The Sapphire Altar – by David Dalglish (Review)

The Vagrant Gods #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; January 10, 2022

518 pages (paperback)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

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

Please beware spoilers for the Bladed Faith, Book #1 of the Vagrant Gods. Or you can check out my review of it HERE

Newly crowned as the Vagrant—the self-proclaimed protector of Thanet—and well on his way to becoming a god, Cyrus has had enough, storming out on the rebellion and refusing to speak to Thorda ever again. On his own now, he stalks the capital streets, still enacting the Vagrant’s vengeance, driven by the grinning mask and silver crown and an ever-growing bloodlust.

More worrying still, Cyrus can now manifest the grinning mask even when he’s not wearing it. Not to mention the voices that whisper to him in the dark.

But the Vagrant isn’t the only god on Thanet.

The Heir Incarnate has arrived on the isle, ready to begin his ascendance. Rumors persist of resurrected Lycaena, now a goddess of blood and death. The slain Endarius still lives on through Mari, battling gods humbled by the Everlorn Empire. And somewhere on the island, the ghost of Dagon lurks, the former god of Thanet ready to once more reclaim his rightful place.

So many gods on such a little island. Surely they’ll play nice.

“ Some gods live on after their deaths, and some die while they yet live. “

A decent followup to the Bladed Faith, the Sapphire Altar continues the telling of Cyrus and the Vagrant’s tales in an interesting manner—however, not quite in the way I was hoping.

After the revelations of Book 1, I was hoping for a deep-dive into just what it meant to be a god. With Cyrus competing with the Vagrant’s growing influence, I expected a much more internal struggle, one that was only partly addressed in text, and not with any semblance of urgency. What I was hoping for was a spiritual journey, a mystical journey, and a reflection on what it means to be human. I had hoped this would combine with the burgeoning story of revenge to create something new and unique, and highly immersive. As it is, we get really none of the spiritual journey, glimpses of the mystical one, and the continued bloody swath of revenge from the first book. Don’t get me wrong—the Sapphire Altar is still a good read, I’d just hoped that the series was going in a different direction.

Whereas Cyrus is the focal point in the first book, in the second he splits the stage with Keles—Rayan’s daughter and former Paladin of Lycaena. Her story seemed to be… hasty. Not as well written or thought out as previous arcs; I found some of her decisions brainless if not nonsensical, but I suppose such is the same of humanity.

While I wasn’t enjoying this read as much as its predecessor, there was still the inclusion of interesting characters Rayan and Eshiel and Sinshei that kept me reading. Fortunately, at the… 65% mark everything devolved into chaos (the good kind of chaos). It was then that the story finally hit its stride. And drank me in. As weak as I found the middle of the Sapphire Altar, the end was strong enough to make up for it. Multiple jaw-dropping twists, lies and betrayal, mystery, mayhem, and more—the conclusion is packed with content. It’s just a shame that more wasn’t done to flesh the early and middle bits out; the book went from a borderline snooze to heart-pounding in just a few chapters. Needless to say, this makes the pacing seem wild and strange, and the story itself a bit episodic in its portrayal.

TL;DR

While it isn’t shaping out to be the author’s greatest series ever (I’d vote for both the Shadowdance and Keepers’ over it to be honest—though Book #3 maaay change my mind;) ), Book #2 of the Vagrant Gods delivers an interesting, ofttimes exciting adventure—immersive if you enjoyed the events of the first book and wanted nothing more than more of the same. For me, it was a bit of a letdown. I expected so much more from the relationship of Cyrus and the Vagrant: a spiritual journey into what it meant to be mortal or a god. Instead it’s the continuing tale of rebellion, with some metaphysical bits thrown in. Which is fine, just not what I was hoping for. Either way, it’s a good, entertaining, interesting read that I’d recommend for returning fans of the author and/or the Bladed Faith. Looking forward to the series’ conclusion, expected in 2024!

Episode Thirteen – by Craig DiLouie (Review)

standalone

Horror, Paranormal

Redhook; January 24, 2023

433 pages (paperback)

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8 / 10 ✪

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

Episode Thirteen takes us on an adventure with a professional ghost-hunting team as they delve into the depths of the holy grail of the paranormal. Now, while the horror genre isn’t usually my thing, this is very much my jam. And I don’t mean the ghost-hunting bit; I find those kinds of reality show boring, to be honest. I mean the depiction of a ghost-hunting TV show. From Danny Phantom to the X-Files to Cassidy Blake—I love that kinda thing.

Husband and wife duo Matt and Claire Kirklin may look like the perfect team, but beneath the surface tension is brewing. The rest of the team isn’t much better.

With an axe hanging over the show and their future unknown, these explorers get what could be their big break—the holy grail of ghost-hunting: the Paranormal Research Foundation. For Matt, this is it: the big leagues, the holy grail, the be-all and end-all. A place he’s obsessed over since his first experience with the paranormal back when he was young. He’s like a kid in a candy shop—and he can’t wait to share it with his wife, and the rest of the team.

Claire Kirklin is done. She’s sick of the gimmicks, the show, of not being taken seriously as a scientist. She just wants to quit and take a legitimate job and explore the universe of physics. She just doesn’t know how to tell Matt.

Kevin is ready to step into the spotlight. Ex-Cop turned paranormal investigator, he’s been pushing Matt to let him do things his way for years. And with the axe coming down, his boss is finally ready to listen. Jessica is the only professional actor on the team, having taken the job to bolster her resumé. She doesn’t know what to think of the crazy white people and their ghosts—she just wants to make enough money to support her little one and make a name for herself in the process. So she smiles and screams and plays nice for the camera, all while nothing happens all around them. Jake is a professional. The cameraman, filming is his bread and butter. He’d follow Matt into Hell for a good shot, though he doesn’t really buy into the paranormal. At least, not yet.

But then the Paranormal Research Foundation comes a’calling. And everything goes to shit.

When it comes to the spirit world, I accept that nothing is certain. I also accept that anything is possible.

Told through a series of journals, interviews, b-roll, research files, and assorted bits and pieces, Episode Thirteen was not hard to read, nor to fall into. Like the Themis Files (by Sylvain Neuvel) in structure, I found it to be much easier to become immersed in, as I’d typically binge for a hundred pages or so after sitting down to read a chapter or two. But while there are outliers, most chapters are short. And easy to speed through. The whole book goes fairly quickly once you get into it.

The backdrop for this horror-story is definitely its strongest suit. Think of the most haunted place you can, throw in a bunch of spooky experiments and supernatural shit, ghosts, LSD, and pentagrams—and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a better candidate than the aptly-named Paranormal Research Foundation. I mean, that’s probably why the author invented it—though the name is rather dull. A creepy, abandoned husk full of graffiti and broken bottles and a disturbing history of fringe science. The atmosphere only ups the tension and desperation, perfect for such a tale.

The characters of Episode Thirteen are just a bonus. No, I didn’t like them all. Honestly, I didn’t really love any one of them too much. Matt and Kevin are true believers, while Claire and Jessica are beyond skeptical. Jake is just there to film. While we’ll get further and further into their backstories and lives later in the book, for a while they’re just bland specters rounding out a doomed TV team. Only they do flesh out. And then everything just kinda… clicks. The tension, the atmosphere, the creepiness—even the excitement is infectious.

As is typical with horror stories, I found the ending a bit of a letdown. But that’s a common thing for me; I like the build-up, the tension, the atmosphere, the world-building, and then the big reveal comes about and it just… loses me. I will say that this big reveal was a doozy. While I was disappointed with the aftermath, I legitimately can’t say I saw that certain twist coming. It was crazy! I’m just not sure how exactly I felt about it.

For as strange a read as this was, the pacing was equally weird. Sometimes it raced along at breakneck speed—but then we fucked off for doughnuts. And drank and talked about our feelings and insecurities and… I mean, it was normal, everyday life stuff in many ways, but… as a book plot? And then something eerie came out of nowhere and the pace shot back up to breakneck in a heartbeat. It was just… odd.

TL;DR

Read Episode Thirteen for the paranormal, the supernatural, the ghouls and ghosts (mainly the ghosts), the LSD, the experiments, the fringe science, the tension, the atmosphere, the darkness and depth of it all. Don’t read Episode Thirteen is you hate horror. I mean, horror usually bores me, but I can’t deny it has a powerful atmosphere. Which the specific way of telling lends an air to. Told through a series of journal entries, b-roll, interviews, and more, Episode Thirteen was never hard to read, easier to get immersed in, and one heck of a ride from start to finish. While horror isn’t usually my jam, I’d be hard-pressed not to recommend this one to both the long-standing fans and the uninitiated.

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

standalone

Memoir, Science

Random House; July 27, 2021

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

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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.

City of Last Chances – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

standalone

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Head of Zeus; December 8, 2022

545 pages (ebook)

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9 / 10 ✪

” You’re a learned man. Please tell me where the word ‘negotiate’ can be found within ‘unconditional surrender’. “

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

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the more frustrating authors I can think of, as I’m constantly thinking “I need to read more of his stuff”, only to go and acquire some and then give up halfway through. You see, he has an issue of letting his politics and personal beliefs bleed too heavily into his fiction. From there the book just becomes one gigantic rant—which is not something I need more of in my life. It’s not that I disagree with his opinion; it’s that I don’t need to hear it constantly justified in a supposed escapist fantasy.

Enter City of Last Chances, a dark fantasy set in a city of the brink of revolution.

Ilmar, some say, is the worst place in the world. A city swollen with refugees, the once-great metropolis has fallen on hard times, even before it fell to the Palleseen Empire. With the heavy-handed occupation now in its third year, the populace

Ilmar,
City of Long Shadows;
City of Bad Decisions;
City of Last Chances.

An industrial city swollen with refugees, Ilmar is truly a melting pot. Or, it was—before the war. Three years prior, Ilmar fell to the Palleseen Sway. Since then, their heavy-handed occupation has begun to chafe. Religion of any kind is forbidden in the Sway, and all priests and clerics are rounded up and summarily executed. Only after their faith is decanted and used to eliminate their deities.

Language is censored as well, with Palleseen officially replacing all other tongues as the staple in businesses, schools, and streets. The Pals seek perfection in all things, and under their rule all the messy differences of the world shall become one.

There are two exceptions, however, problems that the Pals are desperate to snuff out. The first, is the Anchorwood: a once great forest now reduced to but a single grove. This copse holds the secret of another place, for when the moon is full and the shadow of the trees stretches to its greatest point the boscage becomes a portal to another place—an escape for those desperate, or an opportunity for those ambitious enough to take it. Somewhere, on the other side of this portal, lies a city. A realm set at the edge of the world. Or maybe, set on an entirely different world entirely. This place is the home of the Indwellers—and it’s a place the Sway will do anything to reach. Except the path is not an easy one, and is inhabited by monsters—which can only be held at bay through the use of highly specialized wards, which are both rare and expensive.

When a Palleseen higher-up dies in the Anchorwood, there’s more than enough blame to go around. Specifically the whereabouts of his stolen ward and the thief that took it. Also, there is the issue of his assistant—who fled the Wood, followed by a certain kind of monster only found in nightmares. The two were last seen headed towards the Reproach: the second of Ilmar’s dirty secrets.

Where the Anchorwood is a portal to another place full of monsters, the Reproach is a homegrown monstrosity. A borough of Ilmar corrupted and cursed, a place even the Pals fear enough to avoid so much as mentioning it. But now an expedition is assembled to rescue the assistant and (hopefully) retrieve the wards. Only these two acts can hope to right the ship before the city boils over. But only a fool, a wretch, or a madman would venture willingly into the Reproach. Luckily, If it’s one thing that Ilmar has a surplus of, it’s the desperate.

There has always been a darkness in Ilmar. You cannot live with those neighbors without taking something of the dark between the trees into you.

At some point in the middle of this, I had to stop and try to remember what the heck the plot was. In general, this isn’t a good thing, but in this case it was. Or rather… it wasn’t bad. Especially because I couldn’t recall and just had to go back to reading. City of Last Chances is a thoroughly immersive and enjoyable fantasy escape—no matter what’s going on. And there’s a lot.

Between the impending revolution and the dead bigwig there’s actually a lot. The missing wards and the resulting search plays a large role, but there’s tension in Ilmar that has nothing to do with either. Distrust and resentment abound between the factions of the city; the factory workers, the students, the various faithful, those that have given in to the Sway, the gangs and underworld, the refugees, and more. Then there’s the Anchorwood—a nice little twist, that. That on its own makes this a great story, but when you add the Reproach—that’s a wrinkle that helps turn this from a good story to a great one. There’s just so much chaos, so much going on, so many desperate and so much desperation to go around that you never know what’s going to happen next. Indeed, it’s like that with the characters too; for a while I assumed we’d never have the same POV twice, but it’s not like that. It’s just Tchaikovsky establishing that anyone can die at anytime, so don’t get too attached to anyone.

This book is so well written, and there are so many good quotes—so many!

She screamed, and Lemya was screaming too—not in pain but at him. Because this was a rescue, and if there was a Rule One of rescuing, it was not to shoot the rescuee.

While City of Last Chances is a standalone at the moment, there’s so much here that Tchaikovsky could very easily churn out a couple of sequels—either direct or set in the same world—based on the Reproach or the Anchorwood, or even the Sway and its efforts. That said, if you’re new to the author maybe don’t expect it to come to this. I mean, it might, but he writes so much standalone stuff that I wouldn’t expect it. So try to take this novel as it is: a tremendous tale set in an illustrious and darkly imagined world, full of interesting and relatable characters—…who might all perish at a moment’s notice.

It’s true, there’s very little that feels certain in this novel. The characters, the setting, the events; with everything liable to change at a moment’s notice, it lends a real sense of impermanence to everything, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it certainly distracts from the getting invested in any one particular character’s story, what it does is provides a feeling of desperation to every action, every move. As if it were really the character’s last chance. Maybe not ideal for a fun adventure, but just the kind of thing for a dark fantasy set in a desperate city.

TL;DR

From its characters to its setting, its plot to its setup, its events to its darkness, to all its amazing quotes—City of Last Chances is Adrian Tchaikovsky at his best. A tense, immersive, and often political fantasy that doesn’t get too political, nor too fantastical—though it certainly has its moments, such as the copse of trees that becomes a portal when the moon is full, or the section of the city possessed by an unknown entity from the city’s past. It’s a dark, industrial fantasy done right; the right amount of fantasy, the right amount of realism, and certainly enough escapism to get truly lost in—even if you lose track of what exactly is going on. I can’t recommend this one enough, and can only hope that this signals a turn for the coming future Tchaikovsky novels.

Top 12 Books Released in 2022

In the last list I went over my top novellas released this year. In this final list, as an homage to 2022, we’ll cover my 12 favorite new releases for this year, complete with a few honorable mentions, just before it comes to a close.

12th

Mindwalker – by Kate Dylan

ReviewGoodreads

We begin with Mindwalker, a book that I initially skipped, only to pick up on the recommendation of several reviewers touting its YA and cyberpunk themes. While it barely cracks the Top 12, this is a very good read—though maybe not as great as the rest.

11th

Return of the Whale Fleet – by Benedict Patrick

ReviewGoodreads

The latest Darkstar book was actually the one that shook up my first draft of the Top 12, as I’d completely forgotten that it released THIS year. Yeah, I know. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Return of the Whale Fleet was still an immersive and vivid ride through the Darkstar Dimension and parts beyond, while harboring an unexpected bit of darkness behind.

10th

The Martyr – by Anthony Ryan

ReviewGoodreads

“Devotion is inherently nonsensical.”

Sequel to last year’s Pariah—which snuck into the Top 5 at #4—the Martyr wasn’t quite as good, but still managed to deliver on a brilliant fantasy followup, and one of only three sequels on this year’s list (compared to five in 2021).

Honorable Mention: Black Heart

I haven’t completed all three parts of Black Heart, and as such it won’t make this list. While I did enjoy the first two parts enough that it could have been on here, I’d really like to have a somewhat sensical review of it up first—which I won’t until I finish the damned thing. So just know that yes, it’s out, and yes, it’s good, and yes, I’ll have a recommendation on what to do with/how to handle this news when I do eventually finish it. In the meantime I’d say, maybe go check it out yourself? Or have a look at the Barrow, the comics, or my reviews of any of the parts under Mark Smylie’s name here?

9th

Hide – by Kiersten White

ReviewGoodreads

In the end, twelve contestants get massages. They wear beaded masks, so they can’t see the older woman massaging then cries the whole time. She wishes the other two had allowed her to perform this kindness. It’s the only thing she can offer them, the final gift of gratitude for what they’re going to do.

A supernatural thriller from YA fantasy author Kiersten White, Hide was one of my most anticipated releases this year—and one of the rare few that I thought lived up to the hype. Sure, the characters were sometimes a bit over the top, and occasionally the choices they made weren’t great either, but humans do do stupid things and this definitely related that through. The setting—and abandoned amusement park—and the supernatural elements more than made up for anything the characters lacked, however, and I’d gladly read this one again anytime!

8th

The Oleander Sword – by Tasha Suri

ReviewGoodreads

He watched his sister walk around the ceremonial wedding fire, garbed in resplendent red, and thought, My country is dying.
He watched her bow for the garland, and thought, Our father is dying.
He watched her as she lowered her head for the wedding garland, and thought, My sister will die.
And there is nothing I can do.

My last—and highest ranked—sequel of the year cracking the Top 12, Oleander Sword capitalizes on the successes of Suri’s Jasmine Throne, while throwing some additional surprises in as well. The most unexpected of them all (for me, at least) was of a romance done right. I’m now highly anticipating the Burning Kingdoms’ finale, due in late 2023.

7th

Our Crooked Hearts – by Melissa Albert

ReviewGoodreads

So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.

This paranormal novel highlighting witches and oaths also features a mother-daughter dual POV to tell a highly interesting, immersive tale of love, life, and coming of age. If you weren’t aware that Melissa Albert’s stories often harbor a darkness within them, then you must be new or naïve—something you’re sure to grow out of soon enough.

6th

• Mickey7 – by Edward Ashton •

ReviewGoodreads

He runs both hands back through his hair. “I don’t know… I don’t know… they didn’t cover this situation in training.”
That’s the truth, anyway. Training was one hundred percent about dying. I don’t remember them dedicating much time at all to staying alive.

After a piece of science fiction about learning to love yourself, about life, love and… um, double-penetration? Well, look no further than Mickey7, a novel that truly answers the question ‘If you can, then why not?’ In addition to being interesting, often thrilling, immersive, entertaining, and funny Mickey7 doesn’t waste time trying to take itself too seriously or really even trying to address the dark, almost black humor pervading every part of it. Instead, this novel just incorporates all of these aspects into a story that is wrong on so many levels that it’s somehow so, so right.

Honorable Mentions

5th

• The Immortality Thief – by Taran Hunt •

ReviewGoodreads

There were shadows in the room, Brigid had told me; shadows that wanted to do her harm. Little shadow people, only as tall as she was, half the height our parents were. They gathered in doorways and crouched beside the dresser, and in the dead of night they came out and gathered around her beside like viewers at a funeral while she lay paralyzed.

4th

• The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah •

ReviewGoodreads

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

The second debut in the top five, the Stardust Thief is a gripping fantasy about stories, adventure, love, and finding one’s place in the world. Four and five were so tight it could’ve gone either way, but I gave the edge Chelsea Abdullah’s book on the grounds that while it was released longer ago, it was still able to make the same impact as an entry released months later.

3rd

• Seven Deaths of an Empire – by G.R. Matthews •

ReviewGoodreads

“If you stopped struggling to get free, the guards would not beat you,” Astenius pointed out.
“Life is struggle,” the warrior said.
“We only stop when we are dead,” Emlyn finished and the warrior’s gaze snapped around to her.
“Who are you to know the sayings of the forest?”
“I am of the forest,” she answered.
“Yet you stand with them,” he accused.
“Not through choice.”
“Then you struggle.”
“I am not dead yet,” she answered.

“Why attack us?” Astenius asked once more.
“You are here to be attacked,” the man answered.
“How many of your warriors were with you?”
“Not enough,” the warrior answered.
“How many more are there?”
“More than enough.”

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Astenius said to the trapped warrior.
“I struggle,” the man replied, gritting his teeth.
“I applaud your bravery,” Astenius said, sweeping his hand to point at the brazier, “but your stupidity astounds me.”
“Life is disappointment,” the man said.

An unapologetic grimdark about a Roman Empire that could’ve well been, Seven Deaths of an Empire was technically a re-release from last year that I nevertheless included as it was an incredible read that I ended up adoring. My biggest surprise of the year—and a book I ended up requesting on a whim—it creates a vibrant and beautiful world full of deep characters before ultimately tearing everything to shreds. And it provided the (extended) quote of the year for me as well!

2nd

• Spells for Forgetting – by Adrienne Young •

ReviewGoodreads

“There are spells for breaking and spells for mending. But there are no spells for forgetting.”

While this was definitely my book of the second half of the year, it wasn’t quite good enough to take the top spot. I mean, I was definitely splitting hairs at this point, but the fact that I wasn’t completely in love with the true love story ended up costing Spells first place.

1st

• Daughter of Redwinter – by Ed McDonald •

ReviewGoodreads

Friendship is easy to claim and dangerous to test.

What do you really expect me to say about my favorite work of the year? For most stories I give you the good, the bad, and why you should care. For a best of list? I feel like when all the nitpicking is done, I should be able to simply stand back and let this book speak for itself. A fantastic tale about a girl with nothing and no one trying to carve a life for herself out of cold, unyielding stone and red, weeping flesh—all the while dreading to expose her greatest secret, that which literally anyone might kill her over. There, that should be enough—now go read it.

Well, this completes the year! It was… well, it was a whole year that done and happened in 2022, and I’d love to say I won’t miss it at all, but then I said the same for 2019, so who’s to say. I guess I’ll just say that it wasn’t the best year and leave it at that. Luckily, there were some good books—hey like those above, you should really go check them out again!—good games, and good people that made everything worthwhile. Thanks for coming around and reading my nonsense for another year, and stay tuned for more things in 2023, where I’ll probably be less here, but should still be here enough to rant/rave about somesuch. Hope everyone had a good year, and thanks as always for reading!

Top Novellas of 2022

I didn’t read a whole lot of novellas released this year, um, this year, but it was enough that I didn’t want to include them in my upcoming top books of the year list. Because I’m like that. As such, here are my Top 5 novellas of 2022, listed in descending order.

#5

The City Inside – by Samit Basu

ReviewGoodreads

No matter who’s in power, no matter who needs land or blood, no matter which country’s secretly running ours, there’s one thing all sides agree on—the children of the rich must be protected.

A mixed bag of mixed bags, maybe the City Inside is an allegory of life, or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s a love story, or about the journey, or the destination, or a parable regarding racism, nationalism, technical advancement, achievement, or satisfaction. The thing is, it’s way too hard to tell just wtf this novella is about as there’s so much competing for your attention in such a small space.

#4

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy – by Becky Chambers

ReviewGoodreads

In a world where people have what they want, what more can anyone offer?

A continuation of the question-asking ability demonstrated in the preceding Monk & Robot—a Psalm for the Well-Built—A Prayer for the Crown-Shy may well ask the hard questions, but shies away from presenting much of an answer to them. While this may not sound terrible (and, it really isn’t at that), as someone who very much still struggles with these big, life-defining questions, it’d be nice to find a book that provides some answers (without trying to convert me to a new religion).

#3

A Mirror Mended – by Alix E. Harrow

ReviewGoodreads

Zinnia Grey has a problem. For someone who lives their life in grey-areas, in-between reality and fable, and in a constant state of will-I won’t-I succumb to my horrible deadly disease—having a problem isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of the world. Usually. But when she goes on a princess-rescuing bender, Zinnia finds out an important lesson in just whom to rescue. And who really needs saving.

#2

To Blackfyre Keep – by Anthony Ryan

ReviewGoodreads

Cursed I am, but it was always a useful curse.

For something that does little more than continuing the overarching narrative, this addition to the Seven Swords was surprisingly good. Perhaps because that’s how it was advertised: another adventure, another sword, another step on Guyime’s quest to unite the demon blades. And so while this did very little beyond it’s brief, it certainly fulfilled it—and did so in a imaginative and immersive way! As such, Book #4 of the Seven Swords takes #2 on my list, just short of the inevitable Tchaikovsky novella.

#1

Ogres – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

ReviewGoodreads

“My fellows are really not happy with you, Torquell.”

It’s such an understatement that you blink. “Good?” you try.

In what I’m beginning to believe may be his preferred format for relation, we have another year-winning novella from one Adrian Tchaikovsky. While I may be hit-and-miss on his full-length stuff, his shorter fiction has proven good, surprisingly good for something that’s often overlooked due to its short stature. This year’s entry, Ogres, details a somewhat feudal, somewhat post-apocalyptic world ruled by ogres—humanity’s bigger, stronger, smarter, more vicious cousins. And Torquell’s ability to turn this world order on its head.

And this sums up the Top 5! Did you read any of these—and if so, what’d you think? Any I missed out on, or ranked waaaay higher than I should’ve? Stay tuned for my full-length novels of 2022 and yesteryear lists, coming soon!

Most Anticipated Books of Q1 2023

There are A LOT of books out this spring! Now I’m not going to be reading all of these on release, probably not even this year (maybe not even ever)—and my production will likely be down next year—but I’ll try to get through at least a few of them. I’m shooting for… maybe three in January, three more in February, and two or three in March—but we’ll see how it goes. I’m sure there’ll be additional releases and news to follow, but for now, let’s see if we can get rid of 2022 okay and start 2023 off right!

January

The Tress of the Emerald Sea – by Brandon Sanderson (N/A) – Secret Project, Book #1

The Sapphire Altar – by David Dalglish (January 10th) – Book #2 of the Vagrant Gods

Saint – by Adrienne Young (UK Release) (January 10th) – Fable, Book #0.5

Godkiller – by Hannah Kaner (UK Release) (January 19th)

Episode Thirteen – by Craig DiLouie (January 24th)

February

The Sanctuary – by Katrine Engberg (February 7th) – Kørner & Werner, Book #5

Wild Massive – by Scotto Moore (February 7th)

The Last Grudge – by Max Seeck (February 7th) – Book #3 of Jessica Niemi

Frontier – by Grace Curtis (February 14th)

The Last Tale of the Flower Bride – by Roshani Chokshi (February 14th)

The Shadow Casket – by Chris Wooding (February 16th) – The Darkwater Legacy, Book #2

Murder at Haven’s Rock – by Kelley Armstrong (February 21st) – Haven’s Rock, Book #1

Emperor of Ruin – by Django Wexler (February 28th) – Silvereye & Burningblade, Book #3

March

Send a Ranger – by Tom Habecker (March 1st)

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi – by S.A. Chakraborty (March 2nd)

The Sea Rises – by A.J. Smith (March 8th) (UK Release) – Form & Void, Book #3

Antimatter Blues – by Edward Ashton (March 14th) – a Mickey7 novel

The Lies of the Ajungo – by Moses One Utomi (March 21st) – Book #1 of the Forever Desert

A House with Good Bones – by T. Kingfisher (March 28th)

And Put Away Childish Things – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (March 28th)

Infinity Gate – by M.R. Carey (March 28th)

Ketchup Month 2022

Well, it’s December.

Sigh.

My expectations for Ketchup Month this year are not high. In fact, I’ve had a hard time lately focusing on anything. Think I finished four books in November: an audiobook it took me over a month to get through, one reread, a novella, and an actual novel (which again took me well over a month to finish). Additionally, I published three reviews (one of which was a DNF). As such, while I had some grand scheme in mind for this year, I’m not sure just how much of it will come to fruition.

I suppose we’ll see.

ARC

The Light Pirate – by Lily Brooks-Dalton (12/06)

Standalone

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Florida is slipping away. As devastating weather patterns and rising sea levels gradually wreak havoc on the state’s infrastructure, a powerful hurricane approaches a small town on the southeastern coast. Kirby Lowe, an electrical line worker; his pregnant wife, Frida; and their two sons, Flip and Lucas, prepare for the worst. When the boys go missing just before the hurricane hits, Kirby heads out into the high winds to search for them. Left alone, Frida goes into premature labor and gives birth to an unusual child, Wanda, whom she names after the catastrophic storm that ushers her into a society closer to collapse than ever before.

As Florida continues to unravel, Wanda grows. Moving from childhood to adulthood, adapting not only to the changing landscape, but also to the people who stayed behind in a place abandoned by civilization, Wanda loses family, gains community, and ultimately, seeks adventure, love, and purpose in a place remade by nature.

Told in four parts—power, water, light, and time—The Light Pirate mirrors the rhythms of the elements and the sometimes quick, sometimes slow dissolution of the world as we know it. It is a meditation on the changes we would rather not see, the future we would rather not greet, and a call back to the beauty and violence of an untamable wilderness.

City of Last Chances – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (12/08)

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There has always been a darkness to Ilmar, but never more so than now. The city chafes under the heavy hand of the Palleseen occupation, the choke-hold of its criminal underworld, the boot of its factory owners, the weight of its wretched poor and the burden of its ancient curse.


What will be the spark that lights the conflagration?


Despite the city’s refugees, wanderers, murderers, madmen, fanatics and thieves, the catalyst, as always, will be the Anchorwood – that dark grove of trees, that primeval remnant, that portal, when the moon is full, to strange and distant shores.

Ilmar, some say, is the worst place in the world and the gateway to a thousand worse places.

Ilmar,
City of Long Shadows.
City of Bad Decisions.
City of Last Chances.

Just the two ARCs this month, both of them out this first week. Haven’t cracked either of them yet, but hopefully I’ll get to one before the start of 2023.

Missed 2022 ARCs

Locklands – by Robert Jackson Bennett (6/21)

The Founders #3

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A god wages war—using all of humanity as its pawns—in the unforgettable conclusion to the Founders trilogy.

Sancia, Clef, and Berenice have gone up against plenty of long odds in the past. But the war they’re fighting now is one even they can’t win.

This time, they’re not facing robber-baron elites, or even an immortal hierophant, but an entity whose intelligence is spread over half the globe—a ghost in the machine that uses the magic of scriving to possess and control not just objects, but human minds.

To fight it, they’ve used scriving technology to transform themselves and their allies into an army—a society—that’s like nothing humanity has seen before. With its strength at their backs, they’ve freed a handful of their enemy’s hosts from servitude, even brought down some of its fearsome, reality-altering dreadnaughts. Yet despite their efforts, their enemy marches on—implacable. Unstoppable.

Now, as their opponent closes in on its true prize—an ancient doorway, long buried, that leads to the chambers at the center of creation itself—Sancia and her friends glimpse a chance at reaching it first, and with it, a last desperate opportunity to stop this unbeatable foe. But to do so, they’ll have to unlock the centuries-old mystery of scriving’s origins, embark on a desperate mission into the heart of their enemy’s power, and pull off the most daring heist they’ve ever attempted.

And as if that weren’t enough, their adversary might just have a spy in their ranks—and a last trick up its sleeve.

Eversion – by Alastair Reynolds (8/02)

Standalone

Goodreads • StoryGraph

A dark, mind-bending SF adventure spread across time and space, Doctor Silas Coade has been tasked with keeping his crew safe as they adventure across the galaxy in search of a mysterious artifact, but as things keep going wrong, Silas soon realizes that something more sinister is at work, and this may not even be the first time it’s happened.

In the 1800s, a sailing ship crashes off the coast of Norway. In the 1900s, a Zepellin explores an icy canyon in Antarctica. In the far future, a spaceship sets out for an alien artifact. Each excursion goes horribly wrong. And on every journey, Dr. Silas Coade is the physician, but only Silas seems to realize that these events keep repeating themselves. And it’s up to him to figure out why and how. And how to stop it all from happening again.

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence – by Rebecca F. Kuang (8/23)

Standalone

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1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.

Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?

Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.

From My TBR

Black Heart, Part III: The Sacrificial Altar

Artesia #2 / Black Heart #3

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As this is the third part of the story around Black Heart, I’ll just give you the blurb from Part #1. So far, I’ve quite enjoyed the story and can’t wait to finish it out!

The last survivors of the raid on the Barrow of Azharad have scattered to the four winds, each walking a separate path. For some, it is the path of noble service, as the households of great kings and warlords beckon, offering a chance to enter the fray of politics with the fate of nations on the line. For others, it is the path of secrets and magic, as the veil of the world parts to reveal the hidden truths that dwell in shadow and spirit.

And for Stjepan Black-Heart, royal cartographer and suspected murderer, it is the path of battle and sacrifice, as he is summoned to attend the household of the Grand Duke Owen Lis Red, the Earl Marshal to the High King of the Middle Kingdoms, on his latest campaign to find and kill Porloss, the Rebel Earl: an elusive quarry lurking behind an army of ruthless renegade knights in the wild hills of the Manon Mole, a land where every step could be your last, and where lie secrets best left undisturbed.

The Winter Road – by Adrian Selby

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The greatest empire of them all began with a road.

The Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.

With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .

All roads lead back to war.

The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn – by Tyler Whitesides

Kingdom of Grit #1

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Think I’ll ever actually get to any of these? I’ve been talking about Ardor Benn for at least a solid year at this point, but am no closer to reading it. Maybe now’s the time.

“I’m hiring you to steal the king’s crown.”

Ardor Benn is no ordinary thief. Rakish, ambitious, and master of wildly complex heists, he styles himself a Ruse Artist Extraordinaire.

When a priest hires him for the most daring ruse yet, Ardor knows he’ll need more than quick wit and sleight of hand. Assembling a dream team of forgers, disguisers, schemers, and thieves, he sets out to steal from the most powerful king the realm has ever known.

But it soon becomes clear there’s more at stake than fame and glory -Ard and his team might just be the last hope for human civilization.

2nd Chance ARCs

Have you seen some of the shit that I’ve been DNFing this year? Seriously, it’s insane. The sheer amount of my most anticipated books for this year, several that I KNOW must be good, that I SWEAR are good—and I can’t get through them for one reason or another. Thus, here are a few that I burned out on (not because I hated them, but just because THIS YEAR), that I’d like to take a second shot at—one of them while 2022 is still at present. The others will have to wait.

In other news, I’m still planning a “The Best Books I DNFed, 2022 Edition” for later in the month.

In the Shadow of Lightning – by Brian McClellan (6/21)

Glass Immortals #1

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I’m not going to lie, there’s a 90% chance the book I choose will be this one. The reason I burned out on it was that I got it as an audiobook and didn’t quite love the reader. But now I have it in physical form, well…

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.

Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.

The Hunger of the Gods – by John Gwynne (4/14)

Bloodsworn Saga #2

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Lik-Rifa, the dragon god of legend, has been freed from her eternal prison. Now she plots a new age of blood and conquest.

As Orka continues the hunt for her missing son, the Bloodsworn sweep south in a desperate race to save one of their own – and Varg takes the first steps on the path of vengeance.

Elvar has sworn to fulfil her blood oath and rescue a prisoner from the clutches of Lik-Rifa and her dragonborn followers, but first she must persuade the Battle-Grim to follow her.

Yet even the might of the Bloodsworn and Battle-Grim cannot stand alone against a dragon god.

Their hope lies within the mad writings of a chained god. A book of forbidden magic with the power to raise the wolf god Ulfrir from the dead . . . and bring about a battle that will shake the foundations of the earth.

Empire of Exiles – by Erin M. Evans (11/08)

Books of the Usurper #1

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Twenty-seven years ago, a Duke with a grudge led a ruthless coup against the empire of Semilla, killing thousands. He failed. The Duke was executed, a terrifyingly powerful sorcerer was imprisoned, and an unwilling princess disappeared. 

The empire moved on. 

Now, when Quill, an apprentice scribe, arrives in the capital city, he believes he’s on a simple errand for another pompous noble: fetch ancient artifacts from the magical Imperial Archives. He’s always found his apprenticeship to a lawman to be dull work. But these aren’t just any artifacts — these are the instruments of revolution, the banners under which the Duke lead his coup. 

Just as the artifacts are unearthed, the city is shaken by a brutal murder that seems to have been caused by a weapon not seen since the days of rebellion. With Quill being the main witness to the murder, and no one in power believing his story, he must join the Archivists — a young mage, a seasoned archivist, and a disillusioned detective — to solve the truth of the attack. And what they uncover will be the key to saving the empire – or destroying it again.

Age of Ash – by Daniel Abraham (2/15)

Kithamar #1

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This one, more than any of the others, is a gamble. Because I did find Age of Ash a bit of a snooze. But I remember being intrigued by the story and—unlike Dead Silence—didn’t find the protagonist completely unrealistic. Not likely to try this one in 2022, but it’s possible, I suppose.

Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold. This is Alys’s.

When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why. But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives.

Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.

Advance ARCs

The Shadow Casket – by Chris Wooding (2/16/23)

Darkwater Legacy #2

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The follow-up to my Book of 2018, I CANNOT WAIT to get into this one!! And at 852 pages, I’m sure to need a decent start on it…

A BAND OF REBELS.
A TRAITOR IN THEIR MIDST.
A REVOLUTION ABOUT TO BEGIN.

It’s been three years since Aren seized the Ember Blade. Three years since they struck the spark they hoped would ignite the revolution. But the flame has failed to catch. The Krodans have crushed Ossia in an iron grip of terror. The revolution seems further away than ever.

Far in the north, the Dawnwardens seek to unite the fractious clans of the Fell Folk and create a stronghold from which to retake their land. But even if they can overcome the danger of treachery from within, they still have to contend with the dreadknights. Only the druidess Vika can resist these near-unstoppable foes, and there’s only one of her.

But what if there was a weapon that could destroy the dreadknights? A weapon of such power it could turn the tide? A weapon that, if it fell into the wrong hands, might mean the end of all hope?

The Shadow Casket has returned from out of the past, and it will save or damn them all.

Episode Thirteen – by Craig DiLouie (1/24/23)

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I was actually planning to start this at the beginning of the month, but it’s taken me longer than I’d figured to finish All of Our Demise. Granted, I also had halfassed plans of reading this in October, so wtf knows.

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. It’s led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin and features a dedicated crew of ghost-hunting experts.
 
Episode Thirteen takes them to Matt’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This crumbling, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about the bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also, undoubtably, haunted, and Matt hopes to use their scientific techniques and high tech gear to prove it. 

But, as the house begins to slowly reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of. 
  
A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, correspondence, and research files, this is the story of Episode Thirteen — and how everything went horribly wrong. 

The Sanctuary – by Katrine Engberg (2/07/23)

Kørner & Werner #4

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Jeppe Kørner, on leave from the police force and nursing a broken heart, has taken refuge on the island of Bornholm for the winter. Also on the island is Esther de Laurenti, a writer working on a biography on a female anthropologist with a mysterious past and coming to terms with her own crushing sense of loneliness in the wake of a dear friend’s death. When Jeppe lends a helping hand at the island’s local sawmill, he begins to realize that the island may not be the peaceful refuge it appears to be.

Back in Copenhagen, Anette Werner is tasked with leading the investigation into a severed corpse discovered on a downtown playground. As she follows the strange trail of clues, they all seem to lead back to Bornholm. With an innocent offer to check out a lead, Jeppe unwittingly finds himself in the crosshairs of a sinister mystery rooted in the past, forcing him to team up with Anette and Esther to unravel the island’s secrets before it’s too late.

Antimatter Blues – by Edward Ashton (3/14/23)

Mickey7 #2

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Summer has come to Niflheim. The lichens are growing, the six-winged bat-things are chirping, and much to his own surprise, Mickey Barnes is still alive—that last part thanks almost entirely to the fact that Commander Marshall believes that the colony’s creeper neighbors are holding an antimatter bomb, and that Mickey is the only one who’s keeping them from using it. Mickey’s just another colonist now. Instead of cleaning out the reactor core, he spends his time these days cleaning out the rabbit hutches. It’s not a bad life.

It’s not going to last.

It may be sunny now, but winter is coming. The antimatter that fuels the colony is running low, and Marshall wants his bomb back. If Mickey agrees to retrieve it, he’ll be giving up the only thing that’s kept his head off of the chopping block. If he refuses, he might doom the entire colony. Meanwhile, the creepers have their own worries, and they’re not going to surrender the bomb without getting something in return. Once again, Mickey finds the fate of two species resting in his hands. If something goes wrong this time, though, he won’t be coming back.

Life

Life: it’s that thing that keeps going and going, even if you get sick and need to get off. And lately it’s been a bit rude.

Sigh.

My headspace has been rather poor lately, which has made it really hard to focus on anything. Sufficient to say you’ll probably hear less from me until it settles.

I’m feeling increasingly despondent about my job; I like it well enough, but my hours and shifts have been cut again, which has put me in a few niche positions that I can’t exactly advance from. In short, it’s no longer the career that I’d hoped it might become. And even if it was… I’m no longer the person that might accept it. Something has to change. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what it is I want, so it’ll take some time and some patience—two things that are typically my strong suits, yet at the moment… I’m not finding them easy. I’ve been trying to figure out what I want since I lost my archaeology gig five years back.

I’m just getting tired of waiting. Searching. Coming up empty.

Geez that was depressing—sorry bout that. Been in and out of it more and more lately. I really need a change. We’ll just have to wait and see what that is exactly.

Dunno what the future holds for me exactly, but I know I’m going to have to explore a bit more before I find my place in it.

Note: Can you tell I was in two rather different moods when I wrote and edited this? I stopped reading it after a bit, as I figured that if I kept on, I’d just end up rewriting everything.

So, how’s your year been? Or your November? Any radical plans for December? Any ideas for what I want to do with my life? I’d love to hear.

The Dark Between the Trees – by Fiona Barnett (Review)

standalone

Horror, Gothic

Solaris/Rebellion; October 11, 2022

304 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for the Dark Between the Trees.

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

In 1643, two soldiers from the Roundhead company—a unit of Parliamentarian soldiers—stumble into the small village of Tapford, wounded and shaken. Here, the men are taken and gaoled for desertion. Only one man, Thomas Edgeworth, sees the sunrise the following day, his companion, Josiah Moody, having succumbed to his injuries during the night. Upon asking to speak with a local priest, he tells his tale, the one that eventually drew Dr. Alice Christopher to him—and to the Corrigal.

Onto the present day, which finds five women heading into the confines of Moresby Wood in an effort to trace the footsteps of the Roundhead company, as provided by Edgeworth, the sole survivor of the incident. In addition to the stories and legends passed down by locals over the years, the history of Roundhead company remains one of the most promising pieces of the puzzle—a tale that Alice has staked her entire career on.

And so, while Dr. Christopher leads her team of wardens and grad students into the Wood, some 350 years prior, Captain Alexander Davies leads his company of seventeen men into Moresby as well. Neither know what they’ll find here—though one has a much better idea.

Something dark lurks in Moresby Wood. Something ancient, something unnatural.

The Corrigal.

I was surprised by just how much of this book wasn’t about the Corrigal. I mean, the starring, almost titular villain, and it plays just a footnote to the real mystery of Moresby: that of the… what exactly?

There’s a witch in there—or so it’s said, as we never see one. Like the Corrigal, after a time it’s just abandoned in place of… a mystery.

But let’s not get too far ahead.

The Dark Between the Trees starts out as a gothic, atmospheric horror story, set in the disorientating and often claustrophobic confines of Moresby Wood—a place that might’ve been lightened up somewhat had anyone had the idea of climbing a tree. Plastered by rain and often choked by mist, the two groups follow more or less the same pathways along their journey to the center of the mystery—one to find what has befallen the other. There are two main POVs: that of Dr. Christopher’s group, and that of Captain Davies. They are told in alternating form, with the two groups progressing at around the same rate. It actually works quite well, for a time, as the tension and atmosphere of the tale plays well in the confines of the Wood.

The dueling legends of the Corrigal and the Witch wreak havoc with each group, albeit for different reasons. The scientists are divided in two on the legend—between skeptics and believers. The soldiers, on the other hand, are divided into three—those that fear the Witch (and through her the Devil), those that fear the Corrigal (an ancient beast predating religion), and those that scoff at both notions. It’s honestly hard for me to pick which group I related to more, as I think they’re all a bit disillusioned. The Witch never really materializes into anything. The Corrigal does, but likewise is dropped in favor of the more mysterious mystery. A mystery which I still don’t really understand even though it was the center of the last handful of chapters.

Okay, so what am I saying here? I realize it’s a bit confusing, as even I’m a bit confused. The story was good until it wasn’t. The atmosphere, the tension, the plot all start off strong, but wither long before the end. I experienced some genuinely terrifying moments when we are at last confronted by the Corrigal, but then it’s whisked away and never really holds the same place in the story again. The end was confusing. And a letdown. Not to mention a complete departure from the rest of the book. The pacing—again, which started off quite well, and continued that way for most of the tale—went to pieces near the close. The characters followed its lead.

So… pretty much what I’m saying is that the Dark Between the Trees is 50-80% of a good book. After that it’s a book, and after that it’s just confusing and dark. I… wouldn’t recommend it, but I’d keep an eye on the author, as this was her debut, and there’s a lot to like in this story. Just maybe not enough.

One Dark Window – by Rachel Gillig

standalone

Fantasy, Gothic, Romance

Orbit Books; September 27, 2022

392 pages (paperback)

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DNF at 92 pages

As is usual for my DNFs, this will be a fairly quick review. If I don’t like something—unless it annoys or offends me on a truly rant-worthy level—my thoughts on it are typically pretty succinct. In this case, I just didn’t meld well with it. It never claimed my attention in the first place and then just couldn’t hold it as the pages began to turn.

I mean…

Well, this was an absolutely frustrating book. Strange, uneven pacing. A plot told in starts and stops. I never understood the cards, which were such a big part of the plot (in the beginning at least). I didn’t like the romance—which had barely even begun by the time I DNFed it.

I’ve seen an incredible variation in the ratings for One Dark Window among people that I know (and whose opinions I really, actually, somewhat care about). Among the rest of everyone—it’s a hit. Overwhelmingly praised, albeit with quite a few non-rating DNFs. If you read this to the end, odds are you’ll like it. Love it, even. But if you don’t love it, it probably won’t hold your attention.

I’m actually tempted to believe that there’s a decent read here, if you can find it. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t for me. And if I’m not enjoying something, I won’t push through it in search of what everyone else can see. I don’t see it—and that’s enough for me.

I can’t thank Orbit enough for—not only granting me access to a digital ARC—but also providing me with a lovely physical copy. Sorry I didn’t like it, but that’s the chance you take, I suppose. This particular copy will be donated to my local library so that it will hopefully fall into the hands of someone(s) who will give it the love that it deserves.