Infernal – by Mark de Jager (Review)

Chronicles of Stratus #1

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Solaris; November 26, 2020

450 pages (ebook)
12hr 54m (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4 / 5 ✪

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

Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar body, an unfamiliar place, with no memories of how he got there, where “there” is, or who he even is. All that he knows is that his name is Stratus—and that a demon lives within him.

Armed with just this knowledge—and a powerful yet volatile innate sorcery—Stratus begins a journey of self-discovery. This journey will take him through Krandin, recently decimated by war. A land that proves less than welcoming to a hulking dark-skinned stranger with amnesia and a powerful hunger. One that includes both horse- and human-flesh.

As Stratus slowly pieces together his history, he discovers a land full of both allies and enemies, some of them from his very past. He also discovers a dark power threatening to engulf the land—a land that despite himself he has begun to care about. But is it worth enough to him that he will help save it, or will Stratus let all fall to darkness to slake his thirst for vengeance?

‘Evil is motivation. You cannot ward against motivation, only the acts that they motivate.’

I’m a bit of a sucker for the amnesiac trope: the one where the main character has no idea who they are and has to piece it together while the world tries to kill them. Interesting enough at the outset, the mystery just ramps up when Stratus’s demon emerges and starts compelling him to strangle horses or describe just how familiar (and tasty) human flesh is.

The narration really helps bring the story to life however, and I can’t rave enough about how great Obioma Ugoala is as Stratus. It lends an impressive voice to this very personal tale, one that just fits so well!

Over the course of the story, Stratus is tested and developed as a character as he slowly discerns his identity. He isn’t alone in this but his is by far the most extensive. It makes sense as this is his tale, but I would’ve liked to see more from the characters of Infernal other than just the two or three that really evolve over the course of the story. Still, those few are strong enough to carry the tale—as most of it falls squarely upon the shoulders of Stratus himself.

The only real issue I had with Infernal was the ending. Yes, I see why it ended in the manner it did (and you will too, should you read it). It makes perfect sense, and really cuts out on the right foot to set up Book #2. That being said—we left a decent amount unresolved. Part of the story is complete, yes, and part of it is just starting. But part cuts out in the middle, with no real resolution even hinted at.

TL;DR

Infernal is an excellent new addition to the fantasy genre, one that makes very few mistakes over the course of its 13ish hours. Stratus is a strong and fascinating character, one whose story you’ll surely become invested in over the course of the tale. The places he goes, things he does are not widely done in fiction, but are passed off as if they’re completely normal. The narrator is excellent and I cannot recommend the audio version of this enough! The only real issue I had was with how much is resolved at its end. Yes, there is an excellent reason it ends like it does; and yes, part of the story is concluded while still setting up Book #2—but I still feel more could have been resolved. It was just very abrupt.

Despite this hiccup I’m definitely looking forward to the Chronicles of Stratus #2—Firesky—due out November 23, 2021.

Also thanks to Rebecca at Powder & Page for recommending this! I thoroughly recommend it further.

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #2

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; June 1, 2017

11hr 3min (audio)
381 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.2 / 5 ✪

British India, 1920.

The Kingdom of Sambalpore has grown rich off diamonds. But riches also breed resent. As a semi-autonomous entity within the Empire, the Maharajah is uncontested in his rule. But all things change.

When the Maharajah’s heir-apparent is assassinated on a visit to Kolkata, it’s up to Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee to discover why. The mystery leads the two into the heart of Sambalpore, and embroils the pair in the politics of the court. Within days their suspect list practically grows to encompass the entire kingdom. From a ruthless playboy now in line for the throne, to the third-in-line and his highly ambitious mother, to a power hunger advisor or a cult of religious fanatics, to a missing Englishman and the a secret so valuable it’s worth not killing for once, but twice—everyone’s a suspect. And everything is suspect.

As the pair of detectives get further embroiled, it soon becomes clear that while the former prince was well-liked, nearly anyone would benefit in some way from his demise. And the deeper they dig into the case, the larger the stakes get. It seems that very few people actually WANT Wyndham to solve the case, but as the death toll continues to grow, it’s clear that the murders won’t stop until the Captain does just that.

Some familiar faces, some action, and a really deep mystery await them—in Sambalpore.

The followup to A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil marks the return of Wyndham and Banerjee, as well as a few more familiar faces. While the Empire hub of Kolkata was left largely unexplored in Book 1, Book #2 instead chooses to whisk us off to an autonomous kingdom within the Raj, where tensions are higher, riches are flowing, and Englishmen can’t necessarily do as they please. Thus it’s more difficult for Wyndham to investigate—and easier for the kingdom to stonewall him. So begins a long and intricate (even sometimes convoluted) story to get to the heart of the matter. Seriously, there’s so much going on here that I started to get lost towards the end. As the number of threads exploded and the suspect list grew and grew, it’s really hard to keep a full handle on everything (at least, it was for me). But before everything gets too much, Wyndham is able to whittle the list down, eventually tying everything up in a way that somehow left me with relatively few unanswered questions. Questions that I suspect will be (mostly) addressed in the sequel.

The ending here surprised me. I mean, as I spent a decent chunk of the second half so completely at sea, that’s not really surprising. But, after my initial guess turned out to be wrong, my second and third quickly followed. When the end came it nearly blindsided me. I was waaaay off. But it wasn’t because of any information that was withheld, or sprung upon us at the last minute. It was all there—I just failed to put it all together. But I was listening to this while playing video games, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got overwhelmed. Not to mention the change of locale, politics, religion (it’s still Hinduism, but with a different major deity, and—I’m really not familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon to get into this), and tone. There’s a lot to keep track of. But if you’ve read A Rising Man you’ll be good. Mostly.

Annie returns in Book #2, though things between her and Sam aren’t the whirlwind romance we spent #1 hinting at. Something about accusing a girl of aiding and abetting a murder really seemed to sour their relationship. But Wyndham is giving it his best, so maybe they’ll recover. Or maybe she’ll run off an marry a Maharajah.

Again, I loved Malk Williams’ performance as Captain Wyndham, although his return to the series is a bit bittersweet. See, after this one, the very talented but undeniably different Simon Bubb takes over as Wyndham, and it’s going to be an adjustment—unless it isn’t. Because Simon Bubb is always the reader if you live over in the UK, but for some reason it’s Williams here in the US for two books. Bubb returns for #4—again at least in the UK, as the audio of Death in the East isn’t out in the US yet. For some reason.

TL;DR

An intricate, occasionally convoluted tale regarding the assassination of a prince, a kingdom whose future remains in the balance, plus the many, many secrets worth killing for in the Kingdom of Sambalpore. If you’re not familiar with Colonial India, this series does a lovely job of taking the reader back to experience just what it’d’ve been like to go for a visit—if you were an Englishman, at least. The religious and political tension, the ethnic tensions, the press of bodies, the heat and humidity, the unwashed masses—Mukherjee really does an excellent job of painting a picture of Colonial life. And death, for that matter. The mystery is more than worth the price of admission, as the twists and turns kept me guessing up until the end. I love how the character of Wyndham—and Banerjee as well—are evolving, and hope they continue to progress in the next installment, Smoke and Ashes.

The Dispatcher – by John Scalzi (Review)

The Dispatcher #1

Scifi, Novella

Subterranean Press; April 20, 2017

128 pages (ebook)

2hr 18min (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

Taylor Barnes was the first to die. About 8 years prior to the present, he and his wife were in Iceland celebrating their anniversary. Unbeknownst to him, she had been having an affair and was preparing to leave him, but had been unable to summon the courage to confront him about it. And one day while out hiking in Iceland, she finds a workaround—and pushes Taylor off a cliff to his death. The next thing he knows, Taylor wakes up at home: confused, disoriented, but very much alive.

Soon after murder victims stop dying, soldiers start waking up at home after being shot or blown up, death row inmates cheat death the moment their sentence is carried out. In 999 out of 1000 cases, those murdered come back to life. After 8 years, there’s a whole system to the chaos.

Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher—a professional assassin tasked with humanely disposing of people in the throes of death. But not all Dispatchers are so conscientious. As with any profession, this one harbors a dark side, where its purveyors exist in a moral grey area. When a fellow Dispatcher goes missing, Valdez teams up with the police to find his friend before it’s too late—and while doing so is forced to confront all the dealings his fellow Dispatcher had his hands in. But while he may cheat death the first time, even Dispatchers aren’t immune when a natural, non-violent death comes a-knocking.

For the most part, I found the Dispatcher a lovely read with an engrossing story, a concise conclusion, and an interesting, well-thought-out premise. It’s a fairly short read—only a little over two hours (if you go the audio route and 1x speed)—and I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world before being whisked away. While the mystery is a rather compelling one, it’s hampered by the time constraint, and everything seems to come to Valdez a bit too easily because of this. We’re presented with the issue, then we learn about it, and arrive at the conclusion. There’s very little detective work, chasing leads, ghosts, or dead ends.

This may not be the detective story you’ve always wanted. The one that turns your brain inside-out before ultimately blowing your mind as it concludes its journey. But it’s interesting, entertaining, and leaves no thread un… unthreaded? Seeing as how there is light at the end of the tunnel, I’m happy to give this a recommendation. With another Dispatcher novella coming out soon (through Subterranean Press—though it’s already out in audio), we may yet be able to explore more of the world, and jump back behind the eyes of Tony Valdez.

Book Loot – Christmas 2020 & January 2021

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

ARCs for January

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

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

Doors of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (1/12)

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

Fable – by Adrienne Young (1/26 UK)

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

Extraterrestrial – by Avi Loeb (1/26)

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

Purchases

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

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee

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

Warrior of the Altaii – by Robert Jordan

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

Trail of Lightning – by Rebecca Roanhorse

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

Great North Road – by Peter F. Hamilton

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

Gifts

Rhythm of War – by Brandon Sanderson

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

Made Things – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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

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

Book Loot – November Edition

A very light haul this month, but I need it to catch up on everything I fell behind on in the early fall. Chance that that happens? I’m going with… low, but possible. If nothing else, I shouldn’t fall further behind. Life continues to be just… exhausting this year, y’know? We’re almost done with 2020 (though my brain assures me that reaching an arbitrary “end” to the year won’t do any good or change anything—my mind is always optimistic and super helpful)—just a couple more months to go!

ARCs

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (11/10)

Hal Cullen is an ex-supersoldier, grown in a vat and guaranteed little in the way of a life outside of war. Burned out and not long for life, Hal reluctantly takes a job salvaging ships to pass the time before his inevitable crash. But as he begins to grow close to a new crewmember, Hal starts to imagine a life outside of his vat-given one. And that’s when an alien presence takes over their ship and SHTF. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#TheRushsEdge, #AngryRobot) for the ARC!

Infernal – by Mark de Jager (Re-release • 11/26)

Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with no memory of anything before but for the fact that he is not human. He does possess an incredible strength and the overwhelming will to survive. As he sets out across the war-torn land, Stratus will discover bits and pieces of his life before, all culminating in the burning desire for vengeance upon those that robbed him of his past. Many thanks to Rebellion for this reissue! It looks really good!

Purchases

Forest of Souls – by Lori M. Lee

My monthly audiobook credit went to the newest Lori M. Lee book that I’ve been planning on reading for half the year. I still have a bit of listening burnout, but we’ll see how it goes. With the power to cheat death, an army of living trees, and promised doses of action, heartache and intrigue, hopefully it’ll prove more than entertaining!

What are everyone’s plans for November? Anybody doing Nanowrimo, maybe shopping their memoirs, or bedding down for the remainder of the year (I know Tammy’s husband has something planned!)? I’ll admit, I’m tempted on that final one! And not only since it’s supposed to be -10˚F this week (that’s -23˚C just in case you were curious), and we’re supposed to get a foot of snow.

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

320 pages (ebook) 12 hr 17 min (audio)

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Deep within the mountains of Colorado lies the Inn at Havenfall. Havenfall is a crossroads between worlds—and serves as a meeting place and sanctuary for the delegates from any number of worlds. Nowadays there are only two gates open: one to Fiordenkill, the other Byrn.

Maddie Morrow, the niece of the Innkeeper of Havenfall, has always spent her summers working at the Inn. She even has hopes of taking over for her Uncle, Marcus, someday. But soon after she arrives at the Inn for the summer of her 18th birthday, those dreams quickly become a reality.

Marcus has been attacked and survives in a coma. Maddie is in charge of the Inn. And the trouble doesn’t stop there.

For a being has slipped through one of the dormant gates—one to the world of Solaria. The Solarians are shapeshifting monsters that prey upon humans and have been banned from Earth for a generation. But now one is loose. And the Solarian door is stuck open.

Now Maddie, with little help and less clue of what to do, must take charge, run the Inn in place of her uncle, prevent any more Solarians from entering via the door while hunting down the one that has already come through. But it may already be too late.

So, at Colorado Mountain there is a door that opens to many worlds. This door is known as the Stargate, and through it… wait no. Um. Colorado, mountains, Havenfall. Right, right.

Havenfall is equal parts adventure, fantasy, romance, and mystery. While it’s a decent fantasy adventure, the romance within the story is actually what captured my interest. I mean, the fantasy is alright—an interesting enough premise and world-building, decent execution and plot, but with underwhelming extraplanar beings, magic system, and character development. The romance somehow drew my attention, which is usually not a good thing. But here it surprised me. Maddie is bi—having fallen in love with Fiorden soldier Brekken, whom she first met at the Inn, but also seasonal worker Taya, who is a mystery that Maddie just can’t seem to solve. Instead of the cringe-worthy, awkward teen romance I was expecting, Havenfall proves to be a soul-searching, confusing story of teenage attraction that—while still awkward—seemed more real than the faerie tale romance you’d expect. Now while Maddie isn’t the best gumshoe (we’ll get to that), she is young and naïve, but also skeptical, making her an excellent target for romance.

A detective, however, she is not. Maddie is young and (apparently) not very bright. She is continually pelted in the face by evidence that she somehow ignores. At first I chalked this up to her being young. Then not terribly smart. And at last… just because. Maddie doesn’t seem to learn from experience. Or make any deductive leaps. Or really even pay much attention to any kind of detail. Yeah, she’s 18, but throughout the story her character doesn’t develop and learn from experience. The mystery is rather basic, and it takes her over twelve hours of story-time to wrap her head around it.

Audio Note: Kate Handford was an excellent narrator that really brought Maddie Morrow to life. And while it didn’t do anything for her mystery-solving ability, I really enjoyed the angst and confusion and naïvety the narrator put into her performance that brought across Maddie as the awkward teenage outcast she truly was.

TL;DR

Havenfall represents (in my opinion) awkward teenage romance done right. While there are faerie tale elements, it’s not a storybook romance, and actually feels somewhat real, not ridiculous and cringe-worthy, if still awkward. In terms of plot, world-building, and adventure, the story is your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy—with an interesting premise and decent execution, but little more. The mystery is just pathetic, honestly. And Maddie isn’t the best narrator, despite being intensely romanceable. Havenfall is a decent enough series debut—though I expect better from its sequel.

The series will continue with Phoenix Flame, out March 4th, 2021.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill – by Sophie Hannah (Review)

The New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #4

Mystery, Historical Fiction

HarperCollins; August 20, 2020 (UK)
William Morrow; September 15, 2020 (US)

346 pages (ebook)
8 hr 54 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

It is 1930. Hercule Poirot is traveling by coach to the illustrious Kingfisher Hill Estates when he uncovers a murderer. Prior to the tale’s start, Richard Devonport had written the famous detective and requested he come to the Estates to investigate the murder of his brother, Frank. A year previous, Frank had fallen to his death within the Devonport’s house of Little Key. The incident was ruled a murder, with Richard’s fiancée Helen as the prime suspect. Helen has been arrested and is awaiting hanging, as the authorities are convinced of her guilt. But Richard is not as convinced.

But on the coach to Kingfisher Hill, Poirot uncovers yet another mystery. A woman is convinced that she will be murdered if she sits in a certain seat. To allay her fears, the detective switches seats with her. Putting him next to a woman that later confides in him that she herself has committed a murder. But when the woman disembarks before he does, will Poirot be able to find her again? And how can he solve a murder that he knows all of the details of, yet none of them names for?

This is all before reaching Kingfisher Hill Estates, where another murder mystery awaits. One that may be connected to the hysterical woman, may be connected to the self-confessed murderer, or may be an entirely separate mystery entirely. All that is certain is that Poirot and his associate Catchpool are in for a difficult week, one that they’ll never forget.

First off, Hercule Poirot doesn’t ride in coaches. That’s a thing—look it up.

As a fan of Agatha Christie’s original Hercule Poirot, when Sophie Hannah originally revived the series, I was somewhat dubious. But as we approach the fourth book in the renewed series, I figured it was time to give it a try. By book four, Hannah has had time to fine tune her portrayal of the Belgian detective. And she does a pretty decent job of it. But as I’ve mentioned previously, there are exceptions to this.

All in all, I actually found the book enjoyable, though it took me a bit to warm up to it. This is helped quite considerably by the narrator—Julian Rhind-Tutt—who did such an incredible job as Poirot, that I had to double-check that David Suchet wasn’t actually involved. While I had issues with the depiction of Poirot himself, the mystery is really quite a good one; enjoyable, challenging, interesting, full of twists and turns. As a mystery, I’d say it’s probably a 4+ star read. As a continuation of Agatha Christie’s classic detective however—it leaves a little to be desired.

As Hastings occasionally was before him, Edward Catchpool acts as a friend and narrator for the brilliant detective—one that, while he infrequently picks up on Poirot’s hunches, is most often in the dark. It took me quite a bit of time to warm up to Catchpool enough that I didn’t find him simply exhausting. He’s a bit of a dry narrator. I mean, Hastings wasn’t exactly colorful and interesting. He was English. Old Empire English. But Catchpool seems to be a bit more of a bore, in addition to being even slower on the draw. He is frequently behind Poirot in even the most obvious of deductions, though every now and then he has his moment. It’s done this way for a reason—to make Poirot seem more impressive and amazing. But while Hastings was a captain in the British Army, he was no detective. Edward Catchpool is supposedly an Inspector of Scotland Yard, so he really should be less hopeless.

Poirot just feels different. It’s mostly little things; the bit about the coach, the perhaps inflated sense of superiority. He doesn’t mention any bit of his history beyond that of Hannah’s last novel. There’s actually little I can pinpoint exactly. Poirot seems nearly (nearly!) normal. His ego, his methods, his attention to detail, his cleanliness are all on point. Combined with Cacthpool’s dry witticisms, it’s almost like the old Poirot is back. It’s like running into an old friend, but their recollection of history is different and some of their mannerisms are wrong. But they look the same, they talk the same, and more than anything it’s good enough to have them back that you don’t want to look too closely lest you be disappointed.

TL;DR

Like an old friend you haven’t seen in years, Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot looks like you remembered, sounds like you remembered, and is more than anything a sight for sore eyes. Provided you don’t look too closely. Otherwise you’ll unearth a slightly stranger looking Poirot—one that shares much in common with his predecessor, but is subtly different. Nothing too overt here, but his mannerisms, his inflated sense of ego, his peculiarities, his knowledge of and regard for his own history—are all off. If you take the mystery as it is, it will seem an interesting, twisting, and often exciting distraction from the world. But should you look too close, you may just find a doppelgänger masquerading as an old friend. Someone that has nearly fooled you once, but won’t again.

An Ember in the Ashes – by Sabaa Tahir (Review)

An Ember in the Ashes #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Razorbill; April 28, 2015

464 pages (ebook) 15hr 22min (audio)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

In the Martial Empire, no one is free.

Laia is a Scholar—one the Empire’s second class citizens. Her people have been oppressed by the ruling class for years, good for nothing except servitude and slavery. Some few have elevated to craftsmen and above, but none are trusted. Laia’s parents wanted something better for the Scholars; so they were killed. Years later Laia lives with her grandparents and her brother, Darin, but that too is about to change.

When he’s caught with sketches of a Martial forge, Darin is arrested for treason. Her grandparents are killed, their shop burned to the ground; the work of a Mask—the Empire’s faceless assassins. Laia manages to escape—but her alone. With no other option, she is forced to turn to the Resistance, though they’ve already ruined her life once.

Elias is a soldier. Born a Veturius—the daughter of one of the most renowned and elite families in the Empire—he was the son Keris never wanted. As such he grew up a faceless tribesman, before he was found out and brought home to the Empire by his grandfather. There he was sent to Blackcliff, the prestigious military academy, to follow in his mother’s footsteps. It was an honor he never dreamt of and a fate he never wanted.

As Laia is a slave by birth, so too is Elias.

Yet neither is keen to stay that way.

Elias plans to defect, to leave the Empire—and his family—behind. But the Augurs, immortal architects of the Empire, have other plans. See, the Emperor is dying, and without an heir, the line won’t last the year. And so a contest is announced to determine the next ruler—and the Augurs want it to be Elias.

Meanwhile, all Laia wants is her brother. But the Resistance isn’t willing to free him for nothing. So to help her brother, Laia is recruited as a spy. She is to gather information about the Empire: their movements, their secrets, anything useful—and report it to the Resistance. But to free Darin, she has to find something worthwhile. And to find something worthwhile, she has to go somewhere important. Somewhere like Blackcliff.

*—•—*

I read about 70% of this as an audiobook, before my library loan expired. Then, I read the rest as an ebook. While both were decent platforms, the audio was highly immersive, with great voice talent that really got into their parts. Though I probably read through the most tense, thrilling, and heart-pounding sections at the end, I never enjoyed the story more than in its audio-format.

All in all, I was a big fan of AEitA. But… I think it was a little too intense for me. This book has all the tension of a YA fantasy under the constant strain of puberty. I mean, CONSTANT. Laia is high-energy paranoid, and with the stress of having to save her only brother WHILE going undercover in Blackcliff knowing that all the previous spies that have done so have died AND ostensibly doing it alone—it kind of shows. She is highly strung, but for a very good reason. This made her chapters all high-energy, fully pumped up, heart-pounding stress and tension. Elias, meanwhile, is almost as intense; trying to survive Blackcliff, while dealing with the added pressure garnered by the name Veturius, and the constant tug-of-war between his desire to desert the Empire and the loyalty he shares with his few friends and comrades, particularly his best friend Helene—whom he may or may not be in love with. [Yes, I realize those were both run-on sentences—no, I am not rewriting them.]

Both POVs confronted the normal issues YA stories deal with. But instead of one or two, they decided to tackle pretty much ALL OF THEM. Which, understandably, made everything pretty intense, energetic, and angsty. I found myself conflicted between the desire to find out what happened next and the need to stop reading and avoid the wave of stress that only YA development can cause.

As such, the romance was in parts fierce, intense and terribly awkward. As most YA romance is, generally. While I loved the characters in AEitA, none were stronger than those of its love-triangle. And while I hate everything about love-triangles in books, since I loved all the characters within this one—I still hated it. I’m not getting into this now. Or ever. Sufficient to say that I find said triangles to be awkward, annoying, angsty, and an unwelcome flashback to my youth where everything was awkward and so brutally important and cringe-worthy all the time. The romance wasn’t a bad-teen-romcom or together-forever romance. But it wasn’t not these things either.

As I said, I loved the characters. Elias and Helene dominated one half of the text, and as the story progressed, both characters continued to grow and develop. As does the relationship between the two. On the other side, we have Laia and Keenan (a Resistance fighter). I never bought into this romance, which seemed like it was introduced just to counter the possible Elias-Helene one. Keenan barely gets any screen time, and remains as weak and unfleshed a character as when he was introduced. And, while I mostly enjoyed Laia, she also infuriated me. Where Elias developed, she pretty much remained the same. Stubborn, paranoid, and standoffish—pretty much early stages Katniss throughout the whole book. Towards the end, her chapters began to annoy me in a very startling way—which was both good and bad. Bad, as she was frustrating. Good, as it demonstrated just how much I had bought into the story.

The characters of Markus and Keris were also quite strong. Okay, so mainly just Keris. Where Markus was your classic unhinged sociopath, Keris showed depth, change and insight—a potent combination for a character obviously designed to be a villain. Over the course of the book, we get to see quite a lot more of Elias’s mother than would be comfortable, but I was surprised to find a logic behind her thoughts and actions, and a justification later on. I’m not giving anything away—just that it was eye-opening to say the least.

The only other weakness I can think of is the setting. The world isn’t very well fleshed out in the first book, something I hope is corrected in further installments. I’d like to see more of the land beyond deserts, imposing fortresses, prisons, cities and tunnels. It all had kind of a dark and dreary cast in my imagination—I’d like to see a bit more vibrance from the setting in the future. Furthermore, a greater understanding of the supernatural world would be nice as well. We’re given just a peek of it in AEitA, with hardly any accompanying explanation.

TL;DR

While it may seem like your classic, run-of-the-mill YA fantasy-romance, An Ember in the Ashes isn’t satisfied with just tackling a few of the YA tropes—it does them all. Youthful development, romance, growth, love, hate, war, depth, sacrifice and compromise—seriously, it does them ALL. And though it helped make this read incredibly immersive, it was the characters that made it real for me. Elias and Helene, and Laia, were strong enough to carry the story through a dark and dreary, unassuming world, filled with men and monsters alike, as well as some of both. What brought me back to earth was the romance—a cringe-worthy dual love-triangle—one side of which never felt real. Adding to this was Laia’s refusal to develop, maintaining the detached, stubborn cast she’d cultivated throughout the entire text. When the rubber hit the road and all the threads converged, Laia stubbornly kept on as she had, annoying me and the plot alike.

While it has both ups and downs, An Ember in the Ashes definitely puts more to the good than the ill, making it a must-read YA fantasy that hopefully will only get better with time. A tetralogy (means “four”) that is set to wrap up later this year, An Ember in the Ashes continues with A Torch Against the Night, a book I’m definitely looking forward to reading. Probably as an audiobook. After that… we’ll see how it goes.

Tales of Beedle the Bard – by J.K. Rowling (Review)

Hogwarts Library #3

Short Stories, Fantasy

Bloomsbury; December 4, 2008 (original)

Pottermore Publishing; March 31, 2020 (audio)

109 pages (HC) 1 hr 35 min (audio)

3 / 5 ✪

A quick little reminder about how cool Harry Potter was. And probably a subtle hint to buy more merchandise and hey maybe your friends would like some too, and hey you know that one family member who hasn’t read the series, you could gift them it now, yeah?

Remember Harry Potter? Dude, yay-high, lightning scar, glasses, wizard. No, no, not “wizzard”. That’s the other one. This is the Daniel Radcliffe one. He was also in that other thing that you probably saw but then regretted it as it wasn’t Harry Potter.

If you don’t remember Harry Potter, I think the first book is still free a bunch of places. If you’re interested, google it. But for the people that remember the Wizarding World, Tales of Beedle the Bard is a quick reminder of how much fun that world could be. Especially at times such as these—where some of us are stuck in, others are stuck out, and the rest are in the fantastic land of in-between—fun is badly needed. Enclosed within the hundred-odd pages there are four new tales from the world of Harry Potter and one tale most of us have probably heard before.

The Wizard and the Hopping Pot begins the Tales, a brief reminder of how those that hoard their magic will never find peace from it. The Fountain of Fair Fortune was my favorite of the tales, and teaches the lesson that if you think your life is bad, well, someone else probably has it worse. The Warlock’s Hairy Heart pushes the point that you can’t hide from your feelings without the consequences being impossible to live with. Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump shows that anything can be lovely, but some things you can’t afford “to fake it til you make it”, and consequences be damned. And the Tale of the Three Brothers—which was featured in the books—returns to stamp home the point that you can’t hide from Death, because… no, wait. Never mind—the last one has no moral.

TL;DR

So, five stories, four of them new, and four with morals. I swear that the Tales were used as some kind of history read in Harry Potter, so these folk tales with morals attached make little sense here. I guess it’s just a little lore that will remind you how fun and cool Harry Potter was and how much you should go back and read them now. For diehard fans (which I am not—I like the world and the story enough, but y’know, I like other stories too) (it’s not a Stormlight level of good, anyway), I guess it’d be a must-read. If you’ve Audible, it’s free, so the read was worth it. But otherwise… meh. Pretty light, nothing too deep. It’s mildly fun and interesting, though nothing special.

Audio Note: The narration was the strongest part. A star-studded cast feature, each reading a separate tale. Considering this was free, it’s incredibly well narrated.

Tunnel of Bones – by Victoria Schwab (Review)

Cassidy Blake #2

Supernatural, Paranormal, Middle Grade

Scholastic Press; September 3, 2019

304 pages (ebook) 5 hr 5 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Trouble is haunting Cassidy Blake… even more than usual.

Thus begins Tunnel of Bones, the second Cassidy Blake story, following up City of Ghosts in 2018. Fresh out of Edinburgh, where she tangled with the Red Raven, a spectral lady with aims of becoming flesh reborn. She also met Lara, a girl that can also see and interact with the dead, and whom lets Cassidy in on a little secret. That they must use their power to send the ghosts on, lest they linger in our world and become a danger to it. Enter Paris: one of the most haunted cities in the world.

Not above ground—but below, in the catacombs, ghosts crowd the tunnels, haunting everything and everyone in reach. Fresh into Paris, Cassidy and her parents venture below, filming an episode for their TV show while Cassidy tags along, attempting very hard to slip between the Veil as soon as she’s able. And slip she does. While in the spirit world, Cassidy runs across more than she was prepared for, awakening a very powerful spirit who proceeds to follow her across the Veil.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse haunting in the center of Paris—where Cassidy is most certainly not the cat. And as a cat, it delights in toying with her, breaking things, and sleeping in the sun. Well… two of those, anyway.

After speaking to Lara, she determines that the spirit is a poltergeist—a ghost of immense power and potential—something that remembers neither who it was nor how it died. Two things Cassidy must discern in order to stop it. And stop it she must—in only a few days. Otherwise, while Cassidy Blake will leave Paris behind, the poltergeist will always remain her problem, her doing, her mistake. And she will have to live with the consequences.

I was torn on City of Ghosts, which I found lacking polish, drama, and shine. I found it rather bland, uninteresting, and short. Tunnel of Bones had more character, polish, but was still short. There’s only so good a story can get in five hours. But Tunnel of Bones surely gets better, quicker than City of Ghosts. To compare the two: Bones had more polish, more charm, more character. Though neither provided the length, the thrill, the immersion that I like in a story.

Again, I found the actual ghost-hunting itself a little bland. Dismissing a poltergeist proved to be more interesting than the Red Raven, but only just. There was no boss-fight (not that I expected one), very little detective work (though there was some), and too much chocolate (only because I can’t eat any). Pretty much like an episode of Danny Phantom—short, less than very thrilling, and over before you realized there was a plot. Was better than the first, though, so it was a step in the right direction.

Jacob is… bland. Lara—who was a cynical, pompous brat in City of Ghosts—actually fleshes out some in this entry. She actually seemed a real person over Bones, something that I did not expect. Something that pleased and encouraged me. Actually may’ve been my most favorite element of the book itself. But while it was something, it was little enough as development goes. Not that there is much character development to speak of, but between the two books there is a little, and Lara accounts for most of it. Cassidy commands the remainder. Jacob… okay, I know he’s a ghost and all, but I would’ve liked to see something out of him. Schwab tries to nudge him toward it in the end, but it’s too little, too late by that point. Might set something up for the third book, but does nothing for the first two. Jacob is actually a little like an imaginary friend; there’s no change, no development—he’s consistent, for better or worse.

There’s one particular event that I need to harp on: late in the book, Cassidy literally mugs a ghost and steals his clothes to disguise Jacob—something that makes no actual sense. We’ve established that ghosts manifest beyond the Veil following their death, and that how they appear in death is directly related to both who they were in life and how they died. It’s their sense of self, basically. One cannot steal someone else’s sense of self and wear it around. And it’s an important plot-point, somehow! If an absolutely ridiculous one.

Audio Note: Reba Buhr is a solid narrator throughout the book. I wouldn’t read the series entirely to hear her voice, but it’s not like it ruined the reading or anything. She was a talented, interesting narrator who enunciated and pronounced everything quite well—both in English and French.

TL;DR

For better or worse, Tunnel of Bones continues on the same path City of Ghosts started, albeit with more polish and shine. There’s even a bit of character development, though not nearly enough. It looks like we’re going to continue in this vein—an episodic, city-to-city, traveling ghost-hunting show. There’s an overarching plot, but it’s thin; as befits a kids’ book, I suppose. Each book so far has shown its own subplot, which has been raced through in the (5 hours of) allotted time. Going forward, I would like to see a little more effort, a little more adventure, a little more intrigue, a little more legwork, and a little… MORE. While Tunnel of Bones is likely better than the original, it still leaves much to be desired. But in terms of readability—it’s good enough; a decent read, that does just enough but little more.

The series continues with Bridge of Souls, expected out in March of 2021.

By some amazing coincidence, I’ve posted this exactly one year after my review of the first one. Huh, weird.