Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

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

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Crownbreaker – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

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

Spellslinger #6

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 17, 2019

519 pages (Hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Age of Dread #3

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; August 6, 2019

491 pages (PB)

4.3 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Ink & Sigil – by Kevin Hearne (Review)

Ink & Sigil #1

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Del Rey; August 25, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Every Sky a Grave – by Jay Posey (Review)

Both covers are good, though I probably prefer the UK’s

The Ascendance #1

Scifi, Space Opera, Fantasy

Skybound Books; July 7, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

A planetary assassin from an all-women sect that wields a forgotten tongue as a weapon, Elyth was taught that her actions save lives and protect the universe from conflict and evil. Her order, the House of Ascendance, have been taught the Deep Language since they were young. Combined with the Herza—soldiers that wield advanced technology—they make up the two arms of the Ascendance, which rule the galaxy as a whole. Over millennia they have honed it to root and strife and dissidence from within, protecting the Ascendance from threats.

Elyth is a true believer, one that will do everything in her power to serve the Empire’s vision, even if it means giving her life in the process. Fresh from a successful mission to quell a planet on the verge of sedition, Elyth is sent to Qel, a world possibly infected by the Markovian Strain—a corrupted version of the Language, thought to have been wiped out.

See, there’s a reason why only women are trusted to learn the Deep Language. Years prior, a man named Varen Fedic began using the Language for evil, attempting to dominate the Empire for his personal rule. Though it started on Markov, the strain soon boiled over to other worlds, and the corruption spread. Together, the Herza and House were able to defeat and destroy the Strain, but its legacy of terror remains.

And so Elyth is sent to Qel to investigate.

Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan. When her ship crash-lands on Qel, Elyth is hunted like prey, barely able to get a sense of the world she has come to investigate. But that which she does only builds her disquiet. For whatever is happening on Qel is truly strange and mysterious, but despite all the warnings she received regarding the corruption of the Strain, Elyth begins to suspect what the House taught her—while certainly its truth—perhaps wasn’t the full story.

As with many other reviewers I’ve seen, I was quickly impressed by the world-building. From the very first chapter (which gives a taste of both the Language and the Ascendancy), I had no trouble imagining and detailing the adventure unfolding. Posey does an excellent job building up the world (or worlds), the hierarchy of its empire, and the ancient—yet still enigmatic—Deep Language. While I was prepared for it to be just another attempt at blunt words-of-power magic, it somehow manages to convey something more, an intricacy that’s intertwined with the foundations of the universe. What follows is a curious blend of space opera scifi and sorcerous fantasy that I enjoyed on two levels, and think will appeal to fans of either genre.

Unfortunately, the world-building is not without its flaws. While early on we are treated to a decent history lesson on the foundations of the world, throughout the text there are references that made me think that the author was holding out on me. While the Markovian Strain plays a huge part in the story, the history of the Ascendancy itself felt lacking—as it was hard to tell just how old or noble they really were. Though it’s not absolutely necessary to the events on Qel, I really feel it would’ve been helpful to compare the evilness of the Strain to something. Being told something is evil isn’t always enough; it’s often important to relate how or why it’s bad. While it…. urrrgghh. Okay. While the world-building was excellent, it often felt as though the history of the Ascendancy as it related to the story was lacking. Or incomplete. Does that make sense? It didn’t contract from the story, but felt like it was missing out on an opportunity to really bolster it.

Elyth is a strong lead, and her character development—while not the best ever—was quite something. A true believer from the outset, it’s interesting to watch her evolution as she discovers that while she was told the danger of the Strain, perhaps it wasn’t the whole truth. She’s a loyal and stubborn servant, but also an inquisitive and independent one. While she does whatever she can to fit her discoveries within the lines of what she believes, she never discounts anything out of hand, despite what it means for those beliefs. And so her evolution is interesting—whether it be progression or regression, even sometimes both.

I had little issue getting into Every Sky a Grave, but a slight problem in the middle. Action, stealth and tension war with philosophy as to which controls the pacing, but neither wins out. As such, the pacing was a bit odd at times, making it easy for me too rattle off fifty pages, only to take me a half hour to get through a dozen. While I never struggled to read this, it’s not exactly an action-packed thriller. There are periods of action, yes, but it’s all balanced with stealth, mystery, philosophy, and more. That wasn’t an issue for me, though it might be for you.

Though the conclusion wowed me (there was even a certain LOTR moment that brought chills), the lead-in to it was hit and miss. There were some unlikely events, some great ones, and even one that was a head-scratcher. All in all, however, it was a great adventure.

TL;DR

Every Sky a Grave combines in-depth world-building with strong dialogue and fascinating character progression to tell a tense, gripping story that somehow manages to incorporate both fantasy and science fiction, while committing to neither genre. The mysterious Deep Language is a unique magic-system, while its space-opera roots are evident in the world and its characters. With a strong female lead and an interesting story you should have little trouble getting into the read, though its second half struggles to decide between philosophy, action, and stealth—which really makes the pacing odd. At times I tore through pages, while others I had to read and reread sections to make sure I understood them. Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed Every Sky a Grave and look forward to the continuation of this new series, Posey’s best start since Three!

The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

I prefer the UK cover version, but that’s just me

The Raven’s Blade #2

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit; July 28, 2020 (UK)
Ace; August 4, 2020 (US)

498 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware Spoilers for the Wolf’s Call and minor spoilers for the Raven’s Shadow trilogy.

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

The Stahlhast have laid waste to an entire continent en route to the Merchant Kingdoms of the far east. Kehlbrand, the true Darkblade, thinks himself a living god—though his divine power comes from his connection to a certain stone, one that is inured with the Dark. With this power he controls a vast army of fanatics and mercenaries, murders and rapists, along with the righteous and those simply seeking glory. Together they’ve proved unstoppable, carving a trail of blood and ashes from sea to sea. And nothing can stop their conquest of the Merchant Kingdoms, and maybe even the entire world.

Nothing, except maybe Vaelin Al Sorna.

Known to the Darkblade as the “Thief of Names”, Vaelin has yet to prove much more of an annoyance than a gnat provides to a dinosaur. But with his allies on the run, his own army in disarray, and one of his truest friends dying; the tides are about to turn. For the Blood Song—the same song he lost so many years before—is again within reach. For with his last breath, Ahm Lin has offered up his own blood so that Vaelin can regain this precious gift. A gift he cannot face the Darkblade without.

But when Vaelin drinks his blood, the song that comes is not his own. It is vile and tainted, a tune that demands death above all else: a Black Song. But while this gift might yet save the world from the Darkblade, it will surely doom Vaelin Al Sorna.

My history with Vaelin is somewhat complicated. I loved my introduction to the Fifth Order back in 2013, and Blood Song is still one of my favorite books. Tower Lord, on the other hand, was… okay. Not a bad read, but not great, either. But when compared (and as a successor) to Blood Song—it was terrible. I honestly hated the turn the series had taken so much that I didn’t even bother to read Queen of Fire. Still haven’t, even.

When Anthony Ryan chose to return Vaelin as the sole lead last year, I was cautiously optimistic. Optimism was quickly followed by relief and love. While I didn’t like the Wolf’s Call quite as much as Blood Song, it was a damn good read. The Black Song is to the Wolf’s Call that the Wolf’s Call was to Blood Song. That is—it’s a great read, but not quite as good. But not anywhere near the disaster that I found Tower Lord.

The world-building itself is kinda lazy. It borrows very heavily upon earth itself. The Stahlhast and Steppe parallel the Mongols and their Steppe. The Merchant Kingdoms (and Cantons) represent China, Japan, Korea and the like, down to their very names and historic attitudes. The Opal Islands are a continuation of South Asia to even Oceana, with their jungle and mythical beasts.

The setting is similarly lame. It’s pretty much the Mongoliad in the world of the Raven. An unstoppable horde rolls over everything in its path, in its quest to conquer the world. The living god, the connection to the Dark, the later stages of the book—all these are new and interesting. I was more forgiving of this in the first book because of the Steppe. I’ve always been a sucker for Mongolian and Tibetan culture and civ. While I like China and Japan and such too, it’s harder to avoid the comparisons now, and how they’re pretty much just the same civs with different names. Like, all of them.

It’s the same great story, though. Vaelin is a little more stoic than he was at the beginning, but nowhere near as cold and aloof as we saw in Tower Lord. The Song itself is intriguing. Rather than an old friend come home, it’s a different tune—one that takes a different telling—something that demands chaos and blood, instead of the orderly one seen in the first trilogy. Where Al Sorna has changed, the Song has as well, and it lends a different… vibe to everything. Where the Wolf’s Call dipped into the iron will and horse culture of the Steppe, the Black Song is definitely a book about kings, emperors, and courtly politics. I mean, it’s not ALL politics or anything. If it was, I wouldn’t’ve read it. There’s action, violence, intrigue, adventure and more—but there’s also courtly etiquette and politics.

My favorite part of the book is Part 3, where we explore the Opal Islands a bit. Due to spoilers, I obviously can’t go into much detail, but there’s jungle, myth and legend, the unknown, and adventure galore. The ending is truly innovative, but can also come off as odd. I mean, a lot of the stuff in Part 3 caught me by surprise, but not in a bad way. It even feels an adventure at times—which I loved, but that’s me. It reminded me of Uncharted (the game) where… actually, never mind, I can’t because spoilers. Sufficient to say it has a different vibe than the other two parts and leave it at that.

TL;DR

The conclusion to the Raven’s Blade duology, the Black Song introduces some new plot mechanics, characters and settings, while retaining the war, antagonist, and overall feel of the Wolf’s Call. With a great story and excellent protagonist in Vaelin Al Sorna, it’s a book I could read over and over happily enough for years to come. While a much better successor to the Wolf’s Call than Tower Lord was to Blood Song—the Black Song isn’t perfect by any means. The setting and world-building are honestly just lazy. As we explore what’s pretty much just Asia, there’s much to take in. Politics mingle with action and war; violence, bloodshed and courtly pandering alternating in a pleasant mix. Despite the near-constant change in setting, I never felt the pacing lag, nor did the story ever bore me. It was good, consistent, and Al Sorna-y. A must read for all Vaelin Al Sorna fans—if you liked Wolf’s Call, you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Age of Empyre – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Legends of the First Empire #6

Epic, Fantasy

Riyria Enterprises; May 5, 2020

366 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware: Spoilers for the previous Legends of the First Empire through Age of Death!

“You’re taller than I remember.”
“I grew up.”
He made a disapproving sound in his throat. “You should try to avoid that in the future.”
“Well, I’m dead, so that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

The epic conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire does not disappoint! While I was torn on the first three (I threw TWO at the wall, and took a month to read the third), the next two absolutely wowed me. The third does a great job of concluding the overarching story of the war between the Rhunes and the Fhrey, and the establishment of the First Empire. Just keep in mind that it’s called the Legends of the First Empire for a reason; the events within occurred so long ago (3000 years, I think) that they’ve become, well, legends. Though I certainly knew what to expect in general (it IS a prequel to Riyria, obviously, so it can’t be too much of a surprise for any veterans of those books), Empyre does provide a few twists and turns, along with some events that actually took me by surprise. It’s like the legend of King Arthur or Robin Hood that often changes in each telling. The broad strokes may be the same—but legends in the making can be quite different than how they turn out on the page.

With over half our cast still dead, the living fight so that those gone may yet have a world to return to. But the war has taken its toll. Dissent and hopelessness are on the rise on both sides of the conflict. Currently on the losing side, the Fhrey have paid an unbelievable price to gain the upper hand. But even as humanity prepares to retreat, the price proves too high for some in the Fhrey, and a desperate gamble is taken. A gamble that relies on two artists, a certain prince, and a mission that was doomed from the start. But with Brin and the other yet to escape the afterlife, all hope may’ve well and truly died (ha).

But there’s a twist. Tressa—as it will surprise no one—has been lying. And when the objective of their quest changes yet again, our heroes may yet have a hope of completing their mission. All they have to do is find their way back to life.

I tried to keep the blurb as vague as possible here. Being a six-book series (or “hexalogy”), there’s no telling where anyone will be now. And be it book four, book two, done for some months, not yet begun, not yet interested in beginning, or anywhere in-between—I don’t want to exclude anyone. That being said, there are definitely some spoilers, so if you’ve read this far… you’ve already noticed a few.

Having read the Riyria, I knew generally what to expect, though Sullivan does point out that these are LEGENDS. Like the stories of King Arthur, Beowulf, or Robin Hood. Something that has well before faded from memory and become legend. To this end, I’ve seen a few reviewers complaining that it’s different than what Riyria led them to believe. There’s bound to be some change in the story just from each telling. Sullivan does justify this further within, but I’ll leave it here. But as a side note, there are others that expected each character to have their own proper ending. This doesn’t happen. And in general, it didn’t bother me. The story wraps up the war and the establishment of the First Empire nicely. While I would’ve liked an afterward to glimpse just what what everyone got up to post-hexalogy—it really isn’t necessary. The conclusion is satisfying how it is. And that’s enough.

The main thing that annoyed me in Empyre was that Brin is credited with inventing writing. Technically it’s said before now, but Empyre refers to it a lot. Seeing as how she copied the writing from some ancient tablets she found in the Agave (in Age of Swords)—she didn’t invent it. Honestly, this probably wouldn’t’ve annoyed me so much, but Sullivan again tries to justify that it’s HER invention, even saying repeatedly (even after we find out who MADE the tablets from the Agave) that Brin had invented them. Even after the writing is noticed on the Horn of Gylindora, which predates Brin by millennia, the author still attempts to give her credit through a conversation with the Fhrey the Horn belonged to, in the land of the dead.

“To most, it looks like a battered ram’s horn. But it has markings on it.”
“Writing?”
The Fhrey nodded. “No one knows that—not yet. Right now, everyone thinks they’re just decorative markings. Some might even speculate they’re magic runes like the Orinfar. But in fact, they are words—words you can read.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because you invented the language they’re written in.”

So… his argument here is what—time travel? I don’t understand how—or why—Sullivan keeps trying to justify this. It doesn’t make any sense! Brin’s a badass anyway, she doesn’t need this extra bit. Rediscovering a lost writing system is just as impressive as inventing a new one, at least in my opinion. This is just another invention (e.g. the bow, wheels, pockets, etc) he tries to claim over the course of the series, a trend which I (very) quickly tired of.

As usual, the language is common, relaxed, not trying to reinvent anything, nor replicate that of olde. Therefore it’s quite easy to read, and quickly. I’ve always loved how well Sullivan blends action, excitement, and humor, which paves the way for quite a few memorable quotes.

“You can’t fight all of them,” Maya told him.
“Of course I can. I’m a Galantian. I’m not guaranteeing I’ll win, but I’ll try.”
“All by yourself?”
“What’re you talking about? You’ll help. And I have the Great Rain with me, and he’s got that sweet new sword.”
Rain looked like he might be sick.

The worldbuilding is as impressive as ever—particularly so considering we’re on the sixth book of the third series set on Elan (the SIXTEENTH book overall). While the First Empire is a prequel series, much of the land is undeveloped, but still memorable, though Sullivan doesn’t take quite as much pains as previous books to paint us a lovely word-picture. Of Elan, at least. The underworld, however, was easy to picture, and even sent my imagination running through its description. The characters—as usual—are amazing. Tesh, Brin, Moya, Gifford, Roan, Rain, Tekchin, Nyphron, Persephone, Suri, Mawyndulë, Imaly and even more have been fleshed out by this point. Any one of these characters probably could’ve carried the story on their own, but instead all of them meld together to create a truly epic narrative. There are even a few surprise appearances within that help the tale along. Not that it needs any help, mind.

TL;DR

An epic conclusion befitting of an epic series: Age of Empyre tells the story it sets out to and more, concluding the Legends of the First Empire in a blaze of action, adventure, and flair. While it may not appear exactly as you imagined it from the Riyria days, this hexalogy bears the title “Legends” for a reason. The plot alone provides more than enough justification to read this one—with so many threads converging at this point, it’s an epic conclusion to be sure! Meanwhile the worldbuilding and characters continue to wow, with each detail better than the last. A few hiccups remain—the group ending didn’t really appeal to me the way a personal one would’ve; and one of the story’s key points seriously tries to pitch time-travel as a justification. But, as with the latter half of the hexalogy, the pros well outweigh the cons. Plus, let’s face it—if you’ve gotten this far into Legends of the First Empire—are you really going to skip the final book? Really? Yeah, uh huh.

They Mostly Come Out at Night – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

I quite like the cover, done by Jenny Zemanek

Yarnsworld #1

Dark Fantasy

One More Page; June 16, 2016

216 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Lonan is an outcast, accused of leading monsters to his village and letting them in to the homes of his fellow villagers. That night Lonan’s father died, while Branwen—the love of his life—was horribly scarred. Neither his love nor his mother has looked at him the same again. All the while, the real culprit escapes notice, the man and his strange Knack keeping suspicion from him. Now, years later, the village still cowers in their cellars in the dead of night, fearing the monsters that roam above.

The Magpie King keeps us safe…

An old adage in the village of Smithdown, referring to the forest’s king and mysterious protector. But the Magpie King is more myth than monarch—none of the villagers having seen him in their lives. So when Lonan starts having dreams of the young Magpie King, he’s certain his mind is starting to dessert him. Certain, but for one thing.

Adahy is the son of the Magpie King. His father, equal parts ruler and protector of the forest, stalks the night, keeping the villages safe from the monsters that would otherwise prey on them. The King wields mysterious and supernatural power and speed, granted his bloodline by the Magpies. But when a new monstrosity appears in the forest, it challenges everything the King has worked so hard to build. It falls to Adahy and his closest friend, Maedoc, to deal with this foe. Yet the dark history of the forest has more in store for this pair than just what looms before them. What follows is a tale of hope, deceit, and darkness all rolled into one.

Dreaming the course of Adahy’s life, Lonan is clued into this new threat. And those that would follow it. But can he get someone—anyone—to believe him, or will the darkness overwhelm the village of Smithdown, once and for all?

I remember liking They Mostly when I first read it, but it made little impression on me at the time. Back then, I was just getting into dark fantasy, and the story—while dark, while entertaining, while foreboding—also bears the marks of a debut work.

While I found the story of Lonan a bit difficult to care about at first, I immediately took to Adahy and his tale, becoming more enamored with Lonan along the way. The young prince is, well… young. Inexperienced. The story serves much as a coming of age tale for him. At least for a time. Lonan, however, has already come of age. In a village that loathes him, but a few folk are willing to be seen with him. So few of these characters seem real, however, with a majority feeling like cardboard cutouts, introduced to fill space but do little else. Even the love of his life, Branwen, feels like a husk. I would’ve liked to see a bit more on her, on why Lonan likes her, on their lives before the incident. Sure—there’s some development here, just not much. But while I thoroughly enjoyed Lonan’s own adventure, development and growth, I cared little about that of anyone else’s. Though to be fair, there’s only one other character that’s fleshed out to any significant degree.

The character of Adahy seems like little more than an extension of Lonan at first, but grows from a dream into something more real. It was his story that I connected to initially, and this never faded over time. Unlike the village boy, Adahy doesn’t have much anyone in his life apart from his best friend, Maedoc—the whipping boy, punished in the prince’s place when he screws up (yes, this was a thing). While Maedoc too seems under-developed, the two form a special dynamic that both entertained and moved the story along, even as Lonan got a handle on his part in it.

Where the characters of Yarnsworld fell flat, it was the setting that really sold the story for me. A dark land of mystery and monsters, the Forest was equal parts fantasy kingdom, faerie tale, and horror story rolled into one. Though the writing wasn’t perfect—the author occasionally misusing words or mixing them up (e.g. I remember him using ‘gleam’ when he really meant ‘glean’, which may’ve been a typo except that his kept misusing it)—it certainly conveyed the darkness and horrors lurking just off stage, the nightmares wandering the darkness of the land. This cast a presage of foreboding over the Forest, making it seem dark and mysterious, especially at night. During the day, I really liked how it reverted to the typical enchanted forest; still dark, but no more or less than usual. Considering Lonan spent his days here, foraging, it created an interesting dynamic here, something that I actually would’ve liked to’ve seen more of.

The ending of They Mostly was a unique take, that I obviously can’t talk much about. It did feel a little abrupt, just a bit of a disappointment, but didn’t leave any threads unwoven, any stones unturned. All in all, the story was pretty great—an excellent adventure though with a bit of an uninspired conclusion.

The book contains a number of short faerie tales or myths about the Magpie King, Artemis, or the world itself. These work as interludes between chapters. Except for one or two, I found these interesting snippets of lore about the world. It’s possible they might annoy you, but if so, just skip ‘em. While they can add detail, they’re not absolutely essential to the plot.

TL;DR

With a dark, twisted setting and a mysterious, intriguing story, They Mostly Come Out at Night proved to be an interesting debut, before falling victim to some typical debut failings. Hollow supporting characters, failure to capitalize on good ideas, a fairly short and unrefined, if compelling story feature prominently among these. Oddly, the author also occasionally misused words—not misspelling them, but using one when he should’ve another—almost like there was no real editor. Which is possible, but for the otherwise lack of any glaring grammatical or spelling issues. Nothing was enough to distract me from the story, however, as Yarnsworld quickly drank me in. I read They Mostly in two days, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. While there definitely were issues, I’d say they’re outweighed by the gains, making They Mostly Come Out at Night if not a must-read dark fantasy, then one to consider reading if curiosity strikes your interest.

The series presently contains three other books, each set in the same world, but unrelated to the first. All also have long names—Where the Waters Turn Black; Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords; From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court. A short, free tale—And They Were Never Heard From Again—provides a good intro to the series, which you can check out if you’re interested.

Ashes of the Sun – by Django Wexler (Review)

Burningblade & Silvereye #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus (UK); July 21, 2020
Orbit Books (US); July 21, 2020

592 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Ashes of the Sun was my most anticipated book of the year—beating out Peace Talks AND Rhythm of War—and it did not disappoint. And while last year was my Year of Django, this may be my favorite book of his thus far.

Long ago, the Chosen ruled the world, but following a war with the Ghouls, they vanished from the earth. Humanity eventually won the war, scouring the Ghouls from the planet, but still their gods did not return. Hundreds of years later, a new Empire has risen in the ashes of the old. The Twilight Order serves the land, protecting its people from the threat of dhak—plaguespawn, unnatural creatures, that would overrun the land if left unchecked. But not all dhak are plaguespawn. As Gyre well knows.

When he was eight, Gyre watched as his little sister Maya was abducted by the Order. He tried to intervene but was rebuffed, the attempt costing him both an eye in the process. As Maya began a new life as an Order trainee, Gyre’s life changed as well. His parents never recovered the loss of their daughter, and soon, Gyre was alone with only thoughts of vengeance to guide him.

Seventeen year-old Maya wants nothing more than to be a centarch of the Order—roving the Empire, protecting the people from dhak, and the dhakim that would exploit it. But when she is recalled to the Order to begin the final leg of her training, it won’t be plaguespawn that she’ll have to worry about—it will be the Order itself. When Maya and a group of other initiates are sent to wile out corruption in a city filled to the brim with it, she assumes that nothing could be worse than the mayor of the place itself. But having been forewarned that her superior will stop at nothing to ruin their mission, she expects trouble on all fronts. But does not expect it in the form of her long lost brother, Gyre.

Gyre has had over a dozen years to stoke his hatred of the Twilight Order. In the depths of Deepfire, he’s found a cause that focuses it. Going by the moniker ‘Halfmask’ for the mask covering his ruined eye, Gyre is loathed, respected and feared in equal measure. Under the command of the rebel, Yora, he fights on behalf of the Tunnelborn, those downtrodden beneath the Empire’s boot. But he’s always looking for something more; something to destroy the Order, and the Empire behind it. And when he meets the mysterious Doomseeker—a man of more myth than even he—it appears that what he needs is within his grasp. Enter his sister, Maya, seeking to preserve the very Order he seeks to destroy.

With their paths about to cross will Maya and Gyre be able to put aside their differences and focus on their past, or will they tear the very world each is trying to protect into pieces?

••••

My second ‘ siblings on either side of a war ‘ of the year (following the Ranger of Marzanna), and it turns out that second time’s the charm. Where I found Skovron’s book slow and dry, there’s nothing slow about Ashes of the Sun. With a plot that took off from the very start and action that started off slow and constantly gained speed as it went along—Ashes proved the epic retreat and adventure in a year otherwise plagued with chaos and… plague.

The setting of Ashes begins as one might expect; as a world newly discovered, the reader is introduced around to its various sights and sounds, never dwelling in one place too long as to spoil the effect, but long enough to build up their appreciation of the world-building on the whole. It’s a classic strategy—with a few notable differences.

There are just some terms that we have to work out for ourselves. When Maya and Gyre are introduced to something new or unique, or something they must familiarize themselves with, the reader usually receives a description. But for some other terms, like “unmetal, dhak, Chosen, haken” etc, we’re just left to fend for ourselves while the story continues on, not waiting for us to catch up. While there are some that may be turned off by this, I found it to be the perfect blend of detail and lack-thereof to both give my imagination cues to construct the world, while leaving me to my own devices to interpret some others as I saw fit. Thus the world I ended up imagining may be very different from yours, or the author’s, or anyone else’s.

While the world is great when seen from either Gyre or Maya’s perspective, when you bring them together it is a masterpiece. Characters often see the world in different ways. But this isn’t always clear in the writing. While one person might see the world as a dark, foreboding abyss, another may seen a land full of color and light. Maya sees the world as a lovely, vibrant place, where evil lurks in the shadows—and it’s her job to keep it that way. Gyre, meanwhile, views it as more of a lurid dystopia, where evil comes in many colors and good exists as but a fanciful dream. For the first several chapters, I kept switching back from one POV’s description to the other, but eventually the two began to blend with one another to create something new. Have you seen those paintings that combine the styles of multiple different artists to depict one object (like a building or landscape or whatever)? And the resulting work blends all of what each one sees together to create something recognizable, if completely unexpected? It’s like that. I don’t know if you’ll have the same experience with this, but I sure hope you do!

No one is above suspicion. Without any spoilers or long, rambling thoughts, let me just say this: Maya and Gyre are keepers. Otherwise, all bets are off. This isn’t one of those stories where the heroes vanquish evil and live happily ever after. In Ashes, there are no heroes. And life proceeds accordingly.

While the POV characters are the strongest, don’t count the secondary ones out. Unsurprisingly, Maya and Gyre are the strongest two characters in this story. Somewhat surprisingly, several others came close, with one on each side threatening to steal my heart away from the other sibling. Kit and Beq each flesh out quite nicely. But then most of Halfmask’s and Maya’s crews do as well. Yora, Tanax, Sarah, even Jaedia all try to steal the show at some point. I guess I just wasn’t expecting the level to which they would rise. In a book where no one is above suspicion, and you need to expect the unexpected, it’s never ideal to get too attached to a non-POV character. Or sometimes even a POV one (looking at you Ned and Boromir—yeah, so, pretty much just Sean Bean) (it’s never a great idea to get too attached to Sean Bean).

While it’s a serious quest to save the world, there’s still more than enough time to have fun. Drinking, sex, adventure, mystery, swearing, and sarcasm—if you don’t like any of those you might not enjoy this one. The book knows how to have fun. If I’ve learnt one thing about Wexler by now, it’s that he knows that too. When the cards are down, it’s time to get your game face on. Before that, however, well… there’s no reason to take yourself too seriously.

‘ “That,” she called out to him, “might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen anyone try. And believe me when I say you’re up against some strong competition in that category.” ‘

Ashes does humor well. I loved, I laughed, and I did some of each at the same time.

I had only slight problems with Ashes of the Sun; nothing worth harping on. A minor issue with one or two characters in the second half. A few minor issues with the level of technology changing. A slight issue with the plot leading up to the end. Nothing major; nothing really even minor; nothing worth worrying about.

TL;DR

Ashes of the Sun tells a dynamic story of two equally impressive siblings, each trying to shape the world in their own way. And since each sees and interprets the world differently, Ashes creates a unique perspective when the two points of view blend together. It’s not a seamless thing—more the product of multiple artists attempting to paint bits of the same location in their own style. The result would still be recognizable, but also unexpectedly unique and thought-provoking. I found Ashes of the Sun like that: the fusion of two different perspectives to paint a single picture. And I loved it. But you might not. Either way, the book contains strong characters, a rollicking story, action, adventure, romance, drama and a great plot all rolled into one. Even should you not totally love it—there’s more than enough to enjoy, and no reason not to try it.

When Jackals Storm the Walls – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Song of the Shattered Sands #5

Fantasy, Epic

DAW; July 14, 2020 (US)
Gollancz; July 16, 2020 (UK)

528 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

The penultimate entry in the Song of the Shattered Sands takes a while, but manages to impress just as much as its predecessors. The same great world-building, character development, attention to detail and structure are just some of the reasons I’ve made it so far into this series, and many of the reasons I’m looking forward to its conclusion with the usual amount of hope, anticipation and anxiety. As much as I love a good ending—I’ll be sad to bid these characters farewell. But every story needs an end. Let’s just not rush to it too quickly, eh?

The rule of the Kings has been broken. The Blood Queen Meryam nows rules Sharakai, along with the descendants of the Kings. The remnants of the initial Twelve have been scattered to the winds. Ihsan—maimed and scarred—now wanders the Shangazi alone, searching for clues to the gods’ plans for the desert. As his hopes of solo rule have faded so too have his chances of survival. But there is still a slim hope: for Ihsan, and for the world itself.

Brama and Davud have staved off death, at least thus far. All but alone and abandoned, they must each rely on their single ally. But where Davud’s is the beautiful, formerly blood mage Esmerae—with whom he has fallen in love—Brama’s is the dangerous ehrekh, Rümayesh, with who he now shares a body. With no help coming, and nothing but doom before them, both will find themselves attracted to the same mystery. One that may determine the fate of the desert.

With the help of Sehid-Alaz—the thirteenth king—Çeda has broken the asirim’s curse. But it comes at a great cost, as both the goddesses Nalamae and Yerinde lie dead, slain at each other’s hand. But where Yerinde lies still, Nalamae is fated to be reborn, though where and when Çeda does not know. And so she turns her attention to Sharakai, hoping to find some clue to the goddesses whereabouts in the city.

But others are searching for the desert goddess as well. And when Çeda discovers the reason, it will force her to make a difficult choice: work with the former Kings, or risk Sharakai’s ultimate destruction. A desperate plan is hatched, one that may yet save the city. For while the city stands, the Shangazi rests easy, but if the sands consume it, then they may consume the world as well.

All in all, I enjoyed my time reading When Jackals Storm the walls. As always, Beaulieu’s world-building is strong; possibly his greatest strength. The characters aren’t far behind—each continuing their development to a satisfying degree by book’s end. Brama and Davud especially stole the show, though Meryam impressed as well. There are always exceptions to this rule, with two of note: Çeda and Ramahd. Çeda’s development was there, but felt a little diminished as she’s really the face of this franchise. While her love life seems to have recovered (more, at least) from where it’s been in recent books, her transition from warrior to leader seems to have hit a snag. Not that she regressed, more that it was stagnant. Ramahd, for his part, was stagnant. The little we see of him in WJStW, she’s chasing Meryam, still trying to bring her to justice. Late, late in the book, he shows some of the development we’ve seen in past books, but for the most part he’s a mindless, faceless drone

I’m always skeptical of the choice to add a new character so late in the series. While Meryam is by no means “new”—she’s been around as a significant character since the first book—she hasn’t had her own POV chapters until now. And when one gives a character their own POV, the author typically wants to delve into their character’s backstory. This can cause the pace to slow or become uneven, especially in the later books where most other characters have been fleshed out. Meryam is no different. But Beaulieu has attempted to mitigate this by putting only brief flashbacks in each POV chapter, disguised as a dream sequence. They don’t take up as much time, and don’t screw with the pacing as much either. Willem and Hamid show up not nearly as often as the Queen, and mostly just to flesh out the story. Neither feature a heavy backstory, nor much in the way of personality. While they’re mildly interesting, it doesn’t seem like either is around to stay. Or are they?

That said, the pacing of When Jackals Storm the Walls is already slow. Honestly, I found it slower to build than most of the predecessors—since roughly Book #2. This slow build clashes dramatically with the sense of urgency exhibited by most characters throughout the book, and makes for the oddest feeling. It’s like the army adage “hurry up and wait”. It’s legitimately strange to see the characters of a book talking with urgency, but then strolling around like they have all the time in the world.

Through most of the story, I was interested, if not overly so. While a bit slow, there is a good mystery to the book—involving Sharakai, the gods, Nalamae, the Kings, the desert itself. When the mystery begins to unfold, it sells vast on a vast scale; one where the gods move humanity and demons alike around like pieces on a chessboard. The moment where I put everything together I wondered if Beaulieu had this in mind all along—because it is brilliant. But it takes some patience to make it this far. Around the 55% mark, the pace began to catch up to the urgency, and the tale began to drink me in. The conclusion, which begins to build after around the 70% mark or so, was truly an epic one—one of the most epic and jaw-dropping conclusions I’ve ever witnessed. It wasn’t so much that I was blindsided, or didn’t see it coming, it was just the execution was spot-on; the description so vivid and detailed that I felt like I’d fallen into the book and was witnessing it happen myself.

TL;DR

Addition of new characters, new faces, and new POV chapters hurts the pacing, but ultimately helps tell the story. With everything happening, When Jackals Storm the Walls lays down a level of urgency that the text just doesn’t live up to, at least for a while. But throughout a mystery is unfolding, one written on the level of the gods themselves. It’s truly impressive once you figure it out, especially if one manages it before the story hands it to you. When the pacing finally does catch up with the urgency, it sets off a conclusion that is epic even in the most epic standards. So detailed is the writing, so vivid the description that I felt like I’d fallen into the book—and was witnessing events firsthand. The fifth book of the Shattered Sands sets up what’s certain to be an even more epic conclusion, if such a thing is possible. After the ending sequence of this one, I cannot wait for the next one!