The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (Review)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

Fantasy, Retelling

Orbit Books; May 17, 2022

538 pages (ebook)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

It was beautiful, and it was horrible.

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (Review)

Unnamed Sequence #1

Fantasy, High Fantasy

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

346 pages (ebook)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

But then Tatters meets Isha.

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

The Collarbound didn’t start especially well.

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

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

And everything takes off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

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

結束

Equinox – by David Towsey (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

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

368 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Horror, Mystery

G.P. Putnam’s Sons; May 10, 2022

240 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

°°

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

°°

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Black Helicopters – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #2

Horror, Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 1, 2018

202 pages (ebook)
4hr 11m (audiobook)

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1 / 10 ✪

The idea of a “story” is to give an account or description of events, not randomly spout prose and leave it up to the reader to decide what the fuck you’re talking about. I mean, for Book #2 in a series, at the very least.

Enter Black Helicopters. I don’t understand what this is about. And I don’t understand why I don’t understand what this is about. In Agents of Dreamland, we learned that there was an an impending apocalypse, which only Ptolema might prevent, so I thought maybe this would be a continuation of that. And, yeah, Ptolema’s got a POV within, but it’s only one of three. The other two are SOMEONE, who lives in the post-apocalyptic city of Sanctuary (I think) and writes daily letters to her sister, and Johnson, who crews aboard the Argyle Shoelace, a ship at some pre-apocalyptic time that is probably important for some reason that’s not immediately clear. The Signalman makes an appearance, but even he can’t seem to tell us what the fuck is going on. Maybe he doesn’t know.

I realize that Ptolema is out to save the world, but I only know this entirely from the last book, as this one never makes any real sense whatsoever.

• Okay, so a quarter of the way through: I’ve no fucking idea what is going on in this stupid book. I know what it’s SUPPOSED to be—another entry in the Tinfoil Dossier, an alien invasion story happening in the future, unless Ptolema can stop it. But… so far, we just rambled on for 6 chapters (an hour and a half in), and I’ve no idea what’s happening.

• There’s something in the near-future that’s caused the end of the world, but we knew that in the last novella, so this isn’t super informative. There’s a place called Sanctuary, where someone and 66 live. And they hunt alien monsters.

And that’s it.

That could’ve been covered in a letter. Like the ones she writes her sister. Like ONE of the letters she writes.

• We just took 10 minutes and a full chapter saying that aliens landed somewhere at sometime because something and then ended it. The next chapter spouted a prophecy amidst a fountain of nonsense. And now we’re speaking in French (a lot of French) with no translation offered. Helpfully I never learned any French.

• So we’re on a ship—the Argyle Shoestring—that has what to do with what? I can’t make heads or tails of any of the threads of this story. Or what they have to do with the apocalypse and/or preventing it.

I could complain about this one all day, but instead I’ll leave off with a quote I feel sums up the consistency of the text.

“Gentlemen, we have arrived at the oneness of allness, a single cosmic flow. You would label disorder, unreality, inequilibrium, ugliness, discord, inconsistency.

“Checkmate. Because this is the meaning. Black queen white, white queen black. A game of chess played in the temples of Erss, the halls of Discordia. There will be murders on La Manzanna de la Discordia. You know, or may learn of, Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst—not his real name, but let that slide. The gods were not pleased, hence of course all were turned into birds. Even the birds will rain down upon the bay and upon the island. Erss tosses the golden apple and the sea heaves up her judgment upon us all. Watch for the Egyptian, and the arrival of the Twins, and my daughter’s daughter. Watch for Strife, who—warns Homer—is relentless. She is the sister and companion of murderous Ares. She, who was only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows, until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurls down bitterness, equally between both sides, as she walks through the onslaught, making men’s pain heavier. The Calla Lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. Be still—the chaos reigns around you now.”

Normally, I do a summary, then put a quote, then discuss how I feel about the book, the plot, the characters, whatever. But since there’s no way I could’ve done a coherent summary of any plot—mostly because the “story” didn’t seem to have one—I guess I’ll just skip to the end.

TL;DR

If you didn’t read this review, I wouldn’t read the book. Yeah, it was that bad. Nope, it didn’t make any sense. Yup, it even got me to swear in my review of it. And it’s usually got to be pretty fucking bad to do that. The best part of Black Helicopters was the narration. Justine Eyre somehow managed to make parts of this sound pretty good, almost coherent. Too bad none of it was.

I’m actually planning on reading Book #3 of the Tinfoil Dossier, mostly because I can’t believe it can be any worse than #2.

Chosen – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #4

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; August 27, 2013

294 pages (paperback)

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8.5 /10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Alex Verus Books 1-3

By this point in the series, Alex Verus is beginning to earn a hard-fought reputation. He liberated the fateweaver and defeated its ancient guardian. He fought and defeated one of England’s foremost battle mages. He stopped an evil ritual, saved the girl, won the day. But mostly, he’s successfully pissed off many powerful mages, creatures, and made a whole lot of potential enemies. Though he’s also made himself some useful allies—and even a few lifelong friends.

Or maybe not.

When Alex’s past comes back to haunt him, he’s forced to confront some ugly memories, and even uglier ghosts. But the worst ghosts are those that just won’t stay dead and buried. Or those that were never dead at all.

One of these turns up in the form of an extremely pissed-off adept—one with a grudge against Alex. Will Traviss was just a kid the first time he ran across Alex, but it was a moment traumatic enough that he’ll never forget Verus’ face. He wasn’t strong enough to defeat Alex back then, but after a decade spent honing his magical talent—and letting his rage simmer—Will is back. And he’s brought a team.

And if Alex wants to live long enough to regret his past decisions, he must find a way to defeat Will, ideally without killing him. Otherwise, Alex may find those friends and allies a bit less than “lifelong”—leaving him alone with his memories and regrets.

And the rumors of his ex-master’s return.

Ja-Ja looked taken aback. He looked down at his palm, then up at Anne, then tried again. Again the lethal green-black light flickered from his hand and into Anne’s body. Again nothing happened.
“Please stop doing that,” Anne said.
“That should have worked,” Ja-Ja muttered.
“It’s okay,” I said brightly. “It happens to a lot of guys.”
“Shut up,” Ja-Ja snapped.
“I’m sure it doesn’t happen to you usually. Maybe you can take a rest and try again in a few minutes.”

Anne glanced at me. “Maybe you should stop taunting them.”

As with many other series, this one gets better with age. The first couple of books act as the author’s way of testing the waters, getting comfortable with their process and writing. The next few give them a chance to grow accustomed to their creations—particularly their characters. The author can get into a groove, and start to learn their creation as well as they know themselves. After that, the books pretty much write themselves.

Except for, you know, the words and stuff. Also the plot. Both the overarching and the episodic ones. And, well, the setting. And… okay okay. So the books will never really write themselves. But at least it should get easier (for a time, at least).

This is the point at which Chosen gets going. Alex has faced some trials and tribulations, but this is the point for me that his story really gets going. We’ve established his recent history—now it’s time to delve into his backstory. Starting with one Will Traviss.

Now, Will Traviss isn’t at the heart of the matter. That’s surely Alex’s relationship with Richard Drakh—his former master. But Traviss is close enough to those old memories, close enough to that old life that one thing leads to another and Alex can’t avoid facing down the darkness that lurks in his past. And this is why I was so excited to get into this part of the series. This is where his past and present collide. And Alex’s future self is born.

It’s not a perfect birth, as so few are. There are hiccups along the way: backstory that doesn’t line up perfectly with what has already been established, some rendering of events and memories outside the scope of what could’ve possibly happened (many of the memories Alex revisits in Chosen are seen from outside of himself—meaning that Alex can look at his younger self instead of watching through their eyes), and some are detailed in total recall instead of through the eye of the beholder. But having this backstory finally explained makes up for most of these. And as mistakes go, these are far from story-breaking.

From here, expect the series to get even better. I remember really enjoying books 5 and 7, and everything kicking off at a new level come Book 8—Bound. #6, Veiled, is a more self-contained adventure that does little to further the overarching story, but far from a poor read in its own right. But then I’ll have plenty of time to get into that later.

I wish that I could tell you that this is the place to start; pick up the series now, starting at Book #4 and you’ll not regret it! But the problem with this is that series like this—episodic, but tying in to an overarching plot—are nothing but a sum of their parts. Parts you really want to have in order to assemble the entire piece. Otherwise you’ll end up with a chair with no legs, or radio with no speaker. But if you’re just after a solid urban fantasy adventure with plenty of magic, action, and thrill—it’d be hard to do much better than Chosen.

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

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

Journals of Zaxony Delatree #2

Scifi, WORMholes

Angry Robot; April 26, 2022

261 pages (paperback)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

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

• Doors of Sleep Review •


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

Anyway, the book. The read.

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

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

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

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

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

Nothing happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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