Review: Dragon Age Tevinter Nights – Burn, Thedas, Burn

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Title: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights
Author(s):
Patrick Weekes, Sylvia Fektekuty, John Epler, Lukas Kristjanson, Brianne Battye, Caitlin Sullivan Kelly, Courtney Woods, Ryan Cormier, Arone LaBray

Publisher: Tor Books
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Game-to-Novel
Subject(s): Gods, LGBTQ+

Release Date:
March 10th, 2020
Page Count: 496 (paperback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

The Dragon Age games are dark, heroic, epic fantasy role playing games that have won legions of devoted fans. The first game went triple platinum (over three millions units sold) worldwide, and the second game was released in March of 2011 to solid reviews. This sixth book in the series is an anthology put together by the game’s writing staff and specifically follows the fates of various characters and events from the previous three games and the newly announced fourth game.

 

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So you thought your patience meter was pretty high with regards to DA4’s release? Thought “Yeah, sure, I can wait another few years for it”? Well, you can kiss that serenity goodbye, my friends, because that bar’s going to be bottomed out by the time you finish this.

Tevinter Nights just displaced The Last Flight as my favourite Dragon Age novel. Not so much in terms of prose and character work, but in terms of the breadth of content –walking you through the northern regions of Thedas, throwing you hints and speculation fodder, teasing you with storylines that will most definitely reappear in the next game (I’ll eat my stuffed nug if they don’t), and just re-immersing you and setting up the stage for everything that’s to come–Tevinter Nights is fantastic and a must-read for all fans of the series.

And here’s what the stage looks like: the Qunari invasion is well underway; Tevinter is being eaten up bit by bit even as the Magisters and the Venatori scheme from within; Nevarra is standing on a fracture line that cuts between the Mortalitasi and the royal family; Antiva is being forced to rely on the Crows as their main defense against the Qunari; and a bald overpowered heartbreaker idiot thinks he knows what’s best for the world and will stop at seemingly nothing to achieve it. And that’s just what’s on the surface and on this side of the Veil.

Things aren’t looking too great right now–and as this is THEDAS we’re talking about, that’s saying something.

A few general criticisms, though. Some of these stories are obviously a lead-in to side quests or the main quest in DA4, so their conclusions aren’t super satisfying; they serve more as teasers (though they’re pretty good teasers). Also, a lot of them follow the same plot formula: “x is killing y” or “x wants to kill y”, followed by “z has to step in to find out who and why.” It gets a bit repetitive, especially if you’re reading the book all in one go. And as with all anthologies, you’re going to get a mix of stories that you like and stories that just don’t work.

 

My favourites in order:

“The Wigmaker” by Courtney Woods
“The Horror of Hormok” by John Epler
“Eight Little Talons” by Courtney Woods
“Half Up Front” by John Epler
“The Dread Wolf Take You” by Patrick Weekes

(Courtney Woods and John Epler are really the MVPs of this anthology. Their stories are stuffed with interesting lore, they nail the balance of teaser and substance, and character-wise, they’re just more solidly crafted than the others)

As far as anthologies go, this was one of the best I’ve read in recent memory. And my furious obsession with the series has no bearing on that assessment. None whatsoever!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play Inquisition for the 50th time.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

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Review: Docile – Important and Poignant Enough to Write a Poem For (Which I Did)

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Title: Docile
Author:
K.M. Szpara
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Speculative Fiction
Subject(s): Consent, BDSM, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
March 3rd, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your childrens’ future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.

 

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I tried writing a long review for this. I really did. On my first attempt I stared at the screen for a few hours and wrote a poem about it instead. On my second attempt I wrote a rambly essay that got way too personal and I figured I should just save that for therapy.

This is a book I feel deserves a long review, but well–sometimes my brain says, “I don’t think so.” And who knows? Maybe it’s right.

My favourite formula for storytelling is “Present it big, but tell it small.” As in, I love stories that offer a grand concept, but instead of focusing on the big pieces, it goes through the intimate details–the minutiae of everyday life. That’s one of the main reasons why I love this book so much. Because Docile commentates on a broken system that feels too-adjacent to our own–a Black Mirror-ish look at class divides and capitalism–but it does it through a story about healing and self-discovery, and a relationship that was built terribly wrong and brittle but nonetheless became real.

The other reason is Elisha.

It’s funny, because I don’t really know who Elisha as a person. He’s not as present or as bold as Alex is on the page. Which is, to be fair, kind of the point, as he spends most of the book getting scrubbed away, and the rest trying to figure out who he is as an individual. But a blank slate is a blank slate, so there’s really no reason for me to be attached to him, or relate to him. Except I am and I do. It’s his journey that I looked at and said, “Oh, this rings a bell.” Not the rape and the mindfuck, thankfully, but the aftermath and the healing process. The pain of being lost and looking over your emotions and feeling like you can’t trust any of them. And the use of bondage and power play to help reclaim his sense of control and autonomy (seeing BDSM in a therapeutic context in fiction makes me a happy otter). This was a case of the journey shaping the character, rather than the character shaping the character. If that makes sense.

I broke for him. And I was proud for him.

“I’m still in here.” I curl my finger against my sternum. “I need help. I need someone to love me and be patient with me.”

The thing with stories about sexual servitude is that there’s a very fine line that you need to toe, otherwise the whole thing devolves into an uncomfortable cousin of torture porn, and the point you’re trying to raise about consent–if that was even a point you set out to make–becomes moot (Bliss by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau is one example).

Docile toes that line decked out in Wes Anderson pastels and vintage floral prints.

It heats things up, but never condones. It presents you with kindness and care and love, and then asks how much they’re worth when, at the end of the day, your body isn’t yours and your mouth is sewn and there is never an option to say “No.”

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

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Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

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Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


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Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

 

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Review: Magic for Liars – Ivy Gamble is Not Magic and She Wants Everyone to Know

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Title: Magic for Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 4th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Siblings, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (Secondary)
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it.

Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine.

She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.

Ivy Gamble is a liar.

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

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I think this book would save people a lot of disappointment if it came with a disclaimer. Something like “NOTE: The magical boarding school featured in this story is actually pretty ordinary and the characters spend more time talking about the theories of magic than actually doing magic.” Though personally, I wasn’t too bummed out by the lack of magic. In the first half I was still interested in the mystery and the MC, so I didn’t mind that there weren’t moving staircases and people lighting things on fire. And in the second half I was too caught up in other–bigger–issues to really care.

Yeah. Safe to say this was a disappointment for me.

It starts out very strong (I mean, a book that opens up with a scene straight out of Hannibal has my full attention) and it ends on a…strange and depressing note that I still don’t know how I feel about (though I have a feeling I’ll eventually land at “I didn’t like it”). But it’s mostly the middle bits that I had a problem with. And a lot of those problems link back to the protagonist.

Ivy Gamble was a trying narrator for me. Think Jessica Jones with all her psychological baggage minus the snark. And I was sympathetic in the beginning. I can imagine how bitterly disappointing it would be to watch your sibling discover their magical abilities and get accepted to an elite magic academy while you’re sitting on the sidelines reconciling with the fact that you’re not magical and this incredible new world is off-limits to you. I understand how that can shape the rest of your life.

But I don’t need to be reminded of it every other page.

Ivy goes out of her way to let the readers know that, hey, she’s not magic. Did you know she’s not magic? Bet you forgot she’s not magic since the last time she told you she wasn’t magic.

*taps on mic* An important announcement: IVY GAMBLE IS NOT MAGIC.

If you haven’t noticed, I love–for the lack of a better adjective–tortured characters in stories. Characters carrying scars that they can’t bear to look at but can’t help but prod. But when all that mental turmoil overpowers the rest of the narrative–plot, side characters, setting–the result feels less like a story and more like a one-sided therapy session. And that was more or less my experience with Magic for Liars. The mystery would start to get interesting but then Ivy would start comparing Nonmagic Ivy (her current self) to magic Ivy (a theoretical version of herself) and musing about how the latter would do so much better in this and such situation, and that would pull me right out of the story.

And this is more of a general complaint that I’m throwing out into the fictional ether, but I’m a little tired of private eye stories where the protagonist is an emotional mess and drinking constantly. I understand that that’s part of the noir aesthetic–cigarettes and gin and staring out the window in contemplation of the fatality of life– and, yes, there’s often a romantic allure to it, but for once I would like to see a well-adjusted PI who chooses to abstain from heavy drinking because it interferes with their work. A happy (or happier) noir, you know?

This book is not a happy noir, though, so if you’re looking for a twisty mystery with magical school shenanigans, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If you want a simple narrator-driven mystery with a lot of diversity and a LOT of heavy introspection, then well, it doesn’t hurt to try!

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review: A Memory Called Empire – A Brilliantly Ambitious Space Opera

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Title: A Memory Called Empire (Texicalaan 1)
Author: Arkady Martine
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: March 26th, 2019
Genre(s): Science Fiction Space Opera
Subjects and Themes: Political Intrigue, Culture, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident―or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion―all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret―one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life―or rescue it from annihilation.

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A Memory Called Empire was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and while I do have a few niggling issues with it, if you like your space operas drenched to the neck in mystery, intrigue, philosophy, and intricate worldbuilding, then I can tell you that this might be the book of the year for you.

Martine has created a fascinating, incredibly layered world with Texicalaan–a multiplanetary empire whose culture is steeped in language and poetry. To which I’d normally say, “Hell yes. How do I apply for citizenship?” Except I probably wouldn’t last a week without decking someone and starting an intergalactic incident.

Because Texicalaan is, in many ways, stifling in its grandiosity. It’s an empire so wrapped up in its own depth, turning their nose up at outsiders (“barbarians”) and prone to waxing poetic about anything and everything. But, then again, it is an empire. And empires don’t get to be where they are on a bedrock of humility and blushy feet-shuffling coyness. And it would be hard for any society to abstain from arrogance when every aspect of their culture–from language and history to technology–is as spanning and rich as this. Martine does such an incredible job breathing life into this world that I couldn’t help but think of it as real and mull on it with equal parts exasperation and fondness. (And I would seriously love to read a collection of short stories set in the  empire)

So it’s no wonder that Mahit, our newly-appointed ambassador from Lsel, has been utterly in love with it for the entirety of her life.

I’d call this the space opera version of “plain outsider gets inducted into elite private academy.” There are traditions to uphold. Passive-aggressive remarks to smile and nod at. Hoops to jump through. And a not-so-faint whiff of superiority trailing you as you try to navigate this new territory without drowning. Except our MC here also has a murder to solve and a brewing political plot to contend with, and a wrong step can lead to her death. There’s a bit of action. A whole lot of intrigue. And for a story that’s so politically-focused, I found the pacing to be pleasantly fast, at least for the first half; it did kind of let up in the second half and my attention ended up wandering from place to place.

Besides the technical aspects of story, Martine captures the emotional side of it wonderfully. Mahit’s loneliness of being a foreigner set adrift in a new land is palpable, as is her conflict of loving a nation for all its cultural nuances while also being painfully aware of its faults and danger. And the side characters are all interesting and well-realized–one Three Seagrass in particular, whose interactions with Mahit made me smile.

I guess my biggest gripe is with the prose. This is probably just a matter of personal taste, and I don’t really know how to explain it, but there was something about it that my brain could never latch onto. The way it didn’t quite fit with the story it was telling. And reading through it was sometimes like trying to gather water using a sieve. Which was frustrating because this is the kind of story that I want to gather up in a large bowl and look at it for days and days on end. But the book said, “Nope. No bowl-gazing for you today.” So that was that.

At the end of the day, I think this is more a book that I really appreciate and am somewhat in awe of, in terms of its scope and depth, than a book that I’m headlong in love with. And I’m perfectly okay with that! Not every book I read needs to induce first-kiss-clothes-ripping-off passion. But “appreciate” doesn’t mean “dislike” (not by far), and make no mistake, this is a fantastic debut and start of a series that will undoubtedly leave a lasting mark in the subgenre. And I cannot wait to see what more Martine has in store.

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

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

Add to goodreads

 

 

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).

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.

Novella Review: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – Smart Eco Scifi

Gods, Monsters

Title: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
Author: Kelly Robson
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: March 13th, 2018
Genre: Sci-Fi, Post-Apocalypse
Subjects and Themes: Time Travel, Ecology
Page Count: 240 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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First of all, can we just take a moment to appreciate how fantastic that cover is?

Secondly, to all you scifi-loving field biologists and ecologists out there, this book is for you.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach takes place on future Earth where everything has collapsed; due to rising sea levels, natural disasters, and a plague outbreak, many of our modern cities decided to dig underground and create a new home in the Earth’s crust. But time travel has become a viable thing in the last decade or so and it’s a very, very attractive option to a lot of people–a nudge here and there in the past might, after all, bring about a restoration of the economy, population, and of course, the ecosystem.

Our protagonist Minh wants to form a small team of scientists to travel back to ancient Mesopotamia (2024 BCE) to study the old ecosystems that helped birth so many early civilizations. Minh also just happens to be a woman with fully-functioning octopus arms in place of human legs. Prosthetics in this world have developed to the point where people can choose to attach various animal appendages to their bodies instead of the boring old human ones. It’s details like this that make the world fascinating and complex.

The first half of the story is a lot of logistics and your enjoyment of it will vary depending on how much you like reading about the behind-the-scenes of research projects–the proposal writing, the begging for greenlighting and funding (which readers in research fields should sympathize with. Or have horrible flashbacks to). It is a bit dry in places, but I liked it for the most part.

“This is a seduction…If you want to time travel, we need to get the client in bed with us.”

The second half sees our characters in Mesopotamia and that’s where the real fun begins. I loved this part and was positively green with envy at the characters. I mean, how cool would it be to have your field project take place in an ancient era? (Ignoring the problem of “virus strains were far more potent in the past, so you’d probably die before you can say “Eureka!”). Pretty cool.

My biggest complaint is that it ends rather abruptly and just as when things were getting really interesting, which is a problem I have with many one-shot novellas (assuming this is one-shot).

All in all, if you have any interest in environmental science, time travel, and eclectic characters, you might want to give this a shot.

Review: Armistice (Amberlough Dossier 2) – Less Stripping But More Talking

Armistice

Title: Armistice (Amberlough Dossier 2)
Author: Lara Elena Donnelly
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: May 15th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Page Count: 400 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

 

Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut Amberlough was a dazzling story of decadence, sex, and the embrace of art in the face of authoritarianism. But readers who dive into Armistice expecting more of the same thing–strippers, cabaret dancers, forbidden passions–may end up being a little disappointed. This sequel is wholly focused on characters–some old, some new–as they try to deal with the fallout of the ending of the first book. So we don’t get the “let’s-rip-our-clothes-off” brand of sexiness, but what we do (eventually) get is some open communication between the characters. Which, frankly, is even sexier–both in real-life and in fiction.

In Armistice, the setting has been moved from Gedda to Porachis, a warm tropical country reminiscent of India. Three years have passed since the fascist Ospie Party have taken control of Amberlough and the rest of Gedda. Cordelia, once a performer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret, has now become the leader of the infamous resistance/anarchist group known as the “Catwalk.” Aristide, once an emcee and secret smuggler, has turned refugee and film director at a studio in Porachis. Lillian is the last of our protagonists and unlike the other two, we’ve only known her by name in the first book. She’s the sister of Cyril DePaul (Aristide’s lover) and she’s been taken under the thumb of the Ospies as a diplomat. Circumstances draw these people to one another and their past and present agendas tangle together into an unruly mess.

We’re immediately introduced a slew of new and old characters, and there are many connections (social, political, personal) that you have to keep track of, which can get a little overwhelming. It doesn’t help that it’s been over a year since I’ve read Amberlough; it took me a while to remember who some of the side characters were.

As with the first book, the main characters are fantastically well-written. I came into the story feeling ambivalent about Lillian, but Donnelly has written her with so much care that it’s hard not to be intrigued by her. Yes, she’s working for the enemy. But she’s also a mother whose son has effectively been hostage to elicit good behaviour from her. Like Cyril, her loyalties are being pulled at both ends, and you can’t help but feel for her. Cordelia and Aristide are not the same people that they were three years ago. With Aristide, it felt like I was getting to know him for the first time. He’s shed his stage persona and has become more serious and gruff. And we see depths to him–grief, anger, love–that we never really got a chance to see in Amberlough, and I loved every bit of it. I did, however, find myself missing the Cordelia and Aristide of the old. And this isn’t a criticism of the book, but a praise, because we’re meant to miss them. Lament the fact that a fascist government has smothered so much of their vitality.

I did feel that the first half of the story was a little slow–much of it is spent getting all the characters together in the same place. And we also never really get a good sense of what Porachis as a country looks like. As with the characters, I found myself pining for the vibrant atmosphere of the Bumble Bee (really, fascists ruin everything).

All in all, this is a different but great sequel to one of last year’s best debuts. Whereas in Amberlough things spiraled down to ruin and disaster, in Armistice, things steadily climb towards hope. It sets up the necessary groundworks for a potentially pulse-pounding, ulcer-inducing third book, and I can’t wait.

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Thank you to Netgalley and Tor for providing a review copy.

 

Review: Fire Dance – Beautiful and Etched with Heartrending Loneliness

Fire Dance

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

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: