One Day All This Will Be Yours – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Scifi, Time Travel

Solaris; March 2, 2021

192 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

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 Solaris, Rebellion and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own. All quotes are subject to change in the official publication. Don’t blame Rebellion, or me if they do.

One Day All This Will Be Yours is a love story for the ages.

Kinda.

I mean, there’s some sort of romance within, along with plenty of ages (since time travel and all), and it’s definitely a story, so there’s that. The rest of it basically answers the question: What would happen if a sentient nuclear warhead fell in love? Could it forever deny its baser instinct to eradicate life, or would it… boom?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Stalin and Hitler is cheating.”
“I don’t see why. Achilles is cheating, he never even existed.”
“Says the woman with three Jack the Rippers.”

The fight’s begun by then. It is…
Strangely hilarious.

Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there’s literally no one to remember—except for me. And I’ve forgotten.

See, the thing about screwing with causality is that eventually, it’s really hard to remember where the start of things and the end of things actually was. And that was before we broke time.

While I don’t remember who started the war—much less whose side I was on—I was the one to finish it. Then I tidied things up as best I could and came here, to the end of time itself. There was no place left for me where I’d been. Or should I say, “when I’d been”. But with time irreparably broken, there was only one place to go. And only one thing to do: see that it never happens again.

This is one of those stories where we never learn the narrator’s name. But his name’s not all that important, to be honest. Probably doesn’t even remember it himself. That’s the thing about causality and time-travel; it really messes with the old noodle. Sufficient to say he’s a time warrior—the last of his name.

The concept works really well. A time warrior, trying to prevent another time war before all of time is destroyed. Or, MORE destroyed, I guess. It being a time travel story, it made my head hurt if I tried too hard to sort everything out. The good news is: the book never tried very hard to sort everything out. Didn’t even really take itself seriously. Oh, there’s a plot, and a story, and they’re both lovely to boot. But it’s filled with tongue-in-cheek, sarcasm, and dark humor. Combined with the detailed, if not intricate, plot—it makes for an entertaining, intense, and often hilarious read.

[We] have a fine old hoot watching Hilter get chased round and round a field by an allosaur. It’s very therapeutic. And the thing about allosaurs is they can run really quite fast, and the thing about Hitlers is that they can’t, not really, or not for very long.

And that’s all before the love story kicks off.

I won’t say much about that, just that… it’s certainly something. I mean, I would totally read more romance novels if they were like this.

While the ending makes for a bit of a letdown (again, no spoilers), One Day All This Will Be Yours is another excellent example of the author in novella form; quirky, creative, unique, and incredibly entertaining.

TL;DR

One Day All This Will Be Yours is the idea time-travel novella—not too intense, not too serious, not TOO hilarious, but just enough of all those combined. Also, entertaining. Very entertaining. My personal choice for the greatest love story of all time (pun intended), the time warrior’s adventure is by no means boring before he meets his perfect match. And while there is a bit of a slump at the very end, ODATWBY provides a unique, amazing take on time travel, and causality itself. Definitely recommended!

And if you haven’t read any of them by now, Tchaikovsky is making a habit of putting out one or two novellas a year through Solaris/Rebellion. My most recent favs have included Walking to Aldebaran and Firewalkers. Look for him later this year with Shards of Earth, a full-length novel from Orbit, and Elder Race, a novella from Tor.

The Black Coast – by Mike Brooks (Review)

God-King Chronicles #1

Fantasy, Epic

Solaris; February 16, 2021

670 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.8 / 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 Solaris, Rebellion and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The Black Coast is the first in the brand new fantasy epic series, the God-King Chronicles. Instead of a novel of war or chaos, or another GoT-esque fantasy, Black Coast details the coming together of two very different cultures—enemies, even—as they try to live together in peace. It’s more of a… controlled chaos.

Saana, Chief of the Tjakorsha, has left home for the last time. Fleeing the Golden, an immortal draugr heralding the prophesied end of the world, the Brown Eagle clan arrives on Naridan shores seeking a new home—one that they will find one way or another. Daimon Blackcreek is the adopted son of the Lord of Black Keep, and when the raiders draw up on shore he fears the worst. But when the clan lays out their plea for peace he sees but two options. Either the Blackcreek’s can accept the raiders into their home and attempt to live as one, or the Brown Eagle may rebuild their home in the ashes of Daimon’s own. But his father has different ideas—and will never surrender to such savages. Leaving Daimon with one choice.

A choice that will guide him throughout the story.

Elsewhere a silent war rages between the two descendants of Nari—the God become flesh. While Tila’s brother, Natan, rules in Idramar, the Splinter King inhabits the east, living like a sideshow amongst the City of Islands. While at the moment the Splinter King offers little dissent, Tila knows that should anything happen to her brother before he produces an heir, the Splinter King will take center stage. And so she sets off on her own expedition to find this would-be King. And end him.

The characters Brooks has created have always been strong; as readers of his Keiko series will know. The characters of Black Coast exemplify this, with a few exceptions. The Lord Daimon Blackcreek is an honorable-enough man, doing everything he can to protect his people. He’s also a bit of a self-obsessed asshole, and a young and naïve one to boot. Chief Saana is the brave and innovative leader of the Tjakorsha, as such leading her people from their ancestral home to settle on the shores of their age old foes. A passionate leader, she remains quick to anger while still preaching the importance of peace. Jeya seems your prototypical urchin. Thief, ragamuffin, waif—she didn’t make a great impression at first, but upon digging into the text, the reader will learn that just like most other humans, she will fight just as hard as anyone else when the cause appeals to her. Rikkut’s a bit insane, but in a human way. Tila was the biggest letdown of the main cast. Sister to the God-King, Tila leads a double life, but nothing approaches the love that she holds for her brother. While I didn’t find her character weak, exactly, it was just hard to buy the disassociation between her two personalities.

My largest issue with this read comes very late in the book, so this makes it quite difficult to explain while still avoiding spoilers. Sufficient to say that it’s Saana, who up to this point has been a caring, doting mother, sometimes even going above and beyond the cultural norms her own tribe allows to keep her daughter, Zhanna, out of danger. While there are a number of events that prevent her from doing so throughout the book, when it’s up to Saana she will not risk the already tenuous relationship she enjoys with her daughter. That’s what makes this event so out of character; it’s the complete opposite of anything she’s done to this point—and it’s so blatant I found it a bit insulting to her character.

As for the plot, I was pretty much entranced from the beginning. Brooks has built a good one here: the blending of very different cultures clashing in obvious and unseen ways alike, several cultures with many and often fluid gender options while some are just the rigid two, a believable fantasy epic about peoples avoiding war instead of running flat into it. The main cultures and their interaction steals the show, as two particular ones take center stage—the Tjakorsha and the Naridans of Black Keep. While the Splinter King sub-plot and Jeya’s role in the City of Isles kept me more than entertained enough, the interactions between the two former enemies just wowed. I really have no notes or complaints: this was an INCREDIBLE story!

The world was large and well-built, with peoples and dragons (did I mention the DRAGONS???—multiple species of different and sometimes ridable dragons) and rumors and legends of more lurking at the map’s edges. Not only can I not wait to see more of the story, but I can’t wait to see what lies beyond the edges of the world that we’ve explored thus far.

Note: The map for the ebook version I was provided was shit—completely worthless. I was able to contact both Rebellion and Mike Brooks himself, each of which provided me a high-res version of the map and reassured me that the published version of the ebook would have a much better map. Hopefully it is, but if not… I have a map if anyone needs a copy.

TL;DR

The Black Coast is the fantastic high fantasy debut for Keiko author Mike Brooks. Telling an enthralling, action-packed, and ofttimes difficult story full of unique and human characters in a vivid, highly-detailed world. While each character had their flaws, they also had their own sets of motivations and experiences—some of which clashed over the course of the tale. For the most part each character impressed throughout, though there were a few hiccups over the course of this 700-page epic. The story of Black Coast was amazing, but its people and cultures stole the show—particularly their beliefs and interactions that swung wildly between peace and war throughout, sometimes at the drop of a hat. All in all, for a story that included dragons, witches, krakens, samurai, assassins, intrigue, plot-twists and more—the Black Coast is one book you need to make time for this year!

It’s early still, but the sequel, The Splinter King, is due to be published September 7, 2021 by Solaris.

The Builders – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Tor.com; November 3, 2015

219 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

A stoat, a rat, a mouse, an opossum, an owl, a badger, a mole, and a salamander walk into a bar…

A missing eye. A broken wing. A lost lower half. A deposed king. A whole lot of trauma. And a country that vanished from beneath them.

Years may have passed but the Captain’s scars are still fresh. While the rest of his crew have moved on, many memories of the past linger. So when their leader comes a-calling to reform the band, most are only too grateful to respond. The others may come kicking and screaming, but they’ll come all the same.

Scores will be settled. Blood will run. There’s always time for second chances.

The Builders is another case of anthropomorphism gone very right; a dark, bloody Redwall, if you will. As schemes go, the Captain’s is a good one, but nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. The story is a good one, though I think it’s a bit wasted in novella form. The characters are bloody unique and exotic, each with their own backstory and motivations—that I would’ve liked to have been explored more. I feel the short chapters both help and hinder this. On one hand, with the novella format, it keeps the story moving so that we don’t get bogged down with too many characters being introduced too quickly. On the other, everything’s quite brief. We don’t get the time for backstory and motivation. It’s a thoroughly interesting cast that we have, but don’t ever get to know better.

I really enjoyed that dark cast of this story, right up to the end. It was billed to me as a grimdark Redwall—and delivered quite nicely. There’s quite a bit of dark humor, some interesting twists and turns, and an ending for the ages. It’s all very well done, but left me a bit wanting. Of more, mostly—which is both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it’s always good to want more. Show’s the author has done something right. But on the other, there is no more. Sure, there’s a short story (half a dozen pages of fuzzy, grumbly animals), but it’s too brief, and not worth much more than to introduce the world. You can read it here, if you’re interested.

TL;DR

Why? It’s only a couple paragraphs.

*grumbly grumbly*

Whatever. Um… good; not perfect. Dark and bloody with matching humor. Truly a dark Redwall. Not enough development or time for it, it feels like we’ve only just met the characters and the story ends. The quick pacing and brief story work quite well, even if they do also frustrate. This was a love-hate for me, but I mostly loved it. Definitely recommended.

Here’s another link to A Kippled Meal, if you missed it.

The Twisted Ones – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Horror

Standalone

Saga Press; October 1, 2019

381 pages (Paperback)

Goodreads • Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

I’m usually one for horror. In movies, I find the genre boring, and a waste of a couple hours. In games, I find it annoying, if worthy of jump-scares (which also isn’t my thing). I’m more accepting of horror books, but only comparably. I’ve read some few—a couple that I’ve loved, none that blew me away. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Enter Mouse, the unfortunate lass who’s task it is to clean out her Grandmother’s house. Now, Mouse didn’t much care for the old bag when she was alive—actually, she thought the old woman was a horrid human, really more of a demon than anything—but she now thinks a deal less of her father’s mother now that the woman’s dead.

See, Grandma was a hoarder, her house stuffed with useless trash.

There’s rooms upon rooms filled with leaning towers of junk: plastic bins full of soap edging up next to stacks of china and silverware, bags scented candles and used disposable chopsticks piled among heaps of expired coupons and PennySaver ads yellowed with age, even a room filled with plastic dolls, you know, the imitation baby ones that blink? Hell, if this’d been a book about THAT, I think I’d’ve been too terrified to read it.

And so Mouse buckles down to clean out the house. Alone in the woods with only her dog, Bongo, for company. In a holler where cell signal is spotty and the only neighbors are a half-mile away. In all honesty, it was creepy enough to start with. But that was before Mouse finds her Grandmother’s second-husband’s old journal.

Ramblings. Rants. Impossible and nightmarish things. Fantasies of a broken mind—that’s what Mouse assumes. A result driven upon the old man by marriage to a horrible woman. And so Mouse discounts the journal, and gets on with her cleaning.

Until she begins to see impossible things on her walks about the holler. Hills that don’t exist. Stones that seem to move when she looks at them. Effigies of blood and bone, hanging from the trees. These and worse make Mouse question her sanity. And question the journal. And these are just the beginning.

The Twisted Ones starts out easy enough, with a middle-aged, —a freelance editor fresh off a bad breakup. Mouse proves a likable enough lead right from the start—especially when she introduces her dog Bongo, the star of the show—she’s independent, reasonably confident, somewhat insecure and really just… average. She’s not an ex-Marine, she doesn’t fight crime in her off-hours, she’s just… normal. A person. A regular person. Plus she has an adorable dog. The only real problem I have with Mouse is that she’s not the brightest lead. She often doesn’t see things until she walks right past them—often not even then. She’s a bit slow on the uptake. It makes for a frustrating adventure.

The mood of this turns creepy quickly. Not scary, not dark and forbidding. Just… strange. Eerie. With the somewhat slow, affable narrator it’s hard to see the mood shift—as it does right off the start—and by then the story is already on. The weirdness sets in and takes off. Pretty soon I was sitting up wondering if the owls I heard at night were keeping the nocturnal woodpeckers at bay. Or if they were even owls at all. I hoped they were (we get a lot of owls (or pseudowls) out here).

It certainly wasn’t difficult to read—though it took me longer than I would’ve liked to finish, but see I went and got COVID in the middle and that ruined things for a bit. Honestly, it’s probably the kinda thing I could’ve made it through in a couple days: easy and quick to read, nothing too advanced or mysterious, just a creepy air that snowballs out of control in a hurry.

The ending proved a bit of a letdown, but that may just have been me. See, my proclivity for horror is restricted to the weird bits, the strangeness, the mystery, all with a bit of thrill. But when we eventually reach the exciting conclusion, everything just got a bit blasé. The build was good, the execution as well—but the ending could’ve been better. Otherwise, I really have no complaints.

TL;DR

The Twisted Ones is an atmospheric horror novel with a likable lead, a likable dog, and a nice, slow build that’s equal parts totally normal and weird. Then it starts to get creepy. The atmosphere really sells this; the house packed with junk, the journal filled with nonsense, the impossible things in the woods—all in a holler completely separate from everything, a world all of its own. It’s all nice and easy to read, and cruises right along, something you could probably speed through in a day or two (so long as you don’t mind staying up nights). The ending is a bit of a letdown (or was to me), but nothing else jumps out as a dealbreaker. A solid horror story from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)—someone I hope to read more of in the future!

Note: Probably not something to read during isolation. The fever really killed any enjoyment I had for reading this, or well… reading anything. And pretty much doing anything. But if you’re asymptomatic or just bored: go for it.

Fable – by Adrienne Young (Review)

The upcoming cover, from Titan Books

Fable Duology #1

Fantasy, YA

Wednesday Books; September 1, 2020 (US)
Titan Books; January 26, 2021 (UK)

361 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

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

As the daughter of trade magnate Saint, Fable once enjoyed a childhood of love and adventure. With her mother and father, she sailed the Narrows and Unnamed Sea, learning the skills of trading and dredging that Fable once hoped would earn her a place by her father’s side when she came of age.

That all changed the night her mother died.

The next day Saint abandoned her on Jezal, an island and pit of thieves, murderers, the desperate and unwashed. In their final moments together, he told her to survive and seek him out, to trust no one and never make herself beholden to another ‘man. Then—after dragging a knife through the flesh of her arm—he left.

Fours years later, Fable still hasn’t seen her father. She still lives on Jezal, but not for much longer. Using her unique and inherited skillset, she nearly has enough coin to escape the island, and claim her place at Saint’s right hand. But to make this dream a reality, first she must make her way across the Narrows to the mainland. Which forces her to place her trust in an ambitious young captain and his ferociously loyal crew. And even if Fable is able to cross the sea without incident, the dream she’s held to for so long may not prove the reality. But that’s a chance she’s willing to take.

“ You were not made for this world, Fable. ”

This is the story of Fable, pure and simple. It’s not really a dip into a bigger world that’s going to appear in later books (minus the second half of the duology), not is it a story of adventure itself. One of the main complaints I saw beforehand was that there wasn’t enough swashbuckling, action, or tangible fulfillment. And yeah, this is all pretty much true. But the story I was sold on was that of a girl herself, lost in a grander scheme, a grander world, one that she is desperate to find her place in. And with that as a premise, Fable did not disappoint.

Specifically, I found the book boiled down to three major points of emphasis: Fable’s relationship with her father, her place in the world around her, and her growth as a person.

I wonder, did Adrienne Young fall in love at first sight?

Fable’s relationship with her father is the most tricky. While I won’t go deep into this because of potential spoilers, I could write my entire review on her… (I absolutely hate the term “daddy issues”, but) well, you know. She remembers her childhood spent with her parents aboard the Lark as seen through a rose-tinted glasses. She was happy. Her parents were happy. Life was perfect. Until her mother died.

Her father closed off, scarred her, then abandoned her in a pit of thieves. To say she loves him would be accurate; to say she hates him would be accurate. To say she seeks his approval is also true. It’s certainly complicated, and Young devotes a lot of time to this relationship.

Fable’s place in the world around her is another important aspect of this book. I think that all of us at one time or another struggle with this. Who we are, how we fit, what role we have, what our future holds. It’s something that I’ve yet to come to terms with in my own life. And it’s something Fable is constantly challenged with in hers. Is she a thief? Is she a dredger? Is she a daughter, a lover, a friend, all of these, none of them, more? I’d say this is something that helps humanize her, makes her feel real, more than just a character in a book. It’s not a perfect depiction, to say the least, but it’s done well enough.

Fable’s character development is my third important point, and I’m just going to gloss over it. It’s… there IS development, but it seemed to me it all came too quickly, with no sense of fulfillment. She went from being distrusting, sour, and somewhat badass to swooning and trusting, seemingly overnight. Additionally, there was a romance attached to it, which didn’t feel romantic—minus one or two brief moments—and didn’t really feel real. It’s the same kind of love-at-first-sight story featured in the other Adrienne Young book I’ve read, The Girl the Sea Gave Back. I didn’t buy it there, either. The one in Fable isn’t nearly that bad, but not infinitely better.

When you know it’s love at first sight

TL;DR

Fable is quite literally the tale of Fable, daughter of a big-name trader, cast off on a lawless island hell and told to survive and seek out her father if she manages to escape it. As a tale of a girl growing up and finding her place in the world, Fable is a huge success. As a romance or swashbuckling adventure, it falls a bit short. I mean, there’s certainly adventure, but not a ton. There’s certainly a romance, it just sucks. Not much swashbuckling, though.

I really enjoyed Fable as a fable about Fable. It’s about a girl in search of her father, but moreover searching for her place in the world. There’s a lot to relate with there. It’s an experience, and tells a good and enjoyable story along the way. Fable even introduces a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I never had any problem reading this, and thoroughly enjoyed my time doing so. I’ll definitely read the followup, but only hope that the romance has been fixed in it.

Namesake—the second and final book in the Fable Duology—comes out March 16, 2021.

Doors of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (Review)

The Journals of Zaxony Delatree #1

Scifi

Angry Robot; January 12, 2021

251 pages (Paperback)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Huge thanks to Angry Robot #AngryRobot for the ARC!

Every time Zaxony (Zax) Delatree falls asleep, he travels to a new reality. He has no control over his bearing and never revisits the same place twice, making his life a constant, spontaneous adventure. One that he can neither stop nor control. Sometimes he’ll wake in paradise, with plenty of food and a no worries beyond his next nap. Others he’ll wake in hell; worlds of brimstone or desert or glass, worlds at war or apocalypse, worlds filled with monsters or fire or death. Sometimes he’ll even wake in space. But wherever he wakes, Zax does what he must to survive. Survive and move on. On and on and on.

But isn’t all bad.

Zax lives a life some would kill for. A new world each day, an adventure that never stops. Worlds mortal eyes have never seen, worlds of paradise, utopia, or orgies (if that’s your thing). And he can take a companion—something to stave off the loneliness. All Zax must do is fall asleep holding them, and asleep or awake, willing or unwilling, his passenger will follow. But there are often serious consequences of Traveling, not just the monsters and war. The first companion Zax brought along was driven insane by what she saw in-between, a moment that has haunted him since.

But now Zax is being haunted by another former companion—one that has somehow followed him through time and space. Someone who is after the power in Zax’s blood, the ability to Travel between worlds. And where Zax would simply Travel, his former companion would conquer.

“Every time Zax falls asleep, he travels to a new reality.” I was sold from this very first line. Doors of Sleep mostly delivered on my expectations—an adventure that doesn’t quit; new world after new world, each one rendered for but a glimpse; a hunt through time and space. I actually could’ve done with more adventure—more worlds to see, more unknown to explore. Anyone who knows me will know that’s my thing. My favorite part of games like Civ are the exploration, the first few dozen turns, when the world is shrouded in fog and ANYTHING could be out there. But I realize the need for a plot, and this one works pretty well.

After all, how does one follow a Traveler through time? Not even Zax knows where he’s heading, after all. This mystery was part one—one that really could’ve been drawn out longer, in my opinion. The second part was what happens when the second Traveler catches the first. Where one would explore, the other would conquer—and it’s very difficult for those two points of view to coexist.

Zax can use sedatives to escape the nightmare worlds, and stimulants to extend the utopias—but he has to measure each world’s worth/danger against the desire to prolong/escape it. It’s resource management; the supplements aren’t limitless, and he also has to eat, hydrate, and take care of his body and mental health throughout. While there is a strong survival element to the text, it’s mostly in the background. I would’ve liked to see it take more of a central role.

The story takes place relatively late in Zax’s travels. His 1000th world sees him surviving, but not yet thriving under the weight of his “gift”. I honestly could’ve done with a little more of his earlier adventures. Maybe see him make his way through several companions, see him adapt and survive, see how he combats the loneliness, the uncertainty. It seemed to me that Doors of Sleep kicked off too early to enjoy the adventure. And while the plot was good and the story was good and the concept was good, that was the key element holding it back. “Every time Zax falls asleep, he travels to a new world.” So we catch but a glimpse of these worlds. And unfortunately we catch but a glimpse of this glimpse when the hunt takes center stage.

My biggest issue had to be the end. Doors of Sleep is a fairly short book—only 250 pages—and one can essentially read it in a day. The plot to this adventure takes a bit of time and a bit of doing once it gets started but the conclusion takes a chapter. Less, even. You could blink and—it’s over. I also expected this to be a one-off, a standalone: it’s not. The conclusion sets up a sequel, something I confirmed before reviewing it. At first both my rating and review were going to be a great deal more negative due to the abruptness of the ending and the lack of resolution for certain elements I dare not spoil. But instead it’s just a cliffhanger. Which is… better, but still annoying.

TL;DR

A rollicking read, Doors of Sleep is a bit like Edge of Tomorrow. But instead of repeating the same day over and over, Zax must survive a new world each time he awakens—one that could hunger for his blood, or simply make his tum-tum hungry. Add in a little bit of Twoflower, a little Pincer Martin, a touch of An Idiot Abroad, and Doors of Sleep become the best forced, spontaneous adventure you never knew you needed. The first in a new series, DoS is here and gone again entirely too soon—both in that it’s somewhat short and concludes everything abruptly in under a chapter. Still, I heartily recommend it for anyone who likes adventure, science fiction, or just a good one- or two-day read (I mean, it took me five, but who’s counting). In addition, it was the escape I needed from the truly awful first week of a new year. Come escape with me!

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #2

Thriller

Grand Central; January 12, 2021 (US)
Head of Zeus; January 7, 2021 (UK)

400ish pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

The Scorpion’s Tail is the second in the Nora Kelly spinoff, a collaboration between the archaeologist and FBI newbie Corrie Swanson. As both are prominently linked with Special Agent Pendergast, the man still crops up from time to time, solving mysteries and annoying law enforcement.

Note: The length of the book is suspect. The ebook version claims to be 309 pages, while the hardcover is 416, and the large print is 592. Short answer: I have no IDEA how long this is.

All Sheriff Watts wanted was a day off. A nice, lonely stream; a quiet bit of fishing. What he got was a wounded looter and a mummified corpse. High Lonesome was once one of the premier gold mining towns in the West. Like most early Western mines, it busted out and was left as little more than a ruin. Due to its remote, inaccessible locale, the ghost town is pristine, rarely looted, and intact. But when Watts comes upon a mummified corpse, the ruin is about to become the site of an FBI investigation.

Enter Corrie Swanson, junior agent. She in turn enlists the help of Nora Kelly, to ID the body and determine cause of death. It’s going along well enough at first—due to the lonesome nature of High Lonesome, the pair (plus Nora’s brother, Skip) don’t have to contend with a large team or crowd of reporters—until two unexpected details come to life. The first is that the mummified man died in horrible agony—in a fetal position, skin falling off in sheets, rictus of horror plastered on his face.

The second is the solid gold, 16th century Spanish cross hidden on the corpse.

When these details emerge, they expose Kelly and Swanson to the dangerous world of looters and treasure hunters, conspiracies and cover-ups. Throw in a mystery so strange it involves the Army, the Pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan, a certain sexy sheriff, a terrible secret, and the most explosive moment in American history.

If nothing else, this will be a case neither Swanson nor Kelly will ever forget—should they live long enough to solve it.

The story of Scorpion’s Tail is a good one, for the most part. The author combo can sure spin an addictive yarn. As usual, the story, the setting, the mystery drinks you in in its early stages. And when the story really gets rolling you’re already heavily invested. I had no problem reading—again, up to a point.

The main issue (and my main complaint with the recent Preston & Child books) concerns the ensuing conspiracy theory and ridiculous leap of faith that always follows. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a conspiracy theory. They can be practical, ridiculous, and sometimes even true. The first several times can even be a fun adventure. But eventually the fun stops. Now if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, and that everyone has their own point of disillusionment. Scorpion’s Tail eventually leads me past my own. It’s… absurd. And honestly, neither terribly intricate nor well formed. On the positive side, it waits until the 2/3 mark to kick in, when I was already invested in the story. So, while it soured things, I still wanted to finish the book. Whether it does the same for you is the question.

The details—usually Preston & Child’s bread and butter—aren’t as sound in this one. From referring to Spanish Friars (Jesuits don’t have friars, and they were the choice of Colonial Spain), to cutoff words in Spanish translating to cutoff words in English, to the change in language for a few key characters at the 2/3 mark—everything seems a little less polished, a little less cared for.

The pace is as amazing as ever. The mystery begins with an action-packed opening chapter and keeps upping the ante throughout, so that there’s never a dull moment. Hiccups in the plot aside: I never had trouble reading this book. And I never thought about putting it down. So, while there may be some less than stellar action sequences, there were also those that were genuinely heart-pounding. The conspiracy theory soured my opinion, but the mystery redeemed it. The characters are a nice contrast of likable and unlikable that the authors write so well, and every character has their own history and motives. No cardboard cutouts here.

Now, let’s talk about the ending.

So, as spoiler free as possible, without getting into specifics, let’s say that there are two mysteries to solve. The former is settled through most of the book. The latter is summed up in its conclusion. The latter mystery is annoying as we’re provided almost none of the details such that I was expecting it would be the premise of the next book. But then it’s summed up and solved in but a few pages. The way this was done, the manner of it… was annoying.

Also, not all characters get resolution at the end. In fact, one of the two leads (Corrie and Nora) doesn’t. The fledgling romance is left completely in the wind, and isn’t even addressed in the conclusion. It was like: here’s the wrap-up, oh and this second mystery solved, then a brief snapshot of one character’s resolution—the end. I was on-board throughout; the leap of faith, the absurd bits, the annoying bits, the action, mystery, tension, romance—but this lost me. It was an incredibly disappointing and abrupt ending. And I really expected better.

TL;DR

Once again, Preston & Child deliver a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching thriller with an intricate mystery, fascinating location, and highly believable characters. Unfortunately, while I never had a problem reading it, Scorpion’s Tail suffers from a lack of polish, a ludicrous leap of faith, absurd conspiracy theory, and a disappointing lack of resolution for most of its characters. While there’s no denying that this is a very good ride, the final third sours what could’ve been a really good book. And the conclusion tests even that. For fans of the first, I’d still recommend Nora and Corrie’s follow-up. For fans of the Pendergast series, I’d still recommend Scorpion’s Tail as there’s no Constance. For people looking for a book to read on a plane, yeah, you could do much worse. For people who are looking for a intricate, believable, amazing, or inventive thriller—keep looking. For the bottom line: I had no trouble reading this. And while the ending was a disappointment, at the end of the day it was still a mostly good read.

Forged – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #11

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; November 24, 2020

294 pages (Paperback)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for the Alex Verus series through Book #10, major spoilers for Fallen (Book #10).

Fallen introduced us to a new, darker Alex Verus. Recently blacklisted by the Council, he acquired the Fateweaver in a desperate attempt to stay alive, managing not only to do so but also becoming a major power player in the process. A confrontation at the end of Book #10 sees him survive a shootout with Richard, Anne, Deleo and Sal Sarque—while also somehow managing to affect events such that each of these agents either become unaligned or very, very dead.

Our favorite new antihero returns in Forged, the penultimate installment of the Alex Verus saga. When we were introduced to Alex in Fated, he was a former dark mage of middling power, trying to do nothing more than stay off the Council’s radar. It’s safe to say that his life has changed quite a bit since. Once he tried to do the right thing, avoiding conflict at all costs. Now an outlaw, Alex has embraced his darker side. So, when Anne goes rogue and uses the power of her Djinn to settle some scores, Alex decides to do the same, starting with his nemesis from Book #1—Levistus.

And with Council death squads hunting him and his former lover, the Fateweaver slowly devouring his right arm, and Deleo now using every scrap of her power (and time) to find and kill him—the time has never been better. Um, apparently.

But the path to Levistus is not an easy one. Nor do you become one of the most powerful mages in the land by mere happenstance. But Alex’s plan—nay, his very life itself—rests on his ability to take Levistus down. Which he will—or die trying.

I quite like the abrupt change of pace in the last few books. The darkness and depth of Alex’s soul has been hinted at from Day 1, but to see him come full circle has not only been impressive and a little bit terrifying—it’s been gratifying as well. In the Dresden Files, it seems Harry’s always struggling with the evil within. Be it from the Blackened Denarius, the Winter Mantle, the darkness he’s seen and the power he’s gained, Dresden always seems to repress and overcome it. Now, while I’m not complaining about him controlling his darker urges, I AM calling him a little goody two-boots. And where the Dresden Files leads, many more series have followed. Thus it’s refreshing to see someone finally embrace their darker side, if only to see where it leads.

And the darker Alex Verus is cold and calculated. Not to mention a little scary. But with Alex embracing the “darkness” within, there’s something more terrifying on show than just his coldness or lack of emotion—and it’s his efficiency. When there’s little holding him back, Alex is scary good. Both definitely good and definitely… scary. There’s definitely something of a Ludonarrative Dissonance to it. For Alex has no shortage of bodies in his wake. Yet still I found myself rooting for him. And relating with him none too little. Far from denying it, Alex actually takes time to address the dissonance within himself—and does so in a way that genuinely surprised me.

Storywise… I have very few notes. And even fewer complaints. This isn’t the first book that has been Levistus-heavy. Several in the series have centered on Alex’s nemesis trying to capture and kill either him or someone he cares for. While you can definitely overdo something like this, I actually can’t complain about it here. For while Levistus hasn’t changed, both the circumstances and Alex Verus himself have. I’ve certainly enjoyed where the plot has led thus far—and am incredibly excited to see where it ends up.

TL;DR

Forged, the penultimate release of the Alex Verus series, continues where Fallen left off. A changed, darker, more powerful Alex Verus takes center stage, and finally looks for some payback against those that have wronged him. If you haven’t yet hopped on the bandwagon, might I suggest this is the year for it? Forged, any, or even all of the series leading up to it would make great last minute gifts. Or consolation prizes for the gifts you should have gotten this year. We’re roughly 3000 pages into my favorite urban fantasy series—with one book remaining. Anything can happen. Anyone is expendable. Everything is on the table. I cannot recommend Forged enough. I cannot recommend the series enough. And I cannot WAIT for the final entry to see how it all turns out.

Gallowglass – by S.J. Morden (Review)

I really like how the cover captures the mood of the book: blue, lonely, dark.

Standalone

Science Fiction

Gollancz; December 10, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

I often complain about science fiction that’s all fiction and no science, that I like more science with my fiction. Gallowglass certainly tested this. There’s a heavy dose of science in this scifi adventure—some might say too much, others too little.

Jaap van der Veerden lives the life of the ultra-wealthy; all his needs and wants are met instantly, he exists surrounded by servants that he never sees, his parents are even exploring the prospect of eternal life. But Jaap doesn’t share his family’s transhumanism desires. All he wants—all he’s ever wanted—is to live his own life, outside of his family’s influence, outside of the bubble of wealth surrounding him. And so Jaap concocts a plan to escape his family, knowing that even if he does succeed, he’ll be hunted as a fugitive for the rest of his natural life.

But once he escapes, what then?

Jaap (now known as Jack) accepts a berth on the only ship that will take him, the only one that cares nothing for his past nor the reach of his family, a ship and crew he knows nothing about with heading nor mission unknown. But Jack seeks only escape—it doesn’t matter where it is.

That is, until it does.

For when Jack discovers the goal of the expedition is an elusive asteroid, and that the team of misfits he’s joined are all as desperate as he is, he might just come to regret his choices to leave his big, comfy mansion and eternal life within. For there is more than just a big rock at the end of their voyage, but the prospect of death, a million euros, and a second chance.

Gallowglass features some very in-depth science throughout. Not gonna lie—I LOVED this. There’re discussions about plotting and vectors and orbits and math and data and science and… well, at times the repetitive parts of data and plotting do get a little old. But even during those times I loved that the book was so heavily chock full of science. There are a few points where the technology itself is suspect, however. Like, we’re mining and commandeering asteroids. We’ve developed artificial gravity (at least kinda). Diamond tethers and filaments are a thing. And yet the spacesuits are still as fragile as a teddybear in a razorblade factory. Even the tiniest bit of debris can be a death sentence. We’ve developed lines that’ll never break, but not armored any suits? Seems ridiculous to me.

So, for the longest time I thought this story was about Jack. But then, no, it must be a tale of redemption. Oh no wait, it’s about the asteroid. No, maybe it was about Jack. Jack remains the POV throughout, but…

And then by the end… what is this about? (The ending is really lame, FYI.) The official blurb—which I didn’t quote—would have you believe this is a book about climate change. But… it’s really not. There are quotes about climate change at the start of every chapter. These are pretty much worthless (adding nothing nor relating to the story in any way) and I started ignoring a little ways in. They ARE about climate change, at least. Which, for the longest time, nothing else is. Eventually it’s alluded to, but the story never really BECOMES about climate change. It’s only really dwelt on at the end, and by that point I wasn’t sure why I should care about it. I mean, climate change is bad. Okay? It is. Just when it suddenly becomes the all-encompassing reason right at the end—I didn’t buy it.

Then what is Gallowglass about? Well, “gallowglass” would argue that it’s a book about people. About a certain kind of people (a “gallowglass” is mercenary or some special type of soldier) (yes, I had to look it up). And that’s… difficult, as no single person gets any kind of gratifying resolution at the end. So, maybe it’s a book about the gallowglass lifestyle? I mean… maybe, but. During no time when I was actually reading it did I have any real idea of what the focus of the book was.

While I enjoyed the characters of Gallowglass itself—particularly Jack and his arc and the way his character develops—it was the story that really kept me reading. Even when I had NO IDEA what the heck the story was about. Even with my issues with the tech, the pace, the way the story randomly skips ahead at times. Even up through the 99% mark, where the ending was bombing. Even with all this, I do not regret the time I spent reading this. I legitimately and thoroughly enjoyed this book. For Gallowglass, it’s not about the destination—it’s the journey to it that matters. And while that journey may be a immersive, complex and ofttimes directionless masterpiece, it’s still a great read.

TL;DR

I was definitely torn on Gallowglass. It’s an immersive wonder. It features absolutely no resolution for anyone. Jack shows wonderful character development, age, and progression. None of the other characters shine, and few are even memorable. The story is a really good one, considering… I mean, what this book is even about is a matter of constant bother. Even now, I’m not sure. There were times I wanted to stop reading Gallowglass, but never could bring myself to. The destination was a no-show, but I’m still thankful for the journey. It’s not going to get my highest rating, but it still gets a full recommendation.

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.