Review: The Gutter Prayer – A Dark, Imaginative Debut

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Title: The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy 1)
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: January 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Deities
Page Count: 544

Rating: 8.0/10

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The city of Guerdon stands eternal. A refuge from the war that rages beyond its borders. But in the ancient tunnels deep beneath its streets, a malevolent power has begun to stir.

The fate of the city rests in the hands of three thieves. They alone stand against the coming darkness. As conspiracies unfold and secrets are revealed, their friendship will be tested to the limit. If they fail, all will be lost and the streets of Guerdon will run with blood.

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There has been a great buzz about The Gutter Prayer and the slew of blurbs from well-respected authors and reviewers praising its name should tell you that this is, in many ways, a pretty damn great debut.

And I can tell you the same thing…with some caveats.

Let’s talk about the worldbuilding first, because that’s hands-down the book’s biggest strength.

I wrote in my notes that the way that Hanrahan presents his world–like the origin of the Ghouls and Stone Plague–reminds me a lot of video games. As in, they’re presented in succinct and easily digestible chunks while still being interesting and attention-grabbing (and later I found out that the author writes gaming books, so that was an “Aha” moment). This has the downside of being a little info-dumpy in places, but considering how interesting the world is, I didn’t really mind it.

Comparisons to China Mieville has been made and for good reason. He’s one of the best when it comes to city building and transforming locations into living, breathing characters. And The Gutter Prayer has that in spades.

But I think this world is a little more…Lovecraftian than Mieville’s work (and not just because of the tentacles). And for that reason, it really, really reminds me of the Gothic browser game known as Fallen London.

And you have no idea how ecstatic that makes me.

I won’t get into the details of the game (that’s for another day), but one of the million things I adore about Fallen London (and its spinoffs) is its total embrace of the weird, the foreign, and the terrifying. Various creatures roam the streets and underbellies of its city and while some might see you as their noonday snack, others just want to go about their lives in peace. There’s something new and exciting waiting for you around every corner and the city is just begging you to explore it all.

The same thing applies here. We have the Tallowmen, humanoid wax creations made from the remnants of condemned criminals that are now used as hunting dogs for criminals (and yes, they have a wick running through them–that’s how they come “alive”); worm-colonies that hire themselves out as sorcerer mercenaries; and on and on.

And we get all these different, colourful districts and their rich history and colourful inhabitants–some friendly, others distinctly murdery, and nearly all of them strange and fascinating.

I fucking adore the imagination of it all.

As for the plot, the main one takes a while to materialize (which can be frustrating) but when it does, it begins to resemble the best of Robert Bennett Jackson’s Divine Cities trilogy–warring gods, trapped gods, and mortals who would kill or free them to further their own agenda.

Now, here comes the caveats. My problem with loud and rich worldbuilding is when the characters aren’t quite as loud and rich enough, so the former ends up drowning them out. This is fine in the early stages of a story–everything is new and shiny and we’re gawking at everything like overexcited tourists–but after a certain point it starts to resemble a lonely stroll through an art museum.

This isn’t to say the characters aren’t interesting–quite the opposite, really!

There are three main characters the story revolves around:

Spar is the leader of the trio and the son of the man who’s founded the Brotherhood–a group of thieves who were meant to be the Robin Hoods of the city, a beacon of hope for the common folk–and also a victim of the Stone Plague, an incurable disease that slowly turns the infected into stone. And he just happens to be my favourite (“The idealistic character with an unbending sense of loyalty who’s also tragically dying is your favourite? Why am I not surprised?”)

Rat is a young ghoul who feeds on the carcasses of the dead.

Cari is the only human/non-infected of the group. She’s left Guerdon many years ago and never looked back. But now she is back and some…disconcerting things are happening with her.

So these are characters with diverse backstories and I enjoyed getting to know them and the lore they bring with them, but I feel like they never developed beyond the surface-level of interesting. Spar in particular never quite reached the potential that I think he has.

And I think the following two points contribute to that:

  1. The three characters spend half of the story separated from each other (and Spar spends a good chunk of that stuck alone in a cell), so we never really get a good sense of their dynamic.
  2. Hanrahan doesn’t have the same knack for emotional character-driven scenes as he does with city building. There are moments, especially near the end of the story, that could have been rousing and vindicating but are curiously glossed over. Tragedies come and go in a blink, leaving you feeling detached and going, “Wait, what?”

All in all, though, Guerdon is a joy to experience and the problems with meandering plot and characters are things that can definitely be ironed out in the sequel. Gareth Hanrahan has stormed into the genre with a deceptively complex debut that’s chock full of imagination, and it sets up a strong foundation for what I hope will be an equally strong trilogy.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Cruel Prince – Bad Fae Boys Don’t Do Romance (Or Much of Anything)

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Title: The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air 1)
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 2nd, 2018
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae
Page Count: 384

Rating: 6.0/10

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Me: I should just write a mini review. Writing a detailed review for this is probably like doing an hour-long seminar on why Pixels doesn’t work as a commentary on video game culture.

Also me: Hey all, enjoy this 1200-word review! Also, here’s some crappy fanart!

(Warning: I wrote this in December when I was in a really ranty mood. Apologies to anyone who loved the book. :P)

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I finally caved into hype’s cold, seductive embrace and cracked open this beauty. And what I found inside was…well, more or less what I’d expected. But also less.

A word of advice: if you’re looking for a fae story that’s built from the ground-up, with in-depth exploration of fae culture and social hierarchy and gritty characters, then look elsewhere.

But if you want Boys Over Flowers: Fae AU (kudos to Alice for mentioning the BOF comparison), complete with all the eyeroll-y drama, then turn your sweaters inside out and hop on over to Faerieland because Holly Black’s got you covered!

Part 1 is a story we’ve all seen before ad nauseam. A plain, outsider girl butts heads with the most infamous and popular clique at school and she’s the only one daring (and stupid) enough to defy them. They make her life a living hell, their leader gets off on tormenting her (because he’s an emotionally challenged asshole who doesn’t know how to express interest in a healthy way), but she ends up in a relationship with one of the members who’s so kind and so different from the rest, and all the while the tension between her and the leader ramps up.

Part 1 is like a shoujo high school story that got sloppily ported over to a fae setting. And I wouldn’t have minded the cliche of it all if the main characters had something going for them (one of my favourite things to experience is a story with an overdone plotline that absolutely works because the characters make it work–hello, Fullmetal Alchemist). This, for the most part, didn’t.

Let’s go down the list, shall we?

Jude is…something. I’m still not exactly sure what because book doesn’t give me much about her beyond hating Cardan, wanting more power, and being “badass” for the sake of being badass. It would have been nice if, in the beginning, we were shown what growing up in the fae as an orphaned human was like (how her parents’ murders affected her childhood, how she had to adjust to fae customs, etc), because right now she feels rather hollow and her connection to the fae world tenuous.

As for our titular character, we don’t actually see much of him. In the first half of the book Cardan pops in every now and then to bully Jude, and the second half he spends lounging around in the background like some pretty upholstery. And what we do see of him I found disappointingly tame. I wasn’t expecting a Joffrey-level of sadism but something meatier than what we got would have been great.

It’s like Holly Black wanted to write an enemy-to-lovers story starring a human girl and a bad boy fae but she couldn’t make the boy too bad because she wanted their romance to kickstart in book 1, so that the readers have something to hook onto before the sequel, and she didn’t want it to be a lopsided abuser-victim relationship. So Cardan ended up being this lukewarm, all bark and no bite character. Like a chihuahua with a nice fashion sense.

What I’d hoped for was a del Toro/Brom type of fae–the kind whose “cruelty” derives from the fact that they’re literally inhuman and view the world through a stranger lens than ours. Instead I got a middle school bully cosplaying as a fae. Yippee.

And because Cardan is such an underwhelming antagonist, the vitriol Jude throws at him feels a little overblown and misplaced. Why does she show more hatred towards this school bully than the man who murdered her parents in cold blood?

Oh, and their romance? It’s less of a romance and more:

“I hate you”
“I hate you more”
*furious lip-mashing noises*

Let’s also talk about Locke, the fox-eyed (literally) not-like-those-other-bullies faerie that Jude ends up swooning over. As someone who’s spent a decade on the receiving end of callousness and disdain, you’d think she’d be a little more, I don’t know, cautious about throwing herself heart-first into a romance with one of the Big Bad Four.

The silliness of this subplot is compounded by the fact that she harps on every chance she gets about how much she hates Cardan (“That doesn’t sound like Cardan, whom I despise” — I think my lady doth protest too much). So why does fox boy here get a free pass?

Three facts that make it glaringly clear that he’s terrible boyfriend material:

  1. The boy hangs out with Cardan and co. That makes him, at best, an enabler.
  2. He straight-up tells her in the beginning that it’s fun and easy to be terrible people. I figure that should set some alarm bells ringing.
  3. At one point he has her dressed up in his dead mother’s clothes. I’m not saying that that’s sociopathic, Norman Bates, get-out-of-there-girl behaviour but that’s exactly what I’m saying.

The writing ranges from okay, with some weird word choices here and there (I’m still not sure how anyone’s handwriting can be classified as “arrogant”), to awkward and unintentionally funny. Let’s just say that there are some passages that, had I been reading this as an ebook, would’ve made me wonder if I’d bought a fake fanmade copy.

Some of the highlights:

“She’s clearly shocked by my behavior. She should be. My behavior is shocking.”

“Just tell me why you hate me. Once and for all.”

“All I want to do is nice things that make you happy. Sure, I’ll make whatever bargain you want, so long as you kiss me again. Go ahead and run. I definitely won’t shoot you in the back. (What is even going on with this paragraph? Why does it have a cadence that makes it sound like angsty song lyrics?)

And my absolute favourite:

“Because if I scream, there are guards in the hall. They’ll come. They’ve got big, pointy swords. Huge.” (Truly a threat for the ages. “They have ALL the swords. The BEST swords. HUUUUGE and bigly.”)

“Wow, Kathy, so much hate. And you still gave it a 6 out of 10?”

Right, here comes a confession: I didn’t actually dislike it. Was I annoyed? Definitely. Baffled? Sure. But I was never bored which is more than I can say for a lot of the other books I read in 2018.

The Cruel Prince is definitely not the start to the next great YA fantasy as some would have me believe, but it’s got marketability and a weird addictiveness that (almost) overrides my annoyance. It has everything that makes the Boys Over Flower formula popular with the added benefit of a protagonist who’s not a doormat which is, admittedly, cathartic (even if she does lack a personality). And Cardan does have potential to be interesting so I’m holding out on the hope that maybe–maybe–he plays a more active role in the sequel.

Oh, and Black’s descriptions of the food and fae clothing are pretty great. It doesn’t really contribute to the overall quality of the book–it only makes me wish the other elements of the story were as detailed–but it’s a nice touch.

So all this backhanded praise is to say its many faults won’t stop me from reading Book 2.

…And it won’t stop me from drawing Cardan, either (attempting to, anyway). Because aesthetics–this boy has ’em. (And no, I don’t know what’s going on with the “thorns” around him either. I got tired and lazy. Sigh.)

 

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Top 5 Wednesday – 2019 Releases that I Didn’t Care About But Am Now Tentatively Anticipating

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

Oh boy oh boy. It feels like I haven’t done one of these in forever.

So, this week’s prompt was “2019 releases that I don’t care about.” But apathy is something that I actively try to fight off on a regular basis (thanks, depression), so dedicating an entire post to talking about things I don’t care about felt…I don’t know, counter-productive.

So I’m doing what I do best, which is complicating simple things, and changing it to “2019 releases that I didn’t care about but am now tentatively anticipating.” Now it starts off negative but ends on a sort-of positive note. 😀

 

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

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This one has been hyped to hell and back and for good reason. It’s thick, it’s got dragons and intrigue and possibly-interesting female characters, all wrapped up in a stupidly good-looking cover.

All of which made me shrug and think, “Yeah, this is too good to be true.”

But. It’s a door-stopper epic fantasy written by a female author with feminist themes, and I could stand outside my local mall all day holding up a sign that says “WE NEED MORE OF THOSE.” Plus I feel like it’d be a crime not to try out any book with that as a cover.

 

The Wicked King by Holly Black

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Okay, to be fair, this one had the “I don’t care” stamp before I’d read The Cruel Prince. And now that I have read it, while I’m not bouncing-off-the-walls excited (my anticipation levels for this book are about as lukewarm and kind-of-there-kind-of-not as Cardan), I am mildy curious to see how things pan out for Cardan and Jude.

 

Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

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I adore the original Robin Hood legend. My love hasn’t really been reciprocated in the past decade or so, however (not until recently with a certain series which I will most definitely ramble about in a separate post). Every adaptation that comes along swearing that it’s giving RH a fresh and interesting look is 1) neither of those things, or 2) something so weird and outlandish that it shouldn’t even have the “Robin Hood” title (looking at you, 2018 film).

While Sherwood isn’t the “gender-bent Robin Hood falls in love with Maid Marian” story that I was hoping for–it’s got Maid Marian taking the Robin Hood mantle while Robin’s off doing God knows what–I’m willing to give it a try.

 

Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes

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While I do love Sam Sykes as a person, I just couldn’t get into his Bring Down the Heaven series. There’s something about his writing that didn’t click with me. So Seven Blades in Black initially went in the “maybe I’ll try it one day” pile. 

I don’t remember why I moved it to the “anticipated” stack (probably because I caved into Sam’s Twitter charms), but it’s there now and hopefully I’ll take to it better than his previous books.

 

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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I turned my nose at this one because the cover made me think it was a fable-y, magical realism story featuring witches and their familiars, but then I found out it’s actually about a woman dealing with pregnancy in the 17th century (with a witch hunt backdrop), which was decidedly less interesting to me.

But I do enjoy historical feminist stories, and there’s something super magnetic about that cover, so I’ll give it a shot!

 

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Are there any 2019 books that you’ve had a change of heart about?

Review: The Monster Baru Cormorant – A Chess Game, A Lesson in Economics, And a Masterclass in Character Work

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Title: The Monster Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade 2)
Author: Seth Dickinson
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: October 30th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Politics, Economy, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

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As the long-awaited sequel to Traitor Baru Cormorant, Monster was one of my two most anticipated releases of 2018 and I can safely say that it did not disappoint.

There are few things to keep in mind when diving into Monster.

One: this isn’t a book that you can power through in one or two sittings. It’s a dense, slow-paced story stuffed to the brim with intricate character work and social sciences.

Two: this is an entirely different beast to the first book. Traitor Baru Cormorant was very much an origin story for Baru. I’d almost call it an extended prologue–a story that needed to be told in order for the main story to progress. It was about setting up the pieces on a game board. Or no–not even that. It was about taking chunks of wood and whittling them into piece-like shapes.

Monster is about setting them on the board and saying, “Okay, let’s get moving.”

And boy, do they ever move.

Monster expands our view hundredfold, focusing not only on Baru but also her enemies and her maybe-allies. Dickinson makes it clear that this isn’t just a Baru story anymore. There are other players on the board and each come with their own motivations and their visions for the endgame. And make no mistake, they will each sacrifice what it takes to get there.

Every one of these characters (it feels weird calling them “side” characters) are complex and interesting and so distinct. I just can’t get enough of Dickinson’s ability for compact character building. Even the ones that appear on page for a short amount of time leave such crisp and deep impressions. And that’s a seriously hard thing to do.

As with Traitor, the female characters really shine in this one. These are women of powerful positions. Women of ambition and calculation. Women who have known betrayal and are more than willing to deal it out in turn.

And then there’s the Apparitor who is hand-down the best side character in the book. He’s refreshingly blunt and caustic–his insults giving Scott Lynch a run for his money–and the snipey banter between him and Baru is an absolute treat and a much-needed reprieve from all the doom and gloom (if nothing else, I want these two to become friends).

The plot picks up immediately after the ending of Traitor and we now turn our eyes southward to Oriati Mbo, the thousand year old communal nation that has repelled countless attempts of subjugation and kept its citizens content. Naturally, the Empire wants to know their secrets.

So, here’s an interesting thing. Book 1 established the Empire as this unmovable, all-powerful force. Monster, however, introduces tension within the Empire (specifically, between the navy and the parliament) that, with the right or wrong force, can create cracks in their system. They seem less like a faceless evil and more like a nation with its fair share of weak points.

So while Book 1 was very much an Us VS Them (at least, on the surface), Book 2 isn’t so clear cut. It doesn’t help that it gives you a lot of characters from the Empire that you can sympathize with, like the Apparitor and his lover and Baru’s friend Aminata.

So the water starts getting really muddy, which I love. Which endgame do we, as readers, root for here? The burning of the world through an all-out war as Baru claims she wants? But look at what Baru’s done. Look at what she plans on doing in the future. As repulsed as we are by the Empire’s methods, how can we, in good conscience, root for a woman who will use the memory of loved ones as carte blanche for all her terrible actions?

Noble and kind and honest doesn’t seem to get you very far in this world. And I can’t wait to see how that sentiment changes as the series goes on.

Do you know what my most favourite part about the book is, though? The writing.

I loved it in Traitor, but compared to Monster I can only call the former restrained and the latter experimental and free-flowing. Dickinson just does so many interesting things with the style and formatting–we get PoV and tense switches, flashbacks, interludes, small diagrams in the middle of paragraphs, interjections from dead characters (or so it seems), extended use of parentheses. Each PoV comes with its own distinct voice and structure, so even when nothing notable was happening plot-wise, I was still very much engaged by the writing itself.

I love the creativity and the daring of it because you don’t see too many epic fantasy books go, “Fuck conventional styles, I’m just going to do what I want.” And in a sequel at that.

And what surprised me was how much humour there is. Some of it’s gallows humour–the “can’t cry so might as well laugh” type–but others are genuine, which I didn’t expect considering how things ended in Traitor. Really, all I could think was that he must have had a ton of fun writing some of this because I had a ton of fun reading it.

He does a lot of things and I know it won’t be to everyone’s tastes–I know some people like the prose in their fantasy to be plain and invisible–but, for me, they all worked and really cemented Dickinson as one of my favourites in the genre.

So if you’re one of those people who have sunk far too many hours of their lives into grand strategy games like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings (*whistles loudly*) and the notion of staring at a map plotting out trade alliances, assassinations, and increasing territory while stamping out conflict makes you positively giddy, then my god, this book (and the series) is for you. It is geopolitical fantasy at its finest.

If you’re one of those people who are into books written by someone who’s well-versed in science and politics and knows how to communicate them to the readers in a clear but interesting way, while also creating ridiculously complex characters and drowning the text in flair and wordsmithery…then you should also maybe, probably, most definitely pick this up.

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Thank you to Tor for providing the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight

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Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.

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So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Update (I’m Back!) and Discworld Month 6 (Better Late than Never…?)

Happy Holidays, everyone! I’m back from my unannounced hiatus! Incidentally, I’m a broken record.

November and December are generally not great months for me (one of the million things they don’t tell you as a kid is how the holidays can go from the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to Time of Dread as you grow older), and this time was no exception. And then some. Bad mental health stuff and hospitals, basically.

I’m probably turning into one of those characters in SFF series who spend half of their screen/page time waking up in hospital beds and being like, “Hey doc, nice to see you again” and “We should really stop meeting like this.” Well, minus a cool sword and a world to save.

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As for Discworld, we’re now six months into the Discworld Readathon started by me and Nicole (the Bookworm Drinketh).

This month’s book is (was?) Wyrd Sisters and if this is the first time you’re hearing about it, you have two whole days to get to it. Pfft that’s totally feasible, right? :DD

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Arbitrary deadlines aside, if you want to join now then go for it. Leave me a comment, enjoy Sir Terry’s brilliant imagination, and post your review whenever.

And a thousand apologies to Nicole and the other participating bloggers for the radio silence. I’ll definitely try to get to the book by the end of next week.

I also have a backlog of posts I need to publish, a collab project that I’m super excited to unveil (hopefully sometime in January), and need to figure out how I’m supposed to write reviews for books I read over a month ago. So look out for those!

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Do tell me how your month has been, what interesting books you’ve picked up, etc, etc. Happy reading!

Mini Review: Sadie (Audiobook) – Invisible Girls, Gone Girls, Dead Girls

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Title: Sadie
Author: Courtney Summers
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Release Date: September 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Thriller
Subjects and Themes: Abuse
Page Count: 320 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

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Sadie hasn’t had an easy life. Growing up on her own, she’s been raising her sister Mattie in an isolated small town, trying her best to provide a normal life and keep their heads above water.

But when Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s entire world crumbles. After a somewhat botched police investigation, Sadie is determined to bring her sister’s killer to justice and hits the road following a few meager clues to find him.

When West McCray―a radio personality working on a segment about small, forgotten towns in America―overhears Sadie’s story at a local gas station, he becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl. He starts his own podcast as he tracks Sadie’s journey, trying to figure out what happened, hoping to find her before it’s too late.

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Giving a rating for this book feels…strange.

It’s like listening to someone sing a heartfelt ballad at a funeral and afterwards turning to your neighbour and saying, “Oof, it got a bit sharp at the end there, eh? What a shame.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want the infamy of being the person who went all Simon Cowell on a group of mourners–however novel it may be.

But here we are.

First of all, massive, massive kudos to all the voice actors who worked on the audiobook. Their performances made me forget I was listening to a book and not a fiction podcast. Sadie’s VA, especially, was phenomenal. I mean, I would have loved the character regardless; she’s an incredible mix of affection and awkwardness and rage (so much rage–I will never stop waxing poetic about authors who give their young female characters leeway to be angry and vengeful, and not in a pretty, Hollywood-approved way) and it’s impossible to not fall for her, but the performance lends her an extra layer of complexity. There are scenes near the end that are dizzingly raw and had me breathless in turn.

As much I loved Sadie’s narrative voice, I did find her chapters inconsistently paced and that had my attention drifting in places. I actually enjoyed West’s podcast chapters more. They’re more tightly structured and they give us an outside perspective of Sadie, through the side characters’ interpretation of her, and her relationship with her family.

In terms of the plot, one might also complain that it turned out to be a straightforward revenge story rather than a thriller with twists and turns.

But….child abuse is straightforward. Missing girls are straightforward. They are painfully straightforward things that occur every day in real life.

Doesn’t make them any less important.

Sadie is a harrowing account of a young woman who will grab you by the heart and twist it into knots. I may not have loved it as much as I thought I would, but there’s no doubt that this is an important piece of work worthy of all the attention and future awards.

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If you’re looking for stories of similar subject matter (but in a different media), I highly recommend Netflix’s docuseries The Keepers. Just keep some pillows nearby because it’ll make you want to scream into something.

Review: Alice Isn’t Dead (A Novel) – A Road Trip Like No Other

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Title: Alice Isn’t Dead: A Novel
Author: Joseph Fink
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: October 30th, 2018
Genre(s): Horror, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Road Trip, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 7/10

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Keisha Taylor lived a quiet life with her wife, Alice, until the day that Alice disappeared. After months of searching, presuming she was dead, Keisha held a funeral, mourned, and gradually tried to get on with her life. But that was before Keisha started to see her wife, again and again, in the background of news reports from all over America. Alice isn’t dead, and she is showing up at every major tragedy and accident in the country.

Following a line of clues, Keisha takes a job as a long-haul truck driver and begins searching for Alice. She eventually stumbles on an otherworldly conflict being waged in the quiet corners of our nation’s highway system—uncovering a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman.

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“This isn’t a story. It’s a road trip.”

For those who don’t know, the original Alice Isn’t Dead is a three-part narrative podcast created by Joseph Fink–one of the brains behind Welcome to Night Vale–that follows a truck driver named Keisha in her search for her not-dead wife. While Fink calls the novel a “complete reimagining,” the two are actually pretty much identical–same characters, same plot, same weirdness. The only main difference is that the novel is told in third person, losing the intimacy of the podcast but gaining extra details.

Alice Isn’t Dead is surreal horror (there’s people-eating non-people, government secrets, cryptic people being cryptic) with its atmosphere driven almost entirely by the U.S. landscape. I mean, road trips have something of a surreal and fantastical quality to them. Like the wall of billboards and power lines that seem to stretch on forever. Like the small abandoned towns you pass through at night and you swear you see something dark and unreal from the corner of your eye. Fink captures that feeling perfectly and with such brevity.

Fink has a very distinct writing voice that’s hard to describe. In short it’s weird. But it’s a comfortable kind of weird. You get the sense that he’s not saying these things for the sake of being weird, but because his mind occupies this space between the dream world and the waking world and he just needs to let it all out.

It’s also an inclusive kind of weird. The writing isn’t someone boasting about how deep and unique their imagination is, but an eager kid tugging at your hand and whispering, “Come on. I want to show you something.”

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because the dead return, because light reverses, because the sky is a gap, because it’s a shout, because light reverses, because the dead return, because footsteps in the basement, because footsteps on the roof, because the sky is a shout, because it’s a gap, because the grass doesn’t grow, or grows too much, or grows wrong, because the dead return, because the dead return.

While Fink excels with the strange and the occult, I think his biggest strength lies in capturing the minute complexities of people and their relationships–in this case, that of a married couple. While the first half is focused on the mysteries of cross-country serial murders, the latter half is dedicated to Keisha and Alice and untangling the whole “you made me think you were dead” knot. It’s wonderful stuff.

I did find the structure of the story a little too rigid, though. One chapter corresponds to one episode, and so each chapter feels very self-contained and the transition between one to the next kind of choppy. It reads very much like a podcast-to-book adaptation, and if you’re looking for that, then great. I personally wanted something more loose and…novel-y.

If this is your first foray into the mind of Joseph Fink, then welcome. Buckle in. Half the time you’ll be sitting there thinking “WTF,” and the other half you’ll be sitting there thinking “WTF” with a huge grin on your face.

(Oh, and go listen to the podcast)

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Edelweiss. All opinions are my own.

October 2018 Wrap-Up – Book Things & Art as a Double-Edged Sword

It’s the middle of the month…and you know what that means! 😀

So, I was going to include mini reviews for some of the games I played in the past month because Nicole @ Thoughts Stained With Ink was like, “Heck yeah! You should totally do that!” But the post was getting kinda long and there’s this one game that I absolutely need to GUSH about, so I’m shuffling those to separate posts.

And that means I’ve finally decided to do semi-regular posts about video games (with a heavy focus on indies because while I love AAA titles, it’s the indies that make my heart sing). Will anyone read them? Who knows!

As for books, October was an okay month. I read 9 in total, most of which I enjoyed:

⚔️= Fantasy; 🚀= Scifi; 👻= Paranormal; 🔍= Mystery; 🌺= Contemporary; 🗝️= Historical; 🌈= LGBTQIAP+; Horror= 👁️

The Brilliant

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The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth ⚔️🗝️:
If I were a cat, this book would have killed me nine times over. Thank you for breaking me in the best way, Laura.  [Review]

A Conspiracy of Truths by Alexandra Rowland ⚔️🌈:
This was such a clever and entertaining story about, well, stories and their power to change the fabric of the world. And its protagonist is an elderly man in his 70’s which you don’t see everyday in fantasy. [Review]

 

The Great

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Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink 👁️🌈:
I really liked it. I think it works perfectly as a companion to the podcast. But I don’t know if it’s something that can hold up on its own? I’ll talk more about it in the actual review.

Sadie by Courtney Summers 🔍🌺:
Yet another review I have to finish writing! “Enjoyable” is probably the wrong word to describe the story, but it is a compelling one and I can’t say enough good things about the audiobook. Massive kudos to all the voice actors.

Mort by Terry Pratchett ⚔️:
Read this as part of our Discworld Readathon! I’ve heard people talk about it like it’s the second coming of Christ, and to my surprise, it was actually really good. [Review]

 

The Good/Okay

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The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood 👻🌈:
Gerry (Book Nook UK) remarked about the prevalence of male werewolves in stories, and this is one of the few books I’ve read with a female werewolf love interest! Overall, a fun, sexy F/F story about werewolves, MMORPGs, and harassment culture. Plus, the author’s a local!

Time’s Children by D.B. Jackson ⚔️🚀: A mashup of time travel and epic fantasy! I guess “pleasant” would be the best wor? Nothing amazing but I did enjoy it for the most part. [Review]

 

The Bad

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The Phoenix Empress (Their Bright Ascendancy 2) by K. Arsenault Rivera ⚔️🌈:
Yeah, this was not a good one. The cultural issues aside, I found the pacing to be glacial, the character development lacking, and worldbuilding more or less nonexistent. [Review]

Mage Against the Machine by Shaun Barger ⚔️🚀🌈: I noped out of this one halfway through and my tablet is so, so grateful. [Review]

 

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So in this second half of the wrap-up I’m going to ramble about art and my decision to return to it after so long.

And it begins with a little story, so gather around!

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a bit of an eclectic family. In terms of profession, anyway. On one half there was a seafood restaurant owner, a spicy chicken restaurant owner, movie producer, teacher, pastor, dentist, investment banker….and the other half were just artists and writers.

So the girl grew up with a brilliantly artistic mother and a brilliantly artistic grandfather, and some years later she met a brilliantly artistic young girl who would become one of her best friends. And it was really, really hard for the girl not to feel dull and dim in comparison. Like a ragged baby bird that may grow up to be large and healthy and magnificent, but most likely won’t.

The girl loved photography, writing, and drawing, and it was this last one that she felt the most insecure about. Insecurity turned to shame and shame turned to cold dejection and she decided one day that she would quit–because she wasn’t any good, so what was the point? (And when the girl looks back on it years later, she’ll recognize that it was partly an act of self harm–this denying herself of something she so loved)

But then 8 years later, thanks to a book, the girl’s returned to the world of drawing (because books are amazing and can literally change lives), and she’s been loving it–absolutely loving it. But on the heels of that love came doubt and heartache.

(And here I switch back to first person because talking about myself in third person is getting on my nerves)

So it’s been four months since my “return” and I’ve been spiraling into that oh-so familiar mindset of “I’m fucking terrible at this,” with my brain constantly yapping in the background, “Hey, remember how you quit all those years ago? Yeah, this is why.”

It’s hard to look at a finished work and not see a road map of all my flaws. Not just flaws of the drawing–though they’re obviously the first ones I see–but all of my flaws. Like, as a person. Because that’s how my brain operates.

And it is exhausting.

Turns out comeback stories are more fun to read/watch/play than to actually experience.

But one thing’s for sure: I’m not quitting again. Because once was enough for me to realize that it’s a shitty, shitty place to be in–no wi-fi, no heating, 1/5 on Yelp.

It was like locking yourself out of your house, throwing the key down a drain, and then just standing there, peering through the window (and there’s a part of you that knows this is your home, it’s always been your home, it could have always been your home, and just what the hell have you done?) And this terrible, aching longing settles inside you, and the more you peer, the more it floods you until you’re no longer a person but just a vessel of regrets and self-inflicted hurt.

I run through my life via two extremes–exaggerated indecisiveness or blind impulsiveness–and I never really know which one I’ll pick in a given situation. With this, though, my brain chose the latter. So deciding to return to art after nearly 10 years of avoidance was like punching through the window (because that key’s lounging at the bottom of the Pacific by now), climbing in and declaring, “Okay, you and me? We have unfinished business.” And the sheer relief I feel in that moment? Indescribable.

But then I realize my hand is all bloody and crusted with glass and I end up hopping around muttering expletives which really just ruins the bravado of it all. (That’s generally how my life goes. I want to think of myself as a protagonist in a Chris Nolan epic, but in reality I’m probably more like the sidekick in an Adam Sandler film–awkward, sad, and the antithesis of good comedy).

I could rant for days and days about how unfair it is that your passion can be this nourishing, too-bright thing that fills up your entire world until it’s not.

Until your fears and insecurities take the reins and turns it into an ugly, shameful blot that you can’t bear looking at so you shove it into the deepest corner of your mind-closet, buried under every rejection and hurt you’ve been collecting since childhood.

Except, as it turns out, not looking at it is equally painful, just in a different flavour.

So that’s where I’m at right now. Fighting myself (which isn’t anything new), a lot of late-night crying (also nothing new) and saying “I’m not letting you take this away from me again,” and my brain–always eager to get in the last word–whispering with smugness and false concern, “I’m only trying to help you.”

On good days I can laugh and give it the finger because, hell, the floodgates are open and I can finally create everything that’s been crowding my brain for years and I’m having fun. On bad days–and those often eclipse the good–I sit down and listen like it’s a sermon worth giving a damn about.

And I just wish it were easy to find a healthy, balanced relationship with our creative endeavours. To be able to hold forgiveness in one hand and critique in the other and navigate the tightrope that life demands that we walk, and achieve a state of…well, not satisfaction–because no creator is ever completely satisfied with their work–but a comfortable awareness.

And this is all just a really dramatic explanation for why my reading/blogging pace has dropped, why I’ve not been blog-hopping as much, why it’s taking me forever to respond to your comments, etc, etc. Because I’m dedicating these last three months to aggressive, aggressive drawing–to try to meet my pains head-on instead of shying away as I’ve done in the past.

Because it’s you or me, brain.

And I plan on winning.

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On that note, I hope all your Octobers went super well! Happy reading!

Top 5 Wednesday – Books I Want to Read Before 2019

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes in which you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic.

This week’s topic is “Books You Want to Read Before 2019.”

Short answer? All of them. But I don’t think a list of five different spreadsheets cataloguing my TBR was quite what you had in mind.

So here’s the abridged version!

(On a separate note, I would like a few words with whoever okay-ed this new editor interface because it is maddening. Why the heck is everything hidden??)

The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington

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A friend recommended this months and months back and I ended up reading 1/4 of it before stopping. Not because it was bad! That just happens to me sometimes; if I take a break in the middle of a book, it’s hard for me to pick it back up again.

The beginning of the story is kind of like Harry Potter but with more stabby action and sketchy treatment of magic users (reminiscent of The Circle in the Dragon Age series). It’s good stuff!

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

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My most anticipated read of the year that I said I was going to read as soon as I got my hands on it.

Except I didn’t.

Then I said I was going to read it by the end of October.

Except I didn’t.

And now I’m saying I’ll read it by the end of the year.

…Third time’s the charm, right?

 

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

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All the hype around this one has made me keep it at arm’s length, but I have to say, I’m SUPER curious–about the dynamic between Jude and Cardan, in particular. I’ve heard a few people say that the romance is borderline abusive, and I’ve heard others talk about it with starry eyes and hands clutched to their chest.

 

Fallen Princeborn: Stolen by Jean Lee

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In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shapeshifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

…Welcome to River Vine, a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shifters feed.

The lovely Sarah from Brainfluff raved about this one in her review, and it sounds absolutely brilliant and 100% up my alley. It’s got shifters, fae, troubled protagonists, and a whole lot of dark, rich worldbuilding. Get in my brain!

 

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

I adored Bennett’s The Divine Cities books, and while I understand Foundryside is a more traditional fantasy story, I’m still eager to give it a try. There’s also a sentient key character (as in, a character who is a key), and I’ve heard nothing but praises for it!

What are some books you want to get to before the end of the year?