The Witch’s Storm – by D.B. Jackson (Review)

Thieftaker #5 / The Loyalist Witch #1

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction

Lore Seekers Press; May 16, 2021

105 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Contains spoilers for the Thieftaker Series Books 1-4

Boston, Fall 1770. Ethan Kaille, former thieftaker, now lives a quiet life as a tavern keeper with his wife Kannice. Once a loyalist, he now supports the Sons of Liberty following the Boston Massacre. So when the Sons stop by with a problem, Kannice practically shoves him out the door to take the case.

Lately, the Sons have been plagued with death threats, all stemming from the trial of the Captain Thomas Preston, commander of the Boston Massacre. In fact, both the prosecution and defense have been receiving threats should they continue with the trial. And lately, there have been incidents with no explanation, which can only be the cause of magick.

Luckily, conjuring is Ethan’s forte, and he jumps into the case with renewed fervor. Because, the thing is… Ethan really missed being a thieftaker. Prowling the lanes, plying his trade. On the wrong side of the law, Sephira Pryce, helping the working men and women of Boston live out their lives are well as possible. He’s just falling back into the old groove when the conjurer strikes.

And in a moment Ethan is overwhelmed. This new witch’s power dwarfs his own, and even worse—she knows who he is. But can Ethan step away from thieftaking entirely now that he’s just come back to it, and can he really give up the cause of liberty? Or will he press on, risking ending up just another corpse floating facedown in Boston harbor?

Thus begins the Witch’s Storm, Part #1 of the Loyalist Witch.

I’m honestly going to have trouble rating this anything lower than 5 stars. It was just soooo good returning to the world of Thieftaker. Even better to read something new. Nonetheless, this was a great read. So good in fact that I went through it in a day.

There were some minor inconsistencies between this and the previous stories, but nothing that really affects the story. Even though Boston seems a touch less vibrant and detailed than normal, I’d chalk it up to the novella and its length. Not that this is an adequate excuse, but just being back in 1770’s Boston was enough to settle most of my qualms. It was amazing walking the streets of Boston again with Ethan Kaille.

If you’re a fan of the series: the Witch’s Storm is a must-read. It expands upon Ethan’s saga, and tells a never-before-seen story in the Thieftaker universe. Obviously, it’s the first of a trilogy of novellas known together as “the Loyalist Witch”, but tells a complete story on its own. It does seem like it’d be rather important to read some of the Thieftaker stuff first instead of jumping right in here, but a new reader wouldn’t be completely at sea. It’s $3 for the ebook, but that was an acceptable price to pay—if you think of the three novellas of the Loyalist Witch as one novel, it’d be $9 for the book which is just about average. But otherwise I can’t recommend it enough and I cannot wait to read the next one!

The Loyalist Witch continues with The Cloud Prison, out June 22, 2021.

Voidbreaker – by David Dalglish (Review)

The Keepers #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit; February 11, 2021

458 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for The Keepers Books 1 & 2

Incidentally, maybe check out my reviews of Soulkeeper and Ravencaller before you read this one, eh?

The awakened monsters have claimed half of the Cradle, and set siege to Londheim itself. Shinnoc son of Cannac seeks to atone for his father’s death, the whole of the Dragon-sired following in his wake. ‘Men have begun to flee the city come night, leaving the city weakened and ripe for the taking. But still the monsters sit, for within the city another war rages.

The Forgotten Children have taken over a district of Londheim and driven the humans out. Here they wait while tensions grow ever higher. The dam may yet break, but not while Devin Eveson has anything to say about it. Though he is no longer the Soulkeeper he once was, instead taking a more liberal, cavalier approach to just what constitutes a “monster”. Adria—the Chainbreaker—has turned further still from the church, to the point where she is no longer sure which side of the conflict she’s on. Though it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a side all of her own. But when the Goddesses themselves come calling, which side will each Eveson choose? Will it be a common one, or will the siblings fight to the death for ownership of the Cradle?

Meanwhile, Dierk, Jacaranda, Tommy, Brittany, Wren, and Janus all have chosen a side, if not a common goal. Each has their own agenda independent of this war, one that will surely come into conflict with their chosen leaders. But as alliances form and shift and fade, which side will end up on top—and is there any room for the losing side in the future of the Cradle at all?

We seek peace. We seek sleep. We seek oblivion.

Voidbreaker wraps up the Keepers series, another by David Dalglish that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. While I quite liked the Shadow dance hexalogy, I have to admit its books were a bit hit-or-miss. The Keepers may only have half as many entries, but it commands way more consistency between them. Nothing under 4-stars, with both Ravencaller and Voidbreaker yielding perfect 5/5’s. I so enjoyed this series, yet I’m only slightly disappointed it had to end here. Because while I could’ve read another three or four or eight novels in the same world, Voidbreaker gives the series the end it deserves. A damn good one.

I really enjoyed how the characters of Devin and Adria evolved. Sure, there are others as well—Jacaranda, Sena, Logarius, Janus and more—but these two central figures helped guide the plot from the beginning, and as their motivations change, so does the direction of the story. At first it was Us versus Them. Then the lines began to blur. By this point in the series, I’m not even sure whose side anyone thinks they’re on—let alone where their allegiances actually fall. The thin red line has to be blurred to the size of a demarkation zone, and coated red from the blood of all that have fallen to progress this far. I’m not sure what side I would be on, let alone what the “right” one is.

I mean, Crksslff (Puffy) is on the right side. We all know that. It’s just where everyone else falls that is confusing. Incidentally, the little firkin remains my favorite minor character. It plays its part in this story, to be sure, and plays it well. Just waiting for the spinoff that’s sure to come now.

A few minor hiccups over the course of the text could not dull the majesty that chaos hath wrought. For this tells a story of pure chaos. Dark, bloody, epic, desperate, hope-inspired chaos. And it’s glorious. About halfway through, the air of tension escalates to full-on SHTF. And just keeps at it. The whole latter half of the book was a dash through fire, a desperate fight to the finish, a last stand with but the most-unlikely glimmer of hope. And it’s truly a treasure. An incredible read. One of my books of the year, surely.

The Pariah – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Covenant of Steel #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; August 24, 2021

561 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Born into a whorehouse of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe was raised as an outlaw by the infamous Deckin Scarl. Always quick with a word or a knife, Alwyn was outlaw material at its finest—something that he’d never lose even after becoming a military man. But while fighting under the banner of Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman with apocalyptic visions and the heart of a warrior, he’s seemed to find his true calling.

But that’s the thing about one’s calling: it takes time and living to find. And while Alwyn might just be better at this than he was as a criminal, can any man, no matter how talented, truly overcome life as an outlaw to become a knight? Or will he be stuck in the gutter forever; just another failure with a blade, robbing peasants in a lonely forest?

Bit of a quick recap for me, but I didn’t want to spoil too much. Thing is, despite what was spoiled by the brief—the bit about the King’s army in particular—Alwyn’s life was a mysterious delight to read about, never knowing where the former outlaw would turn next. From friends and companions, lovers and assets, rivals and foes, the people in Alwyn’s wake are what define him. The author’s ability to build deep, flawed, relatable characters pretty much paves Alwyn’s path for him.

Anyone can start in the gutter. It’s not that hard. Raising one’s self up from there is the challenge. And staying alive long enough to do so. It’s quite the journey told here—something almost up to the breadth of Blood Song, be it without all the time spent as a student of the blade. Instead of a military society, Alwyn must rely on his wit, his reflexes, his allies, and his need for vengeance to keep him going.

One of the main differences between Alwyn and Vaelin is that where al Sorna is a leader, Alwyn Scribe is not. Rebecca (from Powder & Page) pointed this out so well in her review. Of how it’s so different from someone rising to become a hero, a leader. How he plays the supporting role so well. She pretty much nailed it. So while it’s his life we live through this, the telling takes on so much of the echoes of whom he chooses to follow in it. Deckin Scarl, Ascendant Sihlda, Evadine Courlain. I mean, there’s time where he’s on his own too, but often it seems that Alwyn simply attaches himself to famous or ambitious folk. That it’s not about how he changes the world, it’s about how those around him will shape it.

”Much preferred him as a miserable sod,” Toria said, her face souring further as she emptied the purse’s contents into her palm. “Four sheks and a quartet of dice. My fortune is made.”

For a bit of the book Alwyn is alone. I mean, while he attaches himself to the infamous, he keeps only his own counsel. But for a good chunk of it he relies on the wisdom of his friends to keep him on track. In particular, of Toria and Brewer. You know how one of your friends is always the angel on your shoulder while the other plays the devil? Of course not. Because people aren’t like that. While some may be less honorable or savory than others, they’re all human. With their own faults and opinions. These two (as well as a few choice others) color the way Alwyn lives near as much as whatever mythical figure he’s following. It’s for the best then that neither one makes a very good angel—more entertaining that way.

An excellent start to what I’m sure will be an excellent new series—provided there’s no Queen of Fire in it. I want the next one so badly now it hurts! Many thanks to Anthony Ryan and Orbit for sending along a review copy!

Paper & Blood – by Kevin Hearne (Review)

Ink & Sigil #2

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Del Rey; August 10, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Beware Spoilers for Ink & Sigil (maybe read this one first, eh?)

Fresh off the Case of the Trafficked Fae and Stolen Whisky, Al MacBharrais and his hobgoblin Buck are thrown into another mystery involving missing sigil agents, a rising body count, and a untracked god appearing in the south of Australia.

It all begins with a mysterious, god-level event in the Dandenong Mountains, a range just north of Melbourne, Australia. Sigil agent Shu-hua goes to investigate, only to disappear without a trace. Another sigil agent, Mei-ling, and her apprentice set out shortly after to attempt to find Shu-hua, only to suffer the same mysterious fate themselves. As folk keep disappearing Down Unda, Shu-hua’s apprentice Ya-ping frantically contacts Al, desperate for some help finding her missing mentor.

Now it’s up to MacBharrais and his wee pink hob to travel to Southern Victoria and find the missing agents, people plus whatever’s been taking them. Oh, and he invites the Iron Druid Connor (formerly Atticus)—who has taken up residence just south in Tasmania—to come along for the ride.

Thus the adventure begins, with Al, Hob and Ya-ping joining forces with Connor, Oberon and Starbuck to find their brethren and foil whatever nefarious forces are at work. There will be plenty of time for fun along the way—with a plethora of guest stars, cameos, heists, and stories to distract from all of that ass-kicking that is sure to commence when the team hunts down their prey.

I found this adventure a good read; fun, exciting, and interesting in all the right ways. As with the first book in the series, I enjoyed Al in a way I never did Atticus. Therefore I was initially disappointed when the Iron Druid showed up—but forgave the choice as he proved to be a much more mellow, far less superpowered god as I remembered. The same core characters from Ink & Sigil return as Nadia, Buck, and of course Al reprise their roles, much to the same tune as last time. However, except for a little piece of backstory on Buck, we really don’t learn anything especially new or interesting about them. Ya-ping is a welcome relief as the apprentice sigil agent is funny but deep, interesting, and relatable without being too wise for her age. I even enjoyed the Iron Druid, after a fashion. Unfortunately that doesn’t hold true for Gladys (MacBharrais’s secretary from Book #1), who returns with a bit of mysterious backstory. I found her as unlikely as she was unlikeable, and the whole concept of her surprise reveal stupid.

While it’s a good, fun read, Paper & Blood is far from perfect.

[They want to bag a druid, and not just any Druid: They want the Iron Druid.]

“Me? Why?”

“So many reasons!” Buck said, spreading his arms wide but keeping his voice low. “A Lot of human violence is committed over the idea of proprietary sex partners. Could that be it?”

“…Nnno.”

First off, as the story itself comes directly after Al’s realization that he’s the victim of not one but two curses, I really would’ve thought we’d’ve focussed on that more. But other than a little tidbit at the very end, we end back where we started. It’s like… So, the spinoff was a hit. Episode 1 ended on a high note and we’re all invested in the mystery and can’t wait to see where it leads in Episode 2. But instead of any continuation of what must be the overarching season plot, Episode 2 is a self-contained story that has very little to do with anything (although it’s all well and good and interesting in its own right), only to spend the last minute or two refocussing everyone on what happened at the end of Episode 1 and where the story’s sure to be headed now. In short, while Episode 2 was good, we made no season plot progress from #1 but end the episode assuring the audience that we’re totally going to come Episode 3.

Now I realize that this might’ve been an attempt to expand the world, the lore, or more firmly establish the connection to the Iron Druid universe. And it does two out of the three—though doesn’t teach us anything more about different sigils—the connections and lore being leaned on heavily. The lore was particularly interesting, as it expands the world, the pantheons, and their capabilities.

Additionally, within this self-contained adventure, there are a few (three) “campfire stories” that didn’t seem to connect to anything. Okay, okay—I’m sure you could come up with some connections, but they’re tenuous at best, and at worst have nothing to do with either the plot of Episode 1 or 2 and are just included to waste time. Combined, the three take up roughly 15% of the book. I found the first one (3%) interesting, the second (2%) boring, and the third (10%) especially pointless.

TL;DR

All in all, I left Paper & Blood feeling a bit annoyed, but overall pleased with my time spent within its pages. After waiting on it a few days however, mostly now I just feel that while the story was entertaining, it was didn’t leave any lasting sense of accomplishment. Nothing happens that relates to the overarching plot of the series: Al’s curse. It’s a self-contained adventure that—while interesting and entertaining in its own right—is pretty much just a waste of time. I’m not saying Paper & Blood wasn’t good—it was! It told a fun, ofttimes exciting story, but related to fuck all of the story from Book 1. If you enjoyed the Iron Druid series, it’ll probably just be worthwhile to see Atticus again. If you thought Ink & Sigil thinking that it was a lovely time, full of laughter and fun—you’ll probably like Paper & Blood. But if you like a bit more substance out of your series, you’ll likely still enjoy your time, but leave feeling a bit disappointed.

The Godstone – by Violette Malan (Review)

Unnamed Series #1

Fantasy

DAW Books; August 3, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to DAW and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Fenra Lowens is a practitioner come to the Outer Modes so that she can heal folk free from the politics of the City. It is a simple, quiet life, but one that she enjoys. But when one of her patients, Arlyn Albainil, is summoned to the White Court to execute the will of a long-missing relative, Fenra is returned to the City and all the matters she wished to avoid. For Arlyn suspects that this summons is not to simply read a will and return. No; rather the White Court is after Xandra Albainil’s vault, and the Godstone within it.

The very Godstone that Arlyn locked behind it centuries before.

But Xandra Albainil did not die: he became Arlyn. See, when Xandra bound the Godstone, it robbed him of his power. He became nothing more than a Mundane himself, and a sickly, Low one at that. Now, to keep the Godstone from falling into the wrong hands (or, any hands really), Arlyn needs Fenra to accompany him to the City and finish what he started—sealing the artifact away once and for all.

Along the way allies and foes both are discovered—from Arlyn’s one-time friend, to Fenra’s girlhood rival. The City remains much the same, but much has changed as well. The duo must navigate the old and new if they hope to make it through the ordeal alive, which means that all secrets must be exposed—including the ones they’re keeping from each other.

The book is written mostly in first-person, switching between the perspectives of Arlyn and Fenra. Though it’s a bit unusual to tell a story this way, it’s not the first time I’ve come across it. What was a first was the 3rd person narrative that was thrown in around a quarter of the way through. This 3rd person narrative is quickly joined by another, and so it continues for the rest of the text. So… two 1st person POVs and two 3rd person ones. Fenra and Arlyn get most of the screen time, but… wow. It took some getting used to. Fortunately, the author pulls it off rather well, so it was only muddy for a little.

Despite having less-than creative names and titles (“the City”—really?) I found the concept and world incredibly inventive. The world is divided into Modes, which apparently are only obvious to practitioners. When crossing between them clothes change. Technology changes. Buildings, walkways, language, money and nature all change. Hell, maybe even life and magic change. While Modes aren’t ever terribly well explained, the hints alone blew my mind. It was a constant struggle to figure out what the hell was going on in this book—but in a good way. Mostly (confusing is still confusing).

The Godstone itself is a great character. A sentient, powerful object with the potential to change or destroy the world? Something that has an agenda all of its own, but is inescapably linked to Xandra/Arlyn’s past, and thus has an unknown motivation and goal? It’s like those supervillains with the evil plans that sound crazy at first, but the more you read into them the more sane they sound. The other characters deliver as well, with Arlyn and Fenra being my favorites—fortunate as you have to put up with them a majority of the time.

Still, much like the Modes, not all of the book is satisfyingly explained. There’s one bit where a character just vanishes—and their disappearance isn’t even noted. They’re just—gone. And never mentioned again. The White Court is center stage for much of the book but was never really explained well enough for me. At the same time, the Red Court—the White’s counter court—isn’t explained at all. I mean, they’re feared and respected, but otherwise… It wasn’t so much that they were mysterious, elusive, or enigmatic. They were just… not explained.

TL;DR

The Godstone does quite a lot right—telling an immersive and highly inventive story through diverse and relatable characters, causing the reader to become deeply invested in the outcome. But it can also be quite confusing. While mostly it’s confusing in a good way, sometimes confusing is just confusing. Too often there were terms or organizations that just weren’t explored or explained, despite playing a fairly vital role in the plot. In a longer book this would’ve just bogged everything down. In this shorter format, it kept me guessing—an elusive mystery that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Hopefully most of these issues will be resolved in Book 2 (a thing I didn’t know was a thing until I read the blurb about a “new epic fantasy series” while writing up this review)—something I’m already cautiously optimistic about!

Made Things – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Steampunk, Novella

Tor.com; November 5, 2019

187 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Coppelia is a thief, and a rather poor one at that. An orphan known primarily by her street name, Moppet (a name she hates, by the way), she cons, tricks, and occasionally gets her hands dirty in order to make ends meat. Recently her luck has been on the rise, however, due in part to a few little friends she’s made.

But these are no ordinary friends. Arc is made of metal, Tef of wood. Both are about a hand tall, and expressionless. They are made things, not born. And they are entirely their own.

Their partnership with Moppet is a tenuous one. It mostly works—and is best when not questioned. But when their patron makes a startling discovery, these two Made Things must choose whether to extend their association to a fellowship, or let it fall by the wayside. And it’s an important choice, too. For not only is Coppelia’s life on the line, but that of her entire city may be as well.

Made Things was an entertaining, distracting little adventure that I mostly enjoyed, though I found it a bit disappointing, at least by Tchaikovsky standards.

It just didn’t feel… complete. I mean, Made Things does tell a complete story. It’s an adventure with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The conclusion is good, and I didn’t have any nagging questions after the credits rolled. The problem is that the middle feels somewhat scarce. Tchaikovsky is typically great at world-building, at bringing even the shortest stories alive. But this feels a little hollow, like a film set, or a tourist trap; there’s the backdrop of a city, it just doesn’t have any substance to it.

Now the story within is a good one. A ragamuffin with an ace up her sleeve—an ace in the guise of two homunculi with their own secret agenda. There’s a thing that happens and leads yon urchin down the edge of a blade, whereupon her former partners must decide whether it’s in their best interest to save her or let her go. There’s a lovely bit of humor within, while the author subsequently delivers a tense, dramatic tale.

‘ There were rats, or at least a rat had chosen her cell as its final resting place, and probably others would come to pay their respects in due course. There were fleas, perhaps also in mourning for the same late rat. ‘

But even the best story can’t make up for a blasé setting. And to be honest, Made Things doesn’t have the greatest story. It’s a good one, to be sure, with interesting characters and a fascinating premise. There was a good idea here. There’s still more than enough here for me to recommend it, just maybe don’t expect a golden egg inside the shell. It may be tasty, or it may still grow into a chick, but it’s still just an ordinary egg.

Outpost – W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #1

Scifi, Space Opera, Aliens

DAW Books; February 20, 2018

442 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.3 / 5 ✪

Welcome to Donovan.

One of the farthest worlds from Earth, Donovan is as far as one can get from civilization. A beautiful world of forest, it is truly a breathtaking planet, one that the locals adore and fear in equal measure. For while Donovan is gorgeous—paradise it is not. A truly hostile, alien world, everything is trying to kill them. From the quetzals and bems and other apex predators that camouflage themselves to hunt; to the sentient plants that wrap their roots or vines around someone and then garrote or engulf them in flame; to the slugs that burrow their way into people and eat them from the inside-out; to the disease, heavy-metal poisoning, and morale and attrition that affects every colony on the fringes—death lurks around every corner.

While the locals love it, the future immigrants aboard the colony ship Turalon might not agree. After two years crammed in a tin can, they are about to get their first peek at Donovan—and the world does not greet them with open arms. Even neglecting the flora and fauna, the existing pioneers are cold and untrusting of their Corporate counterparts. Even before the ship touches down, tensions arise, only to flare as the colonists get the first glimpse of their new home.

Kalico Aguila is an ambitious and cutthroat executive, sent to determine whether Donovan is worth salvaging. Though it is a world of bounty and treasure, the hostile nature of the place, along with its remoteness makes it a risky investment. That’s even before considering that the last seven resupply ships have gone missing around Donovan, never to be seen again. And so the Corporation have sent Supervisor Aguila—along with her Marine Sergeant Cap Taggart—to investigate and report back. That is, if they can make it back.

Talina Perez represents the hope of Donovan. One of the de facto leaders on planet, it’s up to her and her people to keep the colonists safe from the encroaching wildlife. A task that challenges them constantly. Shortly after the story begins, Talina and her understudy Trish Monagan have an encounter with a quetzal that has gotten inside the colony—an event that will change Talina forever. And when the change starts to manifest itself within her, it could save, or doom her world forever.

Would-be colonists like Dan Wirth just can’t wait to get planetside to start their new lives. But when the planet is Donovan… they might not want to stay very long. Not that Dan is worried. Not that Dan is his real name. A psychopath, “Dan Wirth” is ready to forge a new legacy on Donovan—one he means to pay for in blood.

But when the ship touches down, tensions explode, leaving the two sides at each other’s throats. And that’s even before the lost Freelander mysteriously appears in orbit—a ship that wreaks of blood and death and is stocked with little but bones.

You know the stories that take place on an alien world, or a colony on the edge of civilization, or a town in the middle of nowhere, or any other combination of mysterious, exotic, alien, strangeness and/or the unknown? I really dig those. The unknown—and more specifically what secrets and mysteries are lurking within it—has always fascinated me. It’s why I love science fiction and fantasy so much in the first place.

Enter Outpost, which combines so many of these and adds danger, murderous aliens, psychopaths and a death cult into the mix. And Donovan is such a great setting! I mean, actually Donovan is kinda a terrible setting—for the colonists, at least. But for the reader (and I guess the author), it’s a wonderland, a paradise of new and original ideas, each more wild (and terrifying) than the last. And with the existing colonists, the new would-be colonists AND the existing planetary inhabitants all together vying for control of the planet… well, it’s just a recipe for success. One that Gear delivers on with a fascinating tale of mystery and discovery! There’s even a group of former colonists that just took to the bush and somehow live in peace with all the dangers of Donovan. They’re not around much in Outpost, but look for them in the future, as they’re such an untapped potential.

In general, I loved Outpost! The characters are a great blend of authoritative, renegade, ordered, desperate, experienced vs. inexperienced that it’s great to compare their multiple POVs even when they’re not interacting. And add a wild card to the mix for Dan Wirth, the resident psychopath whose agenda essentially can change at the drop of a hat? It’s really well thought-out, well executed; a great read all around. The chapters are short but immersive. They all weave together quite nicely to form a tale of deceit and lies and mystery and love and adventure. I got major Edge of Tomorrow vibes—particularly with the indigenous life (especially the quetzals), and the struggle against a wholly alien enemy that isn’t well understood. Though I’m not entirely taken with it, it’s a pretty close thing.

Talina or Trish were probably my favorite POVs, with Iji or Tip thrown in as my favorite bit character. But there’s really no going wrong with any of them. Kalico Aguila was also quite strong. Dan Wirth I hated, but in all the good ways. Cap was a bit shallow, if I’m honest, for a POV—but he’s really my one complaint.

I do hate it when characters are killed off just to further the plot, however. Now, when a character dies or has to die over the course of the story, that’s fine. But when they die specifically to set up some kinda plot device—like a whodunnit scenario—it gets to me. Now I’m not saying who dies (and you really shouldn’t be surprised that SOMEONE DIES in this book—Donovan is a scary place, be prepared for everyone to die in this) in case of spoilers. Sufficient to say that someone does JUST to further/create a plot device which is just frustrating.

TL;DR

Outpost is a 450 page gambol (I love that word—it’s like a frolic) that goes by in a blink once it gets moving. I mean, there’s some action, yes. And maybe one or two alien species intent on tearing the humans to shreds. Also something about a death cult. A mystery of disappearing ships. Two factions—no, THREE factions—at one another’s throats. A dwindling crowd of people forced to work together or die divided on a world that seeks to expel them or drink them dry. So… pretty much just a nice frolic. I mean, if you’re into that.

Murder at the Kinnen Hotel – by Brian McClellan (Review)

Powder Mage Universe #0.3

Fantasy, Novella

Self-Published; November 24, 2014

75 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

Special Detective Adamat may be best detective in all of Adopest. His Knack grants him a photographic memory, one that he utilizes to the extreme, always focused on the bigger picture. The foremost detective of the Twelfth, he’s recently been transferred over to the First Division on the request of Hewi, his previous Captain, when she herself was promoted.

But things work differently in the First, and Adamat has always had issues repressing his gift. Why bother, when you’ve the most impressive crime-solving mind alive? As his world becomes obfuscated by politics rather than facts, Adamat is assigned to a murder at the Kinnen Hotel. It seems an up-and-coming businessman has derailed his promising career by murdering his mistress. But as Adamat digs into the case he uncovers a web of conspiracy, extortion and deceit. It may well be the case that makes his career—if it doesn’t kill him first.

A pleasant, if somewhat bloody introduction to the Powder Mage Universe, the novella provides a glimpse into Brian McClellan’s fantasy world—one that has spawned six full-length novels with over twice as many shorter works to go along with them. After all, what’s better than a good old fashioned murder mystery, albeit one with a few variables and eccentricities thrown in?

My second time through, and this novella delivers yet again. It does exactly what it’s intended to do—entertain, stoke interest in the Powder Mage series, and leave the reader thirsty for more. Although it’s fairly short (only about 75 pages), Murder at the Kinnen tells a complete, contained, finished story that is well thought out and engrossing.

While I’m not a huge fan of paying full-price for any book (while understanding that it’s important to support authors by actually, like, PAYING for their work), Murder at the Kinnen Hotel is worth it in my book. It’s around $3 US if you buy it straight up, but is also one of those you can pick up on sale for a buck or two. Even though it’s only 75 pages, the story’s good, interesting, unique, and it serves as a good intro to the universe—or, instead, some backstory into one its premier characters. Alternatively, you could spring for the novella collection, which again McClellan himself often puts up for sale, but retails at ~$10. I can guarantee you that this will not be the last you hear of this collection from me.

The only questions you’re left with are how much more do you want, and how long are you willing to wait for it?

The Coward – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Quest for Heroes #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; June 8, 2021

411 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot) for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

First, I owe an apology to Angry Robot (who kindly provided me with the ARC)—because I thought I’d published this review but just flat out didn’t. Whoops. My bad!

I first read Battlemage half a decade past—my introduction to Stephen Aryan—and immediately fell in love with the world he’d created. Now, six books and 5 years later, The Coward takes us outside of that original world that Aryan had created and on to a new one. And a new adventure.

A decade ago Kell Kressia set out with the greatest heroes of his generation to stop the Ice Lich and save the world. They succeeded, but the cost was great. He returned alone, scarred and broken, haunted by the things that he had seen and had done. Now, ten years later Kell lives as a simple farmer, hidden in the corner of Algany with only his horse Droga for company. But recently even he has heard tell of stirrings in the frozen north, and a rumor that something has taken up residence in the Ice Lich’s old castle.

It’s not long before the King sends envoys to summon Kell to the capital. They want him to return to the north and defeat this evil once again. The first journey nearly broke him. Only after ten years and hundreds of miles separating him from it has Kell managed to recover—though the horrors he faced continue to haunt his dreams. Another journey would destroy him. Even still, a shadow stirs in the north. And it’s up to Kell Kressia to stop it.

The Coward includes a pair of quest lines, drawn out across multiple POVs. One involves the legend that is Kell Kressia as he makes his way north once again. The other, Mother Britak in the city of Lorzi. Now the one with Kell is quite obvious. The title character upon his titular quest. It is this quest line that the story lives and dies on. Mother Britak however…

I mean, I know what her POV is for. It’s in there to set up Book #2. But has fuck all to do with #1. I mean that literally—apart from a few details of note, mostly in Part 1 (there are 3 Parts to the book; Part 1 takes about 120 pages)—Britak’s storyline has nothing to do with Kell’s own quest, and doesn’t even have the decency to resolve itself by book’s end. And it’s got one of those “One True Faith” tropes, where the church ends up being completely wrong and borderline evil, which I find overused nowadays. As I said, I’m sure it’s setting up the second half of this duology, but in terms of the here and now: it really doesn’t have much to do with the story.

In the last twenty years there had been a steady decline in the number of faithful. People were busier than ever with family and other commitments. That was the reason he’d heard most often but those were just excuses. The truth was, believing in something abstract was difficult.

Luckily, the Coward isn’t about Mother Britak. It’s about Kell Kressia, and Kell’s story kills. It’s quite enjoyable. I really liked it. The world, the characters, their motivations and intentions—it’d be a borderline 5 / 5 from me without all that Britak nonsense. Honestly I have no notes regarding Kell’s storyline. None. Outstanding fantasy. A bit dark, a bit epic—and a whole lot of adventure!

TL;DR

The Coward is an outstanding adventure fantasy following hero of the land, Kell Kressia, on his return voyage to the north. He will save the world, or die trying. Or, alternatively, he’ll just piss off and let the kingdom solve it themselves. I really have no issues with the storyline revolving around Kell. A little darkness, a wee bit of danger, a pinch of epicness—and one borderline worthless POV following Mother Britak. Her story rarely intersects with Kell’s, and can only be setting the table for the followup plot in Book #2. As good as I found Kell’s story, her’s was simply pointless. I mean, it’s written well and she’s interesting enough—but it barely connects and it’s Kell’s that steals the show. Luckily, it’s Kell’s that takes up the overwhelming majority of the novel. Still, there’s more than enough here for me to heartily recommend the Coward. A great adventure with excellent characters, heroes, action, and adventure. The one misstep that is Britak is not enough to ruin the good time.

The Emperor’s Railroad – by Guy Haley (Review)

The Dreaming Cities #1

Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; April 19, 2016

173 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

3 / 5 ✪

Quinn is a knight of the Angels. Armed with a six-gun and two swords—one for killing the living, another for killing the dead. Abney is one of the last two survivors of New Karlsville (his mother is the other), fleeing for the safe harbor of Winfort. Quinn has agreed to escort them there, for a price.

The world has changed—as you’ve likely gathered. The Great War changed everything. Turned cities to glass, and others to dust. But the world is even more dangerous than just that. The dead do not stay dead. The living don’t stay that way neither. There be Angels, and dragons.

The road to Winfort will be long and hard. But with Quinn by their side, Abney and his mother might just make it.

My second time through this one, and still I think that it took its sweet time getting moving. The world is quite nice when it starts rendering in, but again it takes its sweet time. It’s like a DOS prompt that takes forever to load properly, but once it does is quite enjoyable. Actually… yeah, the entire book is like a post-apocalyptic or fantasy DOS game. The main problem with it is that books aren’t used to being games, and so that first 50 pages where nothing really happens are more of a letdown. Which—if you’ve only got 170 pages to tell a story—is quite a long time to wait.

Okay, okay. SOME things happen in that first 50 pages. There’s the origin story of how all this began—told from Abney’s POV. Now, it doesn’t tell us what happened to New Karlsville. No, that comes later. It also doesn’t tell us Quinn’s story. It just tells us how Quinn and the two refugees meet. Which, to be honest, is a bit dry and a bit light on details.

Once the story gets going, however, it’s quite the tale. Set in quite the world. A fantasy meets post-apocalyptic setting, complete with swords, guns, trains, dragons, angels, and the undead. And there’s more too—some of which you’ll meet should you continue the series. In general, I found the second story preferable to the first, but you’ve got to start somewhere. And it’s good to meet Quinn before getting too far along with his story. Because while this is told from Abney’s POV—it’s Quinn’s story. And not a bad one at that.

The whole thing has kind of a Metro vibe to it (the games, not the books—so a perilous scramble through the apocalypse, not a metaphysical stumble through it), which isn’t a bad thing. Exodus, in case you’re wondering. And if ever you can come close to describing a Metro game in your stories, you’re doing something right.

TL;DR

It’s quite a quick read once you get into it. Quick, but enjoyable. I have the ebook version that I got for a buck; and I’d easily call that worth it. Recently I picked up a paperback from my local library, and it’s more than worth the time spent there. While the Emperor’s Railroad isn’t the best story you’ll ever read, most of that’s down to the sluggish start. I’d recommend it—in part because I know Book #2 is better than #1. While 3/5 means it’s not great, it’s not a bad way to spend a few hours by any means.

The series continues with Book #2 of the Dreaming Cities—The Ghoul King, at the moment the de facto conclusion to Quinn’s adventure. Guy Haley maaay return to the series at some point, but right now he’s busy industriously churning out 40K novels for the Black Library.