September 2022

Well, it’s September.

Huh, that happened quick.

I’ve had some digestive/stomach issues lately, (also insomnia, yay) so I haven’t done quite as much with my late summer as I’d’ve hoped. Did get a lot of reading done, though.

A reasonable haul this month—4 arcs, 3 of which I’ve already finished. So September will likely be used to prepare for the fall haul (yay, rhymes), catch up on overdue summer reads, and maybe finish some series! Or… not. Maybe September will be my burnout month, who knows?

Right, pessimism aside, let’s get into it:

ARCs

One Dark Window – by Rachel Gillig (9.27)

Unnamed Series #1

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Elspeth Spindle needs more than luck to stay safe in the eerie, mist-locked kingdom of Blunder—she needs a monster. She calls him the Nightmare, an ancient, mercurial spirit trapped in her head. He protects her. He keeps her secrets.

But nothing comes for free, especially magic.

When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, her life takes a drastic turn. Thrust into a world of shadow and deception, she joins a dangerous quest to cure Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. And the highwayman? He just so happens to be the King’s nephew, Captain of the most dangerous men in Blunder…and guilty of high treason.

Together they must gather twelve Providence Cards—the keys to the cure. But as the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.

Excited to start this one! The press release states that Orbit acquired the rights to this and its sequel, so presumably this will begin some sort of as-of-yet unnamed series.

Spells for Forgetting – by Adrienne Young (9.27)

Standalone

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Emery Blackwood’s life changed forever the night her best friend was found dead and the love of her life, August Salt, was accused of murdering her. Years later, she is doing what her teenage self swore she never would: living a quiet existence on the misty, remote shores of Saoirse Island and running the family’s business, Blackwood’s Tea Shoppe Herbal Tonics & Tea Leaf Readings.

But when the island, rooted in folklore and magic, begins to show signs of strange happenings, Emery knows that something is coming. The morning she wakes to find that every single tree on Saoirse has turned color in a single night, August returns for the first time in fourteen years and unearths the past that the town has tried desperately to forget.

August knows he is not welcome on Saiorse, not after the night everything changed. As a fire raged on at the Salt family orchard, Lily Morgan was found dead in the dark woods, shaking the bedrock of their tight-knit community and branding August a murderer. When he returns to bury his mother’s ashes, he must confront the people who turned their backs on him and face the one wound from his past that has never healed—Emery.

The town has more than one reason to want August gone, and the emergence of deep betrayals and hidden promises spanning generations threaten to reveal the truth behind Lily’s mysterious death once and for all.

I had an issue with the premise of this one; it was a personal reason, nothing more—but you wouldn’t know it from my review. This was one of my favorite books thus far this year for so many reasons. Please come back to hear me gush about it! Review coming September 5th.

Friends Don’t Lie – by Nell Pattison (9.29)

Standalone

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My name is Isabel Butterworth. Your name is Isabel Butterworth.

We’re around the same age. We live in the same town.

But your life is more exciting than mine, isn’t it? Richer, dramatic, more fulfilling.

Imagine if I’d never found out about you…

But I have. Because someone mistook me for you.

And now I can’t stop thinking about you because I know you’re in trouble. You need my help.

And I need a way to get to know you.

To save you.

To be you…

An all-consuming thriller with one problem—a twist that was too big! I know, right? If this has piqued your curiosity, be sure and check back for my review of Friends Don’t Lie, coming September 25th! Bonus points if your mind went to Stranger Things just like mine did:)

To Blackfyre Keep – by Anthony Ryan (9.30)

The Seven Swords #4

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GUYIME—DEMON CURSED WIELDER OF THE NAMELESS BLADE—FOLLOWS THE TRAIL OF THE FABLED SEVEN SWORDS INTO THE TROUBLED NORTHLANDS, A REALM WHERE HE WAS ONCE CALLED KING…AND RAVAGER.

Magically guided to enlist in the retinue of a lovesick knight, Guyime and his companions journey to the haunted ruin of Blackfyre Keep, a castle legend tells cannot be held. But a far deadlier threat than mere ghosts awaits. An ancient evil has been conjured and to defeat it Guyime may be forced to become the monster he used to be—the Ravager reborn.

Continuing the epic adventure of The Seven Swords, To Blackfyre Keep is an enthralling tale of creeping menace and pulse pounding action from New York Times bestselling author of the Raven’s Shadow and Draconis Memoria trilogies.

Another great entry to the series! If you enjoyed the first three up to this point, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t like this. A bit episodic, but there’s no reason that must mean “bad”. Check back for my review on September 22nd!

Additional Releases

The Godbreaker – by Mike Brooks (9.27)

The God-King Chronicles #3

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The triumphant third and final part of the God-King Chronicles. The Godbreaker is the unmissable culmination of the series, filled with war-dragons, armoured knights, sea-faring raiders, dangerous magic and battle scenes.

War comes to Narida and Nothing Will Be The Same Again. 

As the Black Keep Council prepares for war, journeying far to protect their lands and friend, The God-King and his sister try to keep Narida together in the face of betrayal while the Splinter King remains at large.

The Golden and his hordes of raiders press their advantage and sweep across the land with unholy powers.  

Sacrifices will be made, and not everyone will make it back to Black Keep alive… 

I’m only part-way through volume #2 of this (as in… 5%?), so no Godbreaking (Godbreakering?) for me yet! Had no idea this would be the end of the series, though. I could’ve sworn he said it’d be a large scale fantasy on par with GoT or Stormlight or such. Note: This is the US release. It’s been out in the UK/EU since the early summer, I believe.

Purchases

Didn’t buy many books this month, but I picked up Black Heart: Part II: In the Coils of a Horned Serpent, and will hopefully get to it soon. I quite enjoyed Part I—though the pacing was a bit inconsistent—and I’ll post a quick summary of my thoughts sometime soon. It won’t be a full review; I’ll save that til I finish all three parts.

Currently Reading

Got an early start on Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty. Early signs indicate that I probably won’t love this quite as much as Six Wakes, but it’s definitely interesting and entertaining thus far! Instead of the hard-boiled thriller, the author seems to have gone more light-hearted this time around, and I’m curious to see where it takes her.

Upcoming Posts

In addition to the ARCs listed above, I have a few reviews that I should be posting soon. Black Heart: Part I, The Straits of Galahesh, Alone in the Wild, City of Stairs, and more. Books that I read over the summer and didn’t review, along with more series stuff that I’ve been hoping to finish up; hopefully these reviews/summaries will serve as a recap for you and me both.

I’ve also some posts I’m hoping to get through—more stuff I wanted to have out this summer but delayed when I didn’t have the time or energy to get to them. Included in these are a TBR for Autumn, some of the strange DNFs I’ve had this year, and maybe even a couple outdoor/gardening things. We’ll see.

Music

I’m usually the kind of person that learns about music only after it’s already come out. Now in the past I’ve posted some of my anticipated albums of the month, but these usually result in me doing a 1-2 hour search through various band sources while writing said post. This month, I don’t even have to bother. There are several releases I’ve been waiting all summer for out in September, and I’m excited to share them!

We start with Rumble of Thunder courtesy of The Hu, out for streaming on September 2nd (though physical copies aren’t due for another two weeks). While I haven’t pre-ordered the entire album, I’ve picked up Black Thunder Extended which I’ll share here. Early indications are good, but I found their debut, The Gereg, a bit hit-and-miss, so we’ll have to wait and see. If you haven’t heard of them before, the Hu incorporates classic Mongolian music into their metal for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Smash Into Pieces comes in next with their album, Disconnect, dropping on September 9th. Not a ton of info regarding this one yet, like number of tracks or included EPs, but the band has repeatedly assured that the album will come out as planned. While I like Smash Into Pieces, their albums have the issue of seeming a bit filler-y—with strong singles surrounded by weaker filler tracks. It helps that they seem to release something every year or two. Disconnect joins A New Horizon, Arcadia, and Evolver as the band marks their fourth consecutive year with an album. Smash Into Pieces is somewhere between electronic rock, hardcore, and alternative on the general scale (don’t ask me what all these things mean).

Band-Maid fills this next spot with their EP Unleash, due out on September 21. This 8-track release is set to include two recent singles and six new songs. Band-Maid albums have been pretty solid listens when compared to the other two bands on this list, as I can usually listen to an entire album on repeat for weeks before weeding out anything. Band-Maid is classed as rock, or J-Rock.

The Reckoning is the 5th album from alternative rock band Icon for Hire, legitimately one of my favorite bands. If you haven’t heard of them before, I’d definitely recommend checking them out—starting with their sophomore effort, the self-titled Icon for Hire, out since 2013. The Reckoning is set to release September 30th, and includes four previously released singles and nine brand-new tracks.

Gaming

Not much on the whole gaming front. My to-play list is still pretty long, but I just haven’t been in the mood lately. Earlier in August I finished Journey to the Savage Planet which was good fun despite it being somewhat repetitive and having an instantly forgettable story. Still, I enjoyed the idea of some random person being sent to a random planet with no training and just told: Have at it.

September (and late August) marks the release of I was a Teenage Exocolonist, a game I discovered from Caitlin at Realms of My Mind, which… I can’t play, because my computer is too old. Ah well.

Also supposedly Tunic releases on console.

Life

Not too much to say on the personal side of things. Autumn is usually my favorite time of year, but I’ve been having some health issues lately that have kept me from enjoying it quite as much. But hopefully I’ll get over this enough to do some of the things I’ve been wanting to all summer. Stay tuned, I guess.

At least the reading side of things is going well.

How was your August? What’re you excited for in September? Music/book/ game recommendations are always welcome!

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

Lays of Anuskaya #1

Steampunk, Fantasy

Night Shade Books; March 8, 2011

464 pages (ebook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Abandoned – by W. Michael Gear (Review)

Donovan #2

Science Fiction

DAW Books; November 27, 2018

436 pages (paperback)

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9 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for Donovan #1—Outpost.

Welcome to Donovan.

Supervisor Kalico Aguila has been on fragile terms with Port Authority since she decided to remain planetside, rather than inverting on the Turalon. Rather than join the settlement and perpetually butt heads with the council, Aguila has chosen to carve out a mine in the wilds—one the wilderness is slowly but surely reclaiming. The trees take a more active approach on Donovan, often rootching forwards, covering miles in a single day. To make matters worse, a murderer is hanging out in Aguila’s camp, one pushing Dan Wirth’s agenda. As if Donovan wasn’t enough.

Mark Talbot is a dead man walking. Marooned in the middle of the bush, he’s alive at all solely because of his armor, which thus far has survived every threat Donovan has thrown at him, from quetzals, to nightmares, to death-fliers. But what it can’t do is feed him, or—something that’s his larger issue—keep a charge. The battery packs were tested and maintained for combat; somewhere around 1000 hours. So far Talbot’s has seen twice that, and the cells are slowly depleting. So when he sees his first sign of human habitation, Talbot has no choice but to throw himself on their mercy. What he’s confronted with, however, are three scientists with a flock of children—and the quetzal that one of them has bonded.

Lieutenant Deb Spiro is losing it. A marine with a head for taking orders but not giving them, she has been suddenly thrust into command, a position that sees her instability and lust for violence take center stage. In Port Authority she sees everything that’s the problem with Donovan, especially one Talina Perez. And Spiro isn’t great at talking through her problems.

Talina Perez has made mistakes. In this case it’s the woman whose husband she killed during her time as the supervisor’s assassin. A mistake she’s desperate to atone for. But she’ll have to do far more than that if she wants to survive what Donovan has in store.

For when Spiro makes a mistake that might just threaten to kill them all, Perez will gamble everything on an outcast, an alien, and an infection in her TriNA. As sides are chosen and tensions run high it becomes very clear that the two sides can’t live together. But with Donovan mounting an offensive, neither might survive at all.

On Donovan, only humans are more terrifying than the wildlife.

“At this rate, how long before the forest reclaims the whole farm and smelter?” Kalico asked woodenly.

“Maybe a couple months?” Ghosh hazarded. “But that’s just a guess. I’m not a biological science kind of guy.”

“Remember how you laid out a line of that toxic smelter waste?” Ituri gave her a sidelong glance. “I don’t know what to say except this is Donovan. The trees never even hesitated. Radioactive or not, they just rootched their way across.”

“Rootched?”

“That’s what we’ve been calling it. Sort of a mix between roots and ruts and wiggling through the ground.”

A great return trip to Donovan, Abandoned tells an excellent followup story to the science fiction debut, Outpost. Turalon has departed. The planet is once again on its own. It’s up to the people to band together—us against them—and survive all the planet has to throw at them.

Only, people are, well, people. They don’t always get along. Honestly, I feel like this is an understatement. Just look at the history of humanity: I don’t see why it should be any different on an alien world.

And neither, it appears, does W. Michael Gear. Humans are the most terrifying part of Donovan, though the planet tries hard to give them some competition. A conspiracy of quetzals, on a molecular level. A horde of death-fliers. Trees that eat people, spaceships, and, apparently, toxic waste. And yet even in the face of all that, the humans continue to squabble and kill one another.

The problem, such that it is, is Dan Wirth. The best villain you love to hate. And yet NOT the villain of Abandoned. I guess the author thought it was too early in the series to put a bullet in the bastard’s head. A shame, that.

Anyway, instead of Wirth, we’re given Spiro, who is a bit one-sided as villains go. Or indeed, as people. Now, I’m not saying Spiro is poorly written, as I’ve met a number of marines I feel could encapsulate her perfectly. Suited to violence, good at taking orders, but little else. And no, this is not me saying that all marines are psychos—just some of them. Some very, very few of them. The point is that Spiro, while being a bit boring as a villain, isn’t a bust as a character. Nor is she poorly written. Just I think we could’ve done better.

Spiro aside, I flew through this book! I loved the addition of Talbot (especially given his circumstances), the return of Talina and Trish and Kalico and others. I binged the final 250 pages in a night, and had to resist going immediately to the next one as it was 6am and I needed to sleep. But I wanted to go back to Donovan. And that’s what I’d recommend you doing; don’t just GO to Donovan, go back, time after time. I sure hope this series continues to deliver like I expect it to!

Titanshade – by Dan Stout (Review)

The Carter Archives #1

Urban Fantasy, Mystery, Detective

DAW; March 12, 2019

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

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8 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Barrow – by Mark Smylie (Review)

Sword & Barrow #1

Grimdark, Fantasy, Epic

Pyr; March 4, 2014

587 pages (paperback)

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8.5 / 10 ✪

With the long-awaited release of Black Heart earlier this year, it was time to revisit the world of Artesia via The Barrow, a prequel adventure to the comics/graphic novels that I’ve not yet read. What I remembered about the book I read back in 2014 could’ve filled… well, a paragraph? A short one, at least.

Deep and extensive world-building. A highly addictive read full of adventure, magic, darkness, intrigue, and bloody fights. Also, very graphic sex.

Which… yeah, is basically the Barrow in a nutshell. But let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map.

Stjepan Black-Heart, murderer, royal cartographer, and adventurer, is desperate for success. But then he’s traversed the whole of the Middle Kingdoms—even escaping their bounds, and crossing the continent itself. But for his greatest adventure, he must turn to somewhere oh so close to home.

When asked just who she was, Erim wasn’t sure what to say. But after a trip to Manon Mole, she would’ve said she was Stjepan’s man. Only hiccup being that she ain’t a man at all, but a woman masquerading as one. What she may lack in confidence, Erim makes up in skill. Her skill with a blade, specifically. But this latest adventure may answer a few questions for her—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Harvald Orwain is the youngest son of a once great house, determined to retrieve his family’s honor. He’s also a troublemaker, thief, and architect of the crew’s current mission. After all, only a miracle can resurrect their family name. A miracle, or a mythical sword.

The sword Gladringer is one of the most legendary blades in creation. Used by the last Dragon king to slay the Wormlords and their hell-forged swords, it was lost by a lord known forever as the Fumbler, and fell out of hand and into legend. However, rumor has it that it was taken up by Azharad, an evil warlock without equal, and was buried with him in his barrow when he fell. Many adventurers have set out to find this blade, and only a few returned empty-handed.

Because most never returned at all.

The problem with the barrow is, while it’s thought to exist in the Bale Mole, its precise locale is lost to time. And the Bale Mole is as vast as it is deadly. And yet Harvald and Stjepan have hope. Because they have found something that no one else has.

A map.

But even with a map, a quest into the Bale Mole is fraught with danger. They’ll need a some weapons, some talent, some expendables—they’ll need a crew.

Gilgwyr is a brothel owner and exceptional pervert. The only thing he likes more than sex is power, and the coin to enable it. Leigh, a magus who may not be the evil wizard he was exiled for, but he’s definitely gone a little bit crazy in his years alone. Arduin Orwain is the scion of Harvald’s house, brought low by scandal. Annwyn is the beautiful cause of said scandal. Godewyn Red-Hand is a mercenary, murderer, rapist, and professional asshole. But where the crew is headed, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Wilhem Price and Sir Colin Urwed were walking around the Ladies’ Tent, marking a sentry circle, scanning the field and hills around them, when they heard something like a whisper come up from the hill. They turned and looked up the hill just in time to see a plunge of dust jet out from the entrance to the barrow some six hundred paces away up the stone steps. The two of them took a few steps toward the hill and stopped, then looked at each other.

A bloody, violent, brutal romp through half the empire to the tomb of an evil necromancer. Absolutely filled with violence, lore, graphic sex, and “oh FUCK” moments. Supported by tension, mystery—and lore the likes of which is rarely seen. Did I mention the graphic, graphic sex? It’s like, I mean, I can’t judge personal preference or taste but… it’s borderline too much. Beastiality, incest, consenting adults and all that. I mean, it’s definitely noticeable, especially in the beginning. But then the adventure takes over.

This is the dark fantasy you always wanted. Or never wanted to see. Or… probably somewhere in between.

And if the graphic sex didn’t scare you off, the gratuitous violence probably won’t either. But, to be fair, it really isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely grimdark level combat, but Smylie doesn’t have the bloody red streak that you’ll see in Abercrombie and Lawrence. But he does have his own personal touch (what with the all sex and such).

The adventure, the quest is the reason to come and the reason to stay. Set in a world of deep lore and meticulously built from the ground up, Artesia is truly a wonder, say what you will about how it comes across. There’s just so much to it—the depth keeps going. Sometimes this was borderline too much as well; unwanted info that otherwise spoiled the mood, or more likely the pace, though I really couldn’t find myself caring overly much about it. This is the Barrow’s charm, you see. You take one with the other. And to go on this legendary adventure, you’re going to have to pick up a bit of its history. History that was mostly quite entertaining. I only ever really noticed it near the end. Otherwise, I didn’t care.

The adventure itself… well, it’s a treasure hunt through a kingdom of lords and thieves. Of whores and ladies. Of magic and mystery. Of darkness and… darker darkness. It’s everything that you ever dreamt when you first read Narnia and though “hmmm that doesn’t seem realistic”. It’s a treasure-hunt with all the blood and sex and battles and undead and intrigue and mythos and more. It’s a hell of an adventure and a hell of a read.

And it’s just the beginning.

Black Heart, the second Sword & Barrow novel by Mark Smylie, is currently available in three parts as an ebook, but has yet to be picked up by any publisher. If you’re curious about the story there, I’ve a bit of a series of posts about it. I’ll throw the links in down at the bottom. The final entry in the Sword & Barrow, Bright Sword, is in the works. Smylie has said he’s started working on it already, and with Black Heart finally releasing, I’m actually hopeful we’ll see it in the next few years.

• Black Heart Updates •

BH IBH IIBH IIIBH IV

Annex – by Rich Larson (Review)

The Violet Wars #1

Scifi, Dystopian, Aliens

Orbit Books; July 24, 2018

317 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

Peter Pan meets Independence Day in Annex, where aliens isolate a small city and attach clamps to the necks of all adults over the age of 16, essentially turning them into zombies—called “wasters” by the Lost Boys that still run the streets. But few of these waifs remain free. The rest of the children have been rounded up and collected into warehouses, where they are implanted with parasites and kept drugged, waiting for whatever nefarious plan the new overlords have in mind.

When Bo escapes from the warehouses, he wants nothing more than to reunite with his sister. Instead, he finds the Lost Boys—or rather they find him.

Violet—a transgender girl—is our main link to the group, led by influential Wyatt and his followers. Unlike Bo, Violet isn’t disappointed the world ended. In fact, she feels liberated. The world ending changed her life—but for the better. And she’s never going back. In this new world she does what she wants, when she wants, as the person who she wants to be. And yet her struggle isn’t complete. There’s still something for Violet out there—and her path to it leads through Bo.

And so these two and the Lost Boys must confront the apocalypse before it’s too late, and before the aliens complete whatever it is they’re up to.

So what do I have to say about the aliens, about the characters, about the world? Not much, to be honest. Other than Violet and Bo they’re pretty much a wash. Wyatt and Bree are the only other characters of note, and both of them are chaotic—though in different ways. Though as the two leads define sooo much of the story, essentially they’re everything important about it. Which is both good and bad. On one hand it’s disappointing that the characters suffer so much of a drop-off from primary to secondary, but on the other, at least the important characters have their shit together. The world and the lore are both equally disappointing. Neither do we know or discover much about throughout the entire story.

Luckily the story itself was entertaining. A no-nonsense plot about alien invaders and the fate of the world, science and action, atmospheric tension and subtle horror—I mean, there’s not a whole lot to complain about. Or analyze. Or… write more words for.

There are a few holes in the world-building that does exist: such as the electricity being out for months though the characters constantly seem to forget it and expect something different. And I really hate the: “it was just a few days, but felt like a lifetime ago”. It’s overused and ridiculous.

TL;DR

Annex is an entertaining read, if a bit of a far-fetched one. Full of action and mystery, deep lead characters, an engaging plot and interesting story—the book is one that certainly starts out on the right foot. But a flawed premise, one-sided secondary characters, and more than a few missteps along the way slow it up. Annex is definitely an example of world-building in a bubble, as the known-world is very much trapped in a bubble. While this can heighten the suspense, it also limits the scope and weight of the story. And as little is ever revealed about the world outside our little bubble of reality, the mystery and suspense can only deliver for so long. When the end comes, it brings with it a sense of fulfillment of the plot and character arcs, but little of the fate of the world itself. All because the world never much seemed in danger—only a piece of it did. All in all, I’d definitely say that the good outweighs the bad and recommend this for anyone who’s a fan of dystopian or young adult, alien invasions or science fiction—particularly where deep issues exceed particularly deep scientific lore or world-building.

The Jasmine Throne – by Tasha Suri (Review)

Burning Kingdoms #1

Fantasy

Orbit Books; June 8, 2021

533 pages (ebook)
19hr 43m (audiobook)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

The Empire was born in sacrifice wreathed in flame. Lifetimes before, the Yaksa nearly swallowed the world in darkness. and their devoted followers the Ahiranyi In the end, it was the Mothers sacrifice which saved the world. If the Mothers had not given themselves willingly to the flames, the Age of Flowers would never have ended.

Malini is a princess of the Empire. Years before, she was to be given to the eternal flames in order to purify herself and all women, so that the Mothers continuing sacrifice would not be in vain. However, Malini refused to ascend to the fires and was exiled, imprisoned atop the Hirana by her brother, the Emperor. Now she spends her days in isolation in her foe’s ancient sanctuary, temple to the deathless waters that once served as their most powerful magics.

When Priya was young, the temple atop the Hirana burned. A gutter-rat turned maidservant, Priya is satisfied with a life of drudgery lived in the shadows, terrified that anyone learn her secrets. So terrified that she even hides them from herself. Once a maid to the regent’s wife, Priya reluctantly accepts a job tending to the temple rooms atop the Hirana, now occupied by the exiled princess. The job pays more in a day than she makes in a week, as maids must ascend and descend the deadly path to Hirana each day, careful not only to survive the journey but more so to never cross paths with the princess herself.

Well, somewhat careful.

When the inevitable does come to pass, however, Malini not only discovers Priya but also stumbles upon her true nature. Both are women cast from their true path; both would give up everything to find their way again. And together, they very well may.

It may have taken me a bit to get lost in the Jasmine Throne, but once I did I was well and truly gone. The world passed by while Priya and Malini and Akosh weaved their webs and sang their stories, and the tide of the Deathless Waters carried me away.

Full disclosure: I listened to (read) this while playing Cyberpunk, only stopping when I was exhausted or had to go to work. It was truly a surreal experience—for a good chunk of its 20+ hours—so much so that I completely lost myself to the story, and often ended up wandering aimlessly around Night City doing nothing but listening to the adventure unfold.

The Jasmine Throne is truly a story built for and driven by its characters. So much so that the setting took quite a while to permeate the story. It took me the longest time to discover just what the Hirana was, how it related to the plot, or just why it was so dangerous. It just seemed that the plot had taken a backseat to its characters. At least for a time. I really only noticed the setting when Rao’s POV rolled around. I don’t know whether that was because he’s a weaker character than Priya or Malini or Ashok (which he is), or because his chapters are just more oriented toward the setting than others.

Once the everything gets set up and the story (particularly that between Priya and Malini) gets interesting, there’s not much else to steal the focus away from them. This means that though it’s quite hard to put down, the characters that aren’t the big four—of Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika—seem to detract from the plot rather than add anything to it. It’s not that I don’t care about their input, it’s just… they distract from what’s going on. I realize that their contribution pays some dividends in the end, but I’d argue that it’s not enough to justify the albeit slight distraction they provide.

I guess it’s a good thing that these characters don’t get a ton of time in the spotlight. Priya has more chapters to her name than everyone else (excluding Malini) combined. And with the these two pretty much controlling the story… well, it turns out quite nicely.

TL;DR

The Jasmine Throne is very much a story driven by its characters. Though some of the bit characters (other, less involved POVs) are immediately forgettable, the main characters (Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika) make up for them easily enough. And since these control around three-quarters of the book… let’s just say they more than make up for it. In classic fantasy form, it takes its time setting the scene, introducing its world—not to mention the characters therein—before getting down to the plot, the romance, and the world at large. And to be fair, this works quite well. While it took me a little to get into the tale, once I did it was a lovely time. Even the romance, which is usually not my favorite. All in all, the Jasmine Throne proves an entertaining start to a new series! One I’ll be more than happy to continue.

The Burning Kingdoms continue with The Oleander Sword, out in August of 2022.

May 2022

I finished 10 books in April, somehow! I mean, three were novellas and only one was over 400 pages, but at around 3000 pages this was still this was my most impressive month to date. Of course, a fall always follows the high.

My first burnout of the year comes here, in late April entering May. Hopefully it’s not a bad one, more something of the “I don’t wanna read I wanna play video games and go to sleep” (although mostly it’s been “I don’t want to read because sleeeeepy”), which is something I deal with every now and then. I don’t think it’s the quality of what I’m reading right now that’s making me feel this way, but one never can tell, you know? With that in mind…

Currently Reading

I actually got quite a big jump on May as I knew it’d be impossible to read all the ARCs I wanted to otherwise. As it is…—it’ll just be tight. I’ve actually finished four of my six advance copies for the month, somehow. I just started the Collarbound, and am greatly enjoying every description of the world and its people that has come up thus far. Little in the way of story yet—but hey, I just started it. More problematic, I can’t remember the name of the damned city. Also just started Hunger of the Gods, something that was shelved for waaay longer than I’d’ve liked. Do any of you have that thing where you overhype something so much that you actually dread starting it? Think that’s what’s happening here. I just refreshed my memory from the end of Shadow of the Gods only to find that there’s a recap at the beginning of Hunger—something I did not expect. Would’ve loved to have known that was there before, but that’s a totally ridiculous thing to complain about, innit?

ARC

Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (5/10)

Standalone

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1980’s New England. The boarding school Danforth Putnam sits upon an island in the Atlantic. Joining the elite with orphans of the state, the school is the perfect metaphor of a melting pot. One that just won’t seem to ever meld. When an 11th century manuscript goes missing, insurance agent Sam Gregory is called in to recover it. But his investigation uncovers more than just a stolen book. Missing students, a ward obsessed with witchcraft, a shadowy cult, and a ritual to summon a demon top the list. And there’s more to the case than even all that.

Check back for my review of Friend of the Devil on Tuesday, May 3rd!

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (5/10)

Zachary Ying #1

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Zachary Ying never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.

The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.

And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.

Check back for my review of Zachary Ying on Tuesday, May 10th!

The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (5/12)

Standalone (?)

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The Collarbound, debut fantasy by Rebecca Zahabi, imagines a world of magic users, slaves, and second-class citizens. The Kher have been oppressed within the realm for generations, seen as little more than animals by most of its citizens. But all that might be changing. A rebellion once confined to the opposite side of the Shadowpass is now steadily making its way towards the city, just as a mage with a Kher brand enters it. Here she will meet a mage bought and sold as a slave, and together they must survive the coming war, or die apart.

Equinox – by David Towsey (5/12)

Standalone

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Christophor Morden lives in a world where everybody changes with the rising and setting of the sun. For every person contains two distinct identities – a day brother and a night brother. One never sees the light, the other nothing of night. When Christophor is summoned by the King of Reikova, to visit a prisoner held beneath the keep, he assumes the man is a witch, or magic of some sort. After all, Morden is a witch hunter, one of the Kingdom’s finest, with 34 caught witches to his name. But when he enters the cell, Morden is confronted by young man, one who has torn his own eyes out. Eyes, that had teeth growing behind them.

Now Christophor is tasked with rooting out the source of such a curse, deep to the south, in the village of Drekenford. But the longer he spends in the village the more he is worried by the case. One that has his day-brother, Alexander, intentionally sheltering the witch he seeks.

Check back for my review of Equinox on Sunday, May 8th!

The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (5/17)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

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Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Hide – by Kiersten White (5/24)

Standalone

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The game: Spend one week hiding in an abandoned amusement park. 7 days, 14 contestants. Two eliminated per day. $50,000 awaits the winner.

Mack aims to be that winner. She’s more worried about the competition, rather than the hiding. After all, hiding is the reason she’s still alive—and her family isn’t. But as the days crawl by, Mack realizes that she’ll have more than just other people to contend with. Something strange is going on inside the park—and she’s not sure that any amount of money is worth staying.

Check back for my review of Hide on Sunday, May 22nd!

Other Releases

Eyes of the Void – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (5/03)

The Final Architecture #2

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After eighty years of fragile peace, the Architects are back, wreaking havoc as they consume entire planets. In the past, Originator artefacts – vestiges of a long-vanished civilization – could save a world from annihilation. This time, the Architects have discovered a way to circumvent these protective relics. Suddenly, no planet is safe.

Facing impending extinction, the Human Colonies are in turmoil. While some believe a unified front is the only way to stop the Architects, others insist humanity should fight alone. And there are those who would seek to benefit from the fractured politics of war – even as the Architects loom ever closer.

Idris, who has spent decades running from the horrors of his past, finds himself thrust back onto the battlefront. As an Intermediary, he could be one of the few to turn the tide of war. With a handful of allies, he searches for a weapon that could push back the Architects and save the galaxy. But to do so, he must return to the nightmarish unspace, where his mind was broken and remade.

What Idris discovers there will change everything.

A Sh*tload of Crazy Powers – by Jackson Ford (5/10)

Frost Files #4

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Teagan Frost has enough sh*t to deal with, between her job as a telekinetic government operative and a certain pair of siblings who have returned from the dead to wreak havoc with their powers. But little does she know, things are about to get even more crazy…

Teagan might have survived the flash flood of the century, but now she’s trapped in a hotel by a bunch of gun-toting maniacs. And to make matters worse, her powers have mysteriously disappeared. Faced with certain death at every turn, Teagan will need to use every resource she has to stop a plot that could destroy Los Angeles – maybe even the entire world.

Book Purchases

Annex – by Rich Larson

The Violet Wars #1

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At first it is a nightmare. When the invaders arrive, the world as they know it is destroyed. Their friends are kidnapped. Their families are changed.

Then it is a dream. With no adults left to run things, Violet and the others who have escaped capture are truly free for the first time. They can do whatever they want to do. They can be whoever they want to be.

But the invaders won’t leave them alone for long…

Those Above – by Daniel Polansky

The Empty Throne #1

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Those Above has been on my TBR for years, but I only recently managed to acquire a copy. Still not sure when exactly I’ll get around to it, but it was on sale from the same vendor that I used to get Annex, as well as a couple other holes I had filling my shelves, so I figured why not? Those Above examines the gods above. Tall, superhuman, perfect, and near immortal, they have ruled over humanity for thousands of years. Millennia of oppression enforced with fire and sword. Until humanity rose an army to unseat them. Only to fail miserably.

Now, hate festers still. And even though their last revolt was summarily crushed not thirty years prior, rebellion once more kindles in its ashes.

I may or may not get my teeth into these this month, but do come back for upcoming reviews of A Defensive Guide to Baking, Haunting of Tram Car 015, Hidden (Alex Verus #5), The Jasmine Throne, and hopefully more!

Music

There’s not a whole lot of music out this month that I’m super excited about. At least, not in advance. Maybe when they come out they’ll really impress me, or maybe I’ll warm up to them, or maybe I’ll just find something completely different to fall in love with, but right now… I’m a little underwhelmed by everything on offer.

The electronic Lights Out from Cassetter is probably my most anticipated album of the month, due on May 20th, but I probably won’t pick it up anytime soon. It’s not bad, it’s just not mind-blowing. Just found out they’re Polish though, so that’s cool.

The Halestorm album Back from the Dead releases on May 6th. Neither song blew me away, so I went with the first single instead of the most recent one.

There’s also a Three Days Grace album—Explosions—due out on the 6th, so here’s a single from that as well.

Games

Still on the Cyberpunk 2077 train, though I’ve just bought the remake of Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town—my favorite game in the series—so I’ll likely be onto that soon enough. It even came with this adorable plush cow (which was originally supposed to be a pre-order incentive, but I guess they had extras).

Anyway, I have that and Cyberpunk, maybe some DLC and other things to tide me over til Sniper Elite V drops on May 26th! The previous entry (set in Italy) was one of my favorite games of all time; one of the rare games I stuck around long enough to platinum after pouring 163 hours into it (Cyberpunk is closing on this though: I’m up to 112 hours now). #5 is set in France and is supposed to feature bigger, more open world maps—which is impressive considering 4’s maps were pretty large and varied.

Life

Not sure how much I’ll post this summer, as I’ve a fair amount going on. Wedding, backpacking, bachelor party, wedding, wedding, and well probably a good deal more besides. The only thing I’m not locked down for is work, which I’m increasingly certain is just freezing me out. I hate the job hunt, though, so I’m trying to put it off as long as possible while my hours slowly bleed away to nothing. I do have a fair few side gigs on the books for April and May (so cash won’t be an issue, until June at least when they all dry up). I really don’t want to work an 8-5 as (historically) they’re not great for my mental health, but I suppose we’ll cross that bridge once we get to it. Or caulk the wagon and float it across :p

Have any plans for May? What about June, July, and later? Is your month as busy as mine looks? And do you recognize any of these books? I always love to hear from y’all!

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

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6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

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.