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

Bloodsworn Saga #1

Fantasy, Epic

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

505 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

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

The gods are dead. The world is broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Powder & PageSwords & SpectresSpace & SorceryRealms of My Mind

The Glass Breaks – by A.J. Smith (Review)

Form & Void #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus; March 19, 2018

512 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.0 / 5 ✪

Chained to the rocks and left for the tide, Duncan Greenfire will either become a Sea Wolf—or he’ll die trying. All that stands between the 17 year old and death is the realm of Void, and his ability to cross the Glass into it. But as powerful as Duncan is—it’s a raw power, one that he can’t always control. And after two days doing little more than trying to survive, he has little enough power left. But when the dawn comes, and Duncan is still alive, his initiation is complete. He is a Sea Wolf, now and forever.

It’s been 167 years since the Sea Wolves and their Eastron kin sailed across the sea to take the Pure Lands by force. With an ability to step between the realms of Form and Void, their strength was unparalleled and the natives folded before their might. In the years since, their rule has become absolute. But the Eastron are now fractured: the People of Ice hide on their northern isles, the Kneeling Wolves sulk in the shadows of Big Brother, the Dark Brethren sit in regimented and orderly rows upon the Father, the Winterlords kneel to their Always King on the Isle of the Setting Sun, and the Sea Wolves who lounge on the Isle of Nibonay. None of these masters are terribly benevolent, least of which the Sea Wolves; they raid and slaughter the Pure Ones on a whim, cull their populace, seeing the natives as little more than beasts—and their Eastron kin as little better.

But as Duncan joins their ranks, he discovers the Sea Wolves may not be everything he’s ever wished of them—a sentiment echoed by Duelist Adeline Brand. She and her brother Arthur are two of the most well-known and brutal Duelists of their clan, bathing in blood and booze in equal measure. And yet Adeline harbors doubts about the Sea Wolves, the same ones Duncan is currently confronting. These come to a head when the two are dispatched on separate secret missions for the clan: Duncan to the Isle of Nowhere, seat of the People of Ice; Adeline to the Bay of Bliss, on the other side of the Isle of Nibonay. But where Adeline unearths a threat that will surely mean the doom of her and all the other Eastron in the Pure Lands, Duncan uncovers a conspiracy that may yet save them all. For certain powers have known of this threat for generations, and have been working to stop it. But the question remains: will they succeed, or will the Sea Wolves and their kin be wiped from the world instead?

This took quite a turn from where I was expecting it. The Sea Wolves—as you probably might guess after reading my description—are not nice, friendly people. They are racist, genocidal monsters, who have “generously” allowed the Pure Ones to live on their ancestral lands, all while raiding, pillaging, and slaughtering them as they see fit. Or whenever they’re bored. They do this through their marshal skill and ability to break the Glass, something the Pure Ones can’t do. The Glass and the Realm of Void are an interesting if not wholly unique system of magic, where crossing over from Form to Void means essentially traversing the spirit world (one that more or less parallels the realm of Form) and either manipulating the spirits of the Void or harnessing their energy for their own.

It was a little refreshing to read a story from the villains’ perspective, as the Sea Wolves are definitely it. Even if matters complicate and sympathies change over the course of the book, it cannot be said that the Sea Wolves aren’t the bad guys. They definitely are. Or, well, one of them.

Another twist is that Duncan is kinda an ass. He’s immature, willful, whiny, thickheaded, but mostly just annoying. Like, really, really annoying. But only about half the time. It’s not that his chapters are necessarily awful to read, more that he constantly makes the dumbest choices. This really isn’t much of a spoiler as he will do it early and often. So it’s both really interesting as a plot device and really frustrating to watch him do it. It’s the equivalent of trying to stop someone from jumping off a bridge by shooting them in the head—technically effective, but not in any circumstances acceptable behavior. He’ll also constantly proclaim that he’s a Sea Wolf. Seriously, all the damn time. At first I found this repetitive and unrealistic but then realized how realistic it actually was. Duncan’s a young, immature boy that never had a childhood and only really craves his father’s approval. Despite the fact that he hates the man. And all he’s ever wanted was to be a Sea Wolf. But now that he is, it’s not living up to his expectations. It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t feel accepted. Plus, he doesn’t feel worthy of it. So he continually asserts that he IS a Sea Wolf, on and on, because he’s just a scared, lost kid who no one has ever shown any kindness. A scared, lost kid with too much power and no control over it.

Either that or I’m overthinking it and he’s just a poorly developed character, suffering from a bad, repetitive style of writing.

While I had mixed feelings about Smith’s other series—the Long War—one thing that’s not up for debate is the world-building. Which was top notch. Similarly, Form & Void has a very well constructed world. Albeit one somewhat bereft of people. Though there are plenty of warriors (Pure Ones, Eastron, Sea Wolves, etc), there aren’t a whole lot of common folk mentioned. I mean, I assume they’re around, just we barely ever see them. Otherwise, the world itself, its history, its geography—is all amazing. No issue at all.

The story itself is pretty good as well. It’s full of twists and turns, typically not following the path I expected (insomuch as the idiotic things Duncan does can be considered plot twists), though it did pretty much end like I’d’ve guessed. I absolutely no problem reading the book as Adeline and Duncan make a pretty good pair. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses—though Duncan’s are far more weaknesses than strengths—and compliment one another rather well. You’ll get sections of one or the other: four straight chapters from Duncan’s POV, then the same from Adeline’s (both in 1st person), and on and on.

The characters themselves are another reason to read the Glass Breaks. Other than Adeline and Duncan there are dozens of other well-developed characters, each with their own motivations and backstory. And they’re all expendable, even the ones that you think are too important to die. All in all, it’s a great start to the series, though one I’d like to see fine-tuned a bit for the sequel.

TL;DR

The Glass Breaks is the start of an interesting new fantasy series from the author of the Long War. Long ago, the Sea Wolves crossed the ocean and found a new home. Once there, they brutally subjugated the natives and have continued to raid and slaughter them for the next hundred and fifty years. Enter Duncan Greenfire and Adeline Brand, Sea Wolves of the Severed Hand. Each dispatched on their own secret mission, they discover conspiracies that will doom the Sea Wolves, but might also save them. The world-building and characters are the strongest aspect of the Glass Breaks, and though Duncan can be seriously annoying at times, his stupidity comes in handy through some twists I couldn’t’ve seen coming. While there can be needless violence and somewhat repetitive internal monologues at times, there’s also a tense, mysterious atmosphere and uncommon, interesting magic system. Combined with a good story and epic (though occasionally over-the-top) dramatic and action sequences, the Glass Breaks is a great series debut, one that I enjoyed far more than I thought I would. Recommended!

The Glass Breaks is also free on kindle unlimited, if that’s your kind of thing. Form & Void continues with The Sword Falls, out May 1, 2020.

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

The Founders #2

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Del Rey; April 21, 2020

493 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 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 Del Rey and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Warning: Contains spoilers for Foundryside (and, oddly enough, Gears of War 2)

In Foundryside, Sancia Grado and her ragtag team of allies managed to save the city of Tevanne from destruction, carving out a chunk of it for themselves in the meantime. Three years later, the Mountain lies in ruin and the campos feud with one another to fill the power vacuum left following its destruction.

I’ll be honest though. Don’t remember a ton of what happened in the first book. I remember Sancia—the master thief able to see scrivings—and I remember Clef—the talking key with the heart of gold (because he’s made of gold you see). There was something with one of the campos, a fire, infiltrating the Mountain and… that’s about it.

Anyway, skip ahead three years and you’ll find Sancia passing time within the scriving firm of Foundryside, intermittently stealing, innovating, and making out with her girlfriend, Berenice. None too soon after we rejoin Sancia, the Foundrysiders execute a bold play to steal from one of the campos in a desperate attempt to secure their future and the first step in their plan to liberate Tevanne from the grip of the merchant houses.

But no sooner do they return home in triumph—ready for a drink and a quick toss—then a new threat looms on the horizon. A new, and infinitely larger threat.

In a stunning move, the Dandolo campo has seen fit to resurrect Craesedes Magnus, First of the Hierophants, basically a god in all but name. And the legendary scriver is coming straight to Tevanne. While the Foundrysiders aren’t sure why the Dandolos have done this, or what exactly it is that the First Hierophant intends, they are sure that they don’t want to know anything about it. But instead of fleeing the city, they decide to stay and fight.

For while the Foundrysiders can’t match the legendary hierophant himself, they may know someone who can. Though to save their city Sancia and the gang may just have to tie themselves to an even greater threat than Craesedes Magnus—for what can stand up to a god but another god?

Straight out of the gate the story got rolling with a thrilling heist. It was great to see Sancia and the gang doing what they do best—stealing things and running away. And it gave us time to reconnect with the characters we might’ve somehow forgotten. Be it Orso, former campo child and the outfit’s brains; Bernice, the beautiful and genius scriver Sancia has fallen for; Gregor, strong and silent, another scrived human with blood staining his shadow; and Clef, pretty much just a key now. A key that won’t open any door.

From there we get on to the meat of the matter—resurrecting a god. Or attempting to stop one. Turns out, it’s not an easy thing to do. Through this part the atmosphere grows tense, the story mysterious, dark. Then everything kicks off for good when Craesedes Magnus rolls up.

I hate to say it, but my favorite character in Shorefall is probably the dark god himself. He certainly acts like an ancient immortal—someone who’s seen and done everything and lived through worse. But also there’s a hidden agenda to him. And his endgame turns out to be a twist I ddi not see coming, something truly surprising for something so close to invincible and powerful as he. Moreover, it’s his relationship with Sancia herself—also Gregor, and some of the others from the Dandolo campo—that makes his character so interesting. I won’t give any more about him away, but to say he’s a truly great character with a depth that profoundly surprised me.

I don’t have too many issues with Shorefall. Mostly it’s a lot of fun. A great read with a lovely world and interesting characters. But I do miss Clef. His banter with Sancia was one of the things that made Foundryside such a great read (and pretty much the only thing I remembered about the book prior to reading its successor). While Bennett does attempt to do a similar thing in Shorefall using some of the other characters, it just doesn’t have the same appeal that the Sancia-Clef relationship had. The dialogue here is more cumbersome, and more empty. While I never got sick of Clef and Sancia no matter what the pair were discussing, that doesn’t hold true for Sancia and pretty much anyone else.

The tale is more rollicking fun, but with a darker, more somber mood to it. The world is changing, and not necessarily for the better as all Foundrysiders hoped. With an awakened god looming on the horizon the team feels more powerless than ever before. It’s like the moment in Gears 2 where they use a gigantic rock worm to sink Jacinto, and fly away knowing that while they “won”, their one and only home now lies in ruin. Even when there is brightness and joy in Shorefall, there is also some sorrow.

TL;DR

With a darker, somber atmosphere, Shorefall is the predecessor that makes you feel, makes you care about the world of Tevanne. While it doesn’t have the same back-and-forth, carefree dialogue of the original, Shorefall takes you to a few more grey areas, a few more moments of weakness on its journey of hope and despair. It’s not exactly a dark book, but it does have its moments. It’s a tale of love and friendship, but also of half-truths and two evils. It’s half mad-dash, half atmospheric thriller, and half powder keg. See? This book gives you 150% and doesn’t disappoint—if that’s not a reason to read it I don’t know what is.

The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 9, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.9 / 5 ✪ – Almost perfect!

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

In the mountain village of Heyne Town, there exists a tree known as the Hope Tree. Here, before they are due to give birth, women will leave blankets, food or provisions outside the village—just in case. In case their children are born as stryga.

Stryga (or strzyga or strzygón in Slavic mythology) are children born with two hearts. The first heart is their primary, human one—tying them to humanity and the path of normalcy and righteousness. The second is a much darker heart connected to a second soul, one that indulges its evil desires and preys on humanity. If a stryga were to follow the darker desires of its second heart even once, it would never be able to stop, turning this human into a dark demon. Although, in Heyne Town, all born with two hearts are considered evil and banished upon birth. Thus their parents faced a choice—to abandon their child outside the village; to dispose of them some other way; or to join their inhuman offspring in seclusion, never to set foot in the village again on pain of death.

Nineteen years ago, Miriat and her newborn Salka were exiled from Heyne Town, and taken to the remote haven where all exiled stryga live. Here they live in squalor, unable to leave and hated by the outside world. Here they are taught to control their darker nature, to never once listen to their second heart.

But Salka is young and headstrong. When she is exiled to the far off Windry Pass for a moment of weakness, she must do everything she can just to survive. But as the snow piles high and the temperature plummets, food becomes scarce and predators start to hunt humans as prey, Salka will be forced into a no-win situation: will she use her second heart to survive, or pay the ultimate price for the sake of her human soul?

By in large I really enjoyed the Second Bell. While I’d heard of strygas before, Gabriela Houston introduces a fresh take on the creature more often depicted as a monster in other media. In Slavic lore, it refers to a child born with two hearts and two souls, the second pair of which transforms it into a demon much alike a vampire. In the Witcher, a striga is a child cursed before birth. It is born a demon—a foul-smelling, heavily-muscled monster that runs about on all fours and violently attacks anything that wanders too near its lair. Houston’s take on the stryga humanizes it tremendously compared to these, as the child must only suppress the desires of its second heart in order to retain its humanity. Even so, not all parts of the legend seem to hold true. As with any other story, what is fact and what isn’t is open to interpretation. The villagers in Heyne Town fear and loathe all strigoi in equal measure. Whether or not they have ver indulged their second heart is immaterial. All are evil.

Note: I’ve been talking a lot about stryga being cursed children, born with two hearts. This is true, but not complete. While the affliction dooms from birth, strigoi will grow up like anything does. The only cure (in this book, at least) is death. Likewise, one can’t catch stryga. You’re either born one or you’re not—there’s no in-between.

The Second Bell is all about the story and its characters. Salka and Miriat share a unique relationship that should be quite relatable, and yet unlike any other. While they are obviously kin, only one is human. Her mother is Salka’s link to her humanity—by refusing to indulge her second heart, she feels closer to her mother, to her humanity, but in denying it she feels like she is cutting off a part of her own soul. The Second Bell is therefore a tale of what it means to be human. Salka is Miriat’s child and her whole world. But if her daughter were to listen to her demon heart, would she lose her humanity, the main connection she has to her mother? The Second Bell is also a tale of a mother and a daughter, and their bond.

While the world-building of this story was a bit patchwork, I understand the choice was instead to focus on the story of Salka and Miriat, the story of what it means to be human. Still, I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world. There are some things—like the tree and the dola and more—though the entire world seems like it was built for ‘men and strygoi, but nothing more. While the story centers on the strygoi, they cannot possibly by the only legend in this land: I would’ve liked to hear about some of the others, if only just in passing. The land itself was often painted in greens and browns and white, rather than showing any real detail.

Otherwise, I really have no other notes. The story was good and thorough and made for a quick and immersive read, while still leaving lasting connotations after the book is finished. I hope to see more from the author and this world!

Phoenix Flame – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #2

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 2, 2021

320 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

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

In many ways, Phoenix Flame manages to improve upon the mistakes made by its predecessor, shaping up both the interactions and the character development, while also maintaining the elements that I most enjoyed. Namely (somehow) the romance.

It was quite a summer for Maddie Morrow. After taking over temporary management of the Inn at Havenfall, she was able to disrupt the soul trade, humanize the Solarians, and prevent a coup. Now, with Marcus awake and back in charge, Maddie has been demoted back to #2—an move that she was equal parts crushed and relieved by. Yet with her uncle still recovering, her input is now more important than ever before. And she must do what’s best for Havenfall—no matter the cost.

And yet it’s a price she may not be willing to pay. After all, Maddie is in love with a Fiorden soldier. Mostly. There was a certain girl that made her heart skip a beat…—but she’s gone, locked away behind the Solarian gate. And Brekken is at Havenfall. Brekken, the boy that Maddie grew up and played with. Brekken, the boy that has become a man, one whom has expressed his interest in being with her. If the Inn falls between her and Brekken, what will Maddie do?

But more pressing concerns highlight the end of Maddie’s summer. The black-market trade of soul-bound silver has been disrupted, but is far from over. But now she has a lead on the illicit trade network, one that requires her to go undercover inside Fiordenkill, a winter wonderland that she’s always wanted to visit. But this visit will be rife with danger—despite the presence of a particularly distracting soldier—and Maddie must use all her cunning if she’s to end the trade, once and for all.

Too bad Maddie doesn’t have any cunning.

Seriously, it might’ve been a more interesting read if Maddie was a bit brighter, a bit more cunning, a bit darker, a bit more riské. But she’s not, and that’s that. But she’s still a teenager—young, immature, immortality-complex, dumb, all the realistic stuff. Phoenix Flame highlights a coming-of-age series, and part of growing up is learning to fail and overcome your mistakes. And Maddie makes a lot of mistakes. And that’s fine.

The story is a decent enough adventure; containing enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, yet it never blew me away or surprised me with its choices. As I’ve said before, Maddie’s maybe not the best narrator, but she’s what we’ve got, and tells the story well enough. I enjoyed the glimpses we got of Fiordenkill, but ultimately found them too few and lacking in any interesting detail. Literally all I can remember now is that the land was snowy and cold—the description and world-building really could’ve delivered more of a punch.

The magic system of Havenfall is… a letdown. To be honest, I forgot that magic was a thing for a great portion of the text, only for Maddie to use it once near the end and immediately drop the subject. I remember in the first book how she discovers her ability and uses it to overcome the Silver Prince. It was a surprise and a joy to her. Not so much in Phoenix Flame. No “she practiced to improve her skill” or “she still marveled in her use of magic”. Not even “oh, she had magic, too”. It’s just not mentioned. As for what and how it works… I dunno. That’s never explained, either. It’s just another missing piece in what could’ve turned out to be a great story.

The romance continues to be the main draw of the series, a phrase that continues to baffle me. Young love burns bright—and Maddie’s love life is achingly familiar, in an awkward teenage sort of way. It reminded me of my first love: the prickle of heat surrounding every stolen moment; the burning embarrassment of pretty much anything else; the indecision, the constant turmoil of emotions, the lack of anything approaching experience akin to being tossed in the ocean with a tiger strapped to your chest. Instead of the gawky, awkward, cringey, will-they won’t-they of normal YA romances, so far Sara Holland has managed to capture the nostalgia that comes with your first crush, your first love (at least, for me). There’s still plenty of awkwardness, but it’s all on a learning curve. And both Brekken and Taya create plenty of opportunities to learn, though each in different ways.

TL;DR

Phoenix Flame is the second book in the Havenfall series, and manages to build on the relative successes of Havenfall, while simultaneously correcting some of its mistakes. The story is solid but won’t blow you away with its inventiveness. The plot is interesting, with a few twists and turns and decent character development. The world-building and description continues to leave something to be desired, and the whole fantasy aspect of this fantasy book needs some serious work. As in Book #1, the main allure of Phoenix Flame lies in its romance. A bundle of emotions and no idea what to do with them made me nostalgic for my youth—but unlike the cringe-worthy, awkward, fumbling experience I’m used to seeing in YA lit, this provided something more thoughtful, more delicate, more unique. And I’m completely surprised that I continue to recommend this serious for its romance. While the story and description and characters still could use some improvement—young love continues to impress.

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.

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.

Book Loot – Christmas 2020 & January 2021

Didn’t get a ton of books for Christmas this year, for whatever reason. Combined with the amount I was working over the holidays and an inherent lethargy on my part, I didn’t get a haul post done for December. Not that I bought a bunch of books during Ketchup Month anyhow (nor did I get much in the way of catch-up done). So we’ll just combine December and January here.

ARCs for January

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child (1/07 UK • 1/12 US)

The second Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson spinoff features our favorite duo in the wastes of New Mexico and includes a gold cross, a mummified corpse, a missing gold mine, and a famed event in US/World history.

Doors of Sleep – by Tim Pratt (1/12)

My first Pratt book, Doors of Sleep features capital-T Traveler Zaxony Delatree, who travels to a new universe every time he falls asleep. Seriously, that’s all I needed to hear about this one to want to read it. If that’s not enough for you, there’s also an enemy, the fate of the multiverse, and a talking crystal.

Fable – by Adrienne Young (1/26 UK)

A title I thoroughly regretted missing in 2020 despite its mixed reviews gets a release in the UK, which allows me to score a review copy. This survival YA features 17-year-old trader Fable in a quest to find her missing father and reclaim her place at the head of his trading empire. There’s some pirates, a desert island, and a good quest—always solid.

Extraterrestrial – by Avi Loeb (1/26)

The science entry well-known astrophysicist Avi Loeb examines the possibility that the first extrasolar object that we know of to enter our solar system—’Oumuamua, which passed through in 2017—was in fact a sign of extraterrestrial life. Though it’s not a common theory in academia, it is quite the hypothesis, and one that made highly interesting read!

Purchases

I decided to re-up Audible this year, but had a few credits to use before they expire later this month. Enter a flurry of new books:

A Rising Man – by Abir Mukherjee

Set during Colonial India, Captain Sam Wyndham arrives in Kolkata to investigate the murder of a senior crown official, whose death comes at a time of rising tensions and dissent between the empire and the colony. Taking him luxurious palaces to seedy opium dens, the mystery will test all of Wyndham’s skill set—and may just prove too much for him altogether.

Warrior of the Altaii – by Robert Jordan

Meant to be the first in a brand new series, this standalone was published posthumously in 2019. As the plains dry up, Wulfgar of the Altaii must lead his people past dangers, wizards and prophets in order to secure their future.

Trail of Lightning – by Rebecca Roanhorse

The rise of the sea has wrought an apocalypse but also somehow returned gods and daemons to once more walk the land. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter tasked with returning a missing girl to her small town. But the truth behind the girl’s disappearance may well unearth secrets better left buried—particularly those of Maggie herself.

Great North Road – by Peter F. Hamilton

What do a murdered clone, a convicted killer, and an alien monster have in common? Well, for one, they’re all featured in the blurb for this book. An absolute brick of a tome, this Hamilton novel features an investigator, wormhole tech, and maybe some aliens. It’s a lengthy one—that I’ve had on my TBR for years but has always intimidated me with its sheer size.

Gifts

Rhythm of War – by Brandon Sanderson

I’m not even going to introduce this one. It’s self-explanatory. Might take me a bit to get to what with the Stormlight reread and all—but I WILL GET THERE. And I can’t imagine it won’t be worth the wait, but I still kinda want to read it straightaway.

Made Things – by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Coppelia is a street thief, one very good at making friends. But instead of flesh, some of her friends are made out of wood or steel. Their partnership is sometimes tenuous, but mostly solid. But when a threat threatens (“threat threatens”, yeah I know) their city, these friends must solve it together, or die apart. Not a huge novella fan, but Tchaikovsky is an obvious exception to that.

So, these are the swags for this January/December. As of writing this, the world is… I seriously have no words. I just… I just don’t know anymore. Anyway, lemme know if you’ve read any of these, or if there’re others I should have on my radar. Everyone keep safe and be well!

On Tap 1/6/21

Well, welcome to the new year! If you were one of those people who were hoping the magic of a fresh year would calm tensions, restore friendships, cure the virus, and cause humanity to come together instead of becoming increasingly divided… well, it didn’t. Honestly, I’d guessed as much, but I was hoping for it still.

Oh well, maybe next year.

Currently Reading

The Way of Kings – by Brandon Sanderson

2021 begins with a reread of one of my favorite books ever, the Way of Kings. I honestly hadn’t planned on a reread of the Stormlight Archive this year, but my sister changed my mind. Notably, her reluctance to read Oathbringer, Edgedancer or the rest because she doesn’t remember what happened to this point and stubbornly refuses to reread them herself. Therefore I will read them in her stead and recap each part (there are 10) from the first two books—and maybe #3 and the two novellas—and post those here. But since WoK is reeeaaally long, and I’ve other stuff I want to read concurrently, I’ll probably be on it for a while. Oh well; I’d like to complain, but it’s really hard as they’re all SOOO GOOD!

Salvation – by Peter F. Hamilton

The latest Peter F. Hamilton series features a crashed alien spaceship and the mysterious, surprising cargo it contains. As the wreckage is 89-light-years distant, a special team is dispatched—but it’s going to take them some time to get there. And so, the POVs kinda fracture randomly. Tbh I kinda forgot what this was about until I read the prompt a minute ago, but so far I haven’t minded terribly because it’s still pretty interesting and entertaining.

Extraterrestrial – by Avi Loeb

My science (non-fiction science) read for the quarter examines the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua (yes, that’s a glottal—it’s Hawaiian for “scout”) and explores the theory that it is proof of extraterrestrial life. If you were ever super interested in the universe, astronomy, aliens and math as much as I was, this is actually quite an interesting read. While I don’t agree with all the author’s hypotheses, I’ve been quite enjoying the book so far.

Upcoming

I’ve been a bit tardy on my 2021 TBR but I hope to post it soon. Problem has been I’m not 100% what’s going to be on it yet. I’ve made over a dozen lists so far and while there are mainstays, there’re quite a few wild cards too. In addition to that, my 2020 Christmas and 2021 January book hauls. A few reviews, two ARCs and Where Gods Fear to Go, should be out between now and next weekend—including the Scorpion’s Tail by Preston & Child which will be up tomorrow!

So, be safe, sane, and… something else with an ‘s’. Something that means ‘great’. Let me know if you come up with that, please? Oh, and also if you’ve read any of the above, if there’s something I need to check out instead, or if there’s anything in particular I require on my 2021 TBR. Thank you!