The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (Review)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

Fantasy, Retelling

Orbit Books; May 17, 2022

538 pages (ebook)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

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

After reading this the only thing I regret is not trying to get a physical ARC of it. Although, I suppose that’s what money is for, right?


King of the Forty Thieves, they called him. Hero. But the strangest was the third title, which he’d never heard before: the Stardust Thief. It was worse than the other titles because it was proof that everyone knew what Omar truly was: a man who stole jinn lives. A killer dressed in silver blood. ‘

In a world of desert and shifting sands, Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant—a collector and dealer in rare and illegal magic items. As her trade implies, Loulie avoids the spotlight, doing business on the black market or in the shadows. Something she and her enigmatic jinn bodyguard Qadir have been managing for years. But when she inadvertently saves the life of the sultan’s youngest son, her trade is brought to the forefront. Forcibly.

The sultan—grateful for the Merchant saving his son (twice, in fact)—offers her a reward: her life, in exchange for a mythical jinn artifact lost somewhere in the Sandsea, its sands the border between jinn and human lands. The artifact, a wish-granting lamp, is worth a kingdom—if it exists at all. And should she returns with the lamp, Loulie will be showered with gold—you know, if it exists. Return with out it, however, or attempt to flee, and her life will be forfeit.

To aid the Merchant in this endeavor—as well as make certain she doesn’t try to flee—the sultan sends his youngest son, the same Loulie twice saved, along with an elite guard.

But surprisingly, the lamp turns out to be more trouble than just being mythical, lost, and infamous. And Loulie’s path more treacherous. Ghouls, rogue jinn, demons from the past, jinn hunters, enemies and allies, and the shifting and enchanted sands of the Sandsea are but some of the obstacles the foursome face. Yet Loulie really has no choice but to press on, lest this quest be her last.


Legend had it that after slaughtering the marid, the humans hung their corpses from the tops of the cliffs, and there had been so much silver blood running down the rocks, it had transformed into a cascading stream of water. Sometimes, when Loulie stared hard at the streams winding through the city, she thought they glittered like stardust.

It was beautiful, and it was horrible.

In the Stardust Thief, jinn bleed silver. Wherever their blood falls, life blossoms. It has the power to paint the desert green, heal wounds, or even restore the dying to life. This twist, along with so many others, prevented the book from being both a straightforward retelling, and a facsimile of so many others.

It also prevents the landscape from becoming too… dull. Tans and browns and reds and oranges aren’t necessarily dull, but after a while they do kinda make one long for a blue or two to break up the monotony. Maybe that’s why kohl was so popular. Point is, bleed a jinn or ten around one spot and you’ve got yourself a new forest. Or an everlasting river, as seen in the above excerpt.

As with really good reads, it’s hard for me to talk about what exactly I loved most about the Stardust Thief. I mean… there are just soooo many things! The retelling of various legends especially—not only those incorporated into the plot, but also those included as legends in their own right and told via storytellers, or in interludes—gave the world a tenuous connection to our own, while never confusing just which side of the looking glass the reader was on. It’s good to see so many tales from One Thousand and One Nights included in a single work, not just a retelling of Ali Baba or Aladdin or Shahrazad or the like. Yes, I know that other books aimed to do the same, but I’d argue that by in large, the results were nowhere near as good.

I feel like I should mention the characters too, but I’ve no idea where to start on them. Their depth is impressive, as each and every lead has a thorough backstory—both based in legend and written lore. I was really impressed at just how well they all worked together; amidst the chaos and battle there were hints of unlikely friendship and romance, though you could never tell just who was threatening to fall in love with whom.

TL;DR

This seems entirely worthless, as the review part wasn’t very long and mostly had to do with me gushing about how much I loved the story. Yeah, so that’s pretty much it. Whole-hearted recommendation, hands down. But is it worth the…? Yes. Are you sure? What about the…? Yes, that too. And the audiobook? Not sure about that, exactly. This one supposedly features a full cast, and even one terrible voice-actor can ruin the whole thing. But if I could just direct you back to the other forms of text, maybe try one of those.

Yeah, so I’m gonna wrap this up, as it’s pretty much just me rambling. Read this. It’s sooo good! The only downside I can think of is that you’ll have to wait another year for Book #2.

The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (Review)

Unnamed Sequence #1

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Gollancz; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)
(US release TBA)

346 pages (ebook)

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7.5 / 10 ✪

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

On the dark side of the Shadowpass, a rebellion is brewing. Refugees from the war have been flooding across, even now trickling into cities farther and farther from the border. On the edge of the world sits the Nest—built into the side of a cliff, it signifies the path to enlightenment and transcendence—home to a fortress full of mages, the polar opposite to everything the rebels stand for.

Equality, unity, everyone is provided for and given a voice: something the mages in the city are willing to die to avoid. The ungifted are accepted, though while they are judged according to their wealth, none will ever be equal to a mage. Lacuants—former mages who’ve had the magic burned out of them—are second-class citizens, pitied and tolerated as beggars. Kher aren’t even that much. Treated as animals, beasts of burden, they are despised and mistrusted—while being welcomed by the rebels with open arms. Halfbreeds are something worse.

Isha arrives as a refugee, brought to the Nest by a master mage in order to join the fortress academy. But while she may have blended in with the rest of the rabble, she’ll never fit in with the other mages. Kher tattoos brand her as an outcast, a halfbreed—something barely tolerated—though her magic define her as something else. Fleeing memories as much as the war, her past is a mystery even to her, though she’ll have to confront it sooner or later.

Tatters past haunts him daily. Marked by the golden collar of a slave, he flees something more tangible than Isha. Once a rebel, he knows there’s more to the war than unity and equality. An owned mage residing outside of the Nest, he trains students in mindbrawl for coin while existing in the shadows of society. And in the shadows he plans to remain.

But then Tatters meets Isha.

A human with a Kher brand; another wearing a collar of gold. One destined to be singled out her entire life; the other too far beneath to be noticed. But an unlikely bond forms between the two. Tatters is sure he’s seen her tattoo before, but can’t place it. Tatters is the key to something in her past, and Isha is desperate to learn. But as the rebellion carves its way towards the city, they are faced with an impossible choice between two evils.

The Collarbound didn’t start especially well.

It was slow, vague, a bit dull really. Featuring a unique take on magic—where mages engage in mindbrawls in order to dominate or control their foes, or even the common ungifted—that was certainly an interesting concept, but never really came together for me. There are no fireballs or explosions. No lights and sounds. Just scenes and images aimed at undermining their opponents’ thoughts. But at least it was something different; a good attempt.

The world is a bit sparse at the outset, as the reader is thrown in and expects to catch up. There really aren’t a whole lot of info-dumps—the lore and world-building simply percolate from the plot as the story progresses. Thus it takes a good 50-70 pages in order for things to really get rolling. About the time that the Kher make their way into the spotlight.

And everything takes off.

The Kher are a bit like humans crossed with kudu. Anthropomophic kudu. I mean, I pictured them as having dark, ebony skin, curling horns—maybe a bit like a tiefling. Can’t remember if that’s how the author described them or not. Doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. They’re human enough that they can breed, and they’re instrumental in the story.

At the time, I noted that we really should’ve gotten into it with the Kher earlier. As dull as I found the mindbrawls, Kher society was what really made the book for me. While Tatters and Isha were initially brought together by the mindlinking, the Kher are what bind them. Afterwards we really get into the Kher story, the war, the rebels, the bind that ties Isha and Tatters. And the story takes off.

In the beginnings of the text we are presented with some vague notion of the rebels, the war—but these things are harder to care about at the time. The world was still new and vague. The war is far from the Nest. The rebels are small-time, but growing, all the while soaking the fields in blood. Rebels bad, mages good. The further the story progresses, the more interesting things get. The mages are still painted in a pleasing light on occasion, and the rebels routinely vilified. But the mages aren’t the saviors they’re made out to be at the start. Their treatment of the Khers, even the Lightborn—beings made of colored light that flit to and fro from across the Edge to the awe of the common folk—leaves a lot to be desired. But at least they’re not watering the country with the blood of farmers.

As the text progresses, the waters muddy. And the story impresses more and more. After the 30% mark I was fully invested. Despite that I never warmed up to the mindbrawl magic-system, I never had one more thought of abandoning the book. Like more than a few debut fantasies, there’s a good story within, it just takes a bit of time to get to it.

I hope that the sequel will get going from the outset, and that we warm the mindbrawl concept up a bit. With these two changes—we’d be looking at a much more immersive, interesting, and engrossing tale. The story continues in Book #2—the Eyas, currently TBA.

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

Zachary King is the only Asian kid at his school in small-town Maine. While he never exactly fit in in New York, here Zach is truly aberrant. What he wants—what he craves—is to fit in, something that he’s spent all his time and energy trying to do.

Which is, of course, when he discovers that he’s the chosen host for the First Emperor of China.

The bad news is that the only reason the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) has left his eternal paradise is that China—and the world—is in danger. The worse news is that only Zach (and a couple other vessels hosting Emperors) can save it, preferably in time to save Zach mother, who’s had her soul stolen. The worst news is that to save it they must return to China: the place Zach was born, the place he lived before the government killed his father. The good news is that the revelation makes his problems seem pretty petty by comparison.

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, rather than manifesting within Zach, has instead possessed his AR gaming headset. Meaning that the Emperor cannot make use of his heavenly powers, nor his ability to, say, speak Mandarin. Thus Zach must rely on the help of his new allies Simon and Melissa (the hosts for the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian (李世民 和 武曌)) if he’s to save the day.

But things are more complicated than Zach could possibly imagine. Which he must make sense of if he’s going to save his mother—and the world.

“No,” Qin Shi Huang replied, “I was a regular person in my mortal life. I mostly relied on the cooperation of my ancestors in the underworld to plug the portal. But after I transcended my physical flesh—“
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong quipped.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”

Huangdi (黃帝) was a mythical (and possibly historical) Han Emperor who ruled early China in the mid-3rd millennia BC. While primarily remaining a hero out of myth and legend for thousands of years, lately he’s been a bit co-opted by the Han nationalism movement, which is completely different from Chinese history. I mean, it’s part of China’s history, but the Han are not what makes China China. In Taiwan, the Yellow Emperor stands as a symbol of reunification with the mainland, as he’s still worshipped there. And—let’s just say it’s complicated. Chinese history is complicated.

And somehow, the author decides to make him the bad guy. At least, initially, until the world devolves into a haze of grey on grey madness—a little bit heavy for a kids’ book. I mean, that’s seriously ballsy.

Not uninteresting, just not my kind of book. It was rather muddied in the middle by the amount of different plots and deceptions—made the story hard to follow. The info dumps of everything from technology to Chinese history and mythology slowed things down a little, but were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t overly ruin the pacing. Unfortunately, with so many of them throughout the text, they further obfuscated an already muddy river that seemed to be flowing in too many directions as it was. What I mean is that not only was it really hard to keep up with the story, it was even harder to find out what was going on. And once I got lost I pretty much stayed lost, despite rereading sections to figure it out.

It definitely delivered on the promise of a Yu-Gi-Oh style tale. Zachary Ing and the Dragon Emperor reads like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and a Chinese History lesson. Except one with all the really bad bits left out. Honestly, that description doesn’t sound too bad, but the story was mostly more confusing than I’d’ve thought. That said, Yu-Gi-Oh is also more confusing than I thought it would’ve been, so it was likely intentional. There were possessions, virtual games, more possessions, and bizarre twists to up the action even amid an already action-heavy sequence. Problem is, I’m not a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, so this kind of chaotic plot didn’t work for me. I picked this one up because I enjoy the occasional MG adventure, and I really liked the author’s debut novel.

The thing is, for how much this starts like a Yu-Gi-Oh mashup, it dissolves pretty quickly. The corresponding game of Mythrealm is mentioned at first only to familiarize readers with the VR goggles and basics of pop culture—and then dropped in order to relate the trip through Chinese history. Only… with just how much Mythrealm seems to involve the story (at first, at least), I would’ve expected to see more of it. But after the first few chapters it’s barely mentioned again.

I did manage to learn a few words (well, ONE word), though I can’t imagine it’ll ever come up in conversation. Nor will I ever manage to get the tones right.

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

If you picked up Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor hoping for: a mashup of Yu-Gi-Oh and Percy Jackson; a new and exciting episodic series where anything can happen and routinely does; a MG adventure that tackles tougher issues than good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and delves straight into the world of grey; or a crash course in Chinese mythology and history (depending heavily on what your definition of “Chinese” is)—then, honestly, you probably won’t be disappointed. If, however, you picked this up because you enjoyed the author’s debut, or hoped for something a little bit deeper than the surface layer of Chinese history (of ghosts, legends, and curses), well, you may be slightly less impressed. Regardless, you’re sure to find a well written (if not terribly well organized) story about a boy and his place in the world. It may be confusing at times (because, well, it is) (most of the time, in fact), but there’s never a dull moment, and never any time to take a breath. If you’re able to follow the plot I kinda suspect you’ll love it—but I could not follow it and got left behind. And never really got back on board.

結束

Equinox – by David Towsey (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Head of Zeus; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)

368 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

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

In a world where identity changes with the rising and setting of the sun, you can never know who to to trust, or just what anyone is hiding. With two beings within the same body, relationships between night and day have been stretched to such an extreme that they might be different worlds altogether. But when one personality changes to another—the world remains the same.

Christophor Morden is a special investigator of the King of Reikova. Awoken early one night, he is called to the city prison where he’s confronted by a grisly sight. A young man has ripped their eyes out in a fit of madness—though the madness might be justified. Why? Well, because behind their eyeballs, teeth were growing.

What Christophor hopes is an aberration turns out to be more common than any would like to admit. Rumors and strange tales out of the south—of witches and magic, of demons and unfaithful, of a war brewing on the kingdom’s borders. But the only thing he can substantiate are the teeth. The teeth are very much real. And they didn’t come into the boy’s eye sockets naturally.

And so he is dispatched to Drekenford—a village on the southern border—to hunt down whatever’s responsible for this dark magic. But what he finds there will cost Christophor—in more ways than one.

Alexander understands his night-brother’s call as a special investigator, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. A musician himself, Christophor’s day-brother often haunts the common houses, theaters, and taverns of Esteberg, where he plies his trade. Yet when Christophor is sent south, Alexander has no choice but to follow. Though what he finds there may cost Alexander more than his trade. For when his night-brother unearths the witch, Alexander will end up doing everything in his power to save her, the King’s justice be damned.

The unfaithful lose sight of themselves;
The sword shrivels to flakes of snow;
The law devours its history;
The stone moves on water;
The broken heart bleeds gold.

The more time I spent in the world of Equinox, the more it grew on me. Starting out as a fairly generic city in a generic world, it instantly loses points with the recycling of various real-world subjects to cover where its own world-building breaks down. I’m really torn on this—it’s very much a love/hate relationship; there’s a really good story within and what it does well is done really well, but… well, you’ll see.

Catholicism is the dominant religion of the kingdom, a fact that isn’t remotely explained despite all the questions it brings to mind. Did Christ have a night-brother? Is the whole night/day cycle mentioned in scripture? Is this actually Earth rather than a different world? None of these are answered. In fact, the author seems to go out of his way to avoid these questions, as any debate that comes to center on religion at all gets shut down quickly. The whole night/day cycle suffers the same fate—and so we never get more than the barest glimpse into why or how this system works. While it’s a fascinating concept, the lack of literally any explanation surrounding it ruin what could’ve been an innovative and unique twist.

Honestly, with the amount of questions the system alone raises that are completely ignored, I feel like I could write a whole new book. While I’m assuming that’s the reason the author doesn’t address the subject at all, it just comes off as lazy. He should’ve addressed one or two of the more important points, rather than completely ignoring them all.

For example: how does the body function on zero sleep? Is the day/night thing recent, or eternal? How does an unchanged Earth religion account for literally any of this?

Throughout the text, the various day/night personalities complain about their counterparts. Like it’s a new thing. Like it’s not written into religion (which, if it had been around very long at all, it must’ve been). Grrrraaahhh—writing the review for this is making me rage at the dozens of unanswered questions I have about the concept. Which I’ll try not to address any further.

At its heart, Equinox is a story of witchcraft and witch hunting. Chistophor lives in the shadow, but walks with the light—having arrested 34 witches over his lifetime. And yet this might be the most dangerous of the lot, as it puts he and his day-brother at odds. Despite my issues with the world, the unanswered questions, the characters, the development, the unanswered questions—I know that there is a good story somewhere in here. Even with all the issues I had bouncing around in my head, I never once thought of abandoning this. I was able to buckle down and focus on the story, and let it drink me in.

And so brings the third book in as many days that I’m on the fence about. I had some issues with this book (okay, LOTS AND LOTS of issues), but I legitimately enjoyed it too. There were some parts that were a bit cringeworthy, but they were few and far between. The day/night cycle was fascinating, despite being unformed and unfounded. The world was interesting as well, despite being a bad copy of Earth. The end was good, despite the ending being a bit confusing and hectic. I love the cover, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price. If you were going to rip it off and stick it on the wall—…maybe? But as a book to display… I’d really prefer if it were better.

Beautiful World of Books – Special

Welcome to a special month-long edition of the Beautiful World of Books, where I showcase one of my favorite series of all time! Now I know that some of the rest of you have your own opinions on whether or not this series is all that great or not (but it is, and that’s that;) —but hopefully you’ll be okay as we spend a few weeks examining the covers that we’ve seen over the course of this 15 book series!

As this is such an expansive and world-renowned series, I’ll be covering it in quite a few posts, starting with the first four books—Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, and Shadow Rising—along with the prequel, New Spring. After that I’ve a tentative schedule I’ll be looking to follow, but if you know anything about me it’s that schedules and I often have… an issue.

  • From the Two Rivers (Books #0-4) – Thursday, April 14th
  • Early Special Editions (Books #1-2, mostly) – Thursday, April 21st
  • The Rise of the Dragon (Books #5-9) – Thursday, April 28th
  • The Art and Lore of the Wheel of Time – Thursday, May 12th
  • The Breaking of the World (Books #10-14) – Thursday, May 19th
  • Recap and All together (Books #0-14) – Thursday, May 26th

So, please come back tomorrow for the start, or stay away while I rant about how much nostalgia I get from this series. Haha kidding—I promise I won’t do that, like, too much…

Also, just a note, I won’t be talking about the Amazon series at all, mostly because I haven’t seen it. And don’t plan to. You see, I have it all imagined and pictured a certain way in my mind, and I’m not interested in seeing it done up any other way. But if you want to tell me about it, that’s cool. I’m just not going to watch it.

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 10 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for the story. Mostly it’s for the romance though, and I kept them vague.

Sisters of Shadow is tagged as an “unforgettable teen fantasy perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone”. Now, while I’ve not read Shadow and Bone (yes, I know, I know), I’m skeptical of this. First about the “unforgettable” part. I found the whole thing very forgettable, thank you. But I really want to focus on the “teen” part. Because other than the whole ’sapphic love’ thing, I’d argue that nothing in here seems very “teen”.

And that’s just a personal preference thing, really. If you’re the type of person that thinks homosexuality is wrong—be it religious, or culture, or personal, or whatever—that’s your call, yeah? I don’t want to debate anyone over this. If you’re that kind of person, you’re probably not going to tell your child about it until you absolutely have to, and when you do, just say that it’s wrong and leave it there. Otherwise, I don’t know what the appropriate age to hear about this is. Puberty, I guess? But, see, the ‘sapphic romance’ within… there’s no sex, or anything. Nothing like that at all. Two of the characters do fall for one another, but they don’t do anything more than cuddle. And maybe kiss. It’s implied that they’re together together, and that’s about it. It’s not very heavy or adult, as these things go.

Anyway, the book. The read.

I found it quite boring. But also quite maddening. You’ll see why. At this point, I’ll say the two best things I can about Sisters of Shadow. One—I didn’t hate it. And two—it was a pretty quick read. Now, I realize none of those things are all that flattering. And from the above rating, you probably know there’s a bit of a rant incoming. So. Um I guess. Read on to find out more?

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

Shortly after, we meet Lily Knight. The adventure starts when her uncle, Alf—who seems like a fantastically nice human the entire time we see him—just tells her that she alone has to go rescue her friend (yes, alone; no one can go with her), because Alice is her responsibility. Serious, wtf. I don’t even remotely understand this. Much less how Alice is somehow Lily’s responsibility. They’re friends, not lovers.They’re both humans. They’re not related. Alice isn’t a pet.

At first I suspected it was poorly worded. Then it was reiterated. “Alice is your responsibility”. Because.

And so the journey begins. And it’s… not great. And here we come to my main problem with Sisters of Shadow.

Nothing happens.

Okay, okay, stuff DOES happen. It just never feels important. It never feels epic. It never feels REAL.

Adventures and journeys aren’t always fun. That’s kind of their thing. There’s always a problem, somewhere. No matter how well you play it. And when you don’t plan it, one would think that there’d be problems all around. That’s the whole allure of reading about epic quests and adventures, especially spontaneous ones; stuff goes wrong all the time, and it’s up to the characters to deal with these, frequently in creative or inventive or roundabout ways.

Every problem has an immediate solution, one she never has to do anything about. When Lily finds out how far it is to the ocean she gets dejected about the walk—and a horse appears. It just wanders up, pre-saddled and ready to ride. No further explanation. People go out of their way to help her through her journey, for no reason. (Yes, I realize this is a thing that some real people do. But everyone that helps her does so immediately and for nothing. Everyone.) Later, when Lily reaches the ocean, there’s a boat handy. When she reaches the lighthouse, there’s a dark-eyed boy who takes her in and feeds and waits on her. He’s even her own age and—yes, this is the actual romance. At least it takes Lily some time, if not any actual effort. Alice’s romantic other is literally the first person she meets.

Now, I will say that the ending is decent. Things almost feel real, consequential—and maybe that’s reason enough to read the sequel. Not for me, though.

Billed as a coming of age fantasy, Sisters of Shadow features two young women around the age of adulthood (Alice is 17, I presume Lily’s about the same). They just never act like it. Lily never acts any older than 13 or so. In the beginning, honestly it’s a bit younger. Alice is a little better, though not much. None of the others they meet around their own age are any better either. So. If this had been written as a late Middle Grade fantasy—I think it would work out great. For teens or middle-grade. Other than the same-sex romance (which I’ve already gone over), there’s nothing explicit or adult about this.

There might be a good story in here, somewhere. Heck, you might well have found it already, and are reading this review—shocked, annoyed, incredulous—that I didn’t see it too. But I did do my homework on this one. I checked the ratings, I skimmed reviews. Some people loved Sisters of Shadow. Some hated it. But most people thought it was meh. Not terrible, not great. That’s about the size of it. This wasn’t a terrible book, though it also wasn’t good. I’d even say it was meh if it hadn’t been so boring. If something had ever happened to change my mind about it. If anything had ever made me want to continue it, or the series. It did read quick, though I never felt invested. I did finish it, but I skipped around a bunch. But this definitely wasn’t for me. You might like this, or not. It’s $3 for an ebook, if you’d like to take a chance on it. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it. Or maybe, like the majority of reviews I’ve seen, you’ll think it was all a bit bland, a bit forgettable.

The story will continue in Sisters of Moonlight, due April 14th, 2022.

The Bladed Faith – by David Dalglish (Review)

Vagrant Gods #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; April 5, 2022

470 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for sending me a lovely physical ARC! And additional thanks to David Dalglish for taking the time to chat with me a bit more about it! All opinions are my own.

How did one weigh one atrocity against another?

According to David Dalglish, this is his 20th novel (something I’m not going to measure or question at all and just go with)—and what better way to mark the occasion than with a review…? Okay, okay, I guess I could’ve got him a gift or something. Might have to, after this goes live. Because while I did quite like the book, it wasn’t quite the adventure that the Keepers was, nor the chaos of Shadowdance.

But we’ll get into that later.

When Prince Cyrus was twelve, the Everlorn Empire came to his shores. A quick and decisive battle later, his fleet was demolished, his city burned, his gods defeated, and his parents killed. Taken prisoner to legitimize the Empire’s rule, for two years Cyrus was paraded about as the captive prince, until the execution of his gods gave him an opportunity to escape.

Now, holed up in the Thanet countryside, Cyrus is given his one chance to strike back at the Empire that took everything from him. The fledgling resistance—such as it is—needs a figurehead to legitimize their cause, and the former prince is perfect for the job.

But, his road to revenge isn’t to be an easy one. For while the island needs an heir, the path to freedom is not paved with diplomacy. Not entirely, at least. Instead Cyrus is secretly trained to be a killer: a god of blood and fury, wielding twin sabres and hidden behind a skull mask and cloak.

The Vagrant rises to protect Thanet, and to see its invaders to the shores.

But not all is as it seems. Cyrus’ god-given right to rule is not as solid as he once thought, and the mantle of the Vagrant isn’t the heroic role he imagined. Soon he will discover the real weight of his duty—and the price of his vengeance.


“You took from me everything I loved. My parents. My kingdom. Even my gods. I can’t unmake the loss, but I can make you hurt. I can make you afraid.

“And you will come to fear me, monsters of the empire. You will fear the Vagrant Prince when he comes to reclaim his crown.”

He lowered his swords. A smile cracked his stern expression to match the one on his mask. He laughed to himself, mood unable to remain serious for so long.

“Hopefully.”

As tales of vengeance go, the Bladed Faith is the start of a pretty good one. An impressionable boy willing to do whatever it takes to avenge the deaths of his parents, his gods, his kingdom. Willing to kill for Thanet’s freedom, even at the expense of his life. But the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, the more he questions it. The more he learns, the more it haunts him; the lives he’s ended, the path he’s taken, the secrets he’s found. There’s a very real sense, throughout the book, that Cyrus is keeping it all together through sheer force will, maybe bound by scotch tape and bits of string. His mental heath is way past questionable even before he was imprisoned by the invaders that destroyed his whole world. That he’s just going to come to pieces at some point, some point soon. And the secrets that he learns—I mean, I can’t give anything away here, but it sets up an epic conclusion, one I truly did not see coming.

And while it’s great to see an author address the health and stress and mental battles coming with killing so much (and that becoming a “heartless killer” isn’t something that a person can just turn on and off with no repercussions), I would’ve actually liked to have seen a bit more of it. Let me explain. When you really get into it, the Bladed Faith boils down to two key aspects: fight scenes, and the exhaustion that comes after. I mean, yeah, there’s some set-dressing, some political intrigue, some world-building and lore and whatever else. But the key moments—especially after the halfway point—boil down to the fight, and what follows it.

It’s really hard to complain about the fight-scenes. It’s not like some books where that’s all there are, or others where they are too few and too far between. Plus Dalglish writes them so well! There a good amount of battles, scraps, prowling rooftops, ambushing soldiers, screwing up and having to fight their way out. When the battle is raging, the battle-lust is high. But when the red leaves their eyes—especially for Cyrus—the aftermath is near as intense as the actual fight. That said, it feels… incomplete, somehow. See, there’s usually a cutaway between the fight and the exhaustion that follows. A break in the narrative that occurs just at that point where it goes from “kill kill kill” to “what have I done?”. I think that’s one of the reasons it never felt really fulfilling to me. The other being that none of Cyrus’ heartfelt moments after seem to come to fruition. And while I understand the reasoning behind the latter, I don’t so much for the former. When it works—as it does quite often—there’s nothing to complain about. When it’s done well, it really gets you thinking, considering the story from a new perspective. But it doesn’t always work. There’s a… for a book that strives so much to detail the emotions of its protagonists, this seems like a strange tactic. Just a break when emotions are running their strongest, or their weakest; when the battle-lull sets in, and the lust fades. Yes, there’s plenty of time spent examining what happens after, but it’s “some time after”, not “directly after”. I suppose what I’m objecting to (as it’s not even that obvious to me) is the break in the range of emotions. We’ve had the highs of the battle. Then there’s a break. And now we’re dealing with the lows of the experience. This is predominantly what I remember happening (there are a few that go: highs of battle, then a lull, then a break, or lull to full downturn, but really nothing that encompasses the whole thing)—I suppose all in all, it seems a rather minor thing to harp on, but in a book that seems to spend so much time on the emotions of becoming a hardened killer, it really doesn’t ever seem to focus on the entire range of emotions.

For the resistance against such an enemy as the Everlorn Empire, whose borders span pretty much the known world, the tiny isle of Thanet is the perfect setting. We don’t have to focus on the world in its entirety. There aren’t a lot of unconnected POVs placed strategically amidst a vast sea. We focus on a little island a hundred leagues from the mainland, and the whole of the story takes place here. While there is lore about the rest of the empire, especially the farther we get on, the reader only has to really focus on Thanet. I really liked this; I thought it worked really well. While I was curious about the larger world (I always am—I can’t help myself), I was happy enough to concentrate on this one part of it so long as the story centers there. Now the author has hinted that the Vagrant Gods trilogy could just be one piece of a much larger tale—one that surely would involve a glimpse of the much larger world—there are no specifics at this point. And while I will admit that some fantasies that span the entire globe do turn out to be AMAZING, they can be quite overwhelming at first. And some readers can burn out on them quite quickly. The smaller, more centralized story here shouldn’t suffer the same. And while some readers will invariably DNF this, it’s likely not the number had it been a universe-spanning, millennial-long tale of truly epic proportions.

TL;DR

I’m not sure what the future holds for the Vagrant Gods, but I know I’m on-board for it. While it’s not the perfect execution in my mind, the Bladed Faith deals with far more than the stabby-stabby bits of an impressionable youth turned hardened killer. There’s quite the range of highs and lows, emotional and mental fortitudes, and long, hard looks at oneself within. And though the emotional range is a little lacking to what I might’ve liked, it’s far more than that of other books and media where our protagonist flips a switch between killer and average guy like it’s nothing at all. This story of vengeance takes place in the secluded corner of a truly vast empire, and rarely stretches beyond its shores. Yes, there is a bit of lore and history of the Empire and its wars, but for the most part our attention remains glued on Thanet. And I loved that. I thought it worked quite well as the introduction to a possibly grander story. It doesn’t overwhelm or distract the reader with dozens of POVs over thousands of miles; it concentrates on this little isle, so long as the story centers here. Which it does throughout the Bladed Faith, at least.

I’d also suggest carrying on after the main attraction to read the author’s note. These are hit-and-miss, often little more than kudos to everyone who made the book possible (which is great, I’m not criticizing them), but Dalglish’s often include much more. The writing process; his state of mind; how the story evolved, sometimes even through publication. I always love reading these, and this one is no different. In it, he describes the tale that the Bladed Faith could have been. What it started out as, and how it became what it is. Honestly, I’d love to post the entirety of it, but I’ll have to talk to the author first. Or, you know, you could just buy the book and read it then;) I will have a little Q&A later this week where I ask things about what this series could’ve been, and why it wasn’t—so maybe check back for that in the meantime.

Shadowdance – the Beautiful World of Books

With the release of The Bladed Faith coming next week, I thought it might be nice to take a look back at some of David Dalglish’s previous series to see just how far we’ve come. Now, as the author has written and published waaay more than just a handful of books, we have quite a few options for this. The the most recent Keepers trilogy, preceded by the Seraphim one. Then there are the shared universe ones. In chronological order: the Breaking World trilogy; then the Shadowdance hexalogy (that’s 6—not including the Cloak and Spider prequel), whose own timeline overlaps the Paladins’ tetralogy (that’s 4); and at last the Half-Orcs heptalogy or septology (which is 7). That’s… a lot of books.

Now, it’s fair to say that Dalglish is one of my favorite authors, but even I haven’t read all his stuff. And while I’ve read and reviewed at least some of his stuff on here, I’m willing to bet that many of you are only kinda aware that he exists. And likely weren’t aware that he’d published nearly 30 books.

To be fair, a lot of these were self-pubbed, and haven’t been repubbed by any major outlets. But they still carry the same quality as most of the rest of his works—although the early ones are a bit rough around the edges.

Anyway, while I’ll try to work through these series fully, for now let’s focus on my original favorite, my first introduction to Dalglish—the Shadowdance series.

This was a tricky one, as only four of the books were self-published before being picked up fully by Orbit, so there are four self-pubbed entries—plus the Cloak and Spider novella. Also, two of them have different names. Though actually, it’s more than just that. Books #3 & 4—A Dance of Mirrors and A Dance of Shadows—were originally published as A Dance of Death and Blood of the Underworld, books where Dalglish changed the titles on because he did significant restructuring and rewriting so that the stories don’t really match up anymore. They’re actually quite different than the others, if I remember correctly, though it’s been a while since I read them. You used to be able to find the two self-published versions on Dalglish’s website for free—if you were curious—though I’m not sure if that’s still a thing.

Self-Published Shadowdance

Orbit Shadowdance

So, which do you like better: the classic fantasy vibe that the self-published ones have, or the more uniform, if stylized decoration upon the Orbit ones?

Taken – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #3

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; August 28, 2012 (US)
Orbit; September 6, 2012 (UK)

313 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

8 / 10 ✪

Please beware possible minor spoilers for Alex Verus books #1 and 2

Once, Alex Verus could go weeks without seeing another mage. Kept behind the counter of his Camden shop, he cared little for Council society, dark mages, light mages, or anything beyond his little corner of the world. But now everything has changed.

As Luna’s master, Alex is expected at apprentice events. As a known diviner to the Council, Alex—while not exactly trusted—still manages to get some side work from Talisid, and from the Council itself. Additionally, more and more independents have begun approaching him with divination requests. One such request comes courtesy of Crystal, who wants a tournament at Fountain Ridge monitored. But he has bigger things on his plate. Apprentices have been disappearing, and the Council has no idea how.

Unfortunately, Alex has no idea how either. Not only can he find no trace of them, there’s no evidence, no witnesses, and no suspects. But that’s not the end of his problems.

When someone takes a shot at Anne—one of the other apprentices in the program—Alex steps in to help her. And in doing so involves himself in something he might’ve left very much alone. Someone really wants Anne dead. And Alex can’t rule anyone out. The Council, Anne’s Rakshasa master, the other apprentices, dark mages, light mages, wild dogs, muggles, trees, waffle house employees—everyone seems to want Anne dead. And yet in helping her, Alex is pointed to a very interesting coincidence. As when the Council finally does come up with a suspect, it’s her. Now Alex has to decide whether she’s a friend or foe. And why everyone is trying so hard to see her dead.

Fortunately, he has a clue—albeit a vague one.

The answer you seek is at Fountain Reach.

And that’s it.

Though while Alex has no idea why he’d look to Fountain Reach, he has no better ideas.

Whoever had designed the block of flats had obviously worked to a clear set of priorities. Unfortunately, while cost, size, and low-maintenance had made it to the top of the list. aesthetics, good escape routes, and shelter from gunfire hadn’t.

While Taken isn’t Benedict Jacka’s best work, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The mystery is strong in this one, with an interesting, complex, and thoroughly entertaining story. Unlike the previous two installments, this one has a bit more going on than what’s immediately obvious. With two main plot points, it comes down to what’s happening to the apprentices, and what’s happening with Anne. Neither make sense on their own, but together… yeah, they still don’t make immediate sense. Fortunately, the further we go down the rabbit hole, the more things start to clear up. And while it may not seem like it at first, everything fits together quite nicely—even if there’s not an easy explanation for all of it.

The story isn’t the only thing that gets a leg up come Taken. The character development, particularly that of some of Alex’s allies, starts paying dividends. Though Alex’s own development continues to strengthen, it’s not him that I want to focus on. Even in the first two books, the character development of Alex was strong. But while Verus’ backstory was getting filled in, others were missing out. Luna (primarily) and Sonder as well, get their chance here. Now, while we don’t learn a whole lot about either, what we are given is certainly up from the zero established in earlier books. In addition to these two, another few potential allies begin to emerge. One, Talisid, whose motives have been obscure to this point, starts to get more solidly in Alex’s corner. While the Council man’s a far cry from going out of his way to help Verus, he’s good for a “favor for a favor” trade. Anne, on the other hand, is a bit more mysterious. But over the course of Taken we see a lot of her, and she and Alex work quite well together.

A much better entry to the series, Taken still falls a bit short on originality. I hate to admit it, but the above message about Fountain Reach—while vague, obscure, and not terribly creative—it’s a key plot point. Without it, I’m not sure the investigation shifting to Fountain Reach would make any sense at all. Which is kind of disappointing. It all works out well enough in the end, but getting to that point really could’ve been accomplished… better. The thing is, that although immersive and immediately readable, the mystery of Taken is a bit of a convoluted mess. A bit. Again, I did legitimately enjoy it, and it all worked out quite nicely in the end, but looking back on it—it is sort of a mess. But hey—it works, and that’s the important part.

TL;DR

All in all, Taken may be the best example of the Alex Verus series to its point, but the best is yet to come. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this series (especially the second half dozen), and even though this isn’t the best that Jacka’s capable of, it’s moving in the right direction. Better than the first two; still more than enough reason to pick it up; definitely recommended!

Seven Deaths of an Empire – by G.R. Matthews (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Solaris/Rebellion; March 29, 2022 (paperback)
Solaris/Rebellion; June 22, 2021 (ebook/hardcover)

550 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

9.5 / 10 ✪

“There is no right and wrong, no black and white. Life is not such a simple thing.”

Think Gladiator, but with magic.

General Bordan was born into nothing, but after a life dedicated to the Empire, he has achieved what little thought possible. He governs the army, the might of the Empire. Other than the Emperor and his kin, he may well be the most powerful man in the Empire. But he is also its most loyal servant.

When the Emperor is killed fighting the tribes in the north, Bordan must do all he can to protect the heir to the throne until the Emperor’s body is returned to the city. Then, with the amulet of office in hand—and the powerful magics within under their control—the heir can ascend the throne and assume control of the Empire. But until then nothing is guaranteed. Rebellion is brewing in the countryside. Assassins lurk in every shadow. And worse, politicians surround the royal family, hiding forked-tongues behind their honeyed words and silky smiles.

Apprentice Magician Kyron and his master are assigned to the late Emperor’s honor guard, tasked with seeing the body home to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by many of their own folk, the magicians are both revered and hated in equal measure. But magic is necessary for this task, for keeping the body from decay requires it. And so their presence is tolerated, if little else. But with many leagues between them and the capital, Kyron and the guard face the greatest danger of all. For whomever controls the Emperor’s amulet controls the succession—and the Empire is not lacking in those hungry for power, be they foe, or friend.

“If you stopped struggling to get free, the guards would not beat you,” Astenius pointed out.
“Life is struggle,” the warrior said.
“We only stop when we are dead,” Emlyn finished and the warrior’s gaze snapped around to her.
“Who are you to know the sayings of the forest?”
“I am of the forest,” she answered.
“Yet you stand with them,” he accused.
“Not through choice.”
“Then you struggle.”
“I am not dead yet,” she answered.

“Why attack us?” Astenius asked once more.
“You are here to be attacked,” the man answered.
“How many of your warriors were with you?”
“Not enough,” the warrior answered.
“How many more are there?”
“More than enough.”

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Astenius said to the trapped warrior.
“I struggle,” the man replied, gritting his teeth.
“I applaud your bravery,” Astenius said, sweeping his hand to point at the brazier, “but your stupidity astounds me.”
“Life is disappointment,” the man said.

Seriously, Seven Deaths of an Empire reminded me so much of Gladiator that I often found my self picturing events from the book overlaid with scenes from the movie. The battle against the tribes in the forest. The legion’s return to the capital. While there’s no fight in the arena, the novel does include a Colosseum, even though we never get a good look inside. Fact is, Seven Deaths of an Empire was ripe for the picturing beneath scenes of Gladiator in no small part because—as you will see once you read it—the world was inspired heavily by the Roman Empire.

Only with magic.

The magic system is quite a basic one, but as enthralled as I found myself with the story, its lack of creativity never really bothered me. This adheres to the law that the only ones who can wield magic are those born with it. This in part seems to be why magic users are hated, feared. Jealousy breeds resentment, they say. And the church and magic never really gets along—in this world or any other.

The two POVs were quite good at getting the story across, each in their own way. Kyron is a bit young, a bit whiny—but this is his coming-of-age tale, and he’ll grow on you once you get used to him. His character might even develop over the course of the story. Bordan, on the other hand, is an old hand. He’s guided the heirs to the Empire for years, as he once was like kin to their father. He is patient and humble, and though his faith is not what it once was, he has faith in the Empire above all else. This is his true strength, but also his greatest weakness. Unlike Kyron, this story does not serve as Bordan’s beginning. It is his swan song. But will he live to see the Empire crumble, or die keeping it intact?

There are a lot of questions that come up over the course of the story, as the past is hinted at and slowly revealed; as loyalties are tested and friendships forged; as the Empire is caught in the wind, and teeters on its foundations. There are many vines in this, and not all will end up bearing fruit. Still, it was quite a thing to see them all come together at the end—and, while not all is cleared up, the overwhelming majority of my questions were answered. All the big and burning ones are, at least. In writing this review a week or two later I was able to come up with a couple that weren’t returned (though I really had to think about it), but none kept me up at night after finishing the story.

TL;DR

Seven Deaths of an Empire may be 550 pages, but to me it went by in a blink. Although it did take a little while to get going. But where it took me 3-4 days to read the first hundred pages, it took me one day to read the rest. Two very strong leads (though they’re both men; it didn’t bother me, but then I typically connect better with male characters, being a guy and all) made the story no effort at all to get into. It’s so reminiscent of Gladiator that I found myself overlaying scenes from the film with the world I’d constructed in my mind. The forests of Germany. The roads of the Empire. The obelisks and Colosseum and wonders of the capital. It really is quite like the Roman Empire but with magic. A thoroughly engrossing read, almost the whole way through. I took a couple points off for the build-up, but clearly nothing that ruined the story for me. Thoroughly recommended! Just don’t expect a happy, sunny story—as this is a dark fantasy, very occasionally bordering on grim.