The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (Review)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

Fantasy, Retelling

Orbit Books; May 17, 2022

538 pages (ebook)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

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

After reading this the only thing I regret is not trying to get a physical ARC of it. Although, I suppose that’s what money is for, right?


King of the Forty Thieves, they called him. Hero. But the strangest was the third title, which he’d never heard before: the Stardust Thief. It was worse than the other titles because it was proof that everyone knew what Omar truly was: a man who stole jinn lives. A killer dressed in silver blood. ‘

In a world of desert and shifting sands, Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant—a collector and dealer in rare and illegal magic items. As her trade implies, Loulie avoids the spotlight, doing business on the black market or in the shadows. Something she and her enigmatic jinn bodyguard Qadir have been managing for years. But when she inadvertently saves the life of the sultan’s youngest son, her trade is brought to the forefront. Forcibly.

The sultan—grateful for the Merchant saving his son (twice, in fact)—offers her a reward: her life, in exchange for a mythical jinn artifact lost somewhere in the Sandsea, its sands the border between jinn and human lands. The artifact, a wish-granting lamp, is worth a kingdom—if it exists at all. And should she returns with the lamp, Loulie will be showered with gold—you know, if it exists. Return with out it, however, or attempt to flee, and her life will be forfeit.

To aid the Merchant in this endeavor—as well as make certain she doesn’t try to flee—the sultan sends his youngest son, the same Loulie twice saved, along with an elite guard.

But surprisingly, the lamp turns out to be more trouble than just being mythical, lost, and infamous. And Loulie’s path more treacherous. Ghouls, rogue jinn, demons from the past, jinn hunters, enemies and allies, and the shifting and enchanted sands of the Sandsea are but some of the obstacles the foursome face. Yet Loulie really has no choice but to press on, lest this quest be her last.


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.

In the Stardust Thief, jinn bleed silver. Wherever their blood falls, life blossoms. It has the power to paint the desert green, heal wounds, or even restore the dying to life. This twist, along with so many others, prevented the book from being both a straightforward retelling, and a facsimile of so many others.

It also prevents the landscape from becoming too… dull. Tans and browns and reds and oranges aren’t necessarily dull, but after a while they do kinda make one long for a blue or two to break up the monotony. Maybe that’s why kohl was so popular. Point is, bleed a jinn or ten around one spot and you’ve got yourself a new forest. Or an everlasting river, as seen in the above excerpt.

As with really good reads, it’s hard for me to talk about what exactly I loved most about the Stardust Thief. I mean… there are just soooo many things! The retelling of various legends especially—not only those incorporated into the plot, but also those included as legends in their own right and told via storytellers, or in interludes—gave the world a tenuous connection to our own, while never confusing just which side of the looking glass the reader was on. It’s good to see so many tales from One Thousand and One Nights included in a single work, not just a retelling of Ali Baba or Aladdin or Shahrazad or the like. Yes, I know that other books aimed to do the same, but I’d argue that by in large, the results were nowhere near as good.

I feel like I should mention the characters too, but I’ve no idea where to start on them. Their depth is impressive, as each and every lead has a thorough backstory—both based in legend and written lore. I was really impressed at just how well they all worked together; amidst the chaos and battle there were hints of unlikely friendship and romance, though you could never tell just who was threatening to fall in love with whom.

TL;DR

This seems entirely worthless, as the review part wasn’t very long and mostly had to do with me gushing about how much I loved the story. Yeah, so that’s pretty much it. Whole-hearted recommendation, hands down. But is it worth the…? Yes. Are you sure? What about the…? Yes, that too. And the audiobook? Not sure about that, exactly. This one supposedly features a full cast, and even one terrible voice-actor can ruin the whole thing. But if I could just direct you back to the other forms of text, maybe try one of those.

Yeah, so I’m gonna wrap this up, as it’s pretty much just me rambling. Read this. It’s sooo good! The only downside I can think of is that you’ll have to wait another year for Book #2.

The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (Review)

Unnamed Sequence #1

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Gollancz; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)
(US release TBA)

346 pages (ebook)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

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

On the dark side of the Shadowpass, a rebellion is brewing. Refugees from the war have been flooding across, even now trickling into cities farther and farther from the border. On the edge of the world sits the Nest—built into the side of a cliff, it signifies the path to enlightenment and transcendence—home to a fortress full of mages, the polar opposite to everything the rebels stand for.

Equality, unity, everyone is provided for and given a voice: something the mages in the city are willing to die to avoid. The ungifted are accepted, though while they are judged according to their wealth, none will ever be equal to a mage. Lacuants—former mages who’ve had the magic burned out of them—are second-class citizens, pitied and tolerated as beggars. Kher aren’t even that much. Treated as animals, beasts of burden, they are despised and mistrusted—while being welcomed by the rebels with open arms. Halfbreeds are something worse.

Isha arrives as a refugee, brought to the Nest by a master mage in order to join the fortress academy. But while she may have blended in with the rest of the rabble, she’ll never fit in with the other mages. Kher tattoos brand her as an outcast, a halfbreed—something barely tolerated—though her magic define her as something else. Fleeing memories as much as the war, her past is a mystery even to her, though she’ll have to confront it sooner or later.

Tatters past haunts him daily. Marked by the golden collar of a slave, he flees something more tangible than Isha. Once a rebel, he knows there’s more to the war than unity and equality. An owned mage residing outside of the Nest, he trains students in mindbrawl for coin while existing in the shadows of society. And in the shadows he plans to remain.

But then Tatters meets Isha.

A human with a Kher brand; another wearing a collar of gold. One destined to be singled out her entire life; the other too far beneath to be noticed. But an unlikely bond forms between the two. Tatters is sure he’s seen her tattoo before, but can’t place it. Tatters is the key to something in her past, and Isha is desperate to learn. But as the rebellion carves its way towards the city, they are faced with an impossible choice between two evils.

The Collarbound didn’t start especially well.

It was slow, vague, a bit dull really. Featuring a unique take on magic—where mages engage in mindbrawls in order to dominate or control their foes, or even the common ungifted—that was certainly an interesting concept, but never really came together for me. There are no fireballs or explosions. No lights and sounds. Just scenes and images aimed at undermining their opponents’ thoughts. But at least it was something different; a good attempt.

The world is a bit sparse at the outset, as the reader is thrown in and expects to catch up. There really aren’t a whole lot of info-dumps—the lore and world-building simply percolate from the plot as the story progresses. Thus it takes a good 50-70 pages in order for things to really get rolling. About the time that the Kher make their way into the spotlight.

And everything takes off.

The Kher are a bit like humans crossed with kudu. Anthropomophic kudu. I mean, I pictured them as having dark, ebony skin, curling horns—maybe a bit like a tiefling. Can’t remember if that’s how the author described them or not. Doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. They’re human enough that they can breed, and they’re instrumental in the story.

At the time, I noted that we really should’ve gotten into it with the Kher earlier. As dull as I found the mindbrawls, Kher society was what really made the book for me. While Tatters and Isha were initially brought together by the mindlinking, the Kher are what bind them. Afterwards we really get into the Kher story, the war, the rebels, the bind that ties Isha and Tatters. And the story takes off.

In the beginnings of the text we are presented with some vague notion of the rebels, the war—but these things are harder to care about at the time. The world was still new and vague. The war is far from the Nest. The rebels are small-time, but growing, all the while soaking the fields in blood. Rebels bad, mages good. The further the story progresses, the more interesting things get. The mages are still painted in a pleasing light on occasion, and the rebels routinely vilified. But the mages aren’t the saviors they’re made out to be at the start. Their treatment of the Khers, even the Lightborn—beings made of colored light that flit to and fro from across the Edge to the awe of the common folk—leaves a lot to be desired. But at least they’re not watering the country with the blood of farmers.

As the text progresses, the waters muddy. And the story impresses more and more. After the 30% mark I was fully invested. Despite that I never warmed up to the mindbrawl magic-system, I never had one more thought of abandoning the book. Like more than a few debut fantasies, there’s a good story within, it just takes a bit of time to get to it.

I hope that the sequel will get going from the outset, and that we warm the mindbrawl concept up a bit. With these two changes—we’d be looking at a much more immersive, interesting, and engrossing tale. The story continues in Book #2—the Eyas, currently TBA.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

Zachary King is the only Asian kid at his school in small-town Maine. While he never exactly fit in in New York, here Zach is truly aberrant. What he wants—what he craves—is to fit in, something that he’s spent all his time and energy trying to do.

Which is, of course, when he discovers that he’s the chosen host for the First Emperor of China.

The bad news is that the only reason the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) has left his eternal paradise is that China—and the world—is in danger. The worse news is that only Zach (and a couple other vessels hosting Emperors) can save it, preferably in time to save Zach mother, who’s had her soul stolen. The worst news is that to save it they must return to China: the place Zach was born, the place he lived before the government killed his father. The good news is that the revelation makes his problems seem pretty petty by comparison.

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, rather than manifesting within Zach, has instead possessed his AR gaming headset. Meaning that the Emperor cannot make use of his heavenly powers, nor his ability to, say, speak Mandarin. Thus Zach must rely on the help of his new allies Simon and Melissa (the hosts for the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian (李世民 和 武曌)) if he’s to save the day.

But things are more complicated than Zach could possibly imagine. Which he must make sense of if he’s going to save his mother—and the world.

“No,” Qin Shi Huang replied, “I was a regular person in my mortal life. I mostly relied on the cooperation of my ancestors in the underworld to plug the portal. But after I transcended my physical flesh—“
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong quipped.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”

Huangdi (黃帝) was a mythical (and possibly historical) Han Emperor who ruled early China in the mid-3rd millennia BC. While primarily remaining a hero out of myth and legend for thousands of years, lately he’s been a bit co-opted by the Han nationalism movement, which is completely different from Chinese history. I mean, it’s part of China’s history, but the Han are not what makes China China. In Taiwan, the Yellow Emperor stands as a symbol of reunification with the mainland, as he’s still worshipped there. And—let’s just say it’s complicated. Chinese history is complicated.

And somehow, the author decides to make him the bad guy. At least, initially, until the world devolves into a haze of grey on grey madness—a little bit heavy for a kids’ book. I mean, that’s seriously ballsy.

Not uninteresting, just not my kind of book. It was rather muddied in the middle by the amount of different plots and deceptions—made the story hard to follow. The info dumps of everything from technology to Chinese history and mythology slowed things down a little, but were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t overly ruin the pacing. Unfortunately, with so many of them throughout the text, they further obfuscated an already muddy river that seemed to be flowing in too many directions as it was. What I mean is that not only was it really hard to keep up with the story, it was even harder to find out what was going on. And once I got lost I pretty much stayed lost, despite rereading sections to figure it out.

It definitely delivered on the promise of a Yu-Gi-Oh style tale. Zachary Ing and the Dragon Emperor reads like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and a Chinese History lesson. Except one with all the really bad bits left out. Honestly, that description doesn’t sound too bad, but the story was mostly more confusing than I’d’ve thought. That said, Yu-Gi-Oh is also more confusing than I thought it would’ve been, so it was likely intentional. There were possessions, virtual games, more possessions, and bizarre twists to up the action even amid an already action-heavy sequence. Problem is, I’m not a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, so this kind of chaotic plot didn’t work for me. I picked this one up because I enjoy the occasional MG adventure, and I really liked the author’s debut novel.

The thing is, for how much this starts like a Yu-Gi-Oh mashup, it dissolves pretty quickly. The corresponding game of Mythrealm is mentioned at first only to familiarize readers with the VR goggles and basics of pop culture—and then dropped in order to relate the trip through Chinese history. Only… with just how much Mythrealm seems to involve the story (at first, at least), I would’ve expected to see more of it. But after the first few chapters it’s barely mentioned again.

I did manage to learn a few words (well, ONE word), though I can’t imagine it’ll ever come up in conversation. Nor will I ever manage to get the tones right.

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

If you picked up Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor hoping for: a mashup of Yu-Gi-Oh and Percy Jackson; a new and exciting episodic series where anything can happen and routinely does; a MG adventure that tackles tougher issues than good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and delves straight into the world of grey; or a crash course in Chinese mythology and history (depending heavily on what your definition of “Chinese” is)—then, honestly, you probably won’t be disappointed. If, however, you picked this up because you enjoyed the author’s debut, or hoped for something a little bit deeper than the surface layer of Chinese history (of ghosts, legends, and curses), well, you may be slightly less impressed. Regardless, you’re sure to find a well written (if not terribly well organized) story about a boy and his place in the world. It may be confusing at times (because, well, it is) (most of the time, in fact), but there’s never a dull moment, and never any time to take a breath. If you’re able to follow the plot I kinda suspect you’ll love it—but I could not follow it and got left behind. And never really got back on board.

結束

Equinox – by David Towsey (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Head of Zeus; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)

368 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

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.

In a world where identity changes with the rising and setting of the sun, you can never know who to to trust, or just what anyone is hiding. With two beings within the same body, relationships between night and day have been stretched to such an extreme that they might be different worlds altogether. But when one personality changes to another—the world remains the same.

Christophor Morden is a special investigator of the King of Reikova. Awoken early one night, he is called to the city prison where he’s confronted by a grisly sight. A young man has ripped their eyes out in a fit of madness—though the madness might be justified. Why? Well, because behind their eyeballs, teeth were growing.

What Christophor hopes is an aberration turns out to be more common than any would like to admit. Rumors and strange tales out of the south—of witches and magic, of demons and unfaithful, of a war brewing on the kingdom’s borders. But the only thing he can substantiate are the teeth. The teeth are very much real. And they didn’t come into the boy’s eye sockets naturally.

And so he is dispatched to Drekenford—a village on the southern border—to hunt down whatever’s responsible for this dark magic. But what he finds there will cost Christophor—in more ways than one.

Alexander understands his night-brother’s call as a special investigator, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. A musician himself, Christophor’s day-brother often haunts the common houses, theaters, and taverns of Esteberg, where he plies his trade. Yet when Christophor is sent south, Alexander has no choice but to follow. Though what he finds there may cost Alexander more than his trade. For when his night-brother unearths the witch, Alexander will end up doing everything in his power to save her, the King’s justice be damned.

The unfaithful lose sight of themselves;
The sword shrivels to flakes of snow;
The law devours its history;
The stone moves on water;
The broken heart bleeds gold.

The more time I spent in the world of Equinox, the more it grew on me. Starting out as a fairly generic city in a generic world, it instantly loses points with the recycling of various real-world subjects to cover where its own world-building breaks down. I’m really torn on this—it’s very much a love/hate relationship; there’s a really good story within and what it does well is done really well, but… well, you’ll see.

Catholicism is the dominant religion of the kingdom, a fact that isn’t remotely explained despite all the questions it brings to mind. Did Christ have a night-brother? Is the whole night/day cycle mentioned in scripture? Is this actually Earth rather than a different world? None of these are answered. In fact, the author seems to go out of his way to avoid these questions, as any debate that comes to center on religion at all gets shut down quickly. The whole night/day cycle suffers the same fate—and so we never get more than the barest glimpse into why or how this system works. While it’s a fascinating concept, the lack of literally any explanation surrounding it ruin what could’ve been an innovative and unique twist.

Honestly, with the amount of questions the system alone raises that are completely ignored, I feel like I could write a whole new book. While I’m assuming that’s the reason the author doesn’t address the subject at all, it just comes off as lazy. He should’ve addressed one or two of the more important points, rather than completely ignoring them all.

For example: how does the body function on zero sleep? Is the day/night thing recent, or eternal? How does an unchanged Earth religion account for literally any of this?

Throughout the text, the various day/night personalities complain about their counterparts. Like it’s a new thing. Like it’s not written into religion (which, if it had been around very long at all, it must’ve been). Grrrraaahhh—writing the review for this is making me rage at the dozens of unanswered questions I have about the concept. Which I’ll try not to address any further.

At its heart, Equinox is a story of witchcraft and witch hunting. Chistophor lives in the shadow, but walks with the light—having arrested 34 witches over his lifetime. And yet this might be the most dangerous of the lot, as it puts he and his day-brother at odds. Despite my issues with the world, the unanswered questions, the characters, the development, the unanswered questions—I know that there is a good story somewhere in here. Even with all the issues I had bouncing around in my head, I never once thought of abandoning this. I was able to buckle down and focus on the story, and let it drink me in.

And so brings the third book in as many days that I’m on the fence about. I had some issues with this book (okay, LOTS AND LOTS of issues), but I legitimately enjoyed it too. There were some parts that were a bit cringeworthy, but they were few and far between. The day/night cycle was fascinating, despite being unformed and unfounded. The world was interesting as well, despite being a bad copy of Earth. The end was good, despite the ending being a bit confusing and hectic. I love the cover, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price. If you were going to rip it off and stick it on the wall—…maybe? But as a book to display… I’d really prefer if it were better.

Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Horror, Mystery

G.P. Putnam’s Sons; May 10, 2022

240 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

Please beware minor spoilers (and major spoilers—in one paragraph that’s marked as spoilery).

1980’s New England. An 11th century manuscript of untold value and much deeper worth has gone missing from haut monde boarding school Danforth Putnam, where the elite intermingle with the destitute. Sam Gregory—insurance investigator and scarred war vet—sets forth to the isle to investigate.

Upon landing Sam finds more cause for concern than just a lost manuscript. There are students missing—not that anyone seems too concerned. Danforth Putnam has an interesting system on the books to balance its aristocratic pedigree. Namely, granting orphans a full tuition at the school so long as they help out with some of the more unsavory labor, below the status of the rich and famous. The students that have gone missing, of course, belong to the lower class—motherless urchins that no one will miss. And indeed no one seems to.

But Sam is only here for the book. And while the missing students worry him—he really can’t do anything about them.

But the longer he spends at Danforth Putnam, the more Sam worries that the missing students might tie-in to the absence of the book. Confronted with wild rumors of witchcraft and murders, he must navigate the warren of gossip and lies that exist at any school, at least so long as he hopes to find the book. But Sam is tireless and ardent in his duty, which is good—for one never knows just how deep the rabbit hole might go.

“Cops know how much the book’s worth?”


Thomas Arundel sighed. “Danforth Putnam is technically in West Cabot County. Last year, West Cabot County had three murders, two dozen rapes, nearly four hundred aggravated assaults and eighteen arsons. I called about a stolen book. Trust me, Mr. Gregory, they don’t care what it’s worth. As far as anyone own that side of the Atlantic is concerned, this is an island full of spoiled rich kids with spoiled-rich-kid problems, and a stolen book, even a valuable one, fits firmly in that category.”

The story is entertaining, exciting, and immersive. The mystery itself is interesting and fast-paced, so I never had any trouble reading it. Sam Gregory is a little bit of a cliché—a Vietnam vet who uses cigarettes and a wise-ass routine to mask his PTSD, while refusing to play by the rules. Good thing he’s a PI and not a detective, or it would’ve been an unacceptable level of cliché. But I guess my tolerance for freelance or third-party gumshoes is a lot more lenient than beat cop. I actually quite enjoyed his renegade persona and sarcasm, though I still feel like it’s the default state for any 80’s cop. Don’t get me started on the reporter angle. If there are two POVs in any mystery/thriller nowadays, odds are they’re a reporter and some kinda detective.

The character development in this was about as deep and intricate as the characters themselves. As in, they weren’t. Everyone—even Sam and Harriet—were one-sided and shallow. Only one character showed anything even remotely like growth, and yet I really wouldn’t’ve called it that.

While Friend of the Devil doesn’t try anything new at the outset, the more you dig into the story, the more it threatens to exploit these clichés in unexpected ways. Overall, the story was interesting, immersive, and thrilling. An 11th century manuscript missing, a wayward teen obsessed with magic and power, missing students, terrible secrets, a plot that refused to slow down once it got rolling. And then comes the end.

And the main issue I had with it. The scene comes close to the end and is the lynchpin for everything that follows. And it’s… ridiculous. It’s clear that the author had an ending in mind, and had written up a thrilling conclusion to match, but was having trouble connecting the two. And instead of reworking one or the other—they forced it.

°°

Beware spoilers for the following paragraph
The scene in question takes place between a teenage girl and a grown man. The girl is noted as being undersized, appearing much like a twelve-year old instead of her actual sixteen. The man is described as strong, 6’3, 220, built a bit like a boxer. Additionally, the teenager has no history or interest in martial arts or dedicated exercise (yes, I know one can be physically fit without an interest in such things—that’s not the point I’m trying to make—just give me a minute here). She also suffers from none-too-rare epileptic seizures. The lynchpin exchange has her suffering a seizure just after taking the man’s hand. She proceeds to judo-throw him over her shoulder ten feet. While seizing up. No, he’s not off-balance. Yes, this is vital to the plot. If it were reversed, and it were a 200+ pound man seizing up and throwing a girl over his shoulder teen feet, I’d still be calling bullshit, so it makes perfect sense that I’m equally incensed about it the other way around.

°°

And forcing it—particularly in this manner, in this case—just doesn’t work. Like, at all. It soured me on the ending, and a bit on the plot to this point. Which just had (I’ll point out) dropped another bombshell on us, which I was still working through, deciding if it made any more sense (it DID, but only just, not that that mattered for very long). I’m not saying that this was the intent, but it just struck me as lazy: you’ve written a thrilling and entertaining story; you dropped your big twist; and now see fit to ruin it with some uncooked scenario just so you wouldn’t have to rewrite a conclusion that actually makes sense.

Two weeks out, and I still find myself looking back on the tale: the immersion of the setting, the story; the way the tense atmosphere slowly devolves into horror and terror; the mystery that’s there to solve, that has you looking one way for so long and then suddenly opening your mind to a dozen new possibilities—and then I remember the ending. And it’s mostly soured.

TL;DR

If you happened to read the entire review—welcome to the end! If you didn’t, that’s okay too, I guess. But only one of you will understand just how hard it is for me to rate this book. I mean, you’ve seen my star-rating above, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book—or around 90% of it. Around the 80% mark things started to get a little weird, but that’s to be expected with these horror titles. 9/10ths of the way down, Friend of the Devil was sailing towards an 8 star rating, with little that could derail its bright, bright future. But at the close, everything fell apart. An impossibility; a ridiculous moment that should’ve been laughed off and rewritten, but instead went down as a major plot-point, something the entire ending hinged on. And it soured everything for me. And yet… I guess I’m still going to recommend this. Maybe it won’t be as big an issue for you. Maybe you’ll be willing to overlook a few clichés, a few shallow characters, a few stumbles.

After skimming the other reviews of this, it seems I’m hardly alone in my disappointment. So, maybe… wait for it to go on sale. Or look for it at your local library. Or go in with an open mind, but temper your expectations.

May 2022

I finished 10 books in April, somehow! I mean, three were novellas and only one was over 400 pages, but at around 3000 pages this was still this was my most impressive month to date. Of course, a fall always follows the high.

My first burnout of the year comes here, in late April entering May. Hopefully it’s not a bad one, more something of the “I don’t wanna read I wanna play video games and go to sleep” (although mostly it’s been “I don’t want to read because sleeeeepy”), which is something I deal with every now and then. I don’t think it’s the quality of what I’m reading right now that’s making me feel this way, but one never can tell, you know? With that in mind…

Currently Reading

I actually got quite a big jump on May as I knew it’d be impossible to read all the ARCs I wanted to otherwise. As it is…—it’ll just be tight. I’ve actually finished four of my six advance copies for the month, somehow. I just started the Collarbound, and am greatly enjoying every description of the world and its people that has come up thus far. Little in the way of story yet—but hey, I just started it. More problematic, I can’t remember the name of the damned city. Also just started Hunger of the Gods, something that was shelved for waaay longer than I’d’ve liked. Do any of you have that thing where you overhype something so much that you actually dread starting it? Think that’s what’s happening here. I just refreshed my memory from the end of Shadow of the Gods only to find that there’s a recap at the beginning of Hunger—something I did not expect. Would’ve loved to have known that was there before, but that’s a totally ridiculous thing to complain about, innit?

ARC

Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (5/10)

Standalone

GoodreadsStoryGraph

1980’s New England. The boarding school Danforth Putnam sits upon an island in the Atlantic. Joining the elite with orphans of the state, the school is the perfect metaphor of a melting pot. One that just won’t seem to ever meld. When an 11th century manuscript goes missing, insurance agent Sam Gregory is called in to recover it. But his investigation uncovers more than just a stolen book. Missing students, a ward obsessed with witchcraft, a shadowy cult, and a ritual to summon a demon top the list. And there’s more to the case than even all that.

Check back for my review of Friend of the Devil on Tuesday, May 3rd!

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (5/10)

Zachary Ying #1

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Zachary Ying never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.

The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.

And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.

Check back for my review of Zachary Ying on Tuesday, May 10th!

The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (5/12)

Standalone (?)

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The Collarbound, debut fantasy by Rebecca Zahabi, imagines a world of magic users, slaves, and second-class citizens. The Kher have been oppressed within the realm for generations, seen as little more than animals by most of its citizens. But all that might be changing. A rebellion once confined to the opposite side of the Shadowpass is now steadily making its way towards the city, just as a mage with a Kher brand enters it. Here she will meet a mage bought and sold as a slave, and together they must survive the coming war, or die apart.

Equinox – by David Towsey (5/12)

Standalone

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Christophor Morden lives in a world where everybody changes with the rising and setting of the sun. For every person contains two distinct identities – a day brother and a night brother. One never sees the light, the other nothing of night. When Christophor is summoned by the King of Reikova, to visit a prisoner held beneath the keep, he assumes the man is a witch, or magic of some sort. After all, Morden is a witch hunter, one of the Kingdom’s finest, with 34 caught witches to his name. But when he enters the cell, Morden is confronted by young man, one who has torn his own eyes out. Eyes, that had teeth growing behind them.

Now Christophor is tasked with rooting out the source of such a curse, deep to the south, in the village of Drekenford. But the longer he spends in the village the more he is worried by the case. One that has his day-brother, Alexander, intentionally sheltering the witch he seeks.

Check back for my review of Equinox on Sunday, May 8th!

The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (5/17)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

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Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Hide – by Kiersten White (5/24)

Standalone

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The game: Spend one week hiding in an abandoned amusement park. 7 days, 14 contestants. Two eliminated per day. $50,000 awaits the winner.

Mack aims to be that winner. She’s more worried about the competition, rather than the hiding. After all, hiding is the reason she’s still alive—and her family isn’t. But as the days crawl by, Mack realizes that she’ll have more than just other people to contend with. Something strange is going on inside the park—and she’s not sure that any amount of money is worth staying.

Check back for my review of Hide on Sunday, May 22nd!

Other Releases

Eyes of the Void – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (5/03)

The Final Architecture #2

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After eighty years of fragile peace, the Architects are back, wreaking havoc as they consume entire planets. In the past, Originator artefacts – vestiges of a long-vanished civilization – could save a world from annihilation. This time, the Architects have discovered a way to circumvent these protective relics. Suddenly, no planet is safe.

Facing impending extinction, the Human Colonies are in turmoil. While some believe a unified front is the only way to stop the Architects, others insist humanity should fight alone. And there are those who would seek to benefit from the fractured politics of war – even as the Architects loom ever closer.

Idris, who has spent decades running from the horrors of his past, finds himself thrust back onto the battlefront. As an Intermediary, he could be one of the few to turn the tide of war. With a handful of allies, he searches for a weapon that could push back the Architects and save the galaxy. But to do so, he must return to the nightmarish unspace, where his mind was broken and remade.

What Idris discovers there will change everything.

A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers – by Jackson Ford (5/10)

Frost Files #4

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Teagan Frost has enough sh*t to deal with, between her job as a telekinetic government operative and a certain pair of siblings who have returned from the dead to wreak havoc with their powers. But little does she know, things are about to get even more crazy…

Teagan might have survived the flash flood of the century, but now she’s trapped in a hotel by a bunch of gun-toting maniacs. And to make matters worse, her powers have mysteriously disappeared. Faced with certain death at every turn, Teagan will need to use every resource she has to stop a plot that could destroy Los Angeles – maybe even the entire world.

Book Purchases

Annex – by Rich Larson

The Violet Wars #1

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At first it is a nightmare. When the invaders arrive, the world as they know it is destroyed. Their friends are kidnapped. Their families are changed.

Then it is a dream. With no adults left to run things, Violet and the others who have escaped capture are truly free for the first time. They can do whatever they want to do. They can be whoever they want to be.

But the invaders won’t leave them alone for long…

Those Above – by Daniel Polansky

The Empty Throne #1

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Those Above has been on my TBR for years, but I only recently managed to acquire a copy. Still not sure when exactly I’ll get around to it, but it was on sale from the same vendor that I used to get Annex, as well as a couple other holes I had filling my shelves, so I figured why not? Those Above examines the gods above. Tall, superhuman, perfect, and near immortal, they have ruled over humanity for thousands of years. Millennia of oppression enforced with fire and sword. Until humanity rose an army to unseat them. Only to fail miserably.

Now, hate festers still. And even though their last revolt was summarily crushed not thirty years prior, rebellion once more kindles in its ashes.

I may or may not get my teeth into these this month, but do come back for upcoming reviews of A Defensive Guide to Baking, Haunting of Tram Car 015, Hidden (Alex Verus #5), The Jasmine Throne, and hopefully more!

Music

There’s not a whole lot of music out this month that I’m super excited about. At least, not in advance. Maybe when they come out they’ll really impress me, or maybe I’ll warm up to them, or maybe I’ll just find something completely different to fall in love with, but right now… I’m a little underwhelmed by everything on offer.

The electronic Lights Out from Cassetter is probably my most anticipated album of the month, due on May 20th, but I probably won’t pick it up anytime soon. It’s not bad, it’s just not mind-blowing. Just found out they’re Polish though, so that’s cool.

The Halestorm album Back from the Dead releases on May 6th. Neither song blew me away, so I went with the first single instead of the most recent one.

There’s also a Three Days Grace album—Explosions—due out on the 6th, so here’s a single from that as well.

Games

Still on the Cyberpunk 2077 train, though I’ve just bought the remake of Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town—my favorite game in the series—so I’ll likely be onto that soon enough. It even came with this adorable plush cow (which was originally supposed to be a pre-order incentive, but I guess they had extras).

Anyway, I have that and Cyberpunk, maybe some DLC and other things to tide me over til Sniper Elite V drops on May 26th! The previous entry (set in Italy) was one of my favorite games of all time; one of the rare games I stuck around long enough to platinum after pouring 163 hours into it (Cyberpunk is closing on this though: I’m up to 112 hours now). #5 is set in France and is supposed to feature bigger, more open world maps—which is impressive considering 4’s maps were pretty large and varied.

Life

Not sure how much I’ll post this summer, as I’ve a fair amount going on. Wedding, backpacking, bachelor party, wedding, wedding, and well probably a good deal more besides. The only thing I’m not locked down for is work, which I’m increasingly certain is just freezing me out. I hate the job hunt, though, so I’m trying to put it off as long as possible while my hours slowly bleed away to nothing. I do have a fair few side gigs on the books for April and May (so cash won’t be an issue, until June at least when they all dry up). I really don’t want to work an 8-5 as (historically) they’re not great for my mental health, but I suppose we’ll cross that bridge once we get to it. Or caulk the wagon and float it across :p

Have any plans for May? What about June, July, and later? Is your month as busy as mine looks? And do you recognize any of these books? I always love to hear from y’all!

Prison of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (Review) + Blog Tour!

I absolutely love the cover—especially that of the paperback version that I completely failed to illustrate above. Its glossy, black background and golden cage, overlaid with bright blue tentacles works in a way that this picture just can’t convey. Huge props to artist Kieryn Tyler for the design!

Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2

Scifi, WORMholes

Angry Robot; April 26, 2022

261 pages (paperback)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot #AngryRobotBooks) for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

• Doors of Sleep Review •


“They invented multidimensional travel but they haven’t figured out how to make guns?”

At one time, Zaxony Delatree worked as a harmonizer in the Realm of Spheres and Harmonies. Then, following the death of a patient—who died in his arms, covering him in her blood—Zax fell asleep, only to awaken on another world.

About one month later, on his twentieth world, Zax met Ana. Less than a day later, he knew he never wanted to leave. Something that… could never be. So he fell asleep with Ana in his arms. And she travelled with him, through the place between, awake. Her mind couldn’t handle whatever she saw, and fled Zax immediately upon his waking. Though he searched for her, eventually Zax grew tired, and fell asleep—never to see her again.

On his 20th world Zax found love, only to lose it on the 21st.

Thirteen hundred worlds later, Zax found something impossible. He’d reunited with Vicki and Minna following the events of Doors of Sleep. The closest thing he’d ever had to a family was back together, even though he feared he’d never see them again. Shortly after, Zax found Ana.

Prison of Sleep skips forward a time from this meeting, so you’ll have to wait a bit to see how it went down. There are a pair of POVs within: Zax, who looks forward; and Ana, who looks back. We find Zax alone once more, traveling into the unknown. Only this time, while he may not have any idea where he’s going, Zax is following a specific path—a trail left by the Cult of the Worm.

The Cult worships the Prisoner: a god imprisoned in the place between worlds that can only whisper to its subjects as they traverse the place between. These followers it has gifted with the ability to Travel—done via a parasite injected into their bloodstream. It wants only two things from them: to Travel to new worlds and recruit further devotees who will do the same. The more Travelers, the more Wormholes in the ether. The more Wormholes, the weaker the stability of the Multiverse. Only when the Multiverse destabilizes completely can the Prisoner ever hope to escape.

When Ana found Zax she recruited him into a secret war against the Cult, one that he was only too willing to join. But now that he has, Zax is having second thoughts. Once more he’s lost Ana, Minna, and Vicki. He’s lost his new friends, his new home. But he has a plan—and while it may not reunite him with his friends, it may well save them all.



“What I’m hearing from you is that the Cult of the Worm is horrible and they suck.”

“They knew what they were getting into. When you declare war on everything, you have to be prepared for everything to fight back.”

Prison of Sleep explores one the biggest unanswered questions left by Doors of Sleep before it: what happened to Ana?

Ana, as it is known from the first few chapters of the first book, was Zax’s long lost love, first companion, and lost her mind after traversing the void while awake. When Zax and Ana are reunited at the end of Doors, we are promised the continuation of their story—but who would’ve guessed just how far the rabbit hole went?

While Doors was more of an adventure driven via exploration of its sole POV, Zax, Prison is more of a mystery, slow-paced thriller, and character driven title about the relationship between its two main protagonists: Zax and Ana. Now Doors does feature the same style of slow-paced thrill later on, so it shouldn’t be an entirely foreign concept. And… while I say it’s a “slow-paced” thriller, I guess it really isn’t. Both Doors and Prison are rather short books—running between two and three hundred pages—so once things start happening, they don’t have too long to lounge around before the story winds down. It’s more that these two stories feel more leisurely in their approach to telling. The stories were both good, immersive, interesting, highly entertaining, and no trouble to read whatsoever. It’s just that there… there aren’t a ton of heart-pounding thrills, pulse-racing action, or the like that you’d find in most good thrillers. Instead, it’s narrative driven; a tense, atmospheric adventure through the multiverse—on a mission to save the multiverse.

Prison of Sleep features a back-and-forth, alternating POV structure that I’ve seen before in books like the Boy With the Porcelain Blade, where the first perspective takes place in the present and the second takes place in the past—1, 2, 1, 2, in that order, until the end. Now, I have some qualms about this approach—as I’m not sure I’ve really read anything that deploys it very successfully. At a certain point what has happened in the past becomes clear in the present long before it’s time for the big reveal. Prison can’t escape this particular issue, as long before the end I had figured out what happened when Ana finally caught up to Zax, along with the aftermath. What I had NOT figured out, however, was that while I’d assumed this to be the big reveal, it um wasn’t. Instead, there’s a twist come Ana’s final chapter—one that caught me completely by surprise.

Otherwise, it’s more of the same exciting adventure from Doors of Sleep. Only Zax knows he’s not alone anymore. And instead of wandering aimlessly, he’s a man on a mission. While the mission itself feels a little forced, a little cliché—it’s still a great read. I really can’t object to anything too strongly or find much of a problem with any of this. If you enjoyed the first book, I’m fairly certain you’ll enjoy the second. If you were bothered by cliff-hangers, or empty threads in Book #1—well, #2 ties everything up quite nicely. No major issues, no problems getting through it, or getting immersed in the tale. I’d certainly recommend checking it out!

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

Anyway, the book. The read.

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

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

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

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

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

Nothing happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harbor – by Katrine Engberg (Review)

Kørner & Werner #3

Mystery, Nordic Noir

Gallery/Scout Press; February 22, 2022

352 pages (ebook)
9hr 38m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Scout/Gallery Books for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

He looked around and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free.

So ends the first and only clue in the disappearance of fifteen year-old Oscar Dreyer-Hoff. As clues go, this one’s shit, but Anette Werner and Jeppe Kørner are used to much worse. Odds are the missing teen is no more than a runaway, but as he’s from an influential family—one used to kidnapping and threats before—the Copenhagen Police are taking it seriously. Thus the inclusion of detectives Kørner and Werner.

But as each hour passes, and the potential for finding the boy alive grows ever more slim, the case itself changes to match. Patterns form and fade, relationships appear and vanish, and the mindset of a trouble teen slowly begins to reveal itself. But rather than helping the case, these revelations instead push the search into murkier waters still.

A possible sexual relationship between Oscar’s brother Viktor and his only real friend, Iben. A family bed. Something shared between Oscar and his teacher. A banished sister, a middle child, a shared secret. Another disappearance. A love of boating, of the water. Everyone has something to hide, everyone has something to lose—though some more than others. Clues come and go—but which relate to the disappearance and which are just there to distract? Will Kørner and Werner be able to locate the missing teen while he yet lives, or will the inevitable finally come to pass?


Eroticism has many faces.

This was an intricate, murky case set on the Øresund between Zealand and Scania, between Copenhagen and Sweden. The Sound gives the whole book an overcast, grey feel—much like the cover itself. Though not all the case and its avenues take place or have anything to do with the waters, they certainly feel like the focus for the book.

I want to make this clear up front: I really enjoyed this one. The murky, grey, confusing feel to the case, with all the clues that may or may not relate, the leads that sped off on tangents or eventually wormed their way back to the heart of it all—it all worked quite well for me. And when everything came together in the end: oh, it was magnificent! The thing is, however, that when you have a story with so many false-starts, with so much deception, it doesn’t help to add other, less… related aspects to an already twisting tale.

While I enjoyed the initial release, the Tenant, I definitely liked the second book better due in no small part to its inclusion of the detectives’ lives. Anette and her baby; Jeppe and his search for love. Both main characters return in the Harbor and once again their personal lives take center stage, but this time it’s all about love. Jeppe and Sarah have taken their relationship to the next level (Sarah has introduced her boyfriend to her daughters, Jeppe has pretty much moved in with the three), but things could be going better. Anette is having problems of her own at home, as her husband Sven hasn’t appeared interested in her anymore. And so she’s been letting her mind wander at work, envisioning sex with all kinds—colleague or suspect alike. Jeppe’s best friend Johannes returns to play a bit part, and while I loved having him (after not seeing him at all in the Butterfly House), I would’ve liked even more from him still. Well, maybe next time. The thing I still cannot fathom is Esther de Laurenti’s (and Gregor’s) inclusion. I complained about it in Book #2—as it didn’t really feel tied to any part of the story, or the main characters within—and I’m going to roast it even more now. Esther, a literature major, is consulted briefly about the opening quote, which is apparently a passage by Oscar Wilde. Full stop. Nevertheless, despite being out of the story after this brief interlude, we continue to share her POVs. In a book of false-leads and tangents, where the story toes an ever-murky line, her inclusion does little other than to distract from an already confusing story, something that is as nonsensical as it is infuriating. “So, we’re going to take a break from this twisting, confusing, but immersive case to go check in on Esther, who really has nothing to do with anything.” While I love developing more backstory on the leads, visiting their lives and seeing their problems and how it all affects their jobs—I don’t understand checking in on someone who barely relates at all to the case, to the detectives, or to the story at all.

As with other Engberg mysteries, or some Nordic Noir, don’t expect a happy ending. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t one. Just that Nordic Noir is so-named for a reason. It’s not grimdark, but it’s not “and they all lived happily ever after”. I mean, there’s certainly a conclusion—which I quite liked, in fact—and it’s definitely enjoyable to the reader, as it ties up any loose ends quite nicely, just: it might not be the happiest. Think of it as “some of them lived, some were happy, and there was some measure of after”.

TL;DR

All in all, the Harbor is probably Katrine Engberg’s most ambitious mystery to date. It’s certainly the most intricate, thrilling, and entirely plausible one. Reality aside, not every mystery can end with a mountain of corpses and a serial killer behind bars. A murky, twisting tale set out over the Øresund and its isles in the Copenhagen harbor, the Harbor chooses an already dark and overcast setting to stage its latest tale, one that replaces a world of greys with that of blues instead. And while it delves even more into the lives of its characters than any release before it, the inclusion of previous characters and their lives—which don’t seem to relate to the case at all—is a mystifying choice, and one that holds the story back from being something truly special. Because at no time during your already twisting and intricate, highly immersive investigation should you take a break to visit someone who has nothing to do with anything, and talk for a while about their lives. This aside, I’d thoroughly recommend the Harbor, and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Kørner and Werner, and where the series goes from here!

Audio Note: Once again, I loved Graeme Malcolm’s narration! It brought the story to life and helped sell the characters not just as individuals, but as part of a whole, interconnected to each other and the world around them A great read, all around. Thoroughly recommended!

Review of The Tenant (Kørner & Werner #1)

Review of the Butterfly House (Kørner & Werner #2)

The Bladed Faith – by David Dalglish (Review)

Vagrant Gods #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; April 5, 2022

470 pages (paperback)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for sending me a lovely physical ARC! And additional thanks to David Dalglish for taking the time to chat with me a bit more about it! All opinions are my own.

How did one weigh one atrocity against another?

According to David Dalglish, this is his 20th novel (something I’m not going to measure or question at all and just go with)—and what better way to mark the occasion than with a review…? Okay, okay, I guess I could’ve got him a gift or something. Might have to, after this goes live. Because while I did quite like the book, it wasn’t quite the adventure that the Keepers was, nor the chaos of Shadowdance.

But we’ll get into that later.

When Prince Cyrus was twelve, the Everlorn Empire came to his shores. A quick and decisive battle later, his fleet was demolished, his city burned, his gods defeated, and his parents killed. Taken prisoner to legitimize the Empire’s rule, for two years Cyrus was paraded about as the captive prince, until the execution of his gods gave him an opportunity to escape.

Now, holed up in the Thanet countryside, Cyrus is given his one chance to strike back at the Empire that took everything from him. The fledgling resistance—such as it is—needs a figurehead to legitimize their cause, and the former prince is perfect for the job.

But, his road to revenge isn’t to be an easy one. For while the island needs an heir, the path to freedom is not paved with diplomacy. Not entirely, at least. Instead Cyrus is secretly trained to be a killer: a god of blood and fury, wielding twin sabres and hidden behind a skull mask and cloak.

The Vagrant rises to protect Thanet, and to see its invaders to the shores.

But not all is as it seems. Cyrus’ god-given right to rule is not as solid as he once thought, and the mantle of the Vagrant isn’t the heroic role he imagined. Soon he will discover the real weight of his duty—and the price of his vengeance.


“You took from me everything I loved. My parents. My kingdom. Even my gods. I can’t unmake the loss, but I can make you hurt. I can make you afraid.

“And you will come to fear me, monsters of the empire. You will fear the Vagrant Prince when he comes to reclaim his crown.”

He lowered his swords. A smile cracked his stern expression to match the one on his mask. He laughed to himself, mood unable to remain serious for so long.

“Hopefully.”

As tales of vengeance go, the Bladed Faith is the start of a pretty good one. An impressionable boy willing to do whatever it takes to avenge the deaths of his parents, his gods, his kingdom. Willing to kill for Thanet’s freedom, even at the expense of his life. But the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, the more he questions it. The more he learns, the more it haunts him; the lives he’s ended, the path he’s taken, the secrets he’s found. There’s a very real sense, throughout the book, that Cyrus is keeping it all together through sheer force will, maybe bound by scotch tape and bits of string. His mental heath is way past questionable even before he was imprisoned by the invaders that destroyed his whole world. That he’s just going to come to pieces at some point, some point soon. And the secrets that he learns—I mean, I can’t give anything away here, but it sets up an epic conclusion, one I truly did not see coming.

And while it’s great to see an author address the health and stress and mental battles coming with killing so much (and that becoming a “heartless killer” isn’t something that a person can just turn on and off with no repercussions), I would’ve actually liked to have seen a bit more of it. Let me explain. When you really get into it, the Bladed Faith boils down to two key aspects: fight scenes, and the exhaustion that comes after. I mean, yeah, there’s some set-dressing, some political intrigue, some world-building and lore and whatever else. But the key moments—especially after the halfway point—boil down to the fight, and what follows it.

It’s really hard to complain about the fight-scenes. It’s not like some books where that’s all there are, or others where they are too few and too far between. Plus Dalglish writes them so well! There a good amount of battles, scraps, prowling rooftops, ambushing soldiers, screwing up and having to fight their way out. When the battle is raging, the battle-lust is high. But when the red leaves their eyes—especially for Cyrus—the aftermath is near as intense as the actual fight. That said, it feels… incomplete, somehow. See, there’s usually a cutaway between the fight and the exhaustion that follows. A break in the narrative that occurs just at that point where it goes from “kill kill kill” to “what have I done?”. I think that’s one of the reasons it never felt really fulfilling to me. The other being that none of Cyrus’ heartfelt moments after seem to come to fruition. And while I understand the reasoning behind the latter, I don’t so much for the former. When it works—as it does quite often—there’s nothing to complain about. When it’s done well, it really gets you thinking, considering the story from a new perspective. But it doesn’t always work. There’s a… for a book that strives so much to detail the emotions of its protagonists, this seems like a strange tactic. Just a break when emotions are running their strongest, or their weakest; when the battle-lull sets in, and the lust fades. Yes, there’s plenty of time spent examining what happens after, but it’s “some time after”, not “directly after”. I suppose what I’m objecting to (as it’s not even that obvious to me) is the break in the range of emotions. We’ve had the highs of the battle. Then there’s a break. And now we’re dealing with the lows of the experience. This is predominantly what I remember happening (there are a few that go: highs of battle, then a lull, then a break, or lull to full downturn, but really nothing that encompasses the whole thing)—I suppose all in all, it seems a rather minor thing to harp on, but in a book that seems to spend so much time on the emotions of becoming a hardened killer, it really doesn’t ever seem to focus on the entire range of emotions.

For the resistance against such an enemy as the Everlorn Empire, whose borders span pretty much the known world, the tiny isle of Thanet is the perfect setting. We don’t have to focus on the world in its entirety. There aren’t a lot of unconnected POVs placed strategically amidst a vast sea. We focus on a little island a hundred leagues from the mainland, and the whole of the story takes place here. While there is lore about the rest of the empire, especially the farther we get on, the reader only has to really focus on Thanet. I really liked this; I thought it worked really well. While I was curious about the larger world (I always am—I can’t help myself), I was happy enough to concentrate on this one part of it so long as the story centers there. Now the author has hinted that the Vagrant Gods trilogy could just be one piece of a much larger tale—one that surely would involve a glimpse of the much larger world—there are no specifics at this point. And while I will admit that some fantasies that span the entire globe do turn out to be AMAZING, they can be quite overwhelming at first. And some readers can burn out on them quite quickly. The smaller, more centralized story here shouldn’t suffer the same. And while some readers will invariably DNF this, it’s likely not the number had it been a universe-spanning, millennial-long tale of truly epic proportions.

TL;DR

I’m not sure what the future holds for the Vagrant Gods, but I know I’m on-board for it. While it’s not the perfect execution in my mind, the Bladed Faith deals with far more than the stabby-stabby bits of an impressionable youth turned hardened killer. There’s quite the range of highs and lows, emotional and mental fortitudes, and long, hard looks at oneself within. And though the emotional range is a little lacking to what I might’ve liked, it’s far more than that of other books and media where our protagonist flips a switch between killer and average guy like it’s nothing at all. This story of vengeance takes place in the secluded corner of a truly vast empire, and rarely stretches beyond its shores. Yes, there is a bit of lore and history of the Empire and its wars, but for the most part our attention remains glued on Thanet. And I loved that. I thought it worked quite well as the introduction to a possibly grander story. It doesn’t overwhelm or distract the reader with dozens of POVs over thousands of miles; it concentrates on this little isle, so long as the story centers here. Which it does throughout the Bladed Faith, at least.

I’d also suggest carrying on after the main attraction to read the author’s note. These are hit-and-miss, often little more than kudos to everyone who made the book possible (which is great, I’m not criticizing them), but Dalglish’s often include much more. The writing process; his state of mind; how the story evolved, sometimes even through publication. I always love reading these, and this one is no different. In it, he describes the tale that the Bladed Faith could have been. What it started out as, and how it became what it is. Honestly, I’d love to post the entirety of it, but I’ll have to talk to the author first. Or, you know, you could just buy the book and read it then;) I will have a little Q&A later this week where I ask things about what this series could’ve been, and why it wasn’t—so maybe check back for that in the meantime.