still I found myself rooting for him. And relating with him none too little. Far from denying it, Alex actually takes time to address the dissonance within himself—and does so in a way that genuinely surprised me.

Storywise… I have very few notes. And even fewer complaints. This isn’t the first book that has been Levistus-heavy. Several in the series have centered on Alex’s nemesis trying to capture and kill either him or someone he cares for. While you can definitely overdo something like this, I actually can’t complain about it here. For while Levistus hasn’t changed, both the circumstances and Alex Verus himself have. I’ve certainly enjoyed where the plot has led thus far—and am incredibly excited to see where it ends up.

TL;DR

Forged, the penultimate release of the Alex Verus series, continues where Fallen left off. A changed, darker, more powerful Alex Verus takes center stage, and finally looks for some payback against those that have wronged him. If you haven’t yet hopped on the bandwagon, might I suggest this is the year for it? Forged, any, or even all of the series leading up to it would make great last minute gifts. Or consolation prizes for the gifts you should have gotten this year. We’re roughly 3000 pages into my favorite urban fantasy series—with one book remaining. Anything can happen. Anyone is expendable. Everything is on the table. I cannot recommend Forged enough. I cannot recommend the series enough. And I cannot WAIT for the final entry to see how it all turns out.

Merry Christmas! : A Last Minute Book Buying Guide

Why hello there, weary traveller! Done all your Christmas shopping for the year? Done ANY of your Christmas shopping for the year? What—you don’t have anyone to buy anything for? But of course you do! You’re an anyone, after all! And you’re definitely worth it (probably)!

Anyway, welcome to this very first edition of Refuge’s Last Minute Buying Guide!

Books that I’m Into (But Totally Haven’t Read)

Now I haven’t read these, but am certainly keen to! Maybe your partner, bf or gf likes to read and you’re not sure what to get them; maybe there’s that oh so special someone that you need an icebreaker with; maybe you want to get your, say, 3rd or 4th favorite blogger a nice gift? Well, look no further! With both a heavy dose of paper and a small helping of risk, where can you go wrong?

  1. Cage of Souls – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I’m a big Tchaikovsky fan, despite the fact that I’ve never read any of his Shadows of the Apt megaseries. And with yet another of his novellas due in March of 2021, this is the perfect opportunity to hype oneself for it (I imagine). With a blurb that reads like John Prophet meets Defiance, with a surely heavy dose of adventure and a lovely green cover, surely no one would hate receiving this for the holidays! (And even if they do you could always give it to me, eh;)

2. Memoria – by Kristyn Merbeth

The 2nd in the Nova Vita Protocol (so just in case you or your loved one hasn’t read the first, maybe gift both, eh), Memoria details the ongoing adventures of the Kaiser family: both Scorpia and her brother Corvus. not only is there a strong female lead, but also a strong male lead, and a strong story to match. Not to mention the covers are just beautiful, so even if you don’t like either you can just display them somewhere prominent.

3. Rhythm of War – by Brandon Sanderson

If you haven’t read the Stormlight Archive, there’s already no helping you. Just like if you don’t already want the Rhythm of War, there’s nothing I can say to save your soul. I mean, I want to read it—it’s bad enough that I haven’t yet—that should be more than enough in this case.

Bet You Can’t Just Buy One

  1. The Expanse – by James S.A. Corey

With the 9th and final book on shelves late next year, why not give your loved one a gift of new beginnings, in the form of Leviathan Wakes? A science fiction epic that spawned a TV show that got cancelled and subsequently uncancelled, the Expanse series is one that continues to impress well past the first book. After all, what better way to celebrate Hanukkah that with a book every day?

2. Powder Mage – by Brian McClellan

A trilogy that spawned another and may yet spawn a third features mages that snort black powder and a story that never holds its punches. It’s a series that not only can I not decide my favorite book of—I can’t decide which one I like least either! So maybe buy one for your friend, two for your family, three for your bffs, or why not all six for yourself?

3. The Wayfarers – by Becky Chambers

Nothing really tugs the heartstring nor inspires the headstrings like the Wayfarers trilogy (soon to be a tetralogy). Absolutely wonderful, beautiful stories with amazing covers and lasting readability highlight all the reasons I can rave about these books. If you haven’t read any, maybe do yourself a favor and pick one up for Xmas. And you can always get your loved another!

Stocking Stuffers

Maybe you (or any of your loved ones) are one of those people that’s like, “books are so long, why even bother”—well then, this is the time for you! (I mean, you’re wrong, and probably a bad person, but what can be done about that?) These short reads are perfect for people with a weak bladder, short attention span, or moral deficiency such as dislike of fantasy.

  1. The Builders – by Daniel Polansky

This is mostly Ola’s (also kinda Piotrek’s) fault. I’ve read a couple of stories by Polansky, including one this very year, and they’ve been pretty enjoyable. This novella features a grimdark Redwall, with elements of revenge, dark comedy, and apparently a strange non-linear storyline. Perfect for yourself, or—if you’re not feeling brave enough—anyone of your loved ones who’ll probably let you read it after.

2. Summer Frost – by Blake Crouch

This 75 page story may be short, but it reads like a full-length adventure all its own. With a heavy dose of I, Robot, a dash of mystery and a lovely futuristic setting, this is a short I cannot recommend enough. And if you don’t fancy reading yourself, why not make someone else do it? I loved the narration of this, and hope you will as well!

3. The Murderbot Diaries – by Martha Wells

How big are y’all’s stocking, btw? Because I just couldn’t pick one Murderbot to recommend. So, why not get them all? The first four are roughly the size of one full Murderbot adventure, and a new novella is due out in 2021, so best catch up now! If your loved ones don’t love this sarcastic, introverted, killing-machine by the end of Book #1, maybe they’ll just dump the rest on you. Which would be… heartbreaking, I’m sure.

4. Edgedancer – by Brandon Sanderson

A short read by no one’s standards but his own, Edgedancer is the perfect introduction to Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive in a teensy, nearly 400-page package. It combines a thrilling story with a hilarious narration and is more than worthwhile addition to anyone’s stocking.

Now if 2021 is as great a year as 2020, we’re going to be in for a long haul full of lots of hiding and reading. And if the COVID vaccine turns out to be a bust, OR goes all I Am Legend (y’all remember how that started, right?), we could have a prolonged period in which to stock up on (aka horde) books. So, maybe take a few from this list into consideration? Or buy your own and let me know, so I can add them to MY TBR. Either way, I hope you enjoyed my holiday jokes, my seasonal sarcasm, and whatever else I did here but ultimately forgot.

Gallowglass – by S.J. Morden (Review)

I really like how the cover captures the mood of the book: blue, lonely, dark.

Standalone

Science Fiction

Gollancz; December 10, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Hatchett, Gollancz and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I often complain about science fiction that’s all fiction and no science, that I like more science with my fiction. Gallowglass certainly tested this. There’s a heavy dose of science in this scifi adventure—some might say too much, others too little.

Jaap van der Veerden lives the life of the ultra-wealthy; all his needs and wants are met instantly, he exists surrounded by servants that he never sees, his parents are even exploring the prospect of eternal life. But Jaap doesn’t share his family’s transhumanism desires. All he wants—all he’s ever wanted—is to live his own life, outside of his family’s influence, outside of the bubble of wealth surrounding him. And so Jaap concocts a plan to escape his family, knowing that even if he does succeed, he’ll be hunted as a fugitive for the rest of his natural life.

But once he escapes, what then?

Jaap (now known as Jack) accepts a berth on the only ship that will take him, the only one that cares nothing for his past nor the reach of his family, a ship and crew he knows nothing about with heading nor mission unknown. But Jack seeks only escape—it doesn’t matter where it is.

That is, until it does.

For when Jack discovers the goal of the expedition is an elusive asteroid, and that the team of misfits he’s joined are all as desperate as he is, he might just come to regret his choices to leave his big, comfy mansion and eternal life within. For there is more than just a big rock at the end of their voyage, but the prospect of death, a million euros, and a second chance.

Gallowglass features some very in-depth science throughout. Not gonna lie—I LOVED this. There’re discussions about plotting and vectors and orbits and math and data and science and… well, at times the repetitive parts of data and plotting do get a little old. But even during those times I loved that the book was so heavily chock full of science. There are a few points where the technology itself is suspect, however. Like, we’re mining and commandeering asteroids. We’ve developed artificial gravity (at least kinda). Diamond tethers and filaments are a thing. And yet the spacesuits are still as fragile as a teddybear in a razorblade factory. Even the tiniest bit of debris can be a death sentence. We’ve developed lines that’ll never break, but not armored any suits? Seems ridiculous to me.

So, for the longest time I thought this story was about Jack. But then, no, it must be a tale of redemption. Oh no wait, it’s about the asteroid. No, maybe it was about Jack. Jack remains the POV throughout, but…

And then by the end… what is this about? (The ending is really lame, FYI.) The official blurb—which I didn’t quote—would have you believe this is a book about climate change. But… it’s really not. There are quotes about climate change at the start of every chapter. These are pretty much worthless (adding nothing nor relating to the story in any way) and I started ignoring a little ways in. They ARE about climate change, at least. Which, for the longest time, nothing else is. Eventually it’s alluded to, but the story never really BECOMES about climate change. It’s only really dwelt on at the end, and by that point I wasn’t sure why I should care about it. I mean, climate change is bad. Okay? It is. Just when it suddenly becomes the all-encompassing reason right at the end—I didn’t buy it.

Then what is Gallowglass about? Well, “gallowglass” would argue that it’s a book about people. About a certain kind of people (a “gallowglass” is mercenary or some special type of soldier) (yes, I had to look it up). And that’s… difficult, as no single person gets any kind of gratifying resolution at the end. So, maybe it’s a book about the gallowglass lifestyle? I mean… maybe, but. During no time when I was actually reading it did I have any real idea of what the focus of the book was.

While I enjoyed the characters of Gallowglass itself—particularly Jack and his arc and the way his character develops—it was the story that really kept me reading. Even when I had NO IDEA what the heck the story was about. Even with my issues with the tech, the pace, the way the story randomly skips ahead at times. Even up through the 99% mark, where the ending was bombing. Even with all this, I do not regret the time I spent reading this. I legitimately and thoroughly enjoyed this book. For Gallowglass, it’s not about the destination—it’s the journey to it that matters. And while that journey may be a immersive, complex and ofttimes directionless masterpiece, it’s still a great read.

TL;DR

I was definitely torn on Gallowglass. It’s an immersive wonder. It features absolutely no resolution for anyone. Jack shows wonderful character development, age, and progression. None of the other characters shine, and few are even memorable. The story is a really good one, considering… I mean, what this book is even about is a matter of constant bother. Even now, I’m not sure. There were times I wanted to stop reading Gallowglass, but never could bring myself to. The destination was a no-show, but I’m still thankful for the journey. It’s not going to get my highest rating, but it still gets a full recommendation.

2020 TBR Recap

So as we near the end of the year, it’s time to look back on the year. All the fun times we had… All the adventures we went on… All the ways humanity came together to make the world a better place… But since none of these things happened this year, let’s focus on something that 2020 was actually good for: READING!

(As an aside, I just want to say that my incredibly strange rating system made this wrap-up post quite difficult—but it’s not MY fault, it’s SOCIETY’S for adopting a 5 star standard system instead of 100 (or it could be mine, whatever))

Back in January, I listed 18 books that I’d like to read this year (plus I said some other things that turned out to be incredibly untrue). I’ve been doing the same thing for many a year, though they were usually reserved for me alone. But apparently sharing them with friends has helped me triumph where before I—yeah okay, it was probably just the peer-pressure. Whatever the reason, I managed to get through a record number! My previous high for a year had been 7/18, but I figured that this year I would try to buckle down, and maybe get as high as 9-10. Well, I got 11!

Finished

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan 5.0

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ 1/2 +

Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell 4.9

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers 4.9

Blood of Empire – by Brian McClellan 4.5

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ +

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson 4.3

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan 4.3

The Shattered Crown – by Richard Ford 4.0

Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell 4.0

Senlin Ascends – by Josiah Bancroft 4.0

✪ ✪ ✪ +

The Bone Ships – by R.J. Barker 3.4

✪ ✪ +

Witchsign – by Den Patrick 2.3

Note: I’ve yet to review either Where Gods Fear to Go, or Blood of Empire, but I’ll do my best to have those up by the end of the year, when I’ll return and link them up here. Ummmm someone please remind me to do that? Thank you!

Unread TBR

While I didn’t get to all my TBR this year (I mean, seriously, not even close, but) there’s still a chance for them to appear in 2021 (aka the Year of Impossible Regret). But will they make my 2021 TBR? Hmmm… well, let’s think about this…

Could be! I still want to read them all! But I’d say that… Metro 2035 has the highest likelihood of appearing as A) I have it in audio already, and B) it’s based on the events of Last Light, a video game which I absolutely adore. I mean, that being said, Metro 2033 (the book, and metaphysical journey and occasional faze-out festival) didn’t really correlate well with Metro 2033 (the game, a heart-pounding survival/horror shooter). But, fingers crossed that’ll change in #2!

As for the 2021 TBR, I’ve a few (too many) ideas and a handful of prototype lists, but we’ll see what 2021 brings! Honestly, if it’s more of the same I think I might just lock my self in the closet and cry until my eyes bleed. Have a great rest of the year everyone!

On Tap 12/8

So far Ketchup Month isn’t going great. I did manage to finish one book off my TBR but otherwise haven’t done much. Somehow I’ve been working everyday lately, with my coworkers testing for COVID. I know I shouldn’t complain—but that’s why I’ve a blog, right? Seriously though, if you live in the US like I do, stay vigilant out there, yeah? As we’ve hit the 200k mark for daily new cases, the situ promises to get so very much worse before it gets better. And with the nation divided, and our leaders seemingly uncaring, it could be a very cold, dark, Game-of-Thrones-esque Winter.

Currently Reading

Gallowglass – by S.J. Morden

Jack Van Der Veerden has everything he could possibly need—fame, money, women, immortality at his very fingertips—except he doesn’t want any of it. To escape his family, he signs up for a mysterious mission to parts unknown. But as luck would have it, Earth’s most desperate fugitive just signed on with the universe’s most desperate crew.

Forged – by Benedict Jacka

By Book 11, Alex Verus has racked up quite a number of enemies. His allies list is short, but mostly dependable. But when Anne goes rogue, Alex must track her down before someone else does first or worse, she goes too far on her revenge rampage. But first he has his own scores to settle—starting with the nemesis that’s tried to kill him since Day One.

Up Next

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett

One of the ARCs I somehow missed this year—I’d really like to get to it before I start on next year’s stuff! Which I’d ideally like to do before the end of 2020. Followup to Foundryside, it continues the adventures of Sancia Grado as one of her enemies sets out to resurrect an immortal legend. Which sounds bad. If she can’t stop them, the only way she knows of to fight a god is with one of her own.

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child

Book #2 of the Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson spinoff series (Old Bones being the first), coming in January 2021. I quite liked the first and am hopeful that this one will continue where the Pendergast series has fallen flat. I may’ve glossed over the particulars, but I remember something about a mummified corpse, a New Mexican ghost town, and something like the Holy Grail. Huge thanks to Grand Central for the early ARC!

Music Monday

Music Monday is a meme created by Drew the Tattooed Book Geek where he features a song he likes. Here in the dying embers of November, I’d like to share with you a tune quite outside the usual metal and rock that I typically go for. It’s but one of the several string bands I’ve had running through my head in the past few weeks. It bears a moroseness to it that summarizes the mood around lately.

Book Loot – October / Updates

So… 2020’s almost over. Which is pretty nice. The pandemic isn’t in a great place right now, with nearly 200k new cases daily in the US. Politics really aren’t any better, with our current Commander in Chief refusing to acknowledge the pandemic at all, while it rages. He also refuses to accept other things, but let’s not get into that. My own anxiety is pretty dang high, as I’m working six days a week somehow. And half of them are surrounded by people. And people in my state continue to ignore the whole mask thing. But let’s not dwell on that.

At the moment, I have no new ARCs for December. I only requested one, and haven’t heard back about Memoria. So, I’m assuming that this’ll be my catch-up month. But we’ll address that later. First, for what I collected this month:

Purchases

Forged – by Benedict Jacka

Eleventh of a planned twelve in the series, Forged comes at a time when SHRHTF for Alex. I won’t spoil it for those of you who are behind and have any interest, but sufficient to say that we’re seeing a new, uncut Verus who’s in it to win it. I can’t wait to tuck into this—right after I finish Blood of Empire!

Planetside – by Michael Mammay

I was planning on waiting til it actually got here to declare it as loot, but whatever. I’ve heard good things about this series (particularly from Niki), so went out and got a used copy. As I’ve no ARCs for December, and I seriously underperformed with regards to scifi month—figured this was the perfect time.

Purchased Games

Since I bought more new games this month (all during black friday sales (all online, I might add) where I’ve apparently no constraint), I figured I might at least talk those up. I’ve always planned on having more of a gaming presence on here but haven’t really ever gotten around to it. Maybe this’ll help (I guess we’ll see).

Horizon: Zero Dawn Complete

This was an impulse thing. It was on sale, I’ve heard great things about it, so here we are. I pretty much just doubled my game haul for the year in one week. I’ll probably get to this sometime next year—here’s hoping it’s good!

Control: Ultimate Edition

This game I’ve wanted pretty much since it’s release but held off because of some news of lag and glitches. But from what I’ve heard those are pretty much patched by now and I’ve managed to get the game and dlc on sale. I’m… pretty excited to get into this. Not as much as Cyberpunk, but close.

Borderlands 3

One of my favorite co-op series, I don’t play much Borderlands by myself. But as some of my friends are locked away, I managed to B1G1 free and figured I’d gift someone a copy to play it with me. If anyone reading this owns it already and has any interest in some co-op, do let me know, eh?

In terms of news… well we’ve pretty much covered it, right? The US sucks right now. Y’all stay safe, y’hear? I’ve a nasty cold this week that wiped my schedule clean—apparently if you have 2+ COVID symptoms you’re required to quarantine or get a test, but they’re desperate around here as everybody has it—so I actually got some rest in. But since I felt pretty awful during most of the week, I didn’t really get to enjoy much of it.

Anyway, this brings us to December. There’re a couple of posts I want to do this month in addition to reviews, which hopefully I’ll get around to in-between my chaotic work schedule. One is that I’m declaring next year a reread year, where I’ll reread some of my favorite books and see if they live up to my memory of them. I’d been kicking around the idea for a while now, but really focused on it after a comment by Piotrek over on Re-Enchantment. Now all I need is some cool artwork and an even cooler name for it. Which… doesn’t seem too likely, but hey—could happen.

Yeah so, let’s get this year over with!

Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Alt History

Solaris; October 20, 2020

416 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a warrior or leader. They just want to paint.

But as the native child of an occupied territory, the future of their country, their people may depend on them and what they choose to do.

And yet it all starts when they forsake their heritage, donning a foreign name so that they might become a ministry artist—comfortably housed and paid—just so they might paint to their heart’s content. But instead of the Ministry of Art, the test instead lands them a job at the mysterious Ministry of Armor, where they are set to painting the curious symbols used to animate the Razanei’s fearsome automata.

In one stroke Jebi is cut off from their friends, their family, their life before—and ensconced in the Ministry’s fortress, where they learn to create and paint that which keeps their people in bondage. But the methods used are too horrifying even from them to imagine, which prompts Jebi to answer a question about themselves—will they emerge from the shadows and try to lead their people into the light, or will they instead focus on their art, the only thing they’ve ever wanted?

Phoenix Extravagant combines a unique magical system, an automated dragon of infinite potential, a beautiful by deadly duelist, and a rather bland artist that would rather fame had simply passed them by.

I actually really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant, something that I would not’ve expected after the first 50-odd pages. The lead Jebi is a bit bland, really. A bit sheltered from the world, a bit caught up in their head, a bit off, odd. Not the best narrator (at least I would’ve sworn early on).

Only Jebi turns it around. As they grow more deeply embedded in Razanei society, so too do they develop as a character, as someone capable of telling a full story alone while maintaining an interesting lead.

In general, the world-building wasn’t terribly creative. The Hwaguk people were obviously styled after Korea, with the Razan invaders from a nearby archipelago were clearly Japan. The Chinese were mentioned too, but only in passing, and I didn’t take note of their pseudonym. If you weren’t aware, Korea and Japan have a… complex relationship, at least historically. And as Japan has previously annexed Korea (particularly during the early twentieth century, roughly the time this novel takes place), there’s certainly a historic precedent.

There’s actually quite a lot of historical parallels thrown around in this. In general I found these to be interesting parallels, though they also cheapened the novelty of the world-building (especially as the “westerners” are just called “westerners”). While the dynamic between the Hwaguk and Razan dominates, others include the isolationism in reference to the rest of the world, and the depiction of the West as something mysterious but to be feared and hated (not that they were wrong there).

Here’s a quick history lesson. If you’re interested, confused, bored, or Ola—read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead a couple (or three) paragraphs .

Korea was known (in the West, primarily) as the “Hermit Kingdom”. For centuries the various Chinese dynasties were seen as the major influencer over Korean politics since even before the Goryeo Dynasty, when it was basically viewed as a tributary state of China under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. This balance shifted during the Joseon period, when the dynasty adopted a severe policy of isolationism in an attempt to keep both China and Japan from meddling too much in their affairs, as both nations favored adding Korea to their empire. But late in the life of the Joseon matters came to a head.

Now I’m going to oversimplify things a bit more. See, there was this peasant rebellion in Korea. The Joseon was late in life at this point, and things weren’t going particularly well. They panicked and requested help from China (the Qing sent aid to what they viewed as their “tributary state”). Japan, angry about the troops that entered Korea from China (as they thought it broke a treaty between the two), sent an army of their own. The rebels were defeated, but neither China nor Japan wanted to leave. Eventually it led to war. A war which Japan won, and China conceded a number of things including, essentially, the right to colonize Korea. The Joseon Empress didn’t much care for this, and attempted to strengthen ties with Russia in order to kick Japan out. Japan, in turn, had her assassinated. Then forced the Emperor to end the Dynasty and form a new government, ripe for colonization by Japan. Something which they did not long after.

So, there’s been a long history of contention between the two. [Historically] Korea hated Japan because they… well, there’s a whole lot of reasons, but it’s mainly the colonization, mistreatment, and the comfort women (you’ll have to google that one—I’m not explaining it). [Historically] Japan hated Korea because of ethnic tensions, inauspicious events, and just a whole host of other reasons. Enough to say that both have their reasons and leave it at that. Since this time, obviously there’re the attempts by the Japanese to ignore some of the things they did during World War II—which is a bit like being a Holocaust denier in Europe—which I’m not getting into either.

There are a number of creative changes made to the history throughout, notably the magic, automata, the gender and identity bias (or lack thereof), and the cultural norms. I quite enjoyed the direction the author went with the magic and automata, though sometimes even it seemed a bit too fanciful to be believed. Even with the obvious historical parallels, the magic system is unique and interesting enough to carry the book. But it doesn’t hurt that the story is really good, either.

The story tells somewhat conflicting tales of how individual choice and freedom affects everyone around you, and the freedoms and sacrifices of following your own path and doing what you believe is right, rather than obeying someone else’s dream instead. While all of this adds up to a very serious book, Phoenix Extravagant’s humor turns the book into something quite different: a fantasy with not one, but several possible lessons, and several possible outcomes cropping up along the way.

“Jebi,” she said, “this is like when you were four and you thought laundry magically happened.”

Jebi opened their mouth to protest that they’d helped with the laundry, then remembered “helping” had consisted of running around shrieking with glee while pulling underclothes off the line and flinging them about.

TL;DR

While Phoenix Extravagant does a good many things right—such as telling an entertaining story filled with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking premise and plot—it is let down by a somewhat uninspired display of world-building, an odd mixture of humor and intensity, and moments in the second half of the text that feel either fanciful or bizarre. I appreciated not only the story, but the multiple ways it could’ve been interpreted—even as many historic parallels can be drawn between this story and that of our own. The tale’s own message about one’s personal choices—on gender, culture, identity—are surely influenced by the author themselves, but Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t seem to lead the reader in any one direction. This story is about Jebi first and foremost—and dragons, magic, war, love, and loyalty second.

Night Sky: Stargazing with the Naked Eye – by Robert Harvey (Review)

Science, Astronomy

Amber Books; November 14, 2019 (original hardcover)
Amber Books; November 3, 2020 (flexibound)

224 pages (Hardcover)

Goodreads

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Amber Books and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Imagine a night sky. It could be from your front porch, from a lonely mountain, from a high-powered telescope. There could be an aurora in the sky, a meteor shower, a clear view of the Milky Way. Or it could be cloudy—if so, imagine better.

The Night Sky aims to present you with everything your imagination could be taking advantage of; in this case very real examples of the majesty of the heavens from all around the world. While there is some text to read, some notes and descriptions to take note of—this was all about the photos for me. They are stunning, and completely blew me away.

While it initially sounds more like a guide from the title, I’d say Night Sky is rather more aimed to inspire and impress. If it gets you out exploring the stars on your own—great! If not—that’s fine too. It’s more a representation of everything the night sky has to offer to the common observer. There are notes on night sky photography, light pollution, stargazing, and more in the beginning and back appendices. The heart of it focuses on the photos themselves; taken from each inhabited continent, each one a stunning image in a book filled with them.

I was presented with the ebook version first, of which I didn’t have the best opinion. First off, I couldn’t put it on my kindle. Not that the photos would’ve been nearly as impressive there for me, but it was frustrating all the same. On my phone, the photos were quite stunning, but wee tiny things. I could enlarge sections of them, but never see the photos themselves full-size. That and the text was next to impossible to read this way, as I’d’ve had to enlarge it quite a bit, only to scroll along word by word, line by line to read through it.

So I did what any reasonable person would.

I went out and bought the print book.

I was not disappointed.

Note: After I finished this review, I attempted to locate the ebook version anywhere online and could not. So… my problems with it are moot, I guess. Seems it was just a pdf of the review copy, or something? Not sure. Anyway…

Retailing at around $25, this was a splurge for me. Beyond that, even. I don’t even like throwing down that kind of money for a book I know I’m going to read and enjoy multiple times over. At first it was enough to make me waffle and ultimately regret my decision—but then I received the book itself.

First thing, the pages are thick and glossy, perfect for printing high definition photos on. They’ll also resist tearing, which is nice. The descriptions are easier to read in this version, but they’re really only fun facts and notes about the accompanying pictures. The photos themselves steal the show.

This is a perfect centerpiece (if you’re into that), or something to leave out on your coffee table for perusal or idle guests (again, if you have either of those things). For someone like me, I found that I most often looked at it during the day, then it inspired me to go out and look at the stars come night. While I’m fortunate to live in an area with generally low light pollution, I do know that not everyone is as lucky. And for them, this book might in some ways assuage this.

While I realize this isn’t science fiction, it does provide the near limitless potential for the imagination. Maybe you’ll look at these photos and get the inspiration to finally write that novel. Or finish it. Or maybe you’ll go outside and stare up into the heavens instead. Or maybe it’ll simply make your dreams vast, open, and full of infinite beauty.