Below the Edge of Darkness – by Edith Widder (Review)

standalone

Memoir, Science

Random House; July 27, 2021

325 pages (ebook)
11hr 56m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

7.5 / 10 ✪

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

Below the Edge of Darkness serves a dual purpose. Intended both as an introduction to the world of bioluminescence and the deep ocean depths, it also serves as a memoir of one Edith Widder—one of the pioneer marine biologists exploring the ocean deep, deep down below the sight of visible light.

I came into this one with no real expectations. Well… okay, I expected the science. I showed up for the science. I started with an expectation of science. What I got (at least initially) was not science. As anyone would in a memoir, Edith Widder spends a lot of time talking about herself. About her childhood, her schooling, the things that made her want to get into marine biology in the first place. I kinda figured that there would be an element of this as well, but maybe not to such an extent. What I did not expect—and what actually turned me off the book at first—was the hook.

Every story starts with a hook. Fiction, at least; thriller, mystery, fantasy, ya, some other variety of book people might read… Even some non-fiction like case-studies and biographies start with a hook. Something to draw the reader in, get them asking “and what happened next?”, something to keep them around. So yeah, I expected a hook. But what I expected was for it to be something on the nature of a dwindling resource, pollution, lack of funding—something about the science. I didn’t expect the hook to be about the author or her life.

No reason why, I guess. Not that I can think of now, at least. Sufficient to say, however, that back when I first started this book—in the late summer of 2021—I didn’t care. About the author, about the reason, about the hook. I wanted some science. To lose myself in the beauty of nature, the technical world, in an attempt to catalogue and understand the very nature of creation itself.

Come 2022, I was struggling to read anything, and found this in the backlog. I already had the audiobook—figured I might as well give it a shot. And, while I didn’t love it, I did enjoy Below the Edge of Darkness.

From what you can probably tell, I’m not a big memoir person. I don’t obsess over unknowable people and their lives to the point that I don’t care to read about some random person that I’ll likely never meet. (And yes, this includes Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or Alfred Noble—I’m never going to meet any of them, so their day to day workings kinda bore me. Read from this what you will, but hey—there’s a reason I mostly read fantasy books.)

Still, while I didn’t show up for the memoir part, I found it mostly interesting. And I’m… somewhat intolerant of this subject in general. I find Cosmos just pretentious and boring. I’m a hard sell.

At the time she was in school, the whole idea of women in science was laughable. After all, the world was still iffy on the idea of “women in the workplace”. But science—science is for men. Women had no capacity to understand or comprehend most of it and blah blah blah. Just… I’ll never understand this, but whatever. So much of Edith Widder’s life was spent just trying to convince some people that she belonged. That she was just as capable as her counterparts. What she overcame in her life to actually make it to the sea floor was quite impressive. What she ranted and raved about constantly was mostly interesting, but again, my brain craved science, and in the end that’s what kept me around.

There’s just enough about the nature of bioluminescence to make this work in a scientific journal. Not enough for a case-study; it reads more like an autobiography with bits of science thrown in to round out the reader’s perspective. I probably would’ve liked more, but it still served as a crash course into the world of bioluminescence, investigating the giant squid, and exploring the deep ocean. I know I ranted way more about the memoir part than I should’ve, but I’m not going to change it now.

Read it if you’re into that kinda thing: memoirs, bioluminescence, the ocean deep, the majesty of nature and the lives of folk you’ll likely never meet. Or if you’ve just grown upset at my blasé review of it. As I said before, it’s mostly pretty good. I’d recommend it.

Nolyn – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Rise and Fall #1

Fantasy, Epic, High Fantasy

Grim Oak Press; August 3, 2021 (physical)
Riyria Enterprises; August 3, 2021 (ebook)

480 pages (ebook)

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9 / 10 ✪

After over 500 years spent in exile managing a salt mine, the heir to the Nyphronian Empyre has been reassigned—to the frontlines of the Goblin War. Nolyn is somewhat wary, as the wars have somewhat stalled over the centuries, and the front lines are not the safest place to be. He is further perturbed when the stronghold he is tasked with capturing turns out not to exist, and the route to it dead-ends in a canyon deep inside enemy territory. Now night is coming, and he and his men are trapped deep in the jungle with no backup.

All Nolyn knows is that it was the Emperor’s order that brought him here—it seems his father is trying to kill him.

Very effectively, one might add.

So when Nolyn walks from the jungle some days later, it’s not just a surprise. It’s a legend in the making.

Abandoned and hunted by the legion, Nolyn and his men must take the fight to the one place that will end it for good—the Emperor Nyphron himself.

“Need to kill the stupid weasel. He knows where we went, how many us there are…”
“You’re probably right,” Nolyn said. “But I’m not in the habit of killing innocent people.”
“Perhaps it’s a tradition you should consider adopting, now that you’re embarking on a life of crime and all.”

After the ups and downs of the Legends of the First Empire, I was both excited and concerned by this new trilogy exploring some of the most enshrined legends of Elan not discussed in the previous series. It could be great—like so much of the author’s works—or it could be terrible—like some few I dare not even mention.

Well, while I’ve heard some dissent from around the fantasy-sphere regarding Nolyn, I at least thoroughly enjoyed it.

The book starts out following two primary protagonists (though a third antagonist will be added later on to fill out their ranks) with a series of alternating POVs. The product of relations between a Rhune and a Fhrey, Nolyn is somewhat unique in the world—with only one other famed coupling producing a child. His friend and lover, Sephryn. Gee, I wonder who the second POV follows…

While you’ll know much of Nolyn’s story from the blurb, Seph’s is in many ways more intriguing. Blackmailed into stealing the Horn of Gylindora, Sephryn is in a no-win scenario, which is growing more dire by the day. While Nolyn’s journey will become legend, it’s Seph’s tale that will help sort the myths and legends from the cold, hard truth.

And from what I’ve seen, it’s really these characters that will make and break the book for you. If you’re a newcomer to the series: welcome! And don’t worry, you don’t have to know any of the backstory; it’ll be explained, just like any other. But if you’re familiar with the author’s prior work, this is where the trouble starts. See, for some people, I’ve heard that his first series—the Riyria Revelations—sets the bar, with Royce and Hadrian the gold-standard for fantasy characters. For others, this early duo was too polarizing, too rough around the edges, while his writing later showed more polish, if less heart.

I… can see both points. I thoroughly enjoyed Royce and Hadrian (particularly in their later appearances, like Death of Dulgath and the Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter) but am readily willing to admit that some of their adventures (especially Rose and Thorn and Crown Conspiracy) were a bit rough and underwhelming. Furthermore, I maintain a love-hate relationship (mostly though I hate them) with some of Sullivan’s later characters—especially Gifford, Roan, and Tesh—and didn’t enjoy either the Age of Swords or War. There was also a bit of distance to these characters. They didn’t have the same heart that the original duo had, though I felt their actions were more realistic that some of those from before. In addition, the final three books of that same hexalogy were tremendous, with the Age of Death remaining one of my favorite books ever. I just hope the tradeoffs are sufficient to cancel one another out, without proving divisive enough to distract from the story itself.

The problem remains that if you’re a continuing fan of the world of Elan, and you come into Nolyn prepared to compare its characters to others throughout the series’, well, you’re probably going to be disappointed by something. That said, if you’ve read as many of them as I have (like, all of them), that’s going to be very difficult to avoid.

So… well, I don’t have a good answer. While I initially compared Nolyn’s quest to both of the author’s sets of fellowships, at some point the story itself drank me in and I ended up forgetting about all that. Hopefully it will be the same with you; the story will drink you in, and you’ll end up having a wonderful time and looking for more. In this at least, one can hope.

All of Us Villains – by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #1

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; November 9, 2021

386 pages (hardcover)

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Foody WebsiteSocials
Herman WebsiteSocials

9.5 / 10 ✪

The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. And the Tournament looms.

Each generation the Blood Moon heralds the start of a new Tournament, as each of the seven families of Ilvernath compete for the ability to control the wellspring of High Magic thought to be gone from the world.

Each and every tournament is distinct for one reason or another, while somehow staying the same. But this year is different. This year—thanks to a revealing new book—the entire world now knows about the tournament, thrusting the seven families (and their champions) into the spotlight.

Isobel Macaslan—the first to be named, the belle of the media—hasn’t had her photo out of the press for the last year. Though the extra publicity gives an added boon before the tournament, this success doesn’t mean anything once the Blood Veil falls.

Briony Thorburn has trained her entire life to be champion—it’s the only life she knows, or wants—but when a last second change threatens her plans, will she be able to deal with the shock of it? Or will her actions mean the death of them all?

Carbry Darrow—the youngest of champions—isn’t expected to be much of a threat, but should he find the confidence within him, he just may surprise everyone.

Elionor Payne might not be the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, but it’s a close thing. She’s out to prove herself and win her family some praise, one body at a time.

Finley Blair—perfect, handsome, charming, every inch a storybook hero—might not be able to charm his way to victory, but he can get down and dirty should the need arise. And it certainly will.

Alistair Lowe is the favorite. Born and bred to win the tournament, he heralds from the most famous of the families; the Lowes win the tournament every two out of three times it’s held. Everyone knows he’s the greatest monster, the one to beat—even if he does have to keep reassuring himself.

Gavin Grieve rounds out the field. That’s the most that can be said about the final champion. A Grieve has never won the tournament, something everyone is keen to remind him—but Gavin aims to be the first. And not just because he doesn’t want to die yet. But as an afterthought of the competition, he is woefully equipped compared to the others. If he wants to win, he’ll have to do something stupid and desperate—though at least it’s not a difficult choice.

Six will die young, but one will rise above them. Only question is—is anything worth it?

There is was.

If he did this, he’d be restricting his magick usage for the rest of his life. But if he didn’t go through with it, the rest of his life would probably be a lot shorter anyway.

All of Us Villains is yet another fantasy thriller in the Battle Royale sub-genre, but this time with magic! So, teenagers battle to the death because why not. Got it. So… just from the prompt, this seemed a bit blah, but several reviewers I follow loved it, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Sometimes it’s all down to timing. Other times, it’s just taste.

This was a perfect combination of the two. For me, at least.

It’s going to sound a bit strange, but I found the pacing to be one of the best parts of this read. It sped up and slowed down from time to time, but always managed to do so at just the right moments, so that it never felt like the story was rushing out or grinding along. It was just always… there. You know how life happens at its own pace? It was like that. There were fast moving, adrenaline-induced parts that roared along, followed by crash sections where time seemed to be inching along while the characters got over the high. There were slower sections of talking and transition which all too suddenly turned to violence in an instant. It all felt… realistic. The tournament playing out over weeks instead of in the span of “days that feel like years”—a phrase which you all know I hate seeing.

The second great strength of All of Us Villains is its characters.

Now, all are profoundly flawed individuals—horrible people that react in terrible ways based on the fact that they’re young and immature, born and bred to fight in tournament that will no doubt claim their lives even if they have the fortune to survive it. And as such, they do some terrible things. But they’re also capable of great compassion, understanding, and empathy. It just comes out kinda weird what with the fact that they’re simultaneously attempting to murder one another. They’re not exactly realistic per say, but… realistic in the way that one can only be when they’ve been told their entire lives that they’ll be forced to fight a bunch of their friends to the death so that their family can reap the rewards.

I couldn’t honestly tell you who my favorite character was… though I consistently enjoyed both Gavin and Isobel’s POVs in a way I didn’t Briony’s. It’s not like Bri was a worse person—I’m not sure there were any “better” or “worse” characters (other than possibly Finley, who did not have his own POV)—I just found her a bit too arrogant for my tastes. Alistair kinda split the difference, showing both an unexpected empathy and a surprising cruelty just when I thought he’d turned one corner or the other. Just those four POVs: Alistair, Briony, Isobel, and Gavin. It never felt overwhelming with the POVs, or the scope, as each POV simply showed a different perspective into the tournament.

The story was not without its flaws, just… these were far outweighed by its strengths. Far, far outweighed.

TL;DR

All of Us Villains features a cast resplendent with the villainous, the vain, the wrathful, and the bloodthirsty. They may not all be monsters, but most come close. If you’re after a story with distinct lines between good and ill—this isn’t it.

This asks you to pick the best of a bad situation—and then pick again, as that person will almost surely die first. It may not feature any saints, but it does tell a lovely story with a definitely dark twist. A somewhat new (if not wholly unique) take on the Battle Royale sub-genre that has overtaken the world, All of Us Villains mostly succeeds through it being a damn good read, with excellent pacing, and believable—if horribly flawed—characters. In fact, I’d argue that their obvious flaws make them even more believable, if not relatable. While you might not love this quite as much as I did, I hope you’ll trust me when I say it’s worth a try. I’d very much recommend Part #1 of this duology, continuing in All of Our Demise, out just recently here in 2022.

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

3.5 / 10 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for the story. Mostly it’s for the romance though, and I kept them vague.

Sisters of Shadow is tagged as an “unforgettable teen fantasy perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone”. Now, while I’ve not read Shadow and Bone (yes, I know, I know), I’m skeptical of this. First about the “unforgettable” part. I found the whole thing very forgettable, thank you. But I really want to focus on the “teen” part. Because other than the whole ’sapphic love’ thing, I’d argue that nothing in here seems very “teen”.

And that’s just a personal preference thing, really. If you’re the type of person that thinks homosexuality is wrong—be it religious, or culture, or personal, or whatever—that’s your call, yeah? I don’t want to debate anyone over this. If you’re that kind of person, you’re probably not going to tell your child about it until you absolutely have to, and when you do, just say that it’s wrong and leave it there. Otherwise, I don’t know what the appropriate age to hear about this is. Puberty, I guess? But, see, the ‘sapphic romance’ within… there’s no sex, or anything. Nothing like that at all. Two of the characters do fall for one another, but they don’t do anything more than cuddle. And maybe kiss. It’s implied that they’re together together, and that’s about it. It’s not very heavy or adult, as these things go.

Anyway, the book. The read.

I found it quite boring. But also quite maddening. You’ll see why. At this point, I’ll say the two best things I can about Sisters of Shadow. One—I didn’t hate it. And two—it was a pretty quick read. Now, I realize none of those things are all that flattering. And from the above rating, you probably know there’s a bit of a rant incoming. So. Um I guess. Read on to find out more?

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

Shortly after, we meet Lily Knight. The adventure starts when her uncle, Alf—who seems like a fantastically nice human the entire time we see him—just tells her that she alone has to go rescue her friend (yes, alone; no one can go with her), because Alice is her responsibility. Serious, wtf. I don’t even remotely understand this. Much less how Alice is somehow Lily’s responsibility. They’re friends, not lovers.They’re both humans. They’re not related. Alice isn’t a pet.

At first I suspected it was poorly worded. Then it was reiterated. “Alice is your responsibility”. Because.

And so the journey begins. And it’s… not great. And here we come to my main problem with Sisters of Shadow.

Nothing happens.

Okay, okay, stuff DOES happen. It just never feels important. It never feels epic. It never feels REAL.

Adventures and journeys aren’t always fun. That’s kind of their thing. There’s always a problem, somewhere. No matter how well you play it. And when you don’t plan it, one would think that there’d be problems all around. That’s the whole allure of reading about epic quests and adventures, especially spontaneous ones; stuff goes wrong all the time, and it’s up to the characters to deal with these, frequently in creative or inventive or roundabout ways.

Every problem has an immediate solution, one she never has to do anything about. When Lily finds out how far it is to the ocean she gets dejected about the walk—and a horse appears. It just wanders up, pre-saddled and ready to ride. No further explanation. People go out of their way to help her through her journey, for no reason. (Yes, I realize this is a thing that some real people do. But everyone that helps her does so immediately and for nothing. Everyone.) Later, when Lily reaches the ocean, there’s a boat handy. When she reaches the lighthouse, there’s a dark-eyed boy who takes her in and feeds and waits on her. He’s even her own age and—yes, this is the actual romance. At least it takes Lily some time, if not any actual effort. Alice’s romantic other is literally the first person she meets.

Now, I will say that the ending is decent. Things almost feel real, consequential—and maybe that’s reason enough to read the sequel. Not for me, though.

Billed as a coming of age fantasy, Sisters of Shadow features two young women around the age of adulthood (Alice is 17, I presume Lily’s about the same). They just never act like it. Lily never acts any older than 13 or so. In the beginning, honestly it’s a bit younger. Alice is a little better, though not much. None of the others they meet around their own age are any better either. So. If this had been written as a late Middle Grade fantasy—I think it would work out great. For teens or middle-grade. Other than the same-sex romance (which I’ve already gone over), there’s nothing explicit or adult about this.

There might be a good story in here, somewhere. Heck, you might well have found it already, and are reading this review—shocked, annoyed, incredulous—that I didn’t see it too. But I did do my homework on this one. I checked the ratings, I skimmed reviews. Some people loved Sisters of Shadow. Some hated it. But most people thought it was meh. Not terrible, not great. That’s about the size of it. This wasn’t a terrible book, though it also wasn’t good. I’d even say it was meh if it hadn’t been so boring. If something had ever happened to change my mind about it. If anything had ever made me want to continue it, or the series. It did read quick, though I never felt invested. I did finish it, but I skipped around a bunch. But this definitely wasn’t for me. You might like this, or not. It’s $3 for an ebook, if you’d like to take a chance on it. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it. Or maybe, like the majority of reviews I’ve seen, you’ll think it was all a bit bland, a bit forgettable.

The story will continue in Sisters of Moonlight, due April 14th, 2022.

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind – by Jackson Ford (Review)

The Frost Files #1

Paranormal, Scifi

Orbit Books; June 18, 2019

497 pages (ebook)
13hr 24m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

If you hadn’t guessed already by the title, and you’re not the kind of person who reads books that swear, like, a lot, maybe skip this one. Just saying—I did warn you.

Being a secret agent isn’t a bad gig, but it’s not the life Teagan Frost wants. Sure, she can move shit with her mind—but she’s so much more than just that. She’s got hopes and dreams and ambitions, and being a sideshow for the government isn’t one of them. Still, it’s better than being dissected, which is the only other legitimate “life” she has access to. But at least that option is closed off—at least for now.

But when a body turns up on site at her last job, killed in a way only she could ever have managed, dissection is—somewhat literally—back on the table. Now, the ambitious telekinetic has 20 hours to clear her name, a deadline not even the government seems likely to honor. Soon enough, her team is on the run, with only Teagan and her PK the reason they haven’t been caught yet.

At least it’s only the government that’s chasing them.

Or it would be if not for the rogue telekinetic she’s chasing, the notorious LA gang she’s pissed off, and the army of police that have been on the lookout for her ever since the murder. Now if only she could focus on that and not worry about her love-life getting in the way, or her past coming back to haunt her, or her friends falling into danger because of her own choices… she could maybe have a normal life. Maybe.

I’ve never actually finished a book by Rob Boffard before. Figures that the first one I do get through, it’s written under a pseudonym.

The Girl Who Could Move Shit with Her Mind isn’t exactly a literary masterpiece. It’s a good bit of high-octane, heart-pounding action. It’s a thriller that doesn’t let up, but a thriller all the same. Swearing ain’t exactly an art form, but even if it were, this book wouldn’t exactly be a work of art. Still, the writing’s not bad, the dialogue isn’t bad, and the plot sure isn’t bad either. None of these things are terribly innovative, but it’s still an entertaining read.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Teagan has been falsely accused of murder and has one day to prove her innocence. She has to call in every favor, cut every corner, and make every gamble she can in order to yada yada yada. Again, it’s not that this is a bad read, it’s just that it’s not very inventive or creative. Other than the bit about a telekinetic, it’s basically every thriller that’s ever been written. Which is all just a way to say that it better at least be entertaining.

Which it is.

I got through The Girl That Could in about a week, listening to it in my downtime approaching Christmas, partly because I was stuck at home with little else to do but read. And it was interesting, entertaining, and immersive. I didn’t pick it up because I was after something deep or thought-provoking, which is good, because it’s really not those things. This was a good, quick, entertaining thriller that does a lot of things right, despite not being terribly creative nor having an immaculate prose.

That said, the romance was a bit of a miss. With everything leading up to it, and everything else going on, I didn’t feel like there was really a chance for anything all that romantic to get a foothold. And the way that it ended, when it was finally given some time to, like, be romantic, was a joke. In some sense, it’s good that I didn’t sell out on the romance from the very beginning, because when it finally was given some time—and fell flat—I wasn’t surprised.

TL;DR

I’m going to keep this pretty short. If you’re after a thoughtful, intricate, and drawn out mystery, complete with deep, erudite characters and an innovative plot—this ain’t it. If instead you’re after a quick, entertaining thriller, with enough violence, language, and action to keep you immersed—yeah, this certainly fills that void. I wouldn’t expect it to win any literary awards or anything. I would buy this one, and the next (which I have, by the way), and schedule the two for sometime when I needed something quick, entertaining, and not too deep.

Audio Note: I quite enjoyed the narration of Lauren Patten! In fact, I doubt that I’d have enjoyed this book as much as I did without her behind the mouth of Teagan. She really sold Frost’s casual do-not-give-a-fuck attitude, even in the points where her character was completely freaking out. And I hear that she’s returned in the second installment, Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air, which I’ve already gone out and purchased.

Black Water Sister – by Zen Cho (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal

Ace Books; May 11, 2021

380 pages (ebook)
11hr 37m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

Jessamyn Teoh is fresh out of Harvard, and the world is her oyster! Realistically though, she’s got just about nothing—no waiting job, no place to live, a mountain of student debt—and so decides to move back to Malaysia with her parents, where she hasn’t lived since her parents immigrated to America when she was a toddler.

But Malaysia may not be the clean start she was looking for. Here, Jess is still broke and unemployed, living with relatives who condescend to her, and a state that condemns her for the way she was born. Not that her girlfriend would ever visit her here. Malaysia is one thing, but what would her family say? Jess is still very much in the closet, although her very supportive girlfriend wishes she wasn’t. A girlfriend she rarely gets to see and talk to, done entirely over video chats and messages in the dead of night.

Her life can’t get much worse. Or so Jess thinks.

…Until she starts hearing voices. Voices claiming to be the manifestation of her dead grandmother’s spirit, speaking to Jess as their medium. In life Ah Ma was the medium for the mysterious and powerful minor deity known as the Black Water Sister, but in death she is a powerful spirit with a grudge—one that just happens to be against a gang boss and his family.

And now this grudge is Jess’s also, drawing her deeply into the world of ghosts, gods, crime, and secrets, any one of which would be enough to get her killed. But while she begins to gain attention from all the wrong places, Jess is willing to admit that it’s not all bad. At least she has a purpose, a place, something to do with her time—at least until she catches the Black Water Sister’s eye.

Moving to Malaysia may not have been the best choice.

Black Water Sister may be an inspirational read for any number of reasons—it features a gay protagonist living in a society that is incredibly against that sort of thing; it’s a coming-of-age, or finding-ones-place-in-the-world kinda thing, something that very much appeals to so many, regardless of age; it tells the tale of a culture, history, and point of view that maybe you weren’t used to—but it’s very much not because of the overwhelming positivity and support. This isn’t what I would call a “bright and sunny” read. It’s quite dark in places: with murder, violence, language, not to mention an attempted rape scene.

While Jessamyn’s orientation begins as just a detail amidst the larger plot, more and more I felt it attempt to take center stage, as Jess struggles to hide who she is from her parents and friends, all the while suffering the strain that this puts on her relationship with her girlfriend. In fact, this adds more and more tension to the overall plot approaching the end, but sadly leaves us without any true resolution come the conclusion.

If you came for the gods and ghosts, the good news is you’re likely staying for them. The story is interesting, turning to entertaining and fast-paced once it gets going. The setting—Penang, Malaysia—is as varied as it is vivid; not to mention an exotic setting that you might not have heard of. Penang has been called the Silicon Valley of the East, and is representative of a liberal and culturally diverse Malaysia, if there even is such a thing in this secular Islamic state. I loved the depiction of the various temples and gods, the underworld and its outward veneer.

But it’s how Jess relates to the country that really sells the story. While she hasn’t lived in Malaysia since she was a toddler, since her parents emigrated from the country in search of a better life for their daughter, Jess has been back. A few times, for visits. But visiting a place and living there are two entirely different experiences. And it’s how she explores these experiences—as a native Malaysian who left, received an Western education, was dosed in “liberal, global culture”, and returned—that affects how the story is told. I quite enjoyed all of it: from the ghosts and gods, to the gangs and underworld; to her parents’ struggle to reconnect with their previous livelihoods; to Jess’s own to establish herself, discover the person she is, to live and to grow, all the while struggling whether or not to come out to her parents, to her family, to legitimize her girlfriend and their relationship. It’s quite the tale, quite the book.

TL;DR

Black Water Sister is a tale of love and acceptance, of hope and defeat, of darkness, death, and growth. Of understanding one’s place, and finding one’s way in the world. There are also gods and ghosts. A gay lead who is very much in the closet and determined to stay there, while her very supportive girlfriend wishes she wouldn’t. It’s about cultural diaspora—of a native daughter returning home only to find it so far from where she remembered. It’s about the past and one’s family—of how blood is blood and kin is kin, but sometimes their actions fade and should be forgotten while others should be remembered above all else. Black Water Sister is a story about a daughter’s quest for acceptance. A girl’s journey to become a woman. A woman’s quest to find what she wants out of life, of who and what she wants to become. While it’s not a perfect story, so little is in this life. Black Water Sister tells a human story of a very human girl/woman (albeit one who can talk to/see gods and ghosts). I’d definitely recommend it to anyone, but especially lovers of paranormal, supernatural, fantasy, urban fantasy above all else.

Audio Note: Catherine Ho does an excellent job bringing Jessamyn Toeh to life! There were a few minor missteps, but I’d chalk those up to being “how do I relate this feeling simply through words” rather than anything the narrator could’ve improved on. I read Black Water Sister as an audiobook in just under three days, and cannot recommend it in this format enough! I can’t wait to see more of Zen Cho and Catherine Ho in the future!

Salvation – by Peter F. Hamilton (Review)

Salvation Sequence #1

Space Opera, Scifi

Pan; September 6, 2018 (UK)
Del Rey; September 4, 2018 (US)

552 pages (hardcover)
19hr 3m (audiobook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2.5 / 5 ✪

Salvation begins another Peter F. Hamilton special: a grand space opera where humanity has expanded across the stars via wormholes. As always, this grand plan is very complex, very detailed, and prone to convolution. In fact, Salvation may be the best example of this out of all his work to date. Let me explain.

The Olyix were welcomed to Earth during our brightest hour—a Golden Age of effective human immortality where our influence spans the universe, and our colonies stretch across the stars. They required fuel for their pilgrimage across the galaxy—for which they offered to help advance our technology with their own. But is this another instance of humanity’s hubris sure to bring about our downfall, or is it a friendship that will last until the end of time as the resulting empire spans the stars?

Only time will tell.

AD 2204

When an alien shipwreck is discovered on a planet at the edge of human-explored space, its cargo finishes what its very existence began in raising a few eyebrows. The cargo however, stokes humanity’s wildest dreams, and their most terrible nightmares.

17 humans, taken from Earth, held in suspended animation, bound for and taken by an unknown threat that at the very least was not human.

Security Director Feriton Kayne is tasked with investigating this anomaly—and he handpicks a team to help him assess this threat. Kandara Martinez, corporate mercenary; Yuri Alister, Kayne’s director and architect of the whole mission; Loi Zangari, Alister’s technical advisor; Alik Monday, FBI Special Detective; Callum Hepburn, senior advisor within the Utopial culture orbiting Akitha; Eldlund, Hepburn’s utopial assistant, genetically altered to be both male and female; Jessika Mye, Hepburn’s second assistant and renowned exobiologist. And, of course, Kayne himself. Together, the eight form the most impressive team the director could imagine—he just hopes it will be enough.

Kayne needs every member of the team if he’s to address this new threat. All of them, but especially one vital member. He doesn’t know which member this is, exactly, but he does know one thing about them: they’re not human.

THE FAR FUTURE

Dellian and Yirella lead a team of genetically engineered super-soldiers with but one purpose in life: to confront and destroy their most hated enemy, the one that caused mankind’s near-extinction and resulting flight across the stars. Their goal is simple: destroy the enemy. Otherwise, humanity will be wiped from existence.

Salvation is the kind of story you’d never see from a debut author. The way it is told—through extended narratives and flashbacks, occurrences in 3+ different timelines with a story that constant jumps between them, and threads that didn’t seem to relate at all right up until the end—makes it so tortuous, and in many ways convoluted, pretty much assures that no mainstream publisher would touch it. But if you’re Peter F. Hamilton; established, famed, known for stories that span multiple time-periods, and a love of wormhole technology—well, you can get away with such things.

It’s not that Salvation tells a rotten story—the plot is very immersive and entertaining, at times—it’s just that it’s really hard to see just where the author is going with it, and incredibly easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the author’s narrative. Upon picking it up, I was spellbound for a time, but it soon wore off.

See, it’s the way this is told that’s the problem. The Assessment Team occupies the majority of the text. But their plot is divided between the present day (AD 2204) and the stories they tell about their experiences in the past (i.e. why Kayne has chosen them for the team), which can be set anywhere from 2092 to 2199 AD. These stories averaged about 2.5 hours per chapter, or 75 pages, but in the case of Callum-Yuri: Head to Head lasted over 5 hours. While these tangents were often quite interesting, they had mostly little to do with the overarching plot. In fact, it was Callum/Yuri’s that was the biggest issue. Set 60 pages into the book, this flashback lasted over 150 pages, so when I got back to what was happening at the present, around 6 hours had passed.

Now you may have noticed that my math didn’t exactly square up in that last example. This is because while the story jumps in time between the Assessment Team’s present and past, it also jumps between the Assessment Team’s narration and events in the far future, following a team of super-soldiers. So imagine you’re less than one-tenth of the way into a book: the plot has just got going, the setting keeps changing, and time has jumped from the present to the far future and back once or twice. Now, you spend the next quarter of the text off in a random memory that doesn’t connect to anything you’ve read thus far. And then you’re back in the future, where it expects you to remember what the hell is going on.

I enjoyed the stories. I enjoyed the book, to a point. I mean, that’s the only reason I finished the stupid thing (that and I’ve heard the second is much more linear). But I couldn’t for the life of me remember what was going on. It was infuriating.

The sheer disconnected nature of this book requires either intense patience and fortitude, fond familiarity with the author, or a complete leap of faith on the reader’s part. The sheer size of this is also an impediment—I mean, this was an interesting book; the life stories of each of the characters, the grand plan coming together thread by thread, the situation in the present indicating at least some of the crew had survived that long. But damned if it didn’t take its damn time getting to the point. I was interested in everyone’s stories, but taking them like that—while just abandoning whatever plot there was—was an incredibly bold, arrogant and stupid move.

TL;DR

So, I’ve heard good things about the second book in the Salvation Sequence—Salvation Lost. And I do plan to continue with the series. Those who’ve read to the point might be surprised, but there are a couple reasons. First off, I actually left Salvation wondering what was going to happen next. Second, I legitimately enjoyed the story. Third—and most importantly—I’ve heard that Book #2 is much more linear. There are still time-skips to the future, but these are spread out between 4-6 chapters set in the present, with nary a flashback in sight. If you just skipped to this point: yeah, I kinda don’t blame you. I went off on a pretty good rant there, but this book deserved it. I maintain that the author never would’ve gotten away with publishing this mess had he not already been well-established and much-loved. So, instead of rehashing my thoughts, here’s this: If you’ve not read Peter F. Hamilton before—DO NOT READ THIS BOOK! GO back and read some of his other stuff first. If you’ve read some Peter F. Hamilton and are familiar with the way he does things, and you’re a fan of space opera, and long drawn-out stories, and don’t mind a time-skip or two—go ahead and pick this one up.

Audio Note: As always, the narration by John Lee was amazing. Heck, it probably rescued this one from the embers of what should’ve been a fire long dead. He was likely the only reason I continued with this story, and even then I had to switch between reading the hardcover (where I focused on the far future) and listening to him narrate the exploits of the Assessment Team. If you’re not familiar with John Lee, dude is a legend. He’s the reader for all the Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds space opera. I would totally recommend giving him a try. Just, maybe, not this book.

How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying – by Frank Hyman (Review)

Guide

Story Publishing LLC; October 5, 2021

256 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.7 / 5 ✪

I was kindly granted an ARC in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my opinion. All opinions are my own.

I don’t review a whole lot of guides.

In fact, I don’t review a whole lot of non-speculative fiction. Mostly what I read is science fiction or fantasy. Then come mysteries, thrillers, or young adult, which I do every now and then. Then the occasional horror, or adventure. Very occasionally I read science books, mostly astronomy or archaeology. The point is… Don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a guide before.

Well, this’ll be a first.

“How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying” is quite the mouthful, but most guides are. Yes, it even has a longer name—did you want to see that? Sigh, well. It’s “How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Identifying 29 Wild, Edible Mushrooms”. Now that’s a title. But again, most are. Otherwise they’ll be just one word, like “Change” or “Dust” or “Mushroom”, that sound cool and chic and all, but don’t actually explain what it is they focus on. Usually these will keep you in the dark until you’re halfway through—or have given up and moved on to something less abstract. This title here isn’t too abstract. In fact, it tells you exactly what this book is about, and what wisdom it hopes to impart. Namely, how to forage for mushrooms. Without dying.

Originally, I had just planned to review this by saying I’d foraged for mushrooms and not died. Problem is, I read this at the start of winter. And I live in the Rockies. Most mushrooms in this book aren’t found in the Rockies. Like, at all. The ones that are have seasonal availability, but uniformly aren’t present in winter. Except for Oyster Mushrooms. I know they grow in winter because I’ve found them before. The thing is, I’m not about to go out in the cold and snow just to find them. Guess I’m just not that dedicated. Plus I get cold easily.

I received a free ebook copy of this in exchange for an honest review. But… I liked what I saw so much that I wanted an actual print copy. To like, take with me. While foraging. (Also, I kinda thought that color pictures would be nice, and with mushrooms I don’t like to take chances.)

Luckily, the author of this doesn’t like taking unnecessary chances either. As such, he’s only included mushrooms that are easily identified, plentiful, and don’t share characteristics with any poisonous fungus. See, this isn’t an end-all guide. It’s very much a beginner’s guide—for beginners. I may have been foraging before, but I’m very much not an expert.

In the beginning, the author (Frank Hyman) explains the concept of mushrooms. Their structure, growth, reproduction—things like that. It’s all very basic, and he doesn’t go into great detail. Again, this is a beginner’s guide. If you want to know more, ask a mycologist. Or get a thicker book. Or both. After the chapter on getting to know mushrooms, there’s a “how to” chapter on foraging. It turns out that even with mushrooms that are edible, you need to be careful about how you cut them, store them, otherwise they might still make you sick. Three important points I picked up from this include: 1) if you’re not sure what it is, don’t eat it. This one seems straightforward, but bears repeating. Don’t eat it unless you’re as sure as sure can be. 2) even if you are sure you know what it is, only eat a little. At first, at least. If it doesn’t kill you, doesn’t make you sick, you can always try more. But there’s no reason to overdo it. In mycology, as in most things, a little caution can’t hurt. 3) try to store your mushrooms in a paper poke, or on ice. This will keep the fungus fresh longer. You know when you get mushrooms from the store and put them in the fridge for a few days and after a little, they get these soft, greyish, bad looking spots on them? Yeah, those are actually another kind of fungus or mold that can make you sick if you eat it raw. It’s more prevalent on wild mushrooms, but still. Anyway, there are more tips and tricks inside.

The third chapter gets to the heart of the matter. Foraging. Mushrooms. What to look for, how to identify, how to double-check, where to find and in what season, how to cut, cook, and preserve. The next three chapters deal with foragables—detailing different kinds of mushrooms and what will help you find them.

The next chapter is brief, but important. It shows you some commonplace, but vital, mushrooms to avoid. Ones that will make you sick if eaten. Or maybe even kill you. I would’ve liked to see this section farther away from the edible mushroom one, though it still slaps icons and X’s all over the place to help avoid confusion.

The next two chapters deal with cooking and preserving, and an overview of the various tools of the trade that will help with mushroom harvest. These are more of an afterthought to the beginner (to me, at least), as you can only get so into something before you’ve actually done it. Foraging comes first. If you’re serious about it, you can worry about the tools and the recipes later. The final chapter concerns where to go from here. If you enjoyed the book and the foraging, it suggests further guides, books, and reference materials. If you didn’t, well, you’ll still have this one guide in case you ever want to try again!

I’d definitely recommend this guide (though only so much as I haven’t used it in the field yet) to anyone interested in the basics of foraging. I’ll be sure and post a followup once I actually do use it in the field, but in this one case I think I can definitely say that I’d prefer the physical copy over the ebook. Ease of access is import here; being able to flip through the book without having to worry overly about the wet or damp or dirt (there are some nice water-resistant glossy pages in its paper form), but a more important aspect is the pictures themselves. My e-reader, while useful, doesn’t do color. I put a copy on my phone, but it wasn’t great for showing the whole picture, the text, and the detail in a helpful manner. A tablet would work, but would also be clunkier. Nope, I’d recommend the paper copy if you mean to use this in the field—without dying.

That’s it for now, but I’ll definitely get back to you after using this to forage in the wild. Hopefully still with no dying.

Note: Frank Hyman also has a book about ways to keep your chickens happy and laying. There’s more on his website if you want to check it out. I didn’t, but there are way too many wild predators in my neighborhood to keep any chickens happy. Also, like, alive.

Lord of Ashes – by Richard S. Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Headline Publishing; May 7, 2015

341 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for Books 1 & 2 of the Steelhaven trilogy. Also language and violence.

Review of Herald of the StormReview of The Shattered Crown

One very important note on this series: it’s called the Steelhaven trilogy for a reason. Yes, the characters take center stage, but wherever they are and whatever they’re doing—the city is always around them. It is in every shot, every scene, every moment. While the story may wend back and forth between the POV of all the characters, it’s the City of Steelhaven that the series is concerned with. And this is more important than ever, for the moment we’ve been waiting the entire series to see has arrived: Amon Tugha, displaced prince and would-be King of the Riverlands has come to pluck the jewel for his crown.

As his army sets up before the city gates, despair covers Steelhaven like a blanket. There is no escape from this battle. For there will be a battle; Amon Tugha’s forces are not content to simply starve the defenders out. They mean to take the city by force—whatever the cost.

Waylian hasn’t slept in days. But with the army on the city’s doorstep, there is much to do—not that he understands any of it. But his mistress thinks it’s important, so Waylian is quick enough to try it. The worst that can happen is he’ll die painfully, and after all, there’s always been a pretty good chance of that happening.

Rag has survived, somehow. But with the city sure to fall, it can’t be for much longer. When the Guild calls on her to complete a task, what can she say? While this new job will most likely get her killed, with the city locked up tight there are even less places to hide than usual—and nowhere to run.

Nobul and Regulus stand on the city walls. Around them the defenders quake in their boots, one loss away from a complete massacre. But each man means to fight til the end—one for honor, the other for blood.

Merrick has joined the Wyvern Guard, while Kaira remains beside the Queen. Together they form the elite guard for the castle itself; essentially the last line of defense. But while the Raven’s Guard may be content to wait for the enemy in their castle, Janessa is not. She has picked up her father’s sword and means to lead the city’s defense—no matter the danger.

“I think we’re fucked.”

All in all, it was a pretty good end. But it’s important to note that the trilogy is about the city itself. Vital, even. So much so that I’ve mentioned it again. See, if you go into the final book thinking that there will be a certain amount of resolution at the end… well, you might be disappointed. Steelhaven’s fate will definitely be decided. The other characters… less so. Yes, there is some resolution—most, even—but it is not universal.

Going in I thought that this was the last nail in the trilogy, but upon reaching the end I figured that it had to be like one of the JAbercrombie efforts—where subsequent books help expand upon the story of Steelhaven, and resolve some of the characters’ destinies that don’t end here. But while Ford has a couple more trilogies in the works, neither seems to have anything to do with this world. Now I could be wrong (hope I am, in fact), but I don’t think I am.

So while the end itself is a tad disappointing, the journey there is an entertaining one. Again, the characters feed off one another; their threads overlapping and interlinking and weaving in and out while coming together to complete the tapestry itself. It really is quite something to see how it all comes together. We find a few familiar (if surprising) faces, and many of our old faithful ones. Most of the sub-plots are resolved, and nothing too great is left hanging at the end. This was a good read, an entertaining one, but by no means perfect. I know I’ll see more from Ford in the future, and hope that his quality of storytelling can only improve from now on.

A must-read for readers who’ve made it this far, or for fans of the author. For anyone still on the fence… not sure what to tell you. Do you like dark, realistic fantasy where there’s no such thing as “happily ever after”? Then you might like this. But only time will tell.

If you’re interested, Engines of Empire, the first book in Ford’s new series—the Age of Uprising—comes out next week: on January 18th! Maybe check it out.

Smoke and Ashes – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Wyndham & Banerjee Mysteries #3

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Harvill Secker; June 7, 2018 (UK)
Pegasus Books; March 5, 2019 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for previous Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, or just skim the reviews of them below:

A Rising Man Review

A Necessary Evil Review

Kolkata, British India – 1921

India has become more of a home to Sam than England ever was. After his return from the Great War, at least. Still haunted by the memories of war, his friends dying all around him, and the wife he barely knew, Wyndham has known vices to cope. What started out as morphine has turned to opium, and what was initially a habit has become a full-blown addiction. But before he can attempt to kick this vice, he must see the error of his ways.

For Sam, this error takes the form of a dead Chinese man in an opium den.

At first he thinks this corpse a figment of his drug-addled imagination, but once he touches it, examines it, Wyndham is forced to reconsider. Though he can’t consider it for very long. There are police in the den, and Sam must escape unseen if he wants to keep his job. Still, even after leaving, he can’t get the corpse off his mind. Nor his obligation to the man.

And so Wyndham returns to the opium den. But there’s no corpse to be found. Instead, Sam is summoned to the scene of another grisly murder, this one an Englishman. And yet he’s struck by the manner in which the man was killed—the same that the Chinese man had been struck down the night before.

It smacks of a ritualistic killing—and is not the last body to drop before the week is out. Now Wyndham and Banerjee must find the killer and unravel the case before more bodies drop, and the killer slips away into the chaos.

As with the two British India novels before it, I was once again impressed by the scope of Smoke and Ashes, and just how well early 20th century Kolkata is reproduced. Racism and apartheid rule the city, with the Indians (treated as a lump sum) seen as generally decent workers—for colored barbarians—and bodies to die in war, but little more. The British are the undeniable saviors of the Raj, unless of course one were to ask the natives. Which one wouldn’t, of course. It’s just the kind of attitude I’d expect from the days of the Empire (or the US at that time, to be fair)—and comes across quite well in the text. The tensions, the opposition to British rule, the start of a movement against it. While the roots of this were evident in previous novels—the non-cooperation, the protests—really take form in this book. It’d be an interesting time to revisit even without the undercurrent of a murderer loose in the crowds.

Connecting the two murders takes some time, but that time is thoroughly enjoyable. Wyndham sees the Indians as people in their own right (helps that he’s in love with one of their own), and the rightful rulers of the continent besides. But while they may have a point about who should lead them, fact is that the British do. And Sam’s a native son of England, after all. So, while he’s become conflicted, it’s not difficult to tell where his loyalties lie. Banerjee is a much more conflicted case. While he and Sam are friends, the young man’s Kolkata-born and a native of the peninsula. He may work for the Empire, but it’s really hard to go against one’s family, one’s people, one’s loved ones. But so long as he and Wyndham agree on one thing, they can still work together. That the murderer must be stopped.

The mystery element of Smoke and Ashes may just be the best it’s ever been. Ritual killings. Interconnected murders. How do a Chinese man, an Englishman, and a Portuguese nurse fit together? And why would someone want them dead? This is what drives the tale. And, if I may say so, it has a satisfying conclusion. So many times you’ll reach the end of a mystery/thriller only to find the antagonist has some psychopathic logic, something that only adds up if you have one too many screws loose. The conclusion of Smoke and Ashes reveals a rather normal, human assailant, albeit one who would resort to murder.

The mystery itself, the conclusion, the ending all support the continuation of the Wyndham and Banerjee mysteries, as this may well be their strongest case yet. Still not sure it justifies the price, however. But I can do very little to ever rationalize a $17 ebook. At least in the UK it’s more reasonable: £5. But if I were you, I’d pick it up in paperback (where you can probably find it under $10), or audio, or at your local library. But you do need to pick this up—that much is for certain.

TL;DR

Smoke and Ashes is the best Wyndham and Banerjee yet. With the movement of noncooperation in the background, the race to catch a killer is all the more desperate and all the more difficult in the crowds of natives. And if India does one thing well, it’s CROWDS. A nation of over a billion (well, ~300 mil in the 1920’s), the subcontinent is packed with so many different beliefs, ethnicities, cultures, and histories that it was a powder keg even before the British arrived. Especially when factoring in that it was an incredibly RICH powder keg. The series continues to illustrate this quite well—especially when capturing the heightening tensions between all the sides. The Indian people may agree on the British Empire, but it’s only a temporary truce, and a partial one at that. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Death in the East, the 4th Wyndham & Banerjee book, is out already, although I may have to find another format to read it in, as the audio isn’t out in the US (in the Audible store, at least). As usual, the audio performance is strong, albeit with Simon Bubb replacing Malk Williams as the sole reader worldwide (Williams had previously read the US version). While I still prefer Williams’ narration (as a grittier, weathered Wyndham), Bubb is very hard to dislike.