AWW17: Tyranny of Queens (The Manifold Worlds #2) by Foz Meadows

Silhouette of a woman with an umbrella black on a blue background with text Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017: Book #1

Title: Tyranny of Queens (The Manifold Worlds #2)

Author: Foz Meadows

Publisher and Year:  Angry Robot, 2017

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, queer fiction, portal fantasy

Two small figures in the foreground face a ruined building, with a castle in the distant background.Blurb from Goodreads:

Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017. I’m also reviewing this book as part of the Read Diverse Books 2017 challenge and it qualifies as both an #ownvoices read as well as having characters who identify under the LGBTIQA+ umbrella. 

I love Saffron as a character and I really loved the way this middle book unfolded, and also rarely for a second book, the story is self contained and I was really satisfied with where it ended – no cliffhanger. You could read this, be satisfied and not *have* to read the third book if you weren’t interested. That’s really unusual for a second book in a trilogy and it’s well worth appreciating.

Also, while I found the first book An Accident of Stars slightly clunky in the writing and every so often I’d be thrown out of the story, this time, Meadows’ writing was much cleaner in style and I could just sink into the story without any struggle. Not only was I not thrown out, I found it very hard to put the book down because of things like sleep, an excellent recommendation to a book as far as I’m concerned. It’s worth noting that this is the second book in a the trilogy and I don’t think it can be read without the first one. I do think that you could read the first and second book though and be content with that as an ending and not *need* to read book 3, but if you’ve read the first two and liked them, there’s no reason not to jump in. I certainly can’t wait for the third book, it will be one of my most anticipated releases, that’s for sure.

In Tyranny of Queens I found myself more compelled by the characters and their plot, and I felt that all of the characters who featured as protagonists demonstrated growth and new awareness of themselves, their world(s), their relationships and in relation to the overall plot. I especially thought that we got to see more of a relevant and connected side to Gwen this time, we found out previously that she was in a group marriage situation with a son, but this happened mostly off screen. While we don’t meet her partners, the warm relationship she experiences with her son is one of my favourite relationships in the book.

I also loved watching how Saffron’s relationship with Yena grows – although for most of the book this happens separately and somehow I  could always feel them connected. It’s a tiny thing but I really loved it. I appreciated how Yena was responsible for being a Sister and a Daughter in both chosen and forced ways and that this was complicated by her feelings about her self, her experiences and the time she has spent away from the culture she was trying to embed herself back into. Another aspect of characterisation and plotting I appreciated was the way both Kadeja and Leodan as villains and victims were both portrayed in sympathetic ways, ultimately responsible for their actions but very human in how their actions had come about. Leodan is perhaps the more forgivable of the two having been manipulated by Kadeja, but her own pain and compulsion are engaging as well.

I love the various voices in this book, like the first book, Tyranny of Queens there’s a lot of diversity to go around, different cultures, different relationship patterns, sexualities, genders, showing engaging characters who also have mental health and disabilities to consider, older and younger characters, lots of different power dynamics.  I love all of this, and feel like the inclusion and sharing of these aspects was a lot more organic than in the first book. For those who are looking for a place where they may find their experience represented this is a good place to look, and for those who shy away from reading about their experiences centred it’s worth noting that it’s central to this entire book. It’s worth noting that in the beginning of the book it took me a little to remember who everyone was, what they were doing and what they were about but this did give way to enjoyment very quickly.

Lastly, I’m not always someone who enjoys portal fantasy but lately there’s been some excellent examples and both An Accident of Stars and Tyranny of Queens both count. The world-building is epic, the politics are intricate and layered with meaning and consequences. The relationships are complex and compelling as are many of the characters in their own right. The plot arc had me wondering how it would be solved one way or another and I’m curious to see how that plays out in the next book given how neatly this book ended. I can’t say enough good things about it, one of my favourite books of 2017.

Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Bright azure blue cover with gold text and golden outline of a mechanical dragonflyARC Review:

Title: Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1)

Authors: Laini Taylor

Publisher and Year: Hodder and Stoughton, 2017

Genre: fantasy

Blurb from Goodreads:

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling ‘Daughter of Smoke & Bone’ trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was one of those books that I saw getting a lot of buzz, certainly the Booktubers I follow were very excited about it. And, who wouldn’t be with the gorgeous bright blue cover with gilded dragonfly? Even the gold and blue flecked cover was striking. It’s a book whose appearance begs you to pick it up and read it. And if that wasn’t enough, the blurb is fantastic and sucked me in. I’m new to Taylor’s work and I am really excited I got to read this book. What Taylor does here was really unique for me, there are certainly the trappings of epic fantasy but they’re used in really interesting ways.

I adored Lazlo’s character and enjoyed him as an unusual hero type, a dreamer where the story doesn’t really fit him but he’s there doing the best he can anyway. I loved his bookishness and his quiet dedication. I loved the whimsical fantasy of the world-building and the adventure, although honestly, Lazlo was one of the only characters I was attached to at all. Lazlo and Sarai, and I thought her short changed as a character. I struggled with the godspawn characters as the ‘them’ of the book entirely – they were too juxtaposed as both terrifying and dangerous and also helpless and trapped in a way that never really worked for me. Same with the band of experts gathered to attend the problem in the city of Weep, save the thief who took up the betting ring, they were unremarkable – I’d read much more of her story though.

That’s kind of where shine wears off for me, because although Lazlo was interesting and engaging. Although I empathised with Sarai’s empathy and loneliness, the story itself fell flat for me. I struggled with the plot, especially as it just seemed like there was so much more plot in the history of Weep than in the present, and it was horrific history and I found the way it was shared felt a bit wooden. I was told characters were traumatised and such, but I didn’t get that from the characters themselves. I also struggled with the romance between Lazlo and Sarai, I liked the premise but found the execution left me cold, I wanted more from them, more for them, and I find the ending of the book abhorrent. The interaction between all the characters save Lazlo and Sarai is flat and unsatisfying – it’s hard to care about what they’re doing and why.

The writing itself makes up for a lot here, it’s lyrical and paints such a beautiful picture while you’re reading that you don’t seem to mind the lack of substance. At least, that’s what I found for myself until I got to the end and I felt like I’d taken in so little for all the pages I’d read. Others have commented that they thought the pace a little slow in places and I’d also agree with that. I’m really glad I got to read this and my favourite part was how much of a whimsical dreamer Lazlo was, and that although he was happy in the depths of the library, he got to go on an adventure and explore the city of his dreams.

If you’ve enjoyed other works by Taylor, you’ll likely enjoy this book similarly. It’s a good read overall, though I’m left a little wanting – and not in the way you’d hope. It’s worth noting that there’s some heavy content in here, reference to rape and torture and forced pregnancy – it’s not gratuitous, but it’s there and I found it uncomfortable reading in the story – again it was part of the being told rather than finding out as the story unfolds more organically. Although I’ve had Taylor’s work recommended to  me several times, I’m not sure if I’m up for book 2 at this stage.

Review: Wanted & Wired by Vivien Jackson

A woman with long dark hair side holding a large gun on to the left of the cover, background is fiery orange sunset ARC Review:

Title: Wanted & Wired (Tethered #1)

Authors: Vivien Jackson

Publisher and Year: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2017

Genre: science fiction, romance, dystopia, paranormal romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

A rip-roarin’ new snarky, sexy sci-fi paranormal romance series with the perfect balance of humor, heat, and heart. Now that Texas has seceded and the world is spiralling into chaos, good guys come in unlikely packages and love sprouts in the most inconvenient places…

Rogue scientist • technologically enhanced • deliciously attractive
Heron Farad should be dead. But technology has made him the man he is today. Now he heads a crew of uniquely skilled outsiders who fight to salvage what’s left of humanity: art, artefacts, books, ideas-sometimes even people. People like Mari Vallejo.

Gun for hire • Texan rebel • always hits her mark
Mari has been lusting after her mysterious handler for months. But when a by-the-book hit goes horribly sideways, she and Heron land on the universal most wanted list. Someone set them up. Desperate and on the run, they must trust each other to survive, while hiding devastating secrets. As their explosive chemistry heats up, it’s the perfect storm…

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This book came along at a time this year when I needed something fun to read, something romantic, but still something decidedly science fiction. I loved the pacing of the story and fell in love with the characters. While the story was slow to start and clunky in places, there was plenty to keep me going.

I really wanted Heron and Mari to succeed in sorting out what had gone so wrong with their mission. I empathised with Mari’s desire to do the right thing by her father, even though that turned out to be a huge problem. I loved the technology and world-building, I loved Heron’s post-human and enhanced character and I loved the way that was discussed subtly throughout in relation to humanity and morals and choices and so on. I found Heron especially compelling as a character – but that’s not surprising as I have a big soft spot for characters that create found-family. I did love that Mari was included even if she didn’t know about it.

I love that Mari was complicated, she had issues with her history and memory, but also just with coping day-to-day, I appreciated that realism to her character – she’s great at what she does, but not infallible. I love how much she realises that she’s come to rely on Heron. I love the unfolding of their relationship and Mari being confronted with her own biases and the need to reevaluate them. The sexual tension between these two was excellent and I have a soft spot for sex scenes where the author has remembered that one party has extra tech to bring to the equation – I’m all for the misuse of science and technology for better sex. This was excellent in that regard.

Overall this was a really enjoyable book, I’m interested in the story ongoing and am hoping that future books will trend more toward science-fiction romance and less romance driven with a couple per book, I love the urban fantasy feel of this book, it’s clearly science  fiction but it has a lot of the elements that draw me to urban fantasy and I’m solidly hooked.

Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

A dark blue cover with white text, and a flourished font for the title Caraval. There is a multipointed star behind the title and it is surrounded by red artistic flourishes around the title and author name.ARC Review:

Title: Caraval (Caraval #1)

Authors: Stephanie Garber

Publisher and Year: Flatiron Books, 2017

Genre: fantasy, young adult, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world . . .

Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I thoroughly enjoyed Caraval, it was a face-paced read that was enjoyable in the way that you don’t notice how much you’ve read until you should have gone to sleep an hour ago.  I loved the set up of the story and the game of Caraval with the mystery of its game master Legend.  The magic and the worldbuilding were deeply interesting and honestly I wish I could have seen more of this – especially inside the game world itself. For five days of game there was a surprising lack of detail and richness to the experience within it.

The characterisation was all pretty solid although I thought the father’s character was a little two dimensional as a villain. I loved the two sisters, although I was disappointed that they didn’t share more page-time together and I thought that there was a bit more telling about them rather than showing – Tella was almost absent from the book although critical to the story itself which I thought was actually a bit of a shame – I couldn’t relish in her triumph because I barely knew her. Scarlett was contradictory but in a good way and I thought I had a good chance to get to know her, but I thought that she was a bit too easily led and naive for someone who was supposed to be aware of being manipulated, based on her background. I did really love Julian’s character, and he was one of the stand out characters for me, he was complicated and interesting, was a great foil for Scarlett without being lost in her and without doing anything that made my teeth hurt.

I enjoyed the resolution to the story quite a lot, I thought it was quite fitting and I thought that the fact that there was a rhyme and reason to how Scarlett and Tella ended up at the game at all was well plotted. I was bewildered by the random arrival of the fiance – that whole sub-storyline was a bit clunky for me and I don’t think it played out as well as it could have. I didn’t much care for the cliffhanger, but I am glad to know that there’s more story, it was definitely compelling and enjoyable enough that I’m overtly looking forward to the sequel. This is an interesting YA novel, it’s not a coming of age, but it is a stepping out into the world in a way for the first time, and Scarlett comes to know herself and what she wants for her life a bit more, out from under the thumb of her father and the certainty of her betrothal. I love that the relationship between the sisters is so important and underpins the whole story even if they didn’t share the pages as much as I’d have liked, and overall I’d have loved to see more of Tella. Congratulations to Garber on an excellent debut novel.

Review: The Turn by Kim Harrison

Book cover with a grey forest background with a long haired brunette woman in a flowing red dress holding a rotting piece of fruit in her cupped hands that spills black down the front of the dress. ARC Review:

Title: The Turn (The Hollows #0.1)

Authors: Kim Harrison

Publisher and Year: Gallery Books, 2017

Genre: urban fantasy

Blurb from Goodreads:

Kim Harrison returns to her beloved Hollows series with The Turn, the official prequel to the series that will introduce fans and readers to a whole new side of Rachel Morgan’s world as they’ve never seen it before!

Can science save us when all else fails?

Trisk and her hated rival, Kalamack, have the same goal: save their species from extinction.

Death comes in the guise of hope when a genetically modified tomato created to feed the world combines with the government’s new tactical virus, giving it an unexpected host and a mode of transport. Plague takes the world, giving the paranormal species an uncomfortable choice to stay hidden and allow humanity to die, or to show themselves in a bid to save them.

Under accusations of scientific misconduct, Trisk and Kal flee across a plague torn United States to convince leaders of the major paranormal species to save their supposedly weaker kin, but not everyone thinks humanity should be saved.

Kal surreptitiously works against her as Trisk fights the prejudices of two societies to prove that not only does humanity have something to offer, but that long-accepted beliefs against women, dark magic, and humanity itself can turn to understanding; that when people are at their worst that the best show their true strength, and that love can hold the world together as a new balance is found.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve long been a fan of Kim Harrison’s Hollows series and so the opportunity to read the prequel about how the whole Tomato plague got started, and how the Inderlanders came out into the open was fantastic! I had always wondered how events had happened, and this prequel answered many of my questions. I think a bunch of those questions remain unanswered but the book is a complete story in its own right and there’s no cliffhanger.

I really empathised with Trisk’s character and the frustration of sexism and classism depicted in the story’s 60s timeline. It pings immediately believable as an alternative history timeline, and yet I can also see how things evolved to Rachel’s time and how much and how little changed.

I was especially interested in the story of the pixies and that their struggle against extinction was so fraught! It’s such a change from Rachel’s time! I appreciated all the ways in which the historical story came alive for me and made sense in my understanding of how the series itself unfolds for Rachel, Ivy, Trent and Al.

Al remains one of my favourite characters in that hate to love kind of way, I definitely want to read more of his story. Kal is… wow, at once an interesting protagonist, who isn’t ‘all bad’ but he’s so caught up in himself, his position and privilege that what sympathy I had for him was always fleeting. His ruthlessness was horrifying to me and the only thing that bothers me about the outcome of things was that he actually still ends up coming out of it relatively unscathed, while Trisk loses most everything.

Prequels can often be disappointing, but The Turn manages to be a fully fledged story in its own right, there’s plenty of story to tell and while it ties strongly into the beginning and history behind the series of The Hollows taking place, you can read it as a stand alone fantasy novel just fine I think. That said, I do think those who’ve also read some of the series will love it more.

Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

Cover image with large text with the author and book title, the background is a golden soft glow horizon behind a field of golden corn. ARC Review:

Title: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

Authors: Seanan McGuire

Publisher and Year:  Tor.com Publishing, 2017

Genre: urban fantasy, dark fantasy, novella

Blurb from Goodreads:

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I am a recent fan of McGuire’s work, but I fell hard for her writing, ideas and characters. Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a unique novella, and though it deals with heavy topics around death and suicide, for me the novella was about time and our perceptions and appreciation of it. I find these topics difficult to read about myself, but despite this I did really enjoy the novella and appreciated it’s gentle narrative. The gentleness itself is worthy of mention I feel, and I think it softens the nature of the topics enough to read the story and connect with the characters and what’s happening.

Although Jenna is our protagonist, I found myself never really understanding her very well, or connecting much with her.  I feel like we only get to know her just enough for the story to be told but not enough to really understand her place in the landscape unlike with the other characters, which breathed for me on the page, ghost or not. In particular, Brenda stands out as the most interesting character in the book, her awareness of New York and being a witch – a corn witch, is so interesting. Her experience of the city is so interesting and I would love to read more of her story. I also really loved Delia, the landlady ghost who has just stayed and continues to care for the city and its inhabitants, I found the idea of ghosts like Delia very comforting, even as I found Jenna discomforting.

However, stories by Seanan McGuire are rarely comforting, they do dig in and make you wonder, make you think. That’s true of this novella, though it’s only a little over 100 pages. I have never been suicidal, and I have scant experience with losing loved ones to suicide but I acknowledge that it is a difficult topic and one that is probably not always engaged with well or respectfully. I don’t know whether it is useful or not useful that there is a continuation after suicide or death, that half the characters in the book are ghosts, it didn’t press any buttons for me in that way so I simply cannot say, I acknowledge my lack of experience in the area though and note that others have queried this.

While I cared about the arc of story about finding the ghosts and helping them, I didn’t much care that Jenna decided to move on and be reunited with her sister in the end. It was fine, expected even, but since Patty never features in the story very well herself, she’s always a memory on a pedestal, it didn’t resonate as deeply for me. But that’s in part because Jenna didn’t quite gel for me, which is odd given that the other non-protagonist characters did. I liked her well enough but… I wasn’t compelled to read her story for herself about herself. That did shift for me in the way the story resolved itself and Jenna moves on from being the girl who runs to being able to go home and face her past and fears, but it was  so late in the piece that it didn’t make enough a difference to my experience of Jenna as a character overall.

Time is the most interesting part of the world-building in this story, especially given the world presented is so close to the real world, you could blink and be uncertain whether it was real or not. The way in which ghosts interact with time and anchor places to time was interesting, and I loved that it wasn’t only human ghosts that were responsible for this. I loved the witches with their specific callings, and while it was clear that there was definite power involved, there were limitations and it was never flashy and over the top.

Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a beautiful novella, and through the eyes of ghosts tells the story of time and coming to terms with your own personhood and weight in the world. It’s dark, but not creepy or out to scare you, and while it aims to discomfort the reader a little, it is deep and has a gentleness about it that balances this.

2017 Reading Goals

Time to talk about my reading goals for 2017! My plans are not dramatically different from past years, but I’m tweaking things to work better and trying to be ambitious in what I achieve. However, I am trying to be mindful of doing this in ways that are within reach given I’m heading into my final year of my midwifery degree. Reading is one of the things I do for self-care and stress relief – even when in semester I’ll still read for pleasure. I also find I get a bit stressed and lonely, so I’ve found that joining in with bookclubs and challenges can often be helpful for feeling connected and involved in social things, without having to use up a lot of energy to leave the house.

Overall Reading Goal

Blue banner image with picture of a book in white and the text Goodreads 2017 Reading ChallengeOnce again, 75 books seems to be the right length to aim for – I did do a little better than that in 2016, but some were shorter reads, plus it’s my final study year so I will probably be busier than previous years. Also, as with all goals this is something to aim for and give me a bit of a challenge to enjoy, it’s not about beating myself with sticks. I’m quite determined to maintain this outlook with all my goal-setting because it has to work for me, not against me.

Reviewing

In general I want to continue reading and reviewing, I am loving seeing the number of my reviews grow – both here and on Goodreads. Plus, I want to continue to review and promote new books when I can get advance copies, particularly for indie publishers.  Additionally, I am hoping to get back to doing some of my Retro Fiction Review Series for older books that could use a boost in attention. There are so many books being published that it’s easy for some great books to be overlooked and I’d like to draw some attention to ones I think deserve some more love. As far as the time frame for ‘retro’, I’m thinking books published prior to 2000.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

Silhouette of a woman with an umbrella black on a blue background with text Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.This is the reading challenge that I’ve participated in the longest, and I love it as much now as the first time I got to join in. This year I’m pledging to read and review 15 books by Australian Women Writers. As part of that challenge I’m also trying to improve on the diversity in my reading to include women who are queer, Indigenous women and women from different cultural backgrounds and experiences to myself as a white Australian person.

This is a great challenge to take on because you can set your own level of participation. You can nominate to read and review, or if you don’t want to review that’s fine too! This year there is a specific focus on drawing attention to Australian Women Writers who come from diverse backgrounds, but also to raise the profile of some Classics by Australian women. There’s already quite a lot of excited discussion about this focus, with the nominal definition of ‘classic’ being written at least 30 years ago and being significant at the time it was published, or to have had a lasting profile/impact in Australia or a region. I’m not taking on the Classics focus for my challenge but as a long time fan of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books, I am hoping lots of other people fall in love with these – and maybe I’ll pick up the subsequent books to reread, it’s been a long time and I’m probably overdue to reread.

Goodreads Reading Challenge

The main challenge has an active bookclub group that does a bunch of long and short, easy and difficult challenges, plus buddy reads and a gift exchange at the end of the year. I enjoyed participating in several buddy reads and challenges last year and am going to join in again. If you want to follow the things I’m doing, I’ll be tracking all the various challenges and so on in this forum post. I’m already doing a buddy read in January – we’re reading Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. I’ve also signed up for some year long challenges and a couple of first quarter challenges:

Bout of Books button with determined woman in yellow looking tired and surrounded by books.Bout of Books 18

For the first time ever I’m participating in the Bout of Books reading marathon – it’s an easy going challenge that is purely about encouraging you to read a bit more than you’d already planned that week. I like the tag line that says ‘I was planning to read this week anyway’ because, that’s true. And now this week I get to enjoy the company of a bunch of other people who are also participating – it’s rather lovely to be involved in all the twitter loveliness.  You can read my progress post for Bout of Books 18 where I’m keeping a record of what I’m reading, how much and also of the challenges I’ve participated in.

Banner with purple-pink rainbow art with flowers and flourishes and a book, tex treads Read Diverse 2017 where diverse is in rainbow colours.Read Diverse 2017

As part of my ongoing desire to improve on how diverse my reading is, particularly in intersectional ways where I’m privileged, I’m using this challenge to be a background reminder for me for the reading I was going to be doing anyway. Despite the name, it’s about reviewing and promoting works by marginalised authors as well as works that feature marginalised characters. Intersections with queerness and disability and whiteness, gender and a few other elements are the focus. I’m not going to lie, the art is definitely one of the reasons I was drawn to this particular challenge.  How pretty is the button?

Bookclubs

I still want to participate in some of the other bookclubs that I’ve enjoyed, like the Sword and Laser Bookclub, the Vaginal Fantasy Bookclub and I’ve also been participating in the readalong with the Magical Space Pussycats podcast. I’m also hoping that Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Inky Valkyrie bookclub gets up and running (if you were looking for an awesome patreon with excellent speculative fiction content to sponsor, her’s is a good one).

Finish the Journey Through the Twelve Planets Challenge

Image of a series of vertical book spines showing the twelve planet books in various colours. Header text white on transparent black overlies the image with the title 'A Journey Through the Twelve Planets'.Steph and I started this last year, we got half way through the year all on time and so on and then the mid-year just hit us both really hard. Plus, I was in the midst of a very busy semester and am not a horror reader at the best of times, so it took me a lot longer to get through Kaaron Warren’s Through Splintered Walls than I had anticipated, I expect Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan will be a similar story (but it will also be worth it I am certain). The aim is to finish the final six books in the challenge in 2017 and I am looking forward to it and that we’ve got the whole year to do it in.


That’s what I have so far, and hopefully I’ll exceed expectations in these goals I’ve taken on! I hope to report on how I’m tracking sometime around mid-year, but we’ll see how that goes (it’s a very busy time of the year for me study-wise so I may be dreaming that I’ll get the blogging time then).

 

 

Review: He, She and It by Marge Piercy

He, She and It - coverARC Review:

Title: He, She and It

Authors: Marge Piercy

Publisher and Year:  Originally published 1991, this edition published by Ebury Digital, 2016.

Genre: science fiction, dystopia, feminist fiction,

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

In the middle of the twenty-first century, life as we know it has changed for all time. Shira Shipman’s marriage has broken up, and her young son has been taken from her by the corporation that runs her zone, so she has returned to Tikva, the Jewish town where she grew up. There, she is welcomed by Malkah, the brilliant grandmother who raised her, and meets an extraordinary man who is not a man at all, but a unique cyborg implanted with intelligence, emotions – and the ability to kill…

From the critically acclaimed author of Woman on the Edge of Time, comes another stunning novel of morality and courage. A Pygmallion tale for the modern age, this classic feminist speculative novel won the Arthur C Clark Award.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

He, She and It was a revelation to me, I’m so glad I got to read this and am so glad that somehow this book came to me exactly when I needed it. There is as much about this book that is literary as science fiction, to the benefit of the book and the story it tells. It has incredible depth and is written beautifully, with poignancy that I think is rare to find.

Relationships are central to this book, relationships of family, of parent and child, of community, of spousal partnership, of professional collaboration. Although many readers may centre on the romantic relationships portrayed in the book, these make sense only in the context of all the other relationships that are part of the tapestry of this book. They do not exist in a vacuum or in isolation from the rest of the story.

We follow Shira’s point of view as the dominant protagonist, although Yod and Malkah’s point of view features as well. The worldbuilding for this story is deft. We start with a picture of an enclave, such as we might imagine in any future science fiction city, perfectly coifed and artificial, everything manufactured – the suggestion of control and surveillance is everywhere. We are then introduced to the free city Tivkah, resisting the multi-corporations and having enough skill and leverage to hold onto tenuous freedom and the city’s prized democratic community. Upon losing custody of her son, Shira flees the multicorporate enclave she is employed by and returns to Tivkah, her childhood home. She takes up a position with the scientist Avram to assist him in the socialisation of his cyborg creation Yod.

I didn’t fall in love with Shira at first, and in fact it took me a very long time to warm up to her. Instead, I was drawn to Malkah, matriarch and storyteller, scientist and programmer with a formidable intellect. I took a long time to warm up to Yod too, but I think that is by design from Piercy – as Yod’s experience with personhood grows and expands, so to does the reader’s ability to recognise and appreciate Yod’s personhood. We are invited to mirror Shira’s experience in working with Yod and his socialisation, although her qualms are always situated as her own foibles, and not so much larger moral questions for the reader to ponder. Those questions come more from Yod himself, as he reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The crux of the book is the creation of Yod, a cyborg. A story that parellels the creation of a golem in the 1800s. Both created to protect, but as weapons with innate violence in their nature. This is something both the golem Joseph and the cyborg Yod struggle with. My take on it is that this is profoundly to do with existing in the world, regardless of being a human person or not. You cannot erase lived experience, you cannot unlearn compassion or empathy readily – even if you did not come to then naturally and were created whole, as with golem Joseph and cyborg Yod.

I keep coming back to the richness of Tivkah as the locale surrounding the story. A community, built on socialism, collaboration, and fierce anarchic independence. Tivkah is a Jewish city, the days and rituals and experience of the inhabitants within centre the normalcy of their daily lives as Jewish people. This is given further depth by the story Malkah tells for Yod about Joseph the golem. When Nili, a cybernetically enhanced woman from once-Israel, now a dead zone joins them for a time in their city and helps them to defend it, further layers to women, surviving, climate change, resistance, feminism, family and purpose are revealed.

The resolution of this book is one I found deeply satisfying, although it wasn’t an ending as such. Instead it felt like a change, where the people whose lives I’d followed for some time were about to embark on a new era of their lives, but the chapter for this part was over and it was time to part. I valued that and it is a  significant part of the poignancy that I observed as part of the book. There is hope and optimism amidst the realism of living in a dystopia. But people live their lives, they do the best they can with what they have, they value the people and ideologies that are important to them. As do we all. Perhaps with less grace than those in the free city of Tivkah.

I had begun to think maybe I had lost the ability to appreciate deep books that you must read slowly, over a several days and sittings. This book is a compelling read, but it needs breaks – time to think between putting it down and picking it up. Life has to be lived in between reading pages, because it is a book that is about the everyday, about living life, the constraints and difficulties we all face – small and large. I learned in my reading of this book, that in depth, more demanding books are not lost to me, merely I must simply find the stories that are stories for  me – and not dwell so much on stories that other people loved and I did not.

He, She and It is profound and I firmly believe one that will yield much more upon rereading. I loved the abiding feminism in this book where there were so many female characters and relationships between women in all kinds of ways. Women performed all kinds of roles, from the familial and maternal, to great scientific works, piracy, and military defence. The breadth of capability, of choice and recognition of both was startling and wonderful to me. And this is why I don’t think that this is a book of romance, despite that it is one of the plot arcs that is used to contextualise so much of the story. It is like having a spine in the human body – our spine does not define us, but it is critical and unique. Complexities surrounding relationships between parent and child, family in general are also similarly critical to the telling of this story – they are not less important than romantic relationships.

I loved this book, I count it among those I loved best in my reading this year. Although first published in 1991, He, She and It tells as compelling and profound a story in 2016 as it did when it was first published. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves a really good science fiction novel. Unlike many dystopian stories, this book is not at all grim, there is no constant sense of doom. Instead, this book is about life, living and problem-solving as well as possible in a future where technology is rampant and equal parts the solution and the problem to the climate change-ravaged future portrayed.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit - coverARC Review:

Title: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)

Authors: Becky Chambers

Publisher and Year:  Harper Voyager, 2016

Genre: space opera, science fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

A Closed and Common Orbit is an incredible follow up to the standout A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Chambers has outdone herself in bringing to life a whole new set of characters. They’re familiar faces, but the story has shifted away from the crew of the Wayfarer and now we follow the journey of Pepper and AI Sidra – formerly known as Lovelace. One of the aspects of this novel that I appreciated most right from the beginning was the emphasis on names and their importance to an individual in how they express themselves. Names have history, they have a loadedness, they can be given, applied, attached, chosen, searched for, and I imagine they could even be grown. Here there’s no ceremony or poignancy around our AI protagonist choosing her name – it’s a necessity and aside from a comment from Pepper about names having weight and importance and that it would be nice to have more time, it’s not really possible and one must be chosen. And so we meet Sidra, almost as she starts to meet herself really.

The story of Sidra is one where an AI protagonist comes to terms with being in a body that doesn’t feel like her own, in a story and a narrative that she’s expected to build, but which she feels at odds with. And yet, despite the ways in which her inherently technological nature is reinforced, so to is her sentience. She struggles with some of the aspects of self-determination, and embraces others and I truly think that the writing of this kind of AI body is one of the best I’ve seen in that it tackles some of the ways in which plonking an AI into a humanesque body isn’t a like to like transition. Instead, overlays of memories and associations, textures, and sensations are used as associations with stimulus that Sidra comes across – particularly when eating or drinking. It’s a great touch.

I love the way that even as we explore Sidra coming-of-age we also look back into Pepper’s history, including how she met Blue. And here, once again Chambers gives us the depth of a story that is at its core optimistic, but where there is depth, and consequence – bad things happen and they must be acknowledged and dealt with in some way. Giving Sidra space and opportunity to explore her future is in some way Pepper’s way of coming to terms with her own past and it’s a lovely  narrative circle, we immediately identify with the nobility of Pepper’s aims, and our hearts weep with her in how confronted she is by this as well, searching for her own long lost AI companion.

There is so much to love about this book, and it’s similar in what was there to love in the first book. Stories of found and chosen family, of friendship and relationships that are negotiated and complex. Within the story there is queerness and differences in gender identity explored, but it’s not trite or token, but built into the story and character interactions without also ever being ‘the point’ of the character to be ‘the genderqueer one’ – it’s simply one personality trait amongst many inherent to the character, and this is true of the others as well. It’s warm and refreshing and it means I can see myself in the story – even if I’m not explicitly there, I’d fit, I’d make sense, I wouldn’t be the villain, nor outcast necessarily and that’s always a win for me. There’s spaceships and video games, virtual reality, storytelling, tech and hacking, politics and cultural differences between groups of sentients. There is so much scope in this universe that Chambers has created and I can’t imagine a book in this universe that I wouldn’t jump at the chance to read.

If you enjoy space opera, particularly with an optimistic view, you will enjoy this. If you enjoy books with heartwarming characters you can fall in love with and feel bereft without, you will enjoy this. If you want a coming-of-age story with a difference, with sentient AIs and everyday-heroes then you’ll enjoy this. The writing is delightful, I read this voraciously and loved every second. The book came to life for me and I want to reread it again already – it’s incredible and again, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Review: Break the Chains (The Scorched Continent #2) by Megan O’Keefe

Break the Chains - coverARC Review:

Title: Break the Chains (The Scorched Continent #2)

Authors: Megan O’Keefe

Publisher and Year:  Angry Robot, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Angry Robot:

(Not sure why it’s not up on Goodreads but anyway):

A year has passed since Detan set the skies above Aransa on fire, and the armies of Aransa’s new dictator Thratia are preparing to knock on the door of his aunt’s city, Hond Steading…

As the city that produces the most selium – that precious gas that elevates airships and powers strange magic – Hond Steading is a jewel worth stealing. To shore up the city’s defenses, Detan promises his aunt that he’ll recover Nouli, the infamous engineer who built the century gates that protect the imperial capital of Valathea. But Nouli is imprisoned on the Remnant Isles, an impervious island prison run by the empire, and it’s Detan’s fault.

Detan doesn’t dare approach Nouli himself, so his companions volunteer to get themselves locked up to make contact with Nouli and convince him to help. Now Detan has to break them all out of prison, and he’s going to need the help of a half-mad doppel to do it.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Break the Chains is a fantastic follow up to Steal the Sky. This is what anticipating a new fantasy series should feel like! I really enjoyed the first book in this series Steal the Sky last year and so I was delighted to be invited to review the second book, and I’m definitely looking forward to the third!

I love the characters in this series, and what I love about Detan, Tibs, Ripka and the rest this time is that we’re seeing a progression in their stories and personality. I also appreciate that we get a hint into the way they’re forming connections between each other as well, including respect for each other bit by bit. Seeing Ripka challenged by her prison experience was really interesting, partly because she was the prisoner and partly because she can’t turn off her ‘Watch Captain’ view and she notices all the ways in which she would do things differently. She does use this to her advantage, but some of it is simply evaluation through the character’s eyes. I love the band of women she falls in with and the way she works with Enard (we met him as ‘New Chum’ in book 1) to find a key to dealing with the Empire’s influence is fantastic.

I love the way Detan and Tibs work together and let nothing stand in their way to go and rescue Ripka as per the plan they made. He is single-minded in his determination to be trustworthy and to succeed in this plan and it makes him endearing and lessens some of the egotism that was present in the first book. Actually, even though I don’t think Detan grew or changed too dramatically in this book, he was confronted with himself a lot, and subsequently the reader learns more of how he came to be such a person and how he and Tibs are so bound together. This story of friendship in all directions was very satisfying to read.

Actually overall I have to say one of the best qualities of this series and these stories is the emphasis on loyalty and the way that is explored – it’s not just friendship, and it’s not just duty. It’s both of those things and more, but it makes for a very satisfying story to read. The worldbuilding continues to be interesting and we see more of the surrounds beyond the city in which we first met our band of rogues. I love this slow unfolding – it adds to the character of the story, the Empire begins to take shape and the politics and ramifications unfold gently – they’re not a focus of this book so much, not really. Although I wonder if that will be a strong theme in the third (and I presume final) book in the series. There are elements that speak to diversity in this book and the series, but they’re soft and not overt – either in that lovely background but clearly signposted way, or as a plot point (which gets tiresome). I get the strong sense that not all the characters are white, but I am not sure and that could be wishful on my part. There are several female identifying characters, some younger and older characters, and there are characters from different class backgrounds. I didn’t note any queer identifying or disabled characters – which I will say is a shame because I think this world is a ripe setting for it – and if we can have airships, then surely queer and/or disabled characters is not a stretch?

This is a book that you cannot read as a standalone, it follows the events in ‘Steal the Sky’ and leads into the events of the book to come. But the series is excellent and I’d recommend it highly – especially with such a solid second book following a stand out first book.

Review: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman

Invisible Library - coverARC Review:

Title: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1)

Author: Genevieve Cogman

Publisher and Year:  ROC, 2016 (US edition)

Genre: urban fantasy, fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

The first installment of an adventure featuring stolen books, secret agents and forbidden societies – think Doctor Who with librarian spies!

Irene must be at the top of her game or she’ll be off the case – permanently…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it’s already been stolen. London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.

Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene’s new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.

Soon, she’s up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option – the nature of reality itself is at stake.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed this book – it’s what you call a ‘rollicking good read’! The story and characters were just fantastic and hooked me from the beginning. I also love the idea of an inter dimensional Library with all the knowledge and spy librarians! Such an awesome concept and I’m delighted by the surge in books about libraries and librarians and how awesome they are lately!

In regard to this particular book and its story, I enjoyed the alternate London universe quite a lot, with magic being a likely threat and having to navigate unfamiliar politics – and without the resources one could usually expect. I’m very keen to see how the story continues and also whether we will get to peek into other dimensions and worlds that the Library is interested in!

My only thought is that the romance in this book was a bit clunky and I wanted to believe in it a little more from both sides. I’m hoping that element improves in subsequent books as the characters and story develops further. I think this is in part to Irene’s perceived immaturity – even though she has a quite extended lifespan, much of it has been spent in the Library confines and less being out in the world – or at least, that’s the only conclusion I can come to? I want a bit more growth from her overall. Kai plays the part of mysterious super-attractive side kick character really well – it’s not often the super-attractive character is the sidekick actually so that bit I particularly like.

I enjoyed The Invisible Library a lot and can’t wait to read more about the story and these characters! It was the right book at the right time – adventure and fantasy and just light and fluffy enough but also with enough depth to really have me enjoy the reading experience. Sometimes I think it’s as much the right book for the right mood/occasion as it is excellent writing/story/characters. The latter things are important, but if you’re not in the mood for a super crunchy thinky read then you’re not, and similarly if you want that and try to read something super fluffy, you’ll be disappointed. This book is not super crunchy, complex and deep – nor would I want it to be. It’s entertaining and full of adventure and All The Cool Things – because if you got to work for a magical library wouldn’t enjoying all the cool stuff be partly the point?

Review: Gifted Thief (Highland Magic #1) by Helen Harper

Gifted Thief - coverARC Review:

Title: Gifted Thief (Highland Magic #1) 

Author: Helen Harper

Publisher and Year: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016

Genre: urban fantasy, fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Orphan. Runaway. Thief.

Since the moment I was ripped from my mother’s womb, I’ve been an outcast amongst my own kind. The Sidhe might possess magical Gifts, unbelievable wealth and unfathomable power but I don’t want a thing to do with them. I ran away from their lands in the Highlands of Scotland when I was eleven years old and I’ve never looked back. I don’t need a Clan. I’ve got my own family of highly skilled thieves who mean more to me than any Sidhe ever could.

Unfortunately for me, the playboy heir to the Moncrieffe Clan has something I desperately need. To get it back, I’m going to have to plunge myself back into that world, no matter what the consequences may be. I suppose it’s just as well I have sense of humour. I think I’m going to need it.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I really liked the premise of this story, I found Integrity to be an engaging protagonist overall. I am quite interested to follow through reading the series to find out what happens – the mystery of the series has me successfully hooked. The writing is quite clunky and I agree with other reviews that mention that it throws you into things without the benefit of some worldbuilding/background that would contextualise things a little better. I want a clearer view of the landscape the protagonist is in.

I love thief stories as much as I love stories about the fae and the sidhe, so this book absolutely pressed my buttons! I think it delivered what it promised generally, but definitely did not exceed expectations. Of particular note, I loved the group of friends – their camaraderie was believable and went a long way to me warming to the story overall. I liked Integrity’s confidence but at other times she irked me – I’m not sure if this is her character or the writing. Her sense of humour I appreciated but thought the execution was clumsy.

Actually, that really sums up my whole  review: the premise and story were great and hooked me, the execution was clumsy and I’m hoping that these improve for subsequent books. I love urban fantasy, particularly when there’s a unique take on it, and this book certainly provides that, but it wasn’t as satisfying as I was hoping. I didn’t fall in love with it. I did like it, and liked it enough to keep reading.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway - coverARC Review:

Title: Every Heart a Doorway

Author: Seanan McGuire

Publisher and Year: Tor, 2016

Genre: fantasy, young adult, new adult

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

How have I not read any of Seanan McGure’s work before?! Especially given my love of urban fantasy?! In any case, this was my first foray into McGuire’s work and I could not put the book down. Every Heart a Doorway is simply magnificent and is an instant favourite for 2016, without question.

Every Heart a Doorway has one of the most interesting fantasy premises I’ve come across in a long time and it’s beautifully executed. The world building for the story is sublime and I want to read so many more stories set in this universe! Not only were the setting and world building engaging, the characters leapt off the page and brought the story to life for me. I could imagine their voices, the way they looked, everything so clearly.

My heart went out to Nancy and I was particularly taken by her experience having tumbled into a world that wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, as some of the worlds in the books were described, but one that is more silent, deeper and a bit darker. I am absolutely a fan of sunshine, unicorns and rainbows without question, but my experience of that is enhanced when there is shadow and darkness to the lightheartedness. I also love how well McGuire demonstrates that sunshine and rainbows do not inherently equal benevolence or fairness, and that the darker or creepier worlds are not necessarily malevolent or evil.

What especially struck me about this novella, and I think it’s an aspect that makes this particularly good reading for young/new adults is the way in which Nancy experiences isolation and difficulty with her family after she returns from her world. Nancy’s experience parallels the experience of many who are struggling personally with something that their families don’t or can’t understand. Across the experiences of other characters in the novel like Kade, Jack, Jill and Sumi, the concept of family and the relationship with family as being complex, fraught and difficult on several levels is explored including having family, not having family, being loved and wanted, or unwanted and misunderstood by family.

Additionally, the novella includes a spectrum of characters with different experiences, not all of them are white, one is asexual and another is transgender, and this too mirrors the experience of people reading who want to see themselves in fiction, and see how other characters think about their lives, feelings and experiences and process them. I sincerely wish I had a book like this for when I was growing up, I needed this book growing up and I needed it now to look back on my past and growing up and the impact of being misunderstood and out of place on me. That profound sense of not belonging so much that you lose yourself in fantasy trying to cope – for the characters in the story that’s more literal than metaphorical but it really hit home for me. Wanting to belong and trying to find that place, finding it and losing it, trying to find a new sense of home and belonging afterwards. This story is profound on several levels.

I also love the overt feminism of the story in considering why there are so many more girls than boys who go through secret doors into hidden worlds. The idea of boys being too loud to be easily missed, and the expectations and assumptions about how boys play and what will happen to them versus the way in which we seek to protect girls, but also how we impose upon them a silence and stillness that means that it is easier for them to be misplaced, should they find a door and go wandering. This is a pointed commentary and it draws on the generalisations bound up in traditional gender roles reflecting not only a bitter truth contained within, but also the constraint that is imposed upon people to be, to not be, to conform a certain way.

I have no criticisms to level at this novella, as one reviewer put it: it’s damn near perfect. It packs an emotional punch, it’s beautifully written, the length is accessible – it’s neither too long nor too short and it leaves you wanting more. I am my own doorway, I am the only one who gets to choose my story and I make the decisions that govern my narrative. Every Heart a Doorway will stay with me for the rest of my life.

 

 

Review: In the Blood by R.L. Martinez

In the Blood - coverARC Review:

Title: In the Blood

Author: R.L. Martinez

Publisher and Year: Lake Water Press, 2016

Genre: epic fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

The Warrior
The war between Dosalyn and Roanaan has ended, but a new battle begins for prisoner-of-war, Ottilde Dominax. Dreams of her witchbreed twin sister are visions of death and betrayal. Driven by their grim warning, she escapes her captors and races across nations to save her sister.

But she may arrive too late…

The Witch
Oriabel Dominax has kept her healing magic secret while she cares for her family’s struggling estate. But the arrival of a new lord with secrets of his own, the discovery of a dark and addictive magic, and threats from a cruel blackmailer push Oriabel closer to disaster.

Through it all, the Witch’s Tree calls…

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Every so often you come across a book that reminds you why you love a genre, and Into the Blood really reminded me why I love reading epic fantasy. This story has two female protagonists who are so very different from one another, but united by sisterly love. Their story involves struggles that are generally outside of their control with real elements of sacrifice. I couldn’t put this down once I started and I cannot *wait* for the following book(s)! While reading this, I was reminded of Juliet Marillier’s writing and stories, the quality is lyrical, magical, mysterious and compelling.

I particularly identified with Oriabel, but I loved how forthright and determined Otthilde was! By contrast, Oriabel is optimistic and has a steadfastness that serves her well in service to her community – even though they don’t appreciate her. Hito seems almost too good to be true as a character, but his flaw in rushing to believe the worst of Oriabel balanced that somewhat, and also shows the relative immaturity of their relationship at the time. I am also keen to discover more about the villain and their grand plan to lead Otthilde and Oriabel astray – the end of this book was quite the conclusion and it is self contained, but in that ‘first step in a journey’ kind of way. I am eager to see  what happens next!

While this book has strong characters and an engaging plot, the worldbuilding is a little sparse and I didn’t really get a sense of the realm in which Oriabel and Otthilde lived, or the distance the latter travelled. I have some understanding  of the political context of the story, but not actually how the two realms are divided on a broad scale or on the scale of the local populace. Also, the war seems to be quite important but I don’t remember discovering what the point of the war at all was aside from a general urge toward conquest. I hope that over the next book(s) that the worldbuilding improves and becomes clearer – I can sense a potential for more that I don’t think was quite achieved in this book. I did get a much stronger sense of Oriabel’s community, it’s size and how it fit together.

This was a great start to a series and is a great addition to the epic fantasy genre.

 

Review: Dragonfriend by Marc Secchia

Dragonfriend - coverTitle: Dragonfriend (Dragonfriend #1)

Author: Mark Secchia

Publisher and Year: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Genre: epic fantasy, YA

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Stabbed. Burned by a dragon. Abandoned for the windrocs to pick over. The traitor Ra’aba tried to silence Hualiama forever. But he reckoned without the strength of a dragonet’s paw, and the courage of a girl who refused to die.

Only an extraordinary friendship will save Hualiama’s beloved kingdom of Fra’anior and restore the King to the Onyx Throne. Flicker, the valiant dragonet. Hualiama, a foundling, adopted into the royal family. The power of a friendship which paid the ultimate price.

This is the tale of Hualiama Dragonfriend, and a love which became legend.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I was in the mood for a story involving dragons – and in particular where they were awesome and not the Enemy. Dragonfriend is a gorgeous book and story, the protagonist Hualiama – Lia – is fantastic! I really enjoyed this book from start to finish.

I loved the characters in this book and the way they interact with Lia – in particular the dragons Flicker and Grandion. I loved the depth of friendship and caring between these characters and the way that grows and changes over time. I love the way they learn to value each other and the background and culture they come from – all different! I love the way Lia gets to forge her own path on her own terms – and no one seems to think that’s unusual short of her family (and I expect there’s more to tell there).

The story is action filled and weaves between goals that are ‘the right thing’ with at least some sense of moral obligation and also heart goals that involve Lia being her own person and creating her preferred life for herself. I love that while this is a story of Lia discovering her origins, it’s not filled with self pity, I like the way she as a character emotionally engages with things as it’s both believable and moving for her character – neither too mature or too over-dramatic. Finally, I love the martial arts form she learns – and although it seems like her proficiency with it grows way too quickly, I appreciate that she’s been dancing a lot longer than she has been fighting, but that the style is based specifically on dancing. I love the strength in that idea and of course dancing martial arts is not a new thing, but I think it’s used particularly well here for Lia.

The names in this book are typical epic fantasy in style – not unexpected but made me roll my eyes a little. Still, everything was consistent and worked well with the overall worldbuilding in the book. I’m fascinated by the series of islands and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series not only to find out what happens in the story, but also to explore more of the world and its peoples.

For me, this book was a perfect fantasy story. It had all the elements I was looking for in the story, it was tightly written with a great plot, interesting protagonist and supporting characters with great relationship dynamics, and the world building was engaging. I’ve been deliberately reading a lot less books by male authors – in many cases because I haven’t been enjoying them as much, they haven’t been giving me the kind of stories I fall in love with. However, Secchia has done a superb job overcoming any resistance I might have had, this book was a genuine pleasure to read. There’s so much I enjoyed about this book and although it came as a surprise, it was a very welcome one. I’ll be looking forward to reading the next book most certainly!

Review: Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Grace of Kings - coverTitle: Grace of Kings (Dandelion Dynasty #1)

Author: Ken Liu

Publisher and Year: Simon and Schuster, 2015

Genre: epic fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading epic fantasy, but it’s still a genre I really delight in. I delighted in this book an awful lot – Liu’s writing is something to truly behold. His prose is beautiful, careful and paints the story he tells vividly. I love the sweeping majesty of the story, love the long ranging story that unfolds over decades – it was magnificent! While I rolled my eyes at Mata’s character often, I really enjoyed reading Kuni’s point of view and his conflicts within himself as he is carried along by the story, much like the dandelion he identifies with. The plot and intrigue of this book are intricate and deadly – absolute power and the ambition for it, the having of it and the outcomes of all of it.

Because all of the characters are so deeply invested in their states, their people, their vision you as the reader become invested and attached to the fate of all of it. I was really drawn into the ruler-vision scale of things, and particularly from Kuni because he also always maintained understanding of how power impacts on the individual. Being afraid of the power you hold, what you can do with it and the responsibility – Kuni is an excellent example of someone wrestling with all of these things and wanting to the best he can.

I felt so let down by this book because there was such a lack where female characters are concerned. And the lack is not because Liu is unskilled in the way he writes them, just that they come across as an afterthought at best. Kuni appreciates the women in his life and in society generally – better than his various counterparts certainly and yet it makes my teeth hurt because it’s a bit heavy handed and comes across as though ‘cookies’ are being sought for having an insightful male character who ‘realises women are people too’ and this takes place throughout the book when there simply could have been female characters – any of the awesome ones we meet late in the book.

We followed Mata and Kuni’s life from childhood we didn’t do that for Jia, we don’t meet Soto until later, Gin Mazita also doesn’t enter until later.  Any of these point of views alongside the two male protagonists would have been amazing, because as characters they were amazing and so were their stories! It’s so heart rending. It’s worse in some ways than the complete lack of characters – it’s like salt in a very old wound that remains raw and open.  And Princess Kikomi? What a fucking raw deal she got! I was so excited when I first started to read about her, and then before we’d even gotten into her part in the story she’s fucking dead and forgotten.

Books like this are so hard to review because what disappoints is a deep hurt and it colours the entire experience of reading and the wonderful things you enjoyed are less memorable and shiny. So I’m left overall with an experience of ‘meh’ when in many ways this book was extraordinary, inspiring, and a deep abiding reading experience. Except for the way the female characters featured, it’s not a minor point but a major one that sours the whole performance. Which is also to say that while I really enjoyed reading this book overall, I was also content with where it ended, happy with that ending as a total resolution and I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next books in the series (not without some serious recommendations from those I trust anyway).

 

Review: Winter Wolf by Rachel M. Raithby

Winter Wolf - coverTitle: Winter Wolf

Author: Rachel M. Raithby

Publisher and Year: Rachel M. Raithby, 2014

Genre: YA, urban fantasy, romance

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Katalina Winter was prepared for life to change when she turned eighteen—but she never expected to actually change.

Learning that her birth parents were purebred wolf shifters is shocking enough. Now she’s expected to take her place in their unfamiliar world. Caught between two warring packs, Katalina must learn fast. One pack, led by the father she has only just met, wants to control her—and the other one wants her dead.

However, there is one bright spot to shifting, and his name is Bass Evernight. Tall, dark, and oh-so-handsome, Bass is the wolf that Katalina craves. He’s also strictly forbidden: a member of Dark Shadow, Bass is the son of her father’s mortal enemy. Yet deep down inside, Katalina’s new primal instincts howl that Bass is her mate. Can their love bring an end to the brutal war that has raged for so long, or will it spark the fighting around them into an all-consuming fire?

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If like me  you have a taste for the kind of urban fantasy that has a romance bent to it but is largely fluffy and entertaining, this book is a great choice. I liked the way that the romance began, although it was an instant connection it was one that fitted the characters involved. I found that the romance was quite heavy handed in how it continued – way deeper and more committed and permanent seeming than really makes sense for the age of the characters, particularly considering what Katalina was going through.

I enjoyed this story but was uncomfortable with how Katalina’s adoptive parents were essentially fridged to make way for the story – I think there are plenty of ways the story could have happened that didn’t involve fridging the inconvenient set of parents to give Katalina  motivation for her story. That said, I thought the way the story handled Katalina’s grief, the importance of her parents to her and how her extended adoptive family treated her was well done. I appreciated the way that her birth family handled her reintroduction to them badly – several times, but that Katalina never let them get away with the bad behaviour and called them on it. I like that she won’t be told how her life is going to be and who it’s going to be with. This book is a nice contrast to some of the other YA romance books I’ve read of late in that it had good examples of boundary setting, healthy relationships – both romantic and non-romantic. It’s not problem-free, but it was a damn sight better than what I’ve come across and I appreciated that a lot.

I like that both Bass and Katalina are uninterested in the feud and it’s continuation – they may be in the honeymoon phase of their relationship but it does make sense with how they want things to be better in their respective packs so they can enjoy being in love together. I’m disappointed that any sense of life or ambition outside of the pack for Katalina seems impossible once she finds out she’s a wolf shapeshifter – surely the prospect of college and a career isn’t so ridiculous? Katalina has an independent nature and I think it would have been very much in her character to still want to go to college and explore her options.

This was a quick urban fantasy read that was very enjoyable, it avoided making a bunch of mistakes in relationship dynamics in the romance that I’ve seen too often and hate, but the setup of the story and the romance weren’t without issues that should be examined critically. Overall this was an enjoyable and satisfying fluffy read.

Review: Queen of the Deep by Kay Kenyon

Queen of the Deep - coverTitle: Queen of the Deep

Author: Kay Kenyon

Publisher and Year: Winterset Books, 2015

Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

On the streets of New York, Jane Gray meets an intriguing man who claims to be the impossible: an imaginary playmate from her childhood: Prince Starling. Determined to know the truth, Jane tracks him into another realm.

This is the world of the Palazzo, a magical ship which is both a colossal steam vessel and a Renaissance kingdom. Ruling over its denizens–both human and otherwise–is an exotic and dangerous queen. Jane must find her way home, but the path is hopelessly lost.

Promising romance, the enigmatic Prince Starling and big-hearted crime lord Niccolo vie for Jane’s heart. But she has her eye on the pilot house. Who–or what–guides the Palazzo, and what is the urgent secret of its endless voyage? As a shocking destination looms into view, Jane must choose both a lover and a ship’s course, one that may avoid the end of all things.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The start of this book from the point of view of a child-Jane Gray was fantastic and I got hooked quite quickly. The next part of things where Jane is an adult before the rest of the story really starts to get going is a a little clunky, it threw me out of the story a little bit until Jane finds herself in Palazzo and then I was back in as deep as before.

I really found the world of Palazzo to be interesting – a cruise ship, where everyone has been convinced by their leader that it’s not a ship at all is fascinating! As is the way the social systems on Palazzo – it was so intriguing to read about and watch Jane navigate them.  The story was well developed and executed, but the characters at times weren’t quite all there for me – I wanted a bit more development from them to really enjoy how they were in their world(s) – particularly Jane’s friendship with her best friend – it’s not quite all there, you’re *told* it’s deep rather than shown and I thought that was the case for other aspects of character and relationships too – like Niccolo de Citta not being the scoundrel he was initially painted.

The story and worldbuilding make up for some of the ways in which this book seems clumsy.  At times I thought this was a YA story because of the narrative flow and the writing, but it’s not really geared toward being a YA book. It’s almost a fairytale, but it never quite succeeds at that. The overarching story is intricate and I enjoyed the unravelling of the mystery and the resolution a lot.

I enjoyed this book and it was a light and entertaining read. If you like the kind of fantasy that has an urban touch but isn’t really within that sub-genre this is a great read. The central protagonist is likeable and her determination is admirable. My favourite part  of the book was still the beginning, I don’t think the book quite lived up to the promise of that beginning, but it was well worth reading.

Re-Review: Nirvana by J.R. Stewart

What is a re-review? Well, since I reviewed this book the author has revised the work and invited me to reread the novel. I accepted and since my experience of reading was so different I’m reviewing it anew. This review replaces the previous one, but I have left it published to show the difference in reading experience.

Nirvana coverTitle: Nirvana (Nirvana #1)

Author: J.R. Stewart

Publisher and Year: Blue Moon Publishers, 2015

Genre: YA, dystopian science fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

When the real world is emptied of all that you love, how can you keep yourself from dependence on the virtual?

Animal activist and punk rock star Larissa Kenders lives in a dystopian world where the real and the virtual intermingle. After the disappearance of her soulmate, Andrew, Kenders finds solace by escaping to Nirvana, a virtual world controlled by Hexagon. In Nirvana, anyone’s deepest desires may be realized – even visits with Andrew.

Although Kenders knows that this version of Andrew is virtual, when he asks for her assistance revealing Hexagon’s dark secret, she cannot help but comply. Soon after, Kenders and her closest allies find themselves in a battle with Hexagon, the very institution they have been taught to trust. After uncovering much more than she expected, Kenders’ biggest challenge is determining what is real – and what is virtual.

Nirvana is a fast-paced, page-turning young adult novel combining elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance. Part of a trilogy, this book introduces readers to a young woman who refuses to give up on the man she loves, even if it means taking on an entire government to do so.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

What a difference this revision makes to the experience of reading this book! It’s not like a whole new story, but the story that was first presented is executed much better, is more confident, more compelling and many of the confusing elements have been addressed.

Further, where previously I found Kenders to be lacking and one-dimensional as a protagonist, this revision sees her much more fleshed out and a much more interesting protagonist and one I enjoyed reading about much more. Her own history, interests, plans, thoughts and feelings are much more in evidence – she exists for herself now and not presented through the eyes of (male) others. I love that the reader gets to experience her band and her politics more thoroughly – it sets up her reasons for doing things so much better than before and I believe in her desire to create change, to make things better, and to find the truth.

Her relationship with Andrew remains as sweet as before, but is much better fleshed out now. Their connection seems more solid and I can see the life they’ve built together much better. I also think that the way Andrew communicates with Kenders through Nirvana is much more realistic and it furthers the plot much better than before. I love that Prof de Mario is a woman and I hope in future books we get to know her better. H

Also, I love the revision to Serge’s character as previously I disliked him, his protective streak coming across as wholly too creepy with his desire for a romantic relationship with Kenders. That romantic tension remains but now it has a deeper ring of authenticity and avoids being creepy. This is such a relief to me as a reader as creepy relationship dynamics are off-putting to me as a reader, particularly in YA novels, and are also surprisingly prevalent. I’m much happier when a book explores problematic dynamics, but also shows them to be problematic, complex and even better if they also show better, healthier dynamics as well.

Once again the plot of this book really drew me in, the near-ish future, the dystopia and the devastation of the natural world. The corporate secrecy, profiteering at the expense of people and society, and obscene control is very well written, and when you add the potential that technology such as virtual reality holds, with a corporate society that monitors and maintains constant surveillance of their population, true terror blooms. This is all technology and corporate tactics in use *now*, the only futurism in the book is extrapolating and imagining that to a likely outcome. I could see so much of present society in this – and could imagine the future as this book painted it, it’s grim indeed. However, where there is oppression there is also resistance and that is the ultimate message of the book and it sets up the story for future books really well.

I’m not usually one to reread books that I’m not in love with wholeheartedly however, I’m so glad I reread and re-reviewed this book because it went from a book I liked, but wasn’t all that well executed to a much tighter, better story that I really enjoyed so much more and want to recommend more.

 

Review: Unhidden by Dina Given

Unhidden coverTitle: Unhidden (The Gatekeeper #1)

Author: Dina Given

Publisher and Year: Team D Enterprises, 2014

Genre: urban fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

It’s not always easy to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, especially when your heroine is a trained killer and she may be falling in love with her evil hunter…

Emma Hayes, a former military Special Forces Operative turned mercenary-for-hire, finds her tightly controlled world turned upside down when she is attacked by horrible monsters.

Emma must use every skill in her arsenal to stay alive as she tries to solve the mystery of why she has been targeted. Her list of enemies keeps growing – from Zane Shayde, an evil Mage, to a secret branch of the US government – and she doesn’t know if there is anyone left she can trust.

To complicate matters further, Emma is inexplicably drawn to Zane in a way she doesn’t quite understand, even knowing her life is forfeit if captured. Who is he and why does he have this affect on her? How can she fight a being that calls to her, body and soul?

Emma is left haunted by questions, doubts and fears as to why she has been targeted, when they will come for her next, and how she will possibly be able to survive against an enemy she doesn’t understand.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Unhidden is a straight up urban fantasy and it’s a great solid read. Emma is an interesting protagonist, she’s independent and smart, interesting and not a people person. I like the way the story unfolds – there’s a lot of action and you don’t get the explanation all at once, you figure it out as Emma figures it out.

The supporting characters were also interesting, I liked that there wasn’t actually a romantic triangle between Emma, Alex and Zane – but that they are connected from the past and that this past still keeps them looking out for one another, even if Zane has been brainwashed by the enemy and works for them. I like that Emma’s romance with Zane comes largely from memory, and I like the way that was shared with the reader – nothing creepy happened and it sucks that I need to say that but it’s true.

Emma is competent and skilled in her story and that has to be one of the things I like most, at no point is her skill played down, her experience – she plans and organises and strategises, she owns the weapons cache. All of this sets up the context of the story where Emma still doesn’t know what’s going on or why things are happening as they are better, she’s  not weakened as a protagonist, she doesn’t become a puppet. I also like that she doesn’t go off by herself to work alone, she recognises her allies as such and respects them – even if she’s also clear she doesn’t trust them.

I found the action and the execution of the plot really satisfying in this book, things didn’t come too easily, the ‘big bad’ wasn’t defeated easily and there were costs, consequences and moral quandaries. This book incorporated a bunch of what I really enjoy about urban fantasy, in an entertaining package that wasn’t too heavy. This is exactly the kind of book and series I read during semester because it doesn’t demand too much of me, and instead gives me the chance to escape, enjoy and fantasise.

 

Review: Last of the Firedrakes by Farah Oomerbhoy

Last of the Firedrakes coverTitle: Last of the Firedrakes (Avalonia Chronicles #1)

Author: Farah Oomerbhoy

Publisher and Year: Wise Ink Creative Publishing, 2015

Genre: fantasy, young adult

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

16-year-old Aurora Darlington is an orphan. Mistreated by her adopted family and bullied at school, she dreams of running away and being free. But when she is kidnapped and dragged through a portal into a magical world, suddenly her old life doesn’t seem so bad.

Avalonia is a dangerous land ruled by powerful mages and a cruel, selfish queen who will do anything to control all seven kingdoms—including killing anyone who stands in her way. Thrust headlong into this new, magical world, Aurora’s arrival sets plans in motion that threaten to destroy all she holds dear.

With the help of a young fae, a magical pegasus, and a handsome mage, Aurora journeys across Avalonia to learn the truth about her past and unleash the power within herself. Kingdoms collide as a complicated web of political intrigue and ancient magic lead Aurora to unravel a shocking secret that will change her life forever.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed this book, it’s a great debut novel from Oomerbhoy and I look forward to the release of the rest of the series. The Last of the Firedrakes is a magical coming of age story, it’s filled with adventure and fairytale majesty complete with a pegasus. This book reminded me a lot of the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce – the same kind of over the top magical elements, but done just right so I don’t mind that the protagonist is super powerful, pretty and endowed with all kinds of special-ness. Aurora’s story is interesting right from the beginning, and although she’s thrust into a world she had no idea existed, she starts to learn the ropes pretty  quickly.  Things come together for her, sure, but she navigates conflicts and adverse events herself and in her own way – I really like that. I loved that she made mistakes and learned from it, I love that she grew as a person and went from scared and freaked out to being able to contemplate her role in Avolonia.

I also quite enjoyed the teenage romance feel of things, it didn’t quite come across as ‘instalove’ the way it can often do in young adult books, particularly YA fantasy, instead it was like a teenage crush that hit, and then unfolded bit by bit, complete with finding out that the other person does indeed ‘like’ you that way too. It was cute. I was pleased at Aurora’s emotional maturity as the story progressed and her feelings for Rafe grew. In finding out that a genuine relationship in the open was impossible she sticks to her principles and boundaries – more books should do this. While I don’t think this romantic plot is finished by any means, I hope they don’t end up together, I hope that this is one of those times where choosing the right thing is hard, doesn’t really feel great and you wonder. I wish more YA books explored complicated ways in which romance  and relationships happen – this is a good start and I hope it continues that way.

I read this book as I finished studying for and sitting my end of semester exam and it was a welcome joy to read, lighthearted and uplifting, optimistic and very much forces of good seeking to triumph for the good of all, with their help, over forces of evil which seek domination. This book is the perfect description of a sometimes food – a reward, sweet, satisfying and beautiful – but not something you’d subsist on. I find it a little harder to get into epic/high fantasy style books these days – in theory I love them, but they’ve disappointed me so often in the past. This book definitely doesn’t disappoint and it gets me excited about fantasy, magic, dragons and castles again which is a lovely feeling.

I also love the way that, even though Aurora is a long lost princess, has super-powerful magic, and is striking if not beautiful, she has flaws, there are consequences for her mistakes, the bounty she discovers in herself doesn’t magically ‘fix’ everything and sometimes causes more issues and it seems to highlight that message that the grass is not always greener, and that beauty and power are not the be-all and end-all. At least, that was one of the things I took away from the book, because Aurora is also always trying to be a better person, she tries to give people the benefit of the doubt even when they’re unkind, she treats people around her well regardless of their status/position – not perfectly, but she’s still a teenager and still figuring things out – that shows and the whole package is awesome.

This is not a book of twists or surprises, you get exactly what you expect from this fantasy story about a girl who finds out she’s a long lost princess. This isn’t a bad thing, this is one of the strengths of the book – you can just enjoy it and trust that it’s going to deliver this experience, perhaps even exceed your expectations. Where it could perhaps do better is that all the characters present as able-bodied, neurotypical, and straight. The implications of racial elements are hinted at with discussion of how the fae are treated, but it’s not looked at in any real depth, although there is potential for this. This book with this kind of fantasy plot is not a surprise or a revelation, but it takes what you expect from this story form and delivers it with an awesome teenage protagonist that you enjoy cheering for.

Last of the Firedrakes was such a joy to read.

Review: Ree Reyes Series by Michael R. Underwood

Geekomancy coverTitle: Geekomancy (Ree Reyes #1)

Author: Michael R. Underwood

Publisher and Year: Pocket Star, 2012

Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Clerks meets Buffy the Vampire the Slayer in this original urban fantasy eBook about Geekomancers—humans that derive supernatural powers from pop culture.

Ree Reyes’s life was easier when all she had to worry about was scraping together tips from her gig as a barista and comicshop slave to pursue her ambitions as a screenwriter.

When a scruffy-looking guy storms into the shop looking for a comic like his life depends on it, Ree writes it off as just another day in the land of the geeks. Until a gigantic BOOM echoes from the alley a minute later, and Ree follows the rabbit hole down into her town’s magical flip-side. Here, astral cowboy hackers fight trolls, rubber-suited werewolves, and elegant Gothic Lolita witches while wielding nostalgia-powered props.

Ree joins Eastwood (aka Scruffy Guy), investigating a mysterious string of teen suicides as she tries to recover from her own drag-your-heart-through-jagged-glass breakup. But as she digs deeper, Ree discovers Eastwood may not be the knight-in-cardboard armor she thought. Will Ree be able to stop the suicides, save Eastwood from himself, and somehow keep her job?

My review: 

There’s a lot to appreciate about this book, it revels in geekery in a way I can completely get behind. However, it is definitely a debut novel and suffers from some of the clunky-ness that I’ve associated with those at times. I liked this book, enjoyed reading it, but didn’t love it. I grabbed it from Google Books because I was invited to review the third book and wanted to read the others beforehand. It was definitely worth reading! And I definitely enjoyed it enough to keep reading the series.

I love Ree as a character, she came across really realistically to me. City mid-twenties woman, working, trying to become a screen writer, huge geek, dealing with the aftermath of a breakup. I loved the way she interacted with her friends over this – the way her friendships came across was one of my favourite parts of this novel! I loved the Rhyming Ladies and really enjoyed their supporting roles in the story. I also loved Ree’s Dad and I adore how supportive he is, takes the supernatural in his stride and supports his daughter. Ree is entirely the reason I kept reading, even though the initial writing was quite clunky and explained more than showed me and let me immerse myself in the story – that did improve. Ree is absolutely the kind of urban fantasy heroine that I can really get behind, she’s unique and interesting, her own person and not a cut out of anything – but I love that she recognises all the tropes and pop cultural references, it’s a bit tongue in cheek and I was quite amused by it.

I hated Eastwood’s character, if he’d been the protagonist or if Ree had liked him more I’d have been put off the series entirely. However, I adored Drake! He’s interesting, unique and I love the way he comes to this x-mancy world with his own brand of steampunk and science from a kind of Victorian era. Drake rocks. Drake is everything I ever want in a support character, and he’s not the burly hyper-masculine type of character either, he’s a much more interesting, unique male character that doesn’t rely on tropes of masculinity – it’s not his strength that matches up well with Ree, but his willingness to work with her, listen and be an awesome team capitalising on their mutual strengths. This was my other favourite aspect of this book (and series).

I really enjoyed this, it was so much fun and even though I didn’t get half the references, I appreciated the book being utterly full of them and I revelled in Ree’s enjoyment of pop culture. My geek is different to her geek but it definitely left me feeling somewhat validated in my own experience of geekery.

 

Celebromancy coverTitle: Celebromancy (Ree Reyes #2)

Author: Michael R. Underwood

Publisher and Year: Pocket Star, 2013

Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Fame has a magic all its own in the no-gossip-barred follow-up to Geekomancy. Ree Reyes gets her big screenwriting break, only to discover just how broken Hollywood actually is.

Things are looking up for urban fantasista Ree Reyes. She’s using her love of pop culture to fight monsters and protect her hometown as a Geekomancer, and now a real-live production company is shooting her television pilot script.

But nothing is easy in show business. When an invisible figure attacks the leading lady of the show, former-child star-turned-current-hot-mess Jane Konrad, Ree begins a school-of-hard-knocks education in the power of Celebromancy.

Attempting to help Jane Geekomancy-style with Jedi mind tricks and X-Men infiltration techniques, Ree learns more about movie magic than she ever intended. She also learns that real life has the craziest plots: not only must she lift a Hollywood-strength curse, but she needs to save her pilot, negotiate a bizarre love rhombus, and fight monsters straight out of the silver screen. All this without anyone getting killed or, worse, banished to the D-List.

My review: 

This book picks up soon after events in Geekomancy finish. One of Ree’s major dreams looks like it’s about to become true with a screenplay of hers having been picked up to shoot a pilot for pitching. I love that the show itself is not as much the focus and instead the business of getting it made is. I love Jane as a character and I found the magic division of celebromancy really interesting – and seems way too close to the truth of the cult of celebrity we see in play via  the media. Well played Underwood!

Ree and Drake continue to be one of my favourite hero pairings, they work so well together. I found the romantic tension believable and I loved the way Ree made a point of dealing with her issues herself and not making them someone else’s problem. I also really loved the romantic fling she ends up in with Jane – I loved the spontaneity of how it happened, I could really picture them together as the story unfolded. In this story Ree is mostly the hero of the story messing with her tv show and big deal, she does call Drake in to help, and others but it’s mostly about Ree saving the day and actually, I really fucking love that. I love Ree.

I continue to love the geekery – I love the way it’s pointed out that different people with different focuses to their x-mancy have a different set of specialised knowledge. That little moment was one of my favourite things. I also think that Underwood hits a better writing stride here, it’s far less clunky and explainy, things just happen and you’re taken up for the ride.  The queerness included in the book is delightful, it’s underplayed where necessary which comes across very genuine and natural, but it’s also a key part of what drives Ree’s motivation for the plot and saving Jane – I think it just works without being heavy handed.

Another great thing was a distinct minimising of Eastwood. I just dislike his character so much – I think that we’re actually supposed to do that, but it doesn’t really make for fun reading. On the other hand, I really liked Grognard and the tavern and that Ree gets to have another job that’s not with Eastwood. I’d absolutely frequent a tavern like this (not that I’d drink beer… but the cider sounds nice).

 

Attack the Geek coverTitle: Attack the Geek (Ree Reyes #2.5)

Author: Michael R. Underwood

Publisher and Year: Pocket Star, 2013

Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

A side quest novella in the bestselling Geekomancy urban fantasy series—when D&D style adventures go from the tabletop to real life, look out!

Ree Reyes, urban fantasy heroine of Geekomancy, is working her regular barista/drink-slinger shift at Grognard’s when it all goes wrong. Everything.

As with Geekomancy (pop culture magic!) and its sequel Celebromancy (celebrity magic!), Attack of the Geek is perfect for anyone who wants to visit a world “where all the books and shows and movies and games [that you] love are a source of power, not only in psychological terms, but in practical, villain-pounding ones” (Marie Brennan, award-winning author of the Onyx Court Series).

My review: 

I really enjoyed this side quest, I especially liked the epic wave battling with all the other characters helping out. I adored getting to know Grognard better too! This was an out and out hero battle story and these are not usually to my taste, but I really enjoyed this. Ree continues to be an awesome protagonist and I adore her massively! I still hate Eastwood.

I was surprised when Lucretia turned out to be the villain, but not surprised that she used someone else to give up the rest of the crew – I was surprised that she involved so many that weren’t directly related to her grievances – it kind of goes against the way the community manages itself. However, I did like how people reacted and banded together.

This isn’t a big plotty novel, that’s not it’s point, it’s a fun little tangent that does further the overall story, but without taking itself too seriously. It’s a chance to see Ree demonstrate her awesomeness (and the others too).

 

Hexomancy coverTitle: Hexomancy (Ree Reyes #3)

Author: Michael R. Underwood

Publisher and Year: Pocket Star, 2013

Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

When Ree’s long time nemesis Lucretia is finally brought to trial and found guilty for the deadly attack on Grognard’s, the Geekomancer community breathes a collective sigh of relief. But Ree and her crew soon discover that Lucretia has three very angry, very dangerous sisters who won’t rest until Eastwood—a fellow Geekomancer—is killed.

What follows is an adventure packed with epic battles, a bit of romance, and enough geeky W00t moments to fill your monthly quota of adventure and fun.

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Finally I reached the book that I set out to review in the first place! I’m not sorry though because I enjoyed the ride so very much. While the first book in this series was quite clunky, as the series and the writer developed it improved greatly – as is often the case. I’m almost always willing to forgive first-book-clunk, if the story or characters are worth it. Ree is definitely one of those characters, she’s become a favourite for me and I love reading about her adventures!

Hexomancy picks up not long after the battle at Grognard’s in Attack the Geek. While Lucretia is held accountable for her actions (via a rather epic duel fought by Ree), trouble soon escalates as Lucretia has sisters who keep coming to finish off Eastwood. Now, personally, I don’t mind this – because I still really dislike his character. Part of how much I like Ree is that she also doesn’t like him much and trusts him even less. The plot of this book is as epic as the one in Celebromancy, and that really works for the kind of magic we’re talking about here – no half measures. I loved the differences in attack style between the different sisters and once again it was great to see Ree and Drake teamed together.

I’m also delighted that the romantic tension was address more directly in this book, I’m impressed at the way the breakup was handled and how Ree comes clean about her new secret life with her friends. I like their reactions too – it really came across to me as believable. Love, connection, and expectation of honesty and respect – and making amends, showing forgiveness when people mess up, recognising that inevitably, they do. It was great. Loved Drake’s realisations and love the way there’s still such a culture clash between Drake and Ree. This book spans much more time than the previous ones – months, almost a year as opposed to a few days or weeks and so it was nice to see the way Ree and Drake’s relationship developed over this time as well as how they were working to beat the sisters.

I appreciated the way the end game became cyber, from Eastwood’s old life. I am also pretty impressed with how one of the long story threads was incorporated into the is book arc and was resolved. The demon was back and was defeated, but not without a price – but it’s also one that makes sense and is one I like given the rest of what has come before in the story. Eastwood redeems himself here (but I still don’t like him).

Ree grows as a character, so does Drake. Grognard opens up more and the whole universe just becomes so much more like an old friend. This is not a standalone book, it benefits from being read as a series and I’m glad I decided to grab the books via Google Books to read them before reviewing book 3. The writing and voice in this book is much more confident, much smoother. I still really enjoy all the pop culture references – and I really like that Ree is developing her style of geekomancy with the media and power ups that she finds most useful – and I love that they’re the in between ones for maximal effect and not about showing off for the sake of it.

This is a great urban fantasy series, especially if you enjoy geek humour – I would suggest that you don’t have to get all the in-jokes or references to appreciate it, but that might be just me. If that kind of thing does bother you, this might not be for you. This book, this series was epic, awesome, fluffy, entertaining and satisfying on both story and character levels. I also really liked the covers, they look like how I’d imagine Ree to look and she’s not dressed or posed in ways that make me angry – she looks like a hero, my kind of hero.

Review: Nirvana by J.R. Stewart

Nirvana coverTitle: Nirvana (Nirvana #1)

Author: J.R. Stewart

Publisher and Year: Blue Moon Publishers, 2015

Genre: YA, dystopian science fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

When the real world is emptied of all that you love, how can you keep yourself from dependence on the virtual?

Animal activist and punk rock star Larissa Kenders lives in a dystopian world where the real and the virtual intermingle. After the disappearance of her soulmate, Andrew, Kenders finds solace by escaping to Nirvana, a virtual world controlled by Hexagon. In Nirvana, anyone’s deepest desires may be realized – even visits with Andrew.

Although Kenders knows that this version of Andrew is virtual, when he asks for her assistance revealing Hexagon’s dark secret, she cannot help but comply. Soon after, Kenders and her closest allies find themselves in a battle with Hexagon, the very institution they have been taught to trust. After uncovering much more than she expected, Kenders’ biggest challenge is determining what is real – and what is virtual.

Nirvana is a fast-paced, page-turning young adult novel combining elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance. Part of a trilogy, this book introduces readers to a young woman who refuses to give up on the man she loves, even if it means taking on an entire government to do so.

My review: 

I loved the sound of this book, and I love the cover art. It’s gorgeous. I also really love the premise and synopsis – this is a great example of a book that captures the interest of the idle browser.

I liked the book and enjoyed reading it, the unique dystopian view is compelling and interesting, I liked the world building and would enjoy reading more in this world. Stewart has done an excellent job presenting a possible future governed by corporate interests over civil governance and environmental disaster. I thought that it was a little confused as to the fact that the ‘Enemy’ and the war was a propaganda campaign, but once that became clear I stopped wondering why the story was one-sided and why I hadn’t seen any interaction with the so-called enemy yet.

The narrative about the corporate secrecy, control, and profiteering is what worked best with this book, this element of the plot worked brilliantly. Unfortunately, it’s hard to connect with Kenders as a protagonist because despite her being the first person narrator of the story, she remains largely presented only through the eyes of the other male characters. From her dead husband, to the Corporal, her long time best friend Serge.

What affects connection with Kenders the most is that her crushing grief leaves her one dimensional – everything is about Andrew and it becomes much more his story, despite his absence than Kenders’. I also didn’t like the creepy control interaction going on with Serge trying to ‘protect’ her but also manipulate her into accepting a deeper relationship with him. I could do with much less creepy relationship dynamics in general in YA books – but since they’re a real threat every day I can get past that, but not without seeing better, healthier dynamics demonstrated – and relationships with dead/missing partners doesn’t really count for that. I really loved the setup of the book, the setup of the romance, Kenders and her band, Andrew trying to get to know her and get past crappy one-liners. I like how they connected and spent time together, and how the love between them blossomed was gorgeous! What I didn’t like is that by the time the present-day story takes place, that romance has subsumed all of Kenders feelings and personality – I know from the first part of the book that she’s not cardboard, but sometimes it’s hard to remember that. I don’t feel like she got to be as awesome as she was set up to be.

I really wanted the intrigue of the story to take me deeper and to bring Kenders out of her grief, have her discover more, and act on the knowledge she uncovers, the book focuses too much on the romantic plot element which to a point is satisfying and believable, but becomes forced and takes over what is really engaging and interesting about the story. I wanted to know more about Nirvana, about Hexagon, about how things got the way they are and what the other secondary characters like the Corporal, the psychologist and Serge think of things – it was there, but I wanted more of that and less of Kenders’ pining. Also, her familial backstory as a motivator is relevant but it was dwelt on in a way that I didn’t find that relevant to the central story. The presentation of this dystopia seems highly plausible, but other than Andrew’s disappearance I wonder what the big threat is – is it further environmental catastrophe and even scarcer resources, is it from Hexagon? Throughout the book that remained unclear to me.

While some books get by purely on characters, this book relies heavily on plot, which Stewert executes deftly. I’m left wanting answers to questions raised by the book and I look forward to the next book.

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.