The Sapphire Altar – by David Dalglish (Review)

The Vagrant Gods #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; January 10, 2022

518 pages (paperback)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware spoilers for the Bladed Faith, Book #1 of the Vagrant Gods. Or you can check out my review of it HERE

Newly crowned as the Vagrant—the self-proclaimed protector of Thanet—and well on his way to becoming a god, Cyrus has had enough, storming out on the rebellion and refusing to speak to Thorda ever again. On his own now, he stalks the capital streets, still enacting the Vagrant’s vengeance, driven by the grinning mask and silver crown and an ever-growing bloodlust.

More worrying still, Cyrus can now manifest the grinning mask even when he’s not wearing it. Not to mention the voices that whisper to him in the dark.

But the Vagrant isn’t the only god on Thanet.

The Heir Incarnate has arrived on the isle, ready to begin his ascendance. Rumors persist of resurrected Lycaena, now a goddess of blood and death. The slain Endarius still lives on through Mari, battling gods humbled by the Everlorn Empire. And somewhere on the island, the ghost of Dagon lurks, the former god of Thanet ready to once more reclaim his rightful place.

So many gods on such a little island. Surely they’ll play nice.

“ Some gods live on after their deaths, and some die while they yet live. “

A decent followup to the Bladed Faith, the Sapphire Altar continues the telling of Cyrus and the Vagrant’s tales in an interesting manner—however, not quite in the way I was hoping.

After the revelations of Book 1, I was hoping for a deep-dive into just what it meant to be a god. With Cyrus competing with the Vagrant’s growing influence, I expected a much more internal struggle, one that was only partly addressed in text, and not with any semblance of urgency. What I was hoping for was a spiritual journey, a mystical journey, and a reflection on what it means to be human. I had hoped this would combine with the burgeoning story of revenge to create something new and unique, and highly immersive. As it is, we get really none of the spiritual journey, glimpses of the mystical one, and the continued bloody swath of revenge from the first book. Don’t get me wrong—the Sapphire Altar is still a good read, I’d just hoped that the series was going in a different direction.

Whereas Cyrus is the focal point in the first book, in the second he splits the stage with Keles—Rayan’s daughter and former Paladin of Lycaena. Her story seemed to be… hasty. Not as well written or thought out as previous arcs; I found some of her decisions brainless if not nonsensical, but I suppose such is the same of humanity.

While I wasn’t enjoying this read as much as its predecessor, there was still the inclusion of interesting characters Rayan and Eshiel and Sinshei that kept me reading. Fortunately, at the… 65% mark everything devolved into chaos (the good kind of chaos). It was then that the story finally hit its stride. And drank me in. As weak as I found the middle of the Sapphire Altar, the end was strong enough to make up for it. Multiple jaw-dropping twists, lies and betrayal, mystery, mayhem, and more—the conclusion is packed with content. It’s just a shame that more wasn’t done to flesh the early and middle bits out; the book went from a borderline snooze to heart-pounding in just a few chapters. Needless to say, this makes the pacing seem wild and strange, and the story itself a bit episodic in its portrayal.

TL;DR

While it isn’t shaping out to be the author’s greatest series ever (I’d vote for both the Shadowdance and Keepers’ over it to be honest—though Book #3 maaay change my mind;) ), Book #2 of the Vagrant Gods delivers an interesting, ofttimes exciting adventure—immersive if you enjoyed the events of the first book and wanted nothing more than more of the same. For me, it was a bit of a letdown. I expected so much more from the relationship of Cyrus and the Vagrant: a spiritual journey into what it meant to be mortal or a god. Instead it’s the continuing tale of rebellion, with some metaphysical bits thrown in. Which is fine, just not what I was hoping for. Either way, it’s a good, entertaining, interesting read that I’d recommend for returning fans of the author and/or the Bladed Faith. Looking forward to the series’ conclusion, expected in 2024!

City of Last Chances – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

standalone

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy

Head of Zeus; December 8, 2022

545 pages (ebook)

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9 / 10 ✪

” You’re a learned man. Please tell me where the word ‘negotiate’ can be found within ‘unconditional surrender’. “

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the more frustrating authors I can think of, as I’m constantly thinking “I need to read more of his stuff”, only to go and acquire some and then give up halfway through. You see, he has an issue of letting his politics and personal beliefs bleed too heavily into his fiction. From there the book just becomes one gigantic rant—which is not something I need more of in my life. It’s not that I disagree with his opinion; it’s that I don’t need to hear it constantly justified in a supposed escapist fantasy.

Enter City of Last Chances, a dark fantasy set in a city of the brink of revolution.

Ilmar, some say, is the worst place in the world. A city swollen with refugees, the once-great metropolis has fallen on hard times, even before it fell to the Palleseen Empire. With the heavy-handed occupation now in its third year, the populace

Ilmar,
City of Long Shadows;
City of Bad Decisions;
City of Last Chances.

An industrial city swollen with refugees, Ilmar is truly a melting pot. Or, it was—before the war. Three years prior, Ilmar fell to the Palleseen Sway. Since then, their heavy-handed occupation has begun to chafe. Religion of any kind is forbidden in the Sway, and all priests and clerics are rounded up and summarily executed. Only after their faith is decanted and used to eliminate their deities.

Language is censored as well, with Palleseen officially replacing all other tongues as the staple in businesses, schools, and streets. The Pals seek perfection in all things, and under their rule all the messy differences of the world shall become one.

There are two exceptions, however, problems that the Pals are desperate to snuff out. The first, is the Anchorwood: a once great forest now reduced to but a single grove. This copse holds the secret of another place, for when the moon is full and the shadow of the trees stretches to its greatest point the boscage becomes a portal to another place—an escape for those desperate, or an opportunity for those ambitious enough to take it. Somewhere, on the other side of this portal, lies a city. A realm set at the edge of the world. Or maybe, set on an entirely different world entirely. This place is the home of the Indwellers—and it’s a place the Sway will do anything to reach. Except the path is not an easy one, and is inhabited by monsters—which can only be held at bay through the use of highly specialized wards, which are both rare and expensive.

When a Palleseen higher-up dies in the Anchorwood, there’s more than enough blame to go around. Specifically the whereabouts of his stolen ward and the thief that took it. Also, there is the issue of his assistant—who fled the Wood, followed by a certain kind of monster only found in nightmares. The two were last seen headed towards the Reproach: the second of Ilmar’s dirty secrets.

Where the Anchorwood is a portal to another place full of monsters, the Reproach is a homegrown monstrosity. A borough of Ilmar corrupted and cursed, a place even the Pals fear enough to avoid so much as mentioning it. But now an expedition is assembled to rescue the assistant and (hopefully) retrieve the wards. Only these two acts can hope to right the ship before the city boils over. But only a fool, a wretch, or a madman would venture willingly into the Reproach. Luckily, If it’s one thing that Ilmar has a surplus of, it’s the desperate.

There has always been a darkness in Ilmar. You cannot live with those neighbors without taking something of the dark between the trees into you.

At some point in the middle of this, I had to stop and try to remember what the heck the plot was. In general, this isn’t a good thing, but in this case it was. Or rather… it wasn’t bad. Especially because I couldn’t recall and just had to go back to reading. City of Last Chances is a thoroughly immersive and enjoyable fantasy escape—no matter what’s going on. And there’s a lot.

Between the impending revolution and the dead bigwig there’s actually a lot. The missing wards and the resulting search plays a large role, but there’s tension in Ilmar that has nothing to do with either. Distrust and resentment abound between the factions of the city; the factory workers, the students, the various faithful, those that have given in to the Sway, the gangs and underworld, the refugees, and more. Then there’s the Anchorwood—a nice little twist, that. That on its own makes this a great story, but when you add the Reproach—that’s a wrinkle that helps turn this from a good story to a great one. There’s just so much chaos, so much going on, so many desperate and so much desperation to go around that you never know what’s going to happen next. Indeed, it’s like that with the characters too; for a while I assumed we’d never have the same POV twice, but it’s not like that. It’s just Tchaikovsky establishing that anyone can die at anytime, so don’t get too attached to anyone.

This book is so well written, and there are so many good quotes—so many!

She screamed, and Lemya was screaming too—not in pain but at him. Because this was a rescue, and if there was a Rule One of rescuing, it was not to shoot the rescuee.

While City of Last Chances is a standalone at the moment, there’s so much here that Tchaikovsky could very easily churn out a couple of sequels—either direct or set in the same world—based on the Reproach or the Anchorwood, or even the Sway and its efforts. That said, if you’re new to the author maybe don’t expect it to come to this. I mean, it might, but he writes so much standalone stuff that I wouldn’t expect it. So try to take this novel as it is: a tremendous tale set in an illustrious and darkly imagined world, full of interesting and relatable characters—…who might all perish at a moment’s notice.

It’s true, there’s very little that feels certain in this novel. The characters, the setting, the events; with everything liable to change at a moment’s notice, it lends a real sense of impermanence to everything, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it certainly distracts from the getting invested in any one particular character’s story, what it does is provides a feeling of desperation to every action, every move. As if it were really the character’s last chance. Maybe not ideal for a fun adventure, but just the kind of thing for a dark fantasy set in a desperate city.

TL;DR

From its characters to its setting, its plot to its setup, its events to its darkness, to all its amazing quotes—City of Last Chances is Adrian Tchaikovsky at his best. A tense, immersive, and often political fantasy that doesn’t get too political, nor too fantastical—though it certainly has its moments, such as the copse of trees that becomes a portal when the moon is full, or the section of the city possessed by an unknown entity from the city’s past. It’s a dark, industrial fantasy done right; the right amount of fantasy, the right amount of realism, and certainly enough escapism to get truly lost in—even if you lose track of what exactly is going on. I can’t recommend this one enough, and can only hope that this signals a turn for the coming future Tchaikovsky novels.

All of Our Demise – by Foody & Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #2

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; August 30, 2022

468 pages (hardcover)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for All of Us Villains!

• All of Us Villains – Review •

The Blood Veil has fallen.

The tournament to decide the fate of high magic continues. Two contestants now lie dead. Three are united in their attempt to end the practice once and for all. And two more stand to oppose them.

Alastair Lowe has become the greatest monster in Ilvernath once again. Following the reappearance of his brother, the destruction of his family, and the death-curse that plagues him—he has taken on an otherworldly pallor, to go along with his sparkling personality. Still reeling from the betrayal of the girl he loved, he must alter his alliances and his perceptions if he wants to remain in the game.

Briony has done everything to get here—here, where she can make a difference. Be the hero. But with her plan in shambles and her alliances frayed, she faces an impossible choice: continuing on the noble course will most likely find her dead, while reverting to the original one will surely see all her friends dead. Not a great option.

Ilvernath itself cannot hide from the terrors anymore. With the champions now able to enter the town, most residents have barricaded themselves at home, venturing forth only for emergencies. And there is a killer on the loose. Someone siphoning the life magic of anyone unlucky enough to be out past dark. Could it be the boy whose own life is waning? Or the tournament’s darkest monster? The resurrected boy? Or the girl who would do anything to be the hero?

Anything can happen as the tournament draws to a close.

“You should know by now—all the fucked-up fairy tales in Ilvernath are true.”

All in all, a good conclusion to the duology. With the Blood Veil fallen, the story is now open to a whole new range of options absent from the first book. They could transition from the landmarks to the town itself. They could, say, go interact with the families that put them here. They could leave the area entirely—though with the knowledge that the high magic of the tournament will probably kill them all when the Blood Veil descends. Or they could interact with (and/or siphon life force) any of Ilvernath’s citizens, in a desperate attempt to help them win/finish the tournament once and for all.

And it works, mostly. The interactions between the champions has always been a strong point, something that continues throughout Book #2. Now that alliances have shifted (and are constantly tested) and new variables have entered the fray, there’s more at stake than ever before. And more that has to be sorted out among those with the most to lose.

“How does it look?”
“I mean, you’re still cursed,” Gavin said.
“Great. Thanks. I had no idea.”

As before, I again most enjoyed the Big 3—Alastair, Isobel, and Gavin—as Briony continued to rub me the wrong way. And yet that may have been the point all along. As Briony continued to fray throughout Book #2, I actually found the effect as humanizing her to a point she’d never have admitted before. Alastair himself was a bit inconsistent in this part (more on that in a sec), so I ultimately found myself more invested in Gavin and Isobel’s stories. Fortunately the two represent both sides in the conflict, so it all worked out well. Four main characters, two on each side—you don’t have to like everyone for it to work out.

The romance was the biggest letdown of the whole story. And not just because it was a typical love-triangle, will-they won’t-they, romeo-and-juliet, fight-to-the-death kinda thing with all the tropes competing with one another for the lead. Instead, it all came down to the one with the curls. And whether he would pick the fiery girl, or the golden boy. To be honest, it seemed a bit like each author was fronting their own opinion. Like they hadn’t discussed it in advance. Instead the two were competing to win the third’s heart. Which honestly doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, except that someone has to write the third’s POVs, all while remaining impartial to whom they choose. Which they didn’t. And when this love interest went back-and-forth—sometimes dramatically and unexpectedly so—it distracted from, you know, the whole fight to the death. Or the fight to break the curse.

TL;DR

A satisfying, if not absolutely perfect, conclusion to the duology, All of Our Demise definitely combines a death-curse and a love-triangle, a serial killer and a would-be Lazarus, a united front and a divided house. I quite enjoyed half of the portrayals within—while falling out with one, I began to make up with the other. It continues to be a good format, and an interesting take on the Battle Royale genre. While the tournament itself continues to wow, the romance turns a bit stilted and begins to distract from the plot at large. I can’t wait to hear more from these two authors—either as they go off alone or stay together and weave more dramatic fantasy goodness!

One Dark Window – by Rachel Gillig

standalone

Fantasy, Gothic, Romance

Orbit Books; September 27, 2022

392 pages (paperback)

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DNF at 92 pages

As is usual for my DNFs, this will be a fairly quick review. If I don’t like something—unless it annoys or offends me on a truly rant-worthy level—my thoughts on it are typically pretty succinct. In this case, I just didn’t meld well with it. It never claimed my attention in the first place and then just couldn’t hold it as the pages began to turn.

I mean…

Well, this was an absolutely frustrating book. Strange, uneven pacing. A plot told in starts and stops. I never understood the cards, which were such a big part of the plot (in the beginning at least). I didn’t like the romance—which had barely even begun by the time I DNFed it.

I’ve seen an incredible variation in the ratings for One Dark Window among people that I know (and whose opinions I really, actually, somewhat care about). Among the rest of everyone—it’s a hit. Overwhelmingly praised, albeit with quite a few non-rating DNFs. If you read this to the end, odds are you’ll like it. Love it, even. But if you don’t love it, it probably won’t hold your attention.

I’m actually tempted to believe that there’s a decent read here, if you can find it. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t for me. And if I’m not enjoying something, I won’t push through it in search of what everyone else can see. I don’t see it—and that’s enough for me.

I can’t thank Orbit enough for—not only granting me access to a digital ARC—but also providing me with a lovely physical copy. Sorry I didn’t like it, but that’s the chance you take, I suppose. This particular copy will be donated to my local library so that it will hopefully fall into the hands of someone(s) who will give it the love that it deserves.

Tread of Angels – by Rebecca Roanhorse (Review)

novella / standalone (?)

Fantasy, Mystery, Novella

Gallery / Saga Press; November 15, 2022

208 pages (ebook)

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5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Gallery Books, Saga Press, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The year is 1883. Goetia is a boom town that draws the rich and poor, the ambitious and desperate, miners and prospectors, doves and demons alike in search of work, wealth, and a life to call their own. The town’s main source of income is not gold nor iron, silver nor lead, but Divinity. Goetia is a town gotten rich on mining the long dead corpses of angels and demons, fallen in the age old war that defined heaven and hell.

Celeste is a card sharp. Goetia’s native daughter, she grew up in the poorest slums but has since managed to make a name for herself, at least among some. She is also part Fallen herself, though she bears none of its marks. Something that would relieve Celeste, if not for their presence about her sister.

Mariel is a singer accused. Arrested and charged with the murder of a Virtue—law and morality enforcers who can trace their blood back to divinity as well, they despise the Fallen and their descendants purely on principle—Mariel is hauled off to a pit for execution, and it’s up to Celeste to save her. Something that may yet cost her more than just the life of her only sister.

Angels and demons, guns and dusters, corruption and ambition collide in Goetia—and it’s important to know: there are no innocents in this story.

Sadly, the mystery wasn’t terribly mysterious. As a whodunnit, it never really gets off the ground. There’s really only one person it could be and even the lead doesn’t really try to spread the blame overly long. From then it’s less of a who and more of a why. Unfortunately, this too is cleared up rather easily. Honestly, I found what happened next more entertaining than the entire mystery.

Not enough world building. The set dressing is nice enough, but the world behind is might as well be a cardboard cutout. There’s very little depth, and I’m entirely lost on much of the history and rules. Everything we know is what is told on the fly, as there’s nothing granted up front. It’s not exactly that every term or concept worth knowing has its own info-dump, however. Some things we’re just expected to figure out—but mostly, yeah, everything has its own info-dump.

Goetia reminds me of Landfall (the Boy with the Porcelain Blade). Just as Landfall is covered in a dense fog, anything outside of immediate purview in Goetia is ignored as unimportant. The outside world may as well not exist. Certainly don’t remember it being mentioned, except as a vague concept like, “I’ve stayed here too long, there’s an entire world to see”—but that’s it. I’m not getting any kind of sense of either the city or the world as a concept. They’re simply ignored unless absolutely pertinent to the story. I understand keeping the novella on track, but occasionally you can do that while giving the slightest peeks into the world beyond.

I could do without some of the references to Jesus, such as Calvary or Golgotha. In a world still reeling from an open war between heaven and hell, where angels and demons live openly alongside the humans, well, surely Jesus wouldn’t be a thing? They’re only really mentioned as descriptions, place names, but still. The story is listed as taking place in 1883—in the blurb—though this seems more about setting up the western narrative more than anything else.

Despite my criticisms of this book, I would actually be interested in seeing more of this world. Not the characters from Tread, however. I’m a fan of the angels and demons, western aesthetic. Tread of Angels reminded me quite a bit of Golgotha (from R.S. Belcher), only with a more openly biblical presence. Anyway, same concept, different story, different cast?—sure, I’m on board, let’s do this.

TL;DR

While I feel Tread of Angels—as a concept, at least—has promise, the novella itself came off a bit half-cocked. Actually, instead of the concept itself being solid—I’d say the proof of concept has promise. That’s because the chosen setting of Goetia falls a bit flat. It needs more world-building. Like, anything outside the story’s immediate purview. The entire outside world is ignored. I’m honestly not sure if it was entirely destroyed or just not designed in the first place. The mystery isn’t terribly mysterious, as the whodunnit quickly devolves into a whydunnit more than anything. The best thing I can really say about this is that as a read, it wasn’t bad. I moderately enjoyed the majority of the time I spent in Goetia, and while there’ll have to be a number of improvements to lure me back in the future, it is a world I would consider revisiting. But it needs work.

Nolyn – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Rise and Fall #1

Fantasy, Epic, High Fantasy

Grim Oak Press; August 3, 2021 (physical)
Riyria Enterprises; August 3, 2021 (ebook)

480 pages (ebook)

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9 / 10 ✪

After over 500 years spent in exile managing a salt mine, the heir to the Nyphronian Empyre has been reassigned—to the frontlines of the Goblin War. Nolyn is somewhat wary, as the wars have somewhat stalled over the centuries, and the front lines are not the safest place to be. He is further perturbed when the stronghold he is tasked with capturing turns out not to exist, and the route to it dead-ends in a canyon deep inside enemy territory. Now night is coming, and he and his men are trapped deep in the jungle with no backup.

All Nolyn knows is that it was the Emperor’s order that brought him here—it seems his father is trying to kill him.

Very effectively, one might add.

So when Nolyn walks from the jungle some days later, it’s not just a surprise. It’s a legend in the making.

Abandoned and hunted by the legion, Nolyn and his men must take the fight to the one place that will end it for good—the Emperor Nyphron himself.

“Need to kill the stupid weasel. He knows where we went, how many us there are…”
“You’re probably right,” Nolyn said. “But I’m not in the habit of killing innocent people.”
“Perhaps it’s a tradition you should consider adopting, now that you’re embarking on a life of crime and all.”

After the ups and downs of the Legends of the First Empire, I was both excited and concerned by this new trilogy exploring some of the most enshrined legends of Elan not discussed in the previous series. It could be great—like so much of the author’s works—or it could be terrible—like some few I dare not even mention.

Well, while I’ve heard some dissent from around the fantasy-sphere regarding Nolyn, I at least thoroughly enjoyed it.

The book starts out following two primary protagonists (though a third antagonist will be added later on to fill out their ranks) with a series of alternating POVs. The product of relations between a Rhune and a Fhrey, Nolyn is somewhat unique in the world—with only one other famed coupling producing a child. His friend and lover, Sephryn. Gee, I wonder who the second POV follows…

While you’ll know much of Nolyn’s story from the blurb, Seph’s is in many ways more intriguing. Blackmailed into stealing the Horn of Gylindora, Sephryn is in a no-win scenario, which is growing more dire by the day. While Nolyn’s journey will become legend, it’s Seph’s tale that will help sort the myths and legends from the cold, hard truth.

And from what I’ve seen, it’s really these characters that will make and break the book for you. If you’re a newcomer to the series: welcome! And don’t worry, you don’t have to know any of the backstory; it’ll be explained, just like any other. But if you’re familiar with the author’s prior work, this is where the trouble starts. See, for some people, I’ve heard that his first series—the Riyria Revelations—sets the bar, with Royce and Hadrian the gold-standard for fantasy characters. For others, this early duo was too polarizing, too rough around the edges, while his writing later showed more polish, if less heart.

I… can see both points. I thoroughly enjoyed Royce and Hadrian (particularly in their later appearances, like Death of Dulgath and the Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter) but am readily willing to admit that some of their adventures (especially Rose and Thorn and Crown Conspiracy) were a bit rough and underwhelming. Furthermore, I maintain a love-hate relationship (mostly though I hate them) with some of Sullivan’s later characters—especially Gifford, Roan, and Tesh—and didn’t enjoy either the Age of Swords or War. There was also a bit of distance to these characters. They didn’t have the same heart that the original duo had, though I felt their actions were more realistic that some of those from before. In addition, the final three books of that same hexalogy were tremendous, with the Age of Death remaining one of my favorite books ever. I just hope the tradeoffs are sufficient to cancel one another out, without proving divisive enough to distract from the story itself.

The problem remains that if you’re a continuing fan of the world of Elan, and you come into Nolyn prepared to compare its characters to others throughout the series’, well, you’re probably going to be disappointed by something. That said, if you’ve read as many of them as I have (like, all of them), that’s going to be very difficult to avoid.

So… well, I don’t have a good answer. While I initially compared Nolyn’s quest to both of the author’s sets of fellowships, at some point the story itself drank me in and I ended up forgetting about all that. Hopefully it will be the same with you; the story will drink you in, and you’ll end up having a wonderful time and looking for more. In this at least, one can hope.

To Blackfyre Keep – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

The Seven Swords #4

Epic, High Fantasy

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2022

147 pages (hardcover)

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9 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Subterranean Press @SubPress for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware minor spoilers for the Seven Swords Books #1-3!

Guyime, once named “The Ravager”, once famed king of the Northern Realms, carries on his search for the Seven Swords—for by uniting them as one he hopes to free himself from their curse, and save Seeker’s daughter while doing so.

Advised to aid the cause of a lovesick knight, the party ventures to Blackfyre Keep, a cursed ruin amidst the Northlands, where war and famine rage, and something even more dangerous lurks. This knight has been tasked with taking and holding the cursed keep for a year to win the hand of his lady love—a task that is thoroughly unfeasible even with the involvement of three of the demon blades.

But Guyime doesn’t plan on sticking around.

Only in finding and mastering the fourth sword can his quest continue, and he has a very strong suspicion that the blade he seeks is somewhere in the depths of Blackfyre Keep. They’ll just have to live long enough to claim it.

Cursed I am, but it was always a useful curse.

So, by Book #4 we pretty much know what we’re going to get from this series. There’ll be a demon-cursed sword, some amazing locale to house it—like a hidden tomb, a cursed keep, a stratified city, a god’s chamber—someone to wield it, and a competition to claim it. If you were expecting something different—well, you’re out of luck.

What you see is what you get. Though not everyone might survive to see it.

There’s something quite nice about that, if I’m honest. I don’t have to worry overly about my favorite characters dying, I don’t have to worry about catching every aspect of the plot, I can just sit back and take it all in. Because I absolutely adore the world of the Seven Swords, and would read pretty much any story set in it. With such a simple and straightforward plot that’s basically episodic by now, it frees up Anthony Ryan to dream up new and more fantastical elements of his world than ever before. If you’ve accompanied me to Book #4 then you’ll know what I mean.

So, we have an episodic book and the expectation of another sword by the end of it. What’s next?

I’d argue the adventure itself takes priority. And the adventure here is a good one. It’s not perfect, by any means (one can only bottle lightning so many times, after all), but it’s another entertaining episode, where our heroes journey to a cursed keep and confront an ancient evil. Again, there’s some travel time in the beginning, so we get yet another glimpse at the incredible world the author has dreamt up. There is mystery, there is tension, there are military and horror and supernatural elements threading through a wonderful fantasy tale.

As with the other Seven Swords installments, Blackfyre Keep is light on details (the review copy I received was only 147 pages), which—while you’d expect that from a novella—I found just a bit more shallow than the others in sequence. The title “To Blackfyre Keep” is telling, as that’s the destination. In the other installments our party spent time searching upon the way, but here (apart for a single brief exception) we head straight to the keep before the story really begins.

TL;DR

If you’ve arrived at this point in the Seven Swords, you should know how this works. A place, an enemy, a sword to claim. A challenge in claiming it. It’s pretty much that simple. While episodic, it’s another investing adventure with an entertaining story and interesting characters. Though the world doesn’t feel as interactive as in past installments, the world around remains as detailed and immersive as before, with wondrous locations and terrifying scenes. Not much more I can say about this. If you’ve reached this point of the series, you’re sure to enjoy this one. If you haven’t—I guess you won’t be reading it anyway. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to pick up the series—I’d say yes, but I guess you could always just wait it out and binge them all at once. Got another 2-4 years wait, in that case. Easier to just start now, eh?

Note: The Subterranean Press version is doubtless a work of art in itself, but the entry point is $40, which, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t pay for a novella, regardless of how good it is. Still though, if you fancy a piece of history, might I suggest the Lettered Edition? Preorders are up for this $300 book. Otherwise, perhaps the ebook version? It usually retails for $3-5.

All of Us Villains – by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #1

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; November 9, 2021

386 pages (hardcover)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. And the Tournament looms.

Each generation the Blood Moon heralds the start of a new Tournament, as each of the seven families of Ilvernath compete for the ability to control the wellspring of High Magic thought to be gone from the world.

Each and every tournament is distinct for one reason or another, while somehow staying the same. But this year is different. This year—thanks to a revealing new book—the entire world now knows about the tournament, thrusting the seven families (and their champions) into the spotlight.

Isobel Macaslan—the first to be named, the belle of the media—hasn’t had her photo out of the press for the last year. Though the extra publicity gives an added boon before the tournament, this success doesn’t mean anything once the Blood Veil falls.

Briony Thorburn has trained her entire life to be champion—it’s the only life she knows, or wants—but when a last second change threatens her plans, will she be able to deal with the shock of it? Or will her actions mean the death of them all?

Carbry Darrow—the youngest of champions—isn’t expected to be much of a threat, but should he find the confidence within him, he just may surprise everyone.

Elionor Payne might not be the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, but it’s a close thing. She’s out to prove herself and win her family some praise, one body at a time.

Finley Blair—perfect, handsome, charming, every inch a storybook hero—might not be able to charm his way to victory, but he can get down and dirty should the need arise. And it certainly will.

Alistair Lowe is the favorite. Born and bred to win the tournament, he heralds from the most famous of the families; the Lowes win the tournament every two out of three times it’s held. Everyone knows he’s the greatest monster, the one to beat—even if he does have to keep reassuring himself.

Gavin Grieve rounds out the field. That’s the most that can be said about the final champion. A Grieve has never won the tournament, something everyone is keen to remind him—but Gavin aims to be the first. And not just because he doesn’t want to die yet. But as an afterthought of the competition, he is woefully equipped compared to the others. If he wants to win, he’ll have to do something stupid and desperate—though at least it’s not a difficult choice.

Six will die young, but one will rise above them. Only question is—is anything worth it?

There is was.

If he did this, he’d be restricting his magick usage for the rest of his life. But if he didn’t go through with it, the rest of his life would probably be a lot shorter anyway.

All of Us Villains is yet another fantasy thriller in the Battle Royale sub-genre, but this time with magic! So, teenagers battle to the death because why not. Got it. So… just from the prompt, this seemed a bit blah, but several reviewers I follow loved it, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Sometimes it’s all down to timing. Other times, it’s just taste.

This was a perfect combination of the two. For me, at least.

It’s going to sound a bit strange, but I found the pacing to be one of the best parts of this read. It sped up and slowed down from time to time, but always managed to do so at just the right moments, so that it never felt like the story was rushing out or grinding along. It was just always… there. You know how life happens at its own pace? It was like that. There were fast moving, adrenaline-induced parts that roared along, followed by crash sections where time seemed to be inching along while the characters got over the high. There were slower sections of talking and transition which all too suddenly turned to violence in an instant. It all felt… realistic. The tournament playing out over weeks instead of in the span of “days that feel like years”—a phrase which you all know I hate seeing.

The second great strength of All of Us Villains is its characters.

Now, all are profoundly flawed individuals—horrible people that react in terrible ways based on the fact that they’re young and immature, born and bred to fight in tournament that will no doubt claim their lives even if they have the fortune to survive it. And as such, they do some terrible things. But they’re also capable of great compassion, understanding, and empathy. It just comes out kinda weird what with the fact that they’re simultaneously attempting to murder one another. They’re not exactly realistic per say, but… realistic in the way that one can only be when they’ve been told their entire lives that they’ll be forced to fight a bunch of their friends to the death so that their family can reap the rewards.

I couldn’t honestly tell you who my favorite character was… though I consistently enjoyed both Gavin and Isobel’s POVs in a way I didn’t Briony’s. It’s not like Bri was a worse person—I’m not sure there were any “better” or “worse” characters (other than possibly Finley, who did not have his own POV)—I just found her a bit too arrogant for my tastes. Alistair kinda split the difference, showing both an unexpected empathy and a surprising cruelty just when I thought he’d turned one corner or the other. Just those four POVs: Alistair, Briony, Isobel, and Gavin. It never felt overwhelming with the POVs, or the scope, as each POV simply showed a different perspective into the tournament.

The story was not without its flaws, just… these were far outweighed by its strengths. Far, far outweighed.

TL;DR

All of Us Villains features a cast resplendent with the villainous, the vain, the wrathful, and the bloodthirsty. They may not all be monsters, but most come close. If you’re after a story with distinct lines between good and ill—this isn’t it.

This asks you to pick the best of a bad situation—and then pick again, as that person will almost surely die first. It may not feature any saints, but it does tell a lovely story with a definitely dark twist. A somewhat new (if not wholly unique) take on the Battle Royale sub-genre that has overtaken the world, All of Us Villains mostly succeeds through it being a damn good read, with excellent pacing, and believable—if horribly flawed—characters. In fact, I’d argue that their obvious flaws make them even more believable, if not relatable. While you might not love this quite as much as I did, I hope you’ll trust me when I say it’s worth a try. I’d very much recommend Part #1 of this duology, continuing in All of Our Demise, out just recently here in 2022.

Perfect Shadow – by Brent Weeks (Review)

Night Angel #0.5

Fantasy, Novella

Orbit; November 7, 2017

131 pages (hardcover)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

Gaelan Starfire is a farmer, a husband, a father—and an immortal, a man who’s seen countless lifetimes, and is peerless in the arts of war. In past lifetimes he’s been a leader of men, a war hero, a villain, a rebel, a tyrant.

In this life he is no one.

Was. Was no one.

When his wife and daughter are killed, Gaelan takes an assignment assassinating assassins for the beautiful crimelord Gwinvere Kirena, in order to escape. But it turns out that this escape may cost him more than he bargained for.

Yet, it may also provide Gaelan with the answers he desperately seeks.

This was to be my first kill for hire. It’s good to start with the impossible. Make a name for myself. Enter with a splash.

A bit light on details, but a lot more depth than I’d expect out of the common backstory novella—no wonder it turned out longer than the author had planned. The tale of Gaelan Starfire includes twists and turns, ups and downs, but only the one lifetime (though there are glimpses of more beyond). If you liked the Night Angel trilogy—or even didn’t; I was on the fence, personally, and only ended up reading Book #1—this is a nice piece of lore to pick up, as it explains so much that is just taken for granted in Way of the Shadows.

I haven’t read a book in the series in several years, but had no trouble getting immersed in the world. In fact, even after finishing Perfect Shadow (which took me about a day), I still only remember glimpses of Book #1: the world, the ending, and… that’s about it. The point is that this novella can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the series, though if you have read some of it, this adds a bit more depth to your understanding.

There’s also a short story included: I, Nightangel—which fills in… not much, honestly. I found it a bit worthless and ended up skimming it. So, the novella itself I’d rate at 8/10 ✪—while the short story maybe 4ish. Luckily, the main event is the novella itself, so I only ended up docking half a star for this, as the reason you buy the novella is for the, you know, novella.

TL;DR

If you’ve read any of the Night Angel trilogy, or are curious to do so, I’d definitely recommend Perfect Shadow. It’s a good judge of whether or not the trilogy would be right for you. I’m not certain that the short story is included in the ebook version—according to the Amazon page, it is, but the hardcover edition claims it isn’t supposed to be.

Black Heart: Words on Wind, Adrift on Dreams of Splendor – by Mark Smylie

Black Heart #1 / Artesia #2

High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-published; February 21, 2022

235 pages (ebook)

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Please beware minor spoilers for the Barrow.

Give them a chance to be cruel, and they will love you for it.

You know, for a book I never thought I’d read, Black Heart: Part 1 was pretty damn good. Fresh off a reread of the Barrow, it was good to drop back into that same niche, the groove, and explore more of the highly detailed, immersive world of Artesia. While Part 1 is mostly used for building the coming story, there are a few things I’d like to note.

Other than sex, the same formula as the Barrow
There was no graphic sex or mention of cocks until nearly the two hundred page mark! It was weird. Luckily Smylie squeezed one scene in before the close of Part 1, so if you were only reading this one for the lurid fantasies—take hope!
If instead you were reading it for story- and world-building, yeah, there’s a lot of that. Black Heart uses the same formula that the Barrow did before it. Namely, a bleak starting location, heavy on the action, then a break to build the world and splay the threads wide.

Not a whole lot of repeated POVs.
As a buildup for the rest of the book to follow, Part 1 skips around a lot after leaving Stjepan and Erim outside Devil’s Tower. The story begins right after the events depicted in the Barrow, as the adventurers continue on, searching for Gause Three Penny as they hinted they might at the end of the last book. We spend a bit there, but following their departure, the overall plot zooms out a bit. POVs include the Nameless, the Guilds, the Council, the Lords and Ladies of the city, and another special guest.

Despite the time it took, it’s still the same Artesia
I confess to being a little worried the world would’ve changed after such a long absence. But as I read the Barrow right before this I can tell you for certain that it was just like stepping out of one story and into the next. The world around doesn’t change, nor does the immersion—so it’s back into the breach right away, just like no time has passed.
I’ve never read the graphic novels, but this was the same world I remember from Book #1, no problem.

It’s a good start to Book #2
When it comes right down to it, this is what matters. Whether the story is good or not. And, well, it is. The pacing is a bit slow at times, as we have to read through several new characters while the author builds up the world, but otherwise I had no complaints. Can’t recommend the entire thing yet as I haven’t read it all. But from what I’ve seen thus far, there was no reason to worry!

Coming next, Black Heart: Part II: In the Coils of a Horned Serpent!