Book Review: Fantasy: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

thepoppywar

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Category: Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: May 1, 2018
Format: Hardcover
Length:  544 pages
ISBN-10: 0062662597
ISBN-13: 9780062662590

Series or Standalone: Series (The Poppy War #1)

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, Anger, Genocide, War
POV: 3rd Person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Because there was tons of hype and the setting and premise sounded really interesting.  I managed to borrow a review copy from a friend, but I also bought the book in hardcover.  Drug-induced magic?  Obviously.

Reviewer: Atsiko

Disclaimer:  I want to be very clear from the beginning that I am a white dude from the Midwest, in case there was any confusion.  See how this figure into the review blow.

Review:

I struggled a bit on whether to review this book or not.  There was a lot of hype I didn’t feel the book lived up to it.  Also the Twitter controversy in which I was partially involved.

However, I realized I was being unfair to the book.  The Poppy War is a very solid debut, and I’m really looking forward to what the author does with the sequels and especially with her next step after this series is complete.

I want to start off by saying that the book is certainly grimdark, though not your traditional such novel.  And it’s not nearly as “brutal” as advertised.  There were only one or two scenes I would describe with that adjective, and most of the brutality in the novel takes place off the page, often relayed to the character after the fact by acquaintances.

But, where the brutality is written, it is very effective, creating in the characters exactly what I would expect to see their reactions be given the situation.  Major points for that, even if it was a bit heavy-handed.

The magic system was a delight.  I’ve always loved the idea of mixing drugs and addiction with magic, and Kuang has done so extremely well in this book.  I would also cite it as a shining example of how you can construct and interesting and useful magic “system” without getting bogged down in the rules and mechanics.  Now, you all probably know from here and my blog that I love getting bogged down in the inner workings of magic systems.  But when a writer shows how you can add enormous tension and excitement to a story without digging into the gears and shafts, I sit up and take notice.

The main character was interesting.  I loved how she was willing to take any measure to succeed at her goals and that she was willing and able to be a pro-active instead of reactive character.  A lot of books, fantasy and otherwise, are plagued by reactive characters whose enemies and circumstances drive the plot, but not so with Rin.

Now, although the magic system was top tier, the world-building was a bit shallow and shaky for me.  I confess I may just not have the right culture context to really appreciate everything going on in the book.  Perhaps someone more immersed in Chinese history and culture would have appreciated Kuang’s work more knowledgably.  I do know the history Kuang is referencing in the book, although I learned it mostly from the Japanese perspective in college.  And I’ve also read primary sources of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking.  But that’s not the same as being raised with the spectre of these atrocities ever in the background of your mind.

That said, I felt that the author maybe relied a little too heavily on the reader knowing the real-world history the novel is based on.  There were lots of names and concepts thrown around, but not a lot of meet for the reader to bite into.  I did like how the information on all three powers was introduced in political context, almost being war propaganda by default.  But I would have liked a bit more detail.

The plot of the novel and the pacing were both problem points for me.  I didn’t feel like the military boarding school parts were very fleshed out.  They felt like the author leaned heavily on the tropes of that genre to carry the plot.  The legacy/aristocratic bully, the harsh teacher, the goofy teacher who teaches the protag how they are special.  Etc.  I also felt it passed fairly quickly.  Then, the war aspects also felt rushed.  Although there were some powerful climaxes, they didn’t have the build-up to really make them shine.  Which is too bad, because there were the seeds of some great story in here.

Finally, the writing itself was lacking for me.  There were some odd repetitions, sometimes in the same paragraph.  There were good parts, too.  I was invested enough to read the book all in one five-hour sitting.  The writing is obviously good enough to be published.  I think the book is overall quite competently constructed.  But the small holes nonetheless exposed some of the thinness of the frame, and on occasion it threw me out of the story for a bit.

Overall, this was a solid debut.  I do look forward both to the sequels and to future work from R.F. Kuang.  I sincerely hope the hype drives enough sales to keep her interested in publishing.

 

ETA:  There’s been a lot of conversation on Twitter about the issue of tired tropes and how they may be tired for white cishet people but not for LGBTQIUA or non-white folks.  As a cishet white person, I can’t always speak to that issue in my reviews.  While I don’t retract my opinion on the novel on that basis, people should take it with a sack of salt when I’m discussing a book by a marginalized author or a marginalized character.

 

Conclusion: 72/100 (A solid debut, author is one to watch)
Premise:  8/10 (I’m a sucker for magic and drugs mixed)
Plot:  6/10 (A bit formulaic)
Setting:  6/10 (Clear influences, no real originality)
Main Character:  7/10 (Interesting but shallowly drawn and a bit plot-driven)
World-building  7/10 (The concepts rocked, the execution was a bit lackluster)
Magic System 10/10 (Fantastic examples of a rule-less magic system)
Supporting Characters:  6/10 (A few interesting ones, little real development)
Writing:  7/10 (Readable but with some odd flaws)
Themes:  7/10 (Straight-forward, cool ending)
Resolution:  8/10 (Dramatic, but not really explored)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying if you’re looking for non-European fantasy or fantasy with a good female protagonist.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Publishers Weekly
The Skiffy and Fanty Show
Tor.com
Reddit
The Quill To Live
Fantasy-Faction
Huntress of Diverse Books
The Illustrated Page

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Book Review: Young Adult Fantasy: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

two crossed daggers on a blue background
two crossed daggers

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: August 29th, 2107
Format: Netgalley eARC
Length: 384 pages
ISBN-10: N/A
ISBN-13: N/A

Series or Standalone: Untitled Duology?

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Revenge, intrigue
POV: First person
Tense: Past

Why I Read It: Saw it on a Goodreads list of 2017 books, liked the description.

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Review:

There was a lot to like about this book, based on the blurb.  Non-cishet, non-binary main character?  Sweet.  Crazy assassin battles?  Check.  Tale of revenge against heartless political monsters?  Got it.

Now look at that blurb again.  “But gender fluid Sal…”  Neither preceded nor followed by any possible related information.  And that’s exactly how the gender-fluidity was played in the book.  Had basically zero effect on the story or how the character was treated.  There were a couple cliche scenes noting that Sal was gender-fluid, and some prejudice.  But it was marginal and flattened early.  Despite the sparse world-building and Sal’s own comments suggesting that their gender role or lack thereof was not common.  There’s a sop made to the idea that perhaps Sal’s old country was a bit more gender-balanced because of their naming conventions.  But on the whole there’s only gender politics when it could score the author cheap points with the reader, and it is not well-done.  If you click on the Perpetual Pages review, there’s something of an own voices criticism of the gender rep in the book, which was mirrored by my own primarily cis-het opinion, and which also squares with my experience of the way gender-fluidity is treated in our world.

And the presentation of gender fluidity in the book was very odd.  “I dress how I feel” but it only really works if we bring in all our context for gender-presentation from our world.  There was no real look or even hint of if and how gender presentation in Sal’s world compares with ours.

So already we’ve lost one of the main selling points for the book, which appears to be just that: a selling point and not a particularly good-faith attempt to create representation in the YA MC community.  I’m not saying the author didn’t have good intentions.  But the outcome was less than stellar.

Sal’s character in general suffers from skin-deep syndrome.  Though there are references to her minority heritage, they are almost entirely related to the politics between the nations’ nobility.  And the regular citizens never comment at all on issues of race or class or ethnicity.  It could be argued this is a good thing.  But in the book, it just seemed like lack of characterization and world-building.  We hear a lot about political conflict, but it’s all rare air plots between royals.  The citizen on the ground never really gets a view of it, and if weren’t for Sal’s convenient placement at the side of the great powers, you might never have noticed.  The world-building manages to be both info-dumpy and distressingly minimalist.  We don’t learn a lot about the history or culture of Sal’s world, but when it comes up, it drops like the dreaded wall of text in an internet forum argument.  We get only the highest-level hints of the world.  And it’s boring.

Which leads us to the plot.  Which is nothing you haven’t seen before and exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s very predictable, and the universe seems to be conspiring to makes Sal’s life as easy as possible.  There are lots of, “I know it was you, but I can’t prove it in court” moments, and a lot of the tension was from convenient misunderstandings.  We get a huge training montage, but it manages to be simultaneously tedious and shallow.  Also, everyone is waaaaaaaay too okay with this whole, murder each other to death and then we give the last one standing a high-paid government job shtick.  There were so many ways to keep the same level of tension while not making every single character except the Designated Love Interest both unlikable and reprehensible.  And, just imagine Gandolf or Ben Kenobi overseeing this murder-fest, and that’s how the Left Hand characters are played.  Half-mentor, half executioner.  You could certainly be a government assassin and a nice person or even admirable person.  But nobody in this book is, except Sal by authorial fiat.

And speaking of the designated love interest!  The idea seems to be that she is bisexual or pansexual, although she mostly just comes across as Sal-sexual.  She’s way too perfect.  Their meet-cute is far too coincidental.  And her role i the climax is honestly one of the most teeth-grinding tension through stupidity moves I’ve ever seen.  Why can no fantasy protag ever do the obvious safe thing?  Because guess what!  Doing the dumb thing has never, and will never, save the stain on your soul.  Make the damn tough choice and live with it.  You got here through the deaths of dozens of people.  But this last deal is just conveniently too emotionally tough for you?  No.  Despite all the ways this book could have taken to save itself, the climax put fifty-two nails in the coffin on it being either believable or enjoyable.  Literally the only reason I can think of to be curious about the sequel is that this book cliff-hangers you soooooo hard.  And not even a “we’ve solved the immediate problem, and can take a break” cliffhanger.  It’s a fuck-you-too-bad-its-forever-til-the-next-book cliffhanger ending that provides zero resolution.  Bad author!  Bad!

(I do disagree with many, many reviews about the other candidates being to concealed by their masks and numbers.  I found them all identifiable, and even if they had names, the ones who were obviously just bit parts to show candidates dying were never going to be more than their role as redshirts, anyway.)

So yeah, was not a fan of this book.  Any book decent enough to get through and agent and an editorial acquisitions board basically ends up with a 50/100 by default.  If that tells you anything about what it means that I could only scrounge up five further points for this book.  It disappointed me on every single one of the promises in the blurb.

And it’s got a GR rating to support my feelings on this.  But enough people gave it good ratings to stay about 2 stars, so there’s an off chance that some readers may really enjoy it.  I wish them well.

Conclusion: 55 /100 (Readable but boring and predictable)
Premise: 6 /10 (Standard fare)
Plot: 5 /10 (Lots of idiot ball)
Setting: 5 /10 (Very under-developed)
Main Character: 6 /10 (Nice idea, bad execution)
World-building 5 /10 (Lots of info-dumps, no depth)
Genderfluid Rep 5/10 (Tolerable)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cliche but competent)
Writing: 7 /10 (Decent prose)
Themes: 6 /10 (Interesting, but poorly-handled)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Gross/lame)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow unless you really love assassin books in YA

Similar Books:
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
PerpetualPages
The Illustrated Page
GeeklyInc
The YA Kitten
YA Books Central
Kissin Blue Karen
A Backwards Story

Buy Links:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
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E-Books:
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Book Review: Fantasy: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

The Dinosaur Lords Cover

A world made by the Eight Creators on which to play out their games of passion and power, Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often brutal place. Men and women live on Paradise as do dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. But dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden – and of war. Colossal planteaters like Brachiosaurus; terrifying meateaters like Allosaurus and the most feared of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. Giant lizards swim warm seas. Birds (some with teeth) share the sky with flying reptiles that range in size from batsized insectivores to majestic and deadly Dragons.

Thus we are plunged into Victor Milán’s splendidly weird world of The Dinosaur Lords, a place that for all purposes mirrors 14th century Europe with its dynastic rivalries, religious wars, and byzantine politics…and the weapons of choice are dinosaurs. Where we have vast armies of dinosaur-mounted knights engaged in battle. And during the course of one of these epic battles, the enigmatic mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is defeated through betrayal and left for dead. He wakes, naked, wounded, partially amnesiac – and hunted. And embarks upon a journey that will shake his world.

Title: The Dinosaur Lords
Author: Victor Milán
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: High/Epic Fantasy
Publisher: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
Publication Date: July 28, 2015
Format: NetGalley Excerpt
Length: 166 pages (out of 448 pages)
ISBN-10: 0765332965
ISBN-13: 9780765332967

Series or Standalone: The Dinosaur Lords #1

Literary Awards: N/A

Themes: Court Politics, History vs. Mythology
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Past Tense

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

Where I Got It: Net Galley

Why I Read It: Knights riding dinosaurs, of course.

Review:

1. World-building: The world-building in the story largely consists of imposing 14th-century Europe on an extra-terrestrial planet with populated by dinosaurs.  Clear alternate names for European countries and various aspects of society.  Kind of an alternate history with an extra-terrestrial twist.  Not the most original, but it does have the advantage of thousands of pounds of lizard-flesh to liven things up!

2. Characters: There are three main characters in the story: Imperial Princess Melodia, referred to affectionately by her friends as “Dia”; Count Jaume, head of a Holy Order of Dinosaur Knights; and Rob, an on-the-outs dino-tamer with little to lose and a lot of money to gain.  Jaume is your standard martial hero.  Good with a sword, but a bit one-note personality-wise.  We probably could have skipped most of his sections.  Melodia wasn’t particularly intriguing, either.  A spoiled teenage girl, though apparently quite skilled in the martial arts.  Rob was a bit more interesting.  If nothing else, his stakes were a lot higher.  But again, no major swerves from your standard minstrel.  The minor characters don’t do much to make up for the lack in our protagonists.  The real star here is Dia’s younger sister, whose name I will not embarrass myself by trying to spell.  Never has an annoying little sister been so fun.

3. Story: The story itself is nothing special, either.  The standard political shenanigans.  Quite exciting, and lots of action, of course.  The book was published for a reason.  If politics and fighting s your thing, this is definitely the book for you.  Who could resist jousting on Trexes and hunting Triceratops like a common boar?

4. Writing: Is this the next Game of Thrones, but with dinos?  Not even.  But it’s quite well-written, and the prose does nothing to get in the way of a rollicking good yarn, as it were.  The characters come to life, whether or not you care for them as people.  It can’t quite overcome the conventional story elements, but it does keep the book readable and fun.

5. Extras: The book uses chapter-starters, as has become popular in SFF novels lately.  In this cases, excerpts from two books about the world of the story, Paradise.  They come with beautiful ink drawings.  Definitely something I enjoyed, as insubstantial as they may be in comparison to the rest of the book.

 

Please keep in mind I am reviewing an excerpt consisting of only a third of the full book.  But I think that after 166 pages, it’s still a pretty accurate analysis.

Conclusion: 57/100 (Readable but average)
Premise: 5/10 (Dinos are the only saving grace)
Plot: 5/10 (Interesting, but predictable)
Setting: 5/10 (Score another for the dinos)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Well-written, but limited in depth)
Romance Subplot: 6/10 (Well-drawn, but predictable)
World-building: 5/10 (Pedestrian, if well-detailed)
Supporting Characters: 5/10 (Same as for main)
Writing: 8/10 (Skilled if not brilliant)
Themes: 4/10 (Lightly touched-on, insufficiently explored)
Resolution: 7/10 (For a cliffhanger.  If the true ending is half as good?  It’ll be fun.)

Buy Or Borrow:  Buy if you love military fantasy and giant dinosaurs.  Maybe borrow if that’s not your cup of tea but you still want to give the book a shot.

An Interview With Victor Milan on Suspension of Disbelief

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Beauty in Ruins
Publishers Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
The Bibliosanctum
Zirev
Lone Star on a Lark

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Book Review: Fantasy: The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan

thedarkdefilescover

Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.

Title: The Dark Defiles
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Category: Adult Fiction
Genre: Science Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray Spectra
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Format: Netgalley DRC
Length: 692 pages
ISBN-10: 0575077948
ISBN-13: 9780345493101

Series or Standalone: A Land Fit for Heroes #3

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: The Creation of a Myth, What is a Hero?
POV: Third Person, Multiple POVs
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko

Why I Read It: I’d heard a lot about Richard K. Morgan’s foray into the fantasy genre, how ground-breaking it was. There was a lot of hype, and I’d never read any of his
science fiction books before. Sounded over-hyped, so I read other things instead. Then Nick managed to score an ARC of the third book in the series. I figured I might as well give it a shot, and it was outside my normal reading, so why not?

Review:

There’s a lot of talk about Richard Morgan breaking new ground in the fantasy genre with this series. First, to get things straight, this series is the bastard child of sword and sorcery and science fantasy, with the Grimdark aesthetic so popular in fantasy right now being the icing on the cake. In that sense, it’s not even part of the high or epic fantasy genres. Now that we have that out of the way, the book on its actual merits.

1. World-building: This is one of the major points of fantasy or speculative fiction in general. Morgan shows himself to be a very competent world-builder in this book. Although he makes use of a lot of subverted cliches, or even cliches played straight, there aren’t any major wholes in the world-building. What he does best is history and the other-world part of the setting. Quite interesting, lots of cool takes on older fantasy staples. The main world of the story, though, doesn’t fare so well. There’s an Empire, a “League of Free Cities”, and some barbarians in the form of “steppe nomads”, but with the steppe replaced by the Great Plains of middle America. Nothing new or even particularly interesting here. Although, he has improved a great deal on the previous novels.

2. Characters: The characters have much improved in this book. They are more developed, and make more interesting decisions. Ringil in particular develops his anti-hero personality, much more. Especially vis-a-vis his family. And yet without any of the over-indulgence that was present in the last book. Further, he comes more into his powers, and Morgan shows more of the process.

Archeth, too gets a boost in ability, and her relationship to the absent Kiriath and the Helmsmen they left behind is greatly expanded upon.

Egar Dragonbane also receives much more development. A good thing considering he was the weakest character in the previous two books.

3. Story: The threads of the story are much better balanced than in the preivious two books. A great deal of info-dumping occurs, as Morgan attempts to set up for the climax and resolution of the story. A climax that could have been very interesting if handled better, but here fell rather flat and felt rushed. There were several interesting scenes, and the book recovers incredibly well from the second-book-slump of The Cold Commands. In fact, the middle two-thirds of the story is perhaps the best part of the entire trilogy.

In the end, as much as it does to counteract the weaknesses of the rest of the trilogy, it can’t quite manage to bring the trilogy from your average mid-list fantasy series to the heights promised by the initial hype leading up to the release of The Steel Remains.

Conclusion: 69/100 (Readable but not the brilliance it’s made out to be)
Premise: 6/10 (Meant to be ground-breaking, isn’t)
Plot: 8/10 (Coherent and interesting)
Setting: 6/10 (Fairly standard fantasy cliches)
Main Character(s): 8/10 (Standard tropes, well executed)
World-building 8/10 (Some very interesting points but not brilliant)
Magic system 7/10 (Fairly standard)
Supporting Characters: 4/10 (Very cliche)
Writing: 4/5 (More than competent, not brilliant)
Voice: 5/5 (Very strong voice, easy to distinguish between characters)
Themes: 7/10 (Good, poorly expressed)
Resolution: 6/10 (Predictable and boring)

Buy Or Borrow: Worth buying if this review intrigues you.

Similar Books:
The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman
The Corean Chronicles by L. E. Modesitt
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Kirkus Reviews
_
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Book Review: Young Adult: Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas

heir of fire cover

Lost and broken, Celaena Sardothien’s only thought is to avenge the savage death of her dearest friend: as the King of Adarlan’s Assassin, she is bound to serve this tyrant, but he will pay for what he did. Any hope Celaena has of destroying the king lies in answers to be found in Wendlyn. Sacrificing his future, Chaol, the Captain of the King’s Guard, has sent Celaena there to protect her, but her darkest demons lay in that same place. If she can overcome them, she will be Adarlan’s biggest threat – and his own toughest enemy.

While Celaena learns of her true destiny, and the eyes of Erilea are on Wendlyn, a brutal and beastly force is preparing to take to the skies. Will Celaena find the strength not only to win her own battles, but to fight a war that could pit her loyalties to her own people against those she has grown to love?

Title: Heir of Fire
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Category: Young Adult
Genre: High Fantasy
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Publication Date: September 2, 2014
Format: Paperback ARC
Length: 562 pages
ISBN-10: 1619630656
ISBN-13: 9781619630659

Series or Standalone: Throne of Glass #3

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Betrayal
POV: 3rd Person Limited, Multi-POV
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Astiko

Where I Got It: I have my sources. I’d heard of this series before, but never gotten around to reading it, so when the opportunity came up, I figured, why not?

Review:

I really wanted to like this book. I read the first two in preparation for this review, and though they had their issues, I mostly enjoyed them. And this book added some stuff I really felt was missing from the first two. It had tons more “gritty” content, and some cool plot twists, and some fun history/world-building tidbits. I liked that we finally got to see more of the world than just Endovier and the Capital. But this was clearly a middle book in a series, and lacked a complete beginning middle and end. Plus, despite some incredibly blatant lamp-shading about the fact that Celaena had sort of done the whole training montage thing a few times, we still got stuck with another one, and it followed the incredibly annoying “wise mentor” style of training montage, wherein the mentor yells a lot and is rude, and treats the trainee sorta like shit. And then some magical mental/emotional keyhole is found and with almost no actual training at all, the character gets really good control of their abilities. UGH!!! I was hoping for a lightly different structure than Throne, but it was basically the same story with some details changed. Plus, there was a lot of Mary Sue/Chosen One crap dripping all over the pages. In essence, it was every cliche of high fantasy ever dropped on top of what started out as a pretty decent continuation of the series.

There were some things I liked, though. For example, we are introduced to the character of Manon, an Ironteeth Witch, and she is pretty fun. Despite also following a few cliches, I just really loved her attitude, and it was nice to have another kickass female character to balance out the massive amount of angsting Celeana engages in in this book. Honestly, I started wanting to skip some of Celeana’s and Chaol’s chapters so I could get back to Manon.

Another new character is the Fae warrior, Rowan. Complaint One: Naming a Fae “Rowan”. Yuck. Also, he was a really annoying character. He had some potentially really cool back-story, including inner conflict and a past tragedy. But he suffered pretty hard from Edward Cullen syndrome, in terms of being a seemingly young but actually really ancient character. How can a powerful Fae warrior dodge so much character development over so many hundreds of years? I don’t know, but he manages.

Maas also manages to step up the bad guys in this book, and they also are potentially awesome. Who doesn’t love an ancient evil arising? But they come off kind of pathetic and boring.

This review mostly seems like complaints, but I did somewhat enjoy the book. It wasn’t a wall-banger, at least; I finished it. Fans of the series will probably enjoy this one. But it’s not any sort of serious contribution to YA fantasy literature.

Conclusion: 57/100 (I was hoping for more.)
Premise: 4/10 (Cliche and poorly-handled)
Plot: 5/10 (What little there is is a bit dull and predictable)
Setting: 6/10 (Nothing spectacular)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Loved Manon, the rest I didn’t care for in this book)
World-building: 8/10 (Loved the world-building, but there seemed to be a lot of exposition)
Romance Sub-plot: 5/10 (Little existed and none of it was very interesting or satisfying)
Supporting Characters: 5/10 (Not spectacular)
Writing: 2/5 (Info-dumpy and not particularly elegant)
Voice: 2/5 (They were all so damn angsty…)
Themes: 5/10 (Not well-developed)
Resolution: 8/10 (Dramatic, if a little forced)

Buy Or Borrow: Borrow if you can, unless you plan to collect the series.

Similar Books:
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Sabriel by Garth Nix

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
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Book Review: Horror Novella: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

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Harrison was the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties, and spends most of his time popping pills and not sleeping. Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by unreadable messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. Martin never takes off his sunglasses. Never.

No one believes the extent of their horrific tales, not until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these seemingly-insane outcasts form a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within—and which are lurking in plain sight.

Title: We Are All Completely Fine

Author: Daryl Gregory

Category: Adult Fiction

Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal, Horror

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Publication Date: August 12, 2014

Format: NetGalley Digital Review Copy

Length: 112 pages

ISBN-10: 1616961716

ISBN-13: 9781616961718

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:

N/A

Themes: Trauma

POV: Multiple Perspectives, Blended

Tense: Past

Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni

How I Got It: Daryl Gregory, writer of beautifully bizarre fiction such as Afterparty and Pandemonium is a writer I have long followed but never read. I’d only heard good things, and I always liked his premises, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. An ARC from NetGalley seemed like just the impetus I was lacking, and I’m very grateful to Nick for providing it.

Review:

I don’t often read horror, but Gregory is an eclectic writer, so I figured I’d take the chance this time. I don’t regret it. Gregory has a strong command of his characters, something speculative fiction has oft been accused of lacking. The horror elements of the story were more like seeds or remnants, rarely seen in the flesh–even in psychological horror terms-but I think that’s part of what makes the idea of the story so intriguing, and it lets Gregory make good use of his characterization skills in a way pure horror doesn’t always allow.

The therapeutic setting may not be the most original, but it managed to remain quite active despite the obvious sedentary nature of such sessions.

Harrison plays the sort of mentor character by way of providing a great deal of elegantly inserted exposition, background, and validation to the other characters. I thought of him as the main character, despite the shifting perspectives, and I think he did a good job anchoring the narrative and the dynamics between the other characters.

Jan, as she likes to be known, is the therapist who creates the inciting incident of the story, and Gregory’s light touch in imparting the reasons for the group’s existence is a nice change from the heavy-handed foreshadowing one often comes across in pulp horror. The same goes for the unraveling of the web of history that connects the characters, history they themselves ma be unaware of. You’d think a story that deals so much with the past would drag, but it doesn’t, and the tantalizing hints of back-story definitely left me wanting more about these characters. It felt like I only got a snapshot of the characters’ lives, and that their stories existed long before that snapshot and will keep going long after. And yet the snapshot itself was still very satisfying. That’s something I consider a mark of a superior story–there are loose ends and secrets and histories the reader is unaware of, but it adds to rather than detracts from the story.

Also, +1 for using augmented reality in a horror story.

It’s safe to say I’ll be picking up a few other Daryl Gregory books after reading this, and I urge everyone else to do the same.

I think anyone who reads speculative or literary fiction would enjoy this book, no matter what they usually read.

Conclusion: 87/100 (An 87 is actually a really high rating, coming from me.)

Premise: 9/10 (Fresh and engaging)

Plot: 9/10 (Compact, but well-constructed)

Setting: 8/10 (Strongly evoked)

Main Character: 10/10 (Citing Harrison, lovely aged boy wonder)

World-building 9/10 (No info-dumping, great details)

Horror Elements 6/10 (Not all that much horror, even psychologically)

Supporting Characters: 10/10 (Well-crafted)

Writing: 8/10 (Well-written)

Themes: 8/10 (Trauma and related themes lovingly conveyed)

Resolution: 9/10 (Made sense, left you thinking)

Buy Or Borrow: Totally buy.

Similar Books:

Other Reviews:

GoodReads

Publishers Weekly

Kirkus August Picks

LitReactor BookShots

Eric Christensen

Bookworm Blues

Thinking About Books

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Book Review: Fantasy/Romance: The House of the Four Winds by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

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The rulers of tiny, impoverished Swansgaard have twelve daughters and one son. While the prince’s future is assured, his twelve sisters must find their own fortunes.

Disguising herself as Clarence, a sailor, Princess Clarice intends to work her way to the New World. When the crew rebels, Clarice/Clarence, an expert with rapier and dagger, sides with the handsome navigator, Dominick, and kills the cruel captain.

Dominick leads the now-outlawed crew in search of treasure in the secret pirate haven known as The House of Four Winds. They encounter the sorceress Shamal, who claims Dominick for her own—but Clarice has fallen hard for Dominick and won’t give him up without a fight.

Title: The House of the Four Winds
Author(s): Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory
Category: Adult Fiction/New Adult
Genre: Fantasy/Romance
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 5, 2014
Format: Digital Review Copy from NetGalley
Length: 231 pages
ISBN-10: 0765335654
ISBN-13: 9780765335654

Series or Standalone: One Dozen Daughters #1

Literary Awards:
N/A

Themes: Pirates
POV: Third Person
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Marisa

How I Found It: I’ve always been a big Lackey fan, so when Nick told me he could get an ARC of her new series, of course I jumped at the chance.

Cover Notes: I thought the cover was lovely, but to start on a theme you can expect to see a lot of in my review, it felt very Pirates of the Caribbean to me.

Soundtrack: It might be a bit mean of me, but you won’t be surprised to know I read this one to the tune of my PotC soundtracks. Unsurprisingly, they fit it pretty well.

Review:

Maybe I over-hyped this book to myself, since I love Lackey so much. Perhaps I went into it with slightly inaccurate genre expectations. Either way, I found myself quite disappointed with this book. That’s not to say it’s awful. It’s a passable mix between a pirate romance and a fairy-tale. The plot mostly holds together, and most of the characters are interesting. But there’s nothing special about the book that grabs, and despite portraying itself as a fantasy romance, the fantasy elements are few and far-between, for the most part, and the romance has no meat to it. There’s insta-love on the part of Clarice, but 99% of the story pushes her relationship with Dominick towards friendship rather than romance. In fact, there’s something of a warm bro-mance between Dominick and Clarice’s alternate persona Clarence. I think the book might have been better if Clarice had been a boy, perhaps a disposable 12th prince instead of the 1st of twelve princesses.

The main plot of the story started out quite interesting, and up until half-way through the portion of the novel set in the eponymous House of the Four Winds, I thought the story was quite interesting. Despite a few small quibbles. But the direction the story took after that had horrible pacing, little suspense, and was chock-full of sailor lore cliches that added little to the story. There were three major conflicts in the story. The first, involving the mutiny, was fairly interesting and what at first appeared to be bad characterization in fact turned out to be an intriguing plot twist. I have to congratulate the authors on that one.

The second conflict/sub-plot, involving the aftermath of the mutiny and the character’s arrival at the House was also interesting. But it was rushed through, and the swash-buckling, pirate-wrangling adventure I was anticipating was almost immediately done away with.

The third conflict was cliche, rushed, and boring, with only one or two sparks of interest to carry me through it.

In the end, while this isn’t an awful book, and I don’t think I completely wasted my time reading it–short as it was, I’m not particularly excited to see the next few books in the series either. This was not of the quality I had come to expect from Mercedes Lackey. I haven’t read any of her other collaborations with James Mallory, so perhaps his influence has something to do with the lack. I’m not very motivated to find out, at this point.

Conclusion: 61/100 (A very cliche and rather boring Pirates of the Caribbean clone)
Premise: 6/10 (Fun and an old standard, but no interesting twist)
Plot: 5/10 (Cliche and a bit dull, but coherent)
Setting: 8/10 (Our world, but nicely re-imagined)
Main Character(s): 7/10 (Loved Clarice/Clarence, found Dominick rather flat)
World-building: 5/10 (paper-thin facade of an alternate earth, but coherent enough)
Romance Sub-plot: 5/10 (Sweet, but way under-developed)
Supporting Characters: 8/10 (Fun and diverse)
Writing: 7/10 (Decently-written, but not fantastic)
Themes: 4/10 (No real theme to add depth to the story)
Resolution: 6/10 (Rushed and hollow)

Buy Or Borrow: I’d say borrow unless you’re a huge Lackey fan or love nautical romance.

Similar Books:
I don’t read a lot of romance, but I’m sure there are similar books. As for fantasy, I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

Other Reviews:
GoodReads
Dear Author
Bibliophilia, Please
There Were Books Involved
Between the Pages
Imaginary Reads
Gun In Act One

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