Top 5 Urban Fantasy Novels I Read in 2014

Moving the show right along, today I focus on the best 5 urban fantasy novels that I read this past year! Remember, these are here regardless of their publication date; the only criteria is that I read, reviewed, and loved them in 2014!

Iron Night, by M L Brennan
Review here.

Underachieving film theory graduate and vampire Fortitude Scott may be waiting tables at a snooty restaurant run by a tyrannical chef who hates him, but the other parts of his life finally seem to be stabilizing. He’s learning how to rule the Scott family territory, hanging out more with his shapeshifting friend Suzume Hollis, and has actually found a decent roommate for once.

Until he finds his roommate’s dead body.

The Scott family cover-up machine swings into gear, but Fort is the only person trying to figure out who (or what) actually killed his friend. His hunt for a murderer leads to a creature that scares even his sociopathic family, and puts them all in deadly peril.

Keeping secrets, killing monsters, and still having to make it to work on time? Sometimes being a vampire really sucks.

Alchemystic, by Anton Strout
Review here.

Alexandra Belarus is a struggling artist living in New York City, even though her family is rich in real estate, including a towering Gothic Gramercy Park building built by her great-great-grandfather. But the truth of her bloodline is revealed when she is attacked on the street and saved by an inhumanly powerful winged figure. A figure who knows the Belarus name…

Lexi’s great-great-grandfather was a Spellmason—an artisan who could work magic on stone. But in his day, dark forces conspired against him and his, so he left a spell of protection on his family. Now that Lexi is in danger, the spell has awoken her ancestor’s most trusted and fearsome creation: a gargoyle named Stanis.

Lexi and Stanis are equally surprised to find themselves bound to each other. But as they learn to work together, they realize that only united can they save the city they both love…

Happy Hour in Hell, by Tad Williams
Review here.

I’ve been told to go to Hell more times than I can count. But this time I’m actually going.

My name’s Bobby Dollar, sometimes known as Doloriel, and of course, Hell isn’t a great place for someone like me – I’m an angel. They don’t like my kind down there, not even the slightly fallen variety. But they have my girlfriend, who happens to be a beautiful demon named Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands. Why does an angel have a demon girlfriend? Well, certainly not because it helps my career.

She’s being held hostage by one of the nastiest, most powerful demons in all of the netherworld – Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell. He already hates me, and he’d like nothing better than to get his hands on me and rip my immortal soul right out of my borrowed but oh-so-mortal body.

But wait, it gets better! Not only do I have to sneak into Hell, make my way across thousands of miles of terror and suffering to reach Pandemonium, capital of the fiery depths, but then I have to steal Caz right out from under Eligor’s burning eyes and smuggle her out again, past demon soldiers, hellhounds, and all the murderous creatures imprisoned there for eternity. And even if I somehow manage to escape Hell, I’m also being stalked by an undead psychopath named Smyler who’s been following me for weeks. Oh, and did I mention that he can’t be killed?

So if I somehow survive Hell, elude the Grand Duke and all his hideous minions and make it back to the real world, I’ll still be the most hunted soul in Creation. But at least I’ll have Caz. Gotta have something to look forward to, right?

So just pour me that damn drink, will you? I’ve got somewhere to go.

Deadroads, by Robin Riopelle
Review here.

The Sarrazins have always stood apart from the rest of their Bayou-born neighbors. Almost as far as they prefer to stand from each other. Blessed—or cursed—with the uncanny ability to see beyond the spectral plane, Aurie has raised his children, Sol, Baz, and Lutie, in the tradition of the traiteur, finding wayward spirits and using his special gift to release them along Deadroads into the afterworld. The family, however, fractured by their clashing egos, drifted apart, scattered high and low across the continent.

But tragedy serves to bring them together. When Aurie, while investigating a series of ghastly (and ghostly) murders, is himself killed by a devil, Sol, EMT by day and traiteur by night, Baz, a traveling musician with a truly spiritual voice, and Lutie, combating her eerie visions with antipsychotics, are thrown headlong into a world of gory sprites, brilliant angels, and nefarious demons—small potatoes compared to reconciling their familial differences.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Review here.

Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college—friendship, love, sex, and booze—and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, The Magicians, the prequel to the New York Times bestselling book The Magician King and the #1 bestseller The Magician’s Land, is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world—where good and evil aren’t black and white and power comes at a terrible price.

Top 5 Fantasy Novels I Read in 2014

Time to start my personal Top # lists! I love this time of year because it lets me highlight the best of the best that I’ve enjoyed this past year, regardless of when the books were actually published. For simpicity’s sake, I’m including only the books I’ve read and reviewed this past year, so that I can link to the reviews to show you all why I think they’re so great.

The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
Review here.

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.

In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.

Stretching from desolate tundra to steamy, semi-tropical climes seething with sentient plant life, this is an epic tale of blood mages and mercenaries, emperors and priestly assassins who must unite to save a world on the brink of ruin.

As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.

Child of a Hidden Sea, by A M Dellamonica
Review here.

One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.

The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard.

Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered…her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.

But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don’t know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a sister she has never known, and a ship captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world…or is doomed to exile.

Veil of the Deserters, by Jeff Salyards
Review here.

Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual. The Syldoonian Emperor, Cynead, has solidified his power in unprecedented ways, and Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be complicated and dangerous. Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and Soffjian are at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is unsurprisingly small. But it is filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian.

Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell
Review here.

The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded, and Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards. Things could be worse. Their employer could be lying dead on the floor while the killer plants evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that’s exactly what’s happening…

Now a royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world. A carefully orchestrated series of murders that began with the overthrow of an idealistic young king will end with the death of an orphaned girl and the ruin of everything that Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have fought for. But if the trio want to foil the conspiracy, save the girl, and reunite the Greatcoats, they’ll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug, and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor’s blade.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
Review here.

After their adventures on the high seas, Locke and Jean are brought back to earth with a thump. Jean is mourning the loss of his lover and Locke must live with the fallout of crossing the all-powerful magical assassins the Bonds Magi.

It is a fall-out that will pit both men against Locke’s own long lost love. Sabetha is Locke’s childhood sweetheart, the love of Locke’s life and now it is time for them to meet again. Employed on different sides of a vicious dispute between factions of the Bonds Sabetha has just one goal – to destroy Locke for ever.

GUEST POST: Django Wexler’s Most Anticipated Books of 2015

Kicking off the year-end countdown lists that you knew were going to start appearing here at some point soon, we have Django Wexler talking about the books he’s most looking forward to in the upcoming year. Thanks to him and the Ragnarok Publishing team for this guest post and including me to the holiday blog tour!


djangotbrpileIn a way it’s a little weird for me to write about my most anticipated books, because I have so many books in my “to read” pile that I often don’t get to things until months or even years after they’re released.  (Blogger’s note: I see Nexus in that pile, and I recommend that! It’s awesome!) Nevertheless, there’s always a few that I’m willing to bump to the top of the stack as soon as they come out.

To get the obvious out of the way first, there’s my books, The Mad Apprentice and The Price of Valor, in April and July respectively.  I’m also part of some great anthologies that I’m really looking forward to seeing: Blackguards from Ragnarok Publications should be a lot of fun, and Operation Arcana has some awesome military fantasy stories from some of my favorite authors.  Equally obviously, if Pat Rothfuss releases Doors of Stone or George R. R. Martin puts out The Winds of Winter next year, I’m going to be all over them.

Now that we’re past the blatant self-promotion:

-Brian McClellan and I have been linked by inscrutable fate ever since his flintlock fantasy book came out around the same time as mine.  The third book in his excellent Powder Mage trilogy, The Autumn Republic, comes out next year and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how he wraps it up. (First book: Promise of Blood.)

-I’m a big fan of everything Joe Abercrombie has done to date, and liked the start of his new series Shattered Sea quite a lot.  The second book, Half the World, should be out in 2015, and I’ll be snapping it up. (First book: Half a King.)

-James S. A. Corey’s (a.k.a. Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) Expanse series seems to get better with each book.  It’s near(ish) future SF, mixing a “hard SF” respect for the laws of physics with aliens and other cosmic awesomeness.  The fifth book, Nemesis Games, comes out in 2015, and the TV series is starting up soon; this is your last chance to say you read the books first!  (First book: Leviathan Wakes.)

-Max Gladstone, in addition to being the most interesting person to hang out with at any given con, is writing a weird, wonderful series called the Craft Sequence.  It’s a high-fantasy stew with gods and magic standing in for high finance, where the fate of pantheons is determined by investments and Ponzi schemes and corporations will construct a deity to suit.  Awesomeness, in other words.  The fourth book, Last First Snow, comes out next year.  (First book: Three Parts Dead, although reading in order is not required.)

-I’m intrigued by Ian Tregillis’ new book, The Mechanical, which sounds like steampunk from the point of view of an clockwork automaton.  His previous series, The Milkweed Triptych, was a fun Nazi- superheroes-versus-British-warlocks romp through an alternate WWII, starting with Bitter Seeds, so I’m on board for wherever he goes next.

-Goodreads claims The Annihilation Score, the next in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files, comes out in 2015, though there aren’t many details.  I love that series — it’s the British intelligence system, with all the bureaucracy of a government office, in a world of Lovecraftian horror.  If it really is coming out, I’ll be reading it ASAP.  (First book: The Atrocity Archives.)

-Finally, the only one of this list that I’ve actually had a chance to read, thanks to the good people at Orbit.  I’m about three-quarters of the way through Alex Marshall’s debut novel A Crown for Cold Silver, and it’s excellent.  Very dark fantasy with a cynical, sarcastic edge in a detailed, fascinating world.  If you’re a fan of Joe Abercrombie or Mark Lawrence, I highly recommend taking a look when this comes out.

There’s many more good things to come, obviously.  But if I get too greedy, that mountain is going to collapse on me…

djangowexlerDjango Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books.

 He is the author of Roc’s military ‘flintlock fantasy’ The Thousand Names and the middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library.

 When not writing, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.


Welp, thanks for making my own TBR pile explode! (Actually, many of the books mentioned are books I already want to read, or at least the first books in the series are, so I suppose it didn’t explode too badly.)

Now for a holiday bonus, thanks to the good people at Ragnarok, I’m pleased to announce that there’s a giveaway attached to this guest post! Who wants to win copies of the first 2 of Django Wexler’s John Golden novellas? (Trick question; I know the answer is “all of you.”) Comment on this post to be entered for your chance to win both of them!

Rules
~ 1 entry per person
~ Comment on this post to enter, letting me know at least 1 of the books you’re looking forward to in 2015.
~ Open to anyone who can accept e-books
~ Contest closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Thursday December 18.

Get commenting! I want to know which books you’re all excited about!

Radiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 30, 2014

Summary: Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City’s floating Towers.

When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless—until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.

With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.

Thoughts: Radiant is a novel with a very interesting premise. What if everyone has some degree of magic, but you don’t? What if that lack of magic leaches colour from your sight, so that you see only in shades of black and white. Xhea is such a person, living in the shattered remnants of a city on the ground while floating towers of privilege and magic go by overhead. She barely ekes out a living, doing odd jobs for food and the money that essentially comes in the form of magic, magic that she can’t use herself but that gives her a high and allows her to see colour until the power wears off. She also has the power to see and communicate with ghosts, a somewhat singular talent that is part and parcel of the work she tends to do.

But when chance ties her to a ghost named Shai, a ghost whose magical strength is beyond anything Xhea has ever witnessed, a ghost whose body might still be alive in one of the floating Towers, Xhea gets drawn into a dangerous plot of abuse and discovery, sacrifice and duty and the past coming back to bite everyone.

Describing this novel makes it sound like it’s nothing special, like it’s composed of bits of pieces of classic tropes in new clothes. And I won’t say that it’s trope free, nor that tropes make it bad by default. Radiant shows a spectacular amount of originality in its execution. Xhea’s reaction to magic being like drug addiction, for instance, isn’t entirely original but it’s done here so well that it’s very realistic rather than sensational. Nor is the idea of magic being the energy of life and there’s one person who has none of it, but making the manifestation of that being that the afflicted can’t see colour isn’t often done. Sumner-Smith takes old ideas and polishes them, makes them shiny and new, and it’s to great effect.

Radiant brings up some thought-provoking and disturbing ideas about obligation and sacrifice, and asks on multiple occasions how far is too far. Is slavery any less slavery if you call it being indentured? If a person is born with a certain strength, how obligated are they to use it? Is it right to agree to sacrifice your own life for the good of others, and is anybody wrong for trying to convince you otherwise? Difficult questions get asked here, the kind of questions that hit hard and make you have to stop reading to properly consider them before moving on. Shai’s magical strength can power her Tower, making a good and safe home for hundreds of people, and she has agreed to this, even though doing so means that she will die of rampant cancer and have her spirit continue to be drained beyond her body’s death. Xhea has run from servitude and still has a massive debt of service owed to another Tower, one that she refuses to pay because she views freedom and poverty to be preferable to indentureship and sufficiency. Radiant isn’t just a well-paced and interesting story, but it’s very intelligent and worth taking the time to properly appreciate.

One drawback I found while reading it was that it feels very much like I’m coming into the middle of a story rather than the beginning. While I don’t expect to have my hand held over everything and to have pages taken up by awkward exposition and backstory, there were more than a few moments where past events were mentioned and treated as though the reader should already be familiar with them. In particular, every event that had to do with Lorn. He owes Xhea a favour. He’s in a position of authority. They have a history. But only vague hints are really dropped about who he is and what went on to create this whole setup in the first place, and it left me feeling like I must have missed something somewhere along the way. It was revealed, for the most part, but largely between the lines. Knowing wasn’t essential to the story in Radiant, but it felt like a poorly set-up mystery, something to string the reader along without much to actually interest the reader in finding out the truth.

Still, besides a lack of detail to the backstory, Radiant was still a wonderful read, and the post-apocalyptic future that Sumner-Smith set up really has me hooked. It’s to her credit that the night walkers did not actually scare me in the way that zombies typically do, though they share much in common. Don’t get me wrong, they were freaking creepy, and you could really feel the tension in the scenes where night walkers were present, but I didn’t experience the gut-wrenching insomnia-inducing fear that accompanies zombies (thanks a lot, phobia that nobody takes seriously…). The friendship between Xhea and Shai was also deeply inspiring and well worth reading. I wish more authors would set up relationships like this between characters. They may have been thrown together more due to random circumstance than a particular choice or mutual interest, but their friendship grew strong and dedicated, and I adored seeing that. So often it seems that strong connections can only be portrayed in fiction by romance or bloodline, and anything else is either overlooked or played as unhealthy. Or just romance waiting to happen. For my part, I loved seeing a friendship that was friendship, strong and connecting and devoted and influential. Sumner-Smith can probably turn the world into some kind of alien-operated dystopia involving hyper-intelligent pink bunnies in the future and I will still come back for the friendship.

Long story short, you need to read Radiant. It’s got the right blend between fantasy and sci-fi to appeal to fans of either genre, very realistic characters that you want to read more about, and enough mysteries and curiosity to leave me, at least, salivating over the sequel. Sumner-Smith is an author I’ll be keeping my eye on in the future, to see what else she’ll do that will keep me as entertained and thoughtful.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

GUEST POST: “Writing Within a Mythos,” by Storm Constantine

Let me just start off by saying, “Holy crap, you guys, Storm Constantine wrote a guest post for my blog!” And then let me launch right into the awesomeness of what she wrote, talking about writing within a mythos and attracting new readers.


My new novel, ‘The Moonshawl’ is set within the Wraeththu mythos. I’ve been writing novels and stories within this world for more than half my life. Like many other writers who’ve worked in series and trilogies, I love returning to my created world, and those who’ve enjoyed reading the results are also happy when I bring out a new Wraeththu story. But there is a downside to this revisiting for a writer, namely that many readers who haven’t read earlier books in a mythos often feel they need to read everything that’s already published to get anything out of the latest offering. This can lead to reluctance to try a new book. And no writer wants that situation! So I’d like to clarify things.

There is a distinction between a trilogy (or quartet or however many volumes) and an ongoing mythos. A trilogy is a set of connected stories, generally involving the same characters and extending one (or a series of) plotlines. The last volume is the finale to that story and usually ties up all the plot lines completely – unless, of course, the author has more stories planned to continue the tale. A mythos, however, is an environment, and stories set within it need not necessarily have connections to other stories at all, other than being set in the same universe.

I have written two bona fide Wraeththu trilogies, and a couple of stand alone novellas, plus quite a lot of short stories. ‘The Moonshawl’ was written to be a stand alone.

When writing within the mythos I strive to keep in mind that I don’t want to alienate readers by mentioning events, characters and places from previous stories that just… dangle frustratingly. For a rough example, an aside about ‘X’s faux pas that changed the entire future of the world’, with no mention of what that faux pas was, or its effects, will only stultify readers and lead to the virtual reality of the story shattering. The reader remembers they’re reading, because they have to struggle to work out what’s going on. I want to avoid that happening at all costs. I try to insert any necessary history unobtrusively, rather than dumping in huge dry chunks of explanatory exposition; I want enough so that a new reader knows comfortably what’s going on, but not so much that someone who’s followed the mythos for years would be bored by it. It’s a balancing act.

As an aid to the reader, I have included in ‘The Moonshawl’ a glossary of terms that have become part of Wraeththu canon, plus appendices about their belief system and calendar, and also their terms of address. But it’s not necessary to have learnt all this by heart to get into the story. It’s just for reference.

The premise of the Wraeththu mythos is that humanity ruined their own world, fell, and a new race came to replace them, with the potential to be far greater than their predecessors. The Wraeththu are androgynous, (comprising both male and female genders in one body), superhuman in a literal sense – having more evolved faculties and a more efficient vehicle of flesh – but despite these advantages they need to learn about themselves and continue to evolve, in order to avoid the same mistakes humanity made. This can be a struggle. The earth itself is renewed; Wraeththu are not environmental predators in the same way humans were. Consumerism isn’t part of their world. Generally. But perhaps there are tribes somewhere who seek to emulate the past. A mythos leaves room for that. I’m free to explore within it.

‘The Moonshawl’ involves a character – Ysobi – who was a prominent figure in two other stories, but this one is properly his own. Primarily, it’s a mystery, a ghost story, set in the ancient valleys of what was known to humanity as Wales in the British Isles. A hundred years have passed since Wraeththu first appeared in the world, and the bloody conflict that accompanied their creation and humanity’s demise mostly lies buried beneath the returning green of Nature. But sometimes there are unquiet ghosts from those early days of carnage and transformation. Seeking to silence them rather than release them is unwise. This is the situation in which Ysobi finds himself, with a mystery from the past to uncover, its horrors to confront, and its ghosts to lay to rest. I trust that any reader coming to this story can immerse themselves in it without having read any of the other Wraeththu books. I want them to enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Ysbryd Drwg… the bad ghost

Ysobi har Jesith embarks upon a job far from home, where his history isn’t known – a welcome freedom. Hired by Wyva, the phylarch of the Wyvachi tribe, Ysobi goes to Gwyllion to create a spiritual system based upon local folklore, but he soon discovers some of that folklore is out of bounds, taboo…

Secrets lurk in the soil of Gwyllion, and the old house Meadow Mynd, home of the Wyvachi leaders. The house and the land are haunted. The fields are soaked in blood and echo with the cries of those who were slaughtered there, almost a century ago. In Gwyllion, the past doesn’t go away, and the hara who live there cling to it, remembering still their human ancestors. Tribal families maintain ancient enmities, inspired by a horrific murder in the past. Old hatreds and a thirst for vengeance have been awoken by the approaching feybraiha – coming of age – of Wvya’s son, Myvyen. If the harling is to survive, Ysobi must help him confront the past, lay the ghosts to rest and scour the tainted soil of malice. But the ysbryd drwg is strong, built of a century of resentment and evil thoughts. Is it too powerful, even for a scholarly hienama with Ysobi’s experience and skill?

The Moonshawl, an artefact of protection, was once fashioned to keep Wyvachi heirs from harm, but the threads are old and worn, the magic fading, and its sacred sites – which might empower it once more – are prohibited. Only by understanding what the shawl symbolises and how it once controlled the ysbryd drwg can Ysobi even attempt to prevent the terrible tragedy that looms to engulf the Wyvachi tribe.

stormconstantineStorm Constantine’s first novel, ‘The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit’, was published in 1987. Storm’s work has always crossed boundaries, broken taboos and ventured into territory not normally encountered in the fantasy and science fiction genres. In 1987 her ideas were unconventionally ground-breaking and the androgynous Wraeththu, with their hermaphroditic sexual magic were certainly a shock to the genre. Throughout her career to date, Storm’s work has covered many genres from fantasy, dark fantasy and horror to science fiction and slipstream. She can be found at stormconstantine.co.uk.

The Awakened Kingdom, by N K Jemisin

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 9, 2014

Summary: As the first new godling born in thousands of years — and the heir presumptive to Sieh the Trickster — Shill’s got big shoes to fill. She’s well on her way when she defies her parents and sneaks off to the mortal realm, which is no place for an impressionable young god. In short order she steals a demon’s grandchild, gets herself embroiled in a secret underground magical dance competition, and offends her oldest and most powerful sibling.

But for Eino, the young Darren man whom Shill has befriended, the god-child’s silly games are serious business. Trapped in an arranged marriage and prohibited from pursuing his dreams, he has had enough. He will choose his own fate, even if he must betray a friend in the process — and Shill might just have to grow up faster than she thinks.

Thoughts: I can’t even begin to say how much I love Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. I’ve read it through twice, and it’s inspired probably dozens of conversations by this point, because the world and the characters are so amazing and I sink into the stories like a hot bath. Not a warm bath. Hot. The kind of hot that’s just a little bit painful on the skin, but when you get used to it, you never want to leave.

So you can only imagine my excitement when I first heard that she was writing a sequel novella. The chance to read a new story set in a world I love so much? There is no downside here!

The story focuses on Shill, a newborn godling trying to find her place in the world, and deciding that the best way to go about it is to interact with mortals and learn about herself through learning about them. In the attempt to find her nature and to learn about mortals, she changes the world in ways unforeseen, and utterly spectacular.

There’s a powerful message in here about walking in the footsteps of others, and trying to live up to what you believe other people want of you. Shill believes she is supposed to be the next Sieh, the trickster and the child, and when she can’t make herself be what Sieh was, she gets frustrated and upset. It takes her a while to learn that she can’t be anybody but herself, that trying to be someone else is fairly useless, and that everyone has a niche to fill, a role to play, even if it’s not the one they expected. This was something that resonated fairly strongly with me, because for all it sounds like the message behind an after-school TV special, it’s a lesson that took me years to learn. I used to think the only way of being worthwhile was to imitate those whom I thought were worthwhile. I ended up being a poor copy of them at best, and it never felt true or right. So this is the sort of thing that even adults need to hear sometimes, not just young children.

The Awakened Kingdom being a novella, it’s a very quick read, but honestly, even had it been the length of a full novel I would call it a quick read simply because I’d be reading it obsessively and in every spare moment. Good books often seem like quick reads because you read them so much that you finish them in a relatively short amount of time. And Shill is a fun character because she’s so new to existence, so we get to see her learn and grow and make the kind of commentary that only comes about with childlike naive logic. Only when that naivite is in the hands of a godling, well, results are extra special. Such as Shill’s little warning not to go into black holes even though they “look like cute little Nahas.” Excellent advice. I shall follow it to the letter!

Of course, the reason for Shill’s advice and even for telling the story the way she does becomes evident at the end, and hearkens back to the way Yeine’s story was told in The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms. It may be a bit disjointed and it is the embodiment of the unreliable narrator, but there’s a point to it, a reason, and it becomes clear over time that it’s more than just a storytelling gimmick.

Like many authors have done in the past, Jemisin creates societies that flip our current stereotype of gender roles around, making women the aggressive leaders and men the ones who stay home and take care of the babies. This is fertile ground for strong female characters to arise, and arise they do! Jemisin also uses this to highlight the inequality in all such systems; a person’s worth is not and should not be determined by what’s between their legs.

But Jemisin’s writing stands head and shoulders above so many others who do this for one simple reason: when I read what Jemisin writes, I can truly believe that women can be strong because they’re women, not in spite of it. I’ve read plenty of books with strong women, but even in novels where gender equality is supposed to be the norm, strong female characters often come across as though they’re trying to prove that women can be equal after all. Jemisin’s women often give the impression of, “Yes, I’m strong. Obviously. What of it?” And I love that!

For fans of the trilogy, this is a must-have, because it’s a wonderful return to a wonderful world. For those who have yet to read the trilogy and are intrigued by this review, take heart, because it’s included in the omnibus edition that’s soon to be released! Even had I not been lucky enough to get a copy of this for review, I was planning on rebuying the books just so I could get to read The Awakened Kingdom, which I think is a sign of a strong and influential series that’s worth reading. Those who enjoyed the Inheritance trilogy will likely get the same kick out of Shill that I did, love the story as much, and, if they’re anything like me, reading it will make them want to read the original novels all over again.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Ria Plays: First Looks at Persona Q

I’m a big fan of the Persona series. The whole Shin Megami Tensei series, actually, and I highly recommend that people play these games if they like JRPGs with intelligence, a good twist on various mythologies (everyone loves a sympathetic Satan!), and games that like to eff you up in multiple ways. So when I first heard about Persona Q, a mashup of Persona 3 and Persona 4, I knew I had to have it. Those games are awesome. This one should be awesome too!

personaqAnd it’s not un-awesome, but it’s a little bit weird to get used to. There are 2 branches of play, either following the characters from Persona 3 or Persona 4, which eventually will converge so that you have access to all characters no matter which you started the game with. But the two beginnings give the game some replay value right off the bat, since seeing the different perspectives on the game’s start will not only be interesting but will (I hope) give a more complete image of just what’s going on.

But let’s just say that I can understand what some reviewers were saying about the game feeling like a fanfic turned into a video game. It really does feel very much like that so far, including small pieces of character degradation where it feels like some of them have lost the depth they held in the original games and are a few steps closer to being caricatures. Not so much that it really affects my enjoyment of seeing familiar characters in new situations, but enough that it’s noticeable.

(Though in fairness, so far from what I’ve played, it mostly just results in me rolling my eyes a bit and thinking that Akihiko and Shinjiro ought to get a room… And I probably would have thought that anyway.)

I’m not far enough in the game that I can really comment much on the plot, but I can comment on the gameplay mechanics. Persona Q doesn’t exactly play fast and loose with what was established in previous games for the protagonist, but it does twist the mythology in a way that makes me wonder about the implications. In Persona 3 and Persona 4, the protagonists were special, able to switch Personas at will where other people had only a single dedicated one. There was a reason for this beyond simple gameplay dynamics, as protagonists of each game were, to say the lease, very special. It was more than just the representation of the tarot card The Fool, the representation of the beginning of a journey and the idea that a person is full of potential. In Persona Q, each character is now somewhat affiliated with The Fool, as reality has twisted somewhat and current events are very weird. It’s not to the same extent that the protagonists have had in the past, with the ability to shift Personas at will, but now everybody has their fixed Persona and a sub-Persona that can be switched around to learn new spells and abilities. This may screw with the established mythology of the game, but it does allow for an interesting amount of customization, and the ability to balance out weaknesses and expand movepools. It takes some adjusting to, but it’s an interesting change, and it still encourages a good amount of level-grinding, so on the whole, I’m not opposed to that change.

pqbattleThe system of recovery and item creation is far closer to Persona 4 than to Persona 3. P3 was simple. Stepping out of the dungeons healed the party. Better items and weapons became available as time went on. P4 was more costly. Healing cost money. Items were created by the acquisition of dropped loot after battles, which you could sell for money and would, if sold in certain combinations or amounts, lead to the creation of new items to buy. That’s how it is with PQ, too. As such, you spend much of the early parts of the game flat freaking broke, occasionally having to leave some party members dead and switched out because you just can’t afford to revive them yet. At least the number of available party members is large enough that you can switch some out and bring in some new ones to allow a full battle party, which will let you go grind for items and levels until revival is an affordable option again.

Honestly, I think I’ve spent more time wandering around, grinding for items, than I have actually advancing the plot, and I still don’t have the best equipment for everyone. Every time I think I’ve caught up, BAM, a new weapon gets created that I can’t afford so I need to go back to the dungeon again…

But this isn’t a drawback, and if you’ve played previous Persona or SMT games in the past, this is just par for the course. These are games for those who love a good dungeon crawl combined with a story that will twist your mind into new and exciting shapes.

Persona Q isn’t a game I would recommend if you haven’t played P3 and P4 first, and yes, I do recommend you play them both because otherwise, jumping into this game, there’s going to be much that’s lost on you. Nothing essential to understanding the game, but more along the lines of character development and setting. If you play this before the others, you’re going to find yourself wondering who half of these people are, why you should give a crap about them, and why nothing about them is actually being elaborated on. It’s expected that you’ll already know. This is a revisit, not a first impression. That’s another way in which is resembles a fanfic, honestly; it’s taken as a given that you’re playing this game because you want a new story with familiar characters, a continuation or a branch-off of a previous game, not something entirely new.

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Overall, though, I’m happy with my experience of the game so far. I’m a big fan of the series, prone to playing and replaying, so a chance to revisit old favourites in new situations is awesome for me. And because I’m such a fan of the series, I also deemed that buying the premium edition of the game, seen above, to be a worthwhile use of my money. :p In addition to the game and 11 tarot cards with designs featured from the Persona games, I also got a music CD (which, admittedly, only has about 5 songs on it…), an artbook with character profiles, but the crowning piece of the collection is the Persona Q 3DS XL case! I don’t even have a 3DS XL! Just a regular one! But there was no way I was passing up on that case, because I love the design!

Why yes, I am a collector, and yes, I do fall prey to consumerism. Why do you ask? :p

But really, the premium edition is for the die-hard fans. The game you get is the same as the non-premium version, so unless you really want that artbook or the system case, hang onto your money and just go for the standard edition.

I’m really interested to see where the storyline will take me. The introduction of new characters Rei and Zen (who fight as one in battles, and who cannot summon Personas of their own) adds more than just a revisit to old characters, and the subtle riffing on video game tropes has made me chuckle at times. An antagonist has been hinted at, meaning this game is more than just a long series of dungeon crawls in an attempt to escape from the situation characters currently find themselves trapped in. There are mysteries to be solved, Personas to be fused, and hours of fun ahead of me, and honestly, I can’t wait to jump right back in!

The Young Elites, by Marie Lu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 7, 2014

Summary: Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Thoughts: The Young Elites surprised me in quite a few ways. From what I’d heard of the concept, I was expecting something in a modern or a near-future setting, maybe dystopian or post-apocalyptic, since when you think of teens dealing with superpowers, that tends to be the popular setting. But to have it take place in a secondary world, a fantasy setting, was unexpected. Magic exists in dozens of ways in fantasy settings, but YA fantasy seems to be a less common thing now than YA dystopias or sci-fi, so when I was presented with something a little more to my reading taste than I expected, I was pleased.

For much of the book, my opinion wavered between thinking it was a good book but had little to make it stand out from others (aside from the general quality of writing and storytelling, I mean; I suppose that alone can make a book stand out), and from feeling deeply bad for the main character, Adelina. Scarred by the blood fever that swept through the land years ago, and left with strange powers as a result, she is a malfetto, deemed worthless by most and an outright curse of society by others. For a long time her power did not surface, no matter how hard her father tried to influence them by a twisted mix of kindness and cruelty, physical and emotional abuse that made me cringe, until the night he decides to sell her into marriage to cover his own debts, cutting his losses on a “useless ugly daughter.” Then her powers manifest, taking the form of darkness and illusions that can kill, bringing about the death of her father and her subsequent capture and planned execution.

Enter the Dagger Society. Made up of people called Young Elites, malfettos with powers, who rescue Adelina and seek to use her to further their goals of overthrowing the current monarchy that declares them all to be cursed and the downfall of society. Enter the Inquisition, who want to use Adelina as a spy to learn about the Dagger Society’s plans, offering her a chance at redemption in the eyes of the gods if she helps eliminate the blight on the world, and who hold her sister captive as incentive. Adelina is torn between her need to save her sister and her growing attraction to the leader of the Daggers, Enzo, and is caught in the middle of a huge mess.

Adelina is an amazing character, in no small part because she is not your typical YA heroine. She has trauma, and that trauma affects every area of her life. She spent much of her life in an abusive family situation, with her father seeking to use her for what powers he thinks he can draw out of her. She transitions to a situation where two opposing groups seek to use her for their own gains. She is dark, her power born from pain and fear, and she has a desire to hurt those who hurt her, viciously and vindictively, and that is what sets her apart from others. Most YA protags, especially females, may have their hurts that make them tougher but ultimately they are still good. Chaotic Good, maybe, but there’s still that aspect about them. Adelina is more Chaotic Neutral, doing not what she does because it’s good or because she truly believes in one group or another’s goals, but from self-interest, and ofter from blind anger and for retribution rather than justice. Reading Marie Lu’s notes at the end about how she wanted to tell the story of a villain rather than a hero makes this even more interesting, since it works well to humanize villains and show them as people who can arise from the hurt and abused who are tired of letting that pattern continue and who are granted the power to stop it.

And the ending? Heartbreaking. And I can’t go into details here without letting loose a whole stream of spoilers, which would ruin much of the book for those who haven’t read it yet but still want to. All I’ll say is that however much The Young Elites may lean on tropes now and again, just about everything in the last few chapters was unexpected, and I didn’t foresee it at all! Which is impressive, and shows that Lu has some good skill at telling the story that needs to be told rather than telling the same story that everyone else already has.

The Young Elites is a quick read, made all the quicker for the good balance of action and emotion, since even the slower scenes of the book are revealing and do much to move the plot along. Little in here is filler. And it should be said that I didn’t experience my usual annoyance with the first-person viewpoint. I find that often with that viewpoint it takes much of the tension away from scenes that are supposed to be brimming with it, because you know, on some level, that the person you’re following will come out okay. Or at least won’t die. So throwing them into crazy action doesn’t actually do much to raise the tension of the story. But many of Adelina’s scenes did not involve throwing herself into danger, and when they did, it wasn’t the sort of danger that could turn deadly, so that problem was eliminated before it even began. Nicely done!

I can’t wait to read the sequel when it comes out. Lu has set up a wonderful villain for us to follow, an antagonist in a protagonists’s wrappings, and I want to know how the rest of the story unfolds. It’s easy to see that The Young Elites was merely setup to a larger and further-reaching tale, and there’s a lot that still needs to be resolved, so I’m joining the crowds that are eager for the sequel’s release so we can continue with Adelina’s story. Lu has got herself a new fan here, and one that definitely recommends this to those who are seeking a YA fantasy that is familiar and fresh all at the same time!

November in Retrospect

The year’s almost over. Just one month left, and 2014 will be done with and we’ll be on to a new year. It’s so weird to think of things that way.

Then again, looking outside my window right now, it already looks like January, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprised.

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(Okay, so maybe most of this melted in last night’s rain, but it still looked like this for days!)

But enough talk of the snow, because there’ll be more of that before there’s less! Let’s look at the books!

Reviews

The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan
White Space, by Ilsa J Bick
Closer to Home, by Mercedes Lackey
Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix
Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver
The Flight of the Silvers, by Daniel Price
Myth and Magic: Queer Fairy Tales, edited by Radclyffe
The Invisible Orientation, by Julie Sondra Decker

Wow, I didn’t actually think I’d made it to my goal of having 8 books reviewed this month. I thought for some reason that I was only at 6, and was starting to fret because I’d been somewhat lacking in content this month.

Of course, I didn’t think I’d managed to read a full 10 books, either, since it feels like I’ve barely had any reading time after returning to work a few weeks ago. But my spreadsheet confirms it; 10 books read. I guess I should know better than to trust my own perceptions by this point; they’re nearly always wrong when it comes to tallying up what I’ve actually done versus what I only think I’ve done.

Other Stuff

I did another On the Watchlist post, which I can happily say has ended with me having read one of the books and acquired two others!

I wrote an article about sexism in fiction, and what it ultimately means for those who demand to keep writing women in demeaning or confining ways.

I asked asking for opinions about adding new content to Bibliotropic, and through various responses here and across social media, I’ve decided to add more about the SFF movies I watch and the video games I play. The focus here will still be on books, but since SFF spreads across many forms of media that I also enjoy, I figure it’s worth a shot to talk about them a little more, too.

Upcoming

December is a time for lists! I’m been compiling my lists of top books of the year, books I wish I’d read, books I want to read in 2015, and all the other fun lists that I don’t doubt will be floating around dozens of other books blogs at this time of year.

I also have one, possibly 2 guest posts planned, which I’m quite excited about.

Since December will have a lot of those year-end lists, I’m not going to aim for my usual number of reviews. I’ll go for 4, maybe 5, because there’ll be plenty of other things to talk about other than just reviews. And since I don’t plan to cut back on my reading any, that’ll mean I’ll be able to stockpile a few reviews for the new year, so that I’m not scrambling for content or anything. (Though with my decision to also discuss video games and movies, I somehow doubt that I’ll be doing the desperate content dance again any time soon.)

So what about you? How was your November? Read anything good you want to recommend to me? And do you have any awesome bloggy plans for the last month of the year?

The Invisible Orientation, by Julie Sondra Decker

Today’s review will not feature an SFF book, so feel free to skip it if that’s what you come here for. But this book was am important one to me, a bit of a game changer in my life, and so I feel that it’s deserving of a review here even if it’s not what most people have come to expect from Bibliotropic.

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 2, 2014

Summary: What if you weren’t sexually attracted to anyone?

A growing number of people are identifying as asexual. They aren’t sexually attracted to anyone, and they consider it a sexual orientation—like gay, straight, or bisexual.

Asexuality is the invisible orientation. Most people believe that “everyone” wants sex, that “everyone” understands what it means to be attracted to other people, and that “everyone” wants to date and mate. But that’s where asexual people are left out—they don’t find other people sexually attractive, and if and when they say so, they are very rarely treated as though that’s okay.

When an asexual person comes out, alarming reactions regularly follow; loved ones fear that an asexual person is sick, or psychologically warped, or suffering from abuse. Critics confront asexual people with accusations of following a fad, hiding homosexuality, or making excuses for romantic failures. And all of this contributes to a discouraging master narrative: there is no such thing as “asexual.” Being an asexual person is a lie or an illness, and it needs to be fixed.

In The Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker outlines what asexuality is, counters misconceptions, provides resources, and puts asexual people’s experiences in context as they move through a very sexualized world. It includes information for asexual people to help understand their orientation and what it means for their relationships, as well as tips and facts for those who want to understand their asexual friends and loved ones.

Thoughts: I’ve talked in various places before about being asexual, and what that means for me. It’s something I’ve understood for a while now, and have grown pretty comfortable with, even if sometimes it’s a bit frustrating since it’s one of those things that isn’t very well understood and is often mocked or belittled by people who don’t know that much about it.

And for every person that’s ever asked me a stupid question about it, I wish I could just press a copy of The Invisible Orientation into their hands and say, “Here. All the answers are in here.”

I want to clarify. When I say stupid question, I don’t mean questions like, “So, what’s asexuality?” or “You mean you’re not sexually attracted to anyone?” These are smart questions. These are the questions that get asked by people who have understanding and compassion and the ability to realise that there’s more to the world than just what they’ve seen so far. Though really, most of the ignorance comes in the form of commentary rather than questions. “You can’t be asexual because you’re not an amoeba/bacterium/etc.” “You must have been abused as a child.” “My daughter went through a phase like that too.” “You’re too ugly to want to have sex with anyway.” And yes, I’ve gotten those comments, and others, over the years. The Invisible Orientation addresses this, from both sides. It’s not just a book for people who think they might be asexual. It’s also a book for people who’ve found out someone they know is asexual and they don’t know what to do or say, or just for those who want to understand asexuality better.

Asexuality, for those who want it in a nutshell, is a lack of sexual attraction to people. It doesn’t mean that a person’s genitals don’t function, that they are necessarily repulsed by sex, or that they can’t experience sexual pleasure. It simply means that someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction. Some asexuals experience romantic attraction, some don’t. Some are willing to include sex in their relationships, some aren’t.

It’s understandably a bit confusing for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t encountered asexuality before. The Invisible Orientation does stress a lot that behaviour is not the same as attraction, so yes, it is indeed possible for an asexual person to have sex and even enjoy it even if they don’t find it the driving force in their lives that many non-asexual people do. Decker likens it a few times to a gay man who has sex with a woman on a frequent basis; that doesn’t mean he’s not sexual attracted to men, nor does it mean he is sexually attracted to women. It’s taken for granted that a person’s sexual preference will dictate their romantic relationships, just as it’s taken for granted that a romantic relationship will become sexual (or else it’s not a “real” or mature relationship). But what if this isn’t the case? What if someone wants to be in a romantic relationship without wanting to bring sex into it at all? Does this lessen the romantic attraction in the relationship? Does it devalue the relationship somehow if both parties are okay with that?

It’s a complex issue, in no small part because asexuality isn’t well understood by most people. And Decker takes great pains to shed so much light on the whole thing, every aspect (or at least every aspect that I can think of, plus some I hadn’t considered before), and does so in a way that is brilliantly comprehensive and comprehensible.

Aside from being an amazing resource that gives clarity to many issues (“If someone has sex can they still call themselves asexual?” “What if I still have sexual attraction to people but it’s really low and not that important?”), this book gave me words to properly describe so many things that I’ve felt but didn’t have any idea how to express. I’ve known I’m asexual for some time, but how do I defend that against people who can rightly say, “Your experiences with sex weren’t that great, and your hormones were messed up at a key time of your development, and you did experience abuse as a child,” and that all leads them to the ‘reason’ I’m asexual. Those statements may all be true, and I can’t deny them, but every time someone brought that up, I didn’t have the right words to say why that all felt wrong, that they didn’t cause my orientation any more than an overbearing mother caused a man to be gay. I’d get frustrated and angry at my inability to express what I felt. Now, I have the words to say it all, and there is no end to the amount that I’m grateful for that.

This is, admittedly, the only book I’ve read on asexuality, so I can’t say for certain, but I honestly can’t imagine a better one. It came to me at the perfect time, erasing so much stress from my life within a week simply by allowing me to see, in someone else’s words and experience, all the things I’ve been struggling to reconcile. This is a fantastic resource for those who are asexual and those are who curious about asexuality, anyone who’s got questions about themselves or others, and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking answers about the issue.

(Received for review from the publisher.)