Battle Ground – by Jim Butcher (Review)

Because of the dust, the stubble, or the lighting, it always (at first) looked to me like Harry was rocking shades. And when I realized over and over again he wasn’t, it disappointed me.

Dresden Files #17

Urban Fantasy

Ace; September 29, 2020

432 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

This breaks the mold of typical Dresden Files entries, by featuring little to no mystery in needs of solving and no investigation using magic or, well, anything whatsoever. Moreover, Butcher used it a bit like Changes—a time to thank the previous cast for their service, dedication before ushering them into the void. Not that everyone dies in Battle Ground, but… well, in battle, you ought to expect SOMEONE to die. Butcher just expands this “someone” to be “anyone”.

I’ll skip over much of the recap seeing as how Peace Talks leads right into Battle Ground, and if you haven’t read the latest one, the blurb for this is going to look strange if not completely ridiculous. Sufficient to say: there’s a war on, and Chicago is the battleground.

Once again Harry squares off against powerful supernatural opponents, only this time they’re bigger and stronger than anything he’s ever fought—even anything he can imagine. All his allies are along for the ride, and Dresden’s even got a few new tricks up his sleeve, but it still may not be enough. And with all his loved ones lives—not to mention the lives of everyone in Chicago—in the balance, the stakes are higher than ever.

And so it begins. For how does one even fight a Titan?

When I first read the blurb for Battle Ground (back before I read Peace Talks), I rolled my eyes. It didn’t seem wise. It didn’t seem likely. It seemed ridiculous. But going into it having read Peace Talks—yeah, okay. But how does one take a detective, urban fantasy series heavy on planning, mystery, and the unknown and adapt it into an entire sequence of back-to-back fight-scenes? The answer is… one writes all fight scenes and goes from there.

If you were expecting another Dresden mystery—full of summoning, magic, patience and dramatic tension—this ain’t it. There were still a couple parts that wowed me, a few that captivated me, and enough of the same-old, same-old to keep me invested in the story—but mostly I was a bit disappointed. I went in feeling that this was going to be an EPIC BATTLE FOR THE FATE OF MANKIND AND BEYOND! And it was… for a time. The problem was that all battles have lulls, and those that write war fiction or high fantasy know to include a bit of change, difference, twists, turns to keep everything interesting. And while I’m sure Butcher tried to do this. It didn’t work (for me). It was an good read, fairly good even, yet it doesn’t live up to the hype. About halfway through I was sick of the fight-fight-fight format, but even though there’s plenty going on, eventually every battle of the war starts to feel indistinguishable from the last. Even the boss fight (in many ways ESPECIALLY the boss fight) itself was more of the same. I was expecting an epic build to a fight like Goku v. Frieza; something that went on FOREVER and included more twists and turns than seemed worthwhile. But, like Goku-Frieza, it inevitably dragged on too long, eventually overshadowing the epic-ness of the conclusion.

Fortunately, the book doesn’t end here. The conclusion actually goes on for a while and includes some wind-down that helps assuage the disappointment, and giving the reader more time to think about what has happened over the course of these two books. This brings back a bit of the mystery, a bit of the tension that felt absent from the rest of the text. It felt like a breath of fresh air; a good note to end on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fix the mistakes made along the way. And it doesn’t make up for them, either. It just makes everything a bit easier to swallow.

TL;DR

Battle Ground is a swipe of the slate for the Dresden Files. Out with the old, in with the new, if you will. Like Changes, it marks a turning point in the series—one marked by an epic fight scene that just won’t end. And like that epic fight scene, it carries on even after you’ve kinda gotten sick of it and are starting to wonder what else is on. The sameness culminates in a final battle, one that felt so much like the rest of the book before it that it almost felt like a middle-finger to those fans who’ve stuck around to this point. While the conclusion lasts for maybe fifty pages more and in part helps assuage this feeling, one thing is certain moving forward. The Dresden Files will never be the same.

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

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

3.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Ink & Sigil – by Kevin Hearne (Review)

Ink & Sigil #1

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Del Rey; August 25, 2020

336 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

Peace Talks – by Jim Butcher (Review)

Dresden Files #16

Urban Fantasy, Paranormal

Ace; July 14, 2020

352 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

I was fortunate enough to be granted a very late ARC of Peace Talks, arriving shortly after I’d given up hope on one, and right in the middle of my time reading of Ashes of the Sun (which was AMAZING—expect a review July 19-21). Since this is the latest book of an extended series, expect a pretty short blurb. Now, either you’re caught up, or you’re not, but if you aren’t… Warning: Unless you’re all caught up on the series, there may be spoilers below.

In the aftermath of the events of Skin Game—the daring heist that both created a new Knight of the Cross and further damaged Harry’s relationship with a few of his not-quite-enemies—Peace Talks begins.

Peace Talks features what you may expect; the supernatural nations have agreed to meet and discuss the path forward, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re coming to Chicago. As Chicago’s biggest beat-wizard, Harry Dresden has been assigned to the White Council’s security detail, to make sure the negotiations run smoothly. Furthermore, Mab—Queen of the Winter Court of Fae—is acting as host, forcing Dresden to pull double-duty.

Featured players include the White Council, both Fae Courts, the White Vampires, Vadderung, Marcone, Ferrovax, the Forest People, the Fomor, and a number of others [note: if you don’t recognize anyone of these, don’t panic. Simply refer to either of the links featured later, or prepare to abuse Google. Either or]. But with the sheer amount of heavy hitters in town for the summit, tensions are sure to be high. And Harry must ensure that no tempers boil over during the talks. Not even his own.

Yet this is easier said than done. And with mistrust flying around the Council, Harry is on thinner ice than ever before. The fate of the White Council, of the supernatural world, the fate of Chicago, even of the world itself—may hang in the balance. And of course Harry Dresden’s right in the middle of it.

Okay, so by Book 16, we’ve picked up quite a few characters. It’d been a while since I immersed myself in any Dresden book, so I had some trouble remembering who was who. Thus I would definitely suggest, if not a reread, then a quick read of a character cheat-sheet [wiki] [fandom]. Additionally, if you’ve not read the ‘Working for Bigfoot’ stories (I believe they’re also included in the 2nd story anthology), this would be the time to do it, as otherwise you’ll have more than one “who dis?” moment.

I loved the opportunity to re-immerse myself in the universe, and my love-affair with Harry picked up just where it left off. It’s been six long years, but it was as if no time had passed at all. The story, the setting, the… nostalgia were all superb—with but one caveat. I only had one real issue with the book, but otherwise totally adored it. The world-building and lore by this point are incredibly deep and drawn out, and not only does Peace Talks add to a packed library, it expands what we knew about so many bit characters, enemies, allies, and companions.

The largest caveat in the story is actually a pretty big piece of it. Or, it SHOULD HAVE BEEN a big piece of it. Due to spoilers, I can’t say what it is, just that it’s fairly noticeable. If this book had come earlier in the series, this mystery would’ve been central to the plot. But coming after a six-year hiatus, Butcher has simply brushed it to the side. It’s not so much that the author’s priorities have changed—it’s that Harry’s have. And so I’m going to give this a bit of a pass. A BIT of one. Because this mystery still should’ve enjoyed a decent amount of screen time. But it didn’t. And it didn’t for no particular reason. Harry dismisses it early on, touches on it only briefly later, and then the book ends without it being resolved. Now, while he may’ve had larger, arguably more important things on his mind, this still feels like something an earlier-Harry Dresden would’ve obsessed about. Though apparently not a later-one. Or maybe Butcher just missed one here. Or this may yet be resolved in Battle Ground. In fact, I certainly hope it is. But as of now, I can’t promise anything.

Otherwise… Harry no longer shouts “parkour” intermittently, which is a big downer.

And that’s it.

TL;DR

An amazing return to the Dresden Files universe, Peace Talks should impress and overjoy new and old fans alike. But for one caveat, the book was incredible, and one that shouldn’t stay unread on your shelf for very long. I ran through it in about three days, but could’ve read it in two. Butcher waited six years to bring us another Dresden adventure, but delivered in the end. While I had trouble remembering some characters and events due to the length of the series, those can be solved with one of a few cheat-sheets you can find online [wiki] [fandom]. I also had a bit of trouble connecting the current Harry Dresden with the Detective one in early books, but people do change. Even wizards. Even, it seems, Harry Dresden.

The Dresden Files continues with Battle Ground, due September 29th, 2020. Can’t wait!

The Last Smile in Sunder City – by Luke Arnold (Review)

Fetch Phillips Archives #1

Dark Fantasy, Mystery

Orbit Books; February 25, 2020

368 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the ARC!

Fetch Phillips has been called many things in his life, though few worse than those he calls himself. He was born nowhere, a settlement that was soon reduced to even less. The sole survivor of the massacre, Fetch was taken in by Weatherly—a human city that wanted nothing more than forget the magic outside its walls. And for much of his young life, Fetch tried. Tried, and failed, to forget the magic. To forget what he’d seen, what he’d heard, what fate had claimed his family. In Weatherly he had a new family, new kin, and a place that he’d never wanted. But in the end, he couldn’t escape the call of the magic—and left Weatherly behind, en route to Sunder City.

Much has happened since then. Too much, for Fetch’s reckoning. He still calls Sunder City home, eking out his living amidst the magical creatures and humans alike as a Private Eye—one available to the magic community only. Or should we say the FORMERLY magical community. For, several years after Fetch’s escape from Weatherly, the magic in Sunder—in the whole of creation—died. But the monsters remain.

Edmund Rye is a teacher at the first school for all the descendants of the formerly magical. Ogre, gnome, elven children rub elbows and play tag with goblins, kobolds, sirens, and dwarves. The professor is a delight, fully committed to his work, the future, and the students themselves. That is, until recently when Rye disappeared.

Enter Fetch Phillips, Man for Hire, contracted to find the professor and if possible return him to his duties. But the deck is stacked against him. For the professor is a member of the Blood Race—a vampire. Of course, when the magic died, the vampires lost their thirst for blood. Except that maybe, somehow, Rye’s has returned. Or maybe he’s just dead, rotting in a ditch somewhere. Phillips doesn’t care—he gets paid the same either way.

But when a young siren girl—and Rye’s prodigy—turns up missing as well, Fetch’s life complicates further. For as little as he cares about Rye, the girl has untapped potential. Something Fetch himself is fresh out of. Maybe something he never even had. And as he begins to give a damn about the case, several inopportune things happen. The ghosts from Fetch’s past begin to turn up in the present. And things that should’ve remained buried come to life. And though the magic is well and truly dead, hope is not quite gone, and neither is Fetch Phillips.

‘ Maybe nobody gets better. Maybe bad people just get worse. It’s not the bad things that make people bad, though. From what I’ve seen, we all work together in the face of adversity. Join up like brothers and work to overcome whatever big old evil wants to hold us down. The thing that kills us is the hope. Give a good man something to protect and you’ll turn him into a killer. ‘

A life without hope is no life at all, but a desperate hope is little better. For a person who has lost all hope is nothing but predictable, but a desperate person is completely unpredictable. And unpredictability begets chaos.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the fantasy debut from Black Sails actor Luke Arnold. And it is—as you may’ve guessed—a story of hope. Set in a dark but beautiful world, Sunder City is an amazing, if depressing setting. Arnold fills the pages with history and lore, both before and after the death of all magic—filling the story with a sense of desperation, and of hope.

Now where the world-building is pretty solid, the story is somewhat blah. It’s not bad exactly, just straightforward. The mystery itself wasn’t too deep or inventive, and I sometimes lost track of things when Arnold attempted to set the scene. These glimpses into the history of the world were interesting, but ultimately distracted from the plot itself. Where an open world full of side-quests may work well for an RPG, it doesn’t really work for a book. Additionally, sometimes Fetch takes unbelievable leaps in his logic, relating two or more clues that don’t appear to add up.

A deliciously dark setting, combined with a story of hope and hopelessness, make Last Smile a must-read for any fans of dark fantasy. Indeed, I found a world recently relieved of its magic to be an unique and immersive setting, particularly as the main character has his own history surrounding the event. Not only did the Coda cost the world its magic, but it cost Fetch Phillips more than a little bit of himself. The effects that the loss has on the world’s formerly magical inhabitants proved as fascinating as they were horrible, from death and disfiguration to hopelessness and despair. The effect upon mankind were much less severe, with only those few wizards and witches affected by the loss, but now humans are universally loathed for their part in the Coda. A part that you can read about in the book (I’m not giving it away).

While I’d definitely recommend the Last Smile for its world and setting, if nothing else, I must admit I had one notable issue with it. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what era this world was set in. Likely because Arnold has just made up something all on his own; a world that had little need for innovation or technology before the magic left. And yet, there’re things like phones and hospitals and automobiles and police, but no guns or radios or the like.

TL;DR

Set in a dark and dreary world newly devoid of magic, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a solid four star debut from actor Luke Arnold. While the main mystery leaves something to be desired, the journey of Fetch Phillips more than makes up for it. At times seemingly random and disoriented, this amalgamation of history, mystery and lore bespoke of heart, redemption, and—more than anything—hope. And in a world of darkness, even the smallest spark can give light to an even greater hope, no matter how unlikely it seems.

The Fetch Phillips Archives continues with Dead Man in a Ditch, due out October 6, 2020.

Top Ten of 2019

This is actually my 4th or 5th attempt at a Year’s Best list. A few were too long (one had 25 books) others were too short (5 books), some too restrictive and others too broad. I was going to do a 2019 Only list, but I ended up scrapping that last. While most of my favorites for the year were released THIS year, this year I probably read more newly released books than ever before. And while only 3 of my Top 10 come from before this year, they include 2 of my Top 3. So I cut it to 10. I could probably throw in a few honorable mentions, but then I’d invariably get carried and we’d be here all day. So it’s 10. Just 10. There’ll be links to both the Goodreads page and my reviews for each book, in case you’d like to check out either. Otherwise, I hope you’ll enjoy the list and maybe comment. While I liked most of 2019, the end was just painful. Horribly, terribly painful. I hope that whomever and wherever you are, your year was much better, and ended more gracefully. Can’t wait for 2020! But first, here’s to 2019:

10. Beneath the Twisted Trees – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (2019)

GoodreadsReview

To begin the list, Beneath the Twisted Trees is Book #4 of the Song of the Shattered Sands. Out in 2019, it was a fantastic ride filled will vivid storytelling and epic world-building. Continuing the story of Çeda on her journey to destroy the Kings of Sharakai, I cannot recommend this series enough. Bradley Beaulieu’s attention to detail has always been on-point, but The Shattered Sands impressive still.

9. The Imaginary Corpse – by Tyler Hayes (2019)

GoodreadsReview

Again thanks to Angry Robot for this ARC! I’d never even heard of Tyler Hayes at all until I got this book—but the Imaginary Corpse absolutely blew me away. An imaginative and fun world filled with adorable and cuddly characters, including one of my favorites of all time: Tippy. Combining the dark noir of the classic gumshoe with the cuteness and fun of something out of the Great Mouse Detective, I’d recommend this story for pretty much everyone, easily one of my favs for the year!

8. Age of Legend – by Michael J. Sullivan (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I hated the ending to Age of War soooo much, I threw the damned book at the wall. I loved the Age of Legend so much, I had to keep myself from starting the Age of Death right upon finishing it. A darker beginning gives way to an epic adventure—a Michael J. Sullivan specialty. My main issue with this book comes with its own warning: there’s a cliffhanger (another Sullivan specialty), so you’ll likely want to read the next one right away. Which, if you didn’t back the Kickstarter, might be an issue. So maybe wait until February to read them. Or prepare to suffer the consequences.

7. Blackwing – by Ed McDonald (2017)

GoodreadsReview

Blackwing was originally published in 2017, but served as my intro to the Ed McDonald, and the Raven’s Mark trilogy, which concluded in 2019. It actually took me three tries to get past page 30, but once I did, I was captivated. A thrilling adventure in a new world—Blackwing definitely puts the… ‘A’ in adventure? Something like that. Whatever. If you haven’t read it, it’s really cool.

6. Soulkeeper – by David Dalglish (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I loved Dalglish’s Shadowdance series—and while Skyborn underwhelmed me—Soulkeeper won me back. If I’d needed winning back, I guess. A new fantasy adventure, with a classic fantasy appeal, this book nailed the characters, the world-building and the nostalgia for me. The only thing I took issue with was the dialogue, but it wasn’t a detail that ruined the story. Didn’t even leave a bad aftertaste. Can’t wait for Ravencaller in 2020!

5. Walking to Aldebaran – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I’m usually hit-or-miss on novellas and short-stories. Anything that half-asses a proper length adventure. For Adrian Tchaikovsky, however—I’ll make an exception. A light but surprisingly deep read, Aldebaran follows smartass astronaut Gary Rendell as he explores an alien artefact at the edge of our solar system. I loved the adventure and wit, the exploration of the unknown, the tone Tchaikovsky uses to describe the world, even didn’t mind the shortness of the tale—really my only issue was the price.

4. Fallen – by Benedict Jacka (2019)

GoodreadsReview

The tenth Alex Verus book is my favorite thus far. We’ve hit a pretty good stride with that, as so were Books 7, 8 and 9 upon their releases. Fallen is the best of the bunch, though. As Alex’s adventure nears its completion, the story is getting deliciously dark (though not Grimdark), enough to convince Verus that a dozen books is enough. I assume, at least. Ten books down, and Alex must become something else, something MORE, in order to move forward. I love the direction this series has gone and can’t wait to see where it goes next!

3. The Fall of Dragons – by Miles Cameron (2017)

Goodreads • Review

The final book in the Traitor Son Cycle leads off my Top 3. The Red Knight has gone through trials and travails; found and lost and found love once more; crossed untold lands, worlds, filled with mysterious and terrifying beasts; fought battles, wars and emerged bloodied, but unbeaten. And yet the enemy remains. Fall of Dragons is the epic—and immensely satisfying—conclusion. If you haven’t read it—or any of the other Traitor Son books… well, they’re just amazing. It’s an epic, incredible, awe inspiring adventure. Sometimes the detail and language can be a bit dense, but by Book 5 I was more than used to it. I’m not a fan of endings; I know that all good stories must end, but sometimes I wish the adventure would just continue forever and ever. Fall of Dragons ends well. It isn’t necessarily happy—but it’s such an ending! A must read.

Note: I apparently haven’t review this yet, since I read it before this whole blog thing took hold. Hopefully I’ll get to that soon.

2. Crowfall – by Ed McDonald (2019)

GoodreadsReview

Where Blackwing (#7, pay attention) began the Raven’s Mark trilogy, Crowfall ends it. Though I didn’t love Ravencry, both Books 1 & 3 effectively blew my mind—more than enough for them to make this list. But where Blackwing suffered from the uncertainty that begins a new series, Crowfall shows that McDonald knew where he was going with it. Or maybe he got, really, really lucky. All the pieces of Galharrow’s adventure came together in this book, and the resulting story was amazing. There’s little more that I can say except: Read this. I loved it, and I hope you will too.

1. The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding (2018)

GoodreadsReview

In a year where most of my favorite reads were new releases, my top choice harkens from the year prior. The Ember Blade is an epic tale, 800+ pages of classic fantasy adventure. A new world to explore, new characters to know and love, new details, new subplots, new love, new loss. Book 1 of the Darkwater Legacy was a coming-of-age epic that had it all—fantastic creatures, villains, heroes, love, purpose and adventure, so much adventure! While I wasn’t completely sold from the start, about a quarter way through my time with this tome, I was way past stopping. While it may seem like a classic coming-of-age tale, The Ember Blade mixes new with old, light fantasy with dark, to come up with something amazing and special—something that I hope you’ll love just as much as I did.

Blood Tally – by Brian McClellan (Review)

Valkyrie Collections #2

Urban Fantasy

February 11, 2020

200ish pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

The fictitious Cleveland Brian McClellan has painted has not grown much more realistic, but that’s okay. The story of Blood Tally—like that of Uncanny Collateral—is quick, clever, and entertaining; the real clincher. While I didn’t enjoy all the time I spent in the OtherOps arena, I loved far more than I loathed, which is well worth it in my book.

Blood Tally is a little longer than Uncanny Collateral’s 151 pages, though with the ebook it’s kinda hard to tell how much. I’d guesstimate it at around 200 pages or so.

Alex Fitz is a reaper, a soul collection agent for the Valkyrie Corporation. He is also a slave—illegally bought and sold to the company owner back when he was a child. For years, Alex has been searching for his birth parents, the contract they signed, and some, any way to get free. While little has changed in that arena, Blood Tally opens with an unusual case—one that hits way too close to home. A vampire has come to Valkyrie in search of his runaway thrall. While technically a would-be vampire, Alek knows thralls are little more than slaves to their lord before their conversion to full-on vampirehood. While he would normally opt out of a case like this one, this time Alek has little choice. His master has her own deal in place, to betray their original client, Boris Novak, to one of the vampire lords, a guy named Ruthven.

While Alek has little choice but to go along with the scheme, it seems that more than just Boris has been holding out on him. Indeed, soon it seems to him that Lord Ruthven and Alek’s boss, Ada, have their own agendas. Agendas that have little room for a certain reaper.

Thus Alek must uncover their secrets while trying to conceal his own—in the form of the mysterious jinn, Maggie. He might still win the day, but to do so he must live long enough to determine just what a “Blood Tally” is, why both his employers are willing to kill for it, and what to do with the information even if he manages to find it. It’s hard to tell friend from foe in the latest Valkyrie Collections entry, which features a lot of vampires, a sphinx, a rogue witch, and a whole mess of secrets worth killing over. Oh, and the fate of the world itself might be at stake.

With the first book, I noted that while I had no problem reading it, McClellan didn’t exactly go out of his way to try to make the “real world” very realistic. That holds true for Blood Tally—where the supernatural is again commonplace, while at the same time a (maybe?) secret from the rest of the world. I mean, I was assuming it was, but this really hasn’t been touched through the first two books. I can’t tell if it’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kinda story, or if the author just hasn’t addressed it because he hasn’t wanted to get into it. Either way, there was an awkward kind of uncertainty to everything, at least for me.

While Uncanny Collateral centered heavily on Alek—a lone reaper with no backup and few friends—Blood Tally instead tells Alek’s story, a reaper amidst a small cast of friends and allies. I mean, it’s still 1st PPOV, but instead of Alek and Maggie alone, we are treated to a few other recurring, non-hostile characters. Nick, the hired gun (necromancer) from the first book is back, albeit in an uncertain role. There’re a few other supernatural creatures who may turn into allies or friends, if they can go the whole story without trying to kill Alek. Maggie is still around, though their banter wasn’t as central as it was in Uncanny Collateral.

TL;DR

The second Valkyrie Collections delivers right where the first left off. If you liked the first, you’ll love the second, and vice-versa. While a bit fast-and-loose with the state of affairs of muggles and Cleveland and the world itself, Blood Tally does an adequate job of world-building through a basic framework of pictures and lines and color thrown in. Though it’s not the vibrant, vivid, description-heavy fantasy I may be used to, Blood Tally is an exciting, interesting adventure that I never had any trouble reading. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter—which, I mean, right?—then you’ll have to wait until February 11, 2020 to read it. Good luck!

In Shining Armor – by Elliott James (Review)

Pax Arcana #4

Urban Fantasy, Supernatural

Orbit; April 26, 2016

424 pages (PB)

3 / 5 ✪

Carry the Story, Check its Baggage

In Shining Amor stars Harry Dresden and Taylor Lautner knockoff love-child John Charming. Fresh off the events of Fearless (or was that Daring?), which found Charming the godfather of Constance, knights and werewolf daughter alike, In Shining Armor finds her a captive—I suppose because James needed a new book idea and went with his very first thought.

It’s been a few months since John and Sig got together. Charming, being his usual optimistic self, has spent this time automatically assuming something will go wrong. Eventually, you’d have to assume he’d be right. The kidnapping of his goddaughter certainly qualifies. And yet the intriguing part of this is that although her abduction is the initial selling-point of this book, it’s not the all-encompassing story that I assumed it’d be.

No, instead of Constance, In Shining Armor has more to do with her absence. In particular, what her absence means. For when everything points to her abduction being an inside job, the two factions behind her protection start pointing fingers. Mostly at one another. And when the tenuous alliance between knights and werewolves begins to decay, a war is brewing.

Though not the war you’d expect.

The worst part of this was book was the relationship between John and Sig. Seriously, they were really annoying. Really, REALLY ANNOYING. I mean, the casual, witty, sarcastic banter was cute at first. Entertaining, even. But to read it throughout the entire book got old very, very quickly. Especially as it seemed to bleed into every single conversation. The group gets ambushed and almost killed? Witty banter underscored with sexual tension. Our heroes battle for their lives against an ancient, unknown foe? Witty sexual banter. Trying to figure out who wants to start a war and why? Sarcasm and banter mixed. An old ally, a new enemy, any bit of mystery or any kind of planning? Sex. Sarcasm. Relationship. Drama.

It all reads like a guide to Sig and John’s relationship, with the actual plot a simple undercurrent to it. Which is too bad, because the actual plot is pretty solid. Wasn’t what I expected, that’s for sure. The abduction of Constance is too obvious, too quick. The war, the misdirection, the rest—it’s really quite entertaining. Like, a 4.5 or higher story. And yet everything seems to distract from it.

The action is… actiony? I mean, it seems to be added specifically because the author thought there should be action. Because he wanted his characters (semi-action hero-y in the past), to be total Action Heroes. The first fight scene blends pretty well into the background of the tale. From then on, it seemed the fights were just an addendum to everything. Violence for the sake of violence. Now, as a guy, I love a good violence every now and then. You know, 300, explosions, kung fu, Braveheart, All For One and that kinda thing. In Shining Amor reads kinda like a mystery covered in a bunch of sticky notes. Through these, James tries to flesh out the characters, the action, the romance, the development and everything else he thinks the text needs. All the while the real story sits buried—perfectly good in its own right. It really tries to be too much. Could be a romance (well, maybe a casual chick-flick), just cut the action. A thriller, just get rid of the John-Sig affair. A mystery, or paranormal fantasy, just stop trying to add everything else.

TL;DR

In Shining Armor tries and tries, just in the end it tries too much. Its fantastic story is buried beneath heaps of romance and action and thrills that don’t really work. And certainly don’t go together. The dialogue is disgusting and annoying, especially once you get into it. The action is your basic fight-scene, copied and repeated throughout. The story is pretty amazing, by itself. In the end, In Shining Amor is a pretty good read, without all the fiddly bits. It really is. I recommend it, just don’t take it too seriously. Skip over some of the dialogue, some of the fight scenes, some of the sex. It becomes a shorter, much more entertaining adventure, mystery, and experience.

Book Review: Fallen – by Benedict Jacka

Alex Verus #10

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; September 24, 2019

304 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Berkley, Ace and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

SPOILERS – for the events of previous Alex Verus books, especially Marked!

Fallen is the tenth entry in the Alex Verus series, and while the story has definitely taken a darker turn, the future of the series has never looked so bright. Or, y’know, the final two books or so.

It took me roughly two days to read this—admittedly short novel—in which time I didn’t get much else done of value. I devoured Fallen like a Hawaiian pizza, digging through its bones (pizza bones) in the time it usually takes me to start getting into a story. Now, there are several reasons for this, but put quite simply: Benedict Jacka has really hit his stride. True, he had nine books to perfect it. True, he waited until quite near the end of his planned 12-book series. True, none of his books are all that long. But Jacka has nailed it in Fallen, which I can’t say enough about.

After the events of Marked, Alex is left in fear of a secret he has to keep at all costs. But also, he is in love. Finally having confessed his love for Anne, life has become livable for a time. Happy, even. But all things must change, and Alex has learnt this lesson enough to expect it.

For when the Council finds out—and they also seem to find out—Alex is forced to choose between the two most important things in his life: Anne, and the person he has spent his life trying to be. Turns out not to be much of a choice at all.

Fallen presents a much darker backdrop than many books before it. I know Bound was only two books prior, but Fallen puts it to shame. A dark, depressing read was not at all what I needed, particularly following right on the heels of A Little Hatred—but Fallen provides just enough hope to see its readers through, while immersing them in the tale in the way only a 1st PPOV run story can.

This features an immense cast of characters. With nine books building to this point, turns out there’re a lot to choose from. While the main cast has stayed pretty consistent recently—with Alex, Anne, Luna, Variam and Arachne leading the way—several factions and sides each have contributed their own. Allies and enemies both have turned over, Alex proving to be a dangerous man to consort with. And yet there are some prominent mainstays. Richard Drakh, Alex’s former master. Keeper Caldera, Alex’s once-partner, once-friend. Landis, Variam’s former master. The Light Council. The Dark Cabal. Supernatural creatures, mages, adepts and sensitives galore. Jacka always seems to sneak a few surprise cameos in, and Fallen is no exception.

The characters, especially their arcs, come to a head in Fallen. Alex’s own—which was by no means uneventful up to Book 10—absolutely takes off. A rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. Tragedy, heartbreak and hope punctuate not only Alex’s own story, but those of his friends and allies. Even his enemies begin to show their human side; blurring what has always seem a good-evil battle for Alex’s soul.

It was the story that blew me away. Desperate, dark and thrilling—it was an electrifying read from cover to cover. The beginning (the first 10%) read the slowest, but the following 90% seemed to race by. Now, Fallen is only a 300-odd page book. Though few of the previous have been much longer. And, as with many of the Alex Verus series, it’s definitely worth a reread.

TL;DR

I loved Fallen. Best thing I’ve read this year, hands down. And if you’ve read the first nine Verus books, this one’s a no-brainer. It does not disappoint. In fact, I enjoyed it on so many levels, especially with the build-up the previous books began. Possessed of an thrilling story, deep recognizable characters, fantastic character development and growth, and a satisfying—if surprising conclusion—Fallen is all I wanted from the series and more. And with only (probably) two more Verus books beyond it, we’re boiling down to a truly epic conclusion.

Book Review: The Imaginary Corpse – by Tyler Hayes

noob #1, standalone (?)

Fantasy, Urban Fantasy

Angry Robot; September 10, 2019

321 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both NetGalley and Angry Robot. All opinions are my own.

The Imaginary Corpse is an adorable book in a number of ways. And yet it holds a darkness within that’s surprising for both its intensity and its depth. It’s a cross between Toy Story and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, under the night sky of a film-era detective noir. Detective Tippy is a stuffed, yellow triceratops. Yes, you read that right. He’s the head and only detective at the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency. There’s nothing he likes more than root beer floats, long rides in the dryer—and of course—his creator, Sandra.

The Stuffed Animal Detective Agency operates in the Stillreal, a place where capital-F Friends end up when their creators are forced to abandon them. It’s hard to explain, but the book does a stellar job—I’ll give it a quick shot. You see, some imaginary friends are just that: Imaginary. But if a friend is imbibed with such a force of love or affection, or detail to the extent that they’re very real to their creator, they become a Friend. Alternatively, a nightmare that frightens and terrifies can often feel very real in its own right, thus becoming a Friend as well (albeit a different kind). Now, most often these Friends will be parted with or forgotten when a child outgrows them, discarded when an artist or writer moves on or their commission is canceled. But occasionally, there’s an event that leads to a Friend being abandoned. Some trauma, some insight, some… thing else. And the Friend is forcibly ripped from their creator, never to return. These Friends end up in the Stillreal.

Going to the Stillreal is a one-way trip. Friends can get hurt or injured there—most experience trauma, anxiety or worse from their forced separation from their creator—but once arriving in the Stillreal, they can’t actually die. That is, until they start.

When Tippy witnesses this, the case begins. It will lead down paths even dark by Playtime Town standards. It will force Detective Tippy to confront his own issues—the trauma, the loss, and his mounting depression. It may even change him for the better, should he and the rest of the Stillreal survive it. For even in Playtime Town does darkness loom, and Tippy may not have enough in his pocket flask of root beer to see him through it.

What to say about the Imaginary Corpse? Mostly good things, I promise.

I mean, it’s good. It’s definitely worth reading! It’s in a class all on its own, for a whole host of reasons—but mostly because it is adorable. The yellow triceratops lead, the amount of hugs offered and given, the Rootbeerium… And yet the issues these Friends deal with draw a number of parallels to everyday life. The trauma, the loss, the anxiety, the depression they feel; all seems a tangible, weighted thing, that I struggled with in my read through. Some have overcome the lot, though most still struggle on valiantly in a world they can’t escape, a living memory of a life they’re never to revisit, the memory of their creator, their best friend still fresh in their mind and yet irretrievable at the same time. Tippy walks a fine line—love, hope on one end with depression, darkness and loss lurking on the other side.

Tippy may be one of my favorite characters ever. From his time with Sandra, Tippy was imbued with Detective Stuff, a kind of sixth-sense that helped him know things, feel things, gather clues almost as if by magic—as it might seem to a small child who witnesses detectives doing such. Despite this yellow triceratops being filled with no more than root beer and stuffing, he’s more human than most of what you’ll find in media nowadays.

While Hayes starts with an interesting premise, a fantastical setting and a generally entertaining plot, the Imaginary Corpse falls short of perfection. The mystery lets the story down, sadly. And the Detective Stuff—while a powerful tool—is not enough to carry the story by itself. A couple of times I had to backtrack and reread a section where Tippy connected the dots, because it didn’t exactly make sense. Occasionally, the Detective Stuff would just bypass key details and leap on to the next, like they were too hard to explain or write. Though I suppose that’s a good use for a superpower, innit?

TL;DR

The Imaginary Corpse is a fantasy-mystery-noir, set in a strange but delightful world, filled with some of my favorite characters of all-time. And I really can’t say enough good things about it. An immensely entertaining read, the book takes its readers through the trauma and darkness—coaxing them all the while with hope and acceptance, before finally reaching a hard-fought conclusion that is neither, yet somehow both. While the novel’s mystery may be its biggest weakness, the Imaginary Corpse manages to tell the story it set out to, in the manner it set out to, while toeing the line between dark and adorable. And that above all else is its greatest triumph. Quite the debut from Tyler Hayes—one I’ll not be forgetting any time soon!