Battle Ground – by Jim Butcher (Review)

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

Dresden Files #17

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 29, 2020

432 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

The Subjugate – by Amanda Bridgeman (Review)

Salvi Brentt #1

Detective, Mystery, Cyberpunk

Angry Robot; November 6, 2018

398 pages (PB)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Novella

Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; September 22, 2020

160 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

Manet is having a rather bad day.

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

What Manet cannot do, however, is forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

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

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Bystander 27 – by Rik Hoskin (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Superheroes

Angry Robot; August 11, 2020

356 pages (PB)

2.9 / 5 ✪

Goodreads

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

I’d class this as Punisher crossed with the Reckoners, but I’m not much of a comics guy so there could well be a closer match. There’s a heavy superhero/comic influence, mixed with a science-fiction/alternate world setting, and a bit of a mystery thrown in. It’s a curious combination—one that I feel could’ve been an amazing read when done right. While Bystander 27 did quite a few things right, it was far from perfect. Let’s get into it.

Ex-SEAL Jon Hayes has never felt so small.

With the Navy he’d served multiple tours all around the globe, battling terrorists in the Middle East and chasing cartels in South America. He returned to the States and married his dream girl, Melanie, before moving to New York to start their life together. But for a man who’d toured all around the globe New York might as well be a different world.

For New York is where the ‘Costumes’ hang out. Superpowered heroes and baddies overrun the place, battling it out in the streets on a daily basis. For the residents, it’s just a fact of life; pollution is annoying, traffic always terrible, and the costumes are out to play. Like the rest, Hayes does his best to ignore it, but is generally wowed along with the rest when the heroes take center stage.

Until Melanie is caught in the crossfire. She—along with their unborn child—is killed in a clash between Captain Light and the Jade Shade.

As Hayes struggles to come to terms with the loss, he uncovers a mystery at the center of the Costumes conspiracy. Deeper and deeper he digs, until the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. But as Hayes pieces the mystery together, he must decide whether he’s after just the truth of the matter, or vengeance for his fallen family.

So… I’m really torn on this one. Bystander 27 does a lot of things right; it combines a compelling mystery with an action-packed thriller, a heavy does of science fiction, and a tangible sense of urgency—all within the head of a man overcome by grief, his life slowly descending into madness as his chase takes him down the rabbit hole. While it’s a fairly slow build, I never had trouble reading it. The mystery—it’s a good one—kept me interested until the very end, where everything kinda goes to hell. And while I absolutely hated the conclusion, I very much liked the epilogue tacked on the end. The thing is, Jon Hayes is a pretty good protagonist. He’s a bit ordinary, bland, and forgettable in the beginning, but that makes his character development all the more impressive. He literally goes from just another face in the crowd to an unforgettable piece of the puzzle. You know the puzzles that have one piece shaped like an apple? That’s Hayes. He’s an apple.

No matter how many things it does right, Bystander 27 is constantly in its own way. The fascinating mystery at the forefront is countered by a slow build and just strange language. Jon Hayes—who’s in his early 30’s—talks like a man from the mid-twentieth century. “Son of a gun”, flakes with hypno-discs and popguns”, and “punk kids on their way to band camp” highlight some of my favorites. It’s not used to replace anything explicit—the author still uses plenty of that—it’s just like something out of the fifties. Or a comic. Or a comic from the fifties. The language is… just strange.

The author is also constantly reminding us that Hayes was a SEAL. I mean, CONSTANTLY. I can understand the references to it in the beginning and at certain times that relate to backstory, but we’re reminded of Hayes’ SEAL training at least once a chapter through the first hundred pages. After that it drops off a bit only to pick up again, so that we’re still being told about his SEAL training past page 300.

The book’s conclusion—which I won’t talk much about—is unoriginal at best, and clichéd at the worst. That said, I liked the epilogue. Way more than the conclusion to the story, in fact.

The last thing I want to harp on is 9/11. It’s mentioned as the reason Hayes joined the Navy. In a world where superheroes have roamed downtown New York, Manhattan in particular, since the mid-Sixties, how exactly is 9/11 still a thing? Worse, it establishes the time of the story. I might’ve accepted the language being as it is in a story set before the seventies. But as a post-9/11 thing? Nope.

TL;DR

Something like a cross between the Punisher and Reckoners, or the novelization of a superhero comic book, Bystander 27 does a lot of things right. Possessive of a intricate mystery and very real character development, I never thought about giving up on it. Unfortunately, with a slow pace, dated if not odd language, and a clichéd ending—the book constantly made me question my decision not to bin it. At the end of the day Bystander 27 just can’t get out of its own way. And while it legitimately contains a good, even provocative story, in the end it just doesn’t deliver.

Network Effect – by Martha Wells (Review)

Couldn’t find who designed the cover. Help me out?

Murderbot Diaries #5

Space Opera, Scifi, AI

Tor.com; May 5, 2020

350 pages (Hardcover)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I’d say to beware spoilers for the previous Murderbot installments, but you’re here, so I’m going to assume you’ve AT LEAST read some of them, so catch up quick. If you haven’t read any of them… I’m just going to assume your life is a complete waste. And at least this time I know it’s true.

Network Effect is the first full-length Murderbot novel, and hopefully—HOPEFULLY—not the last. Following the events of the previous four novellas, our lovable, totally not-awkward protagonist is living on an actual planet, dressing like a human, and doing many human-like things without actually being one. It is definitely NOT a human, can’t stress this enough. Anyway, since the previous novellas were so amazing, how much worse could a full-length story be?

When Murderbot departs the planet with a number of its humans, it’s sure that some trouble is going to befall them. Why? Because its humans—while generally decent, naïve meat bags—are naïve, stupid, and full of bad decisions. So when something goes wrong, it is there to say “I told you so”.

And also save them.

But the first wrong thing to go wrong may not be the last, and while the first is more than enough to deal with, any other problems that may arise are likely to become increasingly inconvenient. Or at least cut into its media-watching-time. And when an old friend shows up needing help, well, there might not be time to watch any media at all. But as its friends are few and far between, and it really has grown used to its humans (which would probably make a mess dying, anyway), it will do what it can for them—so long as it doesn’t have to talk too much or actually, like, share its feelings with anyone.

If so, they can burn in hell. Or wherever.

“Right.”

She flicked a startled look at me. I love it when humans forget that SecUnits are not just guarding and killing things voluntarily, because we think it’s fun.

What can I say about Network Effect?

I mean, I could just keep throwing out quotes until you read it. Or the other ones first, and then Network Effect. Or I could point you to other reviews of people that love it. Or I could rant and rave about the concept, or how much I love and relate with the lead despite the fact that they aren’t human, or how much I love the way the story is told and to what lengths Murderbot will go to avoid awkward human things.

But I’ll try to actually focus for a minute.

Overse added, “Just remember you’re not alone here.”
I never know what to say to that. I am actually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

The characters are actually pretty solid, for being a bunch of squishy, emotionally compromised humans. I mean, the bots are all fleshed out nicely—more than I would’ve expected really, as they’re machines. I’m not going to get into the whole AI-Sentiency thing, but it’s nice to see a broad range of characters represented by more than their opposable thumbs. And since there’s not any more racism, sexism, specism, bigotry that I can see on one subject or another, I think we can just skip that discussion.

As for the world-building: it’s good, but honestly I think it could’ve been better. Each novella took us to a different place (often a different planet), which was painted its own vibrant color. Network Effect didn’t have quite as many exotic places, so maybe I just expected the ones it did have to be more vibrant than before. If so, that’s where I was disappointed. Just a little. Seriously, not much.

The mystery at hand was quite immersive. It was told in a strange, very, very orderly manner—with bullet points and subsections even within other subsections—but also with the same annoyed, awkward voice that I’ve come to love from Murderbot. Due to its annoyance at most things human there were a few sections that could’ve been clearer, some where I got slightly frustrated that it wasn’t focusing on details I might’ve—but those are also the moments where it stays in character where a human protagonist might do something else. It’s quite hard to fault that.

It’s also quite impressive at how far the characters of Murderbot have come in such a short time. Somewhere over the course of the… 900ish (?) pages they’ve built up quite the report together. That’s really like two, maybe three full-length novels, but it just feels like less. Especially when Murderbot complains about the humans so much in that time. The language is the best part of the series. And it doesn’t change. It’s still an amazing read and an amazing ride on the shoulders of an antisocial, lovable killing-machine.

Okay, back to raving.

TL;DR

Well, this is the end. Of the review. If you haven’t ditched it by now to go read the series, either (a) you’re not going to, and are okay with wasting your life, (b) you’re waiting til later, when you’ve like, eaten and slept, because, dumb reasons, or (c) you’ve already read and enjoyed and are totally on board with everything (ish) I’ve raved about thus far. What can I say except that this series is really good? The characters, the language, the story, the adventures and scifi and all—it’s totally worth reading. I can’t recommend it enough. I’m highly anticipating the next adventure.

The next adventure, Fugitive Telemetry, is due on April 27, 2021. While it’s another Murderbot novella rather than a novel-length entry, I’m still anticipating it highly enough that I’m really disappointed I haven’t read it yet. What have I ever done to you, time?

Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

I continue to be obsessed with the Hot Key covers, designed by the very talented Sam Hadley.

Spellslinger #6

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 17, 2019

519 pages (Hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware Possible Spoilers for the Queenslayer, and the other previous Spellslinger books!

Crownbreaker is the sixth and (for now, at least) final book in the Spellslinger series, wrapping up this tremendously entertaining series in a tidy manner. I put off reading it for a number of months for a number of reasons. First off, Queenslayer was a heck of a book, and I needed to take some time to digest its ending. Secondly, I wasn’t ready to reach the end of the road. I’m a firm believer that all stories must end, but that doesn’t mean I hadn’t grown to love the characters in this series—particularly Kellen and Reichis. I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. The third reason, was the anticipation that was building for the final book. I’d heard a few things about Crownbreaker (including from a few of my friends who loved it), mostly good, but I was still somewhat dreading the conclusion. Would the author kill everyone off? Would he end the series in a cliffhanger? Would there be a Game of Thrones or Queen of Fire ending that worked to end the series, but sucked in every other way imaginable? I doubted de Castell would do any of these, honestly. My respect for him has grown greatly throughout the series. But while he’d provided some people with the ending they wanted, would he also give the characters the ending they deserved?

Something heavy thumped onto my chest, and a fuzzy face with beady eyes stared down at me. “You done lyin’ there yet? I’m hungry.”

After spending most of his adult life on the run, Kellen is slowly settling into his role as adviser to the Queen of Darome. Reichis, for his part, was born for courtly life. Bathing while being fed butter biscuits, being pampered by servants and royalty, and being constantly surrounded by an overwhelming variety of stealables is pretty much a dream come true. Plus, every now and then he gets to kill someone. Kellen is having a slightly harder time adapting. Getting arrested on a daily basis isn’t helping. The head of the Marshals—a striking, attractive young woman, Torian—wants him somewhere close where she can keep on eye on him. Somewhere like her quarters, or the oubliette.

My personal favorite butter biscuits, I ate them and thought of Reichis. Sadly, not in the bath.

But Kellen’s family is aware of his status at court. And they have plans for him. So when his father drops in, Kellen is less than surprised. The one man that he has spent his entire life running from stands before him, and demands a favor of him, Kellen is unimpressed. But Ke’heops is willing to welcome his son home—with a clean slate, a place within the clan, a proper mage name, and the pardoning of a certain Charmcaster as well—Kellen is entirely tempted. Until he hears what his father wants of him.

For a war is brewing on the continent. A child has been born in Berabesq, a child unlike any other. For this child is a living god. One that is sure to unite the nation beneath one flag. And when the country is one, they will roll over the continent, endangering Darome, Gitabaria and the Jan’Tep all equally. And so Kellen’s path is clear. To prevent this war—he must kill a god.

Just another reason I love the Hot Key books. This (and more) lovely picture adorns the page beginning each new section, courtesy of the equally talented Sally Taylor. Anyone know, are these also in the other versions?

This was actually my favorite installment in the series. Quite fitting that it comes at the end (But then—is it the end? I guess you’ll have to read it to find out!). Everything comes together in this final adventure. Now, it’s not perfect, but pretty much as close as anything that I’ve read this year. I don’t have anything to complain about, really. Heck, I read the last three hundred pages in one sitting. The beginning was just a bit slow, but that’s about all.

By this point in the series, there exist so many threads and potential guest stars that the author pretty much could’ve pulled one out of his hat every few chapters and still had enough left for the end. But, those that he did use, combined with the new characters he introduced in this book added up to create quite the ending, one that I’m not sure if he could’ve outdone even if he’d tried (I mean, I assume he tried. A little. But writing is pretty straightforward, right? Yup, pretty sure). In addition to all these guest stars and blindsides, there were still enough twists and turns that I kept genuinely being surprised throughout the second half (in a good way, btw) and where we ended up. Props to Sebastien de Castell for this!

Even more props for the emotional ride. I teared up more than once, and went back to reread my favorite sections before I’d even finished the book. I’m sad to see Kellen and Reichis go, along with so many more: Nephenia, Ferius, Shallan, Pan, the Queen, even Torian—but I’m happy that they all got the ending they deserved. An ending that the author even continued on in the post-script (which just isn’t done enough nowadays, and served as a pleasant surprise (which apparently I’ve just ruined for you, but), so I won’t give you any more details on it), and one that—while it didn’t tie everything together—did more than enough to reach a satisfying conclusion.

As always, nothing is stronger than the world and its characters. Leads that develop are a rare thing. Supporting characters that show depth are even rarer. But the author here has shown depth and development on a larger scale; all the characters within Spellslinger are capable of complex, even drastic change. Some progress in their development. Others regress. More do both. Kellen continues to shoot for the “man that Nephenia loves” version of himself. And Reichis just wants to eat eyeballs—though I don’t know why, they’re really a bit gristly and full of viscous liquid, even when cooked—and butter biscuits, a passion to which we all may aspire. Moreover, de Castell continues to paint such an amazing picture—one he leaves open to interpretation just enough for the reader to fill in their own gaps—and populate it with the most interesting, conniving characters imaginable. Though none of them more cynical than Kellen, of course. Cynical but trusting and cuddly as a bunny, that’s our Kellen.

TL;DR

This review probably could’ve just been a ramble about how much I enjoyed Kellen’s adventure and how much I’ll miss him in the days to come. I mean, it kinda was… but not like, entirely. I talked about how good the world-building and characters were. The development of Kellen and Reichis, and others was impressive. I mentioned how delicious butter biscuits are. I even included a photo of my favorite brand. Assuming that one has gotten this far in the review, only one reasonable question remains: have you read the series yet? And if not, WHY NOT? It’s amazing! The books even LOOK cool! I can’t recommend this fun, exciting, emotional rollercoaster enough.

The Awkward Black Man – by Walter Mosley (Review)

Omnibus

Short Stories, Fiction, Scifi

Grove Press; September 15, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

3.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

I know it’s not usually my cup of tea, but I read general fiction on occasion. But there’s a reason I mostly stay for science fiction and fantasy. Parts of my younger life were an awkward mess, or ruined by bullies, or anxiety, or MORE anxiety, or whatnot. So while I enjoyed this collection, it reminded me too much of a time where I always sought an escape.

The Awkward Black Man collects the stories of Walter Mosley, an author who’s been telling stories of inner city African American men since before I was born. While I’ve read some of his science fiction, it’s his mysteries that have always drawn my attention. My dad introduced me to Mosley’s books about a decade ago, when he started me on the Easy Rawlins series. While i was never the fan that my father was, I enjoyed some few of Mosley’s books because of the culture that they referenced were so dissimilar to my own.

Most of the narrators are black men (unsurprisingly), and most of them are also awkward. You can glean as much from the title. While Walter Mosley doesn’t shy away from talking about the disparity of racism, neither does he neglect that the bigotry cuts both ways. But while the Awkward Black Man isn’t about race, but it’s also not not about race. Prejudice colors the undercurrents of many of the tales. While sometimes it’s overt, other times it’s casual. It was always depressing.

Mostly these are just stories about life. Not how to live, nor how not to live. Mostly just how to be human. The characters within are entirely human (save the science fiction), which is probably the best thing I can say about the book itself. It paints a realistic picture of life—one that could be anyone’s life, and might as well be.

Several of these stories were just depressing, though. Some even seemed pointless. Rufus and Frank both appeared multiple times, enough that I learned that I didn’t want their lives, even though they proved to be equal parts entertaining, exciting, depressing and super, super awkward. Another thing to note is that I’ve never been a fan of the author’s science fiction—mostly it seems too far out there, too unrealistic, even silly—and the few scifi reads within didn’t disprove this.

My favorite stories were: Almost Alyce, where a man’s life spirals out from under him, but he does his best to claw it back, while staying true to himself. Between Storms, when a disaster strikes, a man’s life takes an unexpected turn, but when it is pulled from the ashes, he must decide whether or not to own up to the fear that led him to the brink. Local Hero, about a boy who always idolized his cousin, and what happened when that idol was laid low. Reply to a Dead Man, which reminded me of several different movies, and yet fit none of them precisely.

TL;DR

The Awkward Black Man paints a realistic picture of life—be it through the eyes of an old, black man, dying in his bed; a young, white woman who is shallow but not awful; a young, black man that has the life he’s always wanted, even if it isn’t his own; and many more. There exists racism within, yes, but it’s a double-edged sword, one that proves horrid no matter which end you’re on. Walter Mosley has never shied away from the awkwardness of race—and why would he start now? But while some of these stories center around racism, few of them are defined by it. Some are depressing for the racism within. A lot are just depressing. Others are ridiculous. Some are even pointless. But most are at least humanizing. At the end of the day, these are stories about people being people. A decent read—even if several of them are really depressing.

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Age of Dread #3

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; August 6, 2019

491 pages (PB)

4.3 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Contains spoilers for both Mageborn and Magefall. Also may contain possible spoilers for the Age of Darkness trilogy!

For a guy who hated one of my favorite books, Stephen Aryan can tell a pretty good story. His second trilogy set in this particular world, the Age of Dread continues what the Age of Darkness started, with magic, law, and the gods themselves coming to the forefront for this conclusion.

The Age of Darkness ended in an epic battle for the good of the world, but the Age of Dread features an epic struggle as well—this one for both gods and men. Having carved out a niche for themselves in the corner of Shael, Wren and the others now search for acceptance from a world that continues to hate and fear their kind. When a mysterious illness appears on the streets of Perizzi, it’s up to Tammy to make sure the virus spreads no further. But she fails as the city is soon quarantined, and are left with a choice—will they survive together, or die alone? As Munroe hunts the being that stole her family from her, nothing will stand in her way. Less justice, more vengeance; nothing will save Akosh when the mage catches up to her. For justice is all well and good, but some debts can only be paid in blood. Akosh has fallen far from the goddess she truly is. Hunted on all fronts, she is forced into an alliance with a being even more powerful and ancient than herself. And when even her once ally threatens to turn on her, Akosh must make the ultimate sacrifice to survive. Revealed as something more than mortal, Danoph know travels with Vargus, the one-time Weaver showing him the ropes. But what is Danoph’s task, exactly? And will he be able to fulfill it when the truth is revealed?

I know this was a fairly brief prompt compared to my usual ramble, but at the end of a six book series (that’s two trilogies), I’m not sure who’s where and how much I should be revealing. Hopefully I did a decent enough job of keeping it informative, yet also vague enough that anyone can jump right in.

I’ve really enjoyed these two trilogies—both the Age of Darkness and the Age of Dread—though I know they weren’t exactly giant successes. It seems most of the people I’ve talked to about them read one or two of the first trilogy, but thought they were decent at best, and then dropped off. Well, everyone’s allowed their own opinion, but it doesn’t really matter as I thought they were brilliant!

With five books preceding Magebane, there are so many paths diverging and converging that the story could almost end up anywhere. It was a brief disappointment when instead we arrived at two shared threads, but the conclusion was entertaining enough that I soon got over it. Though not as epic (in my opinion) as the finale of Chaosmage, the ending here was still impressive. An ultimate evil on one side, while a much different evil awaits on the other. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected given the series’ history, but in some ways impressed me more given that it broke out of the mold it’d kept to up to this point.

The characters and world-building have been strong throughout the series, reaching an impressive zenith as all their threads collide. While we didn’t get as much exposure to either Sorcerer as I would’ve liked in this final book, enough of the other characters starred that I got over the slight—especially when I figured out what the author was up to. While the trilogies both feature so much of the affairs of gods and sorcerers; the world is not built upon them. It’s built on the backs of mortals. Or, I guess, ‘it is in men that we must place our hope.’ Many stories ended here, some are only getting started. I can’t wait to see where Aryan takes the story from here!

TL;DR

The Age of Darkness ended with a bang. The Age of Dread ends in much the same manner. Another epic conclusion concludes another epic series. Part of me was truly disappointed to see it end, but every story must come to an end. As they’ve struggled to adapt and overcome over the course of six books, the characters that emerge from Magebane have seen some things. They’ve been fleshed out, humanized, developed, grown, regressed, both most of all survived. Everything has led to this point—the end of an age. If you’ve not yet begun either series—I’d definitely recommend it. If you’re somewhere in the middle but on the fence about continuing—I’d still recommend it. If not, I understand; there’s always more to read 🙂

Ink & Sigil – by Kevin Hearne (Review)

Ink & Sigil #1

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Del Rey; August 25, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Al MacBharrais is a man blessed. A Scottish widower in his sixties, he runs a legitimate print shop in Glasgow. He is also a sigil agent for Brighid—the First of the Fae—he uses magical inks in order to create and employ powerful sigils that can affect both the mortal and supernatural worlds. He uses these sigils to police the Fae that enter our realm illegally, protecting the world from those rogues who would do it wrong. In addition to this rather pedantic craft, he is also endowed with an extraordinary mustache, which he waxes daily and trims with utmost care.

But Al is also a man cursed. He suffers from a mysterious anathema: anyone who is exposed to his voice for even a few days will grow to hate him. This makes his voice a rare treat—one that he barely hears himself. Al communicates mainly through text-to-speech apps so that his few friends and colleagues don’t come to despise him.

We join MacBharrais’s story already in progress. When his apprentice, Gordie, turns up dead—the seventh such of Al’s apprentices to have kicked the bucket—having choked on a raisin scone, Al comes to learn that the wee lad had something of a secret life he’d hidden from his master. A life… of crime.

In fact, Gordie was trafficking Fae; luring them from the realms and then trapping and selling them to a mysterious third party. Which Al finds out as he arrives at Gordie’s flat to find a wee pink hobgoblin in a not-pink cage. One who is royally pissed at being locked up, and not as disappointed in Gordie’s somewhat untimely demise.

This particular hob—who goes by the name “Buck Foi” (yes, really)—will come in handy if Al is to solve the mystery of the Fae trafficking ring which will take him from Scotland’s magical underworld to the Scottish Highlands and beyond. Also involved are some ghastly hounds, a goth battle seer, and more than a few cool sigils of power. It’s sure to be a fun ride.

And it was a fun ride, more or less. I was never a huge fan of Atticus O’Sullivan (Hearne’s most famous character), the Iron Druid. Don’t think I even made it halfway through the first book before I DNFed it. So… less than a huge fan. Al MacBharrais by contrast is a lovely old character. A Scottish gentleman in his mid-sixties, Al is a breath of fresh air to the Urban Fantasy genre. Though the druid was technically older, he was an immortal who was forever young. Most protagonists in Urban Fantasy seem to either be not strictly mortal, or young. Al, by contrast, is mortal, over the hill, and not as annoying (as Atticus, at least). His communication through a text-to-speech app was also an interesting twist, one that worked nicely in the story. His cast of friends and allies were mostly entertaining and interesting—especially Nadia (his assistant, or his manager, sometimes both)—though I confess I grew a bit tired of the wee pink hob by the end.

Like most intro Urban Fantasies, Ink & Sigil has trouble sticking strictly to the story, and occasionally gets distracted by pushing pieces of lore directly related to the characters. Flashbacks and whatnot. Instead of boring us with these too early on, Hearne waits borderline too late, when we’re invested in the story before springing them. This did not help the story’s pacing, but I guess it was an attempt to get the reader to care more about the spin-off characters. An attempt that was… so-so effective. Some of the flashbacks I liked, one I hated. It didn’t come at the right time, in my opinion, but maybe the book was too short for the flashbacks to come any sooner. Nothing ruined, here. More of a typical UF wandering debut.

Ink & Sigil is a charming spin-off, set in the world of the Iron Druid. If you’re fresh from that series, or in search of a new one, you could do much worse than giving Al MacBharrais a try. I’d certainly recommend it.

TL;DR

I was never a fan of the Iron Druid. After I tried and failed to get through Hounded three times—I read Ink & Sigil in under a week, with hardly any objections. Al MacBharrais is not your typical Urban Fantasy lead. He’s in his sixties, mortal, both blessed and cursed, and in possession of just the most lovely mustache. While he does share a world with the Iron Druid, the two could not be more different. I had few issues with the text—none of which were deal-breakers—and am glad to announce that the positives easily outweigh any negatives. In fact, would happily read a sequel. Looking forward to one, even. Furthermore, no prior knowledge of Hearne’s books is needed, as I had no problem understanding things. Recommended!