Rabbits – by Terry Miles (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Scifi

Del Rey; June 8, 2021

432 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
Author Website
Rabbits Podcast

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Penguin, Del Rey and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Jeff Goldblum does not belong in this world.

Rabbits is the debut novel by Terry Miles. Based in the universe of a 10-part podcast by the same name, Rabbits (the book) is a standalone adventure that can be enjoyed without prior knowledge of the game. The game is everything here—not that it makes any sense. At least, not at first.

Enter K.

K is our tour guide to the world of Rabbits—a world that he’s somewhat obsessed with. Ever since the eighth iteration of the game, K’s been trying to find a way in. But with the tenth recently ended, his wait may be over.

Enter Alan Scarpio. The reclusive billionaire—also known as Californiac, winner of the 6th iteration of the game—is in Seattle, looking specifically for him. He needs K to help him fix Rabbits before the 11th iteration begins, or else the entire world may pay the price.

Only a few days after their first meeting, Scarpio disappears. And shortly after that, the 11th iteration of Rabbits begins. But something is undeniably different. Within days several experienced players have gone missing, and something begins to lash out at causality. But is it the game, or is it the universe itself that is broken? And even if K can win the game that’s not a game—will it matter?

But, as they say: Win the game, save the world.

Rabbits, above all else, is utterly addictive, entirely readable, totally immersive, and borderline nonsensical. Honestly, I’ve read few things like it. Books that I needed to keep reading—without fully understanding what the hell was going on.

At the center of this stands Rabbits (the game). It’s basically a series of incredibly unlikely events or concurrences occurring in a pattern, a pattern that leads its players down a particular path that—if they’re good enough—will lead them to something impossible. And this impossibility will do two things: first, provide them with another clue that will allow them to progress in the game; and second, make certain that they will never turn their back on Rabbits again. As I said—Rabbits is utterly addictive. No more so than to its players.

My first impression of Rabbits is that it’s like The Matrix crossed with the God Game, combined with a heavy dose of Fringe. Shortly after finishing Rabbits, I did two things. One—I started rewatching Fringe (if you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend this enough). And two—I watched the Matrix. If you haven’t seen Fringe, that’s bad enough, but if you haven’t seen the Matrix, you’ve been wasting your life. Right. Anyway. Here’s an example.

Enter the Matrix.

About six and a half minutes in, the following iconic scene begins.

Wake up, Neo…

The Matrix has you…

Follow the white rabbit.

You know what happens next. But let’s say it doesn’t. Instead of following the rabbit to a club playing Rob Zombie, let’s say he follows it to a Blockbuster. There, after losing sight of her, a display of an original copy of Michael Collins catches his eye. Of course, he buys the VHS of Michael Collins because lead man Liam Neeson once played the lead in another period piece—Rob Roy, about the folk hero, Rob Roy MacGregor. “MacGregor” being the Scottish spelling for “McGregor”. As in “Mr. McGregor”. Neo takes home the movie and watches it, but instead of Michael Collins, the tape turns out to be a copy of Looney Tunes episode “Haredevil Hare”, the cartoon which famously introduces Marvin Martian. From there, everything proceeds as you’d expect. Or does it? For after watching Haredevil Hare for the 3rd time, Neo notices a disparity between the episode he remembers and what he sees. You see, in the mockup of the Daily Snooze, the fictional newspaper which once proclaimed “Heroic Rabbit Volunteers as First Passenger”, Neo instead sees the headline “Seattle Bar Reopens After 16 years as a Mime studio”, which he uses to go to a bar, order a Harvey Wallbanger, go home with a redhead girl named Jessica, and find the “Night of the Lepus” poster she has in her flat. A movie also known as “Rabbits”. Upon removing the poster from the wall, Neo is confronted by a strange phrase, scratched into the wallpaper: “The Door is Open.” (After which, presumably he takes the blue pill, falls asleep, wakes up, and then the regular movie begins.)

And that’s a crash course on how to play Rabbits. You follow seemingly random yet somewhat connected clues around the city, until they lead you to another clue, an impossibility, or a mention of the word “Rabbits”. The phrase “The Door is Open” is also popular, so that’s there too. And on and on the rabbit-hole goes until eventually you either win, die, go insane, or crash from lack of sleep, malnutrition, scurvy, and whatever else.

But with the uncertainty here regarding the improbability of patterns and events, just how sure can you be that you’re playing the game? Well… you can’t. At all. And while the patterns and clues and chase makes Rabbits an intoxicating read, the uncertainty and obscurity makes it incredibly frustrating.

For the longest time, I had no idea what exactly was going on in Rabbits. I had absolutely no trouble reading on, because I wanted to figure out where it was all leading. The good news is that as the story progresses, you’ll eventually get a better sense of how Rabbits works. Once you do, it’s a pretty thrilling adventure.

That is, until the conclusion, which goes a bit strange. Well, stranger. Think the Matrix: Revolutions crossed with the later seasons of Fringe strange. Yeah—it’s that bad. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is good. But the conclusion is nuts.

Other than the story (which I think I’ve covered quite enough), the characters are what makes a book great. The characters of Rabbits are… pretty good, actually. K is the only POV, and he’s a pretty good one. I actually came to care a good bit about K and what happened to him. The supporting cast is… a mixed bag. Mainly it’s Chloe, who is equally strong. I would’ve liked a little bit more backstory on her, but she has more than enough depth and development that I cared about her right alongside K. Otherwise, nobody else really stands out. I mean, most of the supporting cast is made up of hipsters—so “depth” might be asking too much. Or it could be that no one other than those two is around long enough to make a lasting impression. Not that they die or anything; they just fade in and out.

TL;DR

While at times a bit complex and convoluted, Rabbits is an immersive and entertaining thriller set in a near-present Earth. Though it only really features two main characters (and one POV), both are written and fleshed out quite nicely. Even after it’s over, Rabbits leaves a lasting desire for more—so much so that I immediately watched the Matrix, and then started bingeing Fringe (two of the outlets that it most reminded me of). The reason to read Rabbits, however, lies in its story. A story surrounding a game that’s so exclusive, so obscure, that it’s difficult to even know for sure that you’re playing it. But once you figure out the game that’s not a game (which you will, if you stick with it), Rabbits provides a fast, intoxicating chase down the narrow alleys and rain-slick Seattle streets. A thirst for adventure mingles with the sense of impending doom. If you fail, you might just die. But if you win—win the game, save the world.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Jenny Zemanek is the artist for this amazing cover—she actually handles all of Patrick’s covers.

Darkstar Dimension #1

Fantasy, Adventure

Self-published; October 5, 2019

236 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Min’s first command was supposed to be an easy one. The First Officer has a ship, a seasoned crew, a straightforward objective. A simple voyage of scientific discovery with a likely captaincy awaiting upon return. But somehow Min has screwed it up. And the worst thing is that she’s not even sure how.

One minute she and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal were sailing through the heavens east of New Windward. The next they are plummeting towards an unfamiliar, shadowy sea far below. For somehow the magic that powers the skyship has been drained.

Even should they survive the fall, Min and the crew will find a world of endless twilight, with an onyx sea that spans the entire horizon—and even stretches to the sky above. Here, the sable sea is filled with luminous fish, a violet and neon sun that hangs in the center of the void, and an old man that calls the dark and Tyrian dimension home.

Also, there’s a dragon the size of a small continent.

To escape the Darkstar Dimension, Min must draw upon all the lessons from her training, explore the dimension and bring all its resources to bear, hobnob with the locals, and somehow escape the hungry dragon that seems deadset on the bite-sized morsels that have stumbled into its home. And even then—it may not be enough. For who knows what secrets the Darkstar holds, and the price one must pay to learn them?

So… this was a pleasant surprise! The Darkstar Dimension is a basically a rave. A shadowy sea full of purple glowsticks and glowing fish. A bunch of people running around under a vibrant neon star, trying not to get eaten by a huge dragon. There’s mayhem, murder, mutiny—all that’s missing is trance music.

The sense of adventure is amazing. The Darkstar Dimension is a mystical and mysterious place, full of wonder and adventure to be had! And that’s even before we get to the rifts surrounding it—passageways to unique worlds, each one more interesting than the last. The Darkstar Dimension itself steals the show however, as even now I can envision this electric amethyst world when I close my eyes; swim in the oceans amidst a school of glowing fish, or hitch a ride atop a turtlemoth. I’d compare it to Doors of Sleep, but with a fantasy-theme instead of the other’s science fiction. We get to enjoy more of the adventure and wonder in this compared to Doors, as the places and sights all weave into the story quite nicely, rather than taking a backseat when the plot takes center stage.

It’s not a perfect ride, as the story is frequently too convenient, and occasionally like something out of a movie, skipping from action-sequence to action-sequence (particularly later on). Neither of these things bothered me much, though. Honestly, my biggest complaint was that time often slowed way too damned much to be realistic—something that’s done to give the characters more time to assess a situation and find a workaround. I’ve really no serious issues with The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon, and cannot wait to read the next one!

TL;DR

I picked up Flight of the Darkstar Dragon from Benedict Patrick’s Kickstarter last year. It was included along with all his Yarnsworld stories in a kinda “complete works bundle” thing. I honestly forgot I had it for a while, and didn’t know it was unrelated to the rest for even longer. After generally enjoying most of my time in his Yarnsworld novels, I expected Flight of the Darkstar Dragon to be an interesting little read, maybe even enjoyable. But I never expected it to blow me away. Where Yarnsworld focuses on the horror and the creepy folktales, Darkstar focuses instead on the adventure and the unknown. There’s still a tense atmosphere and a riveting story, but it manifests in a very different way. Rather than struggling to picture some barely-formed horror that goes bump in the night, this had me flying through violet skies on the back of a massive dragon while neon fish floated all around. Exploring new worlds and meeting new creatures while all the time anticipating the return to the lovely-rendered Darkstar Dimension afterwards. While I can’t promise you’ll like it, love it, or adore it—I will say that if your experience is anything like my own, you won’t regret the time you’ve spent in the Darkstar Dimension. And furthermore, you’ll jump at the prospect of going back. Incidentally, the Return of the Whale Fleet—Book #2 of this particular series—is currently live on Kickstarter, and it’s just a matter of time until we can return to this incredible world!

Phoenix Flame – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #2

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 2, 2021

320 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Bloomsbury Young Adult and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In many ways, Phoenix Flame manages to improve upon the mistakes made by its predecessor, shaping up both the interactions and the character development, while also maintaining the elements that I most enjoyed. Namely (somehow) the romance.

It was quite a summer for Maddie Morrow. After taking over temporary management of the Inn at Havenfall, she was able to disrupt the soul trade, humanize the Solarians, and prevent a coup. Now, with Marcus awake and back in charge, Maddie has been demoted back to #2—an move that she was equal parts crushed and relieved by. Yet with her uncle still recovering, her input is now more important than ever before. And she must do what’s best for Havenfall—no matter the cost.

And yet it’s a price she may not be willing to pay. After all, Maddie is in love with a Fiorden soldier. Mostly. There was a certain girl that made her heart skip a beat…—but she’s gone, locked away behind the Solarian gate. And Brekken is at Havenfall. Brekken, the boy that Maddie grew up and played with. Brekken, the boy that has become a man, one whom has expressed his interest in being with her. If the Inn falls between her and Brekken, what will Maddie do?

But more pressing concerns highlight the end of Maddie’s summer. The black-market trade of soul-bound silver has been disrupted, but is far from over. But now she has a lead on the illicit trade network, one that requires her to go undercover inside Fiordenkill, a winter wonderland that she’s always wanted to visit. But this visit will be rife with danger—despite the presence of a particularly distracting soldier—and Maddie must use all her cunning if she’s to end the trade, once and for all.

Too bad Maddie doesn’t have any cunning.

Seriously, it might’ve been a more interesting read if Maddie was a bit brighter, a bit more cunning, a bit darker, a bit more riské. But she’s not, and that’s that. But she’s still a teenager—young, immature, immortality-complex, dumb, all the realistic stuff. Phoenix Flame highlights a coming-of-age series, and part of growing up is learning to fail and overcome your mistakes. And Maddie makes a lot of mistakes. And that’s fine.

The story is a decent enough adventure; containing enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, yet it never blew me away or surprised me with its choices. As I’ve said before, Maddie’s maybe not the best narrator, but she’s what we’ve got, and tells the story well enough. I enjoyed the glimpses we got of Fiordenkill, but ultimately found them too few and lacking in any interesting detail. Literally all I can remember now is that the land was snowy and cold—the description and world-building really could’ve delivered more of a punch.

The magic system of Havenfall is… a letdown. To be honest, I forgot that magic was a thing for a great portion of the text, only for Maddie to use it once near the end and immediately drop the subject. I remember in the first book how she discovers her ability and uses it to overcome the Silver Prince. It was a surprise and a joy to her. Not so much in Phoenix Flame. No “she practiced to improve her skill” or “she still marveled in her use of magic”. Not even “oh, she had magic, too”. It’s just not mentioned. As for what and how it works… I dunno. That’s never explained, either. It’s just another missing piece in what could’ve turned out to be a great story.

The romance continues to be the main draw of the series, a phrase that continues to baffle me. Young love burns bright—and Maddie’s love life is achingly familiar, in an awkward teenage sort of way. It reminded me of my first love: the prickle of heat surrounding every stolen moment; the burning embarrassment of pretty much anything else; the indecision, the constant turmoil of emotions, the lack of anything approaching experience akin to being tossed in the ocean with a tiger strapped to your chest. Instead of the gawky, awkward, cringey, will-they won’t-they of normal YA romances, so far Sara Holland has managed to capture the nostalgia that comes with your first crush, your first love (at least, for me). There’s still plenty of awkwardness, but it’s all on a learning curve. And both Brekken and Taya create plenty of opportunities to learn, though each in different ways.

TL;DR

Phoenix Flame is the second book in the Havenfall series, and manages to build on the relative successes of Havenfall, while simultaneously correcting some of its mistakes. The story is solid but won’t blow you away with its inventiveness. The plot is interesting, with a few twists and turns and decent character development. The world-building and description continues to leave something to be desired, and the whole fantasy aspect of this fantasy book needs some serious work. As in Book #1, the main allure of Phoenix Flame lies in its romance. A bundle of emotions and no idea what to do with them made me nostalgic for my youth—but unlike the cringe-worthy, awkward, fumbling experience I’m used to seeing in YA lit, this provided something more thoughtful, more delicate, more unique. And I’m completely surprised that I continue to recommend this serious for its romance. While the story and description and characters still could use some improvement—young love continues to impress.

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (Review)

Cover by Kieryn Taylor

Untitled #1 / Standalone

Scifi, Romance

Angry Robot; November 10, 2020

297 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.2 / 5 ✪

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

Halvor Cullen was not born but made—grown in a tank until the age of twelve, then trained to fight and kill and die for those that made him, the ACAS. After his seven years of mandatory military service, Hal washed out, as all VATs do. For there he was expected to continue fighting and kill up until he bit it, while trying to fill the void within, mostly with drugs. Instead Hal joined up with his old CO, taking off to salvage the edge of the galaxy for advanced tech.

During one of his layovers in central space, Hal meets Vivian Valjean, a tecker trying to escape her old life and her old mistakes—most recently a man named Noah. Through a series of circumstances, Vivi ends up accompanying the crew on a mission—and the rest is history. But between the discovery of an alien sphere, trouble with the ACAS, and a deadly assassin, possibly the most interesting development is between Hal and Vivi. For what happens when a natural born human and a VAT super-soldier fall in love? I guess we’ll find out—that is, if either of them live long enough.

The Rush’s Edge is the debut novel from author Ginger Smith, part science fiction, part romance with action, adventure, space opera, and cyberpunk elements all thrown in. If this sounds like a lot—that’s because it is. If it sounds too good to be true—again, yeah. The Rush’s Edge tries too hard to be too much, and ultimately topples beneath its own grand desire.

My main problem with the Rush’s Edge, was how it was sold to me. I was sold an epic space adventure with “a little bit of romance, a smudge of aliens, and a whole lot of butt-kicking”. And to be fair—we got all of that. What I expected though, was a complete story. And didn’t necessarily get this.

The Rush’s Edge IS a complete story in the way that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a complete story. Just where the latter tells you up front that this is a tale of how people become a family with some space-exploration-y elements, the former kinda makes you find that out on your own. Now, if I’d been sold “it’s basically like the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, that’d’ve been great! While Becky Chamber’s first book wasn’t a masterpiece, it was quite a good read. But between wondering if it was setting me up for a sequel or cliffhanger and then reaching the end with none of these questions actually answered… the Rush’s Edge didn’t captivate me in quite the same manner.

The conclusion also drew on quite a few overused clichés, which I really would’ve ditched. And I DO understand that when you’re writing something and decide to throw in a few classic plot twists you never want to think they’re cliché. But sometimes they are. Instead I would’ve liked to see the author try something different—maybe it’d work, maybe it wouldn’t—because, as they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “you’ll never succeed if you don’t try”.

The POV can change from paragraph to paragraph, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is talking/thinking, unless it’s explicitly mentioned. While this does allow the author to include several characters’ perspectives on any situation at almost any time (so long as they’re present), I’ve always found it incredibly frustrating to switch back and forward without knowing exactly when.

It’s really kinda science light fiction. There’re spaceships, yes, but there’s no explanation on how they travel between the stars. Do they use a hyperdrive? Faster than light travel? Wormholes? Instant transmission? We don’t know—it’s not explained, or mentioned. They just leave and… then they’re somewhere else. It must be some kinda faster than light travel, but we’re not told, which is a disappointment. While I realize not every science fiction tale is heavy on science, I would’ve liked to see more—but I’m like that.

Even if the action falls a bit flat, it’s the story that steals the show—specifically the romance between Hal and Vivi. One a natural born human, the other a vat grown super-solider; while it sounds kinda silly, it’s difficult to put into words just how much it’ll pull at your heartstrings. My main problem with the romance is that I don’t really read a book specifically FOR the romance, so when it’s the most entertaining element, there’s probably some things wrong. That being said (again), if this had been pitched as a becoming-a-family, Wayfarers-type story: I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been sold. Just leave off the (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) action-elements, the fights, the mysterious conflicts and battles that I can’t get into without spoilers. The alien presence can stay as it (minor spoilers) isn’t really the focus of the story. The romance isn’t really all that romance-y, even. It’s a bit as if the author didn’t want to sell out on romance, but then sold out on action instead. So now there’s not even enough of a romantic element to carry the story entirely on its own.

While overall I enjoyed the Rush’s Edge, there were definitely some issues with it. But it WAS a debut after all, so some of these an be forgiven. If I was to offer the author some advice: leave off on some of the overused tropes—they don’t add anything. Tell your own story—if it’s a thriller, then go action; if it’s a romance, then go romance. The Rush’s Edge is like a romance that tries to go all in on action—and just fails.

TL;DR

The Rush’s Edge is a debut that blends science fiction with romance, attempting to weave the tale of an unlikely romance between a natural born victimized woman and a vat grown super-soldier. It reads kind of like a Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—where it’s more about the voyage than the destination, how the ending doesn’t matter as much as how we got there, and the ideals of family, love, and hope steal the show. As a heartwarming romance, it kinda works. As an action-adventure, it doesn’t. The action is overused and the adventure is incomplete. The science fiction is mostly fiction, with just the occasional science cameo. For a debut—it’s okay. Tries too hard to be too many things, play too many hands. Uses far too many cliché tropes. But these are to be expected. I just wish they weren’t.

Scifi Month ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Seven Swords #2

Fantasy, Epic

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2020

136 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Second entry in the Seven Swords reunites us with Pilgrim and Seeker, fresh off their battle in the Execration against a mad god. While the Seeker remains shrouded in mystery, her path forward has become clear. She seeks a certain girl, sold into slavery, one that bears a striking resemblance to she herself. The Pilgrim however, has been unmasked. Guyime, known to history as the Ravager, seeks the Seven Swords—a collection of demon blades that imbue their wielders with power and unnaturally long life. A life that Guyime would escape.

But to do that he must travel to Carthula and claim the Kraken’s Tooth, a mythical sword said to be lodged in the heart of a long dead Kraken. Accompanying him on this fool’s errand are: Seeker, whose path seems to parallel his own, for now; a powerful sorceress from an equally powerful clan; and her’s father’s slave, a man that never forgets anything he’s ever learned. But will this trio be enough to help Guyime through a maze built from his worst nightmares and memories, or will this fellowship crumble once their quarry is in sight?

Other than the previous Pilgrimage of Swords, the Kraken’s Tooth has nothing to do with any of Ryan’s other work (that I know of, at least). As with the first, I wouldn’t’ve minded a full novel dedicated to this, though it works well enough as an installment of novellas. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, particularly those I’ve seen from the author, but these two have so far broken the mold. Kraken’s Tooth tells a complete story, with no skimping on plot or fantasy. It’s light on details, yet still manages to convey more than enough to paint the Seven Swords in vibrant colors. I had no issue getting into or following the story, and if anything even less imagining it. Any character development does suffer from the lack of material, with details such as interpersonal relationships, reliability or anything more than brief flashbacks are absent. The characters themselves might as well be mannequins, except for Guyime, who has overcome his stoicism from Book #1 and now just seems gruff and distant (and maybe Seeker, who I’m assuming is supposed to just be mysterious, though it’s difficult to tell).

Other than the character aspect, I had no problem getting through Kraken’s Tooth. There was more than enough action and adventure to entertain, while the story holds a political undertone and throws in a bit of mystery and drama that didn’t hurt either. And as I’ve already mentioned, the world is well rendered—with just enough detail left out that the Carthula I imagined likely won’t be the same as anyone else’s—while still getting the most important aspects of the story across. It may be imperfect, but I’d definitely recommend the Seven Swords to any fan of mainstream fantasy, epic, grimdark, and more. I can’t wait to read the next installment and see where the story takes us next!

The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

I prefer the UK cover version, but that’s just me

The Raven’s Blade #2

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit; July 28, 2020 (UK)
Ace; August 4, 2020 (US)

498 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware Spoilers for the Wolf’s Call and minor spoilers for the Raven’s Shadow trilogy.

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

The Stahlhast have laid waste to an entire continent en route to the Merchant Kingdoms of the far east. Kehlbrand, the true Darkblade, thinks himself a living god—though his divine power comes from his connection to a certain stone, one that is inured with the Dark. With this power he controls a vast army of fanatics and mercenaries, murders and rapists, along with the righteous and those simply seeking glory. Together they’ve proved unstoppable, carving a trail of blood and ashes from sea to sea. And nothing can stop their conquest of the Merchant Kingdoms, and maybe even the entire world.

Nothing, except maybe Vaelin Al Sorna.

Known to the Darkblade as the “Thief of Names”, Vaelin has yet to prove much more of an annoyance than a gnat provides to a dinosaur. But with his allies on the run, his own army in disarray, and one of his truest friends dying; the tides are about to turn. For the Blood Song—the same song he lost so many years before—is again within reach. For with his last breath, Ahm Lin has offered up his own blood so that Vaelin can regain this precious gift. A gift he cannot face the Darkblade without.

But when Vaelin drinks his blood, the song that comes is not his own. It is vile and tainted, a tune that demands death above all else: a Black Song. But while this gift might yet save the world from the Darkblade, it will surely doom Vaelin Al Sorna.

My history with Vaelin is somewhat complicated. I loved my introduction to the Fifth Order back in 2013, and Blood Song is still one of my favorite books. Tower Lord, on the other hand, was… okay. Not a bad read, but not great, either. But when compared (and as a successor) to Blood Song—it was terrible. I honestly hated the turn the series had taken so much that I didn’t even bother to read Queen of Fire. Still haven’t, even.

When Anthony Ryan chose to return Vaelin as the sole lead last year, I was cautiously optimistic. Optimism was quickly followed by relief and love. While I didn’t like the Wolf’s Call quite as much as Blood Song, it was a damn good read. The Black Song is to the Wolf’s Call that the Wolf’s Call was to Blood Song. That is—it’s a great read, but not quite as good. But not anywhere near the disaster that I found Tower Lord.

The world-building itself is kinda lazy. It borrows very heavily upon earth itself. The Stahlhast and Steppe parallel the Mongols and their Steppe. The Merchant Kingdoms (and Cantons) represent China, Japan, Korea and the like, down to their very names and historic attitudes. The Opal Islands are a continuation of South Asia to even Oceana, with their jungle and mythical beasts.

The setting is similarly lame. It’s pretty much the Mongoliad in the world of the Raven. An unstoppable horde rolls over everything in its path, in its quest to conquer the world. The living god, the connection to the Dark, the later stages of the book—all these are new and interesting. I was more forgiving of this in the first book because of the Steppe. I’ve always been a sucker for Mongolian and Tibetan culture and civ. While I like China and Japan and such too, it’s harder to avoid the comparisons now, and how they’re pretty much just the same civs with different names. Like, all of them.

It’s the same great story, though. Vaelin is a little more stoic than he was at the beginning, but nowhere near as cold and aloof as we saw in Tower Lord. The Song itself is intriguing. Rather than an old friend come home, it’s a different tune—one that takes a different telling—something that demands chaos and blood, instead of the orderly one seen in the first trilogy. Where Al Sorna has changed, the Song has as well, and it lends a different… vibe to everything. Where the Wolf’s Call dipped into the iron will and horse culture of the Steppe, the Black Song is definitely a book about kings, emperors, and courtly politics. I mean, it’s not ALL politics or anything. If it was, I wouldn’t’ve read it. There’s action, violence, intrigue, adventure and more—but there’s also courtly etiquette and politics.

My favorite part of the book is Part 3, where we explore the Opal Islands a bit. Due to spoilers, I obviously can’t go into much detail, but there’s jungle, myth and legend, the unknown, and adventure galore. The ending is truly innovative, but can also come off as odd. I mean, a lot of the stuff in Part 3 caught me by surprise, but not in a bad way. It even feels an adventure at times—which I loved, but that’s me. It reminded me of Uncharted (the game) where… actually, never mind, I can’t because spoilers. Sufficient to say it has a different vibe than the other two parts and leave it at that.

TL;DR

The conclusion to the Raven’s Blade duology, the Black Song introduces some new plot mechanics, characters and settings, while retaining the war, antagonist, and overall feel of the Wolf’s Call. With a great story and excellent protagonist in Vaelin Al Sorna, it’s a book I could read over and over happily enough for years to come. While a much better successor to the Wolf’s Call than Tower Lord was to Blood Song—the Black Song isn’t perfect by any means. The setting and world-building are honestly just lazy. As we explore what’s pretty much just Asia, there’s much to take in. Politics mingle with action and war; violence, bloodshed and courtly pandering alternating in a pleasant mix. Despite the near-constant change in setting, I never felt the pacing lag, nor did the story ever bore me. It was good, consistent, and Al Sorna-y. A must read for all Vaelin Al Sorna fans—if you liked Wolf’s Call, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Brightstorm – by Vashti Hardy (Review)

Sky-Ship Adventure #1

Middle Grade, Steampunk, YA, Adventure

Scholastic; March 1, 2018 (UK)

Norton Young Readers; March 17, 2020 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Norton and NetGalley for the ARC!

Brightstorm is the debut novel from middle grade author Vashti Hardy. Set in an alternate London (called “Lontown”), it follows a set of twins, Arthur and Maddie, born of adventurer Ernest Brightstorm, who must retrace the steps of his final adventure in order to clear their family name.

When adventure twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm receive word that their father has been killed while attempting to reach South Polaris, they think that life can’t get much worse. But, when he is accused of attempted sabotage and disowned by the explorer community, they find out that this nightmare can get even worse. Stripped of their home and inheritance, the Brightstorms are essentially sold off by their de facto legal guardian as housekeepers to the Beggins, a malevolent pair of busybodies occupying a poorer section of Lontown known as the Drips.

In an attempt to recover their family’s honor, the twins must escape domestic servitude, get hired on another expedition to South Polaris, locate their father’s downed skyship, and clear his name. Not an easy task for anyone, but possibly more for a pair of twelve year-olds. Though instead of experience, the twins have each other—which is sure to be the greatest benefit of all.

Officially a middle-grade fantasy, Brightstorm was a fun, rousing adventure so long as I didn’t overanalyze it. So, it’s a kids’ book and I’m not an English teacher—you don’t have to overthink it. I mean, you totally CAN overthink it, but I’m not going to. It’s all good fun. That’s my review—little more needed.

While Brightstorm isn’t perfect, it’s certainly good enough. An enjoyable adventure! Arthur and Maudie are the desirable narrators for a childhood adventure story; with one boy and one girl, they can tell a nice, balanced story that most young children will relate to. That is, it COULD have been a balanced story perfect for both boys and girls, except that Arthur does all the narrating. Not that Maudie plays a bit part or anything—she shares the spotlight with Arthur, solving mechanical puzzles and problems, as well as doing a fair bit of exploration herself. She just doesn’t live the story the way Arthur does. Now, nothing away from Arthur—with his iron arm, the kid is a true survivor, someone who has overcome their so-called “limitations” to lead a rich, fulfilling life, even excelling where so many “able-bodied” people would fail. That being said, I would’ve liked to see more from Maudie’s perspective. Maybe in the next book!

The mystery is… not really very mysterious. It plays out like any starter mystery I could think of. There’s good, there’s evil, and there’s a generally solid line between the two. Likewise, the Brightstorms start low in the beginning, but life gets better the more they progress. Yes, there are a few harrowing parts, but seeing as this is a middle-grade fiction, I really wouldn’t’ve expected any harsh life-lessons at this point. Clues are collected, they all add up nicely and leave very little in the way of loose ends, and the end of the tale sets us up for the next one in a straightforward manner.

TL;DR

If you like exciting, new adventures that are above all else fun—then Brightstorm is your kind of read. This preteen steampunk adventure features a pair of twins as the protagonists, though we only ever hear from Arthur, an oversight that I hope gets corrected in the next book. We even learn a few lessons; the most obvious being that we can overcome any obstacle with friendship, resourcefulness, and sheer determination. If so far you think that this sounds like your cup of tea—then dive on in! It being an adventure with definite British overtones, I can guarantee you that you will hear some funny names and a lot about tea. Now, if you like exciting novels that tell it like it is, feature dark overtones that blur the lines between what’s right and wrong—maybe skip this. This ain’t that kind of book. It’s more straightforward, fun and adventure. Don’t read too much into it.

Don’t miss the next Sky-Ship Adventure—Darkwhispers—due out in February 2020.