Review: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery – AncestryDNA: Three Musketeers Edition

Hey, everyone! Sorry for being rather absent for the last week and a half. I’ve been super busy preparing for a neuroscience conference and it’s been kind of a mentally taxing endeavour. But I’ll be back on Monday to catch up on posts and comments! Meanwhile, enjoy this slightly overdue review!

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Title: A Labyrinth of Scions of Sorcery (The Risen Kingdoms 2)
Author: Curtis Craddock
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: January 22nd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Court Intrigue, Family Drama
Page Count: 416 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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Isabelle des Zephyrs has always been underestimated throughout her life, but after discovering the well of hidden magic within her, unveiling a centuries-long conspiracy, and stopping a war between rival nations, she has gained a newfound respect amongst the cutthroat court.

All that is quickly taken away when Isabelle is unfairly convicted of breaking the treaty she helped write and has her political rank and status taken away. Now bereft, she nevertheless finds herself drawn into mystery when her faithful musketeer Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King.

As panic swells, the capital descends into chaos, when the emperor is usurped from the throne by a rival noble. Betrayed by their allies and hunted by assassins, Isabelle and Jean-Claude alone must thwart the coup, but not before it changes l’Empire forever.

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(Note: If it’s been over a year since you last read Book 1, you might benefit from a reread because holy hell, I couldn’t remember who 70% of the characters were.)

As the sequel to Craddock’s wholly underrated debut An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, which was one of my favourite reads of 2017, I had pretty high expectations for it. And while I can’t say the book met them, there’s still a lot to like about it. So let’s get the good bits first!

The worldbuilding is as delightful to read about as it was in Book 1. For those who are new to the series, the books take place in a steampunk fantasy version of Renaissance France and Spain (if Renaissance France and Spain had been floating sky nations, that is). We also get airships, sorcerers who can make use of shadows and mirrors, dashing musketeers, and feathered people-creatures who retain all the memories of their ancestors. It’s brilliantly imaginative and somewhat reminiscent of Jules Verne, and I’ve not found anything quite like it in fantasy.

So obviously the book will appeal to fantasy readers who are tired of medieval settings and want to see some sky high swashbuckling action, but I think it’ll also hold appeal to all you genealogy buffs out there because so much of the story is about tracing family history and heritable traits.

The writing also continues to delight. Craddock’s prose holds such an effortless charm that makes it an absolute joy to read, and it shines most brightly when it comes to Jean Claude, our protagonist’s bodyguard, who is one of the sassiest, most loyal protector one could wish for. And his protectee Isabelle is as clever and wonderfully independent as I remember.

My disappointment mainly comes from two things: plot and love interest.

As much as I liked exploring this world more, I wasn’t super invested in the main plot. It’s got a lot of intrigue and mystery revolving around family ancestry, which had also been present in the first book, but while book 1 had tension and a sense of immediacy that I found compelling, the storyline in Labyrinth is rather meandering and had me wondering what it was all leading up to or why it mattered.

The second point is what frustrates me the most because it’s a matter of squandered potential. The end of book 1 had more or less set up Prince Julio of Aragoth (fantasy Spain) to be Isabelle’s love interest in Labyrinth. And though we didn’t get an in-depth look at him then, I definitely liked what I saw and was very much looking forward to seeing how their relationship would develop in the sequel.

Instead, he gets shoved to the wayside in favour of a new love interest, a man called  Bitterlich, and he and Isabelle are…pleasant, sure, but bland and their romance too quickly developed.

And okay, yes, Julio is admittedly a little vanilla, especially compared to Bitterlich who’s a shapeshifter. He’s also very proper and reserved and tightly-wound and harbours a not insignificant hero worship for his dead father. And for some strange infuriating reason, fantasy characters with those traits usually get saddled with one of three roles: martyr, cannon fodder, or just plain chopped liver. Hardly ever long-term love interests.

But you know what would have been interesting to see? Julio and Isabelle actually interacting and figuring out how their personalities mesh when outside of life-threatening situations. We get none of that here and it ends up feeling like a waste of a perfectly set up character.

At the end of the day, though, this is the kind of book that I feel good about reading, even when the plot and characters don’t quite meet my expectations, and that has everything to do with the charm and the heart of Craddock’s writing. And that is really what makes this series stand out from others.

I’m very excited to see what adventures the author will take these characters next (hint: there will be airships).

Top 5 WedTuesday – Disappointing Books of 2018 That I Still Appreciate

“Kathy. I think it’s time for an intervention.”

“Uh, I have no idea what you’re talking about. As usual.”

“‘Top 5 WedTuesday‘? Published one day before the next Top 5 Wednesday?”

“Oh, get off my back. You make it sound like I do this every other week. This is literally the first–”

“And speaking of skirting deadlines, you still haven’t put up this month’s Discworld announcement post yet. Or your Best Books of 2018. Or your Best Indie Games of 2018. Or the reviews for books you read two months ago.”

“Listen, I’m running on a sleep schedule of my own devising right now. You know the Aussie Open started last week and you know their night matches go past 3 AM. What am I supposed to do, not watch them because I have blog-running responsibilities now?”

“Here’s a novel idea: you could do your blogging and watch the Open at the same time. I know, crazy!”

“Yeaaah, about that…”

*Looks over to the TV screen which shows tennis. Then at the the desktop screen which shows more tennis. Then at the tablet screen which shows, you guessed it, tennis.*

“…”

“Maybe a rich oil prince will get me another screen for my birthday. :)”

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So while the other half of my brain is having a breakdown, I’d like to clarify that yes, this was supposed to go live last week, but due to reasons that uh, may or may not have to do with tennis-induced sleep deprivation, it’s going live now! Because this is a topic that I actually really wanted to tackle.

The original prompt was “Disappointing Books of 2018” but I put a bit of a spin on it. These are books that didn’t quite live up to the expectations I set for them, but ones that I still appreciate for x, y, z reasons.

(And I’m hoping to get all (er, most) of those overdue posts up before the end of this month. Knock on wood!)

 

Temper by Nicky Drayden

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I loved Nicky Drayden’s debut Prey of Gods–a rollicking scifi-fantasy mashup featuring angry gods, drugs, and dik-diks (which belong alongside narwhals and quokkas in the “I can’t believe this isn’t a made-up animal” category). I could never really get a good foothold on Temper, unfortunately; I couldn’t connect with the main character and the rampant worldbuilding that I fell in love with in PoG I felt overwhelmed by this time around.

What I appreciate: I freaking adore Nicky’s imagination and her willingness to take the genre to batshit crazy places. Temper is even more weird and unconventional than Prey of Gods (which is saying a lot) and even though I couldn’t get into it, I still love the fact that it exists.

 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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This is one of those overdue reviews that I still have to finish. The TL;DR version is that I wanted to love this book so, so hard but it ended up being rather…underwhelming. The worldbuilding felt underdeveloped and Lei is one of those very reactive, blank slate protagonists that I’m not the biggest fan of. And the emperor, while a terrible person, kind of just starts and ends at “He’s a terrible person.”

What I appreciate: The heart and foundation behind this book is everything–an unapologetically Asian setting (the food descriptions are to die for), and love and friendship between two girls prevailing in the face of brutality.

 

Grey Sister (Book of the Ancestor 2) by Mark Lawrence

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An unpopular opinion: I thought Grey Sister was a step down from Red Sister, mostly due to character reasons. I felt that Nona’s development had stagnated and secondary characters that I adored in the first book took a backseat in this one.  [Full review]

What I appreciate: I love Mark’s writing style and his ability to move from poignancy to snappy action with fluid ease. Also, this is one of the most female-centric adult fantasy I’ve read in recent years–women loving women, women befriending women, women betraying women. Books like this are the reason I created a Goodreads shelf called “Boom goes the Bechdel test.”

 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I think this is one of those stories I would have enjoyed more as a TV show. I mean, I watched a quite a few scifi anime that deal with similar themes of alien evolution and ended up liking them all, but apparently if you stick it in book-form my brain just laughs and says “Nope.” (Maybe it’s flashbacks to all the evolution textbooks/articles I had to read in undergrad–by far not my favourite biology topic). It didn’t help that I wasn’t much invested in the human half of the story.

What I appreciate: This is probably the best example (textbook, if you will) of evolutionary scifi that I’ve ever read and my scientist heart will root for the success of any SFF book that explores biology to this degree. It’s also pretty dang cool that the author shares a name with one of my favourite composers.

 

Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton

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Okay, overall I wouldn’t really call this one “disappointing,” but considering the sheer amount of potential it showed in the first half, the second half proved to be a bit of a letdown in terms of character development and pacing (and now I’d give it a slightly lower score than what I originally gave). [Full review]

What I appreciate: Polyamory. In YA. Plus creepy forests and pagan rituals. Enough said.

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Summer Reads

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“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s theme is: favourite summer reads.

I ran into a bit of a roadblock with this one because I wasn’t exactly sure what books my brain categorizes as “summer reads.” Are they books that are set during summer, or are they ones that you just feel like reading during summer? And if the latter, I can’t be the only one who feels like reading cold, dark, moody stuff during these months. I mean, what better way to combat the sweltering heat than with a book about an Antarctic expedition? Or one about a haunted doll?

I couldn’t decide so I divided my list into books that are fun light-hearted romps; books that send chills down your spine–thus saving you on air conditioning bills; and one book that just needs to be read during the summer.

1. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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I read this in the summer of last year so I may be biased, but Gentleman’s Guide is a fun, uncomplicated story in which young lord Henry and his companions embark on a tour of Europe that soon gets sidetracked into something rather unexpected and harrowing. It’s not quite the rollicking adventure the blurb had me believe, but it’s got a sweet romance, a mystery, and pirates–and that combo just screams “summer” to me.

2. Kings of  the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

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Kings of the Wyld is such a ridiculously fun read. Set in a medieval fantasy world where adventuring bands are like the rock bands of today (they have band names, they go on tours, their weapons correlate to various instruments, and so forth), it’s a story that’s exciting and funny but also strangely heartwarming–it had me chuckling to sniffling in a matter of paragraphs. And most of all, it’s such a smack on the lips to lovers of fantasy RPGs. So spice up your summer with this pulse-pounding adventure!

3. Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxI never really got scared reading horror books as I did watching horror movies (something about the lack of sound and strong visuals). But then Bird Box came along. Its characters are blindfolded for the majority of the story and the horrors that haunt them are unknown and unseen. Malerman masterfully–and evilly–uses your imagination against you and leaves you chilled and shaking for hours after you finish. I read most of it in bed at night in the dark, which turned out to be a terrible, terrible idea, because I couldn’t fall sleep or even get out of bed to turn the lights on.

4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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Rooted in Russian folktales, much of The Bear and the Nightingale is set in winter and Katherine Arden does such a fantastic job bringing the season to life. She’ll make you feel the inhuman cold racing through your body and smell and taste the freshly fallen snow. Perfect for those hot, stuffy nights.

5. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

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On the Jellicoe Road isn’t light-hearted or fun, but its setting–a small Australian town–just begs you to read it while surrounded by warmth and rustling summer trees. If you’re reading this masterpiece for the first time, I highly recommend that you do it (if you can) outside on a sunny day, in a secluded area and surrounded by nature. It just enhances the atmosphere of the story and creates this intimate bubble in which friendship is indeed magic and the past and the present merge. And if all of that sounds super vague, just go read the book. It’ll be one of the best decisions you make this summer.

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And that’s it from me! Tell me some of your favourite summer reads and if any of the above books are on your list!

Review: Fire Dance – Beautiful and Etched with Heartrending Loneliness

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Title: Fire Dance
Author: Ilana C. Myer
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: April 10th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Page Count: 368 (hardback)
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Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

 

 

That, he believed, was the essence of what it meant to be a poet. Not to work magic. Rather it was to see, and weave verse from, life’s manifold truths. Even if they hurt.
They nearly always did.

This book is a triumph. A masterwork of character and prose that wind through your soul like the final trembling notes of a song. Myer’s debut, Last Song Before Night, was brimstone and fire and icy winds and music that rumbled low through your body. Fire Dance plays out like a haunting ballad that recounts a yearning for a time and place long lost and bone-deep loneliness.

There is honestly no one who writes quite like Ilana Myer. The genius of her writing isn’t in the way her individual sentences are constructed (though they are very lovely); you won’t find many quotable one-liners in her books. It’s the way the sentences combine together to evoke emotions in you. Her words just have so much sadness running through them. But there’s also music. And poetry. And the inviolate truths of life and all the wonder and beauty that’s wrought from them. I feel the same way reading her stories as I do listening to Damien Rice songs. Like my soul has been gently lifted and carried off on a journey.

While Fire Dance is marked as a standalone, I highly recommend reading it after Last Song Before Night, because half of the main cast are characters from the first book and much of their past rear their heads in this one. The story is split between Eivar, a country of poetry and music, and their neighbouring ally, Kahishi, which is a land of magicians and prophecies divined from the stars. Lin Amaristoth, Court Poet and Seer (which is pretty much the highest recognition you can get as a poet in Eivar), travels to Kahishi to aid their court against the mysterious Fire Dancers. While Lin mires herself in politics and intrigue, three other characters are caught up in strange magical matters at the Academy (a school for aspiring poets) in Eivar.

The contrast between lush and vibrant Kahishi and the grey austerity of the Academy is utterly fascinating. Myer has a talent for dragging out the best that a setting has to offer, and her descriptions of the major landmarks within Majdara, the capital city of Kahishi, left me breathless with wonder:

Lin’s gaze was drawn up, to the walkways that ran alongside the walls in three levels, accessible by staircases of porphyry and gold. The walls that were entirely glass, clear as air, so that along the walkways burned countless stars.
All this overseen by an arched ceiling like a second sky, adorned with stars and spheres. Against a backdrop of black crystal, jewels made the constellations.

Myer cites Robin Hobb as a major inspiration, and this is readily apparent in her writing because she writes some of the best layered characters in fantasy. You try to peel away at them throughout the course of the story and find there’s yet still more…and more. Morever she is fantastic at writing tortured characters. And I say that, from the bottom of my heart, as a compliment. All her characters have gaping holes. Hunger desperate to be filled with something–friendship, love, recognition, power. The specifics of their hunger may be different, but they all seem to share a common root: loneliness. And often times we see that loneliness twists into something uglier. Sharper.

Like jealousy.

Resentment.

Despair.

They are a symphony of warring longings and pains, and it’s this internal struggle that keeps you so completely–helplessly–enthralled, more so than any strange magical happenings or political intrigues.

The only thing that prevents me from giving it a perfect score is the ending, where the story halts just a bit too prematurely for my liking. The book definitely feels like a Part One of a larger story, and while the main storyline is wrapped up, there are still many questions newly posed or left unanswered.

Reading Fire Dance is like eating chicken noodle soup and watching the ending of Brokeback Mountain at the same. It will heal your soul and simultaneously break it.

So please go check it out.

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And as a little bonus, I leave you with two songs! One that captures the rousing cry of Last Song Before Night (I must have listened to this at least a dozen times while reading the book):

And one that captures the heartaching melancholy of Fire Dance:

 

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: High Fantasy

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme I first found on Aurora Libralis. It’s hosted by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks and the idea is that each week you come up with three book for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and enjoyed; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

It’s just such a great way to introduce new diverse books to other readers and to keep challenging yourself to read broadly. I’ll start with general topics and maybe choose more specific ones once I get settled in.

 

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The Thousand Names (The Shadow Campaigns 1) by Django Wexler

Django Wexler’s flintlock series should honestly be the benchmark for modern adult epic fantasy in terms of LGBTQ representation. In the first book, we start out with a single lesbian protagonist. As the series progress, this number grows and grows, and by the fifth and final book, we have not one, not two, not three, but nine major side characters (plus one lesbian protagonist) who are queer. Not only that, it’s chock full of thrilling action, political intrigue, and just plain fun.

A-book-on-my-tbrThe Cloud Roads (Books of the Raksura 1) by Martha Wells

This series has been on my TBR forever and I’m determined to get through the first three books this year, at the very least. The books are set in a fantastical, alien society where matriarchy is the rule and bisexuality and polyamory are the norm. It also features one of my favourite tropes: found family. I loved all of Martha Well’s other books so I’m sure this one will be no exception.

a-book-releasing-soonThe Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
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I’ve been hearing very interesting things about this book. A story inspired by Chinese history, it features asian characters and a plot that apparently moves from The Name of the Wind to the abject brutality of Schindler’s List. I can’t wait to check it out.

Releases May 1st, 2018