To Blackfyre Keep – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

The Seven Swords #4

Epic, High Fantasy

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2022

147 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

9 / 10 ✪

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

Please beware minor spoilers for the Seven Swords Books #1-3!

Guyime, once named “The Ravager”, once famed king of the Northern Realms, carries on his search for the Seven Swords—for by uniting them as one he hopes to free himself from their curse, and save Seeker’s daughter while doing so.

Advised to aid the cause of a lovesick knight, the party ventures to Blackfyre Keep, a cursed ruin amidst the Northlands, where war and famine rage, and something even more dangerous lurks. This knight has been tasked with taking and holding the cursed keep for a year to win the hand of his lady love—a task that is thoroughly unfeasible even with the involvement of three of the demon blades.

But Guyime doesn’t plan on sticking around.

Only in finding and mastering the fourth sword can his quest continue, and he has a very strong suspicion that the blade he seeks is somewhere in the depths of Blackfyre Keep. They’ll just have to live long enough to claim it.

Cursed I am, but it was always a useful curse.

So, by Book #4 we pretty much know what we’re going to get from this series. There’ll be a demon-cursed sword, some amazing locale to house it—like a hidden tomb, a cursed keep, a stratified city, a god’s chamber—someone to wield it, and a competition to claim it. If you were expecting something different—well, you’re out of luck.

What you see is what you get. Though not everyone might survive to see it.

There’s something quite nice about that, if I’m honest. I don’t have to worry overly about my favorite characters dying, I don’t have to worry about catching every aspect of the plot, I can just sit back and take it all in. Because I absolutely adore the world of the Seven Swords, and would read pretty much any story set in it. With such a simple and straightforward plot that’s basically episodic by now, it frees up Anthony Ryan to dream up new and more fantastical elements of his world than ever before. If you’ve accompanied me to Book #4 then you’ll know what I mean.

So, we have an episodic book and the expectation of another sword by the end of it. What’s next?

I’d argue the adventure itself takes priority. And the adventure here is a good one. It’s not perfect, by any means (one can only bottle lightning so many times, after all), but it’s another entertaining episode, where our heroes journey to a cursed keep and confront an ancient evil. Again, there’s some travel time in the beginning, so we get yet another glimpse at the incredible world the author has dreamt up. There is mystery, there is tension, there are military and horror and supernatural elements threading through a wonderful fantasy tale.

As with the other Seven Swords installments, Blackfyre Keep is light on details (the review copy I received was only 147 pages), which—while you’d expect that from a novella—I found just a bit more shallow than the others in sequence. The title “To Blackfyre Keep” is telling, as that’s the destination. In the other installments our party spent time searching upon the way, but here (apart for a single brief exception) we head straight to the keep before the story really begins.

TL;DR

If you’ve arrived at this point in the Seven Swords, you should know how this works. A place, an enemy, a sword to claim. A challenge in claiming it. It’s pretty much that simple. While episodic, it’s another investing adventure with an entertaining story and interesting characters. Though the world doesn’t feel as interactive as in past installments, the world around remains as detailed and immersive as before, with wondrous locations and terrifying scenes. Not much more I can say about this. If you’ve reached this point of the series, you’re sure to enjoy this one. If you haven’t—I guess you won’t be reading it anyway. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to pick up the series—I’d say yes, but I guess you could always just wait it out and binge them all at once. Got another 2-4 years wait, in that case. Easier to just start now, eh?

Note: The Subterranean Press version is doubtless a work of art in itself, but the entry point is $40, which, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t pay for a novella, regardless of how good it is. Still though, if you fancy a piece of history, might I suggest the Lettered Edition? Preorders are up for this $300 book. Otherwise, perhaps the ebook version? It usually retails for $3-5.

All of Us Villains – by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #1

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; November 9, 2021

386 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Foody WebsiteSocials
Herman WebsiteSocials

9.5 / 10 ✪

The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. And the Tournament looms.

Each generation the Blood Moon heralds the start of a new Tournament, as each of the seven families of Ilvernath compete for the ability to control the wellspring of High Magic thought to be gone from the world.

Each and every tournament is distinct for one reason or another, while somehow staying the same. But this year is different. This year—thanks to a revealing new book—the entire world now knows about the tournament, thrusting the seven families (and their champions) into the spotlight.

Isobel Macaslan—the first to be named, the belle of the media—hasn’t had her photo out of the press for the last year. Though the extra publicity gives an added boon before the tournament, this success doesn’t mean anything once the Blood Veil falls.

Briony Thorburn has trained her entire life to be champion—it’s the only life she knows, or wants—but when a last second change threatens her plans, will she be able to deal with the shock of it? Or will her actions mean the death of them all?

Carbry Darrow—the youngest of champions—isn’t expected to be much of a threat, but should he find the confidence within him, he just may surprise everyone.

Elionor Payne might not be the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, but it’s a close thing. She’s out to prove herself and win her family some praise, one body at a time.

Finley Blair—perfect, handsome, charming, every inch a storybook hero—might not be able to charm his way to victory, but he can get down and dirty should the need arise. And it certainly will.

Alistair Lowe is the favorite. Born and bred to win the tournament, he heralds from the most famous of the families; the Lowes win the tournament every two out of three times it’s held. Everyone knows he’s the greatest monster, the one to beat—even if he does have to keep reassuring himself.

Gavin Grieve rounds out the field. That’s the most that can be said about the final champion. A Grieve has never won the tournament, something everyone is keen to remind him—but Gavin aims to be the first. And not just because he doesn’t want to die yet. But as an afterthought of the competition, he is woefully equipped compared to the others. If he wants to win, he’ll have to do something stupid and desperate—though at least it’s not a difficult choice.

Six will die young, but one will rise above them. Only question is—is anything worth it?

There is was.

If he did this, he’d be restricting his magick usage for the rest of his life. But if he didn’t go through with it, the rest of his life would probably be a lot shorter anyway.

All of Us Villains is yet another fantasy thriller in the Battle Royale sub-genre, but this time with magic! So, teenagers battle to the death because why not. Got it. So… just from the prompt, this seemed a bit blah, but several reviewers I follow loved it, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Sometimes it’s all down to timing. Other times, it’s just taste.

This was a perfect combination of the two. For me, at least.

It’s going to sound a bit strange, but I found the pacing to be one of the best parts of this read. It sped up and slowed down from time to time, but always managed to do so at just the right moments, so that it never felt like the story was rushing out or grinding along. It was just always… there. You know how life happens at its own pace? It was like that. There were fast moving, adrenaline-induced parts that roared along, followed by crash sections where time seemed to be inching along while the characters got over the high. There were slower sections of talking and transition which all too suddenly turned to violence in an instant. It all felt… realistic. The tournament playing out over weeks instead of in the span of “days that feel like years”—a phrase which you all know I hate seeing.

The second great strength of All of Us Villains is its characters.

Now, all are profoundly flawed individuals—horrible people that react in terrible ways based on the fact that they’re young and immature, born and bred to fight in tournament that will no doubt claim their lives even if they have the fortune to survive it. And as such, they do some terrible things. But they’re also capable of great compassion, understanding, and empathy. It just comes out kinda weird what with the fact that they’re simultaneously attempting to murder one another. They’re not exactly realistic per say, but… realistic in the way that one can only be when they’ve been told their entire lives that they’ll be forced to fight a bunch of their friends to the death so that their family can reap the rewards.

I couldn’t honestly tell you who my favorite character was… though I consistently enjoyed both Gavin and Isobel’s POVs in a way I didn’t Briony’s. It’s not like Bri was a worse person—I’m not sure there were any “better” or “worse” characters (other than possibly Finley, who did not have his own POV)—I just found her a bit too arrogant for my tastes. Alistair kinda split the difference, showing both an unexpected empathy and a surprising cruelty just when I thought he’d turned one corner or the other. Just those four POVs: Alistair, Briony, Isobel, and Gavin. It never felt overwhelming with the POVs, or the scope, as each POV simply showed a different perspective into the tournament.

The story was not without its flaws, just… these were far outweighed by its strengths. Far, far outweighed.

TL;DR

All of Us Villains features a cast resplendent with the villainous, the vain, the wrathful, and the bloodthirsty. They may not all be monsters, but most come close. If you’re after a story with distinct lines between good and ill—this isn’t it.

This asks you to pick the best of a bad situation—and then pick again, as that person will almost surely die first. It may not feature any saints, but it does tell a lovely story with a definitely dark twist. A somewhat new (if not wholly unique) take on the Battle Royale sub-genre that has overtaken the world, All of Us Villains mostly succeeds through it being a damn good read, with excellent pacing, and believable—if horribly flawed—characters. In fact, I’d argue that their obvious flaws make them even more believable, if not relatable. While you might not love this quite as much as I did, I hope you’ll trust me when I say it’s worth a try. I’d very much recommend Part #1 of this duology, continuing in All of Our Demise, out just recently here in 2022.

Perfect Shadow – by Brent Weeks (Review)

Night Angel #0.5

Fantasy, Novella

Orbit; November 7, 2017

131 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

7.5 / 10 ✪

Gaelan Starfire is a farmer, a husband, a father—and an immortal, a man who’s seen countless lifetimes, and is peerless in the arts of war. In past lifetimes he’s been a leader of men, a war hero, a villain, a rebel, a tyrant.

In this life he is no one.

Was. Was no one.

When his wife and daughter are killed, Gaelan takes an assignment assassinating assassins for the beautiful crimelord Gwinvere Kirena, in order to escape. But it turns out that this escape may cost him more than he bargained for.

Yet, it may also provide Gaelan with the answers he desperately seeks.

This was to be my first kill for hire. It’s good to start with the impossible. Make a name for myself. Enter with a splash.

A bit light on details, but a lot more depth than I’d expect out of the common backstory novella—no wonder it turned out longer than the author had planned. The tale of Gaelan Starfire includes twists and turns, ups and downs, but only the one lifetime (though there are glimpses of more beyond). If you liked the Night Angel trilogy—or even didn’t; I was on the fence, personally, and only ended up reading Book #1—this is a nice piece of lore to pick up, as it explains so much that is just taken for granted in Way of the Shadows.

I haven’t read a book in the series in several years, but had no trouble getting immersed in the world. In fact, even after finishing Perfect Shadow (which took me about a day), I still only remember glimpses of Book #1: the world, the ending, and… that’s about it. The point is that this novella can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the series, though if you have read some of it, this adds a bit more depth to your understanding.

There’s also a short story included: I, Nightangel—which fills in… not much, honestly. I found it a bit worthless and ended up skimming it. So, the novella itself I’d rate at 8/10 ✪—while the short story maybe 4ish. Luckily, the main event is the novella itself, so I only ended up docking half a star for this, as the reason you buy the novella is for the, you know, novella.

TL;DR

If you’ve read any of the Night Angel trilogy, or are curious to do so, I’d definitely recommend Perfect Shadow. It’s a good judge of whether or not the trilogy would be right for you. I’m not certain that the short story is included in the ebook version—according to the Amazon page, it is, but the hardcover edition claims it isn’t supposed to be.

Black Heart: Words on Wind, Adrift on Dreams of Splendor – by Mark Smylie

Black Heart #1 / Artesia #2

High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-published; February 21, 2022

235 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Patreon

Please beware minor spoilers for the Barrow.

Give them a chance to be cruel, and they will love you for it.

You know, for a book I never thought I’d read, Black Heart: Part 1 was pretty damn good. Fresh off a reread of the Barrow, it was good to drop back into that same niche, the groove, and explore more of the highly detailed, immersive world of Artesia. While Part 1 is mostly used for building the coming story, there are a few things I’d like to note.

Other than sex, the same formula as the Barrow
There was no graphic sex or mention of cocks until nearly the two hundred page mark! It was weird. Luckily Smylie squeezed one scene in before the close of Part 1, so if you were only reading this one for the lurid fantasies—take hope!
If instead you were reading it for story- and world-building, yeah, there’s a lot of that. Black Heart uses the same formula that the Barrow did before it. Namely, a bleak starting location, heavy on the action, then a break to build the world and splay the threads wide.

Not a whole lot of repeated POVs.
As a buildup for the rest of the book to follow, Part 1 skips around a lot after leaving Stjepan and Erim outside Devil’s Tower. The story begins right after the events depicted in the Barrow, as the adventurers continue on, searching for Gause Three Penny as they hinted they might at the end of the last book. We spend a bit there, but following their departure, the overall plot zooms out a bit. POVs include the Nameless, the Guilds, the Council, the Lords and Ladies of the city, and another special guest.

Despite the time it took, it’s still the same Artesia
I confess to being a little worried the world would’ve changed after such a long absence. But as I read the Barrow right before this I can tell you for certain that it was just like stepping out of one story and into the next. The world around doesn’t change, nor does the immersion—so it’s back into the breach right away, just like no time has passed.
I’ve never read the graphic novels, but this was the same world I remember from Book #1, no problem.

It’s a good start to Book #2
When it comes right down to it, this is what matters. Whether the story is good or not. And, well, it is. The pacing is a bit slow at times, as we have to read through several new characters while the author builds up the world, but otherwise I had no complaints. Can’t recommend the entire thing yet as I haven’t read it all. But from what I’ve seen thus far, there was no reason to worry!

Coming next, Black Heart: Part II: In the Coils of a Horned Serpent!

Hidden – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #5

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 2, 2014

293 pages (mass market)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

8.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Chosen, and minor spoilers for Books #1-3 of the Alex Verus series.

Following the events of Chosen, Alex Verus finds himself at odds with many of his former friends. Killing a bunch of teenagers—regardless of the reason—will do that. Both Sonder and Anne, two of his closest friends and allies, now refuse to talk to him, preferring to go it alone. With Sonder this isn’t much an issue; an up and coming mage on the Council, Sonder has his pick of allies. But with Anne—who is shunned by the Council and its mages and apprentices alike—this leaves her increasingly on her own, and unprotected.

So when Anne is kidnapped, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Despite Alex being on her bad side, he is still as desperate as anyone to find her. Even going so far as to work with the Council Keepers and Sonder.

But when it comes to light that Anne may have been taken by the dark mage Sagash, all that support suddenly dries up. Legally there’s nothing they can do—as a former apprentice to Sagash, he is well within his rights to reclaim her. Even Sonder, who regards Anne as a friend, gives up hope, leaving Alex with Luna and Variam alone.

The following rescue will take place with little supplies and nothing in the way of backup, half-assed and reckless—an Alex Verus special.

“Maybe that’s how it works in our world. The only heroes are the ones who die young.”
I gave Anne a disturbed look. “That’s a pretty depressing philosophy to live by.”
“Is it?” Anne didn’t meet my eyes. “I can’t tell anymore.”

Considering how long and how many tries it took me to reread and finish Hidden, I’d still consider it a good book—even head and shoulders above Jacka’s earlier work. I pretty much just burned out on the genre (which happens to me with pretty much anything, but especially urban fantasy) and had to take a break. That said, there is a bit of a lull in the early going, after Anne is taken, but before any real action is taken to retrieve her. And it was in this lull that I was lost.

The book starts off well, with the fallout from the previous book coming to light in Alex’s early comings and goings. We get to see his decisions reflected in the faces of his friends and family; some support him and his actions, others very much do not. It’s a quiet start, but it gets going quickly enough.

Following the kidnapping, there comes a bit of a lull. It’s not egregious—only about 30-40 pages, but if you’re impatient (in general, or to read something else) than it may make or break this for you. During this lull there’s some talking, some planning, some lore; not a whole lot of action. But then come page 90, everything kicks off again—and pretty much carries this intensity through to the endgame. Once I got over that hump, everything was fine. But seeing as how I did burn out there (despite coming back to it, despite having read and enjoyed it previously), it has to be taken into consideration.

Hidden continues to expand on the lore and depth of the Alex Verus series. The world by now includes well more than simply Camden, and while it’s not completely filled in everything, you’d expect that from a series told entirely in first-person. Still, everything is as immersive as before, and there’s no break in the narrative or story. In fact, it’s all better than normal as there’s been four books of build-up before now. In terms of the overall arc, Hidden continues this quite nicely. Obviously in the interest of spoilers I’ll skip going into any detail, but I felt like it worked, and that’s what matters most.

All in all, Hidden is another great Alex Verus adventure. Yes, it has its highs and lows, but the series continues to improve from its most humble of beginnings. The series continues with Veiled, Book #6.

Spells for Forgetting – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Romance, Supernatural

Delacorte Press; September 27, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

10 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ballantine Books, Delacorte Press, and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

A mist-cloaked isle steeped in folklore and tradition, no one goes to Saiorse island to stay. Everyone who’s local already lives there, and the island doesn’t take well to outsiders. Despite this, hordes of tourists flock to the islet in fall to see the trees, to visit the Salt Orchard in all its autumn finery.

August Salt isn’t headed to Saiorse as a tourist, and he isn’t going there to stay. But it still feels like he’s headed home.

Decades before, August left Saiorse in the dead of night with his mother, never to return. The Orchard Fire—and the death of Lily Morgan—precipitated their departure, while another death results in August’s return. That of his mother, Eloise. No, August hasn’t come home to stay; he knows he isn’t welcome here, not after the night that provoked his departure. He’s come to bury his mother.

Emery Blackwood once dreamt of leaving the island, running away with August and exploring the world. But after the Orchard Fire, everything changed. Now Emery lives among the ashes of her former life. She runs a teahouse—as her mother did before her—and lives in her childhood home. It’s not the life she thought she wanted, but it is hers.

Now, fourteen years after that fateful day, Emery’s reality threatens to shatter once more. As August Salt once again walks Saiorse’s shores. She can’t look at him: his departure stole everything from her—her heart, her future, her best friend, almost her own father. But neither can she stay away: August is the only man she’s ever loved, and she’s dreamt of him ever since he left—his smell, his taste, his scent, his touch.

But August’s return affects more than just Emery, more than just the town—the island itself notices his arrival. And secrets that have remained buried for the last fourteen years will finally come to life.

There are spells for breaking and spells for mending. But there are no spells for forgetting.

I often mention how I’ll get so immersed in a book that literal hours pass without me noticing. I mean, it doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it’s both an amazing and surreal feeling—of belonging in a world that isn’t my own, but is one I can picture so vividly that I’m transported there.

I think you probably know where I’m going with this.

Spells for Forgetting is a story of true love—and, at the same time, a story of love unrequited. It is a book full of secrets and lies, of the possible and the impossible, of the supernatural and the unknown, of love and envy.

It is also an amazing read.

Saiorse Island is a fictional islet hidden in the shadow of Seattle, in Puget Sound. But it legitimately feels like an entire world on its own, instead of an enclave on the world’s edge. Sometimes a setting like this feels cramped, claustrophobic—but I never noticed that with this. Instead, Saiorse feels cozy, comfortable, and—although I’ve never lived within 500 miles of the ocean—it feels like home.

But for all its comfort, the mystery at the heart of Saiorse burns bright. The past, hidden in lies and steeped in the supernatural, has yet to come out, though one can feel that it desperately wants to. All it needs is a little push.

One thing that bothered me was the tale of true love—and in particular the side-plot of love unrequited. Because I’ve been in that spot before, and so it was so hard to read about it. Yet at the same time… Adrienne Young nailed it. That feeling: that some things are just predetermined, fated, and while they were meant to be for some others will just never have them. Something you cannot fight, though you will anyway.

The way that this bothered me… did not ruin the story. In fact, I think it made it better. It made the story feel more real, more tangible—in a way that it truly did not need. From the setting to the mystery to its characters to true love—it was a tale that hit close to home. Parts of it might have been difficult to read, but all of it was incredible.

TL;DR

I’m honestly having trouble expressing just how much I loved this novel. From the story, the setting, the characters—everything seems so much more than I can put into words. I even loved the romance, even though sometimes the thought of it hurt worse than heartbreak ever has the right to. I can’t recommend Spells for Forgetting enough, not just for creating a world you can get lost in, but for giving you a reason to return once you do.

The Winds of Khalakovo – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Lays of Anuskaya #1

Steampunk, Fantasy

Night Shade Books; March 8, 2011

464 pages (ebook)

Goodreads • StoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

6.5 / 10 ✪

Behold the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, a collection of windswept archipelagos off the continental shelf of Yrstania. Here eyries serve the Landed, windships bearing goods and passengers amongst the isles as trade connects each duchy in the sea. But it is not so simple as just that. And while the duchies are at peace for the time, this will not always be the case.

Indeed, when the Grand Duke and his retinue are murdered by an elemental spirit, dissent threatens to tear the Grand Duchy apart. The Maharraht—a fanatical fringe group with the indigenous Aramahn—are widely suspected, but not all see the two as distinct. In fact, most Landed do not.

Nikandr is the heir of Khalakovo, a collection of seven isles in the center of the Great Northern Sea. When the Grand Duke falls, and the Maharraht spread their message, he is tasked with finding and retrieving Nasim, the boy believed to be a conduit for the elemental spirit. But this is easier said than done, as Nasim is one of the Landless—and a child prodigy who often exists more in Adhiya than he does in the material realm.

But when Nasim turns out to be more than just a prodigy, Nikandr is left with an impossible choice. To turn the boy over to the Grand Duke’s heir, or to use Nasim to try to cure the wasting plague that has been ravaging the isles. Either way, war is coming, but on which side does Khalakovo fall? And what does it mean for Nikandr and the two women in his life, each representing a different would-be foe?

It’s been several years since I first read the Winds of Khalakovo, and even now when it comes to mind I picture a flurry of images. Of walrus-tusk shell casings and complex magic. Of windships coasting above rough seas, windswept eyries and rugged archipelagos. Of stratified society and torrid affairs. And of a plot I still don’t fully understand.

Now, everything gets a bit clearer after the second installment, but is that really what you want to hear from a new series? That after the second book, you’ll kinda understand a bit more of what was happening in the first book, even if you may not have at the time. No, right? And though WoK certainly wins points for a complex and intricate, highly political plot—it also loses points for the inability to grasp said plot, even by the time the story ends. I mean, at its base level, I understand the book. Find the kid before anyone else does. Save the cheerleader, save the world. But where the stability of the duchies, the wasting disease, the political and cultural hierarchies fit into everything didn’t completely fall into place until after more glimpses of the world.

On one hand, it’s nice that the book evokes a deeper and more significant meaning even after you finish it. That you can come back and enjoy its hidden complexities down the line, when you’re working through Book #2 and 3. But on the other hand, that you pretty much HAVE TO read Book #2 to understand just what is going on in Book #1 is ridiculous. It’s a bit like World War II. You can take a glance and understand that Nazis are bad, but once you get into the history of it—the futility of the Weimar Republic, the anger and resentment it created in the youth, the destabilization of world markets during the Great Depression—everything gets a bit more blurry. Now imagine that instead of starting with “this is a Nazi” introduction to WWII, you started with the fluctuation of the price of grain in 1920’s Eastern Bloc and the effect that had on the monarchies of Europe. I mean, you’ll reach the same destination in the end, but the journey there is remarkably different.

What can I say about the world-building, though? Rich and evocative, like an autumn breeze raising goosebumps along your arms as the lingering scent of wood-smoke fills your nose and you swear you can just taste cherry and apple cider even as you picture curling up in bed while a wicked wind whips through the darkened forest. I mean, it’s pretty much amazing. It’s everything I said in the opening paragraph and more. Wood and bone. Leather and ivory. Cinnamon and clove. Towering mountains and crashing seas. Airships and wind magic. Landed and landless. It’s… I can’t adequately explain how amazing I found the world-building. Very few worlds have ever drank me in quite like this one. That was why it hurt all the worse when I crashed out of it to puzzle out the plot.

The characters are mostly quite good. Very well written; complex, human, relatable—with one pretty glaring exception. But every story needs a villain, right? And often the villain’s motivations don’t have to make sense at first, that’s what hindsight and flashbacks are for. Nikandr, Rehada and Atiana are probably the strongest characters—which makes perfect sense, especially with the whole love-triangle going on. Ashan is remarkably strong considering he probably won’t be fully appreciated until the latter half of the tale, while Nasim is a bit weak, which again, is to be expected.

TL;DR

This is one where I completely want my opinion to be proven wrong. I want you to go out, pick this up, and love it. I want you to leave a glowing review, tell me how wrong I was. Only… I don’t really expect it. Over 1600 ratings on Goodreads, Winds of Khalakovo holds a 3.3 rating, meaning that it was firmly in the realm of Meh. Some people love the plot but hate the world. I loved the world, but was constantly infuriated with the plot. But I still want people to go out and read this—especially if you enjoyed the Shattered Sands, especially if you enjoy steampunk. What I absolutely do not want is for you to just look at the rating and then swear off reading it, for the world itself is an achievement that needs to be experienced. However, there is always more to read, and more out there for the enjoyment. And, at the end of the day, this just may be too divisive for that.

The story continues in The Straits of Galahesh, Book #2 of the Lays of Anuskaya.

250 Reviews (and Book Stats)

Okay, so this will be a different kinda post for me, so if you don’t care about stats and numbers, or fun facts, feel free to skip this one. I mean, like, subscribe and smash that—never mind.

Recently (I think it was July), I passed the 250 review mark. At the moment, I’m up to 258. These comprise over half my 438 total posts, far exceeding any Lists, Games, Recaps, or other random musings about waffles, nirvana, and/or ham. But since 250 reviews seems like a good round number, let’s focus in on those a bit.

Before I started blogging, I read mostly by series, going from one book to the next, in a roughly straight line, only veering off course if I got bored or the series ended. But over the past 4 years, this has absolutely not been the case. In fact, the 258 books I’ve reviewed have been written by 138 different authors. That’s an average of 1.87 (or just under 2) books per author. It’s also a complete turnaround from how I felt I read before.

A lot of this has to do with the amount of ARCs I’ve read and reviewed over the years. Since 2019, I’ve reviewed 120 advance copies, and only 135 previously published books. If you’ve mathed this out, you’ll notice it doesn’t quite work, but for the addition of two reviews I published for KK, and one Non-ARC Review Copy.

But let’s dig into the numbers a bit more:

Of the 120 ARCs
• 77 I liked
• 19 I didn’t
• 49 New Authors
• 42 Standalone

Of the 135 others
• 30 New Authors
• 11 Reread
• 15 Standalones
• 86 Liked
• 07 Didn’t

So, when I’m left to my own devices, I still tend to read books in series, as only 11% of those I read were standalone, versus 35% when I was reading an ARC. Additionally, I was far more likely to stick to authors I’d read before. 78% of the authors I read I’d been familiar with prior, compared to only 59% of the ARCs. And I suspect that this previous stat helps explain the next one. That, along with another important note: if I’m reading an ARC I’ll often give it more time to work itself out than if I’m just reading something on my own. So, bearing both those in mind, I had a positive opinion of 64% of the ARCs I read, versus 64% of those that weren’t.

Huh.

I really expected those to be quite different. Weird.

But here’s where it makes more sense: I had a NEGATIVE opinion of only 5% of the books I read purely for fun, as opposed to 16% of the advance copies. Which means that I had a neutral opinion of 31% and 20% respectively.

This next list puts every book I read into ONE category/genre. Now, I realize that a bunch of these could be included in multiple genres, but I just went with my gut to put them in whatever I thought most categorized them as a book. The results were not surprising.

• 74    Fantasy
• 67    Science Fiction
• 30    Grimdark / Dark Fantasy
• 26    YA
• 22    Urban Fantasy
• 14    Thriller
• 10    Mystery
• 07    Horror
• 05    Non-Fiction
• 02    Supernatural

If we pair Fantasy & Grimdark, then Mysteries & Thrillers, we get a much broader picture of things.

• 104 Fantasy
• 67 Science Fiction
• 26 Young Adult
• 24 Mystery & Thriller
• 22 Urban Fantasy
• 07 Horror
• 05 Non-Fiction
• 02 Supernatural

The Supernatural and YA can all be scrapped for parts, leading to the following divisions:

• 19 Fantasy
• 04 Urban Fantasy
• 03 Science Fiction
• 02 Horror

Which leaves us with:

• 123 Fantasy
• 70 Science Fiction
• 26 Urban Fantasy
• 24 Mystery & Thriller
• 09 Horror
• 05 Non-Fiction

…which is about what I’d’ve figured. No reason to dissect any further, so let’s move on.

I’ve reviewed 138 total authors’ books. Of those, I’ve done 84 authors once. 24 authors twice. 13 authors thrice. That leaves 17 authors that I’ve reviewed more than three books by.

  • 4 – Adrienne Young, Preston & Child, Ed McDonald, Richard S. Ford, David Dalglish, Becky Chambers, Bradley P. Beaulieu
  • 5 – Adrian Tchaikovsky, Benedict Patrick, D.B. Jackson
  • 6 – Sebastien de Castell, Stephen Aryan
  • 7 – Michael J. Sullivan, Benedict Jacka
  • 8 – Anthony Ryan
  • 9 – Django Wexler

I also have several books I’ve meant to review but not gotten around to. Maybe look for these in the coming decade!

I have 37 reviews with over 50 views; 17 of those over 100. Now, of those 17, I actually HATED three of those books, and was on the fence about another two. I guess it makes perfect sense that people would read bad reviews (as in reviews of bad books), but I kinda expected there to be more of those. As it is, a dozen of my top 17 books are quite positive.

Negative

A Longer Fall – by Charlaine Harris
Crank Planace – by James Dashner
Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August

Neutral

Old Bones – by Preston & Child
Salvation – by Peter Hamilton

Positive (by views)

102 • Soulbinder – by Sebastien de Castell

102 • Ashes of the Sun – by Django Wexler

108 • Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon – by John August

109 • Fallen – by Benedict Jacka

117 • The Constant Rabbit – by Jasper Fforde

148 • The Wolf’s Call – by Anthony Ryan

185 • Rabbits – by Terry Miles

189 • Risen – by Benedict Jacka

305 • Forged – by Benedict Jacka

366 • Age of Empyre – by Michael J. Sullivan

554 • Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan

700 • The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan

Interestingly, the top dozen here features a pretty much even number between provided and purchased books, 7 to 5 respectively.

Now, if you’ve made it to this point, you’ll notice that a lot of those authors look familiar, as I’ve published multiple reviews for several of them. As such, here are my Top 12 Authors by views:

  • 1026 Michael J. Sullivan
  • 0984 Anthony Ryan
  • 0656 Benedict Jacka
  • 0394 Preston & Child
  • 0271 Sebastien de Castell
  • 0268 Django Wexler
  • 0256 John August
  • 0213 Bradley P. Beaulieu
  • 0166 David Dalglish
  • 0160 John Gwynne
  • 0143 Adrienne Young
  • 0142 Becky Chambers

Quite the drop off there, innit? First between 2 and 3, then 3 and 4, 4 and 5… well, I had fun making the list, at least. Authors that I counted up that didn’t make the cut were Jasper Fforde (by one!), Stephan Aryan, Ed McDonald, and Benedict Patrick. For authors #1, 2, 3, 5, & 6, it really helps that I’ve reviewed so many of their books. And I’m currently reading an ARC by Adrienne Young as we speak, so she’ll probably move up the list here shortly.

I don’t really track my views much. I’ve been paying attention to a few of them, though: Old Bones, because that’s what got me on the map; the last two Jacka’s and Sullivan’s because they’re sitting back-to-back; and The Black Song, as I expect that’ll be the first one to hit 1000. That’s about it, usually. I’ll glance at the rest from time to time, but this was the first time I really ran through them all. Some of the ones I thought must be much higher weren’t, and others I’d forgotten about were in their place. How, for example, did Crank Palace get 114? I HATED that book. LOATHED it. It’s quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever finished in my life.

But anyway, thanks for joining me to go over the numbers of my first 250 reviews. Please check back in… 4-5 years when I go over 500? What do you think the odds are I don’t burn out before then, eh?

Note: Please don’t ask me about the formatting of this piece. I wrote it up in TextEdit and copied it over and… WP just kinda ran with some of that. Some list turned out as Code, others as Lists, still more in Paragraph—I’ve no idea why.

Abandoned – by W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #2

Science Fiction

DAW Books; November 27, 2018

436 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

9 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Donovan #1—Outpost.

Welcome to Donovan.

Supervisor Kalico Aguila has been on fragile terms with Port Authority since she decided to remain planetside, rather than inverting on the Turalon. Rather than join the settlement and perpetually butt heads with the council, Aguila has chosen to carve out a mine in the wilds—one the wilderness is slowly but surely reclaiming. The trees take a more active approach on Donovan, often rootching forwards, covering miles in a single day. To make matters worse, a murderer is hanging out in Aguila’s camp, one pushing Dan Wirth’s agenda. As if Donovan wasn’t enough.

Mark Talbot is a dead man walking. Marooned in the middle of the bush, he’s alive at all solely because of his armor, which thus far has survived every threat Donovan has thrown at him, from quetzals, to nightmares, to death-fliers. But what it can’t do is feed him, or—something that’s his larger issue—keep a charge. The battery packs were tested and maintained for combat; somewhere around 1000 hours. So far Talbot’s has seen twice that, and the cells are slowly depleting. So when he sees his first sign of human habitation, Talbot has no choice but to throw himself on their mercy. What he’s confronted with, however, are three scientists with a flock of children—and the quetzal that one of them has bonded.

Lieutenant Deb Spiro is losing it. A marine with a head for taking orders but not giving them, she has been suddenly thrust into command, a position that sees her instability and lust for violence take center stage. In Port Authority she sees everything that’s the problem with Donovan, especially one Talina Perez. And Spiro isn’t great at talking through her problems.

Talina Perez has made mistakes. In this case it’s the woman whose husband she killed during her time as the supervisor’s assassin. A mistake she’s desperate to atone for. But she’ll have to do far more than that if she wants to survive what Donovan has in store.

For when Spiro makes a mistake that might just threaten to kill them all, Perez will gamble everything on an outcast, an alien, and an infection in her TriNA. As sides are chosen and tensions run high it becomes very clear that the two sides can’t live together. But with Donovan mounting an offensive, neither might survive at all.

On Donovan, only humans are more terrifying than the wildlife.

“At this rate, how long before the forest reclaims the whole farm and smelter?” Kalico asked woodenly.

“Maybe a couple months?” Ghosh hazarded. “But that’s just a guess. I’m not a biological science kind of guy.”

“Remember how you laid out a line of that toxic smelter waste?” Ituri gave her a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what to say except this is Donovan. The trees never even hesitated. Radioactive or not, they just rootched their way across.”

“Rootched?”

“That’s what we’ve been calling it. Sort of a mix between roots and ruts and wiggling through the ground.”

A great return trip to Donovan, Abandoned tells an excellent followup story to the science fiction debut, Outpost. Turalon has departed. The planet is once again on its own. It’s up to the people to band together—us against them—and survive all the planet has to throw at them.

Only, people are, well, people. They don’t always get along. Honestly, I feel like this is an understatement. Just look at the history of humanity: I don’t see why it should be any different on an alien world.

And neither, it appears, does W. Michael Gear. Humans are the most terrifying part of Donovan, though the planet tries hard to give them some competition. A conspiracy of quetzals, on a molecular level. A horde of death-fliers. Trees that eat people, spaceships, and, apparently, toxic waste. And yet even in the face of all that, the humans continue to squabble and kill one another.

The problem, such that it is, is Dan Wirth. The best villain you love to hate. And yet NOT the villain of Abandoned. I guess the author thought it was too early in the series to put a bullet in the bastard’s head. A shame, that.

Anyway, instead of Wirth, we’re given Spiro, who is a bit one-sided as villains go. Or indeed, as people. Now, I’m not saying Spiro is poorly written, as I’ve met a number of marines I feel could encapsulate her perfectly. Suited to violence, good at taking orders, but little else. And no, this is not me saying that all marines are psychos—just some of them. Some very, very few of them. The point is that Spiro, while being a bit boring as a villain, isn’t a bust as a character. Nor is she poorly written. Just I think we could’ve done better.

Spiro aside, I flew through this book! I loved the addition of Talbot (especially given his circumstances), the return of Talina and Trish and Kalico and others. I binged the final 250 pages in a night, and had to resist going immediately to the next one as it was 6am and I needed to sleep. But I wanted to go back to Donovan. And that’s what I’d recommend you doing; don’t just GO to Donovan, go back, time after time. I sure hope this series continues to deliver like I expect it to!

The Oleander Sword – by Tasha Suri (Review)

The Burning Kingdoms #2

Fantasy, Romance

Orbit Books; August 16, 2022

480 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

9 / 10 ✪

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

Once an exiled princess and maidservant met in the darkness, and love was born.

Now prophesied the nameless god’s heir to the throne, Malini comes to take her place as Empress of Parijatdvipa, a position her brother Chandra isn’t likely to relinquish without a fight. In fact, he’d much rather she his sister’s blood stain the grass than welcome her home. But while Malini continues to collect allies in her fight, her victory is far from assured. As long as Chandra still controls the imperial throne, the army will follow him. The priests of the mothers—dead set on Malini giving herself willingly to the flame—will never recognize her claim. And so, the closer she gets to the capital, the closer the Empire comes to all-out war.

A war Ahiranya wants no part of.

Scarcely a year after expelling Chandra’s forces from their borders, thrice-born Bhumika and Priya now rule the Hirana as Temple Elders. While Bhumika rules as the representative of the Yaksa, Priya remains on the periphery—attempting to combat and control the Rot. But between pressure from the former rebels and the creeping plague, they have their hands full. Even without a war on their doorstep.

Despite both their standings, Malini and Priya’s destinies are intertwined. So when her Empress eventually calls, Priya’s heart stutters at the very thought of a reunion. Yet a shadow lurks in the recesses of her heart. Has Malini called for her as her true love, or her greatest weapon—one to be used and cast aside when it is no longer needed?

But despite Priya’s best efforts, the Rot is spreading. And something moves in the deathless waters, something that she can sense, but cannot see. Something that will change the fate of the Ahiranya and Parijatdvipa forever.

He watched his sister walk around the ceremonial wedding fire, garbed in resplendent red, and thought, My country is dying.
He watched her bow for the garland, and thought, Our father is dying.
He watched her as she lowered her head for the wedding garland, and thought, My sister will die.
And there is nothing I can do.

I mean, the beginning wasn’t great, but it could’ve been worse. I think a recap would’ve helped ease us in to the absolutely rough high-school-worthy romance told through the passing of notes behind the teacher’s back.

Ooof, that ending though.

In terms of a start to a fantasy epic, it’s not the best. But far from the worst. Leans into the sapphic romance, so if that’s your thing you’ll probably not mind. If you’re not a romance buff, it’s a bit of a slow burn, which thankfully takes off as we reach the plot in earnest (shortly before hitting the hundred-page mark). Not that the romance ends here, just it takes a back seat to the war on Chandra—the villain throughout most of the text.

If you were hoping for a new villain to despise, don’t worry, as Chandra isn’t alone. Though he will command most of your attention of the nearly five hundred pages. But muttering gives way to rumor around the halfway point; you begin to get a glimpse of where the series might be heading in the future. And Chandra—while still the main focus, the center of attention—isn’t alone anymore. Don’t get me wrong, this is still his book; if you’re not a fan of his Vaas-style villainy, it may be a long grind to the end.

…which is where we’re going next. Because… well, I’m not totally on board with it. The end, that is. It’s not bad per say, just—a bit of a cliffhanger that makes you remember it’ll take Tasha Suri at least eight months to write the final installment. Plus publishing and all… well, we’ll just be stuck on this for another year. Also, I’m not 100% clear with the motivations here, but we won’t get into that. Spoilers and all.

Now that I’m done with my minor concerns regarding the beginning and end, let me rave about that middle bit. Now, I’m not the fastest reader, but I read it in a day (from about the 150 page mark on). And it kills.

I mean, I have no criticisms or notes. None. For around four hundred pages the story was wholly immersive, thoroughly entertaining, almost an obsession in itself. Maybe more than “almost”. I enjoyed the first book but this one blew me away.

It’s really hard on its characters, though. Tasha Suri really owes her characters a break. But if she did that, Book #3 would just be a polite discussion over tea, so… well, maybe there’ll be a happy ending and everyone will live happily ever after?

Yeah, or maybe not.