Where the Waters Turn Black – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Yarnsworld #2

Dark Fantasy, Horror

Self-published; November 16, 2016

218 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

8.5 / 10 ✪

”It’s safe?”
Yam laughed. “No, of course not. Have you ever heard a good story that’s safe? What’d be the point?”

Welcome to Crescent Atoll, a remote string of emeralds in a sea of sapphire blue.

Islanders eke out an existence on this atoll, using canoes to travel the archipelago. To exist on the isles is to pay respect and homage where it is due: to the gods and taniwha in turn. Though Leinani they respect and fear the most—the goddess taking the shape of a beautiful woman of fire and flame, or a gigantic volcano at the atoll’s edge.

Kaimana is a young ocarina player, left home young to perform with a traveling troupe in pursuit of her Knack rather than stay and live and die a fisherman’s wife. But when she returns home after two years, she finds something has changed.

A monster—a taniwha—now inhabits her former home. And Kaimana must see it.

When she sees the monster for the first time, Kaimana finds herself inspired, the inspiration sparking behind her eyes, a song burning bright trying to find its way out. She is overjoyed—until the taniwha turns up again. And again.

Soon Kaimana is certain it is not just following her, but protecting her as well. Cast out by her troupe, she and the taniwha must learn to cooperate if they are to survive. Especially after they earn the attention of Nakoa, the god of war, former lover of Leinani herself. Formidable the taniwha may be, but to attract the gaze of a god is surely death. Unless the two overcome it—together.

It’s not safe, out there. There are cannibals, gods, and yes, taniwha. And more. All of which will not let a young woman travel safely alone.

A pretty simple setup: a boy and his dog against the world. Or, well, pretty much that. My favorite Yarnsworld story to date features a girl that befriends a monster, and their adventures together. Honestly, even before the intervention of Nakoa I was hooked. The archipelago setting, the travel, the exploration, the world of gods and demons—it was all I could’ve ever wanted. I probably would’ve loved to have just read about their adventures regardless of any hook.

The two characters that make this a story worth reading are undoubtedly Kaimana and Rakau, her taniwha. This pair, and their interactions, their relationship, is basically one of the two sides of the story—the gods and the atoll covering the other. Interspersed between the chapters again are the tales of the gods. We learn about Leinani, Nakoa, the Birdmen of Broken Island, the atoll’s origin story, and more fables that flesh out the archipelago’s lore. There might even be a few familiar faces—if you’ve read previous Yarnsworld stories.

I’d say that this shows a definitive improvement over the author’s debut—They Mostly Come Out At Night—in both writing and storytelling technique. The pacing is smoother, the language consistent, the characters recognizable, the world deep as the author warms to each in turn. It’s not perfect, but certainly a step in the right direction. The gods and taniwha are so colorful and unique; from Yam, the god of yams, to Rakau, a talking log-dog, to Leinani, a goddess of heat and flame, hot and fiery in equal parts. It’s really quite a nice world the author’s invented—I can see why he returns to it.

Three Yarnsworld novels down—and though most aren’t intended to be read in any certain order, this does have a sequel. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing Kaimana and Rakau’s adventures in the latest entry, To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl.

The Sapphire Altar – by David Dalglish (Review)

The Vagrant Gods #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; January 10, 2022

518 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

7.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Episode Thirteen – by Craig DiLouie (Review)

standalone

Horror, Paranormal

Redhook; January 24, 2023

433 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

8 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

standalone

Memoir, Science

Random House; July 27, 2021

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

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

7.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Last Chances – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

standalone

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Head of Zeus; December 8, 2022

545 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

9 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Wormhole – by Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Mystery

Angry Robot; November 22, 2022

433 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Brown Website
Brooke WebsiteSocials

5.5 / 10 ✪

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

The world has changed. A combination of climate change, overpopulation, and resource shortage has led to mass migration of humanity and the need to explore outside the bounds of Earth’s gravity well. Thus an expedition has been launched to Mu Arae, an earth-like planet and trip of about 80 years. The crew are to be kept in suspended animation for the duration, and expected to investigate the planet before deploying a highly experimental contraption as a means of creating a stable wormhole back to Earth.

London, 2190

Gordon Kemp is a former homicide detective, stuck investigating cold-cases as his career winds down. Assigned to a high-profile case named top priority, he and his partner Danni Bellini are surprised to discover that the main suspect—long since departed on the Mu Arae expedition—is not as out of range as they once believed. In fact, with the wormhole expected to be opened within the week, the Kemp’s superiors have instructed him to be ready to depart and retrieve the suspect at first convenience.

The suspect: Rima Cagnac, wife of the illustrious Sebastien White—one of the richest and most influential people on Earth. Accused of killing her husband, she was somehow allowed to leave Earth on the expedition, having been cleared of suspicion. For roughly a century, at least.

While what Kemp and his partner uncover while investigating this case may well change the course of history, what Rima Cagnac discovers on the distant Mu Arae will well shape the future.

Let’s start with the investigation. A cold-case into one of the most prolific unsolved murders in history, dismissed due to lack of evidence, the main suspect allowed to walk (to another planet no less)—and pretty much assumed off-limits afterwards. But instead of focusing on solving (or framing up) the crime that they had eighty years to perfect, they decide to half-ass it on the spot a week before the wormhole is set to open. The conspiracy—because obviously the new evidence is bogus—is so thin that it can be picked apart by two down-on-their-luck detectives and their hacker friend in about a week.

Despite this, the story is actually not terrible. Engaging, interesting (if not deep), and at least somewhat mysterious and immersive. While I developed issues with the plot somewhere around the three-quarters mark—and while I was never absolutely in love with every aspect of the story—it wasn’t a hard book to get into. A decent plot; there were problems with it, but they could be overlooked (early on). The characters, at least those of Danni and Gordon and Rima, were interesting and relatable. But when we stray from the main cast… the depth peters out in a hurry.

Enter Edouard Bryce: key story element and unrepentant chauvinistic ass. Unveiled as Danni’s love interest halfway through the story, he doesn’t change to attract the independent, modern professional that she’s portrayed as. Instead, she changes to suit him. I know it’s very much possible and realistic, but it was still frustrating. He’s probably likable to someone, but that someone was never me.

Okay, now let’s address the twist. It’s… well, it’s too much.

The main issue with Wormhole is that it tries to do too much. A detective story quickly becomes a space exploration—a planet exploration event with potential first contact. With a wormhole added as an afterthought. With a conspiracy that draws secrets from the plot that it can’t even know. There’s just too much going on, too much continually competing to be the center of attention, especially as we approach the latter half of the novel.

TL;DR

Wormhole is a mystery, exploration, adventure, thriller, that tries to appeal to all genres equally yet ultimately manages to succeed in none of them. The reason? It continually tries to do too much. A mystery becomes a space exploration, which becomes a scientific wonder, which begets conspiracy, revolution, dystopia, thriller, aliens, romance, memoir, philosophy… yeah, you get the idea. It’s a bit like Great North Road—the Peter F. Hamilton novel, only crammed into about one-third of the space. Too much, too hectic, not well-enough thought out or built or explained. While there is a decent story within, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. Think about any one element for too long and everything breaks down. All in all, a disappointment for sure.

All of Our Demise – by Foody & Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #2

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; August 30, 2022

468 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website FoodySocials
Author Website Herman • Socials

8.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for All of Us Villains!

• All of Us Villains – Review •

The Blood Veil has fallen.

The tournament to decide the fate of high magic continues. Two contestants now lie dead. Three are united in their attempt to end the practice once and for all. And two more stand to oppose them.

Alastair Lowe has become the greatest monster in Ilvernath once again. Following the reappearance of his brother, the destruction of his family, and the death-curse that plagues him—he has taken on an otherworldly pallor, to go along with his sparkling personality. Still reeling from the betrayal of the girl he loved, he must alter his alliances and his perceptions if he wants to remain in the game.

Briony has done everything to get here—here, where she can make a difference. Be the hero. But with her plan in shambles and her alliances frayed, she faces an impossible choice: continuing on the noble course will most likely find her dead, while reverting to the original one will surely see all her friends dead. Not a great option.

Ilvernath itself cannot hide from the terrors anymore. With the champions now able to enter the town, most residents have barricaded themselves at home, venturing forth only for emergencies. And there is a killer on the loose. Someone siphoning the life magic of anyone unlucky enough to be out past dark. Could it be the boy whose own life is waning? Or the tournament’s darkest monster? The resurrected boy? Or the girl who would do anything to be the hero?

Anything can happen as the tournament draws to a close.

“You should know by now—all the fucked-up fairy tales in Ilvernath are true.”

All in all, a good conclusion to the duology. With the Blood Veil fallen, the story is now open to a whole new range of options absent from the first book. They could transition from the landmarks to the town itself. They could, say, go interact with the families that put them here. They could leave the area entirely—though with the knowledge that the high magic of the tournament will probably kill them all when the Blood Veil descends. Or they could interact with (and/or siphon life force) any of Ilvernath’s citizens, in a desperate attempt to help them win/finish the tournament once and for all.

And it works, mostly. The interactions between the champions has always been a strong point, something that continues throughout Book #2. Now that alliances have shifted (and are constantly tested) and new variables have entered the fray, there’s more at stake than ever before. And more that has to be sorted out among those with the most to lose.

“How does it look?”
“I mean, you’re still cursed,” Gavin said.
“Great. Thanks. I had no idea.”

As before, I again most enjoyed the Big 3—Alastair, Isobel, and Gavin—as Briony continued to rub me the wrong way. And yet that may have been the point all along. As Briony continued to fray throughout Book #2, I actually found the effect as humanizing her to a point she’d never have admitted before. Alastair himself was a bit inconsistent in this part (more on that in a sec), so I ultimately found myself more invested in Gavin and Isobel’s stories. Fortunately the two represent both sides in the conflict, so it all worked out well. Four main characters, two on each side—you don’t have to like everyone for it to work out.

The romance was the biggest letdown of the whole story. And not just because it was a typical love-triangle, will-they won’t-they, romeo-and-juliet, fight-to-the-death kinda thing with all the tropes competing with one another for the lead. Instead, it all came down to the one with the curls. And whether he would pick the fiery girl, or the golden boy. To be honest, it seemed a bit like each author was fronting their own opinion. Like they hadn’t discussed it in advance. Instead the two were competing to win the third’s heart. Which honestly doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, except that someone has to write the third’s POVs, all while remaining impartial to whom they choose. Which they didn’t. And when this love interest went back-and-forth—sometimes dramatically and unexpectedly so—it distracted from, you know, the whole fight to the death. Or the fight to break the curse.

TL;DR

A satisfying, if not absolutely perfect, conclusion to the duology, All of Our Demise definitely combines a death-curse and a love-triangle, a serial killer and a would-be Lazarus, a united front and a divided house. I quite enjoyed half of the portrayals within—while falling out with one, I began to make up with the other. It continues to be a good format, and an interesting take on the Battle Royale genre. While the tournament itself continues to wow, the romance turns a bit stilted and begins to distract from the plot at large. I can’t wait to hear more from these two authors—either as they go off alone or stay together and weave more dramatic fantasy goodness!

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

standalone

Horror, Gothic

Solaris/Rebellion; October 11, 2022

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

6 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for the Dark Between the Trees.

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

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

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

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

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

The Corrigal.

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

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

But let’s not get too far ahead.

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

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

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

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

Death in the East – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Wyndham & Banerjee Investigations #4

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; November 14, 2019

414 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

8 / 10 ✪

Where there are witches, should we not hunt them?

Please beware spoilers for the Wyndham and Banerjee Investigations Books #1-3.

Review of A Rising Man
Review of A Necessary Evil
Review of Smoke and Ashes

London, 1905

As a young constable, Sam Wyndham walks the streets of the Jewish quarter, his assigned beat, only to come across an assault. Two men assailing one woman. Only after chasing the men from the scene does Wyndham recognize her—Bessie Drummond, a former flame, brutally beaten and left for dead. He hails a cab and rushes her to the hospital, where Bessie recovers.

But only days later, Bessie is attacked again, this time in her own rooms. And this time, she is not so lucky.

The resultant investigation goes far deeper than Wyndham could possibly imagine, and will test his desire to see it through to the end.

India, 1922

Death in the East finds Sam Wyndham departing Calcutta, hopping a train bound for the jungle interior of Assam, seeking out an ashram in the hopes of curing him of his long-standing opium addiction. The monastery takes all; natives and Europeans, young and old, rich and poor. But there’s a catch. The monks of this ashram seek to cure men of their addiction, but should any relapse, they are turned away. In short: there are no repeat customers.

The Harvill Secker cover of Death in the East

The trial is hell, that much is certain, but it’s a worthy price in escaping addiction. Only amidst the throes of withdrawal and hallucination, Wyndham sees a ghost from long before. A man he assumed dead, one he thought he’d never see again, and hoped he wouldn’t. But when Wyndham recovers from the episode, there is no sign of the man. He pushes it to the recesses of his mind, trying to tell himself it was all a dream. But doubt gnaws at him.

The doubt reasserts itself when another addict from the ashram turns up dead, one that looks very much like Wyndham. Now Sam must pursue this spectre in the hopes of preventing another murder—and to finally put his own ghosts to rest.

“I have noticed,” said Surrender-not as we walked back up the hill towards the club, “that wherever you go, people tend to die.”
“That’s nonsense.”
“What about that railway sub-inspector out near Bandel last year? You ask him for a railway timetable and twenty minutes later he’s dead.”
“He was hit by a train,” I said. “I don’t see how that was my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was your fault. Just that people seem to die around you. Remember my paternal grandmother? She died two days after she met you.”
“She was eighty-nine years old.”
“You have to admit, it’s curious. I’m thinking I should introduce you to my uncle Pankaj. I’ve never liked him.”

And so we come to the novel that every detective/mystery author must write: that with a pair of interconnected mysteries, happening at different time periods. I swear, there are so many of these there should really be an easier way of defining them. Pastbacks? Dual timeline mysteries? Overlapping post-time cases? I dunno—I’m really hoping that someone will just tell me what they’re called. Although I kinda liked “pastbacks”.

Anyway, despite the cliché that these types of mysteries have become, we enter Death in the East, the fourth Wyndham and Banerjee, and the second outside the city of Kolkata. While Wyndham enters the story alone, don’t fret—Banerjee will join him before its end. After the crowded, chaotic beauty that is Calcutta, the countryside ashram is a whole new setting entirely. And unlike A Necessary Evil, England still rules this corner of India; the local natives cowed, despite whatever sway Gandhi has elsewhere.

It’s a new setting, one that the author brings to life just as effectively as the choked and diverse streets of Colonial India. Out here the Europeans have taken to the countryside, only to find it wanting. Instead of adapting, they’ve carved out their own little England, while duly complaining about how it’s not the same. It’s quite a different backdrop to the tale, though one equally as enthralling as any that preceded it.

The mystery itself—of course—takes place in two parts. One set in 1905 London, the other in 1922 India. The two alternate chapters for a time, though each begins to repeat as we come to both the meat of their respective tales. I found that this worked quite well, and was relieved to see that the book didn’t just stick to the alternating style the whole way through, as some novels do. In general, I’m not a fan of the dual timeline kinda mystery. Again, I find it overdone and cliché, but Death in the East was at least told and constructed well—not getting into any of the nitty gritty details of what went on. Both mysteries were entertaining, and when they came together, the resulting conclusion was well done.

The book has a good sense of humor, while still maintaining the atmosphere of a good murder mystery. The series continues to poke fun at all things England while underlining some of the positives of the Empire, and its many underlying failures with racism, bigotry, and colonialism. My favorite such point was made somewhere in the middle and complains that what “godforsaken place” would see the sun rise in the middle of the night—poking fun at the fact that for quite a while, the entire Empire was managed by one timezone. That’s India, Fiji, the Bahamas, and England—all on Greenwich time.

TL;DR

Honestly, the main complaint I have with Death in the East is the whole dual timeline mystery thing—they’re overdone and overused to the point that everyone and their sitcom has to have at least one. Otherwise, it was a good entry to the series, one that sees Wyndham address his long-running opium problem, while still managing to get some work done. Banerjee joins him, of course, but we are left with out some fantastic running characters from Calcutta, and provided with a few throwaways that probably won’t feature in any additional tales. The mystery—BOTH mysteries—were solid, interesting, entertaining, deep. Even though there aren’t any compelling new additions to the series (character-wise), those replacements we do get are unique and interesting enough to see us through this entry. Plus, it’s good to get out of the city once in a while and stretch your legs, right? Go to an ashram in the jungle to puke your guts out and take in a lovely murder. It’s almost as though you never really left.

Nolyn – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Rise and Fall #1

Fantasy, Epic, High Fantasy

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

480 pages (ebook)

Goodreads • StoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

9 / 10 ✪

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

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

Very effectively, one might add.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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