Rabbits – by Terry Miles (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Scifi

Del Rey; June 8, 2021

432 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
Author Website
Rabbits Podcast

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Penguin, Del Rey and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Jeff Goldblum does not belong in this world.

Rabbits is the debut novel by Terry Miles. Based in the universe of a 10-part podcast by the same name, Rabbits (the book) is a standalone adventure that can be enjoyed without prior knowledge of the game. The game is everything here—not that it makes any sense. At least, not at first.

Enter K.

K is our tour guide to the world of Rabbits—a world that he’s somewhat obsessed with. Ever since the eighth iteration of the game, K’s been trying to find a way in. But with the tenth recently ended, his wait may be over.

Enter Alan Scarpio. The reclusive billionaire—also known as Californiac, winner of the 6th iteration of the game—is in Seattle, looking specifically for him. He needs K to help him fix Rabbits before the 11th iteration begins, or else the entire world may pay the price.

Only a few days after their first meeting, Scarpio disappears. And shortly after that, the 11th iteration of Rabbits begins. But something is undeniably different. Within days several experienced players have gone missing, and something begins to lash out at causality. But is it the game, or is it the universe itself that is broken? And even if K can win the game that’s not a game—will it matter?

But, as they say: Win the game, save the world.

Rabbits, above all else, is utterly addictive, entirely readable, totally immersive, and borderline nonsensical. Honestly, I’ve read few things like it. Books that I needed to keep reading—without fully understanding what the hell was going on.

At the center of this stands Rabbits (the game). It’s basically a series of incredibly unlikely events or concurrences occurring in a pattern, a pattern that leads its players down a particular path that—if they’re good enough—will lead them to something impossible. And this impossibility will do two things: first, provide them with another clue that will allow them to progress in the game; and second, make certain that they will never turn their back on Rabbits again. As I said—Rabbits is utterly addictive. No more so than to its players.

My first impression of Rabbits is that it’s like The Matrix crossed with the God Game, combined with a heavy dose of Fringe. Shortly after finishing Rabbits, I did two things. One—I started rewatching Fringe (if you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend this enough). And two—I watched the Matrix. If you haven’t seen Fringe, that’s bad enough, but if you haven’t seen the Matrix, you’ve been wasting your life. Right. Anyway. Here’s an example.

Enter the Matrix.

About six and a half minutes in, the following iconic scene begins.

Wake up, Neo…

The Matrix has you…

Follow the white rabbit.

You know what happens next. But let’s say it doesn’t. Instead of following the rabbit to a club playing Rob Zombie, let’s say he follows it to a Blockbuster. There, after losing sight of her, a display of an original copy of Michael Collins catches his eye. Of course, he buys the VHS of Michael Collins because lead man Liam Neeson once played the lead in another period piece—Rob Roy, about the folk hero, Rob Roy MacGregor. “MacGregor” being the Scottish spelling for “McGregor”. As in “Mr. McGregor”. Neo takes home the movie and watches it, but instead of Michael Collins, the tape turns out to be a copy of Looney Tunes episode “Haredevil Hare”, the cartoon which famously introduces Marvin Martian. From there, everything proceeds as you’d expect. Or does it? For after watching Haredevil Hare for the 3rd time, Neo notices a disparity between the episode he remembers and what he sees. You see, in the mockup of the Daily Snooze, the fictional newspaper which once proclaimed “Heroic Rabbit Volunteers as First Passenger”, Neo instead sees the headline “Seattle Bar Reopens After 16 years as a Mime studio”, which he uses to go to a bar, order a Harvey Wallbanger, go home with a redhead girl named Jessica, and find the “Night of the Lepus” poster she has in her flat. A movie also known as “Rabbits”. Upon removing the poster from the wall, Neo is confronted by a strange phrase, scratched into the wallpaper: “The Door is Open.” (After which, presumably he takes the blue pill, falls asleep, wakes up, and then the regular movie begins.)

And that’s a crash course on how to play Rabbits. You follow seemingly random yet somewhat connected clues around the city, until they lead you to another clue, an impossibility, or a mention of the word “Rabbits”. The phrase “The Door is Open” is also popular, so that’s there too. And on and on the rabbit-hole goes until eventually you either win, die, go insane, or crash from lack of sleep, malnutrition, scurvy, and whatever else.

But with the uncertainty here regarding the improbability of patterns and events, just how sure can you be that you’re playing the game? Well… you can’t. At all. And while the patterns and clues and chase makes Rabbits an intoxicating read, the uncertainty and obscurity makes it incredibly frustrating.

For the longest time, I had no idea what exactly was going on in Rabbits. I had absolutely no trouble reading on, because I wanted to figure out where it was all leading. The good news is that as the story progresses, you’ll eventually get a better sense of how Rabbits works. Once you do, it’s a pretty thrilling adventure.

That is, until the conclusion, which goes a bit strange. Well, stranger. Think the Matrix: Revolutions crossed with the later seasons of Fringe strange. Yeah—it’s that bad. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is good. But the conclusion is nuts.

Other than the story (which I think I’ve covered quite enough), the characters are what makes a book great. The characters of Rabbits are… pretty good, actually. K is the only POV, and he’s a pretty good one. I actually came to care a good bit about K and what happened to him. The supporting cast is… a mixed bag. Mainly it’s Chloe, who is equally strong. I would’ve liked a little bit more backstory on her, but she has more than enough depth and development that I cared about her right alongside K. Otherwise, nobody else really stands out. I mean, most of the supporting cast is made up of hipsters—so “depth” might be asking too much. Or it could be that no one other than those two is around long enough to make a lasting impression. Not that they die or anything; they just fade in and out.

TL;DR

While at times a bit complex and convoluted, Rabbits is an immersive and entertaining thriller set in a near-present Earth. Though it only really features two main characters (and one POV), both are written and fleshed out quite nicely. Even after it’s over, Rabbits leaves a lasting desire for more—so much so that I immediately watched the Matrix, and then started bingeing Fringe (two of the outlets that it most reminded me of). The reason to read Rabbits, however, lies in its story. A story surrounding a game that’s so exclusive, so obscure, that it’s difficult to even know for sure that you’re playing it. But once you figure out the game that’s not a game (which you will, if you stick with it), Rabbits provides a fast, intoxicating chase down the narrow alleys and rain-slick Seattle streets. A thirst for adventure mingles with the sense of impending doom. If you fail, you might just die. But if you win—win the game, save the world.

The Lights of Prague – by Nicole Jarvis (Review)

Standalone (?)

Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Vampires

Titan Books; May 25, 2021

413 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.25 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

Prague, 1868.

The quiet streets of Prague hide a secret, one that haunts these passages in the dead of night. Ancient and mythic beasts lurk in the shadows, preying upon anyone unfortunate enough to be out past sunset. And only those paid to bring light to the city’s dark stand between the monsters and their prey.

Domek Myska is a lamplighter—a profession both dedicated to bring light to the darkened streets of Prague, but also to protect its citizens from the evil that walks it. With the advent of gas lamps, the lamplighter presence in Prague has changed. While the lamps themselves keep the night at bay better and longer, fewer souls are required to keep this army of lights burning. And where there are fewer lamplighters, there are more monsters. With little to no backup, Domek is forced to rely on his own wit and skill to survive the night, with stakes of hawthorn and daggers of silver to help even the odds. But when he discovers a strange jar one night on the corpse of a pijavice (a vampire), the young lamplighter discovers there’s more renaissance in the city then just that of gas lamps.

Lady Ora Fischerová is a permanent fixture amongst the city’s upperclass, but an enigmatic one at that. She’s known as an eccentric widow—having lost her husband a decade prior—albeit a beautiful one who hardly looks as though she’s aged since his passing. That’s because Ora harbors a secret of her own, hidden beneath layers only won by coin and eccentricity. She’s a pijavica, but lives a low-key life for one of her kind preferring venison and pork blood to that of humans. But while she calls some humans friend, some others would only see her as the demon that hunts in the night. Enter Domek, and a mutual hot-blooded attraction between the two. Neither knows about the other’s secret, but with the way things are going, it won’t be long before they find out. And what will happen when the cards fall—will either survive to see another sunrise, or will Prague itself fall into eternal darkness?

For the jar, and its wisp occupant, Kája, represent a new weapon—a hope and danger both. But could these fortunes be reversed? And whom (if anyone) would Domek trust to make that distinction?

With an atmosphere drenched in darkness and steeped in blood, The Lights of Prague represents the best of historical fantasy, combining a killer story, deep and meaningful characters, with a lush if claustrophobic setting. The backdrop of 1860’s Prague was breathtakingly beautiful: a city on the cusp of change from fire to gas; a city drenched in shadow but clinging to the light; a city built on the ruins of another that came before it, with the beings of the night lurking within. From tight back alleys to gilded opera halls to the mansions of the elite to the slums of the Jewish quarter, Nicole Jarvis sets the stage incredibly well! If not for the strength of its characters, I’d say the setting was the story’s strongest asset.

Prague did not know Domek, did not need him, but his life was overlaid on the ancient streets in watercolor, the patterns sheer and impermanent.

But the characters are quite well done as well. Both Domek and Ora are well-fleshed, with their own history and motivations, intentions and ideals—so that while they may want in one another’s pants and/or gowns, they don’t necessarily want the same thing for Prague. And while the two may fall on the same side now and then, they definitely aren’t that way all the time. I loved their interactions—be they hot and heavy, violent, or even casual—and it was this that kept the story from ever feeling too weighed down or stagnant, even toward the end when the action-sequences sometimes threaten to override the plot. While Domek isn’t the brightest tool in the river, he makes up for it with his deep- and well-thought-out plans, his ingenuity and stubbornness. Ora’s just pretty amazing—no notes! But where these two are so strong, I found the supporting cast was a bit hit and miss. Some characters seemed deep enough to carry their own POVs, while others felt too hollow to be little more than set dressing. The POVs definitely carry the load, however, so there’s relatively little to complain about, story-wise.

TL;DR

1860’s Prague provides an incredible backdrop for any fantasy adventure, at least when one plays it up as well as Nicole Jarvis does. The city was resplendent, despite the story mostly taking place in the dead of night, where the streets are quiet, dark, and claustrophobic, and the atmosphere one of tension. While the story might get a bit iffy later on, the interactions between the two POV leads Domek and Ora provide more than enough of a reason to press on. Turns out, the characters are just as impressive as the world-building. Come for the vampires and dark atmosphere, stay for the romance, action and characters. Heartily recommended!

I’m not sure if The Lights of Prague will remain a standalone or spawn a series, but the ending sets up a possible future if the author decides to go down that road. Best just to read it now.

The Apocalypse Seven – by Gene Doucette (Review)

Standalone (?)

Scifi, Post Apocalyptic

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; May 25, 2021

363 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin, Mariner and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

When the world ended, it wasn’t with a bang. It was with more of a… blah.

Thus passes the Whateverpocalypse—the end of the human race, where cities fall to ruin and the entire planet becomes overgrown. There seem to be no survivors, except those few that overslept the end of the world, awakening only after everything had already ended.

Carol and Robbie are students at Harvard—both freshmen, they awaken to find their dorms deserted and Cambridge around them in ruin. While Carol had spent her last night in, Robbie had gone out drinking. Neither remembered the world ending, but Robbie didn’t even recall stumbling home. And while disoriented, he’s barely in the dark at all compared to Carol—as she’s blind and all.

The two soon run across Touré—a twenty-something coder, and the only person excited by the prospect the end of the world presents. With him in tow, the group soon adds Bethany, a teen with a mysterious past and a helpful skillset (all of which suggesting a record). As they explore the ruins of Cambridge, the group soon discovers that the end of humanity is only the beginning of their poor luck. There’s also the lack of power, the packs of violent boars choking downtown, the freakish weather (including hailstorms, tornadoes, snowstorms and heat waves all in the same week), not to mention the horse-sized wolves.

Elsewhere, the world is little better. Paul is a non-denominational preacher living in backwater Vermont. He awakens to the apocalypse on Monday but it takes the man til Sunday to notice anything wrong. Once he does, he discovers a voice on the radio—the last sign of human life he’s seen. Soon he sets off for Boston, eager to meet Ananda, a former MIT adjunct, who remains picking through the ruins of her former campus for clues. Also there’s Win—an olympic hopeful stranded in the countryside. All leads eventually point to Boston, where the Apocalypse Seven might eventually meet, if they can survive the Whateverpocalypse long enough to find one another.

And even then, it’ll take all their combined effort to not only discover what ended the world, but to survive what comes next.

I do love a good apocalypse now and then. This one does it all without any undead, too, which is impressive. I was getting major Last of Us vibes from this—not so much the story, but the world. Those stolen moments between the cutscenes where nothing’s actively trying to kill you. The decaying, overgrown cities. The wildlife just milling about. The quiet. For the most part, this was a quiet apocalypse. One that provided a good premise, and then just let the story unfurl until The 7 (my shorthand for the survivors) finished filling it in. I can’t say enough about how much I loved the story. It combines a physical sense of loss and deterioration with the struggles of its survivors. Carol is missing her seeing-eye dog. Everyone’s lost family. Some are away from home. None are in their comfort zone. Mental breakdowns co-mingle with physical hardships. Loss with hope. The mystery of what’s befallen the world brings them all together, focuses them on something other than just trying to survive (well, except maybe Touré). And throughout it all there’s an undercurrent of lively—sometimes silly, sometimes dark, always entertaining—humor. Lots of jokes seemingly off the cuff. In conversation. During emergencies. At the literal end of the world. It all goes together exceptionally well—which I loved.

Despite this being the end of the world, it never seems all that hard to survive. I mean, there IS everything that’s trying to kill The 7 all the time, but otherwise. They’re helpfully stocked with Noot Bars—your lembas from LotR, grot from the Faithful and the Fallen, and a number of other things from other places. Noot is basically an foodstuff that never goes bad, has all the nutrients a body needs to live, and leaves something to be desired in the taste-department. So… basically an MRE. And since the young’uns are all stocked up, they’re not likely to starve to death. Win and Paul can hunt, but this is mostly glossed over shortly upon being introduced. Ananda’s nutrition is barely even addressed. I honestly would’ve expected a lot more survival from this story, but there’s comparatively little. It’s a tale more about the mystery, the strange happenings, and the atmosphere.

And the end of the world atmosphere is strong. It kept reminding me of the Last of Us or the like: huge sprawling metropolises empty of people, overrun by animals, overgrown and haunting as hell—except with out all the zombies. No zombies. Just the end of the world, and whatever happened to cause it. I have to say, while I eventually called the ending, the big reveal was nowhere near done after one twist. There were a number of other details that made the whole thing worth it twice-over, even though I did pretty much guess the overarching mystery. And even if you wouldn’t read this for the mystery of what happened, it’s a well-written apocalypse tale with a tense, spooky atmosphere and wolves the size of horses—recommending it is pretty much a no-brainer.

I would recommend skipping the epilogue. While it may provide a little closure, for me it raised more questions than it answered. And as I assume this is a standalone—you don’t need that in an ending. Everything was all well and truly wrapt up before—don’t ruin it.

TL;DR

The Apocalypse Seven is a thoroughly enjoyable post-apocalyptic science fiction dystopian set in a world teeming with life. Just empty of humanity. No undead, no super mutants, no robotic overlords. Just an overgrown world with desensitized wildlife and wolves the size of compact cars. And the mystery of how it got that way. Only seven survived (The 7) and they alone set out to solve this new world or die trying. Possessive of a tense, haunting atmosphere; a strong and immersive mystery; an all-too human cast complete with both strengths and weaknesses; and another twist even when you assume all’s been said and done—the Apocalypse Seven presents an excellent post-apocalyptic scifi and executes it just as well. While there’s comparatively little survival in terms of the Pincher-Martin-level I expected, the mystery and tension carries the story more than well enough. There’s little to hate about this one, and a lot to love.

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson (Review)

West of West #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit; December 3, 2019

499 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the first two books in the West of West trilogy

Finnbogi has grown up. During a journey where he fought two rattlecondas unarmed, controlled an army of pigeons with his mind, and made love with multiple women none of which has wanted to talk to him again—the lovable oaf has finally grown a pair and demanded a new nickname.

Now, as Finn the Deep, Finnbogi is slightly more experienced, but still the stupid, horny teenager we’ve come to know and love. But, as the Wootah and Owsla cross the Shining Mountains into the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of, shit’s about to get real. Or, as real as it can when you’re being chased by Telekinetic Sasquatch (Sasquatches? Sasquatch?).

What’s worse, upon reaching the far side of the mountains, the gang discovers something more terrifying than yetis with mind-bullets: flash floods, tornados, and hordes of terrifyingly huge monsters. And should they survive all of these terrors, the crew will have to figure out how to defeat a goddess who’s already killed all the other gods. Worse, they have to do this all WHILE saving everyone else AND not letting them all die.

Should be easy. Provided they don’t kill one another first.

Well, the end of the West of West trilogy comes both too early for my liking, but also too late. I’ll miss Finnbogi, Sassa, Wulf, Sofi, and the gang, kinda like how I miss how I’m not a dumbass, immature, constantly annoying teen anymore (incidentally, that’s also why I won’t miss them). But also in more legitimate ways. They did some growing up over the course of this trilogy, did the gang. And not just Finnbogi. And not just the Hardworkers. The Owsla have changed too. If you’re after a series with loads of lewdness, swearing, hilarity—but also excellent character development—look no further!

The hilarity and action were pretty much on par with the other books in the series, but there was a serious overtone to everything. The end of the world is looming, and the Wootah are faced with the decision of whether to grow up or die young. And while that’s not an issue for some of them, others may find it harder.

My favorite character remains Ottar. The little savior of the world is proving to be quite adorable—something that you really should’ve noticed on day one—and the hardship thrown on him by the world doesn’t seem to get him down. Sure, he’ll have a bad day (as we all do) but then will shrug it off like the champion he is. So while Finnbogi features some of the more embarrassing, hilarious, and somehow inspiring moments—Ottar has some of the more heartwarming ones.

In the evenings, they ate cactus and Nether Barr’s lizards. Grilled to a crisp, the reptiles were tasty. The old lady helped Ottar make his own net and the boy delighted in failing to catch lizards. When he finally did trap a little striped one with a long tail, he studied it carefully then let it go.

The biggest problem I had with Where Gods Fear to Go turns up at the end of all things. I called the biggest twist, turns out, but not the finer bits of it. And the finer points were rather a letdown. It didn’t ruin the series for me, nor the book even, but rather soured the conclusion a bit. But here—months after I finished the book—I more remember the conclusion for its epic and dramatic twists, battles, romances, and occasional action-packed cutscenes. There are a particular few that come to mind. Point is that while the biggest twist may’ve soured the ending a bit in the short term, it didn’t ruin the series for me past that. I’d totally go back and read it all again (time permitting)! And I’d like to think I’d enjoy everything just as much the second time around.

TL;DR

Where Gods Fear to Go concludes the West of West trilogy, where Finnbogi, Sassa, Sofi, and the rest of the Wootah and Owsla continue their journey west—over the Shining Mountains and across the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of to the Meadows, that place where the world is ending. And there’s certainly a reason behind it all. Big monsters and natural disasters abound—with a damned goddess at the center of it all. Like its predecessors, WGFtG is heavy on the action, sex, phallic puns, language and hilarity, but with more of a heavy overtone. It’s like the text keeps reminding them: “hey, the world is kinda ending and all, maybe focus on that?” But even the darker twist can’t spoil the fun this story brings. If you haven’t read the series but are intrigued and aren’t bothered by any of the above—hey, maybe give it a try. And if you’ve started the series but not finished—hey, maybe do that. It’s totally worth a look.

A Necessary Evil – by Abir Mukherjee (Review)

Sam Wyndham #2

Mystery, Historical Fiction

Pegasus Books; June 1, 2017

11hr 3min (audio)
381 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.2 / 5 ✪

British India, 1920.

The Kingdom of Sambalpore has grown rich off diamonds. But riches also breed resent. As a semi-autonomous entity within the Empire, the Maharajah is uncontested in his rule. But all things change.

When the Maharajah’s heir-apparent is assassinated on a visit to Kolkata, it’s up to Captain Sam Wyndham and his Sergeant Banerjee to discover why. The mystery leads the two into the heart of Sambalpore, and embroils the pair in the politics of the court. Within days their suspect list practically grows to encompass the entire kingdom. From a ruthless playboy now in line for the throne, to the third-in-line and his highly ambitious mother, to a power hunger advisor or a cult of religious fanatics, to a missing Englishman and the a secret so valuable it’s worth not killing for once, but twice—everyone’s a suspect. And everything is suspect.

As the pair of detectives get further embroiled, it soon becomes clear that while the former prince was well-liked, nearly anyone would benefit in some way from his demise. And the deeper they dig into the case, the larger the stakes get. It seems that very few people actually WANT Wyndham to solve the case, but as the death toll continues to grow, it’s clear that the murders won’t stop until the Captain does just that.

Some familiar faces, some action, and a really deep mystery await them—in Sambalpore.

The followup to A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil marks the return of Wyndham and Banerjee, as well as a few more familiar faces. While the Empire hub of Kolkata was left largely unexplored in Book 1, Book #2 instead chooses to whisk us off to an autonomous kingdom within the Raj, where tensions are higher, riches are flowing, and Englishmen can’t necessarily do as they please. Thus it’s more difficult for Wyndham to investigate—and easier for the kingdom to stonewall him. So begins a long and intricate (even sometimes convoluted) story to get to the heart of the matter. Seriously, there’s so much going on here that I started to get lost towards the end. As the number of threads exploded and the suspect list grew and grew, it’s really hard to keep a full handle on everything (at least, it was for me). But before everything gets too much, Wyndham is able to whittle the list down, eventually tying everything up in a way that somehow left me with relatively few unanswered questions. Questions that I suspect will be (mostly) addressed in the sequel.

The ending here surprised me. I mean, as I spent a decent chunk of the second half so completely at sea, that’s not really surprising. But, after my initial guess turned out to be wrong, my second and third quickly followed. When the end came it nearly blindsided me. I was waaaay off. But it wasn’t because of any information that was withheld, or sprung upon us at the last minute. It was all there—I just failed to put it all together. But I was listening to this while playing video games, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I got overwhelmed. Not to mention the change of locale, politics, religion (it’s still Hinduism, but with a different major deity, and—I’m really not familiar enough with the Hindu pantheon to get into this), and tone. There’s a lot to keep track of. But if you’ve read A Rising Man you’ll be good. Mostly.

Annie returns in Book #2, though things between her and Sam aren’t the whirlwind romance we spent #1 hinting at. Something about accusing a girl of aiding and abetting a murder really seemed to sour their relationship. But Wyndham is giving it his best, so maybe they’ll recover. Or maybe she’ll run off an marry a Maharajah.

Again, I loved Malk Williams’ performance as Captain Wyndham, although his return to the series is a bit bittersweet. See, after this one, the very talented but undeniably different Simon Bubb takes over as Wyndham, and it’s going to be an adjustment—unless it isn’t. Because Simon Bubb is always the reader if you live over in the UK, but for some reason it’s Williams here in the US for two books. Bubb returns for #4—again at least in the UK, as the audio of Death in the East isn’t out in the US yet. For some reason.

TL;DR

An intricate, occasionally convoluted tale regarding the assassination of a prince, a kingdom whose future remains in the balance, plus the many, many secrets worth killing for in the Kingdom of Sambalpore. If you’re not familiar with Colonial India, this series does a lovely job of taking the reader back to experience just what it’d’ve been like to go for a visit—if you were an Englishman, at least. The religious and political tension, the ethnic tensions, the press of bodies, the heat and humidity, the unwashed masses—Mukherjee really does an excellent job of painting a picture of Colonial life. And death, for that matter. The mystery is more than worth the price of admission, as the twists and turns kept me guessing up until the end. I love how the character of Wyndham—and Banerjee as well—are evolving, and hope they continue to progress in the next installment, Smoke and Ashes.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Jenny Zemanek is the artist for this amazing cover—she actually handles all of Patrick’s covers.

Darkstar Dimension #1

Fantasy, Adventure

Self-published; October 5, 2019

236 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Min’s first command was supposed to be an easy one. The First Officer has a ship, a seasoned crew, a straightforward objective. A simple voyage of scientific discovery with a likely captaincy awaiting upon return. But somehow Min has screwed it up. And the worst thing is that she’s not even sure how.

One minute she and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal were sailing through the heavens east of New Windward. The next they are plummeting towards an unfamiliar, shadowy sea far below. For somehow the magic that powers the skyship has been drained.

Even should they survive the fall, Min and the crew will find a world of endless twilight, with an onyx sea that spans the entire horizon—and even stretches to the sky above. Here, the sable sea is filled with luminous fish, a violet and neon sun that hangs in the center of the void, and an old man that calls the dark and Tyrian dimension home.

Also, there’s a dragon the size of a small continent.

To escape the Darkstar Dimension, Min must draw upon all the lessons from her training, explore the dimension and bring all its resources to bear, hobnob with the locals, and somehow escape the hungry dragon that seems deadset on the bite-sized morsels that have stumbled into its home. And even then—it may not be enough. For who knows what secrets the Darkstar holds, and the price one must pay to learn them?

So… this was a pleasant surprise! The Darkstar Dimension is a basically a rave. A shadowy sea full of purple glowsticks and glowing fish. A bunch of people running around under a vibrant neon star, trying not to get eaten by a huge dragon. There’s mayhem, murder, mutiny—all that’s missing is trance music.

The sense of adventure is amazing. The Darkstar Dimension is a mystical and mysterious place, full of wonder and adventure to be had! And that’s even before we get to the rifts surrounding it—passageways to unique worlds, each one more interesting than the last. The Darkstar Dimension itself steals the show however, as even now I can envision this electric amethyst world when I close my eyes; swim in the oceans amidst a school of glowing fish, or hitch a ride atop a turtlemoth. I’d compare it to Doors of Sleep, but with a fantasy-theme instead of the other’s science fiction. We get to enjoy more of the adventure and wonder in this compared to Doors, as the places and sights all weave into the story quite nicely, rather than taking a backseat when the plot takes center stage.

It’s not a perfect ride, as the story is frequently too convenient, and occasionally like something out of a movie, skipping from action-sequence to action-sequence (particularly later on). Neither of these things bothered me much, though. Honestly, my biggest complaint was that time often slowed way too damned much to be realistic—something that’s done to give the characters more time to assess a situation and find a workaround. I’ve really no serious issues with The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon, and cannot wait to read the next one!

TL;DR

I picked up Flight of the Darkstar Dragon from Benedict Patrick’s Kickstarter last year. It was included along with all his Yarnsworld stories in a kinda “complete works bundle” thing. I honestly forgot I had it for a while, and didn’t know it was unrelated to the rest for even longer. After generally enjoying most of my time in his Yarnsworld novels, I expected Flight of the Darkstar Dragon to be an interesting little read, maybe even enjoyable. But I never expected it to blow me away. Where Yarnsworld focuses on the horror and the creepy folktales, Darkstar focuses instead on the adventure and the unknown. There’s still a tense atmosphere and a riveting story, but it manifests in a very different way. Rather than struggling to picture some barely-formed horror that goes bump in the night, this had me flying through violet skies on the back of a massive dragon while neon fish floated all around. Exploring new worlds and meeting new creatures while all the time anticipating the return to the lovely-rendered Darkstar Dimension afterwards. While I can’t promise you’ll like it, love it, or adore it—I will say that if your experience is anything like my own, you won’t regret the time you’ve spent in the Darkstar Dimension. And furthermore, you’ll jump at the prospect of going back. Incidentally, the Return of the Whale Fleet—Book #2 of this particular series—is currently live on Kickstarter, and it’s just a matter of time until we can return to this incredible world!

The Shadow of the Gods – by John Gwynne (Review)

Bloodsworn Saga #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; May 4, 2021 (US)
Orbit; May 6, 2021 (UK)

505 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

The gods are dead. The world is broken.

Three hundred years have passed since the old gods fell, breaking and reshaping the world in their passing. Monsters roam the land—a remnant of the world before. Petty kings and queens have seized control and now vie for whatever power has been left behind. Myths and legends, bones of the fallen gods, and children born of their tainted blood—the Jarls compete for whatever will distinguish them from the rest, all with the same aim: to write their story to be told alongside the old gods before them.

Orka has had her fill of power. Having long since escaped the world of blood and kings, she and her husband now live in the wilds with their young bairn. But she can’t escape the past, nor the machinations of those seeking more power.

Varg has worn a collar his entire life, since both he and his sister were sold to a wealthy landowner as thralls. Ever since Varg has been satisfied to survive—until his sister was killed. His quest to avenge Frøya’s murder will take him to places he never imagined, and find family he never knew existed.

Elvar is a mercenary, seeking to write her own saga in the blood of her enemies. Hired to find an escaped thrall, her band comes into possession of the man’s wife and child, who eventually lead them on a quest to unearth a myth—and the power and glory that it holds.

It seems that the better a book is, the harder it becomes for me to talk about it. And this one is absolutely amazing. Surely by now you’ve seen some hype for it, some 5 star reviews and—if you’ve yet to experience it yourself—are wondering if it’s really all that good. Well, it is. It really, really is.

Shadow of the Gods is truly a masterclass in execution. The world-building is on par with that of the Banished Lands, as the Bloodsworn Saga introduces us to a lush land of Vikings, monsters and gods—all seeking power and glory. While I wouldn’t call SotG a dark fantasy, the descriptions do lend quite a bit of darkness to the story, so much so that in my imagination, the world always carried a bit of a dusky cast. Shadowy forests, deep fjords, seedy taverns and slums, brochs, longhouses and earthworks all added to the dark, Viking feel so much that the entire thing rendered in my head like some ambient Wardruna video.

They were moving through a land of tree-cloaked hills and shadow-dark valleys, of sun-drenched meadows and rivers winding and glistening like jewel-crusted serpents that coiled through the land. The new-risen sun blazed bright as Arg stepped out on to a hillside of rolling meadow and left the trees behind him.

Above her rainclouds shredded and blew across the sky like tattered banners.

The description really is amazing. Each setting is rendered in such detail that I felt as if I’d been there and was just reliving the memory.

As with most of his books, SotG emphasizes the dishonor of the bow, so all combat is restricted to a close-quarters brawl. This, combined with the description and style of writing, made everything feel so much more immersive, almost as if I was experiencing something from memory rather than reading about it. Through the setting and world-building and detail, this one really came alive, and I can’t find the right words to convey just how amazing this was!

TL;DR

While I’m not sure yet if I loved it quite as much as Ruin, Shadow of the Gods is certainly one of the best books of the year and on the shortlist of my all-time favorites. I mean, I’m sure I could rave about this for another page or two and it wouldn’t convey anything more than “you should read it, it’s really that good”—so I’m going to leave it at that. But, yeah, you should read it. It’s really THAT good.

If you don’t believe me and need some more convincing, here’re some other reviews that you might want to look at:

Powder & PageSwords & SpectresSpace & SorceryRealms of My Mind

Murder By Other Means – by John Scalzi (Review)

The Dispatcher #2

Scifi, Mystery

Subterranean Press; April 30, 2021

192 pages (ebook)
3hr 33m (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

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

Times are tough. Even as a dispatcher, Tony Valdez is forced into taking some gigs he otherwise might not have. Jobs in a legal grey area. After one of these, Tony takes his earnings to the bank, only to get himself embroiled in a robbery. A robbery involving a person Tony is quite familiar with—a dispatcher, like himself.

But it’s only when the robbery goes wrong that this peculiar fact is brought to light. When the dispatcher dies—he doesn’t come back.

It’s only then that Tony finds out that this particular death may not be so peculiar after all. In fact, several dispatchers have died recently. Died and stayed dead. And for reasons neither Tony nor anyone else seems aware of, he may soon join them. But how do you kill someone when 999 out of 1000 people murdered are magically restored to life? The answer is to murder them… by other means.

The second Dispatcher novella, John Scalzi returns us to a world without murder. A recession has infected this dystopia, and Dispatchers aren’t the only ones struggling to get by. Tony Valdez plays lead fiddle in this once again, with some few returning characters from the first entry. Again the text is dialogue heavy, but this doesn’t flow quite as well as the first one did. The story isn’t quite as immersive, nor does it seem as polished as it did the first time around. In fact, it seems a little like a rush-job. The premise itself is still a good one, however. And given this interesting world to explore—especially how one goes about murdering someone without actually doing the murdering—even a less polished product will do.

The detective story itself, ironically, I found better than the first. There was more suspense and intrigue, as opposed to the first where I called the ending inside the first half hour. This time I hadn’t a clue what was going on until at least the halfway mark, which made it all the more interesting. It was the back and forth with Detective Langdon that ruined it for me. In fact, I didn’t like either of their characters as much this time around. Tony acts a bit too much of a little-goody-two-boots, despite his less-than-legal behavior throughout much of the books. I found it more than a bit hypocritical.

Now, it’s still a good story, still a good read, still a good time—I just didn’t like it as much as the original. As far as whether I’d recommend it… mostly, yeah? The Subterranean Press copy is quite nice, but I don’t think it’s worth $40. The ebook version comes in at $6 (or £4.35) which is much better. The audiobook is free on Audible—and it’s hard to beat free.

The Alien Stars: And Other Novellas – by Tim Pratt (Review)

Axiom Universe

Scifi, Novellas

Watkins Publishing; April 27, 2021

238 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Fresh off my first Pratt novel Doors of Sleep, I decided to give his Axiom universe a go. This omnibus collects three novellas all set in said universe, and presents a debatably good intro to the series itself. Or does it?

The Augmented Stars

Delilah Mears joins the crew of the Golden Spider, a scout vessel on a hush-hush mission out onto the fringes of known space. To her, the Axiom are nothing more than a myth: a race of pseudo-Reapers that haunt the galaxy, laying waste to any civilization they come across. So when it turns out that the mission itself is to investigate a cosmic anomaly—one that may or may not be an Axiom death trap—she’s caught a bit off guard. But upon setting out, the mission parameters aren’t the only surprise in store for Mears. Space pirates, rogue A.I.s, and myths come to life feature in this action-packed novella.

…which was generally interesting—and served as a good intro to the Axiom universe, even though I’m told it contains spoilers for the books. The novella starts off on the right foot; an adventure to the edge of space, a mysterious captain with quite a sense of humor, an interesting new galaxy to explore. From here, we go to the equally mysterious anomaly, get boarded by space pirates—enough to tie off any adventure nicely. The ending was a bit of a letdown, and I do think Pratt could’ve drawn out the suspense (and length of the novella) a bit more, but all in all it was an enjoyable adventure told in a bite-size portion.

3.5 / 5 ✪

The Artificial Stars

A.I. and Trans-Neptunian Alliance President Shall receives a strange message from a past version of himself that he thought had been re-absorbed into his consciousness and destroyed. The request: come to the edge of the universe to see something important—if he doesn’t, the universe will be destroyed. So Shall convenes his cabinet to decide how to handle the threat before ultimately setting out to meet it.

I just could never take this one seriously. From the outset, it runs like a cheesy scifi series one-off. An AI splits his personality and it eventually gets away from him and decides that it is the real consciousness and he the copy, so we get the gang together and set out on a harebrained adventure to stop it. But first, the presidential cabinet rehashes some of their past adventures together, like a full-on knockoff of the A-Team. From there everything carries on predictably. This is something that fans of the series will ultimately probably enjoy, but I found it ridiculous, cheesy, and stupid.

1.0 / 5 ✪

The Alien Stars

Lantern, an important figure among the aliens known as “the Free” or “the Liars”, recounts a harrowing personal journey she undertook to confront her ghosts from her past, nightmares from the present, and specters that only the future could hold. The story is told via a number of letters sent to her star-crossed love and human friend, as she goes up against a threat to the galaxy—one that she is uniquely designed to fight, one that she fully expects to claim her life.

It’s actually quite touching, this one. Again, I felt like Pratt could’ve really drawn it out a bit more: heightened the tension, atmosphere, mystery—and that the story would’ve been better for it. As it is, the Alien Stars reads reasonably well, and ends much better than either of the others before it, but not before tugging a bit on the heartstrings on the way out. This one I found had the slowest build, but ultimately the best conclusion.

4.25 / 5 ✪

TL;DR

All in all, I would like to reassess my previous statement that this omnibus would be a good jumping-off point for the Axiom universe. The novellas all contain spoilers for the main series, so it’s probably not a good place to start if you think you’d like to read the Axiom trilogy. Also, while there’s a bit of hand-holding, this is more the type of thing that existing fans will enjoy more than newcomers. But for a newcomer like myself: one decent read, one good read, and one dud. I suppose it’d not bad, but if you’re really interested you should probably start with the Wrong Stars.

Fugitive Telemetry – by Martha Wells (Review)

Murderbot Diaries #6

Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; April 27, 2021

176 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

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

Warning: Contains spoilers for Murderbot Diaries #1-5

Fresh off Murderbot’s first full-length novel, Fugitive Telemetry returns to the novella format which takes place prior to the events of Network Effect, but after those of Exit Strategy. So just forget about all the things you’ve probably forgot about already and let’s get started.

When a dead human is left in the middle of one of the main corridors of Preservation, it’s up to Murderbot to find the culprit before they kill again. Or, you know, before more humans whine to it.

The first question: did Murderbot kill the human?

No, it didn’t. And if it did, it wouldn’t leave the dead human out in the open.

But—in a shocking twist—since Murderbot has the most experience with dead humans, it is tasked with helping the port authorities discover the real killer before they kill again.

I’d forgotten how much I missed this. It’s really hard to remember just what the first couple novellas really excelled at (as they both presented a likable, antisocial non-human, yet oh-so human lead) when there’s been no letdown. All the novellas were good, as was the feature-length novel. But Fugitive Telemetry exceeds all expectations. Here is a Murderbot in its native habitat—solving a mystery with some would-be allies who don’t trust it, stalking a shadowy killer before they strike again.

It gives the same vibe as All Systems Red or Artificial Condition—the first few novellas, back when it was still a Rogue SecUnit surrounded by enemies—but with more pert and polish to the writing, the story. For who could be the murderer? It could be anyone: GrayCris, come to finish the job; another rogue SecUnit, come to meet the legend; random humans, serial killers, aliens—it could literally be anyone. Except Murderbot. At least… it doesn’t THINK it did it, but how would it know? It’s named MURDERbot, after all. And if its human “allies” were to learn this, they’d probably suspect it to. And so it has to find the killer so it can go back to watching media in peace, without being interrupted for every dead human that turns up.

The last thing that I’m going to mention is Murderbot’s character arc. It went on quite the progression through the original four diary entries. From a nameless, faceless AI soldier to a rogue and killer. Then to a would-be savior, a freedom fighter, a mercenary, a consultant, then finally a trusted friend. Network Effect rather missed out on adding to this arc. Now, there’s some progression there, sure, but there’s almost as much regression. Fugitive Telemetry—set before the events of Network Effect—continues the original character arc, presenting a character more reminiscent of what appears in the later novel. And, as much as I’d like to know what happens after the events of the novel itself, I think Murderbot still has a bit more to tell before we come to that.

And yet, there’s an problem. I have one problem with Fugitive Telemetry. ONE. The price is ridiculous. $12 ebook, $18 physical for a 170 page novella is just stupid, no matter how good it is. Ebook prices being what they are… it’s not the time or place to get into this. Sufficient to say that $12 is too much for an ebook, a novella—even one as outstanding as this.