Phoenix Extravagant – by Yoon Ha Lee (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Alt History

Solaris; October 20, 2020

416 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Gyen Jebi isn’t a warrior or leader. They just want to paint.

But as the native child of an occupied territory, the future of their country, their people may depend on them and what they choose to do.

And yet it all starts when they forsake their heritage, donning a foreign name so that they might become a ministry artist—comfortably housed and paid—just so they might paint to their heart’s content. But instead of the Ministry of Art, the test instead lands them a job at the mysterious Ministry of Armor, where they are set to painting the curious symbols used to animate the Razanei’s fearsome automata.

In one stroke Jebi is cut off from their friends, their family, their life before—and ensconced in the Ministry’s fortress, where they learn to create and paint that which keeps their people in bondage. But the methods used are too horrifying even from them to imagine, which prompts Jebi to answer a question about themselves—will they emerge from the shadows and try to lead their people into the light, or will they instead focus on their art, the only thing they’ve ever wanted?

Phoenix Extravagant combines a unique magical system, an automated dragon of infinite potential, a beautiful by deadly duelist, and a rather bland artist that would rather fame had simply passed them by.

I actually really enjoyed Phoenix Extravagant, something that I would not’ve expected after the first 50-odd pages. The lead Jebi is a bit bland, really. A bit sheltered from the world, a bit caught up in their head, a bit off, odd. Not the best narrator (at least I would’ve sworn early on).

Only Jebi turns it around. As they grow more deeply embedded in Razanei society, so too do they develop as a character, as someone capable of telling a full story alone while maintaining an interesting lead.

In general, the world-building wasn’t terribly creative. The Hwaguk people were obviously styled after Korea, with the Razan invaders from a nearby archipelago were clearly Japan. The Chinese were mentioned too, but only in passing, and I didn’t take note of their pseudonym. If you weren’t aware, Korea and Japan have a… complex relationship, at least historically. And as Japan has previously annexed Korea (particularly during the early twentieth century, roughly the time this novel takes place), there’s certainly a historic precedent.

There’s actually quite a lot of historical parallels thrown around in this. In general I found these to be interesting parallels, though they also cheapened the novelty of the world-building (especially as the “westerners” are just called “westerners”). While the dynamic between the Hwaguk and Razan dominates, others include the isolationism in reference to the rest of the world, and the depiction of the West as something mysterious but to be feared and hated (not that they were wrong there).

Here’s a quick history lesson. If you’re interested, confused, bored, or Ola—read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead a couple (or three) paragraphs .

Korea was known (in the West, primarily) as the “Hermit Kingdom”. For centuries the various Chinese dynasties were seen as the major influencer over Korean politics since even before the Goryeo Dynasty, when it was basically viewed as a tributary state of China under the Yuan and Ming dynasties. This balance shifted during the Joseon period, when the dynasty adopted a severe policy of isolationism in an attempt to keep both China and Japan from meddling too much in their affairs, as both nations favored adding Korea to their empire. But late in the life of the Joseon matters came to a head.

Now I’m going to oversimplify things a bit more. See, there was this peasant rebellion in Korea. The Joseon was late in life at this point, and things weren’t going particularly well. They panicked and requested help from China (the Qing sent aid to what they viewed as their “tributary state”). Japan, angry about the troops that entered Korea from China (as they thought it broke a treaty between the two), sent an army of their own. The rebels were defeated, but neither China nor Japan wanted to leave. Eventually it led to war. A war which Japan won, and China conceded a number of things including, essentially, the right to colonize Korea. The Joseon Empress didn’t much care for this, and attempted to strengthen ties with Russia in order to kick Japan out. Japan, in turn, had her assassinated. Then forced the Emperor to end the Dynasty and form a new government, ripe for colonization by Japan. Something which they did not long after.

So, there’s been a long history of contention between the two. [Historically] Korea hated Japan because they… well, there’s a whole lot of reasons, but it’s mainly the colonization, mistreatment, and the comfort women (you’ll have to google that one—I’m not explaining it). [Historically] Japan hated Korea because of ethnic tensions, inauspicious events, and just a whole host of other reasons. Enough to say that both have their reasons and leave it at that. Since this time, obviously there’re the attempts by the Japanese to ignore some of the things they did during World War II—which is a bit like being a Holocaust denier in Europe—which I’m not getting into either.

There are a number of creative changes made to the history throughout, notably the magic, automata, the gender and identity bias (or lack thereof), and the cultural norms. I quite enjoyed the direction the author went with the magic and automata, though sometimes even it seemed a bit too fanciful to be believed. Even with the obvious historical parallels, the magic system is unique and interesting enough to carry the book. But it doesn’t hurt that the story is really good, either.

The story tells somewhat conflicting tales of how individual choice and freedom affects everyone around you, and the freedoms and sacrifices of following your own path and doing what you believe is right, rather than obeying someone else’s dream instead. While all of this adds up to a very serious book, Phoenix Extravagant’s humor turns the book into something quite different: a fantasy with not one, but several possible lessons, and several possible outcomes cropping up along the way.

“Jebi,” she said, “this is like when you were four and you thought laundry magically happened.”

Jebi opened their mouth to protest that they’d helped with the laundry, then remembered “helping” had consisted of running around shrieking with glee while pulling underclothes off the line and flinging them about.

TL;DR

While Phoenix Extravagant does a good many things right—such as telling an entertaining story filled with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking premise and plot—it is let down by a somewhat uninspired display of world-building, an odd mixture of humor and intensity, and moments in the second half of the text that feel either fanciful or bizarre. I appreciated not only the story, but the multiple ways it could’ve been interpreted—even as many historic parallels can be drawn between this story and that of our own. The tale’s own message about one’s personal choices—on gender, culture, identity—are surely influenced by the author themselves, but Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t seem to lead the reader in any one direction. This story is about Jebi first and foremost—and dragons, magic, war, love, and loyalty second.

Minor Mage – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Standalone

Novella, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Red Wombat Studio; July 30, 2019

185 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Oliver is a minor mage. Though only 12, he’s the town mage of a backwater hamlet, one that has seen no water in quite too long. Therefore they’ve dispatched Oliver and his armadillo familiar to the distant Rainblade Mountains to bring back rain. Armed with his three spells—one of which controls his armadillo allergy, another that ties people’s shoelaces together—he sets off with only the vaguest idea of what awaits him.

What follows is a rollicking adventure filled with peril, sarcasm, armadillos, and times when it’s perfectly alright to miss your mother. It also teaches a valuable lesson about not overextending oneself and keeping armadillos as pets.

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

During a year like this one, full of deceit, jealousy, plague, anxiety, mayhem and more—it is good to have a nice, charming tale every now and then. Not that Minor Mage is always cuddly and cute. Yes, it has its moments of adorability, but it’s also a tale of reality, friendship, and coming of age. All told with an offhand humor that belies the danger lurking around every corner, often in stiff contrast to the drought, death, and darkness all around. While it is definitely told in Vernon’s distinct voice, mixing dark sarcasm, light cheer, reality and more, the wit and sarcasm has an almost Pratchett-esque feel at times (which is really the highest praise I can give it), without ever becoming anything too comic or glib. (Now if you were unaware that T. Kingfisher is actually just Ursula Vernon… spoilers, I guess?)

Whether it be “screaming bone harps”, “cheeping baby armadillos”, or “possessed potatoes”—the story delivers some frightfully odd one liners, that somehow turn out to be the most normal thing in the world later on. Well, maybe not the MOST normal thing.

All in all, I found Minor Mage to be one of the most lovely stories I’ve read this year, not lessened any by the fact that it is a children’s tale. While I was slightly put off by the ending (more when it ended, rather than the way it did), there’s still more than enough for me to recommend it, even if you aren’t one to usually go for Middle Grade.

TL;DR

While it’s not a deep dive into fantasy, Minor Mage is a welcome distraction from the world for however brief it is. Filled with interesting characters, light (and occasionally dark) humor, life lessons, and a very real sense of adventure—it’s the tale you didn’t know you needed quite as bad as you did.

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Again, I adore the cover, courtesy of Jenny Zemanek.

Yarnsworld #3

Dark Fantasy, Horror, Fantasy

Createspace Publishing; October 17, 2017

286 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

When Arturo was a small child, his mother used to tell him stories of the Mistress of the Wilds, of the Black Shepherdess, but especially of the Bravadori of Espadapan. The Bravadori were painted as the Queen’s heroes, protectors of the weak and innocent, saviors of the helpless, monster slayers extraordinaire. As he grew, Arturo always dreamt of becoming one of their number. Occasionally, Bravadori traveled to his father’s estates in search of coin and renown. Upon seeing them, Arturo knew his path was set. He trained hard and dreamed big, until one day he developed his very own Knack in sword-fighting. One day he was finally ready. Packing his blade and mask, Arturo set out for the City of Swords—and destiny.

Yet upon finally reaching Espadapan, Arturo learns that his heroes are nothing like the heroes his mother painted them as. Selfish and ignoble, the masked vigilantes are nothing more than thugs, running unchecked through the city. Unwilling to give up his dream so easily, still Arturo attempts to join their ranks. He is repeatedly mugged, mocked, and beaten. But when he hears tell of bandits terrorizing a nearby village, hope swells in Arturo. For while these swordsmen were nothing like he’d imagined, surely they would line up to defend those oppressed, like he’d seen them do as a boy. And Arturo would finally join their number, defeat the bandits and forge his own legend. Together with a disgraced Bravador and an honorless swordsman, Arturo sets out once more—for destiny.

Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld mixes dark fantasy with faerie tales, adding a splash of horror for taste, and adventure for the heck of it. While his debut—They Mostly Come Out At Night—divided me on its effectiveness at combining all four, I assumed that with experience and practice he could hammer out most of those imperfections.

Which he has.

Sadly, it’s not yet perfect, but still a marked improvement upon his earlier work. The POV characters of City of Swords—split three ways between Arturo, Yizel and Reuben—each could solo the story, as all three are strong, fleshed out leads, with depth, backstories, and even development. Unlike Come Out At Night, these characters delivered. Thoughtful, entertaining, and ambitious, I was never sure who was on whom’s side, as each showed mixed loyalties and complex emotions. They felt human in a way that no one did in Yarnsworld #1.

As before, the faerie tales play as interludes between each chapter, something that both entertained and annoyed me in equal parts. Sometimes it was an extra bit of vital lore, but other times it was a distraction from the plot at hand. While most of the time I appreciated the extra bits of world-building, I really could’ve done without them between EVERY chapter.

While the format annoyed me, the aspect of was most torn on was that of the world-building. The initial setup—the land and its backstory—was just lazy. It’s a carbon-copy of the New World exploration by Spain (or, well, most European powers), complete with Spanish-sounding names and places. That being said, the New World is just a backdrop for the tale. While the faerie tales bring the world to life. Admittedly, I’m not too well versed in faerie tales. I’m familiar with some of the most popular ones, and have a working knowledge of folklore from all over the place. Anyway, these tales seem pretty unique to me. And they really help bring the story to life.

I was caught up picturing the masked Bravadori when Arturo first arrived in the City of Swords, and felt his disappointment as if it were my own. I actually shook upon reading through the Black Shepherdess tale, and she haunted my dreams that night. I could hear her wails, her cries; feel the ash as it fell from the sky; the world itself seemed to grow darker when she blacked out the sky. These faerie tales aren’t just good reproductions, they’re incredibly raw and vivid, dark and haunting and… well, REAL. They feel real. Really real.

TL;DR

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords may be a mouthful, but the where the title draws on, the story itself manages to be gripping, dark, and packed with detail. The number one strength of Yarnsworld continues to be its faerie tales, which alternately had me awed or shaking depending on which terrible or heroic figure was being portrayed. Where They Mostly Come Out At Night fell flat, City of Swords delivered with its characters, its language, and its realism. Though the format of including a faerie tale between every chapter ofttimes annoyed me, I also usually appreciated the dark, interesting snippets of lore they provided. It’s a good, dark read just in time for Halloween. More importantly, City of Swords tells a completely different tale from any of the others found in Yarnsworld, so there’s no reason you can’t just skip right to it. I’d definitely recommend this one, and look forward to continuing my trip through the Yarnsworld saga!

The Shattered Crown – by Richard (R.S.) Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic

Headline; April 22, 2014

391 pages (Paperback)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

The second book of the Steelhaven trilogy, the Shattered Crown carries all the weight of the previous installment, but does a much better job of handling it. All POVs return—save one: River’s tale has taken him outside the city and gets little exposure because of it—and even adds an additional character to the mix. While I felt that all the POVs weighed down Herald of the Storm, affecting both its pace and flow, the Shattered Crown rolls along much more smoothly, telling an action-packed story of love, hope, and betrayal.

Janessa now wears the Steel Crown. With few real allies and no real confidants, she is untried and untested. Yet with the Horde looming on the horizon, she must mature quickly. But will the girl become a Queen, or will she burn along with her city, becoming little more than a footnote to history?

Though the shadow of war looms large, life in Steelhaven carries on. The citizens have a choice to make, however. Will they stand in defense for the city, or pin all their hope on mercy from Amon Tugha? It seems that Kaira, Nobul, Waylian and Regulus have all made their choice—but for Merrick, choice is an illusion. While he carries duty and responsibility now, he mind rebels at the very thought of it.

Rag simply wants to be protected. Amon Tugha, the Guild, even the Greencoats (the city guard)—she’s not picky. But due to her choices in Herald of the Storm, life seems more real and death more inevitable lately. And yet, even her choices will help shape the fate of the city. For the Horde is coming, and no city is greater than the sum of its parts.

Herald of the Storm stumbled straight out of the gate. Each of the first seven chapters introduce a new character. That means a whole lot of new faces and backstories to take in, and not a whole lot of opportunity to establish any kind of a rhythm. Now, while the Shattered Crown follows exactly the same equation—the first seven chapters, each with a different POV, though only one of them is truly new—it seems to go much more smoothly than before. I think it’s because we’ve become used to these characters. With a book under his belt, the author doesn’t need to introduce a whole new motivation and backstory for each one. Instead, it’s more—here’re your returning POVs, here’s what they’ve been up to since you saw them last. While it still makes for a slow start, it doesn’t seem nearly as clumsy as it did before.

As usual, this story revolves around its characters. Each (except Regulus) have had a book to flesh out. While I didn’t find each and every one as deep and intricate as the last, there were a few that surprised me with their depth and impressed me with their ability to keep the story moving. I found some, like Kaira and Regulus, to be little more than cut-outs to progress the story. Others, like Rag, Merrick and Janessa, impressed me. Still more, Waylian and Nobul, haven’t made up their minds yet. I’m quite curious to see what will happen in the series conclusion—will every character experience some kind of development? Nobul and Kaira have been pretty stagnant up to this point, with Janessa, Merrick and Rag carrying most of the developmental weight. Will everyone finally progress? Or will some regress? Or will they all just die when Amon Tugha finally gets to the city?

Oh yeah, some spoilers. Amon Tugha doesn’t actually GET to the city yet. I mean, everyone knows he’s coming, but the dude is taking his sweet time. So far we’ve spent two books building up to the epic battle, and I’m more than ready for it to begin. Truth is, I was ready for (and anticipating) it sometime in the Shattered Crown, only for that moment to never arrive. I’d say that’s the largest disappointment in store for would-be readers. But otherwise, nothing’s too bad.

TL;DR

The Shattered Crown picks up where Herald of the Storm left off, but succeeds where the previous entry often disappointed. The story is interesting and entertaining. It takes a darker turn than I was expecting, as if to remind you that Steelhaven isn’t a place of sunshine and posies. There’s action, suspense, intrigue. Love, drama, hope, betrayal. The character development needs some work, and the world-building might as well not exist outside of Steelhaven. But there’s very little outside to pay any mind to—little that relates directly to the story, at least. And the characters of the Shattered Crown are better than they were in Herald of the Storm, which gives me hope for Book #3. All in all, a good read, and a better follow-up to a lackluster debut.

The series concludes with Lord of Ashes.

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Seven Swords #2

Fantasy, Epic

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2020

136 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Second entry in the Seven Swords reunites us with Pilgrim and Seeker, fresh off their battle in the Execration against a mad god. While the Seeker remains shrouded in mystery, her path forward has become clear. She seeks a certain girl, sold into slavery, one that bears a striking resemblance to she herself. The Pilgrim however, has been unmasked. Guyime, known to history as the Ravager, seeks the Seven Swords—a collection of demon blades that imbue their wielders with power and unnaturally long life. A life that Guyime would escape.

But to do that he must travel to Carthula and claim the Kraken’s Tooth, a mythical sword said to be lodged in the heart of a long dead Kraken. Accompanying him on this fool’s errand are: Seeker, whose path seems to parallel his own, for now; a powerful sorceress from an equally powerful clan; and her’s father’s slave, a man that never forgets anything he’s ever learned. But will this trio be enough to help Guyime through a maze built from his worst nightmares and memories, or will this fellowship crumble once their quarry is in sight?

Other than the previous Pilgrimage of Swords, the Kraken’s Tooth has nothing to do with any of Ryan’s other work (that I know of, at least). As with the first, I wouldn’t’ve minded a full novel dedicated to this, though it works well enough as an installment of novellas. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, particularly those I’ve seen from the author, but these two have so far broken the mold. Kraken’s Tooth tells a complete story, with no skimping on plot or fantasy. It’s light on details, yet still manages to convey more than enough to paint the Seven Swords in vibrant colors. I had no issue getting into or following the story, and if anything even less imagining it. Any character development does suffer from the lack of material, with details such as interpersonal relationships, reliability or anything more than brief flashbacks are absent. The characters themselves might as well be mannequins, except for Guyime, who has overcome his stoicism from Book #1 and now just seems gruff and distant (and maybe Seeker, who I’m assuming is supposed to just be mysterious, though it’s difficult to tell).

Other than the character aspect, I had no problem getting through Kraken’s Tooth. There was more than enough action and adventure to entertain, while the story holds a political undertone and throws in a bit of mystery and drama that didn’t hurt either. And as I’ve already mentioned, the world is well rendered—with just enough detail left out that the Carthula I imagined likely won’t be the same as anyone else’s—while still getting the most important aspects of the story across. It may be imperfect, but I’d definitely recommend the Seven Swords to any fan of mainstream fantasy, epic, grimdark, and more. I can’t wait to read the next installment and see where the story takes us next!

The Seventh Perfection – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Novella

Fantasy, Scifi

Tor.com; September 22, 2020

160 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

Manet is having a rather bad day.

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

What Manet cannot do, however, is forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

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

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

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

Spellslinger #6

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 17, 2019

519 pages (Hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Age of Dread #3

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; August 6, 2019

491 pages (PB)

4.3 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Ink & Sigil – by Kevin Hearne (Review)

Ink & Sigil #1

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Del Rey; August 25, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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