The Glass Breaks – by A.J. Smith (Review)

Form & Void #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus; March 19, 2018

512 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.0 / 5 ✪

Chained to the rocks and left for the tide, Duncan Greenfire will either become a Sea Wolf—or he’ll die trying. All that stands between the 17 year old and death is the realm of Void, and his ability to cross the Glass into it. But as powerful as Duncan is—it’s a raw power, one that he can’t always control. And after two days doing little more than trying to survive, he has little enough power left. But when the dawn comes, and Duncan is still alive, his initiation is complete. He is a Sea Wolf, now and forever.

It’s been 167 years since the Sea Wolves and their Eastron kin sailed across the sea to take the Pure Lands by force. With an ability to step between the realms of Form and Void, their strength was unparalleled and the natives folded before their might. In the years since, their rule has become absolute. But the Eastron are now fractured: the People of Ice hide on their northern isles, the Kneeling Wolves sulk in the shadows of Big Brother, the Dark Brethren sit in regimented and orderly rows upon the Father, the Winterlords kneel to their Always King on the Isle of the Setting Sun, and the Sea Wolves who lounge on the Isle of Nibonay. None of these masters are terribly benevolent, least of which the Sea Wolves; they raid and slaughter the Pure Ones on a whim, cull their populace, seeing the natives as little more than beasts—and their Eastron kin as little better.

But as Duncan joins their ranks, he discovers the Sea Wolves may not be everything he’s ever wished of them—a sentiment echoed by Duelist Adeline Brand. She and her brother Arthur are two of the most well-known and brutal Duelists of their clan, bathing in blood and booze in equal measure. And yet Adeline harbors doubts about the Sea Wolves, the same ones Duncan is currently confronting. These come to a head when the two are dispatched on separate secret missions for the clan: Duncan to the Isle of Nowhere, seat of the People of Ice; Adeline to the Bay of Bliss, on the other side of the Isle of Nibonay. But where Adeline unearths a threat that will surely mean the doom of her and all the other Eastron in the Pure Lands, Duncan uncovers a conspiracy that may yet save them all. For certain powers have known of this threat for generations, and have been working to stop it. But the question remains: will they succeed, or will the Sea Wolves and their kin be wiped from the world instead?

This took quite a turn from where I was expecting it. The Sea Wolves—as you probably might guess after reading my description—are not nice, friendly people. They are racist, genocidal monsters, who have “generously” allowed the Pure Ones to live on their ancestral lands, all while raiding, pillaging, and slaughtering them as they see fit. Or whenever they’re bored. They do this through their marshal skill and ability to break the Glass, something the Pure Ones can’t do. The Glass and the Realm of Void are an interesting if not wholly unique system of magic, where crossing over from Form to Void means essentially traversing the spirit world (one that more or less parallels the realm of Form) and either manipulating the spirits of the Void or harnessing their energy for their own.

It was a little refreshing to read a story from the villains’ perspective, as the Sea Wolves are definitely it. Even if matters complicate and sympathies change over the course of the book, it cannot be said that the Sea Wolves aren’t the bad guys. They definitely are. Or, well, one of them.

Another twist is that Duncan is kinda an ass. He’s immature, willful, whiny, thickheaded, but mostly just annoying. Like, really, really annoying. But only about half the time. It’s not that his chapters are necessarily awful to read, more that he constantly makes the dumbest choices. This really isn’t much of a spoiler as he will do it early and often. So it’s both really interesting as a plot device and really frustrating to watch him do it. It’s the equivalent of trying to stop someone from jumping off a bridge by shooting them in the head—technically effective, but not in any circumstances acceptable behavior. He’ll also constantly proclaim that he’s a Sea Wolf. Seriously, all the damn time. At first I found this repetitive and unrealistic but then realized how realistic it actually was. Duncan’s a young, immature boy that never had a childhood and only really craves his father’s approval. Despite the fact that he hates the man. And all he’s ever wanted was to be a Sea Wolf. But now that he is, it’s not living up to his expectations. It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t feel accepted. Plus, he doesn’t feel worthy of it. So he continually asserts that he IS a Sea Wolf, on and on, because he’s just a scared, lost kid who no one has ever shown any kindness. A scared, lost kid with too much power and no control over it.

Either that or I’m overthinking it and he’s just a poorly developed character, suffering from a bad, repetitive style of writing.

While I had mixed feelings about Smith’s other series—the Long War—one thing that’s not up for debate is the world-building. Which was top notch. Similarly, Form & Void has a very well constructed world. Albeit one somewhat bereft of people. Though there are plenty of warriors (Pure Ones, Eastron, Sea Wolves, etc), there aren’t a whole lot of common folk mentioned. I mean, I assume they’re around, just we barely ever see them. Otherwise, the world itself, its history, its geography—is all amazing. No issue at all.

The story itself is pretty good as well. It’s full of twists and turns, typically not following the path I expected (insomuch as the idiotic things Duncan does can be considered plot twists), though it did pretty much end like I’d’ve guessed. I absolutely no problem reading the book as Adeline and Duncan make a pretty good pair. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses—though Duncan’s are far more weaknesses than strengths—and compliment one another rather well. You’ll get sections of one or the other: four straight chapters from Duncan’s POV, then the same from Adeline’s (both in 1st person), and on and on.

The characters themselves are another reason to read the Glass Breaks. Other than Adeline and Duncan there are dozens of other well-developed characters, each with their own motivations and backstory. And they’re all expendable, even the ones that you think are too important to die. All in all, it’s a great start to the series, though one I’d like to see fine-tuned a bit for the sequel.

TL;DR

The Glass Breaks is the start of an interesting new fantasy series from the author of the Long War. Long ago, the Sea Wolves crossed the ocean and found a new home. Once there, they brutally subjugated the natives and have continued to raid and slaughter them for the next hundred and fifty years. Enter Duncan Greenfire and Adeline Brand, Sea Wolves of the Severed Hand. Each dispatched on their own secret mission, they discover conspiracies that will doom the Sea Wolves, but might also save them. The world-building and characters are the strongest aspect of the Glass Breaks, and though Duncan can be seriously annoying at times, his stupidity comes in handy through some twists I couldn’t’ve seen coming. While there can be needless violence and somewhat repetitive internal monologues at times, there’s also a tense, mysterious atmosphere and uncommon, interesting magic system. Combined with a good story and epic (though occasionally over-the-top) dramatic and action sequences, the Glass Breaks is a great series debut, one that I enjoyed far more than I thought I would. Recommended!

The Glass Breaks is also free on kindle unlimited, if that’s your kind of thing. Form & Void continues with The Sword Falls, out May 1, 2020.

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #1

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; May 5, 2016

390 pages (ebook)

11hr 37m (audio)

Goodreads

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

The year is 1919.

The Great War has ended. The British Empire spans the globe. Former Scotland Yard Detective Sam Wyndham has recently returned home from the continent to find the life he lived pre-war is at an end. All the friends he shipped out with are dead. As is his young wife, Sarah, to whom he was wed not two days before leaving for the war. With nowhere to turn, Sam soon finds himself in the gutter, addicted to the morphine they’d given him to dull the pain of his war wounds. After the morphine runs out, he turns to opium—a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.

A chance telegram saves Sam’s life. A few months later, Sam Wyndham sets foot on the Indian subcontinent for the first time. His new life as a Captain in the Imperial Police Force in Bengal to begin on the second of April, one day after his arrival. A week later, the body of a senior official is found in the sewer, a note in his mouth warning of a potential insurrection among the natives.

So begins an investigation that will drag Wyndham all across Kolkata (Calcutta)—from the slums packed with native Indians to the upscale mansions of the British Elite, from seedy opium dens to the jungles of the rural countryside. A son of the empire and a native son rub elbows in the Imperial Police, while an intoxicating woman split between both worlds may yet steal his heart away. From natives to expats, Wyndham must choose his allies wisely, as there’s no telling which allegiance they hold any more than whose pocket they may be in. The only certainty is that Wyndham must solve this murder and soon, before tensions between the Indians and the Empire boil over.

I stumbled upon A Rising Man while shopping for a Christmas present for my father. While I ultimately did not get him this, I ended up buying it for myself as it sounded so interesting. A historical mystery, A Rising Man does a pretty good job of transporting us to Colonial India—a melting pot of English “civility” and native “savagery”. With Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Indians, and more alike all forced together by the hands of capitalism, Colonial India feels like a caldera waiting to erupt. Abir Mukherjee does an incredible job capturing the atmosphere of the place: the tensions, the humidity, the jungle and predators and flies, the wealth and poverty all jammed together. It’s quite good.

The mystery itself toes the line between fascinating and convoluted, with so enough twists and turns that kept me on my toes throughout. While everything is a bit thick and murky at the outset, the waters eventually cleared enough for me to get a handle on everything as the mystery progressed. While I did call one major reveal very early on, it actually took me quite some time to figure out whodunnit in time for the conclusion. The pacing was a bit stop-start, but I realize that’s a tough ratio to hit, especially for a new author and in a debut series. While it’s not a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot calibre mystery, A Rising Man kept me easily entertained throughout, and guessing until the final page was turned.

One final note on A Rising Man is the issues it tackles. The story takes place at a global crossroads, where many historically rival cultures compete with one that is very heterogeneous, and used to having its own way. At the time it would’ve been one of the few places on earth with so many different cultures locked in a war against homogenization, as opposed to somewhere like Colonial America where everything seemed to just blend together (well, not everything, sadly). From bigotry to religious discrimination to who and whom its acceptable to love, the story is really set at a very interesting—if incredibly tense—time period. While it does an adequate job of addressing the tension between the English and Bengali people, I would like to see more of the region’s minorities in ethnicity and religion in later books. Additionally, I really would’ve liked to have more of a look into the caste system at this time—which is only rarely mentioned, but never focused on.

TL;DR

A Rising Man combines historical fiction with a complex and engrossing mystery with twists and turns enough to have me guessing until the very end. Though Sam Wyndham isn’t the greatest narrator, he does an adequate job of tackling both the investigation and the region’s tensions. He’s also a bit of git. But while you probably won’t buy A Rising Man for the romance or action, the mystery itself is more than enough of a reason to. All combined with a one of a kind setting that finds opulent wealth rubbing shoulders with crippling poverty and a melting pot of cultures, religions, ideals, and ethnicities, makes A Rising Man a great read, and a mystery you won’t want to put down until the last page is turned.

The Sam Wyndham series continues with A Necessary Evil, out since 2017. I can’t wait to continue this series!

Instinct – by Jason M. Hough (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Mystery

Skybound Books; April 6, 2021

336 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

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

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 602.

Actually no, scratch that.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 665.

I honestly have no idea who wrote the official blurb. Clearly, they didn’t read the book.

Officer Mary Whittaker is the town’s latest resident, and was the 666th resident when she moved two months back. A few of the more superstitious townsfolk still avoid her on the street and cast dirty looks as they mutter behind her back. Most didn’t take the omen at face value.

But perhaps they should’ve.

As the population of Silvertown begins to decline.

The story begins with a funeral. Johnny Rogers, a certified homebody falls to his death after a spontaneous midnight hike. A few weeks later, a hiker terrified of animals dies after trying to hug a bear. Then a helicopter parent ditches her toddlers to have lunch with a complete stranger.

From there, things… just get weirder. It seems as if many of the townsfolk—Mary included—have lost their survival instincts. But as Whittaker continues to dig into the investigation, a conspiracy begins to take form. One that threatens not only Silvertown, but the world itself. And it’s up to Mary to stop it.

Wow. So this one was… quite something.

Up to the 2/3 mark, I was quite invested. Instinct contains a fairly interesting mystery, with a slow build that had me wrapt up through the first big reveal. The revelation that the townsfolk were losing their instincts due to something unknown was an interesting turn, if a bit confusing. The tense and mysterious atmosphere that permeates the text through its 75% mark is nothing short of masterful, and provided me with more than enough reason to keep going even after things got a little… weird.

The main issues start around the halfway mark. Let’s begin with the first big reveal. It was too revealing. It was so obvious who was behind the conspiracy that I knew inside of the first few chapters. So when the curtain is pulled back late in the story—well, mind-blowing it was not.

My second issue was with the setting. A small and isolated town in the mountains is a picture perfect backdrop for a grassroots conspiracy, but it has to actually feel like a small, mountain town in Washington. And to me it didn’t. Now the author lives in Seattle. And I’m not sure he did enough research on the setting before he dove right in. Early on, there’s a hiker that gets mauled by a bear. Now that’s definitely strange, yeah, as bears are usually more afraid of you than you are of them. And they point this out. But mostly they focus on “What was the bear even doing here?” Bears are all over the Pacific Northwest. For one to turn up on the outskirts of a small, rural, mountain town is hardly new. But this is a big clue, apparently. And gets revisited more than once. Our town has one main street. And six-hundred odd people. Which is pointed out. But then a lone car leaves the middle of town, the townsfolk lose sight of it before it reaches the end. A majority of the tale involves roughly two dozen people, with the rest of the community conspicuously absent. In the beginning Silvertown is billed as “one of those towns where everyone knows everyone”, but by the end 95% of the townsfolk remain AWOL.

Speaking of the end, you know how in some stories there’s a lot of jumping from one outlandish conclusion to the next, only for our heroine to hatch an insane plan that probably shouldn’t work but somehow does, and then pass out only to wake up and have everything be magically solved for them. They’re patted on the back, good guys win, life back to normal. It’s done all the time. And I’m sick of it. It’s convenient, sure, but lame. Now, I’m not saying that Instinct does this, but if it did, it probably would’ve soured me on the whole ending.

The real problem with Instinct is its consistency. Now, it was pretty consistent in the first half. The second half less so. As the plot makes the turn for home however, it really goes to pieces. Previously held rules about the conspiracy are broken. It’s going to be hard to get into this with no spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s say we have a Coke. It can only be called a Soft drink so long as it has carbonation and sweetener. And it can only be called a Cola if it is a soft drink that has the proper flavorings. It can only be called a Coke if it is a cola that is made and distributed by the proper company (yes, I know these are generalizations—please bear with me). Now suppose all of these things were rules everyone adhered to. And that all the people of Silvertown prefer to drink Coke. Over everything. They’ll drink other cola, but only if there’s no Coke. They’ll even drink other soft drinks, so long as there’s neither any Coke or other colas around. Get it? Good, but in the latter half of Instinct, all we thought we knew about soda is thrown out the window. There’s a chase scene. Our heroine snags an RC out of the mini-fridge despite the fact that there’s a Coke right next to it. There’s an angry mob. Armed with pitchforks and ginger ale, the citizens storm the town—ignoring the gigantic truck full of Coke parked by the side of the road. There’s a celebration at the bar. Citizens raise mugs of beer in toast while their bottles of Coke go flat beside them.

Get the picture? While for the first half of Instinct everyone eschews Pepsi in favor of dying of thirst while in the second half people are eyeing Mr. Pib with intense longing. And in the back half people are even occasionally drinking water. The rules are forgotten, but in the end they’re back, and no one seems to notice they’d been broken at all.

TL;DR

Instinct is a tense, atmospheric mystery that quietly transforms into an interesting and thought-provoking thriller that makes your head hurt as you try to wrap it around just what it is that’s going on in Silvertown. At least, the first half is, anyway. Up to the 65% mark, I was pretty well invested in it. But wow did it ever go to pieces quick. Among the issues include an unrealistic setting, a strange pacing, a conspiracy that doesn’t really work, a cheap and disappointing ending, and an instigator so diabolically and comically evil they might as well have horns. My biggest problem was with the consistency. Instinct works, until it doesn’t. Until the rules are bent to make some of the more outlandish ideas work. Until the same rules are broken, and then reinstituted again like nothing happened. I asked for a Coke—and got a dozen raw eggs. Better in some ways, but not in others.

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

The Founders #2

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Del Rey; April 21, 2020

493 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

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

Warning: Contains spoilers for Foundryside (and, oddly enough, Gears of War 2)

In Foundryside, Sancia Grado and her ragtag team of allies managed to save the city of Tevanne from destruction, carving out a chunk of it for themselves in the meantime. Three years later, the Mountain lies in ruin and the campos feud with one another to fill the power vacuum left following its destruction.

I’ll be honest though. Don’t remember a ton of what happened in the first book. I remember Sancia—the master thief able to see scrivings—and I remember Clef—the talking key with the heart of gold (because he’s made of gold you see). There was something with one of the campos, a fire, infiltrating the Mountain and… that’s about it.

Anyway, skip ahead three years and you’ll find Sancia passing time within the scriving firm of Foundryside, intermittently stealing, innovating, and making out with her girlfriend, Berenice. None too soon after we rejoin Sancia, the Foundrysiders execute a bold play to steal from one of the campos in a desperate attempt to secure their future and the first step in their plan to liberate Tevanne from the grip of the merchant houses.

But no sooner do they return home in triumph—ready for a drink and a quick toss—then a new threat looms on the horizon. A new, and infinitely larger threat.

In a stunning move, the Dandolo campo has seen fit to resurrect Craesedes Magnus, First of the Hierophants, basically a god in all but name. And the legendary scriver is coming straight to Tevanne. While the Foundrysiders aren’t sure why the Dandolos have done this, or what exactly it is that the First Hierophant intends, they are sure that they don’t want to know anything about it. But instead of fleeing the city, they decide to stay and fight.

For while the Foundrysiders can’t match the legendary hierophant himself, they may know someone who can. Though to save their city Sancia and the gang may just have to tie themselves to an even greater threat than Craesedes Magnus—for what can stand up to a god but another god?

Straight out of the gate the story got rolling with a thrilling heist. It was great to see Sancia and the gang doing what they do best—stealing things and running away. And it gave us time to reconnect with the characters we might’ve somehow forgotten. Be it Orso, former campo child and the outfit’s brains; Bernice, the beautiful and genius scriver Sancia has fallen for; Gregor, strong and silent, another scrived human with blood staining his shadow; and Clef, pretty much just a key now. A key that won’t open any door.

From there we get on to the meat of the matter—resurrecting a god. Or attempting to stop one. Turns out, it’s not an easy thing to do. Through this part the atmosphere grows tense, the story mysterious, dark. Then everything kicks off for good when Craesedes Magnus rolls up.

I hate to say it, but my favorite character in Shorefall is probably the dark god himself. He certainly acts like an ancient immortal—someone who’s seen and done everything and lived through worse. But also there’s a hidden agenda to him. And his endgame turns out to be a twist I ddi not see coming, something truly surprising for something so close to invincible and powerful as he. Moreover, it’s his relationship with Sancia herself—also Gregor, and some of the others from the Dandolo campo—that makes his character so interesting. I won’t give any more about him away, but to say he’s a truly great character with a depth that profoundly surprised me.

I don’t have too many issues with Shorefall. Mostly it’s a lot of fun. A great read with a lovely world and interesting characters. But I do miss Clef. His banter with Sancia was one of the things that made Foundryside such a great read (and pretty much the only thing I remembered about the book prior to reading its successor). While Bennett does attempt to do a similar thing in Shorefall using some of the other characters, it just doesn’t have the same appeal that the Sancia-Clef relationship had. The dialogue here is more cumbersome, and more empty. While I never got sick of Clef and Sancia no matter what the pair were discussing, that doesn’t hold true for Sancia and pretty much anyone else.

The tale is more rollicking fun, but with a darker, more somber mood to it. The world is changing, and not necessarily for the better as all Foundrysiders hoped. With an awakened god looming on the horizon the team feels more powerless than ever before. It’s like the moment in Gears 2 where they use a gigantic rock worm to sink Jacinto, and fly away knowing that while they “won”, their one and only home now lies in ruin. Even when there is brightness and joy in Shorefall, there is also some sorrow.

TL;DR

With a darker, somber atmosphere, Shorefall is the predecessor that makes you feel, makes you care about the world of Tevanne. While it doesn’t have the same back-and-forth, carefree dialogue of the original, Shorefall takes you to a few more grey areas, a few more moments of weakness on its journey of hope and despair. It’s not exactly a dark book, but it does have its moments. It’s a tale of love and friendship, but also of half-truths and two evils. It’s half mad-dash, half atmospheric thriller, and half powder keg. See? This book gives you 150% and doesn’t disappoint—if that’s not a reason to read it I don’t know what is.

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.

The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 9, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.9 / 5 ✪ – Almost perfect!

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot #AngryRobot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In the mountain village of Heyne Town, there exists a tree known as the Hope Tree. Here, before they are due to give birth, women will leave blankets, food or provisions outside the village—just in case. In case their children are born as stryga.

Stryga (or strzyga or strzygón in Slavic mythology) are children born with two hearts. The first heart is their primary, human one—tying them to humanity and the path of normalcy and righteousness. The second is a much darker heart connected to a second soul, one that indulges its evil desires and preys on humanity. If a stryga were to follow the darker desires of its second heart even once, it would never be able to stop, turning this human into a dark demon. Although, in Heyne Town, all born with two hearts are considered evil and banished upon birth. Thus their parents faced a choice—to abandon their child outside the village; to dispose of them some other way; or to join their inhuman offspring in seclusion, never to set foot in the village again on pain of death.

Nineteen years ago, Miriat and her newborn Salka were exiled from Heyne Town, and taken to the remote haven where all exiled stryga live. Here they live in squalor, unable to leave and hated by the outside world. Here they are taught to control their darker nature, to never once listen to their second heart.

But Salka is young and headstrong. When she is exiled to the far off Windry Pass for a moment of weakness, she must do everything she can just to survive. But as the snow piles high and the temperature plummets, food becomes scarce and predators start to hunt humans as prey, Salka will be forced into a no-win situation: will she use her second heart to survive, or pay the ultimate price for the sake of her human soul?

By in large I really enjoyed the Second Bell. While I’d heard of strygas before, Gabriela Houston introduces a fresh take on the creature more often depicted as a monster in other media. In Slavic lore, it refers to a child born with two hearts and two souls, the second pair of which transforms it into a demon much alike a vampire. In the Witcher, a striga is a child cursed before birth. It is born a demon—a foul-smelling, heavily-muscled monster that runs about on all fours and violently attacks anything that wanders too near its lair. Houston’s take on the stryga humanizes it tremendously compared to these, as the child must only suppress the desires of its second heart in order to retain its humanity. Even so, not all parts of the legend seem to hold true. As with any other story, what is fact and what isn’t is open to interpretation. The villagers in Heyne Town fear and loathe all strigoi in equal measure. Whether or not they have ver indulged their second heart is immaterial. All are evil.

Note: I’ve been talking a lot about stryga being cursed children, born with two hearts. This is true, but not complete. While the affliction dooms from birth, strigoi will grow up like anything does. The only cure (in this book, at least) is death. Likewise, one can’t catch stryga. You’re either born one or you’re not—there’s no in-between.

The Second Bell is all about the story and its characters. Salka and Miriat share a unique relationship that should be quite relatable, and yet unlike any other. While they are obviously kin, only one is human. Her mother is Salka’s link to her humanity—by refusing to indulge her second heart, she feels closer to her mother, to her humanity, but in denying it she feels like she is cutting off a part of her own soul. The Second Bell is therefore a tale of what it means to be human. Salka is Miriat’s child and her whole world. But if her daughter were to listen to her demon heart, would she lose her humanity, the main connection she has to her mother? The Second Bell is also a tale of a mother and a daughter, and their bond.

While the world-building of this story was a bit patchwork, I understand the choice was instead to focus on the story of Salka and Miriat, the story of what it means to be human. Still, I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world. There are some things—like the tree and the dola and more—though the entire world seems like it was built for ‘men and strygoi, but nothing more. While the story centers on the strygoi, they cannot possibly by the only legend in this land: I would’ve liked to hear about some of the others, if only just in passing. The land itself was often painted in greens and browns and white, rather than showing any real detail.

Otherwise, I really have no other notes. The story was good and thorough and made for a quick and immersive read, while still leaving lasting connotations after the book is finished. I hope to see more from the author and this world!

One Day All This Will Be Yours – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Scifi, Time Travel

Solaris; March 2, 2021

192 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Solaris, Rebellion and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own. All quotes are subject to change in the official publication. Don’t blame Rebellion, or me if they do.

One Day All This Will Be Yours is a love story for the ages.

Kinda.

I mean, there’s some sort of romance within, along with plenty of ages (since time travel and all), and it’s definitely a story, so there’s that. The rest of it basically answers the question: What would happen if a sentient nuclear warhead fell in love? Could it forever deny its baser instinct to eradicate life, or would it… boom?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Stalin and Hitler is cheating.”
“I don’t see why. Achilles is cheating, he never even existed.”
“Says the woman with three Jack the Rippers.”

The fight’s begun by then. It is…
Strangely hilarious.

Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there’s literally no one to remember—except for me. And I’ve forgotten.

See, the thing about screwing with causality is that eventually, it’s really hard to remember where the start of things and the end of things actually was. And that was before we broke time.

While I don’t remember who started the war—much less whose side I was on—I was the one to finish it. Then I tidied things up as best I could and came here, to the end of time itself. There was no place left for me where I’d been. Or should I say, “when I’d been”. But with time irreparably broken, there was only one place to go. And only one thing to do: see that it never happens again.

This is one of those stories where we never learn the narrator’s name. But his name’s not all that important, to be honest. Probably doesn’t even remember it himself. That’s the thing about causality and time-travel; it really messes with the old noodle. Sufficient to say he’s a time warrior—the last of his name.

The concept works really well. A time warrior, trying to prevent another time war before all of time is destroyed. Or, MORE destroyed, I guess. It being a time travel story, it made my head hurt if I tried too hard to sort everything out. The good news is: the book never tried very hard to sort everything out. Didn’t even really take itself seriously. Oh, there’s a plot, and a story, and they’re both lovely to boot. But it’s filled with tongue-in-cheek, sarcasm, and dark humor. Combined with the detailed, if not intricate, plot—it makes for an entertaining, intense, and often hilarious read.

[We] have a fine old hoot watching Hilter get chased round and round a field by an allosaur. It’s very therapeutic. And the thing about allosaurs is they can run really quite fast, and the thing about Hitlers is that they can’t, not really, or not for very long.

And that’s all before the love story kicks off.

I won’t say much about that, just that… it’s certainly something. I mean, I would totally read more romance novels if they were like this.

While the ending makes for a bit of a letdown (again, no spoilers), One Day All This Will Be Yours is another excellent example of the author in novella form; quirky, creative, unique, and incredibly entertaining.

TL;DR

One Day All This Will Be Yours is the idea time-travel novella—not too intense, not too serious, not TOO hilarious, but just enough of all those combined. Also, entertaining. Very entertaining. My personal choice for the greatest love story of all time (pun intended), the time warrior’s adventure is by no means boring before he meets his perfect match. And while there is a bit of a slump at the very end, ODATWBY provides a unique, amazing take on time travel, and causality itself. Definitely recommended!

And if you haven’t read any of them by now, Tchaikovsky is making a habit of putting out one or two novellas a year through Solaris/Rebellion. My most recent favs have included Walking to Aldebaran and Firewalkers. Look for him later this year with Shards of Earth, a full-length novel from Orbit, and Elder Race, a novella from Tor.

The Black Coast – by Mike Brooks (Review)

God-King Chronicles #1

Fantasy, Epic

Solaris; February 16, 2021

670 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

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

The Black Coast is the first in the brand new fantasy epic series, the God-King Chronicles. Instead of a novel of war or chaos, or another GoT-esque fantasy, Black Coast details the coming together of two very different cultures—enemies, even—as they try to live together in peace. It’s more of a… controlled chaos.

Saana, Chief of the Tjakorsha, has left home for the last time. Fleeing the Golden, an immortal draugr heralding the prophesied end of the world, the Brown Eagle clan arrives on Naridan shores seeking a new home—one that they will find one way or another. Daimon Blackcreek is the adopted son of the Lord of Black Keep, and when the raiders draw up on shore he fears the worst. But when the clan lays out their plea for peace he sees but two options. Either the Blackcreek’s can accept the raiders into their home and attempt to live as one, or the Brown Eagle may rebuild their home in the ashes of Daimon’s own. But his father has different ideas—and will never surrender to such savages. Leaving Daimon with one choice.

A choice that will guide him throughout the story.

Elsewhere a silent war rages between the two descendants of Nari—the God become flesh. While Tila’s brother, Natan, rules in Idramar, the Splinter King inhabits the east, living like a sideshow amongst the City of Islands. While at the moment the Splinter King offers little dissent, Tila knows that should anything happen to her brother before he produces an heir, the Splinter King will take center stage. And so she sets off on her own expedition to find this would-be King. And end him.

The characters Brooks has created have always been strong; as readers of his Keiko series will know. The characters of Black Coast exemplify this, with a few exceptions. The Lord Daimon Blackcreek is an honorable-enough man, doing everything he can to protect his people. He’s also a bit of a self-obsessed asshole, and a young and naïve one to boot. Chief Saana is the brave and innovative leader of the Tjakorsha, as such leading her people from their ancestral home to settle on the shores of their age old foes. A passionate leader, she remains quick to anger while still preaching the importance of peace. Jeya seems your prototypical urchin. Thief, ragamuffin, waif—she didn’t make a great impression at first, but upon digging into the text, the reader will learn that just like most other humans, she will fight just as hard as anyone else when the cause appeals to her. Rikkut’s a bit insane, but in a human way. Tila was the biggest letdown of the main cast. Sister to the God-King, Tila leads a double life, but nothing approaches the love that she holds for her brother. While I didn’t find her character weak, exactly, it was just hard to buy the disassociation between her two personalities.

My largest issue with this read comes very late in the book, so this makes it quite difficult to explain while still avoiding spoilers. Sufficient to say that it’s Saana, who up to this point has been a caring, doting mother, sometimes even going above and beyond the cultural norms her own tribe allows to keep her daughter, Zhanna, out of danger. While there are a number of events that prevent her from doing so throughout the book, when it’s up to Saana she will not risk the already tenuous relationship she enjoys with her daughter. That’s what makes this event so out of character; it’s the complete opposite of anything she’s done to this point—and it’s so blatant I found it a bit insulting to her character.

As for the plot, I was pretty much entranced from the beginning. Brooks has built a good one here: the blending of very different cultures clashing in obvious and unseen ways alike, several cultures with many and often fluid gender options while some are just the rigid two, a believable fantasy epic about peoples avoiding war instead of running flat into it. The main cultures and their interaction steals the show, as two particular ones take center stage—the Tjakorsha and the Naridans of Black Keep. While the Splinter King sub-plot and Jeya’s role in the City of Isles kept me more than entertained enough, the interactions between the two former enemies just wowed. I really have no notes or complaints: this was an INCREDIBLE story!

The world was large and well-built, with peoples and dragons (did I mention the DRAGONS???—multiple species of different and sometimes ridable dragons) and rumors and legends of more lurking at the map’s edges. Not only can I not wait to see more of the story, but I can’t wait to see what lies beyond the edges of the world that we’ve explored thus far.

Note: The map for the ebook version I was provided was shit—completely worthless. I was able to contact both Rebellion and Mike Brooks himself, each of which provided me a high-res version of the map and reassured me that the published version of the ebook would have a much better map. Hopefully it is, but if not… I have a map if anyone needs a copy.

TL;DR

The Black Coast is the fantastic high fantasy debut for Keiko author Mike Brooks. Telling an enthralling, action-packed, and ofttimes difficult story full of unique and human characters in a vivid, highly-detailed world. While each character had their flaws, they also had their own sets of motivations and experiences—some of which clashed over the course of the tale. For the most part each character impressed throughout, though there were a few hiccups over the course of this 700-page epic. The story of Black Coast was amazing, but its people and cultures stole the show—particularly their beliefs and interactions that swung wildly between peace and war throughout, sometimes at the drop of a hat. All in all, for a story that included dragons, witches, krakens, samurai, assassins, intrigue, plot-twists and more—the Black Coast is one book you need to make time for this year!

It’s early still, but the sequel, The Splinter King, is due to be published September 7, 2021 by Solaris.

The Builders – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Tor.com; November 3, 2015

219 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

A stoat, a rat, a mouse, an opossum, an owl, a badger, a mole, and a salamander walk into a bar…

A missing eye. A broken wing. A lost lower half. A deposed king. A whole lot of trauma. And a country that vanished from beneath them.

Years may have passed but the Captain’s scars are still fresh. While the rest of his crew have moved on, many memories of the past linger. So when their leader comes a-calling to reform the band, most are only too grateful to respond. The others may come kicking and screaming, but they’ll come all the same.

Scores will be settled. Blood will run. There’s always time for second chances.

The Builders is another case of anthropomorphism gone very right; a dark, bloody Redwall, if you will. As schemes go, the Captain’s is a good one, but nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. The story is a good one, though I think it’s a bit wasted in novella form. The characters are bloody unique and exotic, each with their own backstory and motivations—that I would’ve liked to have been explored more. I feel the short chapters both help and hinder this. On one hand, with the novella format, it keeps the story moving so that we don’t get bogged down with too many characters being introduced too quickly. On the other, everything’s quite brief. We don’t get the time for backstory and motivation. It’s a thoroughly interesting cast that we have, but don’t ever get to know better.

I really enjoyed that dark cast of this story, right up to the end. It was billed to me as a grimdark Redwall—and delivered quite nicely. There’s quite a bit of dark humor, some interesting twists and turns, and an ending for the ages. It’s all very well done, but left me a bit wanting. Of more, mostly—which is both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it’s always good to want more. Show’s the author has done something right. But on the other, there is no more. Sure, there’s a short story (half a dozen pages of fuzzy, grumbly animals), but it’s too brief, and not worth much more than to introduce the world. You can read it here, if you’re interested.

TL;DR

Why? It’s only a couple paragraphs.

*grumbly grumbly*

Whatever. Um… good; not perfect. Dark and bloody with matching humor. Truly a dark Redwall. Not enough development or time for it, it feels like we’ve only just met the characters and the story ends. The quick pacing and brief story work quite well, even if they do also frustrate. This was a love-hate for me, but I mostly loved it. Definitely recommended.

Here’s another link to A Kippled Meal, if you missed it.

The Twisted Ones – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Horror

Standalone

Saga Press; October 1, 2019

381 pages (Paperback)

Goodreads • Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

I’m usually one for horror. In movies, I find the genre boring, and a waste of a couple hours. In games, I find it annoying, if worthy of jump-scares (which also isn’t my thing). I’m more accepting of horror books, but only comparably. I’ve read some few—a couple that I’ve loved, none that blew me away. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Enter Mouse, the unfortunate lass who’s task it is to clean out her Grandmother’s house. Now, Mouse didn’t much care for the old bag when she was alive—actually, she thought the old woman was a horrid human, really more of a demon than anything—but she now thinks a deal less of her father’s mother now that the woman’s dead.

See, Grandma was a hoarder, her house stuffed with useless trash.

There’s rooms upon rooms filled with leaning towers of junk: plastic bins full of soap edging up next to stacks of china and silverware, bags scented candles and used disposable chopsticks piled among heaps of expired coupons and PennySaver ads yellowed with age, even a room filled with plastic dolls, you know, the imitation baby ones that blink? Hell, if this’d been a book about THAT, I think I’d’ve been too terrified to read it.

And so Mouse buckles down to clean out the house. Alone in the woods with only her dog, Bongo, for company. In a holler where cell signal is spotty and the only neighbors are a half-mile away. In all honesty, it was creepy enough to start with. But that was before Mouse finds her Grandmother’s second-husband’s old journal.

Ramblings. Rants. Impossible and nightmarish things. Fantasies of a broken mind—that’s what Mouse assumes. A result driven upon the old man by marriage to a horrible woman. And so Mouse discounts the journal, and gets on with her cleaning.

Until she begins to see impossible things on her walks about the holler. Hills that don’t exist. Stones that seem to move when she looks at them. Effigies of blood and bone, hanging from the trees. These and worse make Mouse question her sanity. And question the journal. And these are just the beginning.

The Twisted Ones starts out easy enough, with a middle-aged, —a freelance editor fresh off a bad breakup. Mouse proves a likable enough lead right from the start—especially when she introduces her dog Bongo, the star of the show—she’s independent, reasonably confident, somewhat insecure and really just… average. She’s not an ex-Marine, she doesn’t fight crime in her off-hours, she’s just… normal. A person. A regular person. Plus she has an adorable dog. The only real problem I have with Mouse is that she’s not the brightest lead. She often doesn’t see things until she walks right past them—often not even then. She’s a bit slow on the uptake. It makes for a frustrating adventure.

The mood of this turns creepy quickly. Not scary, not dark and forbidding. Just… strange. Eerie. With the somewhat slow, affable narrator it’s hard to see the mood shift—as it does right off the start—and by then the story is already on. The weirdness sets in and takes off. Pretty soon I was sitting up wondering if the owls I heard at night were keeping the nocturnal woodpeckers at bay. Or if they were even owls at all. I hoped they were (we get a lot of owls (or pseudowls) out here).

It certainly wasn’t difficult to read—though it took me longer than I would’ve liked to finish, but see I went and got COVID in the middle and that ruined things for a bit. Honestly, it’s probably the kinda thing I could’ve made it through in a couple days: easy and quick to read, nothing too advanced or mysterious, just a creepy air that snowballs out of control in a hurry.

The ending proved a bit of a letdown, but that may just have been me. See, my proclivity for horror is restricted to the weird bits, the strangeness, the mystery, all with a bit of thrill. But when we eventually reach the exciting conclusion, everything just got a bit blasé. The build was good, the execution as well—but the ending could’ve been better. Otherwise, I really have no complaints.

TL;DR

The Twisted Ones is an atmospheric horror novel with a likable lead, a likable dog, and a nice, slow build that’s equal parts totally normal and weird. Then it starts to get creepy. The atmosphere really sells this; the house packed with junk, the journal filled with nonsense, the impossible things in the woods—all in a holler completely separate from everything, a world all of its own. It’s all nice and easy to read, and cruises right along, something you could probably speed through in a day or two (so long as you don’t mind staying up nights). The ending is a bit of a letdown (or was to me), but nothing else jumps out as a dealbreaker. A solid horror story from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)—someone I hope to read more of in the future!

Note: Probably not something to read during isolation. The fever really killed any enjoyment I had for reading this, or well… reading anything. And pretty much doing anything. But if you’re asymptomatic or just bored: go for it.