Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Alt History

Solaris; October 20, 2020

416 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Solaris and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Gyen Jebi isn’t a warrior or leader. They just want to paint.

But as the native child of an occupied territory, the future of their country, their people may depend on them and what they choose to do.

And yet it all starts when they forsake their heritage, donning a foreign name so that they might become a ministry artist—comfortably housed and paid—just so they might paint to their heart’s content. But instead of the Ministry of Art, the test instead lands them a job at the mysterious Ministry of Armor, where they are set to painting the curious symbols used to animate the Razanei’s fearsome automata.

In one stroke Jebi is cut off from their friends, their family, their life before—and ensconced in the Ministry’s fortress, where they learn to create and paint that which keeps their people in bondage. But the methods used are too horrifying even from them to imagine, which prompts Jebi to answer a question about themselves—will they emerge from the shadows and try to lead their people into the light, or will they instead focus on their art, the only thing they’ve ever wanted?

Phoenix Extravagant combines a unique magical system, an automated dragon of infinite potential, a beautiful by deadly duelist, and a rather bland artist that would rather fame had simply passed them by.

I actually really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant, something that I would not’ve expected after the first 50-odd pages. The lead Jebi is a bit bland, really. A bit sheltered from the world, a bit caught up in their head, a bit off, odd. Not the best narrator (at least I would’ve sworn early on).

Only Jebi turns it around. As they grow more deeply embedded in Razanei society, so too do they develop as a character, as someone capable of telling a full story alone while maintaining an interesting lead.

In general, the world-building wasn’t terribly creative. The Hwaguk people were obviously styled after Korea, with the Razan invaders from a nearby archipelago were clearly Japan. The Chinese were mentioned too, but only in passing, and I didn’t take note of their pseudonym. If you weren’t aware, Korea and Japan have a… complex relationship, at least historically. And as Japan has previously annexed Korea (particularly during the early twentieth century, roughly the time this novel takes place), there’s certainly a historic precedent.

There’s actually quite a lot of historical parallels thrown around in this. In general I found these to be interesting parallels, though they also cheapened the novelty of the world-building (especially as the “westerners” are just called “westerners”). While the dynamic between the Hwaguk and Razan dominates, others include the isolationism in reference to the rest of the world, and the depiction of the West as something mysterious but to be feared and hated (not that they were wrong there).

Here’s a quick history lesson. If you’re interested, confused, bored, or Ola—read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead a couple (or three) paragraphs .

Korea was known (in the West, primarily) as the “Hermit Kingdom”. For centuries the various Chinese dynasties were seen as the major influencer over Korean politics since even before the Goryeo Dynasty, when it was basically viewed as a tributary state of China under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. This balance shifted during the Joseon period, when the dynasty adopted a severe policy of isolationism in an attempt to keep both China and Japan from meddling too much in their affairs, as both nations favored adding Korea to their empire. But late in the life of the Joseon matters came to a head.

Now I’m going to oversimplify things a bit more. See, there was this peasant rebellion in Korea. The Joseon was late in life at this point, and things weren’t going particularly well. They panicked and requested help from China (the Qing sent aid to what they viewed as their “tributary state”). Japan, angry about the troops that entered Korea from China (as they thought it broke a treaty between the two), sent an army of their own. The rebels were defeated, but neither China nor Japan wanted to leave. Eventually it led to war. A war which Japan won, and China conceded a number of things including, essentially, the right to colonize Korea. The Joseon Empress didn’t much care for this, and attempted to strengthen ties with Russia in order to kick Japan out. Japan, in turn, had her assassinated. Then forced the Emperor to end the Dynasty and form a new government, ripe for colonization by Japan. Something which they did not long after.

So, there’s been a long history of contention between the two. [Historically] Korea hated Japan because they… well, there’s a whole lot of reasons, but it’s mainly the colonization, mistreatment, and the comfort women (you’ll have to google that one—I’m not explaining it). [Historically] Japan hated Korea because of ethnic tensions, inauspicious events, and just a whole host of other reasons. Enough to say that both have their reasons and leave it at that. Since this time, obviously there’re the attempts by the Japanese to ignore some of the things they did during World War II—which is a bit like being a Holocaust denier in Europe—which I’m not getting into either.

There are a number of creative changes made to the history throughout, notably the magic, automata, the gender and identity bias (or lack thereof), and the cultural norms. I quite enjoyed the direction the author went with the magic and automata, though sometimes even it seemed a bit too fanciful to be believed. Even with the obvious historical parallels, the magic system is unique and interesting enough to carry the book. But it doesn’t hurt that the story is really good, either.

The story tells somewhat conflicting tales of how individual choice and freedom affects everyone around you, and the freedoms and sacrifices of following your own path and doing what you believe is right, rather than obeying someone else’s dream instead. While all of this adds up to a very serious book, Phoenix Extravagant’s humor turns the book into something quite different: a fantasy with not one, but several possible lessons, and several possible outcomes cropping up along the way.

“Jebi,” she said, “this is like when you were four and you thought laundry magically happened.”

Jebi opened their mouth to protest that they’d helped with the laundry, then remembered “helping” had consisted of running around shrieking with glee while pulling underclothes off the line and flinging them about.

TL;DR

While Phoenix Extravagant does a good many things right—such as telling an entertaining story filled with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking premise and plot—it is let down by a somewhat uninspired display of world-building, an odd mixture of humor and intensity, and moments in the second half of the text that feel either fanciful or bizarre. I appreciated not only the story, but the multiple ways it could’ve been interpreted—even as many historic parallels can be drawn between this story and that of our own. The tale’s own message about one’s personal choices—on gender, culture, identity—are surely influenced by the author themselves, but Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t seem to lead the reader in any one direction. This story is about Jebi first and foremost—and dragons, magic, war, love, and loyalty second.

The Rush’s Edge – by Ginger Smith (Review)

Cover by Kieryn Taylor

Untitled #1 / Standalone

Scifi, Romance

Angry Robot; November 10, 2020

297 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Halvor Cullen was not born but made—grown in a tank until the age of twelve, then trained to fight and kill and die for those that made him, the ACAS. After his seven years of mandatory military service, Hal washed out, as all VATs do. For there he was expected to continue fighting and kill up until he bit it, while trying to fill the void within, mostly with drugs. Instead Hal joined up with his old CO, taking off to salvage the edge of the galaxy for advanced tech.

During one of his layovers in central space, Hal meets Vivian Valjean, a tecker trying to escape her old life and her old mistakes—most recently a man named Noah. Through a series of circumstances, Vivi ends up accompanying the crew on a mission—and the rest is history. But between the discovery of an alien sphere, trouble with the ACAS, and a deadly assassin, possibly the most interesting development is between Hal and Vivi. For what happens when a natural born human and a VAT super-soldier fall in love? I guess we’ll find out—that is, if either of them live long enough.

The Rush’s Edge is the debut novel from author Ginger Smith, part science fiction, part romance with action, adventure, space opera, and cyberpunk elements all thrown in. If this sounds like a lot—that’s because it is. If it sounds too good to be true—again, yeah. The Rush’s Edge tries too hard to be too much, and ultimately topples beneath its own grand desire.

My main problem with the Rush’s Edge, was how it was sold to me. I was sold an epic space adventure with “a little bit of romance, a smudge of aliens, and a whole lot of butt-kicking”. And to be fair—we got all of that. What I expected though, was a complete story. And didn’t necessarily get this.

The Rush’s Edge IS a complete story in the way that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a complete story. Just where the latter tells you up front that this is a tale of how people become a family with some space-exploration-y elements, the former kinda makes you find that out on your own. Now, if I’d been sold “it’s basically like the Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, that’d’ve been great! While Becky Chamber’s first book wasn’t a masterpiece, it was quite a good read. But between wondering if it was setting me up for a sequel or cliffhanger and then reaching the end with none of these questions actually answered… the Rush’s Edge didn’t captivate me in quite the same manner.

The conclusion also drew on quite a few overused clichés, which I really would’ve ditched. And I DO understand that when you’re writing something and decide to throw in a few classic plot twists you never want to think they’re cliché. But sometimes they are. Instead I would’ve liked to see the author try something different—maybe it’d work, maybe it wouldn’t—because, as they say, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” or “you’ll never succeed if you don’t try”.

The POV can change from paragraph to paragraph, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is talking/thinking, unless it’s explicitly mentioned. While this does allow the author to include several characters’ perspectives on any situation at almost any time (so long as they’re present), I’ve always found it incredibly frustrating to switch back and forward without knowing exactly when.

It’s really kinda science light fiction. There’re spaceships, yes, but there’s no explanation on how they travel between the stars. Do they use a hyperdrive? Faster than light travel? Wormholes? Instant transmission? We don’t know—it’s not explained, or mentioned. They just leave and… then they’re somewhere else. It must be some kinda faster than light travel, but we’re not told, which is a disappointment. While I realize not every science fiction tale is heavy on science, I would’ve liked to see more—but I’m like that.

Even if the action falls a bit flat, it’s the story that steals the show—specifically the romance between Hal and Vivi. One a natural born human, the other a vat grown super-solider; while it sounds kinda silly, it’s difficult to put into words just how much it’ll pull at your heartstrings. My main problem with the romance is that I don’t really read a book specifically FOR the romance, so when it’s the most entertaining element, there’s probably some things wrong. That being said (again), if this had been pitched as a becoming-a-family, Wayfarers-type story: I’m pretty sure I’d’ve been sold. Just leave off the (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) action-elements, the fights, the mysterious conflicts and battles that I can’t get into without spoilers. The alien presence can stay as it (minor spoilers) isn’t really the focus of the story. The romance isn’t really all that romance-y, even. It’s a bit as if the author didn’t want to sell out on romance, but then sold out on action instead. So now there’s not even enough of a romantic element to carry the story entirely on its own.

While overall I enjoyed the Rush’s Edge, there were definitely some issues with it. But it WAS a debut after all, so some of these an be forgiven. If I was to offer the author some advice: leave off on some of the overused tropes—they don’t add anything. Tell your own story—if it’s a thriller, then go action; if it’s a romance, then go romance. The Rush’s Edge is like a romance that tries to go all in on action—and just fails.

TL;DR

The Rush’s Edge is a debut that blends science fiction with romance, attempting to weave the tale of an unlikely romance between a natural born victimized woman and a vat grown super-soldier. It reads kind of like a Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet—where it’s more about the voyage than the destination, how the ending doesn’t matter as much as how we got there, and the ideals of family, love, and hope steal the show. As a heartwarming romance, it kinda works. As an action-adventure, it doesn’t. The action is overused and the adventure is incomplete. The science fiction is mostly fiction, with just the occasional science cameo. For a debut—it’s okay. Tries too hard to be too many things, play too many hands. Uses far too many cliché tropes. But these are to be expected. I just wish they weren’t.

Scifi Month ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Minor Mage – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Standalone

Novella, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Red Wombat Studio; July 30, 2019

185 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Oliver is a minor mage. Though only 12, he’s the town mage of a backwater hamlet, one that has seen no water in quite too long. Therefore they’ve dispatched Oliver and his armadillo familiar to the distant Rainblade Mountains to bring back rain. Armed with his three spells—one of which controls his armadillo allergy, another that ties people’s shoelaces together—he sets off with only the vaguest idea of what awaits him.

What follows is a rollicking adventure filled with peril, sarcasm, armadillos, and times when it’s perfectly alright to miss your mother. It also teaches a valuable lesson about not overextending oneself and keeping armadillos as pets.

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

During a year like this one, full of deceit, jealousy, plague, anxiety, mayhem and more—it is good to have a nice, charming tale every now and then. Not that Minor Mage is always cuddly and cute. Yes, it has its moments of adorability, but it’s also a tale of reality, friendship, and coming of age. All told with an offhand humor that belies the danger lurking around every corner, often in stiff contrast to the drought, death, and darkness all around. While it is definitely told in Vernon’s distinct voice, mixing dark sarcasm, light cheer, reality and more, the wit and sarcasm has an almost Pratchett-esque feel at times (which is really the highest praise I can give it), without ever becoming anything too comic or glib. (Now if you were unaware that T. Kingfisher is actually just Ursula Vernon… spoilers, I guess?)

Whether it be “screaming bone harps”, “cheeping baby armadillos”, or “possessed potatoes”—the story delivers some frightfully odd one liners, that somehow turn out to be the most normal thing in the world later on. Well, maybe not the MOST normal thing.

All in all, I found Minor Mage to be one of the most lovely stories I’ve read this year, not lessened any by the fact that it is a children’s tale. While I was slightly put off by the ending (more when it ended, rather than the way it did), there’s still more than enough for me to recommend it, even if you aren’t one to usually go for Middle Grade.

TL;DR

While it’s not a deep dive into fantasy, Minor Mage is a welcome distraction from the world for however brief it is. Filled with interesting characters, light (and occasionally dark) humor, life lessons, and a very real sense of adventure—it’s the tale you didn’t know you needed quite as bad as you did.

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Again, I adore the cover, courtesy of Jenny Zemanek.

Yarnsworld #3

Dark Fantasy, Horror, Fantasy

Createspace Publishing; October 17, 2017

286 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

When Arturo was a small child, his mother used to tell him stories of the Mistress of the Wilds, of the Black Shepherdess, but especially of the Bravadori of Espadapan. The Bravadori were painted as the Queen’s heroes, protectors of the weak and innocent, saviors of the helpless, monster slayers extraordinaire. As he grew, Arturo always dreamt of becoming one of their number. Occasionally, Bravadori traveled to his father’s estates in search of coin and renown. Upon seeing them, Arturo knew his path was set. He trained hard and dreamed big, until one day he developed his very own Knack in sword-fighting. One day he was finally ready. Packing his blade and mask, Arturo set out for the City of Swords—and destiny.

Yet upon finally reaching Espadapan, Arturo learns that his heroes are nothing like the heroes his mother painted them as. Selfish and ignoble, the masked vigilantes are nothing more than thugs, running unchecked through the city. Unwilling to give up his dream so easily, still Arturo attempts to join their ranks. He is repeatedly mugged, mocked, and beaten. But when he hears tell of bandits terrorizing a nearby village, hope swells in Arturo. For while these swordsmen were nothing like he’d imagined, surely they would line up to defend those oppressed, like he’d seen them do as a boy. And Arturo would finally join their number, defeat the bandits and forge his own legend. Together with a disgraced Bravador and an honorless swordsman, Arturo sets out once more—for destiny.

Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld mixes dark fantasy with faerie tales, adding a splash of horror for taste, and adventure for the heck of it. While his debut—They Mostly Come Out At Night—divided me on its effectiveness at combining all four, I assumed that with experience and practice he could hammer out most of those imperfections.

Which he has.

Sadly, it’s not yet perfect, but still a marked improvement upon his earlier work. The POV characters of City of Swords—split three ways between Arturo, Yizel and Reuben—each could solo the story, as all three are strong, fleshed out leads, with depth, backstories, and even development. Unlike Come Out At Night, these characters delivered. Thoughtful, entertaining, and ambitious, I was never sure who was on whom’s side, as each showed mixed loyalties and complex emotions. They felt human in a way that no one did in Yarnsworld #1.

As before, the faerie tales play as interludes between each chapter, something that both entertained and annoyed me in equal parts. Sometimes it was an extra bit of vital lore, but other times it was a distraction from the plot at hand. While most of the time I appreciated the extra bits of world-building, I really could’ve done without them between EVERY chapter.

While the format annoyed me, the aspect of was most torn on was that of the world-building. The initial setup—the land and its backstory—was just lazy. It’s a carbon-copy of the New World exploration by Spain (or, well, most European powers), complete with Spanish-sounding names and places. That being said, the New World is just a backdrop for the tale. While the faerie tales bring the world to life. Admittedly, I’m not too well versed in faerie tales. I’m familiar with some of the most popular ones, and have a working knowledge of folklore from all over the place. Anyway, these tales seem pretty unique to me. And they really help bring the story to life.

I was caught up picturing the masked Bravadori when Arturo first arrived in the City of Swords, and felt his disappointment as if it were my own. I actually shook upon reading through the Black Shepherdess tale, and she haunted my dreams that night. I could hear her wails, her cries; feel the ash as it fell from the sky; the world itself seemed to grow darker when she blacked out the sky. These faerie tales aren’t just good reproductions, they’re incredibly raw and vivid, dark and haunting and… well, REAL. They feel real. Really real.

TL;DR

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords may be a mouthful, but the where the title draws on, the story itself manages to be gripping, dark, and packed with detail. The number one strength of Yarnsworld continues to be its faerie tales, which alternately had me awed or shaking depending on which terrible or heroic figure was being portrayed. Where They Mostly Come Out At Night fell flat, City of Swords delivered with its characters, its language, and its realism. Though the format of including a faerie tale between every chapter ofttimes annoyed me, I also usually appreciated the dark, interesting snippets of lore they provided. It’s a good, dark read just in time for Halloween. More importantly, City of Swords tells a completely different tale from any of the others found in Yarnsworld, so there’s no reason you can’t just skip right to it. I’d definitely recommend this one, and look forward to continuing my trip through the Yarnsworld saga!

The Shattered Crown – by Richard (R.S.) Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic

Headline; April 22, 2014

391 pages (Paperback)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

The second book of the Steelhaven trilogy, the Shattered Crown carries all the weight of the previous installment, but does a much better job of handling it. All POVs return—save one: River’s tale has taken him outside the city and gets little exposure because of it—and even adds an additional character to the mix. While I felt that all the POVs weighed down Herald of the Storm, affecting both its pace and flow, the Shattered Crown rolls along much more smoothly, telling an action-packed story of love, hope, and betrayal.

Janessa now wears the Steel Crown. With few real allies and no real confidants, she is untried and untested. Yet with the Horde looming on the horizon, she must mature quickly. But will the girl become a Queen, or will she burn along with her city, becoming little more than a footnote to history?

Though the shadow of war looms large, life in Steelhaven carries on. The citizens have a choice to make, however. Will they stand in defense for the city, or pin all their hope on mercy from Amon Tugha? It seems that Kaira, Nobul, Waylian and Regulus have all made their choice—but for Merrick, choice is an illusion. While he carries duty and responsibility now, he mind rebels at the very thought of it.

Rag simply wants to be protected. Amon Tugha, the Guild, even the Greencoats (the city guard)—she’s not picky. But due to her choices in Herald of the Storm, life seems more real and death more inevitable lately. And yet, even her choices will help shape the fate of the city. For the Horde is coming, and no city is greater than the sum of its parts.

Herald of the Storm stumbled straight out of the gate. Each of the first seven chapters introduce a new character. That means a whole lot of new faces and backstories to take in, and not a whole lot of opportunity to establish any kind of a rhythm. Now, while the Shattered Crown follows exactly the same equation—the first seven chapters, each with a different POV, though only one of them is truly new—it seems to go much more smoothly than before. I think it’s because we’ve become used to these characters. With a book under his belt, the author doesn’t need to introduce a whole new motivation and backstory for each one. Instead, it’s more—here’re your returning POVs, here’s what they’ve been up to since you saw them last. While it still makes for a slow start, it doesn’t seem nearly as clumsy as it did before.

As usual, this story revolves around its characters. Each (except Regulus) have had a book to flesh out. While I didn’t find each and every one as deep and intricate as the last, there were a few that surprised me with their depth and impressed me with their ability to keep the story moving. I found some, like Kaira and Regulus, to be little more than cut-outs to progress the story. Others, like Rag, Merrick and Janessa, impressed me. Still more, Waylian and Nobul, haven’t made up their minds yet. I’m quite curious to see what will happen in the series conclusion—will every character experience some kind of development? Nobul and Kaira have been pretty stagnant up to this point, with Janessa, Merrick and Rag carrying most of the developmental weight. Will everyone finally progress? Or will some regress? Or will they all just die when Amon Tugha finally gets to the city?

Oh yeah, some spoilers. Amon Tugha doesn’t actually GET to the city yet. I mean, everyone knows he’s coming, but the dude is taking his sweet time. So far we’ve spent two books building up to the epic battle, and I’m more than ready for it to begin. Truth is, I was ready for (and anticipating) it sometime in the Shattered Crown, only for that moment to never arrive. I’d say that’s the largest disappointment in store for would-be readers. But otherwise, nothing’s too bad.

TL;DR

The Shattered Crown picks up where Herald of the Storm left off, but succeeds where the previous entry often disappointed. The story is interesting and entertaining. It takes a darker turn than I was expecting, as if to remind you that Steelhaven isn’t a place of sunshine and posies. There’s action, suspense, intrigue. Love, drama, hope, betrayal. The character development needs some work, and the world-building might as well not exist outside of Steelhaven. But there’s very little outside to pay any mind to—little that relates directly to the story, at least. And the characters of the Shattered Crown are better than they were in Herald of the Storm, which gives me hope for Book #3. All in all, a good read, and a better follow-up to a lackluster debut.

The series concludes with Lord of Ashes.

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Seven Swords #2

Fantasy, Epic

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2020

136 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Subterranean Press and Netgalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Second entry in the Seven Swords reunites us with Pilgrim and Seeker, fresh off their battle in the Execration against a mad god. While the Seeker remains shrouded in mystery, her path forward has become clear. She seeks a certain girl, sold into slavery, one that bears a striking resemblance to she herself. The Pilgrim however, has been unmasked. Guyime, known to history as the Ravager, seeks the Seven Swords—a collection of demon blades that imbue their wielders with power and unnaturally long life. A life that Guyime would escape.

But to do that he must travel to Carthula and claim the Kraken’s Tooth, a mythical sword said to be lodged in the heart of a long dead Kraken. Accompanying him on this fool’s errand are: Seeker, whose path seems to parallel his own, for now; a powerful sorceress from an equally powerful clan; and her’s father’s slave, a man that never forgets anything he’s ever learned. But will this trio be enough to help Guyime through a maze built from his worst nightmares and memories, or will this fellowship crumble once their quarry is in sight?

Other than the previous Pilgrimage of Swords, the Kraken’s Tooth has nothing to do with any of Ryan’s other work (that I know of, at least). As with the first, I wouldn’t’ve minded a full novel dedicated to this, though it works well enough as an installment of novellas. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, particularly those I’ve seen from the author, but these two have so far broken the mold. Kraken’s Tooth tells a complete story, with no skimping on plot or fantasy. It’s light on details, yet still manages to convey more than enough to paint the Seven Swords in vibrant colors. I had no issue getting into or following the story, and if anything even less imagining it. Any character development does suffer from the lack of material, with details such as interpersonal relationships, reliability or anything more than brief flashbacks are absent. The characters themselves might as well be mannequins, except for Guyime, who has overcome his stoicism from Book #1 and now just seems gruff and distant (and maybe Seeker, who I’m assuming is supposed to just be mysterious, though it’s difficult to tell).

Other than the character aspect, I had no problem getting through Kraken’s Tooth. There was more than enough action and adventure to entertain, while the story holds a political undertone and throws in a bit of mystery and drama that didn’t hurt either. And as I’ve already mentioned, the world is well rendered—with just enough detail left out that the Carthula I imagined likely won’t be the same as anyone else’s—while still getting the most important aspects of the story across. It may be imperfect, but I’d definitely recommend the Seven Swords to any fan of mainstream fantasy, epic, grimdark, and more. I can’t wait to read the next installment and see where the story takes us next!

Battle Ground – by Jim Butcher (Review)

Because of the dust, the stubble, or the lighting, it always (at first) looked to me like Harry was rocking shades. And when I realized over and over again he wasn’t, it disappointed me.

Dresden Files #17

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 29, 2020

432 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ace and Netgalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

This breaks the mold of typical Dresden Files entries, by featuring little to no mystery in needs of solving and no investigation using magic or, well, anything whatsoever. Moreover, Butcher used it a bit like Changes—a time to thank the previous cast for their service, dedication before ushering them into the void. Not that everyone dies in Battle Ground, but… well, in battle, you ought to expect SOMEONE to die. Butcher just expands this “someone” to be “anyone”.

I’ll skip over much of the recap seeing as how Peace Talks leads right into Battle Ground, and if you haven’t read the latest one, the blurb for this is going to look strange if not completely ridiculous. Sufficient to say: there’s a war on, and Chicago is the battleground.

Once again Harry squares off against powerful supernatural opponents, only this time they’re bigger and stronger than anything he’s ever fought—even anything he can imagine. All his allies are along for the ride, and Dresden’s even got a few new tricks up his sleeve, but it still may not be enough. And with all his loved ones lives—not to mention the lives of everyone in Chicago—in the balance, the stakes are higher than ever.

And so it begins. For how does one even fight a Titan?

When I first read the blurb for Battle Ground (back before I read Peace Talks), I rolled my eyes. It didn’t seem wise. It didn’t seem likely. It seemed ridiculous. But going into it having read Peace Talks—yeah, okay. But how does one take a detective, urban fantasy series heavy on planning, mystery, and the unknown and adapt it into an entire sequence of back-to-back fight-scenes? The answer is… one writes all fight scenes and goes from there.

If you were expecting another Dresden mystery—full of summoning, magic, patience and dramatic tension—this ain’t it. There were still a couple parts that wowed me, a few that captivated me, and enough of the same-old, same-old to keep me invested in the story—but mostly I was a bit disappointed. I went in feeling that this was going to be an EPIC BATTLE FOR THE FATE OF MANKIND AND BEYOND! And it was… for a time. The problem was that all battles have lulls, and those that write war fiction or high fantasy know to include a bit of change, difference, twists, turns to keep everything interesting. And while I’m sure Butcher tried to do this. It didn’t work (for me). It was an good read, fairly good even, yet it doesn’t live up to the hype. About halfway through I was sick of the fight-fight-fight format, but even though there’s plenty going on, eventually every battle of the war starts to feel indistinguishable from the last. Even the boss fight (in many ways ESPECIALLY the boss fight) itself was more of the same. I was expecting an epic build to a fight like Goku v. Frieza; something that went on FOREVER and included more twists and turns than seemed worthwhile. But, like Goku-Frieza, it inevitably dragged on too long, eventually overshadowing the epic-ness of the conclusion.

Fortunately, the book doesn’t end here. The conclusion actually goes on for a while and includes some wind-down that helps assuage the disappointment, and giving the reader more time to think about what has happened over the course of these two books. This brings back a bit of the mystery, a bit of the tension that felt absent from the rest of the text. It felt like a breath of fresh air; a good note to end on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fix the mistakes made along the way. And it doesn’t make up for them, either. It just makes everything a bit easier to swallow.

TL;DR

Battle Ground is a swipe of the slate for the Dresden Files. Out with the old, in with the new, if you will. Like Changes, it marks a turning point in the series—one marked by an epic fight scene that just won’t end. And like that epic fight scene, it carries on even after you’ve kinda gotten sick of it and are starting to wonder what else is on. The sameness culminates in a final battle, one that felt so much like the rest of the book before it that it almost felt like a middle-finger to those fans who’ve stuck around to this point. While the conclusion lasts for maybe fifty pages more and in part helps assuage this feeling, one thing is certain moving forward. The Dresden Files will never be the same.

The Subjugate – by Amanda Bridgeman (Review)

Salvi Brentt #1

Detective, Mystery, Cyberpunk

Angry Robot; November 6, 2018

398 pages (PB)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

A hardboiled detective novel with elements of cyberpunk, the Subjugate is an interesting tale of purity married with violence, crossed through with the themes of faith, deceit and redemption. It’s quite a good mystery; the crux of which hinges on the detectives’ own ability to separate the past from the present, especially when it comes to rehabilitated criminals and their supposed “redemption”.

A murder rocks the deeply religious town of Bountiful, one of their brightest young souls, Sharon Gleamer, raped and beaten before being killed and carved up. The community is beside themselves, but disbelieving that any of their number could commit such an atrocity. Instead, they point the finger at the nearby Solme Complex, a revolutionary prison where the inmates are conditioned with injections and experimental neural technology to remove their violent tendencies. And while the complex has seen nothing but success, this murder casts doubt on them. For could the town of Bountiful harbor dark secrets of its own, or are the subjugates at the Solme Complex not as reformed as they would have the world believe?

Enter Salvi Brentt, Bay Area detective. When she and her new partner, Mitch Grenville, are assigned the murder, their focus quickly lands on the subjugates at the Solme Complex. While the Complex vaunts its tech as the reason the inmates have been reformed, the detectives are not so sure. Years prior in 2040, an event known only as “the Crash” destabilized the world’s economy and nearly sent humans to war not amongst themselves, but with their very minds. Neural enhancements—technology implanted into people’s minds—were at the very heart of the trouble, but the text is very vague about the specifics. Ever since, humanity has taken a step away from neural tech—all except those at the Solme Complex. Their Halos (silver discs worn about the head) are used to slowly transform the Subjugates into Serenes. As the obvious first step, the detectives investigate the Complex, but here their investigation falters.

For not only do the inmates at the Complex seem reformed, they seem like different men entirely than those they were before. Violent and sexual offenders all, now they appear timid, demure, and serene. But appearances can be deceiving, and the past is often difficult to overcome—something Salvi knows better than most. Even as Mitch scours the Complex, Salvi herself begins to focus on the townsfolk themselves. For it wouldn’t be the first time that the heart of religion had become blackened with sin.

But as the murders escalate, the detective remain divided, quickly exposing their deepest secrets and blurring the lines between friend and foe, between purity and sin. The question remains: who committed these atrocities? And will Salvi be able to stop them while the body count is still low, or will the detectives become the next victims?

I said that I’d class this as detective fiction with cyberpunk elements, instead of a cyberpunk detective novel. The main reason for this is the world-building. Or the lack thereof. It’s not that there isn’t any—but other than the occasional visit from the police AI Riverton, or the infrequent use of other advanced tech (like the detective’s holo badges), there isn’t much mentioned. As I said before, references to the Crash are vague at best, mentioning something about neural augmentations but providing little detail. In fact, the Solme Complex seems to boast the bulk of the enhancements: and it’s really only the Halos. I would’ve liked to have seen more about the Crash, or more about the advanced technology of the world—but it just never comes up.

The mystery itself is more enjoyable. Very complex and unique. Until maybe the last quarter I had no idea who done it, and even then my guess was tentative at best. Though I ended up being right, it felt more a vindication than a disappointment when the killer(s) were revealed.

The themes of the Subjugate were more mixed. And there was no shortage of them. Though I enjoyed the battle between history and redemption, the anti-religious sentiment within got tiresome quickly. Additionally, there were more than a few absolutely cliché detective…—uh, blanking on the term—tropes? Motifs? Whatevers later on, none of which I can talk about without spoilers.

TL;DR

With a grisly murder and an unknown killer on the loose, the Subjugate starts off with a bang and rarely slows down afterwards. Right up to the end I was divided on who the killer(s) were, and absolutely enjoyed my journey there. All in all I’d recommend The Subjugate, but not without a few small caveats. One is that while the story includes cyberpunk and transhumanist elements, it is not inherently either. It’s a detective mystery-thriller first, science fiction second (not that that’s a deal-breaker, it’s just important to note). The second is that while the resolution is enjoyable, the wrap-up is entirely cliché. I was in equal parts thrilled and disgusted by the ending, but that’s just me. I look forward to how the second entry, the Sensation, handles the world, the detectives, and the story the author has built thus far.

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Novella

Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; September 22, 2020

160 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, Tor/Forge and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

How long does it take for a lie to unravel? How long for an empire to fall? While it might be set in motion by a single rock falling, it might take ten thousand years for all the stones to fall.

Manet is having a rather bad day.

Amanuensis to the God-King, she had to master all seven perfections, developing her body and evolving her mind into something past the point of humanity. Something approaching perfection. She remembers everything that has happened to her since arriving ashore the White Isle. She can sing, play the harp—perfectly—she can keep numbers and translate; she can serve her God—perfectly.

What Manet cannot do, however, is forget.

When a locket with a certain photo appears on her doorstep, it reveals a secret from her childhood that Manet hadn’t remembered. A secret that she just can’t forget. A secret that rips a gargantuan hole in the story of the God-King’s ascension, a story that she has taken as gospel her entire life. But when Manet goes down the rabbit-hole to follow this thread, she soon learns that doing so is a step she can never untake. But Manet will learn the truth, no matter the cost to her life—and that of the world itself.

This one was a bit of a slow build, to be honest. I actually thought of abandoning it—twice—prior to reaching the quarter mark. Glad I continued!

I could never really figure out what Age this story took place in. Some parts seemed to indicate an alchemical, maybe industrializing fantasy world, others a more science fiction, advanced dystopia. I’m pretty sure it was intended this way, however, as you’ll find out.

The story is told entirely through the viewpoints of others, with no input from Manet herself. This took some getting used to. We don’t hear (or see) what Manet has to say, what she thinks, what she knows, her wants, her desires, her dreams—not exactly, at least. At first this drove me crazy (yes, to the point where I considered stopping), but around the quarter mark something changed. And I began to read between the lines. I started to read Manet’s questions and responses in precisely how the narrator (whomever it happened to be at the time) responded. And then Manet took on a life of her own. A life, directly affected by my depiction of her.

Even though I couldn’t see her exact words, I got the gist of them—and then my imagination took hold. See, in my story she was both sarcastic and passionate. She used sarcasm to cope with her life unraveling but was passionate about discovering the truth. Once I got a feel for Manet—once my imagination began to fill in the gaps the author had left—the story took off. And I didn’t even think of abandoning it again.

While it’s possible that this was a terrible way to write a story, I’m chalking this up as an innovative idea. Now, I’m not sure it would’ve made an effective novel (being a bit vague and out there), but for a day’s read, I’d say it worked. It could certainly come across as a lazy way to tell a story, or a hard way that didn’t work; but it worked for me. And my version of Manet wouldn’t’ve been the same as everyone else’s. The main plot is written—but how you arrive there changes depending on how your opinion of who exactly Manet is. Does that make any sense?

TL;DR

Though it’s a bit of a slow build and the writing style takes some getting used to, the Seventh Perfection was one of my favorite novellas of the year thus far. With a lead that never speaks—but is only spoken to, told entirely through the words of the people she converses with—it is up to the reader to read between the lines, using hints and clues, along with their own bias and preference, to determine Manet’s very words. In my version she was passionate but sarcastic (which might tell you something about me), but in someone else’s version she might be cold and dismissive, or warm but skeptical. While the Seventh Perfection is very much something of Daniel Polansky’s creation, and he tells a complete tale—I felt something of myself in the story at the end, and I could not help but wondering where the story went from there.

Hopefully this (more or less) makes sense. If not, I guess you’ll have to read it to find out more! Or, if you’d prefer, head over to Re-Enchantment of the World to find a much more positive review, and take it from there.

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

320 pages (ebook) 12 hr 17 min (audio)

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Deep within the mountains of Colorado lies the Inn at Havenfall. Havenfall is a crossroads between worlds—and serves as a meeting place and sanctuary for the delegates from any number of worlds. Nowadays there are only two gates open: one to Fiordenkill, the other Byrn.

Maddie Morrow, the niece of the Innkeeper of Havenfall, has always spent her summers working at the Inn. She even has hopes of taking over for her Uncle, Marcus, someday. But soon after she arrives at the Inn for the summer of her 18th birthday, those dreams quickly become a reality.

Marcus has been attacked and survives in a coma. Maddie is in charge of the Inn. And the trouble doesn’t stop there.

For a being has slipped through one of the dormant gates—one to the world of Solaria. The Solarians are shapeshifting monsters that prey upon humans and have been banned from Earth for a generation. But now one is loose. And the Solarian door is stuck open.

Now Maddie, with little help and less clue of what to do, must take charge, run the Inn in place of her uncle, prevent any more Solarians from entering via the door while hunting down the one that has already come through. But it may already be too late.

So, at Colorado Mountain there is a door that opens to many worlds. This door is known as the Stargate, and through it… wait no. Um. Colorado, mountains, Havenfall. Right, right.

Havenfall is equal parts adventure, fantasy, romance, and mystery. While it’s a decent fantasy adventure, the romance within the story is actually what captured my interest. I mean, the fantasy is alright—an interesting enough premise and world-building, decent execution and plot, but with underwhelming extraplanar beings, magic system, and character development. The romance somehow drew my attention, which is usually not a good thing. But here it surprised me. Maddie is bi—having fallen in love with Fiorden soldier Brekken, whom she first met at the Inn, but also seasonal worker Taya, who is a mystery that Maddie just can’t seem to solve. Instead of the cringe-worthy, awkward teen romance I was expecting, Havenfall proves to be a soul-searching, confusing story of teenage attraction that—while still awkward—seemed more real than the faerie tale romance you’d expect. Now while Maddie isn’t the best gumshoe (we’ll get to that), she is young and naïve, but also skeptical, making her an excellent target for romance.

A detective, however, she is not. Maddie is young and (apparently) not very bright. She is continually pelted in the face by evidence that she somehow ignores. At first I chalked this up to her being young. Then not terribly smart. And at last… just because. Maddie doesn’t seem to learn from experience. Or make any deductive leaps. Or really even pay much attention to any kind of detail. Yeah, she’s 18, but throughout the story her character doesn’t develop and learn from experience. The mystery is rather basic, and it takes her over twelve hours of story-time to wrap her head around it.

Audio Note: Kate Handford was an excellent narrator that really brought Maddie Morrow to life. And while it didn’t do anything for her mystery-solving ability, I really enjoyed the angst and confusion and naïvety the narrator put into her performance that brought across Maddie as the awkward teenage outcast she truly was.

TL;DR

Havenfall represents (in my opinion) awkward teenage romance done right. While there are faerie tale elements, it’s not a storybook romance, and actually feels somewhat real, not ridiculous and cringe-worthy, if still awkward. In terms of plot, world-building, and adventure, the story is your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy—with an interesting premise and decent execution, but little more. The mystery is just pathetic, honestly. And Maddie isn’t the best narrator, despite being intensely romanceable. Havenfall is a decent enough series debut—though I expect better from its sequel.

The series will continue with Phoenix Flame, out March 4th, 2021.