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!

Spells for Forgetting – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Romance, Supernatural

Delacorte Press; September 27, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

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10 / 10 ✪

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

A mist-cloaked isle steeped in folklore and tradition, no one goes to Saiorse island to stay. Everyone who’s local already lives there, and the island doesn’t take well to outsiders. Despite this, hordes of tourists flock to the islet in fall to see the trees, to visit the Salt Orchard in all its autumn finery.

August Salt isn’t headed to Saiorse as a tourist, and he isn’t going there to stay. But it still feels like he’s headed home.

Decades before, August left Saiorse in the dead of night with his mother, never to return. The Orchard Fire—and the death of Lily Morgan—precipitated their departure, while another death results in August’s return. That of his mother, Eloise. No, August hasn’t come home to stay; he knows he isn’t welcome here, not after the night that provoked his departure. He’s come to bury his mother.

Emery Blackwood once dreamt of leaving the island, running away with August and exploring the world. But after the Orchard Fire, everything changed. Now Emery lives among the ashes of her former life. She runs a teahouse—as her mother did before her—and lives in her childhood home. It’s not the life she thought she wanted, but it is hers.

Now, fourteen years after that fateful day, Emery’s reality threatens to shatter once more. As August Salt once again walks Saiorse’s shores. She can’t look at him: his departure stole everything from her—her heart, her future, her best friend, almost her own father. But neither can she stay away: August is the only man she’s ever loved, and she’s dreamt of him ever since he left—his smell, his taste, his scent, his touch.

But August’s return affects more than just Emery, more than just the town—the island itself notices his arrival. And secrets that have remained buried for the last fourteen years will finally come to life.

There are spells for breaking and spells for mending. But there are no spells for forgetting.

I often mention how I’ll get so immersed in a book that literal hours pass without me noticing. I mean, it doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it’s both an amazing and surreal feeling—of belonging in a world that isn’t my own, but is one I can picture so vividly that I’m transported there.

I think you probably know where I’m going with this.

Spells for Forgetting is a story of true love—and, at the same time, a story of love unrequited. It is a book full of secrets and lies, of the possible and the impossible, of the supernatural and the unknown, of love and envy.

It is also an amazing read.

Saiorse Island is a fictional islet hidden in the shadow of Seattle, in Puget Sound. But it legitimately feels like an entire world on its own, instead of an enclave on the world’s edge. Sometimes a setting like this feels cramped, claustrophobic—but I never noticed that with this. Instead, Saiorse feels cozy, comfortable, and—although I’ve never lived within 500 miles of the ocean—it feels like home.

But for all its comfort, the mystery at the heart of Saiorse burns bright. The past, hidden in lies and steeped in the supernatural, has yet to come out, though one can feel that it desperately wants to. All it needs is a little push.

One thing that bothered me was the tale of true love—and in particular the side-plot of love unrequited. Because I’ve been in that spot before, and so it was so hard to read about it. Yet at the same time… Adrienne Young nailed it. That feeling: that some things are just predetermined, fated, and while they were meant to be for some others will just never have them. Something you cannot fight, though you will anyway.

The way that this bothered me… did not ruin the story. In fact, I think it made it better. It made the story feel more real, more tangible—in a way that it truly did not need. From the setting to the mystery to its characters to true love—it was a tale that hit close to home. Parts of it might have been difficult to read, but all of it was incredible.

TL;DR

I’m honestly having trouble expressing just how much I loved this novel. From the story, the setting, the characters—everything seems so much more than I can put into words. I even loved the romance, even though sometimes the thought of it hurt worse than heartbreak ever has the right to. I can’t recommend Spells for Forgetting enough, not just for creating a world you can get lost in, but for giving you a reason to return once you do.

The Winds of Khalakovo – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Lays of Anuskaya #1

Steampunk, Fantasy

Night Shade Books; March 8, 2011

464 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Behold the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya, a collection of windswept archipelagos off the continental shelf of Yrstania. Here eyries serve the Landed, windships bearing goods and passengers amongst the isles as trade connects each duchy in the sea. But it is not so simple as just that. And while the duchies are at peace for the time, this will not always be the case.

Indeed, when the Grand Duke and his retinue are murdered by an elemental spirit, dissent threatens to tear the Grand Duchy apart. The Maharraht—a fanatical fringe group with the indigenous Aramahn—are widely suspected, but not all see the two as distinct. In fact, most Landed do not.

Nikandr is the heir of Khalakovo, a collection of seven isles in the center of the Great Northern Sea. When the Grand Duke falls, and the Maharraht spread their message, he is tasked with finding and retrieving Nasim, the boy believed to be a conduit for the elemental spirit. But this is easier said than done, as Nasim is one of the Landless—and a child prodigy who often exists more in Adhiya than he does in the material realm.

But when Nasim turns out to be more than just a prodigy, Nikandr is left with an impossible choice. To turn the boy over to the Grand Duke’s heir, or to use Nasim to try to cure the wasting plague that has been ravaging the isles. Either way, war is coming, but on which side does Khalakovo fall? And what does it mean for Nikandr and the two women in his life, each representing a different would-be foe?

It’s been several years since I first read the Winds of Khalakovo, and even now when it comes to mind I picture a flurry of images. Of walrus-tusk shell casings and complex magic. Of windships coasting above rough seas, windswept eyries and rugged archipelagos. Of stratified society and torrid affairs. And of a plot I still don’t fully understand.

Now, everything gets a bit clearer after the second installment, but is that really what you want to hear from a new series? That after the second book, you’ll kinda understand a bit more of what was happening in the first book, even if you may not have at the time. No, right? And though WoK certainly wins points for a complex and intricate, highly political plot—it also loses points for the inability to grasp said plot, even by the time the story ends. I mean, at its base level, I understand the book. Find the kid before anyone else does. Save the cheerleader, save the world. But where the stability of the duchies, the wasting disease, the political and cultural hierarchies fit into everything didn’t completely fall into place until after more glimpses of the world.

On one hand, it’s nice that the book evokes a deeper and more significant meaning even after you finish it. That you can come back and enjoy its hidden complexities down the line, when you’re working through Book #2 and 3. But on the other hand, that you pretty much HAVE TO read Book #2 to understand just what is going on in Book #1 is ridiculous. It’s a bit like World War II. You can take a glance and understand that Nazis are bad, but once you get into the history of it—the futility of the Weimar Republic, the anger and resentment it created in the youth, the destabilization of world markets during the Great Depression—everything gets a bit more blurry. Now imagine that instead of starting with “this is a Nazi” introduction to WWII, you started with the fluctuation of the price of grain in 1920’s Eastern Bloc and the effect that had on the monarchies of Europe. I mean, you’ll reach the same destination in the end, but the journey there is remarkably different.

What can I say about the world-building, though? Rich and evocative, like an autumn breeze raising goosebumps along your arms as the lingering scent of wood-smoke fills your nose and you swear you can just taste cherry and apple cider even as you picture curling up in bed while a wicked wind whips through the darkened forest. I mean, it’s pretty much amazing. It’s everything I said in the opening paragraph and more. Wood and bone. Leather and ivory. Cinnamon and clove. Towering mountains and crashing seas. Airships and wind magic. Landed and landless. It’s… I can’t adequately explain how amazing I found the world-building. Very few worlds have ever drank me in quite like this one. That was why it hurt all the worse when I crashed out of it to puzzle out the plot.

The characters are mostly quite good. Very well written; complex, human, relatable—with one pretty glaring exception. But every story needs a villain, right? And often the villain’s motivations don’t have to make sense at first, that’s what hindsight and flashbacks are for. Nikandr, Rehada and Atiana are probably the strongest characters—which makes perfect sense, especially with the whole love-triangle going on. Ashan is remarkably strong considering he probably won’t be fully appreciated until the latter half of the tale, while Nasim is a bit weak, which again, is to be expected.

TL;DR

This is one where I completely want my opinion to be proven wrong. I want you to go out, pick this up, and love it. I want you to leave a glowing review, tell me how wrong I was. Only… I don’t really expect it. Over 1600 ratings on Goodreads, Winds of Khalakovo holds a 3.3 rating, meaning that it was firmly in the realm of Meh. Some people love the plot but hate the world. I loved the world, but was constantly infuriated with the plot. But I still want people to go out and read this—especially if you enjoyed the Shattered Sands, especially if you enjoy steampunk. What I absolutely do not want is for you to just look at the rating and then swear off reading it, for the world itself is an achievement that needs to be experienced. However, there is always more to read, and more out there for the enjoyment. And, at the end of the day, this just may be too divisive for that.

The story continues in The Straits of Galahesh, Book #2 of the Lays of Anuskaya.

The Oleander Sword – by Tasha Suri (Review)

The Burning Kingdoms #2

Fantasy, Romance

Orbit Books; August 16, 2022

480 pages (paperback)

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9 / 10 ✪

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

Once an exiled princess and maidservant met in the darkness, and love was born.

Now prophesied the nameless god’s heir to the throne, Malini comes to take her place as Empress of Parijatdvipa, a position her brother Chandra isn’t likely to relinquish without a fight. In fact, he’d much rather she his sister’s blood stain the grass than welcome her home. But while Malini continues to collect allies in her fight, her victory is far from assured. As long as Chandra still controls the imperial throne, the army will follow him. The priests of the mothers—dead set on Malini giving herself willingly to the flame—will never recognize her claim. And so, the closer she gets to the capital, the closer the Empire comes to all-out war.

A war Ahiranya wants no part of.

Scarcely a year after expelling Chandra’s forces from their borders, thrice-born Bhumika and Priya now rule the Hirana as Temple Elders. While Bhumika rules as the representative of the Yaksa, Priya remains on the periphery—attempting to combat and control the Rot. But between pressure from the former rebels and the creeping plague, they have their hands full. Even without a war on their doorstep.

Despite both their standings, Malini and Priya’s destinies are intertwined. So when her Empress eventually calls, Priya’s heart stutters at the very thought of a reunion. Yet a shadow lurks in the recesses of her heart. Has Malini called for her as her true love, or her greatest weapon—one to be used and cast aside when it is no longer needed?

But despite Priya’s best efforts, the Rot is spreading. And something moves in the deathless waters, something that she can sense, but cannot see. Something that will change the fate of the Ahiranya and Parijatdvipa forever.

He watched his sister walk around the ceremonial wedding fire, garbed in resplendent red, and thought, My country is dying.
He watched her bow for the garland, and thought, Our father is dying.
He watched her as she lowered her head for the wedding garland, and thought, My sister will die.
And there is nothing I can do.

I mean, the beginning wasn’t great, but it could’ve been worse. I think a recap would’ve helped ease us in to the absolutely rough high-school-worthy romance told through the passing of notes behind the teacher’s back.

Ooof, that ending though.

In terms of a start to a fantasy epic, it’s not the best. But far from the worst. Leans into the sapphic romance, so if that’s your thing you’ll probably not mind. If you’re not a romance buff, it’s a bit of a slow burn, which thankfully takes off as we reach the plot in earnest (shortly before hitting the hundred-page mark). Not that the romance ends here, just it takes a back seat to the war on Chandra—the villain throughout most of the text.

If you were hoping for a new villain to despise, don’t worry, as Chandra isn’t alone. Though he will command most of your attention of the nearly five hundred pages. But muttering gives way to rumor around the halfway point; you begin to get a glimpse of where the series might be heading in the future. And Chandra—while still the main focus, the center of attention—isn’t alone anymore. Don’t get me wrong, this is still his book; if you’re not a fan of his Vaas-style villainy, it may be a long grind to the end.

…which is where we’re going next. Because… well, I’m not totally on board with it. The end, that is. It’s not bad per say, just—a bit of a cliffhanger that makes you remember it’ll take Tasha Suri at least eight months to write the final installment. Plus publishing and all… well, we’ll just be stuck on this for another year. Also, I’m not 100% clear with the motivations here, but we won’t get into that. Spoilers and all.

Now that I’m done with my minor concerns regarding the beginning and end, let me rave about that middle bit. Now, I’m not the fastest reader, but I read it in a day (from about the 150 page mark on). And it kills.

I mean, I have no criticisms or notes. None. For around four hundred pages the story was wholly immersive, thoroughly entertaining, almost an obsession in itself. Maybe more than “almost”. I enjoyed the first book but this one blew me away.

It’s really hard on its characters, though. Tasha Suri really owes her characters a break. But if she did that, Book #3 would just be a polite discussion over tea, so… well, maybe there’ll be a happy ending and everyone will live happily ever after?

Yeah, or maybe not.

The Warrior – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Quest for Heroes #2

Fantasy

Angry Robot; August 9, 2022

379 pages (paperback)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many, many thanks to Angry Robot for sending me a lovely physical ARC, even after the first two got lost in the mail (and I told them not to worry about it)! It was so very nice of them. They are quite nice people, after all! Um and… all opinions are my own.

Kell Kresia, two time Hero of the Four Kingdoms, King of Algany, most famous man alive—is trapped. Trapped in a grand design as the “king” of one of the four kingdoms, a position he fills mostly as a figurehead. Trapped in a loveless marriage, his wife Sigrid was born to rule but for the nature of being a woman, something she has never forgiven the world for. Trapped and surrounded by people and fame, he can’t find any alone time or anonymity among the commonfolk.

So when his old friend Willow shows up requesting for her homeland, Kell can’t wait to leave.

But this isn’t something as simple as a quest north to defeat the Ice Lich. The land of the Alfár is remote and hidden—somewhere humans have rarely tread. More importantly, it is a land out of time; both literally and figuratively, as the passage of time moves differently in this realm, meaning that for every week that passes within, a year or more might pass in the outside world. Then there is the Malice, the strange and terrible affliction that poisons the land.

Meanwhile life in the Four Kingdoms goes on, with Sigrid (and her infant son) ruling alone. Day to day politicking aside, the continent inches ever closer to war, divided on the worship of the Shepherd, the religion that one Reverend Mother Britak would use to create a theocracy. Despite its very nature being based on a lie, the faith continues to push into Algany, its devotees purging any other beliefs in their way. And without Kell’s legend to dissuade her, there may be nothing holding Britak back from the future she desires. Nothing but Sigrid.

Only upon reaching the Alfár homeland of Gilial do Kell and his party realize just how far gone the place truly is. The trees have withered and died, or turned to monsters of bark and branch. The animals have become mindless beasts only sated by blood and meat. The other races of Gilial have fallen into ruin, and are only rumored to exist in any form. While the Alfár are just a shadow of their former glory—a dying, infected species, day by day more and more fall victim to the Malice.

There exists a plan to save Gilial but it is dark and desperate, despicable and deranged. Willow seeks to stop it, something which Kell and his companions—members of his personal guard: Odd, a loner harboring a terrible secret; and Yarra, harboring deep regret—are instrumental to, as humans may resist the Malice better than their Alfár counterparts.

Only upon seeing the state of the land they might wonder—how could the cure possible be any worse than the affliction?

For it to be precious, life has to end. If I live forever and do nothing, then what was the point?

While the first quest broke Kell, the second made him whole. What will this third one do?

Well, at least he won’t have to face the Ice Lich. Or WILL he?

No. He won’t. Instead he’ll face a world unseen by most of humanity, full of vibrant locales and ruined cities and creatures never seen before—all corrupted by the Malice’s influence. It was quite the tale, one that left me wanting to see more of this new world, yearning to see it before it had been devastated by the Malice. What we see in the Warrior is a world laid to waste. Oh, to see it before!

But anyway, the story is a good one. Kell’s is, at least. Full of twists and turns. Challenge and peril. A land full of surprise and opportunity. The story winds its way through this strange land, eventually leading to the heart of the Malice—and to the big reveal. As big reveals go, this may not have been anything game-changing, but it was at least interesting. And the conclusion and aftermath more than make up for any letdown in the mystery department.

The issue I have is not with Kell’s story, but Sigrid’s. Even in the first few pages of her first chapter, you knew where it was going to lead. Well, you knew where Kell’s was leading too. But where Kell’s was interesting, immersive, and exciting throughout—and even sprinkled with a seed of doubt—Sigrid’s only started this way. But at the 3/4 mark, it takes a turn. Everything afterwards seems like a foregone conclusion.

While a great tale and quest, the Warrior ain’t exactly innovative. It’s strongly reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings, albeit an abbreviated, poor man’s version. It’s entertaining, sure; almost everything that it does, this book does well (excluding, of course, the conclusion at home). It isn’t a retelling of LotR, or a fanfic, although the quest is rife with similarities. That said, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little LotR impersonation every now and then. Impression is the highest form of flattery. And LotR is (no matter your opinion on it) the most popular fantasy tale. It would be impossible not to draw similarities between the two. And that’s okay. Because it’s not a clone, a rip-off, or a retelling. The Warrior tells an amazing story with just a little bit of a letdown towards the end.

TL;DR

The Warrior isn’t a game-changer. It tells of a quest—a fellowship, if you will—through a land devastated and barren, to reach some peril at the end and vanquish it. I mean, just stop me here if this reminds you of anything. Or just keep reading. Because while the initial plot is hardly innovative, once you get into it it’s sure immersive. A plague destroying a previously forgotten land. A race against time. A legend with nothing to prove, hunting the Malice that threatens his friends. A new world to explore. An old world to remember. I mean, it’s all quite good. And a worthy conclusion to a fabulous duology!

The Martyr – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Covenant of Steel #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; June 28, 2022

526 pages (paperback)

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9.0 / 10 ✪

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

Devotion is inherently nonsensical

Once an outlaw and vagabond, Alwyn Scribe has moved up in the world. Former scribe of the Covenant Company, he now serves as spymaster and sworn protector of Lady Evadine Courlain, the Risen Martyr, whose visions of the apocalypse—called the Second Surge—have divided the kingdom around her.

Evadine’s status as a living martyr has put her at odds with both the Crown and the Faith. Though behind her stand rank upon rank of her converts; barely fed, untrained, fanatics. The Crown and Covenant possess enough of a standing army to make a bloody fight of it, should it come to blows.

Which it has not—yet—as Evadine remains a loyal subject. It seems there exists a plan to see her dead without a bloody revolution, as soon Alwyn and the company are dispatched to Alundia to quash a rebellion; a faith that sees Evadine as more of a whore and heretic than her own. Here they are set up in a ruin and commanded to raise the King’s banner, distribute a list of traitors for deliverance, and hold until the King arrives with his army. Such is basically a death-sentence and all know it. But what choice do they have?

Here Alwyn finds more than just a war for the faith, a division of kingdoms. While he’s never been sure what to think of Evadine—whether she is a sycophant or insane—he knows she remains sworn to a better future. Despite their link, (or because of it) maybe that is something he can follow, to the end.

A man who isn’t truly a king stands ready to greet a woman who isn’t truly a martyr.

I have often reflected upon the notion that the worst thing about having true friends is missing all of them when they’re gone.

The Pariah was one of my favorite books of 2021, an introduction to Alwyn Scribe: outlaw, pariah, prisoner, scribe, liar. The Martyr takes Alwyn in a different direction. Heck, it opens with him as a knight. Well, kind of a knight. In fact, it actually opens with him laid up with a cracked skull and a hallucination taken up residence in his head. It’s quite an up and down for old Alwyn, beginning at the outset of the Pariah, and I am happy to report that it carries on throughout the second book. Never a dull moment.

A nicely paced novel cobbled together with solid world-building, fascinating characters, and an interesting premise—yeah, it ticks all the boxes for me. There is a slight pacing issue over the second half, and the story took me a good while longer to get into this time around, so I didn’t love it quite as much as its predecessor—but all in all it’s another marvel. The mystery of the Sack Witch grows to another level, as does Evadine’s status and what it means for the continent. Alwyn’s status, on the other hand, often changes chapter to chapter. Never a dull moment, as I said.

And… yeah. I’m not really sure what else to say about this. It’s good. Read it? I mean, that’s pretty much my recommendation, especially if you enjoyed the previous one. And if you didn’t enjoy the previous one… why not? Read it again and enjoy it this time. Then read the Martyr. I cannot wait to see where the story goes from here!

Titanshade – by Dan Stout (Review)

The Carter Archives #1

Urban Fantasy, Mystery, Detective

DAW; March 12, 2019

416 pages (ebook)
12hr 50m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

Welcome to Titanshade, an oil boomtown grown up, struggling to find its identity in a new era, lest it collapse in on itself, just another footnote on the path of history. Cater is Titanshade’s native son, a local become homicide cop, one who knows his way around the sleazy, corrupt underside of the city that makes up his beat. But the city is so much more than that, as he is soon to learn.

Looming over the sleazy, corrupt underside exist the sleazy, corrupt businessmen and politicians that run it all. Men, women, creatures Carter has known of his whole life, but were always far too high profile for him to concern himself with.

Enter the Squib—a squat, amphibian being—a political delegate involved in funding a project aimed to save the city from itself, providing alternative energy to the dwindling oil business. While such a high-profile case would normally have been above Carter’s station, it’s all-hands on deck, as the more than just the city turns its gaze to the murder. Because in addition to being a high-profile political target, the fact that the delegate was a Squib could have dire consequences to inter-species relations. See, when a Squib bleeds, it releases a highly odorous pheromone along with its cinnamon-scented blood—the combination more than enough to drive many a human mad with lust. Many such Squibs have been killed before, but none in so gruesome a fashion or so bright a spotlight.

To make matters worse, the police already have a suspect: Carter’s adopted daughter Talena, who was in the wrong place at the very wrong time. And with such a high-profile murder already filling the news, tensions between the races of Titanshade at their highest point—the pressure is on to tie everything up as quickly as possible.

And so Carter has only a short amount of time to prove Talena’s innocence, find the true killer, and do it all before the city tears itself apart. Throw in a rookie Mollenkampi (named Ajax) assigned to keep an eye on the wildcard Carter; a second Mollenkampi, Angus, who’s essentially Carter’s nemesis while still managing to be a good cop in his own right; gritty commissioner Bryyh, Carter’s boss; and the feeling even before the mystery starts, that he’s already missing something vital.

Even if he manages to pull everything together in the nick of time, Carter may still alienate everyone and everything important to him, and end up eating his gun in the process. It’s just that kind of day in Titanshade.

I’d heard good things, yet Titanshade still managed to exceed my expectations. Instead of the underwhelming mashup between a high urban fantasy and a detective/mystery, I got a thought out mystery/detective urban fantasy not unlike the Dresden Files, but one set in its own fantasy world—one with its own rules and fantastical beings and creatures and magicks. Now, this is quite an Earth-like world, but still there are key and unique differences. The different races of beings are one; Mollenkampi alongside Squibs (which are called something different that I can’t remember right now) alongside Humans alongside still others, all packed together into the same society.

Honestly, I expected this to go together a bit like the SyFy show Defiance: a unique and interesting idea, but one where all the classes of humanoids basically blend into one when you get right down to it. Instead, the author has them written and designed his creations well—with their own diets and characteristics and languages and ideals. So much so that I’ll say it again: I’m surprised that this went together so well.

The story itself is a gritty detective one, full of morally ambiguous characters and two-faced diplomats, politicians, cops, witnesses, and more. And Carter is just the gritty, hard-nosed detective to handle it. For a guy that most people seem to hate (and everyone seems to be annoyed by), Carter makes a pretty good lead. I was pretty much in his corner from the outset—though if I’d hated him too (being the sole POV), I’d’ve probably quit reading. Twists and turns affect everyone in the plot differently and this is where Carter’s interactions with his new partner, Ajax, take center stage. Carter is a hard-nose detective who’s set in his ways and doesn’t play by the rules. Ajax is a bit fresh faced, but not enough to put up with his partner’s bullshit. He bends at times, stands firm at others, but never really breaks one way or the other. This pairing actually works quite well—and makes the story.

I’d like to see where the story goes next (and if the 2nd installment is just as solid), and will hopefully get to it later in the year. While I listened to Titanshade as an audiobook—and while Books #2 & 3 are out in print—it is thus far the only book in the series that’s been professionally narrated. Not that that’s an issue. I just decided to take a wee break before switching from audio to print. I’d definitely recommend this in either format, really, but I really enjoyed the audiobook. Mikael Naramore does an excellent job bringing both Carter and the world around him to life—complete with its gritty feel and moral ambiguity. If you were after more of him, you’re in luck! I hear Book #2, Titan’s Day, is due to be recorded and/or released sometime soon; just COVID went and delayed its production. Whether or not you enjoy this via audio, print, or digitally, I’d certainly recommend its reading. Especially if you’re a fan of urban fantasy or mystery, or even gritty cop dramas.