The Glass Breaks – by A.J. Smith (Review)

Form & Void #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus; March 19, 2018

512 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.0 / 5 ✪

Chained to the rocks and left for the tide, Duncan Greenfire will either become a Sea Wolf—or he’ll die trying. All that stands between the 17 year old and death is the realm of Void, and his ability to cross the Glass into it. But as powerful as Duncan is—it’s a raw power, one that he can’t always control. And after two days doing little more than trying to survive, he has little enough power left. But when the dawn comes, and Duncan is still alive, his initiation is complete. He is a Sea Wolf, now and forever.

It’s been 167 years since the Sea Wolves and their Eastron kin sailed across the sea to take the Pure Lands by force. With an ability to step between the realms of Form and Void, their strength was unparalleled and the natives folded before their might. In the years since, their rule has become absolute. But the Eastron are now fractured: the People of Ice hide on their northern isles, the Kneeling Wolves sulk in the shadows of Big Brother, the Dark Brethren sit in regimented and orderly rows upon the Father, the Winterlords kneel to their Always King on the Isle of the Setting Sun, and the Sea Wolves who lounge on the Isle of Nibonay. None of these masters are terribly benevolent, least of which the Sea Wolves; they raid and slaughter the Pure Ones on a whim, cull their populace, seeing the natives as little more than beasts—and their Eastron kin as little better.

But as Duncan joins their ranks, he discovers the Sea Wolves may not be everything he’s ever wished of them—a sentiment echoed by Duelist Adeline Brand. She and her brother Arthur are two of the most well-known and brutal Duelists of their clan, bathing in blood and booze in equal measure. And yet Adeline harbors doubts about the Sea Wolves, the same ones Duncan is currently confronting. These come to a head when the two are dispatched on separate secret missions for the clan: Duncan to the Isle of Nowhere, seat of the People of Ice; Adeline to the Bay of Bliss, on the other side of the Isle of Nibonay. But where Adeline unearths a threat that will surely mean the doom of her and all the other Eastron in the Pure Lands, Duncan uncovers a conspiracy that may yet save them all. For certain powers have known of this threat for generations, and have been working to stop it. But the question remains: will they succeed, or will the Sea Wolves and their kin be wiped from the world instead?

This took quite a turn from where I was expecting it. The Sea Wolves—as you probably might guess after reading my description—are not nice, friendly people. They are racist, genocidal monsters, who have “generously” allowed the Pure Ones to live on their ancestral lands, all while raiding, pillaging, and slaughtering them as they see fit. Or whenever they’re bored. They do this through their marshal skill and ability to break the Glass, something the Pure Ones can’t do. The Glass and the Realm of Void are an interesting if not wholly unique system of magic, where crossing over from Form to Void means essentially traversing the spirit world (one that more or less parallels the realm of Form) and either manipulating the spirits of the Void or harnessing their energy for their own.

It was a little refreshing to read a story from the villains’ perspective, as the Sea Wolves are definitely it. Even if matters complicate and sympathies change over the course of the book, it cannot be said that the Sea Wolves aren’t the bad guys. They definitely are. Or, well, one of them.

Another twist is that Duncan is kinda an ass. He’s immature, willful, whiny, thickheaded, but mostly just annoying. Like, really, really annoying. But only about half the time. It’s not that his chapters are necessarily awful to read, more that he constantly makes the dumbest choices. This really isn’t much of a spoiler as he will do it early and often. So it’s both really interesting as a plot device and really frustrating to watch him do it. It’s the equivalent of trying to stop someone from jumping off a bridge by shooting them in the head—technically effective, but not in any circumstances acceptable behavior. He’ll also constantly proclaim that he’s a Sea Wolf. Seriously, all the damn time. At first I found this repetitive and unrealistic but then realized how realistic it actually was. Duncan’s a young, immature boy that never had a childhood and only really craves his father’s approval. Despite the fact that he hates the man. And all he’s ever wanted was to be a Sea Wolf. But now that he is, it’s not living up to his expectations. It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t feel accepted. Plus, he doesn’t feel worthy of it. So he continually asserts that he IS a Sea Wolf, on and on, because he’s just a scared, lost kid who no one has ever shown any kindness. A scared, lost kid with too much power and no control over it.

Either that or I’m overthinking it and he’s just a poorly developed character, suffering from a bad, repetitive style of writing.

While I had mixed feelings about Smith’s other series—the Long War—one thing that’s not up for debate is the world-building. Which was top notch. Similarly, Form & Void has a very well constructed world. Albeit one somewhat bereft of people. Though there are plenty of warriors (Pure Ones, Eastron, Sea Wolves, etc), there aren’t a whole lot of common folk mentioned. I mean, I assume they’re around, just we barely ever see them. Otherwise, the world itself, its history, its geography—is all amazing. No issue at all.

The story itself is pretty good as well. It’s full of twists and turns, typically not following the path I expected (insomuch as the idiotic things Duncan does can be considered plot twists), though it did pretty much end like I’d’ve guessed. I absolutely no problem reading the book as Adeline and Duncan make a pretty good pair. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses—though Duncan’s are far more weaknesses than strengths—and compliment one another rather well. You’ll get sections of one or the other: four straight chapters from Duncan’s POV, then the same from Adeline’s (both in 1st person), and on and on.

The characters themselves are another reason to read the Glass Breaks. Other than Adeline and Duncan there are dozens of other well-developed characters, each with their own motivations and backstory. And they’re all expendable, even the ones that you think are too important to die. All in all, it’s a great start to the series, though one I’d like to see fine-tuned a bit for the sequel.

TL;DR

The Glass Breaks is the start of an interesting new fantasy series from the author of the Long War. Long ago, the Sea Wolves crossed the ocean and found a new home. Once there, they brutally subjugated the natives and have continued to raid and slaughter them for the next hundred and fifty years. Enter Duncan Greenfire and Adeline Brand, Sea Wolves of the Severed Hand. Each dispatched on their own secret mission, they discover conspiracies that will doom the Sea Wolves, but might also save them. The world-building and characters are the strongest aspect of the Glass Breaks, and though Duncan can be seriously annoying at times, his stupidity comes in handy through some twists I couldn’t’ve seen coming. While there can be needless violence and somewhat repetitive internal monologues at times, there’s also a tense, mysterious atmosphere and uncommon, interesting magic system. Combined with a good story and epic (though occasionally over-the-top) dramatic and action sequences, the Glass Breaks is a great series debut, one that I enjoyed far more than I thought I would. Recommended!

The Glass Breaks is also free on kindle unlimited, if that’s your kind of thing. Form & Void continues with The Sword Falls, out May 1, 2020.

Fable – by Adrienne Young (Review)

The upcoming cover, from Titan Books

Fable Duology #1

Fantasy, YA

Wednesday Books; September 1, 2020 (US)
Titan Books; January 26, 2021 (UK)

361 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

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

As the daughter of trade magnate Saint, Fable once enjoyed a childhood of love and adventure. With her mother and father, she sailed the Narrows and Unnamed Sea, learning the skills of trading and dredging that Fable once hoped would earn her a place by her father’s side when she came of age.

That all changed the night her mother died.

The next day Saint abandoned her on Jezal, an island and pit of thieves, murderers, the desperate and unwashed. In their final moments together, he told her to survive and seek him out, to trust no one and never make herself beholden to another ‘man. Then—after dragging a knife through the flesh of her arm—he left.

Fours years later, Fable still hasn’t seen her father. She still lives on Jezal, but not for much longer. Using her unique and inherited skillset, she nearly has enough coin to escape the island, and claim her place at Saint’s right hand. But to make this dream a reality, first she must make her way across the Narrows to the mainland. Which forces her to place her trust in an ambitious young captain and his ferociously loyal crew. And even if Fable is able to cross the sea without incident, the dream she’s held to for so long may not prove the reality. But that’s a chance she’s willing to take.

“ You were not made for this world, Fable. ”

This is the story of Fable, pure and simple. It’s not really a dip into a bigger world that’s going to appear in later books (minus the second half of the duology), not is it a story of adventure itself. One of the main complaints I saw beforehand was that there wasn’t enough swashbuckling, action, or tangible fulfillment. And yeah, this is all pretty much true. But the story I was sold on was that of a girl herself, lost in a grander scheme, a grander world, one that she is desperate to find her place in. And with that as a premise, Fable did not disappoint.

Specifically, I found the book boiled down to three major points of emphasis: Fable’s relationship with her father, her place in the world around her, and her growth as a person.

I wonder, did Adrienne Young fall in love at first sight?

Fable’s relationship with her father is the most tricky. While I won’t go deep into this because of potential spoilers, I could write my entire review on her… (I absolutely hate the term “daddy issues”, but) well, you know. She remembers her childhood spent with her parents aboard the Lark as seen through a rose-tinted glasses. She was happy. Her parents were happy. Life was perfect. Until her mother died.

Her father closed off, scarred her, then abandoned her in a pit of thieves. To say she loves him would be accurate; to say she hates him would be accurate. To say she seeks his approval is also true. It’s certainly complicated, and Young devotes a lot of time to this relationship.

Fable’s place in the world around her is another important aspect of this book. I think that all of us at one time or another struggle with this. Who we are, how we fit, what role we have, what our future holds. It’s something that I’ve yet to come to terms with in my own life. And it’s something Fable is constantly challenged with in hers. Is she a thief? Is she a dredger? Is she a daughter, a lover, a friend, all of these, none of them, more? I’d say this is something that helps humanize her, makes her feel real, more than just a character in a book. It’s not a perfect depiction, to say the least, but it’s done well enough.

Fable’s character development is my third important point, and I’m just going to gloss over it. It’s… there IS development, but it seemed to me it all came too quickly, with no sense of fulfillment. She went from being distrusting, sour, and somewhat badass to swooning and trusting, seemingly overnight. Additionally, there was a romance attached to it, which didn’t feel romantic—minus one or two brief moments—and didn’t really feel real. It’s the same kind of love-at-first-sight story featured in the other Adrienne Young book I’ve read, The Girl the Sea Gave Back. I didn’t buy it there, either. The one in Fable isn’t nearly that bad, but not infinitely better.

When you know it’s love at first sight

TL;DR

Fable is quite literally the tale of Fable, daughter of a big-name trader, cast off on a lawless island hell and told to survive and seek out her father if she manages to escape it. As a tale of a girl growing up and finding her place in the world, Fable is a huge success. As a romance or swashbuckling adventure, it falls a bit short. I mean, there’s certainly adventure, but not a ton. There’s certainly a romance, it just sucks. Not much swashbuckling, though.

I really enjoyed Fable as a fable about Fable. It’s about a girl in search of her father, but moreover searching for her place in the world. There’s a lot to relate with there. It’s an experience, and tells a good and enjoyable story along the way. Fable even introduces a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming. I never had any problem reading this, and thoroughly enjoyed my time doing so. I’ll definitely read the followup, but only hope that the romance has been fixed in it.

Namesake—the second and final book in the Fable Duology—comes out March 16, 2021.

The Bone Ships – by R.J. Barker (Review)

Tide Child #1

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit Books; September 24, 2019

513 pages (ebook) 17hr 3m (audio)

3.4 / 5 ✪

Many thanks to Orbit for the ARC! Sorry it took so long, y’all. I was provided with a free reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Though all in all an interesting, often exciting read, The Bone Ships didn’t tick all the boxes for me. Though occasionally I found the dialogue wandering and the description exhausting rather than thorough—most troubling was the realization at about the 75% mark that I just couldn’t wait for the book to be over with so I could move on to something else.

Joron Twiner is the ship-wife (captain) of a Ship of the Dead—a vessel crewed by a group the sea over already considers dead. They are treated as part of the navy, but not. See, they are not people, but the dead, the lowest of the low, a caste already dead and only yet to be buried at sea. Now, how Joron got this post is a tale. But that is for another time. The real story here is of Lucky Meas, the last dragon, and Tide Child.

It all begins with Joron piss drunk on a beach. Tide Child—his Ship of the Dead—idles off shore, drifting, waiting. Waiting for “Lucky” Meas Gilbryn. Now how she came to find him on this beach is another tale, again not for this time. But find him she did, and pull him from his cups she did as well. Joron returned to Tide Child not as its Captain, but as crew.

Centuries before the dragons vanished, hunted to death by humans for their bones. Bones used to build strong, fast ships. Ships, such as Tide Child. Long after the dragons disappeared, their bones are still used and reused, warred over and against, all to fuel a cycle that will only be over when either all the humans or all the bones lie upon the bottom of the sea.

But then, a lone dragon emerges.

And so ships near and far marshal to it, each hoping to win this prize for their own. For the dragon represents wealth, glory, fame, and new ships like Tide Child. But not all would use it as the other. Lucky Meas has a plan for the dragon, but what is it? And how is it different from the rest? And is Joron willing to follow her, knowing that should he, he will almost certainly be going to his grave? But then again, he is already of Tide Child. And thus already dead.

This began as a grand adventure into realms unknown, filled with pirates, glory, and dragons. I loved the various and unique beasts, the description of the numerous horrors that stalked the wilder parts of the land and sea. The text definitely showed its creativity, which I never stopped appreciating. The world-building showed no less. Though not exhaustive, it was pretty well complete. I hope the proceeding installments continue the trend found early on. Later… I found it more of a glimpse of every port philosophy, like a game or movie that focuses on one element once only to never look its way again. Episodic, but with one constant. Tide Child is that constant. A glimpse is taken, a picture taken, then back to Tide Child and onward—this is what it felt like.

I honestly don’t know how or when I soured on the Bone Ships. It just kinda happened. At first, it was an interesting, unique adventure—somewhat reminiscent of Dragon Hunters, by Marc Turner. While in the latter’s case I became more immersed the longer the story went on, in the former’s I just became bored. And I’m honestly not sure why.

It could have been that I just felt the story went on too long. That there was too much detail but too little action. That there was a lull in the telling, where the tale lost me and I mentally checked out. And there was this—all of these. About the halfway point (maybe 40%) I felt the pace slow; it hadn’t exactly been storming along to that point, but now it really slowed. While there are a few actiony bits here and there, I found them few and far between. Normally this wouldn’t’ve bothered me. I stayed around for all 15 Wheel of Time books, after all—yet here it did.

I had trouble getting into this one, to be fair. I had several false starts, ultimately resulting in my decision to read this as an audiobook. Now, it could have been a reader issue, but wasn’t: I quite liked the reader (Jude Owusu), though it took me a bit to warm to him. It was more likely an author issue. This was my first Barker book. I have the first Wounded Kingdoms book, but haven’t read it yet. It was the language, the content, the feel, the… the dialogue. I found it a bit clunky. Often somewhere between banal and fustian (flowery, but carrying little meaning), I found it little more than filler.

TL;DR

I’d probably even recommend this, even though I didn’t love it. It was still a good read, even if it got a little too long towards the end. Other than Joron, I found very little character development evident. While Joron’s change is significant, pains are taken with Lucky Meas—pains which I felt never evolved into anything. She was still a myth by the end of the book, instead of flesh and bone. Thing is that while it began as a good and action-packed adventure, by the time the Bone Ships came to its conclusion I was already over it. The reader is good, the adventure is good, the description is good, the world-building is better than good—and all came together and worked for me. Until it didn’t. Hopefully it works well throughout for you. It just didn’t for me.

The Tide Child series continues with the Call of the Bone Ships, due out November 24, 2020.

Fortuna – by Kristyn Merbeth (Review)

My favorite cover of the year, hands down

Nova Vita Protocol #1

Scifi, Space Opera

Orbit; November 5, 2019

560 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both Orbit and NetGalley for the review copy! All opinions are my own.

Fortuna is the space opera debut from Wastelanders author Kristyn Merbeth (also known as K.S. Merbeth). This one has been on my radar for a while, only partly due to its absolutely beautiful cover. Two siblings, separated by time and space, reunite at the turning point of all things.

Scorpia Kaiser once stood in her elder brother’s shadow. But when three years prior, he abandoned their family to fight in the war on his home world, she hoped this would change. Three years, and Scorpia now only has one thought—becoming the new heir apparent of the family business and owner of its ship, Fortuna. It’s not a fancy ship—aged, battle-scarred, space-worn—but it’s the only home Scorpia’s ever known, and the only one she ever wants.

Three years prior Corvus Kaiser was abandoned on Titan, his home world, to fight in an unwinnable war. A war that he very much suspects will eventually claim his life. But recent events have changed his mind on this. In a split-second decision he calls his family, summoning them to his aid. But now faced with the choice of whether to leave or stay he must make a difficult decision between the team he never wanted and the family that doesn’t want him back.

Between the two of them there’s enough chaos to go around, but the universe seems dead-set on raising the stakes. Soon the Kaisers and Fortuna are in the middle of a war—one that may very well cost them their lives.

Fortuna is told using dual-1st person POV chapters—one following Scorpia and the other Corvus—which alternate every chapter. Initially, I found this impossible. In fact, I would read three of Scorpia’s then go back and do three or so of Corvus’s. But then the two reached the same point and place in time and—actually, it wasn’t as bad as I expected.

There’re only a couple other books I’ve read that had this format. The Girl the Sea Gave Back (by Adrienne Young) featured the same alternating man-woman 1PPOVs and I kept getting confused and lost between characters. In Iron Gold (by Pierce Brown), there are three POVs all 1P, that alternate around. I stopped this one for much the same reasons—confusion, mixing up characters, etc. Fortuna is the same, but not. I… don’t really know how to describe it. Maybe it’s because the characters are in close proximity for 2/3 of the book. Maybe it’s because they’re similar. Maybe it’s because the chapters are longer. But it didn’t bother me as much. I mean, it still bothered me, just less.

In the Afterword, Merbeth mentions that she added Corvus’s POV on the advice of her editor. Now, I dunno if this was doing him in 1P, alternating his chapters, or whatnot, but it seems to have payed off. I absolutely loved both of their stories—barring the end. The end (the final showdown, if you will) fairly well sucked. The outcome was never in question, and it was as if the author was trying to inject drama wherever possible. Which is a shame, considering the rest of the text is a treasure. While both Corvus and Scorpia have their own individual storylines, they share the main quite well. And while Scorpia tied all her threads off quite nicely, Corvus pretty much just took a flamethrower to his. Gradually, over the course of the book, though.

The minor characters of Fortuna were no less surprising in their complexity. Three further Kaiser siblings, together with their matriarch, Corvus’s team on Titan, Scorpia’s contacts on Gaia, and other black market dealers, scum, and pirates all really show their humanity (for the most part). Together, these elements make Fortuna a heck of a read, despite its few missteps.

TL;DR

Fortuna was quite a treat. Kristyn Merbeth has weaved herself a masterful tale, one that I can’t wait to see more of. The writing, description and characters were all top-notch, and at no point did I lament reading one character’s chapter to get to the next. While the ending does have its issues, the post-showdown section manages to tie everything together rather nicely, leaving me with only a few loose ends to worry after. The divide between Corvus and Scorpia helps tell their story, something that their interconnection is more the better for. It helped me feel so much more for them, humanize them, almost made them seem like real siblings, even.

I definitely recommend Fortuna. And I can’t wait to see more from Kristyn Merbeth!

Book Review: The Cruel Stars – by John Birmingham

noob series #1

Scifi, Spaceships

Del Rey; August 20, 2019

416 pages (eBook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

NetGalley furnished me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Totally thought I posted this already, but I can’t find evidence of that anywhere, so… Huh. Well, here it is!

The Cruel Stars is a space opera set in a black-and-white world populated by vibrant and interesting characters. It chronicles the return of an old enemy, once defeated—the Sturm, a radical group of human purists set on purging the galaxy of any they don’t see as genetically pure. Where initially the world seems well-thought out and complete, it quickly becomes clear that the story is set entirely within the bounds of a single star-system, while supposedly the invasion is staged on a galactic scale. Plagued by uneven pacing and a fairly uninteresting story, The Cruel Stars is certainly an example of a piece that just would not come together as it was meant to.

Five regular POVs (and one infrequent) tell the tale of the Sturm’s attack: retired Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero known for defeating the Sturm hundreds of year prior. Princess Alessia, twelve year-old and heir to the Montanblanc Corporation. Booker 3-212162-930-Infantry, once soldier now prisoner and believer in the Code—a kind of digital consciousness that transcends the human body. Lieutenant Lucinda Hardy, initially assigned to the stealth corvette Defiant, a series of malware attacks soon sees her in charge of the ship, the entire mission hanging in the balance. Sephina L’trel, a pirate leader with a score to settle, must use all the tricks at her disposal to see her crew through the invasion. (Archon-Admiral Wenbo Strom of the Sturm is seen but a few times and makes a poor POV, due to a lack of depth and a heavily racist overtone that firmly entrenches him as a bad guy).

I’m pretty sure I was the only one annoyed about this, but: There is no perfect enemy. There are two short Sturm POVs, both using their ideology to just kill people. Not even those implanted, genetically modified, post-humans, but also the regular unadorned they came to “save”. Not that I’m defending the racists, but the author isn’t either. They’re the designated as the bad guys. While their ideology or beliefs or prejudices and such are never explained, or even briefed. By the 89% mark, there have been 3 Sturm POV appearances. All short, which totals to around one full chapter in length. So there’s really no dissenting opinion—one side is good, the other bad. I would’ve liked to see someone on the other side, some perspective into their thought process beyond blind doctrine-spouting. But hey, my opinion.

There’s also very little disconnect with the modern world. The weapons are fairly well thought out, but little else. The detail that Birmingham strives for in the first half soon departs, leaving the action and plot to carry the entire weight. I probably wouldn’t have minded as much had the plot been good. Sadly, what follows is a straightforward story with little to no character growth and frankly a lame ending. During the second half of the book, the author goes out of his way to remind the reader again and again of the characters’ motivations, backstories, and even why the Sturm are bad.

While the Cruel Stars was an excellent read over its first half, the following 200 pages struggled with identity, uneven pacing, and a slight, under-developed world. While the action is enough to carry the book to its outset—a subpar, unfulfilling ending leaves the audience awaiting the sequel just to figure out what exactly happened.