March in Retrospect

Holy crap, March is over! First it seemed like it would never get here, now it seems a bit like I blinked and a whole month vanished.

On a personal note, I’m settling into the new house decently, the snow has stopped burying me quite so much (and I’ve mostly dug my way out, with the exception of the back path that was nice and clear until a snowblower went by on the street and buried my path under chunks of ice again…), and the weather’s warming up nicely. Every Saturday this town has a farmer’s market, so then I take a walk and get most of that week’s groceries, and even though things are still cold I’m able to get local meat, eggs, and vegetables. And a local apple cider that’s so delicious, we’ve bought a 2 litre bottle each week so far, and we’ll probably continue to do so for as long as the orchard sells it! The main shopping area is only about 45 minute’s walk away, so it’s doable on nice days. I’m cooking more. I’m reading more. I’m getting read to reopen my Etsy shop and start selling my handmade things again.

In other words, life is pretty darn good right now.

But enough of the personal stuff! Let’s see what happened this past month on the blog, in all its bookish glory!

Reviews

Grimm Mistresses, edited by Amanda Shore
Flex, by Ferrett Steinmetz
The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow
Touch, by Claire North
The Thorn of Dentonhill, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Harrison Squared, by Daryl Gregory
The Dickens Mirror, by Ilsa J Bick
Beasts of Tabat, by Cat Rambo
Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

The first review I did for the SPFBO was Son of a Dark Wizard, by Sean Patrick Hannifin.

I normally aim to read and review 8 books in a month (though they may not be the same books). In March, I read and reviewed 10 books, which I’m pretty darn happy about!

Other stuff

I embarked on a new challenge, thanks to Mark Lawrence setting up the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and I talked about my first impressions of the batch of books I was assigned. I also set up a separate page to keep track of my progress and posts about those books.

I revisited my On the Watchlist feature to highlight some books that I have my eye on.

Upcoming

April’s shaping up to be a good blogging month too. I’m aiming for my usual 8 reviews, though if March is any indication, I may end up doing more. I’m aiming for a couple of guest posts and/or interviews, with some luck, so there’ll be more than just review here. The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off will continue, with more reviews and commentary on the books that are a part of it. Being lucky enough to not have to seek employment is doing wonders for my reading and my ability to keep this blog in good form, and I’m very much enjoying that luxury and don’t want to waste it, so more good content is on its way!

How was your March? Full of snow like mine, or milder with an actual hint of spring in the air?

On the Watchlist

It’s been a while since I’d taken a look at some of the books I’ve seen floating around the blogosphere, the ones that have caught my attention and make me wish I had a copy of them at hand. Whether they’ve yet to be released or have been on the shelves for years, today I’m looking at another 5 books that I’ve had my eye on.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V E Schwab

Kell is one of the last Travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes–as such, he can choose where he lands.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, ruled by a mad King George. Then there’s Red London, where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne–a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London…but no one speaks of that now.Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, personal ambassador and adopted Prince of Red London, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see–a dangerous hobby, and one that has set him up for accidental treason. Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs afoul of Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations, first robs him, then saves him from a dangerous enemy, and then forces him to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

But perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, Kell and Lila will first need to stay alive–and that is proving trickier than they hoped.

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

In the late Twentieth Century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins. The Great Magicians’ War left a trail of devastation in its wake. The Grand Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes and rubble and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those that survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation—or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires falls, so may the city itself.

The Vagrant, by Peter Newman

The Vagrant is his name. He has no other.

Years have passed since humanity’s destruction emerged from the Breach.

Friendless and alone he walks across a desolate, war-torn landscape.

As each day passes the world tumbles further into depravity, bent and twisted by the new order, corrupted by the Usurper, the enemy, and his infernal horde.

His purpose is to reach the Shining City, last bastion of the human race, and deliver the only weapon that may make a difference in the ongoing war.

What little hope remains is dying. Abandoned by its leader, The Seven, and its heroes, The Seraph Knights, the last defences of a once great civilisation are crumbling into dust.

But the Shining City is far away and the world is a very dangerous place.

Transhuman, by Ben Bova

Luke Abramson, a brilliant cellular biologist has one joy in life, his ten-year-old granddaughter, Angela. When he learns that Angela has an inoperable brain tumor and is given less than six months to live, Abramson wants to try an experimental new therapy that he believes will kill Angela’s tumor.

Her parents object and the hospital bureaucracy blocks the experimental procedure because it has not been approved by the FDA. Knowing that Angela will die before he can get approval, Abramson abducts Angela from the hospital. He plans to take her to a private research laboratory in Oregon.

Luke has turned his old SUV into a makeshift medical facility, treating Angela as best he can while they are on the road, desperately trying to keep his granddaughter alive long enough to give her the treatment he believes will save her life.

Abramson realizes that he’s too old and decrepit to flee across the country with his sick granddaughter, so he injects himself with a genetic factor that has successfully reversed aging in animal tests.

As the chase weaves across the country from one research facility to another, Luke begins to grow physically younger, stronger. He looks and feels the way he did thirty or forty years ago.

But will he be able to save Angela?

The Hum and the Shiver, by Alex Bledsoe

No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Enigmatic and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be a mystery, there are hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Bronwyn Hyatt, a pure-blood Tufa, has always insisting on doing things her own way, regardless of the consequences. Even though Tufa rarely leave Cloud County, she enlisted in the Army to escape the pressures of Tufa life–her family, her obligations as a First Daughter, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But after barely surviving a devastating ambush that killed most of her fellow soldiers, Private Hyatt returns to Cloud County wounded in body and in spirit. But danger lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

Now Bronwyn finds the greatest battle to be right here at home, where her obligations struggle with her need for freedom, and if she makes the wrong choice, the consequences could be deadly for all the Tufa…

SPFBO Review: Son of a Dark Wizard, by Sean Patrick Hannifin

As part of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, I’m not obligated to review any title but the one I choose as the best of my batch. However, I figure I’m going to stick to my usual rule when it comes to reviews: if I read it all, it gets a review. If I read it all, that means I considered it good enough to read it at all, rather than giving up partway through because the story or the writing or what have you just wasn’t doing it for me.

Books I review for this will be mostly the same as my usual review format, except that I won’t be rating things out of 5 cups but instead giving a mark out of 10, as per the challenge rules.

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – January 1, 2015

Summary: Thirteen year old Prince Sorren survived the surprise attack on his castle, but the young wizard’s life is left in ruins. His father’s been assassinated, he was forced to flee his castle, and he lost his left arm. But he’s not about to lose the kingdom his father promised would someday be his. He doesn’t care if his father’s assassin is a boy believed to be the Chosen One, or if the prophecy that foretold his father’s death also calls for his own death at the same boy’s hands. He sets out in search of the boy, ready to battle him face to face.

But the Chosen One keeps a powerful weapon, and Sorren soon learns that even a dark wizard’s powers will not be enough to take his kingdom back.

Thoughts: When Sorren’s father, the tyrant wizard Vonlock, is killed, the battle for succession begins. The Nyrish Council has a tradition that any council member can enter a challenge for Vonlock’s position as head of the council. Tradition also has it that Vonlock’s heir is automatically a council member upon Vonlock’s death. In an attempt to remove Sorren as a threat to their plans, they set him an impossible task as his challenge: defeat the one who killed his father, a boy known only as the Chosen One, whom prophecy dictates will bring about the fall of Vonlock’s legacy.

For a mid-grade novel (which I actually didn’t realise until I started writing this review; I figured it was YA), I have to admit that the story was pretty tight. Hannifin sets up an interesting world, one in which the populace has been under the thumb of a tyrant for a long time and has only just experienced their first taste of freedom. And then along comes this kid who aims to take up his father’s mantle and sit in his throne. The world is a decently fleshed-out one, at least what we see of it, and the pacing is even and it all flows pretty well.

The problem lies in the sheer lack of motivation both Sorren and the Chosen One have. In the Chosen One’s case, he’s a boy prophesied to bring down Vonlock’s entire family, but when he appears on the pages, he seems more like a kid that’s being manipulated by those more powerful and knowledgeable than himself, a figurehead thrust into his position and given the tools to do what people think he should do. We don’t get to see enough of him to know if he has any stronger motivation than, “Someone said I have to, so I have to.”

In Sorren’s case, I’m utterly at a loss. It would be easy to say that he spends the book doing what he does because he was set that task by the Nyrish Council, the conditions he has to achieve in order to attain power. But that only occurs because he insists on taking up the role in the first place, and there’s little reason why. There’s little sign he felt affection for his father, nor some great family tie that would lead him to view all this as his duty. He shows more affection to his friends and advisors, but only so far as they don’t stop him from setting out on his quest. He, much like the Chosen One, seems to be doing everything he does because that’s the role he’s expected to play, but never once do we see any sign that he’s even aware enough to consider that. He just plows on ahead, bent on fulfilling a task that he has no reason to fulfill. He defines himself as “the son of a dark wizard” multiple times, almost by rote, so I can maybe see that this all stems from being told he has to do it, but from where I stand, that’s not exactly sufficient motivation, since all that comes from just reading between the lines.

So the motivations of the two characters that really drive the plot are poorly defined, almost nonexistent, and it comes across like they’re there only because they have to be for a story to be told.

It was, however, easy to forget all that at times. The world Hannifin created is interesting enough to keep me distracted, multi-layered and multi-cultural. True, those layers do often consist of stereotypes common to fantasy, but that’s not always a bad thing. The bare bones may be similar to a dozen other novels, a bit generic, but it’s the flesh that matters, and the world of Son of a Dark Wizard feels strong enough to stand on its own feet, without being compared to another novel’s ‘verse.

Honestly, when I finished this book my first thought was that I would love to see this world expanded. It was a short read, not even 200 pages, and since it felt a lot more like YA than mid-grade (at least to me), I felt that some things were done a disservice — for instance, the lack of motivations I mentioned previously. Sorren didn’t read as though he was only 13; he came across as older than that, mid-to-late teens, so with that viewpoint in mind, I had it in my head that this book needed to be longer, more detailed, expanded and redone. Not because it was bad and had so many flaws to address, but because it was good, and I wanted to see more. Putting on my pseudo-agent hat, that’s what I’d likely recommend. Good story, needs some editing and revision, please resubmit if you ramp it up a notch.

This isn’t a book I necessarily would have picked up and read as my own choice, but it’s one that I did enjoy reading as part of this project. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s still a decent read, a quick adventure through a new land that offers things you don’t see elsewhere. Sorren lies somewhere between hero and anti-hero, a protagonist in shades of grey. The story relied on the prophecy as a catalyst for the story rather than letting the characters really do it themselves, but for all that, it was still decent, and Hannifin’s clear and vivid writing did a lot to bring the rest of the world to life and provide the interest that couldn’t be provided by the prophecy’s drive itself. Not the most original, but definitely decent.

(If you want to read this for yourself, it’s currently free through Amazon.com.)

Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 31, 2015

Summary: Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.

Thoughts: There’s something about this series that I don’t think will ever cease to thrill me. I suspect it comes down to the idea that a sufficiently curious child can walk out their front door, become fascinated with something in the natural world, and then go on to make great discoveries in that field. The idea that there’s still so much to learn about the world and that it can be learned with no more than a discerning eye, a mind for speculation, and the power of observation. I don’t want to imply that we’ve learned everything there is about the world we live in now; far from it. But it’s different now. Science marches ever onward, and where Isabella’s methods may involve comparing samples of scales obtained from locals, we would now put everything under a microscope and dissect it in minute detail. We’re no longer in a time where scientists can be followed like celebrities.

It makes me regret that this kind of time has passed, while simultaneously being glad that it did, because we know so much more than we did then.

And either way, this world has no dragons.

Voyage of the Basilisk takes place a number of years after The Tropic of Serpents, and details Isabella’s time aboard the ship called Basilisk, and she travels around the world in search of more information about dragons. Joining her are Tom, her son Jake, and Jake’s governess, and though you’d think it would be Tom who ends up side-by-side with Isabella in the discoveries she makes, it’s actually more often her son and a newcomer to the group, Suhail, who are with her in making the most significant discoveries. Add to it the usual political dance that accompanies any trip abroad, especially at a time where countries are very much bound by their borders and the idea of a global society has yet to take hold, and it all combines into an amazing scientific adventure.

It was interesting to see Jake take such a strong role in this book, since Isabella has, in the past, denied that she has much in the way of maternal instincts. Whether that’s true or not (it’s definitely possible to be a good parent without having the best instinct for it), Jake is finally old enough to be able to come along with her on her trips, getting to spend time with his mother at last and to go on display to readers of Isabella’s story (which, as with the other two books in the series, is written in the style of a memoir). Rather than just being a tag-along, he spurs Isabella into doing things she might not otherwise have attempted a few times, not all of which led to an advancement of the plot but at least provided inspiration later on. And, of course, at other times she was forced to curtail her activities for his sake. He was an active influence, rather than a passive one, and I’m curious to see if he shows up in any future installments of the series.

It’s a bit disappointing that the more exciting parts of the story didn’t really get going for quite a while. Most of the real interest takes place on Keonga, and the ship doesn’t even get there until the book’s about half over. The early scenes were important for setup, such as Isabella first encountering sea serpents, and her time in Va Hing, but they did leave the story feeling a bit without direction. Adrift at sea.

I do love how this Brennan uses the primary world as brilliant inspiration for Isabella’s world. Most authors do this, of course, but with Isabella’s globe-spanning explorations, you can practically superimpose a map of this world over hers and probably not be far off the mark. This is especially clear in the linguistic sense. Yelang was an analogue for China (not just some vague conglomerate of east-Asian stereotypes), and though it wasn’t expressed directly, knowing what little I do of Mandarin made it easy to figure that whenever a Yelangese term for a dragon was mentioned, leng was part of the phrase that meant, specifically, dragon. I want to say that Keonga was the analogue for Hawai’i, mostly based on the structure of names mentioned, but I’m not that familiar with Hawai’ian history and culture that I can be certain of it. Brennan works wonders with language and anthropology and biology, and it’s such a treat to read, encompassing about 90% of my own academic interests into one outstanding work of fantasy.

Voyage of the Basilisk, and the books that came before it, show themselves to be unique and intelligent novels, standing tall amid other offerings on the bookshelves. You can’t help but be filled with a sense of wonder and adventure when reading them, hearkening back to childhood memories when every new day was a discovery, and the whole world was yours to explore. Brennan captures that feeling with masterful skill, gives us a new world to dip our toes into — just watch out for sea serpents! — and leaves us with characters and stories who inspire and educate and delight, all in one. It blends historical fantasy and straight-up secondary world fantasy into one seamless whole. I enjoyed Voyage of the Basilisk as much as A Natural History of Dragons, each book as strong as the one before it, and I know this is a series that I’m going to return to more than once. Any series with reread value is a good series!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Beasts of Tabat, by Cat Rambo

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 1, 2015

Summary: When countryboy Teo arrives in the coastal city of Tabat, he finds it a hostile place, particularly to a boy hiding an enormous secret. It’s also a city in turmoil, thanks to an ancient accord to change governments and the rising demands of Beasts, the Unicorns, Dryads, Minotaurs and other magical creature on whose labor and bodies Tabat depends. And worst of all, it’s a city dedicated to killing Shifters, the race whose blood Teo bears.

When his fate becomes woven with that of Tabat’s most famous gladiator, Bella Kanto, his existence becomes even more imperiled. Kanto’s magical battle determines the weather each year, and the wealthy merchants are tired of the long winters she’s brought. Can Teo and Bella save each other from the plots that are closing in on them from all sides?

Thoughts: This was my first time reading Cat Rambo’s work, and from this introduction, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be reading more in the future. Most of my exposure to Rambo was in name only, hers being a name I at least recognized as one that I should read, should probably have already read.

So when offered a copy of Beasts of Tabat, I saw my chance and reached for it. I wasn’t disappointed.

Teo is a Shifter, someone who appears Human but who can change his appearance to that of an animal. In theory, anyway. Teo, for all his attempts, hasn’t managed that transformation, much to his shame. And when his parents trade him to the Temples in exchange for a cure for his sister’s illness, Teo takes it upon himself to rebel and run away, figuring he’ll make his own way in the world rather than be a bargaining chip. Running alongside Teo’s story is that of Tabat’s premier Gladiator, Bella Kanto, who is best known for being the one to delay spring’s arrival every year in a ritual tournament. Citizens of Tabat are understandably annoyed at a delayed spring for 2 decades running, and plots are under way to bring her down.

Honestly, I found Teo’s portion of the story much less interesting than Bella’s, though Teo’s parts were more engaging. From Teo’s perspective we see much of Tabat and its customs revealed, since he’s from a smaller village and has come to a big city and is forced to adapt. He’s a good medium for transferring a lot of that knowledge to readers, and for giving them a bit of a foothold on a world that is very well established and well built but that may not be too familiar to those who, like myself, haven’t read any of Rambo’s short stories set in the same world. But it felt as though more care was given to Bella’s parts of the story. Perhaps it was because her parts were written in first person while Teo’s were in third, perhaps it was because she was a mature woman and he was a teen, perhaps a mix of these and other things. But I found myself much more eager to read Bella’s story than Teo’s as the book went on.

Bella herself was a fascinating character, someone who was scarred by her past and who had made it her goal to put it behind her and rise above what it was assumed she would always be. She had high standards for herself and never failed to live up to them, even when it was pointed out that many people would benefit greatly if she stopped being so rigorous and exacting. More than once it felt as though she was using her public persona as a mask, a shield to keep her more private self locked inside, and it was almost as though she was striving to live up to herself, the image that others had of her. She was arrogant, but it was an arrogance that she’d earned. I disagree with many of the things she did, for she was a very selfish person at heart, but her flaws only made her more interesting to read about, and I think the entire novel could have been about her, from her viewpoint, and I would have loved it.

Beasts of Tabat was a comfortable length, neither particularly short nor dragging on too long, though it did take quite a while to get going. A good half of Teo’s chapters were largely setup to get him to meet Bella Kanto in the first place, to get entangled in a large rebellion, and much of the action of Bella’s chapters didn’t really kick up until the end. Hers seemed more like a character study. So while you may pick up this book expecting numerous high-action scenes, especially when you know there’s a gladiator in the mix, be warned that it’s a bit of a slow burn, taking its time in setting up small and subtle pins all over the place before rolling the ball that will knock them all down. But it is worth it, as the story that Rambo sets up is beautiful and intricate and with far more to it than you first expect.

This was a fantastic introduction to Rambo’s writing, and I can say without a shred of doubt that her worldbuilding is outstanding, wrought with care and full of fine detail that makes it all pop on the pages and come alive for the reader. From an omnipresent fish tea to a powerful woman’s strong sexuality to the way certain Beasts are treated by Humans, there’s a rich tapestry of a world here, one that feels full and complete and with so much potential for an infinite number of stories, which is something I always feel is the hallmark of a well-built secondary world. If the whole world feels like it revolves around the main characters, then the world isn’t very whole. If, as it does in Beasts of Tabat, the world expands beyond the characters, that the characters are shaped by the world rather than the reverse, then it’s a sign of a good and strong world, and that’s the kind that yields the best stories.

Whether you’re a fan of what Rambo has written in the past, or if, like me, you’re new-come to her work, there’s plenty here to entertain. It’s a world that will enthrall, with characters in the middle of real lives that go askew, believable and flawed and full of tremendous possibility, and the ending is such a cliffhanger that I really want to read the second book. Right now. (Is there a time machine I can use to go into the future and get it?) Rambo’s voice is strong and she addresses much that tends to get sensationalized in fantasy, only in a way that makes it all approachable and comprehensible and brings it down to a very human level of realism. Highly recommended, especially for the Bella Kanto parts!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Dickens Mirror, by Ilsa J Bick

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date -March 10, 2015

Summary: Critically acclaimed author of The Ashes Trilogy, Ilsa J. Bick takes her new Dark Passages series to an alternative Victorian London where Emma Lindsay continues to wade through blurred realities now that she has lost everything: her way, her reality, her friends. In this London, Emma will find alternative versions of her friends from the White Space and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Emma Lindsay finds herself with nowhere to go, no place to call home. Her friends are dead. Eric, the perfect boy she wrote into being, and his brother, Casey, are lost to the Dark Passages. With no way of knowing where she belongs, she commands the cynosure, a beacon and lens that allows for safe passage between the Many Worlds, to put her where she might find her friends—find Eric—again. What she never anticipated was waking up in the body of Little Lizzie, all grown up—or that, in this alternative London, Elizabeth McDermott is mad.

In this London, Tony and Rima are “rats,” teens who gather the dead to be used for fuel. Their friend, Bode, is an attendant at Bedlam, where Elizabeth has been committed after being rescued by Arthur Conan Doyle, a drug-addicted constable.

Tormented by the voices of all the many characters based on her, all Elizabeth wants is to get rid of the pieces under her skin once and for all. While professing to treat Elizabeth, her physician, Dr. Kramer, has actually drugged her to allow Emma—who’s blinked to this London before—to emerge as the dominant personality…because Kramer has plans. Elizabeth is the key to finding and accessing the Dickens Mirror.

But Elizabeth is dying, and if Emma can’t find a way out, everyone as they exist in this London, as well as the twelve-year-old version of herself and the shadows—what remains of Eric, Casey, and Rima that she pulled with her from the Dark Passages—will die with her.

Thoughts: This book is going to be difficult for me to review properly. In part because it’s such a brain-bender, requiring you to really really challenge your grasp of timelines and your sense of reality, and in part because a section of my brain just wants to make this review entirely out of swear words, because it’s just that amazing!

Continuing from where White Space left off, Emma is now trapped in the mind of Elizabeth, who is in turn trapped inside an asylum in an alternate-universe Victoria London that is besieged by a strange thick fog and a dreaded rotting disease. Rima, Tony, and Bode are also there, but as though they grew up in that London, rather than as the characters we got to know in the previous book. Kramer is still after the secret of the Dickens Mirror and the ability to jump to different Nows.

When I said this book is a brain-bender, I wasn’t exaggerating. Firstly, there’s all the ideas that got introduced during White Space. That book-worlds can yield real people. That characters in books can create characters of their own and in turn become real. That real people can have pieces of themselves put into characters in books and thus share a deep link with them. That time is an illusion. That’s all still in there, and is fundamental to understanding what’s going on. Then you add in a tweak on dissociative identity disorder, the question of whether characters are more real than the people who created them, and whether or not I as the reader am even real or whether Ilsa Bick is still writing me!

(No, seriously, I actually had a moment during this book where I doubted my own reality. The Dickens Mirror may go down in my personal history as the only novel to give me an existential crisis.)

Then it goes on to get even more meta with the ending, when Emma is sitting in a bookstore listening to an author talk about her new novel, The Dickens Mirror, and how it plays with multiverse theory, and Emma thinks that she hates it when characters in books have the same name as her. And while it’s a lovely little tongue-in-cheek scene, it also begs the question as to whether or not that Emma is the primary Emma, or whether that’s even an applicable question because of course she can’t be, she’s just a character in the book I’m reading, OH WAIT MY BRAIN HURTS AGAIN!

This is what you’re in for when you read this series. And I strongly recommend you do. It’s phenomenal, one of the best YA series to come along in years, and tragically underappreciated because it involves a highly complex plot that many people just don’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around. It’s not a light read. It may require you to keep notes so that the converging plotlines and multi-dimensional versions of characters keep making sense. It’s the kind of series you read when you want something utterly out of the ordinary, something to challenge you and your fundamental beliefs about reality and the nature of being. It introduces some advanced ideas that aren’t simple to comprehend and are even more difficult to apply.

But here’s the thing. If you can fall into the right headspace, throw aside your understanding of reality and just let the story carry you along, it still all makes sense. It’s a mind-twister for certain, but it’s still a cohesive story that gets a solid conclusion within the boundaries it sets for itself. It’s not trite. It’s disturbing on multiple levels, both with stomach-churning imagery and thought-churning quantum theory. I think it works best for people who already know how to look at the world sideways, who look at life from different angles and who don’t just accept things as they are because that’s what everyone says is so. It’s for people who love to ask questions and be challenged by the answers. And it’s a series with amazing reread potential, something with earlier scenes you can probably read completely differently when you already know the truth.

I can’t recommend White Space and The Dickens Mirror enough, I really can’t. Bick works wonders here, true wonders, and I have immense respect for someone who can sit down and hold this entire story in their head while writing it out. Take your time with this one, let the amazing characters and the outstanding story sweep you away, keep copious notes, and enjoy the ride. I’ve found a gem among gems, a novel with wide cross-genre appeal, and while it may take some getting used to, it’s worth every last second.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Harrison Squared, by Daryl Gregory

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 24, 2015

Summary: Harrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.

On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife­wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish­-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.

Thoughts: The somewhat meta-prequel to We Are All Completely Fine, Harrison Squared tells the story that Jameson hinted at in WAACF, the story of his childhood experiences in Dunnsmouth, where he discovered that there’s more to the world than the mundane. I say meta-prequel because in We Are All Completely Fine, Jameson admits to having written about his experiences in the form of fiction, changing his name from Jameson Jameson to Harrison Harrison. Fiction disguised as fact disguised as fiction, and this approach from Daryl Gregory doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. This could be considered a prequel, or an in-universe novel, or both.

This is what you get when you read Gregory’s novels. Something to make you think, something that isn’t quite what you expect and that challenges expectations. It’s one of the reasons why I love reading his work.

This book is pretty short, a nice quick read, and between this and the protagonist being a teenager in high school, it could easily be classed as YA. I’m not entirely sure it isn’t, but it doesn’t really feel like it, at least to me. Maybe it’s because it’s the prequel to a much darker novel, maybe it’s because the publisher has its own YA imprint and this book wasn’t published through them, I don’t know. Either way, there’s enough crossover here that fans of both YA and adult fantasy can find something to like here, especially when their interest falls to Lovecraftian fiction.

It’s an interesting mystery that Gregory crafts here, at first seeming like Harrison’s problem will lie in figuring out why everyone at his new school are so weird (and that goes beyond the typical teenager definition of weird; most teenagers don’t have coded finger-tapping communication, attend classes on how to reanimate frogs using a car battery, or spent morning assemblies chanting in a strange incomprehensible moaning language), progressing to solving the mystery behind his mother’s disappearance. Those who have read We Are All Completely Fine will see bits and pieces of everything Jameson talked about, from Dwellers to the Scrimshander. This was a double-edged sword, since while it was interesting to see how the character encountered all these concepts and people, in the end it felt almost as though the author was trying to shoehorn as many of them in as possible. They did all play a part in the plot, at least, but it still started to feel a bit cramped with references by the end.

Still, it’s a fascinating and complex story that Gregory builds, layers upon layers of little points of interest that could have been done away with — such as fingercant — without changing the story much at all. But its their presence that adds realism to the dark fantasy, which I always love to see. People are always more complex and varied than the stories they take part in; Gregory has been excellent at expressing this in prior works, and this is no exception. The bad guys are not always people who the protagonist dislikes, and the good guys are not always the ones who instantly flock to the golden boy. They’re not always intensely dedicated to one goal and one alone. And you don’t always seen everything of them during the course of the story. There were characters with stories that I very much wanted to see elaborated, particularly within the group of teens who weren’t so keen on the cult-like activities of Dunnsmouth’s adults. There’s another host of novels (or at least a large collection of short stories) in those characters, and I’d love to read them. Gregory really has the knack of making people on pages feel real and expansive.

I can definitely recommend Harrison Squared to those who read and enjoyed We Are All Completely Fine. That much I’m sure of, and those who read the sequel first will probably appreciate the references and tie-ins. Those who haven’t read it, though, I think will probably think that this is definitely a decent book but probably won’t appreciate it as much as those who have stepped into the mythos beforehand. Some of the fun was in seeing what connected things to We Are All Completely Fine, and though it functions perfectly well as a standalone novel, I do recommend reading the two books together. They make a much more comprehensive picture together, complementing each other well, and the experience is better for it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Thorn of Dentonhill, by Marshall Ryan Maresca

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 3, 2015

Summary: Veranix Calbert leads a double life. By day, he’s a struggling magic student at the University of Maradaine. At night, he spoils the drug trade of Willem Fenmere, crime boss of Dentonhill and murderer of Veranix’s father. He’s determined to shut Fenmere down.

With that goal in mind, Veranix disrupts the delivery of two magical artifacts meant for Fenmere’s clients, the mages of the Blue Hand Circle.  Using these power-filled objects in his fight, he quickly becomes a real thorn in Fenmere’s side.

So much so that soon not only Fenmere, but powerful mages, assassins, and street gangs all want a piece of “The Thorn.” And with professors and prefects on the verge of discovering his secrets, Veranix’s double life might just fall apart. Unless, of course, Fenmere puts an end to it first.

Thoughts: Sometimes you like books because they introduce something new and incredible to your world, expanding your viewpoint and challenging preconceived notions and doing so while they take you along on an amazing ride through places you never expected. Other times, you like books because they’re just fun, good and simple fun, relying on the tried-and-true and tweaking it just enough to make it a unique story in its own right but still leaving enough comfortable familiarity to let you enjoy it without really taxing yourself.

The Thorn of Dentonhill is definitely in the second category.

Veranix is a university student, studying magic and approaching his graduation. But by night, he’s a bit of a vigilante, seeking out drug users and dealers and putting whatever dents he can in the machine that is the drug trade. Veranix has a massive hate-on for the drug effitte, having seen it destroy the lives of those close to him in one way or another, and he’s determined to undermine the trade by any means necessary. So when he comes across what seems to be a drug deal but that actually turns out to be the trade of a seemingly normal cloak and length of rope, his life spins just a little further out of control when he finds himself in the middle of artifact-trading and dark magical rituals and happenings that go far beyond the relatively simple drug busts he’s used to.

The book starts off a little shakily, with a rather meandering story and a few awkward infodumps about magic that seem very much out of place for the characters involved but are nevertheless somewhat important to the reader. It’s established that Veranix is both student by day and drug buster by night, leading his double life, but it’s not until he finds that cloak and rope that the story really gets started, and, as such, tightens up dramatically. The downside to this is that those giving the book a 3-chapter try might find themselves bored and wondering where the actual story is, and may end up giving up on the book because nothing really happens for a while, and as such end up missing out on a fun novel because the early pacing isn’t that great.

But rest assured, once it does get going, it really gets going. Things improve a lot after that one scene, so it’s worth sticking with.

Maresca has taken the time to do some interesting worldbuilding, which shows up less in the scenery and more in the characters. For the most part, it’s a fairly generic fantasy world with just a few tweaks, but nothing you couldn’t transplant into just about any other classic fantasy world already in existence. Magic is fuelled by drawing on energy, known as numina. The streets have gangs, some better than others, some worse. There’s a destructive drug problem. Mages guard their secrets and stick together in cliquish Circles. Fairly standard stuff that could pop up anywhere, and has a dozen times over. But it’s in the characters that it all really comes together and you see glimpses of a wider world than just the streets of Maradaine. Mages have a very high metabolism, and the more powerful the mage, the more they have to eat to fuel themselves. Street gangs have their own ways of doing things, their own divisions of territory and speciality. Slang shows up in ways that make you really feel like the world goes back a lot further than just the characters we’re seeing on the pages now, that they’re just a small part of something much more complete. I was impressed by the way the world shaped and showed in the characters, rather than the other way around. It gave everything a much more well-rounded feel than you often get in fantasy novels that take place in such a small span of time and over a very small area (less than a city, really, since you only get to see the university and a few streets and buildings).

For those who enjoy their fantasy filled with action, there’s definitely plenty of that in here. It may not be dark and gritty with gory and horrific wounds all over the place, but there’s a good amount of energy and tension more often than not. It’s neither bloodless nor sanitized, but it does feel like clean violence, so to speak, more along the lines of what you’d seen on TV when something has a PG rating. It’s there, it’s exciting, but it’s not tremendously graphic. Which, honestly, adds to the light and fun feel of the book overall. It actually does a lot to keep the pacing of the novel rather tight, which may be part of the problem of the early chapters; there’s very little action there and a whole lot of setup.

One thing I did particularly like about this book is that it addresses the creation of legends in an amusing way. Veranix at one point, and only one point, calls himself the thorn in Fenmere’s side. From there, the idea sticks, and then snowballs, until he’s known on the streets at the Thorn, a local hero, and with an image that is a bit larger than life. One small phrase and before he knows it, he’s a local legend, with people rooting for him and using him in propaganda. Veranix didn’t set out to create that image of himself for other people to hero-worship. He was just doing what he does, and the rest happened in the minds of those who heard the stories. I thought it was a great way of presenting how a person’s image can change in the public eye not because of something that they’re done, but because of something the public wants and thinks. The image of Veranix became larger than the man himself, and he had to content not only with living his usual double-life and trying to solve the mystery of the cloak and rope, but also with keeping people from finding out who this new superhero really was.

But when all is said and done, The Thorn on Dentonhill is a pretty good fantasy novel, good for relaxing reading when you don’t feel like immersing yourself in something entirely new. It’s got plenty to keep readers turning the pages, at least once they get past the early bits, and enough action and mystery to have them speculating right alongside the characters. I’m definitely interested in seeing what Maresca will do with the world in future novels, because while this novel could stand alone in its own right with no need for any continuation, I can’t shake the feeling that there are more stories to be wrung from this world, and I want to be there when they are. Definitely a fun read, and one classic fantasy fans will likely enjoy.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off: First Impressions

(I plan to do periodic updates about how the challenge is going, alongside any reviews of books that I may do, since this challenge is more than just about who wins the coveting bragging rights. It’s an experience for both the authors and the bloggers, and I like transparency in such things, so it’s only fair that I give what I’d like to receive.)

So we all have our lists and our books and some of us have already read a book worthy of positive review, which is a great start to the challenge! For my part, I’d like to take a moment to share some of the highlights of the books that I’ve received, books from the list that have caught my attention either through covers, titles, or blurbs.

Titles

I know it seems a bit strange to go, “Ooh, that book sounds interesting just based on its title,” but really, titles and covers are our first impressions of books, most of the time. If  were given a choice as to whether to read The Farm Boy’s Destiny or The Eye of the World, I’m probably going to go with the latter. One title wears its heart on its sleeve, leaves you no mystery about what the book will involve, whereas the other is a bit more ambiguous and makes you wonder a little bit about what it’s all about; it gives nothing away.

So here are a few of the titles on my list that stood out, that made me think, based on title alone, that I might want to look closer.

Chisel and Frost, by A E Marling
City of Burning Shadows, by Barbara Webb
The Bone Flower Queen, by T L Morganfield

That isn’t to say that all the others had terrible titles. These are just the ones that stood out to me on the list, based upon nothing but the words themselves. So in a sense, these books passed a test. The titles made me want to look a little closer, find out more about them, see what they’re all about, and that’s one of the first hooks an author can get into potential readers.

Covers

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and eh, I’m a bit on the fence about that. On one hand, you shouldn’t condemn or praise the story or a book based upon the cover. But the cover is another of those early introductions that can either grab a reader or make them turn away.

I hate to say it, but covers are where I find a lot of self-published books fall down. And it’s somewhat understandable, because art and design is expensive and time-consuming and not everyone can afford those things. And I get that, very much so. On the other hand, novels where it looks like someone just spent half an hour throwing together a couple of hazy images in Paint and then slapped some text over it is a bad first impression. It may not be an accurate one, but it can put potential readers in the mindset of thinking that if the quality of the cover is bad, then what’s inside must be of similar low quality.

But this isn’t always the case, which is why I want to share some of the best covers I found amongst my batch of books.

lastkingsamulet protector sonofadarkwizard srapplings

I think I’m a little bit in love with the cover for Protector, and I really like the simplicity and originality of Scrapplings.

As before, these aren’t the only covers I liked, and there were far more good-looking covers than I expected to find, but these were the ones I liked best, and I wanted to show them off a little.

Blurbs

Blurbs are fun. They’re the back-of-the-book descriptions that we see when we’ve declared a book has passed the other two tests and we’re sufficiently intrigued enough to pick the book up and ask, “So what’s this all about?” And there are a few blurbs that really interested me when I looked through the list, so here are some highlights.

Fall From Grace, by Edward Richie. Heaven: a paradise of all that is pure in Creation. Led by brothers Michael and Satanail, the Angelic Host is a testament to cosmic harmony and love. But when an unprecedented revelation threatens to uproot their peace, a schism splits the Host’s loyalties. Every angel has to make a choice: faith or freedom. Good or evil. Salvation or damnation.

War consumes Heaven in the first and most destructive loss of life that Creation will ever know. As brother turns on brother, the fate of Heaven and Earth rests in the hands of the Creator’s chosen son, Michael. How far will he go, what will he sacrifice in the name of their Father, to protect his family?

Witness the tragic downfall of a civilization told from both sides of a bloody rebellion. More than myth, more than legend, Heaven’s war will forever stand as a harrowing warning that even the purest of souls can fall from grace.

(I confess I’m a little bit of a sucker for stories involving fall angels, which is why this one caught my eye almost immediately.)

A Call to Arms, by Audrey Gardinier. Gibben Nemesio is in trouble.

His parents are dead, his sister is missing, and he’s been left the sole provider for his two younger brothers. With a war brewing in the east and no guarantee of surviving another brutal winter, Gib’s life is plagued by uncertainty. To make matters worse, he suddenly finds himself uprooted from his home and drafted into the army.

Forced to leave his siblings behind, Gib reports to Silver City, where he enrolls in the legendary Academy of Arden. An outsider and misfit, Gib struggles to blend in among the highborn city folk. His charming candor eventually wins him a handful of friends—an enigmatic mage trainee with a secret, a young girl who has defied tradition by joining the military, and a prince looking to escape his stifling, royal life. But his new-found comrades may not be able to help when Gib alone overhears a traitorous plot—a scheme so horrible that if seen to fruition, all of Arden will suffer for it. It’s up to Gib to convince the High Council of Arden to act, to stop the terrible danger, before it’s too late.

(Okay, the description seems to be a bit heavy on the tropes, but it interested me anyway. It seems like the sort of thing I’d enjoy when I’m in the mood for something light.)

The Chosen, by Annette Gisby. The neighbouring kingdoms of Oscia and Arcathia have been at a tentative peace for three years after centuries of warfare. Prince Severin of Arcathia has been brought up to put duty before all else and as the only son of the King and Queen, it is his duty to marry and produce an heir. His parents want him to marry an Oscian princess to cement that tentative peace. Unfortunately Severin isn’t interested in princesses. Now, if he had his pick of princes that would be another matter.

Havyn has been a slave all his life. When his aptitude for wizardry is discovered, he finds himself purchased and freed by Prince Severin and apprenticed to the royal wizard, Ildar. His duty is to stay chaste to keep his powers strong, but his feelings for Severin sorely test his resolve.

With kingdoms at war, the throne hanging in the balance, magic in the air, and outside forces trying to keep them apart, can the two men find happiness together, or is duty more important than love?

(I’m also a sucker for GLBTQA fantasy, so as much as I normally don’t go for heavy romantic plots, I kinda want to read this. A lot.)

There. 10 books highlighted, and out of 26. That’s almost 40% that I liked the sound of based upon nothing but the title, the cover, or the blurb. I think that what this alone has proved to me is that yes, there are clearly some self-published books out there that can and do catch my eye and make me want to read them. They just have to be brought to my attention first. Which is the entire point of this challenge, after all. To bring these books to the attention to those who might not otherwise find them Maybe there are some books here that might interest a couple of my readers and who have decided to check one of two of them out, based upon nothing but the fact that I saved them  the time and energy of searching.

That’s part of the kicker of self-published books, I think. There are so many, and far fewer people reading and reviewing them than traditionally-published books, so the search is that much harder. And most of them are digital, so it’s not like you can just go to your nearest bookstore and start idly browsing covers until one jumps out at you. You have to search through pages and pages and pages of titles on Amazon, hoping you find something before you just get frustrated and give up because the good stuff is in there, somewhere, but it’s harder to find them. Maybe all it takes is a trusted blog or two talking about these books for sales to pick up, for more people to find a good story they never knew existed.