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

Shamanborn #1

Fantasy, YA

Page Street Kids; June 23, 2020

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

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

And then somehow, Sirscha restores her friend to life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Memoria – by Kristyn Merbeth (Review)

Nova Vita Protocol #2

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; December 8, 2020

419 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.3 / 5 ✪

While I usually try to avoid language in my reviews, look out for that here. But if excessive language is a deal-breaker for you, you probably shouldn’t read Memoria anyway;)

Please beware spoilers for the previous Nova Vita Protocol novel, Fortuna. If you haven’t read it, maybe browse my review of it HERE before starting your adventure!

After the Kaiser family helped avoid a catastrophic multi-world war that their mother helped orchestrate in the first place, they crash land on Nibiru where they are welcomed as heroes, and granted asylum. With no ship, and no way off-world, the Kaisers decide to stay, at least for a little while. Nibiru—a water planet composed of a few small archipelagos—represents an opportunity, though no two siblings seem to agree on just what that opportunity is.

Scorpia will do anything to fly again. A former criminal that just can’t bring herself to go straight, she longs for space even more than for Shey, the long-haired political exile she fell for years prior. But while neither of these seems that likely at first, it seems both may be in the cards, should she play them right.

Corvus cares little for his sister’s plans. Working as a fisherman, he attempts to leave his violent past behind all the while haunted by the nightmares from his time on Titan. The quiet, lonely days on the ocean help drown out the voices, but he remains skeptical that they will ever really fade.

When fate conspires to fling them back into space—on a mission from the Nibiru Council to explore some anomalies on the recently evacuated Gaia—the family’s opinions are divided. But when they stumble upon the truth of the destruction of Titan and Gaia, one question eclipses all others. Do they trust Nibiru’s Council with this information, or is it just something that they take to their graves?

The entire system of Nova Vita hinges on their decision.

The dueling 1st person POVs from Fortuna return in Book #2, with alternating chapters from Scorpia and Corvus. While it’s something that worked after a fashion in Book #1, Kristyn Merbeth admitted that it was something she did on the advice of her editor after the story was completed. Here in Memoria it fits together and flows much better, though if it’s the kinda thing that bothers you you still might notice some issues with it. But while I had issues differentiating the two POVs in the first installment, the siblings’ personalities and approaches are so much different in this sequel that it’s hard to confuse them; Scorpia remains hot-headed and impulsive, while Corvus is much more thoughtful and stoic.

The love-triangle isn’t very believable, particularly after the way things pan out in the first book, you can start to see something similar coming in the second. Still, it creates a believable tension that actually affects the plot in interesting ways, even after the romance is resolved.

I say “romance”, but Memoria isn’t anything approaching a romantic book. Yeah, there is some romance in it, even hints at something more in future installments, but it always plays second fiddle to the story itself. Speaking of the relationships between characters, it’s very interesting how they play out and alter the way the story wends. The love-triangle—again, if you’d call it that—has very obvious connotations for the later stages of the book, even the future of the series itself. But it’s more the subtle, non-romantic relationships that dominate the text. The familial bond between the Kaisers is one of the selling points in Fortuna, and continues throughout its sequel, with very realistic bonds being tested, explored, and strained. The Kaisers are far from the perfect family; they fight a lot—often physically, sometimes violently—but always move past it when one of their own is threatened. They have drastically different notions of what is best for the family, something that they usually don’t discuss but often work towards independently, often in direct opposition to their siblings desires. It was very interesting to see how each member is still dealing with their mother’s betrayal, and how it affects their interfamilial relationships here in Memoria.

While I was admittedly on the fence about the plot of Memoria, I have to admit it works quite well, despite a few stumbles approaching the end. There are some obvious holes in the plot—mostly after the 3/4 mark—story devices that were a bit glaring to my eye, but none of them are particularly relevant in the end. But while it took me a little to get into the story, I got quite invested before the halfway mark, to the point that these devices (an alarm that should’ve been triggered much earlier coming late and at a very opportune time, reasoning that really didn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny) really didn’t bother me too much. At the end of it all, I was enjoying the tale too much to care.

“These political fuckers are up to some political fuckery.”

There’s definitely some “political fuckery” in Memoria. I don’t really remember this coming up at all in Fortuna. While the Book #1’s style was a lot more in-your-face, Memoria seems to have gone for a more subtle approach; more politicking, dropped hints and clues that I caught only when reading them for the second time. It’s an interesting transition that actually works quite well since the overall content doesn’t change that much, just how it’s relayed does. There’s still a heavy does of action, tension and a thorough focus on character interaction, especially the familial bonds.

TL;DR

An overall improvement on its predecessor, Memoria is a very different adventure from the science fiction thriller that came before, instead focusing on character interactions, familial relationships, and political fuckery. While there’s still more than enough action and excitement and thrill to go around, it sets a much more subtle, tense tone than Fortuna. Possessed of a much slower build than the original, Memoria took some getting used to, took me longer to buy in to the story. But once I did, wow was it good! The plot and setting and interactions sucked me in so much that not even the few missteps towards the end could slow it. I’d definitely recommend this one, and look forward to the conclusion of the Nova Vita Protocol—Discordia—coming next week, December 7th, 2021!

Note: I picked up Memoria used in paperback after failing to find it at my local library. Paid $7 (including shipping) and save $3 on the ebook edition, plus whatever credit I’ll get following it’s return to the used book exchange (unless I just donate it to the library—or keep it myself).

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August (Updated Review)

Hey, if you read my original review of Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows way back in 2020—well, welcome to Round #2! At the time I remember saying that while the book wasn’t great, I’d address its problems later, depending on what was done to resolve them in the following entry.

Well, it’s been over a year and a half since the latest Arlo Finch book came out, and it appears that no fourth book is following. Needless to say that I’m disappointed. So it’s time to revisit this series and wrap up our thoughts on it, while saying a few choice words about just how it ended.

There are some spoilers following, so if you’d like to avoid those, just skip to the TL;DR.

Now, I’m not going to get into the original meat of it, so if you need a refresher, you can find it in the original review HERE (I’ll tack on this update to the end, so if you just wanted to read the whole thing there that’s totally an option) (alternatively, if you want to just skip to the TL;DR because this is Middle Grade or it doesn’t concern you, well yeah, you could do that too, I guess).

While originally planned and purchased as a trilogy, the Arlo Finch series had the potential to provide so much more mystery and adventure than three books could give them. As such, while the first and second titles in the series were highly entertaining, the third book—Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows—fell flat. Partly because it came at a crossroads for the series and in Arlo’s character arc; partly because it wrapped up the series; partly since the book tried to wrap up so many threads, while ultimately accomplishing very little. The problems I had in my original review notwithstanding, the Kingdom of Shadows was a conclusion wrought with issues—from what it set out to accomplish in the first place, to what story it managed to tell at the end.

Let me just say that while I didn’t see this coming, I really should have. But I didn’t know going into it that the Kingdom of Shadows was planned as the last book in a trilogy. And so the ending (when it just up and ended) made very little sense to me. Looking back on it, and knowing that it was the planned conclusion… it makes even less sense.

The conclusion itself is open-ended, with the final scene acting as both a finale and a beginning of sorts. As the precursor to a new book, this would’ve proved effective. As a final well, finale, it does the opposite. Instead of a cliffhanger ending to be resolved in the next installment, the Kingdom of Shadows uses a Sopranos-style moment—had the show ended a half-hour sooner. Or for the people that don’t know what this means: it ended in the middle of a scene, with quite little (to nothing) being actually resolved. Yes, the antagonist from the second book has been defeated. Yes, Arlo’s dad is home. Yes… actually no, that’s pretty much it.

So, basically, we’re just expected to believe that these two things will fix all the world’s problems. Arlo’s dad is just not in trouble anymore—because that makes perfect sense. The Eldrich just magicked all those problems away for… what reason, exactly? Even if it had made any sense for them to have that power, their rationale to do so didn’t make any more sense. Even less, actually. And with the tag-line of the book coming down to:

Arlo must make an impossible choice: save his friends and family, or save the Long Woods.

I mean, he doesn’t even manage either of these things. The Long Woods is still doomed. He didn’t save his friends or family in any reasonable way—the book was just like “well, it’s about that time, so I guessed our hero must’ve saved the day” and wrapt up without anything really being finished. This book makes about as much sense as my last three November novels have, and I ended each one with: “and then they all died”, regardless of what was happening. Don’t even get me started on the dragon.

The dragon that doesn’t really do anything, but then gets freed at the end and… the world is totally fixed. Because. Because magic fixes all problems, so we don’t even have to get into all the how’s and why’s or explain anything in detail. It just works. Because magic.

Have you ever sat down with your kid and told them “I know that you tried your best and didn’t succeed but magic magic magic you win and everything is perfect!”

…did that work? Honestly asking.

Not only am I disappointed by the lack of coherence, but as I reread it now, I notice more and more how rushed this conclusion feels. Not only the conclusion—the entire book. The premise itself doesn’t even really work. The enemy we just defeated in the previous book magically escapes and undoes everything in the blink of an eye? It’s not like you can just rebuild a death star by snapping your fingers. It’s like the author was brainstorming and only came up with “I know I just concluded this storyline in the last book but imagine this—maybe all that stuff didn’t happen” and just went from there. It’s just all… lazy.

TL;DR

If you skipped this very healthy, very understandable rant—you don’t know what you’re missing. Every now and then, we as readers should reflect on our biggest disappointments and vent a little, as it’s the only resolution we’ll ever get. I don’t regret any of the complaints above, as they were all perfectly reasonable requests despite the book only being intended for middle-graders. I work with elementary school children all the time and if you think that your explanation of “and everything was magically fixed because magic” will still fly when they’re that age, you’re probably not ready to be a parent. Not only was the conclusion sans resolution, the entire book itself felt rushed, and the premise completely undid half the stuff the last book worked so hard to accomplish in the blink of an eye. I don’t exactly regret rating this at a 3/5, but had I known it was the planned conclusion—as opposed to the de facto one—I would’ve roasted it over the coals earlier and saved myself some time.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August
• Original Rating – 3 /5 ✪
• Updated Rating – 1.8 /5

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

West of West #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit; December 3, 2019

499 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

2021 TBR – A Constant Struggle

So, only 51 weeks of 2021 left!

In other news my TBR this year has been terrible. I’ve literally mocked up dozens of lists. There’re a few mainstays, but mostly it’s chaos. I’ve a decent amount of actual books that I want to read and already own—and then an absolute quagmire of other titles that I WANT to read but don’t have a copy.

I tried and tried, but I just can’t settle on one 18 book list. And I don’t want it to be too long, as it’ll just seem overwhelming. Moreover, I couldn’t even settle on a single, shorter list because I kept wanting to add other titles.

And so here we are.

TBR 2021

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Founders #2)

One of the ARCs I missed in 2020 joins the TBR in 2021. I can’t wait to get back to this world!

Having narrowly saved the metropolis of Tevanne from destruction, Sancia Grado and her allies have turned to their next task: sowing the seeds of a full-on magical-industrial revolution. If they succeed, the secrets behind scriving—the art of imbuing everyday objects with sentience—will be accessible to all of Tevanne’s citizens, much to the displeasure of the robber-barons who’ve hoarded this knowledge for themselves.  
 
But one of Sancia’s enemies has embarked on a desperate gambit, an attempt to resurrect a figure straight out of legend—an immortal being known as a heirophant. Long ago, the heirophant was an ordinary man, but he’s used scriving to transform himself into something closer to a god. Once awakened, he’ll stop at nothing to remake the world in his horrifying image.
 
And if Sancia can’t stop this ancient power from returning? Well, the only way to fight a god…is with another god.

Forest of Souls – by Lori M. Lee (Shamanborn #1)

Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing, but she’s intent on becoming something. After years of training to become the queen’s next royal spy, her plans are derailed when shamans attack and kill her best friend Saengo.

And then Sirscha, somehow, restores Saengo to life.

Unveiled as the first soulguide in living memory, Sirscha is summoned to the domain of the Spider King. For centuries, he has used his influence over the Dead Wood—an ancient forest possessed by souls—to enforce peace between the kingdoms. Now, with the trees growing wild and untamed, only a soulguide can restrain them. As war looms, Sirscha must master her newly awakened abilities before the trees shatter the brittle peace, or worse, claim Saengo, the friend she would die for.

Babylon’s Ashes – by James S.A. Corey (The Expanse #6)

The only returning title on my main TBR, with the series conclusion Leviathan Falls dropping this year, I will prioritize it. Y’know, maybe.

A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy – a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships – has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante‘s problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.

A Man of Shadows – by Jeff Noon (Nyquist Investigations #1)

A mystery based in the strangeness of a world of fixed light and darkness, I started this last year but then my library loan ended and COVID hit and closed it so I never got it back.

Below the neon skies of Dayzone – where the lights never go out, and night has been banished – lowly private eye John Nyquist takes on a teenage runaway case. His quest takes him from Dayzone into the permanent dark of Nocturna.

As the vicious, seemingly invisible serial killer known only as Quicksilver haunts the streets, Nyquist starts to suspect that the runaway girl holds within her the key to the city’s fate. In the end, there’s only one place left to search: the shadow-choked zone known as Dusk.

Infernal – by Mark de Jager

Another ARC from last year—I’ve heard great things about Infernal, and the first chapter is AMAZING the reason I requested it in the first place.

Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with nothing but the knowledge that he is not human, with no memories of his past but possessing great strength, a powerful sorcery and the burning instinct to survive at any cost.

Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, he sets out across a landscape torn apart by the ten year war between the Kingdoms of Krandin and Penullin, now reaching new levels of savagery as a dark magic drives the world to the brink of destruction.

As his personality grows with each step he slowly uncovers the truth of what he has become and the unquenchable thirst for vengeance that has led him there.

Cage of Souls – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Half Fallout, half Matrix—all Tchaikovsky. I featured this in my Christmas book buying guide: books that I hadn’t read, and I’d really like to change all that.

The Sun is bloated, diseased, dying perhaps. Beneath its baneful light, Shadrapar, last of all cities, harbours fewer than 100,000 human souls. Built on the ruins of countless civilisations, surviving on the debris of its long-dead progenitors, Shadrapar is a museum, a midden, an asylum, a prison on a world that is ever more alien to humanity.

Bearing witness to the desperate struggle for existence between life old and new, is Stefan Advani, rebel, outlaw, prisoner, survivor. This is his testament, an account of the journey that took him into the blazing desolation of the western deserts; that transported him east down the river and imprisoned him in verdant hell of the jungle’s darkest heart; that led him deep into the labyrinths and caverns of the underworld. He will treat with monsters, madman, mutants. The question is, which one of them will inherit this Earth?

Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – by Benedict Patrick (Darkstar #1)

Included in the Kickstarter I backed last year, the Darkstar Dragon is the first in a new series by weird horror author Benedict Patrick. I’ve mostly enjoyed my time with his Yarnsworld books, but am also ready to see what else he had to offer.

Impossible world. Impossible dragon. Impossible adventure.

Lost with her ship and crew in an unfamiliar land, Min’s first command could be her last.

Nothing here behaves the way it should:

The magic that powers her skyship has been drained, rendering it immobile.

The sky is an endless twilight, lit by the luminous fish that swim in it.

Off starboard, there’s also the country-sized dragon that is looking particularly hungry.

It will take all of Min’s training and experience to get her people safely back home, but as the truth about the Darkstar Dimension begins to be revealed, Min will have to prove to her crew – and to herself – that she is still the best person for the job.

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee (Sam Wyndham #1)

I was actually shopping for books for my father for Christmas when I came across this. Though I ultimately didn’t end up buying it for him, it sounded so interesting I kept coming back to it myself. Supposedly it’s really quite good…

Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life or to deal with the ghosts which still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

A senior British official has been murdered, and a note left in his mouth warns the British to quit India: or else. With rising political dissent and the stability of the Raj under threat, Wyndham and his two new colleagues–arrogant Inspector Digby, who can barely conceal his contempt for the natives and British-educated, but Indian-born Sargeant Banerjee, one of the few Indians to be recruited into the new CID–embark on an investigation that will take them from the luxurious parlours of wealthy British traders to the seedy opium dens of the city.

Salvation – by Peter F. Hamilton (Salvation Sequence #1)

So far this seems to be a strangely connected story of strange flashbacks and stranger events. But I can’t stop reading it. So… good?

In 2204, humanity is expanding into the wider galaxy in leaps and bounds. A new technology of linked jump gates has rendered most forms of transportation–including starships–virtually obsolete. Every place on earth, every distant planet mankind has settled, is now merely a step away from any other. And all seems wonderful…until a crashed alien spaceship is found on a newly-located world 89 light years from Earth, harboring seventeen human victims. And of the high-powered team dispatched to investigate the mystery, one is an alien spy…

Jade City – by Fonda Lee (Green Bone Saga #1)

A read I missed one, two years back? Now’s the time. Why? Three words. Overdue Audible credits.


The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

One, the Other, or Both

So, I’ve copies of both of these, each one by the same author. Initially, I was just going to go one or the other as a way to keep my numbers for the year reasonable, but really—I’m going to read both Sanderson’s anyway, so there’s that. Do you have a suggestion for which of the others I read and which I ignore? Let me know (please)!

Once and Future Witches / Ten Thousand Doors of January – by Alix E. Harrow

A book about love, adventure, danger and a story untold mingles with a tale of the return of magic and three sisters with a past that needs afixing.

The Builders / Those Above – by Daniel Polansky

A war against the gods or a grimdark redwall, which sounds better?

Rhythm of War / Dawnshard – by Brandon Sanderson

Yeah, I’m definitely gonna read these both, just as soon as I finish my Stormlight reread.

AAAAAUUUUGGGHHHHH I want to read them now!

Gates of the Dead / Seven Forges – by James A. Moore

The Tides of War is actually pretty underrated but Seven Forges began it all, plus I got the entire series (to date at least, Book #5 comes out later this year) for about a $1 over Christmas.

Some Additional TBR

Warrior of the Altaii – by Robert Jordan

Draw near and listen, or else time is at an end.

The watering holes of the Plain are drying up, the fearsome fanghorn grow more numerous, and bad omens abound. Wulfgar, a leader of the Altaii people, must contend with twin queens, warlords, prophets and magic in hopes of protecting his people and securing their future. Elspeth, a visitor from another world, holds the answers, but first Wulfgar must learn to ask the right questions.

But what if the knowledge that saves the Altaii will also destroy them?

Great North Road – by Peter F. Hamilton

This is one intimidating brick of a book. I feel more embarrassed carrying it around to read than I would building a wall out of them. I only have the one, though, and one does not a wall make.

A century from now, thanks to a technology allowing instantaneous travel across light-years, humanity has solved its energy shortages, cleaned up the environment, and created far-flung colony worlds. The keys to this empire belong to the powerful North family – composed of successive generations of clones. Yet these clones are not identical. For one thing, genetic errors have crept in with each generation. For another, the original three clone “brothers” have gone their separate ways, and the branches of the family are now friendly rivals more than allies.

Or maybe not so friendly. At least that’s what the murder of a North clone in the English city of Newcastle suggests to Detective Sidney Hurst. Sid is a solid investigator who’d like nothing better than to hand off this hot potato of a case. The way he figures it, whether he solves the crime or not, he’ll make enough enemies to ruin his career. Yet Sid’s case is about to take an unexpected turn: Because the circumstances of the murder bear an uncanny resemblance to a killing that took place years ago on the planet St. Libra, where a North clone and his entire household were slaughtered in cold blood.

The convicted slayer, Angela Tramelo, has always claimed her innocence. And now it seems she may have been right. Because only the St. Libra killer could have committed the Newcastle crime. Problem is, Angela also claims that the murderer was an alien monster.

Now Sid must navigate through a Byzantine minefield of competing interests within the police department and the world’s political and economic elite…all the while hunting down a brutal killer poised to strike again. And on St. Libra, Angela, newly released from prison, joins a mission to hunt down the elusive alien, only to learn that the line between hunter and hunted is a thin one.

The Bone Shard Daughter – by Andrea Stewart (Drowning Empire #1)

I’ve heard great things and the story kinda reminds me of a mashup of the Empire of Storms and Gods of Blood & Powder, yet unique.

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.

Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognize her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

The Trouble With Peace – by Joe Abercrombie (Age of Madness #2)

Is there anything I need to say about this? It’s Jabercrombie. Of course I’m gonna read it. Not sure how I missed it last year anyhow.

Savine dan Glokta, once Adua’s most powerful investor, finds her judgement, fortune and reputation in tatters. But she still has all her ambitions, and no scruple will be permitted to stand in her way.

For heroes like Leo dan Brock and Stour Nightfall, only happy with swords drawn, peace is an ordeal to end as soon as possible. But grievances must be nursed, power seized and allies gathered first, while Rikke must master the power of the Long Eye . . . before it kills her.

The Breakers still lurk in the shadows, plotting to free the common man from his shackles, while noblemen bicker for their own advantage. Orso struggles to find a safe path through the maze of knives that is politics, only for his enemies, and his debts, to multiply.

The old ways are swept aside, and the old leaders with them, but those who would seize the reins of power will find no alliance, no friendship, and no peace, lasts forever.

The Twisted Ones – by T. Kingfisher

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.

Last Mortal Bond – by Brian Staveley (Unhewn Throne #3)

With Staveley’s next epic on the horizon, I really need to knock out his first series if I ever want to worry about the second. Plus it’ll be good to finish another series versus stalling in the middle.

The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all–Valyn, Adare, and Kaden–come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

Planetside – by Michael Mammay (Planetside #1)

War heroes aren’t usually called out of semi-retirement and sent to the far reaches of the galaxy for a routine investigation. So when Colonel Carl Butler answers the call from an old and powerful friend, he knows it’s something big—and he’s not being told the whole story. A high councilor’s son has gone MIA out of Cappa Base, the space station orbiting a battle-ravaged planet. The young lieutenant had been wounded and evacuated—but there’s no record of him having ever arrived at hospital command. 

The colonel quickly finds Cappa Base to be a labyrinth of dead ends and sabotage: the hospital commander stonewalls him, the Special Ops leader won’t come off the planet, witnesses go missing, radar data disappears, and that’s before he encounters the alien enemy. Butler has no choice but to drop down onto a hostile planet—because someone is using the war zone as a cover. The answers are there—Butler just has to make it back alive…

Kingdom of Liars – by Nick Martell (Legacy of the Mercany Kings #2)


Michael is branded a traitor as a child because of the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son, by his father David Kingman. Ten years later on Michael lives a hardscrabble life, with his sister Gwen, performing crimes with his friends against minor royals in a weak attempt at striking back at the world that rejects him and his family.

In a world where memory is the coin that pays for magic, Michael knows something is there in the hot white emptiness of his mind. So when the opportunity arrives to get folded back into court, via the most politically dangerous member of the kingdom’s royal council, Michael takes it, desperate to find a way back to his past. He discovers a royal family that is spiraling into a self-serving dictatorship as gun-wielding rebels clash against magically trained militia.

What the truth holds is a set of shocking revelations that will completely change the Hollows, if Michael and his friends and family can survive long enough to see it.

Stormtide – by Den Patrick (Ashen Torment #2)

While I was annoyed with the 2nd half of #1, I figure it probably time to give #2 a try. If nothing else, I’ll DNF it and not regret anything.

Steiner, blacksmith, hero, has taken a hammer to the Empire, freeing the dead and children with witchsign alike from their fiery prison. Now he plans to finish what he started.

Kimi, dragon-speaker, princess, must seek her father’s court and win the support of his armies before news of her escape dooms her people.

Silverdust, ancient, dead, journeys to the heart of the empire as a prisoner – to meet the Emperor for what he hopes will be the final time.

Kjellrun, witch, killer, still reeling from the loss of her uncle when she is ripped from her family, fears this power within her. But she must harness that force – and soon – if she hopes to survive.

Scattered by fortune, plagued by danger, Steiner’s crew rise against the dark rule that has cost them so much.

The old gods are waking.

The dragons are free.
May gods help those who bear the sign of the witch.

Returning from 2020

You can find my 2020 TBR here, or we could just forget it and pretend it no longer exists 😉

After Atlas – by Emma Newman (Planetfall Universe #2)

The Spider’s War – by Daniel Abraham (Dagger & Coin #5)

Vengeful – by V.E. Schwab (Villains #2)

The Grey Bastards – by Jonathan French (Lot Lands #1)

The Flames of Shadam Khoreh – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Lays of Anuskaya #3)

Metro 2035 – by Dmitry Glukhovsky (Metro #3)

So, do our TBR shelves share anything? Or do you need to gush/rage about any of these? Or have you read some and should I peruse your own reviews? Let me know (please)! And good luck to everyone on a successful year of reading (remember: 2022 is only 50 1/2 weeks away 🙂

Book Loot – Christmas 2020 & January 2021

Didn’t get a ton of books for Christmas this year, for whatever reason. Combined with the amount I was working over the holidays and an inherent lethargy on my part, I didn’t get a haul post done for December. Not that I bought a bunch of books during Ketchup Month anyhow (nor did I get much in the way of catch-up done). So we’ll just combine December and January here.

ARCs for January

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child (1/07 UK • 1/12 US)

The second Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson spinoff features our favorite duo in the wastes of New Mexico and includes a gold cross, a mummified corpse, a missing gold mine, and a famed event in US/World history.

Doors of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (1/12)

My first Pratt book, Doors of Sleep features capital-T Traveler Zaxony Delatree, who travels to a new universe every time he falls asleep. Seriously, that’s all I needed to hear about this one to want to read it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an enemy, the fate of the multiverse, and a talking crystal.

Fable – by Adrienne Young (1/26 UK)

A title I thoroughly regretted missing in 2020 despite its mixed reviews gets a release in the UK, which allows me to score a review copy. This survival YA features 17-year-old trader Fable in a quest to find her missing father and reclaim her place at the head of his trading empire. There’s some pirates, a desert island, and a good quest—always solid.

Extraterrestrial – by Avi Loeb (1/26)

The science entry well-known astrophysicist Avi Loeb examines the possibility that the first extrasolar object that we know of to enter our solar system—’Oumuamua, which passed through in 2017—was in fact a sign of extraterrestrial life. Though it’s not a common theory in academia, it is quite the hypothesis, and one that made highly interesting read!

Purchases

I decided to re-up Audible this year, but had a few credits to use before they expire later this month. Enter a flurry of new books:

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee

Set during Colonial India, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives in Kolkata to investigate the murder of a senior crown official, whose death comes at a time of rising tensions and dissent between the empire and the colony. Taking him luxurious palaces to seedy opium dens, the mystery will test all of Wyndham’s skill set—and may just prove too much for him altogether.

Warrior of the Altaii – by Robert Jordan

Meant to be the first in a brand new series, this standalone was published posthumously in 2019. As the plains dry up, Wulfgar of the Altaii must lead his people past dangers, wizards and prophets in order to secure their future.

Trail of Lightning – by Rebecca Roanhorse

The rise of the sea has wrought an apocalypse but also somehow returned gods and daemons to once more walk the land. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter tasked with returning a missing girl to her small town. But the truth behind the girl’s disappearance may well unearth secrets better left buried—particularly those of Maggie herself.

Great North Road – by Peter F. Hamilton

What do a murdered clone, a convicted killer, and an alien monster have in common? Well, for one, they’re all featured in the blurb for this book. An absolute brick of a tome, this Hamilton novel features an investigator, wormhole tech, and maybe some aliens. It’s a lengthy one—that I’ve had on my TBR for years but has always intimidated me with its sheer size.

Gifts

Rhythm of War – by Brandon Sanderson

I’m not even going to introduce this one. It’s self-explanatory. Might take me a bit to get to what with the Stormlight reread and all—but I WILL GET THERE. And I can’t imagine it won’t be worth the wait, but I still kinda want to read it straightaway.

Made Things – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Coppelia is a street thief, one very good at making friends. But instead of flesh, some of her friends are made out of wood or steel. Their partnership is sometimes tenuous, but mostly solid. But when a threat threatens (“threat threatens”, yeah I know) their city, these friends must solve it together, or die apart. Not a huge novella fan, but Tchaikovsky is an obvious exception to that.

So, these are the swags for this January/December. As of writing this, the world is… I seriously have no words. I just… I just don’t know anymore. Anyway, lemme know if you’ve read any of these, or if there’re others I should have on my radar. Everyone keep safe and be well!

Top 10 Existing Books of 2020

So, I did my Top 10 New Books from 2020, so this is my Top 10 that I read this year that AREN’T from 2020. Quite a few novellas and series finales within. A few authors you might recognize from my last list as well. Somehow (I didn’t plan this) all but one of these are from 2019. Pretty much what 2020 taught me was (well, so many awful things but) there were no good books from before 2019.

Yeah. Sure. Suuuuure.

10

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan

2019

The first of several finales, the Age of Dread ends with the fall of magic—or its rise. Hated and fear around the world, mages are done hiding in the shadows. And when a dark god rises to destroy mankind, they may be the only thing standing between humanity and the abyss.

9

Minor Mage – by T. Kingfisher

2019

A heartwarming novella about challenge, hardship, growing up, and that while minor, even a little magic can go a long way. I laughed, I cried—and I want an armadillo familiar of my very own.

8

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson

2019

Finn the Deep has defeated mountains, rivers, and big snakes. He has lost friends, comrades, and control of his bladder. But he has gained a new name, new friends, and several sexy female companions. Now all that’s left is to save the world—or die trying.

7

Blood of Empire – by Brian McClellan

2019

The power to make a god is something no man should possess—that is the premise of the final book in McClellan’s latest trilogy. And while Kresimir may not show up in this one, there’s still more than enough action to go around.

6

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – by Becky Chambers

2019

A haunting novella that combines fantastic discovery with overwhelming loss. I laughed, I cried, my mind boggled at the scenes Becky Chambers set upon me. A short but deep, lovely read.

5

The Fall of the Readers – by Django Wexler

2017

Yet another series finale, this finds Alice and the other apprentices fighting for their lives against the old Readers, but even if they win, what then? It turns out the shadow behind the throne might just be more dangerous than anything the old Readers could’ve imagined.

4

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan

2019

While I was torn on the first Map book, the 2nd delivered a heck of a bang. Joining Elizabeth is Elias, once of the Blood of Nova Scotia. But as Elizabeth tries to reclaim her life, Elias is trying to do little more than live to see another day.

Honorable Mentions

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords – by Benedict Patrick, The Shattered Crown – by Richard Ford, Senlin Ascends – by Josiah Bancroft, Queenslayer – by Sebastien de Castell

3

Summer Frost – by Blake Crouch

2019

This might just be the best novella I’ve ever read. It starts with a heavy dose of I, Robot, adds a dash of mystery, intrigue and suspense and comes out with something incredible.

2

Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell

2019

A series finale, Kellen and Reichis are going out on a high point. Or are they? Full of guest stars and exciting twists and turns, this might just be the best Spellslinger yet!

1

Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan

2019

Death is just the beginning in this penultimate book of the Legends series. Amazing character development blends with incredible world-building, a mix of mystery and adventure runs the plot—this was one of my favorites OF ALL TIME.

The Most Disappointing Titles of 2020

Or should I say the books that I felt summed up 2020 the best? Is that more flattering?

Either way, along with the good comes the bad. Every year there are books we enjoy, and those that we were so disappointed in, sometimes not even the good ones can make up for them. So prepare for a bevvy of low ratings, DNFs, and rants about this or that. Therefore, I scheduled this for one of the most disappointing days of the year—December 28th, the Monday after Christmas, aka the day that I have to go back to work.

8

A Longer Fall – by Charlaine Harris

While I didn’t have a high opinion of its predecessor, I still had hopes that the 2nd Gunnie Rose would deliver where the first failed. It started off well but the action quickly overwhelmed all else so much so that when the pace slowed later on, there was no suspense or mystery or romance to keep the story moving. The ending I had a major problem with. It was as if all the character development and growth went out the window at the 75% mark.

2 / 5

7

Liquid Crystal Nightingale – by Eeleen Lee

A title you may not have heard of, I had high hopes that LCN would be my gem of the year. Alas, this scifi tale of… aliens? did not meet my expectations. With deep politics and complex narratives and so much advancement and subtlety this text felt stuffed to the gills with content. And a plot that I could just not manage to wrap my head around as the story constantly shifted back and forth in time. This is one of those that throws you in the deep end and lets you sink or swim. I sunk.

DNFed at 37%

6

Highfire – by Eoin Colfer

When the master of children’s adventure makes the move to contemporary adult fantasy, lock the doors and shutter the windows. Really. I found this book about a bayou dragon, a troublemaker, and a crooked sheriff to be crude for the sake of crudity, or because that’s what adults are? I also found the characters shallow, the world unfleshed out, the plot lacking depth, the humor over-the-top, and swearing for the sake of swearing. Absolutely not for me.

DNFed at 24%

5

By Force Alone – by Lavie Tildar

A reimagining of the KIng Arthur legend, I read this less than a month after one of my favorite new books of the year, Seven Endless Forests. To say that they were both technically reimaginings of Arthurian legend would be accurate. To say that they had much else in common would not. I found By Force Alone to be a horrible book with awful, wretched characters that I hated. But that may’ve been because of my idealization of Arthurian legend and the fact that this book was more of a grimdark modification of it.

DNFed at 22%

4

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August

The blurb of Kingdom of Shadows has Arlo undertaking the arduous, dangerous task of rescuing his father from exile in China via the Long Woods—kinda a magical shortcut through the shadows. The problem—the main problem—is that this adventure wraps up in the first third of the book, and after that, well… we try something else. Something that kinda fizzles instead of killing it. The adventure and exploration aspects are out the window, and everything that’s defined the series thus far goes with it. The rest of the story is mildly enjoyable right up to the end, which is… abrupt. If this is the end of Arlo Finch, it sucks. If this is another step on the road, it’ll definitely put a hitch in his giddyup.

3 / 5

3

Battle Ground – by Jim Butcher

Now I know you’re surprised with this one. Dresden Files #17 was actually a decent book. But it was so OUT THERE, both with respect to the series and with respect to Peace Talks that I had to include it. There’s also no detective element to it. It’s just a war, but with the same pacing as the detective books. Which… doesn’t work. It’s like an epic boss battle the entire time, which I grew quite sick of quite quickly. Luckily the ending helps assuage some of this disgust, which gives me hope for the future. For a book, Battle Ground was decent. For a Dresden Files novel, it was awful.

3.5 / 5

2

The Adventures of Rockford T. Honeypot – by Josh Gottsegen

From the blurb, look and feel of this book, I expected it to be the return to Redwall that I’d been hoping for ever since the untimely death of Brian Jacques. Alas, if that’s what the author was going for too, they missed by a mile. Nothing made sense in the world. Trees are regular size except when they’re not, except that they’re still treated as regular sized even though they fit inside tiny greenhouses and grow fruit the size of chipmunk paws. All of the animals can talk to one another, except when they can’t. There’s a huge amount of law in this book. Like, A LOT. Are children now fascinated with lawyers and suing people nowadays? Because this is supposed to be a children’s book, and if so I’m pretty sure our society’s headed in the wrong direction.

2 / 5

1

The Ranger of Marzanna – by Jon Skovron

I was a big fan of Skovron’s Empire of Storms trilogy, so when I saw the announcement of a new series about a brother and sister on either side of a civil war, I was automatically in love. Bearing a similar tag-line to Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler, Ranger of Marzanna begins with a murder, a kidnapping, and a rescue attempt. And then the plot goes stale. In two weeks I made it little more than a quarter through this tome (it’s 530 pages), and it felt like I was rereading Bleak House. It was dry, dusty, and painful. Sonya was by far the more interesting of the two siblings—as her chapters were just plain boring. Sebastian, her brother’s, were borderline unreadably dull. I’m unlikely to ever come back to this, but if I do, my expectations are only a fraction of what they were.

DNFed on page 160

Well that was quite something, eh? Were there any books that you were super hyped about only to be smashed in the face with a frying pan? Let me know what I should (or should not) be reading! And stay tuned for another list, coming soon!

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.