All of Our Demise – by Foody & Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #2

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; August 30, 2022

468 pages (hardcover)

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Author Website Herman • Socials

8.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for All of Us Villains!

• All of Us Villains – Review •

The Blood Veil has fallen.

The tournament to decide the fate of high magic continues. Two contestants now lie dead. Three are united in their attempt to end the practice once and for all. And two more stand to oppose them.

Alastair Lowe has become the greatest monster in Ilvernath once again. Following the reappearance of his brother, the destruction of his family, and the death-curse that plagues him—he has taken on an otherworldly pallor, to go along with his sparkling personality. Still reeling from the betrayal of the girl he loved, he must alter his alliances and his perceptions if he wants to remain in the game.

Briony has done everything to get here—here, where she can make a difference. Be the hero. But with her plan in shambles and her alliances frayed, she faces an impossible choice: continuing on the noble course will most likely find her dead, while reverting to the original one will surely see all her friends dead. Not a great option.

Ilvernath itself cannot hide from the terrors anymore. With the champions now able to enter the town, most residents have barricaded themselves at home, venturing forth only for emergencies. And there is a killer on the loose. Someone siphoning the life magic of anyone unlucky enough to be out past dark. Could it be the boy whose own life is waning? Or the tournament’s darkest monster? The resurrected boy? Or the girl who would do anything to be the hero?

Anything can happen as the tournament draws to a close.

“You should know by now—all the fucked-up fairy tales in Ilvernath are true.”

All in all, a good conclusion to the duology. With the Blood Veil fallen, the story is now open to a whole new range of options absent from the first book. They could transition from the landmarks to the town itself. They could, say, go interact with the families that put them here. They could leave the area entirely—though with the knowledge that the high magic of the tournament will probably kill them all when the Blood Veil descends. Or they could interact with (and/or siphon life force) any of Ilvernath’s citizens, in a desperate attempt to help them win/finish the tournament once and for all.

And it works, mostly. The interactions between the champions has always been a strong point, something that continues throughout Book #2. Now that alliances have shifted (and are constantly tested) and new variables have entered the fray, there’s more at stake than ever before. And more that has to be sorted out among those with the most to lose.

“How does it look?”
“I mean, you’re still cursed,” Gavin said.
“Great. Thanks. I had no idea.”

As before, I again most enjoyed the Big 3—Alastair, Isobel, and Gavin—as Briony continued to rub me the wrong way. And yet that may have been the point all along. As Briony continued to fray throughout Book #2, I actually found the effect as humanizing her to a point she’d never have admitted before. Alastair himself was a bit inconsistent in this part (more on that in a sec), so I ultimately found myself more invested in Gavin and Isobel’s stories. Fortunately the two represent both sides in the conflict, so it all worked out well. Four main characters, two on each side—you don’t have to like everyone for it to work out.

The romance was the biggest letdown of the whole story. And not just because it was a typical love-triangle, will-they won’t-they, romeo-and-juliet, fight-to-the-death kinda thing with all the tropes competing with one another for the lead. Instead, it all came down to the one with the curls. And whether he would pick the fiery girl, or the golden boy. To be honest, it seemed a bit like each author was fronting their own opinion. Like they hadn’t discussed it in advance. Instead the two were competing to win the third’s heart. Which honestly doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, except that someone has to write the third’s POVs, all while remaining impartial to whom they choose. Which they didn’t. And when this love interest went back-and-forth—sometimes dramatically and unexpectedly so—it distracted from, you know, the whole fight to the death. Or the fight to break the curse.

TL;DR

A satisfying, if not absolutely perfect, conclusion to the duology, All of Our Demise definitely combines a death-curse and a love-triangle, a serial killer and a would-be Lazarus, a united front and a divided house. I quite enjoyed half of the portrayals within—while falling out with one, I began to make up with the other. It continues to be a good format, and an interesting take on the Battle Royale genre. While the tournament itself continues to wow, the romance turns a bit stilted and begins to distract from the plot at large. I can’t wait to hear more from these two authors—either as they go off alone or stay together and weave more dramatic fantasy goodness!

Mindwalker – by Kate Dylan (Review)

standalone (?)

Scifi, Cyberpunk, YA

Hodder & Stoughton; September 1, 2022

320 pages (ebook)
10hr 42m (audiobook)

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8.5 / 10 ✪

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

I apologize in advance if this is a bit rougher and more… rambly (?) than my other reviews. I’ve been struggling with my headspace for months now, and it’s affected my ability to word properly.

Eighteen-year-old Mindwalker Sil Sarrah is the best of the best at what she does. Shame she’s due to die in under twelve months, when the supercomputer grafted to her brain burns out. But while she may die young, Sil is determined to go out on top.

The Mindwalker program: the pride of the Syntex Corporation. This secret program is dedicated to commandeering agents minds from afar (with the agents’ consent, of course) and using their Walkers’ supercharged skills and supercomputer intellect to extract the agents from whatever situation they’ve gotten themselves into. After ten years in the program, Sil retains a perfect record—not a single agent lost, not a single mission failed.

A record Sil’s determined to keep; a way to ensure that her legacy survives her.

Until she fails a redacted mission on the public stage, disobeying a direct order in the process. Forced to flee the company she’s called home for over half her life, Sil is completely cut off: no way to contact her friends, no reason to contact her family, and with no resources to bring to bear—though at least she still has access to her CIP (Cerebral Intelligence Processor), Jarvis. And at least she has a plan to regain her standing, and return home.

To do so she must infiltrate the Analog Army—the biggest thorn in Syntex’s side—and do whatever she can to bring the terrorists to justice.

But after a few days on the lam, Sil already has a mounting list of problems. Not the least of which is the cocky smile and good looks of Ryder, an AA cell leader. Though there’s also the conspiracy she’s stumbled upon. “Mindjacking”, so-called as it focusses on hijacking the unwilling minds of anyone connected to the net and wearing their body like a meat-suit. Which, in this enlightened future, is pretty much anyone at all. A conspiracy that apparently centers on the one place Sil can’t go—the Syntex Corporation.

Mindwalker came out back in September to rave reviews. While it wasn’t initially on my radar—or the radars of any of my friends or followers, really—after maybe a week of scrolling through the endless praise and comments, I knew I had to read it. Set in a dystopian world where a fractured United States (yeah, I know those terms contradict one another) rules only by outsourcing so much of their process to corporate contractors, the setting for this evokes a dystopian sphere, heavy with science fiction and cyberpunk themes.

Fresh into its pages I was immediately taken with the world—albeit… less so with the plot. While done in an interesting way, Mindwalker is essentially a new take on an old classic; a dystopian world where our corporate protagonist joins up with the ragtag rebels to expose a conspiracy and win the day! I mean, it’s not exactly breaking the mold here. That said, despite this far-from-unique model, and a somewhat lacklustre romance, Mindwalker is really quite a good read.

The setting makes the story, but the characters keep the focus—and Sil is far from the eminently hatable corporate rat that I initially took her for. Stubborn, distrusting, but somehow full of emotion and passion (no, not that kind), she makes a good lead, even through the romance which usually bores me. That said, the romance in this is only really heavy at the close, and even then it never takes the pace from the overarching story completely. Lena, Jondi, Miles, even Lin and Risler help set the plot up as believable, a world made up of human characters in a plausible setting. Before long this list includes Ryder and more, but never expands beyond the memorable handful of faces, leaving a sea of nameless, faceless masses without a story or purpose. Despite the world supposedly being massive, it doesn’t feel like it from the handful of characters. I’d’ve liked to see a few more (even) throwaway characters, or randoms. Instead, we get a few bullet-sponges, soon-to-be dead’uns, and nameless guards, that Sil—despite her decade in the program—doesn’t recognize. Neither does she recognize (or at least mention) any other Walkers beyond her two friends. So, to recap: characters—great main, good supporting, but anything after that is a complete wash.

All in all, I had little problem getting into Mindwalker and—despite the fact that it took me a month to read (which I ascribe more to the goings-on in my personal life than anything of the text itself)—was never of the illusion that I’d not finish it. Though my opinion of the book isn’t exactly the golden standard that I’ve seen set for this title, it does speak well to its success. Currently on Goodreads, only 13% of all ratings are under 4 stars (9% of these are 3). Which means that even the people who don’t absolutely love this really enjoy (or quite) it.

Where was I going with this? I guess that I’d recommend it? Because I would. Pretty good read.

The Midnight Circus – by Jane Yolen (Review)

Omnibus, Collection

Horror, Short Stories

Tachyon Publications; October 1, 2020

256 pages (ebook)

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5 / 10 ✪

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

The thing I love about fantasy, science fiction, and adventure novels is the fantastical escapism. To be swept up in a story so different from one’s own; to experience something so different and unique and originating from someone else’s own imagination—I feel like it’s the very height of storytelling.

In a novel, you’re provided with one complete story (generally). There are details your imagination can fill in: the colors of the sunset, the random passersby, the foliage, the fauna, the sub stories not relevant to the plot, et cetera—but the majority of it (the vital, the long and the short) should be related to you. In an epic, less corners are cut; in a novella, more. Novellas often exclude less important pieces of the story, or details like the characters’ dress, their image, their backstory.

Short stories cut even more out. Often the introduction or conclusion. Sometimes both. Details beyond those most vital to the tale. Characters names, worldbuilding, history, dress, even any discernible plot.

Novels are hit-or-miss for me. Novellas are worse, though I find my imagination more than willing to fill in the blanks so long as I have a general story to follow. Short stories… are difficult. Some I enjoy, most I’m ambivalent to, while others I end up hating. Now, omnibuses—or collections of stories—are never going to be all one or the other. There’s always going to be a mix, some of each. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most collections (possibly excluding those all set within one shared, established universe) are going to always receive a bit of a ‘meh’ from me.

The Midnight Circus is one of the latter. In fact, it’s maybe even a bit worse.

The Midnight Circus is a collection of some of the works of Jane Yolen, with an emphasis on her shorter horror stories. There was one singular circus tale, but no more. While it’s not dry, exactly, neither is it the kind of thing to whet your appetite.

I can’t think of one tale that absolutely blew me away. There are a few I liked—mostly some of the longer ones, or a few of the fables. There are far more I didn’t care for. Even a few I was bored enough to skim, or even quit on entirely.

My favorites, few as they were, include Requiem Antarctica, a supernatural take on the South Pole expeditions; and… I guess the Fisherman’s Wife. Otherwise, they were pretty much worthless.

Now, this could just be me: I’ve already confessed to a distaste for short stories, I’m not a huge horror fan (which a majority of the tales were), and I’ve only ever read a few tales by Jane Yolen. That said, sometimes it shouldn’t matter. If you were after this to be your intro to the author and her works—don’t. If you wanted a nice, coherent story to read in your spare time—also don’t. In fact… well. If you’re a huge fan of the author, particularly her horror—this may work for you. Otherwise, maybe skip it.

All of Us Villains – by Amanda Foody & Christine Lynn Herman (Review)

All of Us Villains #1

Fantasy, YA

Tor Teen; November 9, 2021

386 pages (hardcover)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

The Blood Moon rises. The Blood Veil falls. And the Tournament looms.

Each generation the Blood Moon heralds the start of a new Tournament, as each of the seven families of Ilvernath compete for the ability to control the wellspring of High Magic thought to be gone from the world.

Each and every tournament is distinct for one reason or another, while somehow staying the same. But this year is different. This year—thanks to a revealing new book—the entire world now knows about the tournament, thrusting the seven families (and their champions) into the spotlight.

Isobel Macaslan—the first to be named, the belle of the media—hasn’t had her photo out of the press for the last year. Though the extra publicity gives an added boon before the tournament, this success doesn’t mean anything once the Blood Veil falls.

Briony Thorburn has trained her entire life to be champion—it’s the only life she knows, or wants—but when a last second change threatens her plans, will she be able to deal with the shock of it? Or will her actions mean the death of them all?

Carbry Darrow—the youngest of champions—isn’t expected to be much of a threat, but should he find the confidence within him, he just may surprise everyone.

Elionor Payne might not be the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, but it’s a close thing. She’s out to prove herself and win her family some praise, one body at a time.

Finley Blair—perfect, handsome, charming, every inch a storybook hero—might not be able to charm his way to victory, but he can get down and dirty should the need arise. And it certainly will.

Alistair Lowe is the favorite. Born and bred to win the tournament, he heralds from the most famous of the families; the Lowes win the tournament every two out of three times it’s held. Everyone knows he’s the greatest monster, the one to beat—even if he does have to keep reassuring himself.

Gavin Grieve rounds out the field. That’s the most that can be said about the final champion. A Grieve has never won the tournament, something everyone is keen to remind him—but Gavin aims to be the first. And not just because he doesn’t want to die yet. But as an afterthought of the competition, he is woefully equipped compared to the others. If he wants to win, he’ll have to do something stupid and desperate—though at least it’s not a difficult choice.

Six will die young, but one will rise above them. Only question is—is anything worth it?

There is was.

If he did this, he’d be restricting his magick usage for the rest of his life. But if he didn’t go through with it, the rest of his life would probably be a lot shorter anyway.

All of Us Villains is yet another fantasy thriller in the Battle Royale sub-genre, but this time with magic! So, teenagers battle to the death because why not. Got it. So… just from the prompt, this seemed a bit blah, but several reviewers I follow loved it, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Sometimes it’s all down to timing. Other times, it’s just taste.

This was a perfect combination of the two. For me, at least.

It’s going to sound a bit strange, but I found the pacing to be one of the best parts of this read. It sped up and slowed down from time to time, but always managed to do so at just the right moments, so that it never felt like the story was rushing out or grinding along. It was just always… there. You know how life happens at its own pace? It was like that. There were fast moving, adrenaline-induced parts that roared along, followed by crash sections where time seemed to be inching along while the characters got over the high. There were slower sections of talking and transition which all too suddenly turned to violence in an instant. It all felt… realistic. The tournament playing out over weeks instead of in the span of “days that feel like years”—a phrase which you all know I hate seeing.

The second great strength of All of Us Villains is its characters.

Now, all are profoundly flawed individuals—horrible people that react in terrible ways based on the fact that they’re young and immature, born and bred to fight in tournament that will no doubt claim their lives even if they have the fortune to survive it. And as such, they do some terrible things. But they’re also capable of great compassion, understanding, and empathy. It just comes out kinda weird what with the fact that they’re simultaneously attempting to murder one another. They’re not exactly realistic per say, but… realistic in the way that one can only be when they’ve been told their entire lives that they’ll be forced to fight a bunch of their friends to the death so that their family can reap the rewards.

I couldn’t honestly tell you who my favorite character was… though I consistently enjoyed both Gavin and Isobel’s POVs in a way I didn’t Briony’s. It’s not like Bri was a worse person—I’m not sure there were any “better” or “worse” characters (other than possibly Finley, who did not have his own POV)—I just found her a bit too arrogant for my tastes. Alistair kinda split the difference, showing both an unexpected empathy and a surprising cruelty just when I thought he’d turned one corner or the other. Just those four POVs: Alistair, Briony, Isobel, and Gavin. It never felt overwhelming with the POVs, or the scope, as each POV simply showed a different perspective into the tournament.

The story was not without its flaws, just… these were far outweighed by its strengths. Far, far outweighed.

TL;DR

All of Us Villains features a cast resplendent with the villainous, the vain, the wrathful, and the bloodthirsty. They may not all be monsters, but most come close. If you’re after a story with distinct lines between good and ill—this isn’t it.

This asks you to pick the best of a bad situation—and then pick again, as that person will almost surely die first. It may not feature any saints, but it does tell a lovely story with a definitely dark twist. A somewhat new (if not wholly unique) take on the Battle Royale sub-genre that has overtaken the world, All of Us Villains mostly succeeds through it being a damn good read, with excellent pacing, and believable—if horribly flawed—characters. In fact, I’d argue that their obvious flaws make them even more believable, if not relatable. While you might not love this quite as much as I did, I hope you’ll trust me when I say it’s worth a try. I’d very much recommend Part #1 of this duology, continuing in All of Our Demise, out just recently here in 2022.

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

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

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

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

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

結束

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 10 ✪

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

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

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

Anyway, the book. The read.

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

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

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

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

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

Nothing happens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Legacy – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Fable #3

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Wednesday Books; September 7, 2021 (US)
Titan; January 18, 2022 (UK)

327 pages (ebook)
8hr 16m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph

Author Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my bias. Many thanks to Titan for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When Bryn Roth relocates from her childhood home of Nimsmire to the port of Bastian, she does it to take her place in the Roth Household, on the expectation that not only will she be welcomed with open arms, but these people—her kin—will soon become the family she never knew. After all, it’s everything she was raised to believe. And, when Henrik summoned her via letter on her eighteenth birthday, it all but confirmed this. Bastian, the Roth household were her destiny, her birthright. One that Bryn is prepared to prove she is due.

But life—as it so often does—fails to live up to Bryn’s dreams.

While Henrik now holds a Merchant’s Ring, it doesn’t take Bryn long to learn that the family is still embroiled in the underworld, still cloaked in shadow. But with Bryn on board, the family is at last trying to legitimize. And Henrik needs Bryn to do so.

This is Bryn’s chance to achieve everything she’s ever dreamed, and she’ll do almost anything to see it through.

Almost. For what Henrik has in mind not only banks on skills she doesn’t possess, but also twists her sense of morality. And that’s just to begin with. For it turns out what Bryn thinks is the entire plan for her is just the start. Henrik has much more in store for her, and Bryn is forced to ask herself an important question: are her dreams worth so much that she’s willing to sacrifice everything, even her own life and freedom to achieve them?

But there’s also a footnote. One in the form of a mysterious and often brusque silversmith. Even after a few days in Bastian Bryn can’t stand looking at him. Though once she does… she can’t look away. But the silversmith isn’t family, and is the one thing that’s off limits to her. As if that was ever something to have stopped a Roth.

The Last Legacy is the third installment in the Fable series, but can easily be read as a standalone. While some of the characters are shared, the narrator changes from the first two entries (Fable to Bryn), and there are only very minor spoilers to the rest of the sequence. Bryn’s own story is set after Fable’s own, after the events at the end of Namesake. Some things will be clearer if you read those others first, but there’s nothing (much) earthshaking that you’ll miss should you decide to skip ahead. Nothing that will spoil Fable’s own story, at least.

With a plot that was better than that of the first two books, and a message that was much, more clearer, the Last Legacy was born to be a much better read. True, the romance isn’t as good, so if you read a story just for the romance you may be disappointed. Seeing as how I don’t, it wasn’t too big a deal, but whatever “romance” is in this seems to be just explained away with the old adage: “love is blind; it doesn’t have to make sense”. Which is good, because it very much doesn’t, especially at first.

I think my favorite character in the Last Legacy is Henrik. It’s not because I relate to or admire him—the man’s an ass. But he’s so complicated; it’s hard not to be fascinated by him. The man will do anything to protect and guide his family to success, but he will also allow none to cross him, including his blood. He has a hard but bleeding heart, and will go to the ends of the earth for his family—even for Bryn, whom he has not seen since she was a child. But then he’ll turn around and sacrifice anyone in order to achieve his goals, blood be damned. It’s this split personality, this seemingly contradicting nature that makes him so fascinating!

At first, I actually took it for bad writing. But he’s written so consistently—flipping between the two extremes often at the drop of a pin. Above everything, Henrik is ambitious. He’s willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone in order to achieve this ambition. But under it all, he has the desire to be loved by his kin, and often looks after them with the care and love of a doting parent—so long as it does not clash with his ambition. I’m not sure you’ll have met anyone like this before, but I have, and Henrik’s portrayal is spot on. So spot on that it’s both mesmerizing and incredibly unnerving.

I’m just going to skirt the edge of the romance here as I don’t want to complain about it constantly. Bryn shows up. She and Ezra butt heads. Then she can’t get enough of him and vice versa. And by unspoken consent they’re destined to fall head over heels—with little to no actual contact. Yes, I’ve heard of love at first sight. This isn’t it. It’s more… loathing at first sight, then love at fifth or sixth. The 180˚ isn’t gradual, but it’s not instantaneous either. It’s just abrupt—and annoying.

The Last Legacy is very much a book about dreams; what Bryn wants, what she’ll accept instead, how her dreams change and grow when confronted with reality, and at last of what achieving these dreams will cost her. For in life it’s so rare to have one concrete, consistent, never-changing dream. So often to be human is to waffle; to question what one wants, to wrestle with the consequences of achieving it. This is the real plot of the Last Legacy—and it changes with the development of Bryn’s own character. But what does she want, and what will she accept? Whether Bryn wants something she can’t have is a ridiculous question; we all want something that we can’t have, that will never come to pass. Just some of us accept this, while others don’t. Will Bryn accept what she can’t have and move on, or persist in achieving something that will never happen, even as her world crumbles around her?

Audio Note: As usual, Suzy Jackson does an excellent job in her portrayal of Bryn. It was so easy to imagine Bryn’s closeted, often sheltered upbringing and her subsequent transformation upon the streets of Bastian. Should you read this as an ebook or physical book, or an audiobook instead, I doubt it’ll make much difference. No matter your preference, the world comes to life quite well!

Crank Palace – by James Dashner (Review)

The Maze Runner #3.5

Dystopian, YA, Novella

Riverdale Avenue Books; November 23, 2020

109 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

1 / 5 ✪

May contain minor spoilers for the Maze Runner series.

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review (I thought). Many thanks to Riverdale Books and NetGalley, through which they provided me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

For every outstanding, glowing, 5-star review, there will be a dissenting opinion. These two will help a reader on the fence decide if a book is ultimately right for them. So you see, I’m providing an important service.

I picked this up because I wasn’t fully on board with the Flare, and everything that happened in the original trilogy. I wanted the closure, that the final book failed to provide. I was hoping that this would help fill in some gaps, help us understand the Flare, and provide some insight into Newt’s motivations behind his departure and his friends’ journey without him. If by chance you picked this up for the same reasons, you’re out of luck.

Crank Palace is the story of Newt, a six-year old who has lost his friends, but is still stuck in the same imaginary world of a disease that not only drives people insane, but also kills them. Or, he’s a teenager with the emotional range of a six-year old. Or the author just didn’t put enough effort into his story.

I’ve never been a fan of Dashner’s writing style, something I complained about throughout the original series, but came in hoping that it was something that he’d honed with time and practice.

Newt wished the Flare was a person so he could kick its arse.

Well, that was a mistake.

There is actually a journey in Crank Palace, and some decisions that don’t entirely contradict all the others, unfortunately these are few and far between. While Newt’s attitude towards his friends from the Maze remain constant, nothing else shows nearly the same consistency. Of all the characters in this, Newt is the only one that shows even a hint of growth, and it is counteracted at almost every turn by the rest of the stupid s*** he does.

The other main character, Keisha, is just a walking contradiction. In one scene she shoots someone in a desperate attempt to defend her only child, Dante. Immediately afterwards she attempts to defend Newt as well, someone who she literally just met, and was never suspicious of for a second. Then she worries over staying with him since he has the Flare, and wonders if her kid will be safe. Right after that she leaves Dante with Newt while she heads off on her own.

The whole story is based on the letter from the series which sees Newt abandon his friends so that they don’t have to watch him slowly descend into madness, so that they can focus on their mission and cure the Flare. But his range of emotions don’t ever transcend this one moment, and neither does his plan. It’s repeated over and over that he’s leaving them so that they can focus without him acting as a burden, otherwise he may distract them. This is a sentiment I can understand. Literally the only one from him over the entirety of the tale.

The man’s name has finally been revealed as Terry—the most unlikely name Newt could imagine.

He will occasionally remember things from his previous life, but they are few and far between, and won’t mention them until after he’s already exhibited some knowledge he shouldn’t have, only to say “oh yeah, I just remembered it”. It’s an entirely too convenient way of telling the story, and one that mostly just annoyed me. At one point a cell phone becomes central to the plot, when our heroes receive a message from someone in their past they thought was dead. But not only does no one have cell phones anymore, but the cell towers shouldn’t even work. Not to mention that the phone is stolen, so there’s no possible way they could have received a message from anyone they knew. But it becomes a huge plot device, which basically defines the story.

This 100 page novella took me over a week to get through, despite its length. More than once I had to go back to see what the characters were talking about, only to find no mention of it. It’s been a little since I finished the series, but reviewed the specifics before I began this novella. I had originally planned to read it much earlier, but was immediately put off by a note I received from the publisher when it kindly granted me a copy.


Your request has been approved on the basis that you have a strong interest in the book’s subject matter and that you review books.  If you request a book that turns out not to based on your interests or the genres you read, and find that it is not to your liking, or you chose not to finish reading the book (DNF), the author would appreciate it if you did not review it.

Asking me not to review it because I DNFed it is one thing, but asking me not to if I didn’t like it sounds a lot like the publisher/author is looking for “only positive feedback”. Which is ridiculous. After all, it granted me a review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review—unless I didn’t like it, in which case they would appreciate if I kept my mouth shut.

So, I took a year to calm down (which I did, until I read it again). Sadly, it doesn’t help that the book is nonsense.

Crank Palace is currently selling for $7 in the US and 5£ in the UK. It somehow has a rating of over four stars on Goodreads. I would suggest that you go check out some other reviews of it, unless you weren’t a fan of the original series. In which case maybe just forget it.

Namesake – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Fable #2

YA, Fantasy, Romance

Wednesday Books; March 16, 2021 (US)
Titan Books; June 22, 2021 (UK)

363 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for Fable, Book #1! Or, check out my review of Fable first!

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Titan Books, St. Martin’s Press, and NetGalley, for providing me an ARC! All opinions are my own.

The exciting conclusion to the duology takes no time to get moving, picking up right where Fable left off. It has no trouble entertaining throughout until some frankly odd choices derail it approaching the end.

Ever since she was little, Fable has desired one thing over every other: her father’s love and affection. But that is one thing Saint never gives. And so after her escape from Jevali, everything she has done has been in order to cut ties with the man. Now Fable has her own crew, a man she loves, a place on a ship of her own—having recently bought her way free of Saint’s influence.

But when she is kidnapped by Zola, Fable’s freedom will once again be out of her hands. Confined to his ship, surrounded by enemies and strangers, Fable feels more alone than she ever has before. And it would almost be tolerable, except for one thing.

Clove.

Her father’s navigator and the man that had been more a father to her than Saint ever was. He now heads Zola’s ship, and surely had a hand in her kidnapping. Worse still, he’s one of only a handful that knows of her true parentage—something it seems he’s shared with his new master. Which is undoubtedly the reason she now finds herself confined aboard her enemy’s deck.

But Zola has more on his mind than her father. He needs something from Fable, something that she must help him with if she ever wants to see West and the Marigold again. But it seems that Fable isn’t the only one harboring secrets, and this secret will change her life forever.

Namesake marks the return to Adrienne Young’s sea-soaked Fable, and one young woman’s journey to find her place amongst the waves. Fable has been through a lot in her short life, rising from the shores of Jeval to the Marigold with a man she loves and a tight-knit crew that’s almost family. For the first time since her mother died, Fable has found happiness. But Namesake takes that happiness and shreds it.

Kidnapped and surrounded by enemies, the adventure begins and is automatically immersive. The world itself is unchanged, with the Narrows proving just as interesting as it did in the first book. A sea speckled with islands, ports, and reefs to be dredged. And that’s where Namesake excels, just like Fable before it. On the bottom of the sea. In a land of water and reefs, on the constant hunt for minerals. But there is more to it than that. The mystery of whatever Zola wants with her looms over her head, as does the price the Marigold will have to pay to get her back. We’ll find out much more about West and his crew in this book, but also Fable herself.

I didn’t get the romance at all in this. Yes, I realize that the heart wants what it wants and that love is blind and can’t be reasoned with. Still, Fable spends a majority of the text worrying over it anyway. How she can’t trust West; how there’s a darkness within him that scares her; how he reminds her of Saint in all the bad ways. And predictably, nothing comes of it. I mean, it’s not much of a spoiler who Fable romances—there isn’t a love-triangle in Namesake. It’s Fable trying to rationalize and justify West, something that she never really does. But she keeps at it, right up until the end, where it’s almost magically resolved as a darkness they share (even though there’s really no darkness to Fable, at least not in the same way).

Say what you want about the romance, but the story rolled right along right up to the end and took no effort to read. Which made the ending itself all the more confusing. Yes, I realize that there is another story set in the same world, and the plot choices at the end of Namesake are likely an attempt to set up this next story. But that’s the only reason some of them make sense. There’s one moment in particular. It’s hard to explain without any spoilers, but sufficient to say that if the moment DOESN’T come up in the future stories, then I can’t figure out a single reason why it was included. It makes literally zero sense, and contradicts the entirety of the story that led to it.

TL;DR

Namesake marks the end of the duology, and our introduction to the world of the Narrow Sea. While there is now another book—The Last Legacy—set in this world, Namesake marks the end of Fable’s journey, and her journey to discover what kind of woman she’ll become. As coming-of-age tales go, this was an interesting adventure, with mystery and thrill, emotion and passion, deception and betrayal. I never had any trouble with the story, and was immediately immersed back into the world from the outset. Yes, there’s a lot to love as Fable’s journey comes to a close, but the romance itself was not one of them. It was more of a mystifying tale of contradictions, worry, secrets, and strange, almost contradicting choices. I mean, one could argue that that’s what love is all about, but it’s not something I’m used to seeing in these YA books. Had it been a grimdark romance where everyone is secretly trying to murder and/or seduce each other—that would be another story. But on the whole, I’d recommend it—particularly if you enjoyed the first book before it.

The Last Legacy—out since September 7, 2021—expands on the Narrow Sea, albeit with a new lead.

Forest of Souls – by Lori M. Lee (Review)

Shamanborn #1

Fantasy, YA

Page Street Kids; June 23, 2020

10hr 43m (audiobook)
403 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing—abandoned as a child and brought up in the Evewynian Kingdom, she has no family, no people, and no idea where she belongs. But she’s been working all her life to change that.

Now, as one of the favored apprentices of the Shadow, the Queen’s spymaster, she aims to cement her place in the kingdom, and carve out a page of her own in its history books. But such rarely goes to plan.

When out on a military assignment, Sirscha and her best friend Saengo sneak off to a tea house in order to conduct Shadow business, only to be ambushed by a pair of shamans intent on killing Sirscha. They kill Saengo instead.

And then somehow, Sirscha restores her friend to life.

Soon revealed as Shamanborn herself, Sirscha must flee from the same kingdom she grew up in and has trained to serve her whole life. Instead she and Saengo must travel to the domain of the Spider King, traversing the Dead Wood in a desperate attempt to prove her worth to the Queen, and the kingdom itself.

But her path is not so simple as that. Shadows lurk around every corner, plots that would see her—or worse, Saengo—dead. Sirscha doesn’t know who to trust, nor friend from enemy. She knows that she needs allies, however, but not whom to turn to. She must traverse this dangerous new environment with just her best friend to help, while the kingdoms grow ever closer to war around her.

There’s nothing too confusing about the plot of Forest of Souls. A coming-of-age fantasy set in an interesting if not overly unique fantasy world, it all boils down to a quest, something that Sirscha needs to accomplish in order to return to the kingdom. See, not long into the book, our hero is revealed as a Shamanborn; her power awakening when she restores Saengo to life. Shamans are reviled in Evewyn, ever since their part in the death of the Queen’s parents…? I think? (I read this as an audiobook, and I’m a bit foggy on the details here. I tried to look it up in reviews/previews/sneak-peeks but of course that didn’t work) Sufficient to say that a few shamans did something awful, and the Queen seems content to take that out on the rest of them. And so Sirscha has to find a way to make herself indispensable to the Queen if she ever wants to return home. Which she does… at first.

The complicated thing about Sirscha is that she’s a bit of a hypocrite. Brought up believing (to some extent) that shamans were the cause of all of Evewyn’s problems, once she is revealed as one, it doesn’t take her long to complete a full-180 and buy completely into shaman nationalism as it were. She goes from blaming the shamans to blaming the kingdom for the exact same things so quickly that’s strange to see. There is a little conflict of identity, but it’s all sorted out before lunch. But this leads me to one of my biggest issues with this book: the character development.

The characters are a mixed bag. Sirscha is deep and intricate, with her own motivation and backstory and ideals that are somewhere between relevant to completely different than anyone else’s. As such, Prince Meilek and Theyen stand out because their motivations are shrouded in mystery, much like their actions and desires. The Queen and Spider King as well are deep in their own right, even though we don’t see too much of them. Everyone else is just… forgettable. This includes Saengo. Despite being billed as Sirscha’s best friend and confidant, the only link to her past and vital to her future in more ways than one—she doesn’t really get that much screen time. Sirscha is always brushing her off to go somewhere or do something on her own. And while Saengo is on screen about half the time, we really don’t know too much about her. The text glosses over her family and her feelings with their predicament, but she really gets less in-depth analysis than someone like the Spider King, despite being billed as an integral part of Sirscha’s world.

As I said, the characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Which leads me to their relationships and development. There’s really no romance in Forest of Souls, which is refreshing. It seems every single YA fantasy I read has to set up some unrealistic romance that has no way of working out, except of course it does. The few exceptions to this feature something more like a classical romance, a love-triangle, quadrangle, or full-on orgy. There are a few hints of possible future romance in this, but that’s it. For the most part we focus on Sirscha and Saengo’s relationship—which is deep and meaningful in a way that Saengo’s character isn’t. It’s really quite odd. And while the relationships change and develop over the course of the story, the characters really don’t. Almost zero character growth or development. Sirscha goes from blaming one faction to blaming another faction almost overnight, but there’s no real thought-process behind it. It seems more like a snap decision is made: here’s what we’re doing. No one else shows anymore development than her—something I’d like to see change in the second book.

TL;DR

All in all Forest of Souls is an enjoyable fantasy adventure with an interesting concept and a slow-building but ultimately satisfying story, that touts friendship and love over romance and sex but ends without any real meaningful connection from it. It’s… a complicated one to describe. I really enjoyed so many things about it—from the story to the mystery to the world itself, most of the characters with their own depth and motivations and peculiarities, the mixed bag of emotions and questions that was Sirscha herself. But it also had its downsides; from the lack of any real character-development to the disappointment of Saengo as any sort of character at all, to Sirscha’s actions that often seemed to have no forethought while others seemed the complete opposite but for the same reasons.

I mean, well, I did quite like it, but Forest of Souls was not without its issues. It’s quite an odd read, really, a mixed bag of mostly good ideas and execution, albeit with a few glaring and frankly strange choices that hold it back from greatness. Let’s hope these are addressed in the sequel—Broken Web, out since the summer of 2021—a book that I do plan on reading. The reactions to this one are all over the map, with no one anywhere near a consensus on where to rate it. So… I’d still recommend Forest of Souls, but maybe try to pick it up on sale, or from the library?