8 Books I Wish I’d Read in 2015

No matter how much I try, I’ll never manage to read all the books in a year that I want to read. It’s just impossible. I can usually get through most of the ones I have my eye on, but I’ll never get through them all, because there are too many good books coming from too many good authors, and I just can’t read quickly enough.

So I thought I’d devote a little bit of time to highlighting the top 8 books that I wish I’d read in 2015.

Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list. It’s just the top of the pile of books that I actually have in my collection, which doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books that were actually released this past year!

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When the Outland People abandoned a baby girl on the outskirts of a village, few imagined that she would grow up to marry into the illustrious Akakuchiba family, much less that she would develop clairvoyant abilities and become matriarch of the illustrious ironworking clan. Her daughter shocks the village further by joining a motorcycle gang and becoming a famous manga artist. The Outlander’s granddaughter Toko—well, she’s nobody at all. A nobody worth entrusting with the secret that her grandmother was a murderer.

This is Toko’s story.

 

~*~

 

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Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation-especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.

As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace-or failing that, to save as many people as they can.

~*~

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Every two thousand years, the dark star Oma appears in the sky, bringing with it a tide of death and destruction. And those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers. The kingdom of Saiduan already lies in ruin, decimated by invaders from another world who share the faces of those they seek to destroy.

Now the nation of Dhai is under siege by the same force. Their only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable –magic. As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.

But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?

In this devastating sequel to The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley transports us back to a land of blood mages and sentient plants, dark magic, and warfare on a scale that spans worlds.

~*~

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An exiled captain returns to help the son of the king who died under his protection in this rich and multi-layered first book in an action-packed new series.

Twenty two years have passed since Kellas, once Captain of the legendary Black Wolves, lost his King and with him his honor. With the King murdered and the Black Wolves disbanded, Kellas lives as an exile far from the palace he once guarded with his life.

Until Marshal Dannarah, sister to the dead King, comes to him with a plea-rejoin the palace guard and save her nephew, King Jehosh, before he meets his father’s fate.

 

~*~

 
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Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion in this flintlock epic fantasy debut from a two-time Campbell Award finalist.

Prince Nels is the scholarly runt of the ancient Kainen royal family of Eledore, disregarded as flawed by the king and many others. Only Suvi, his fraternal twin sister, supports him. When Nels is ambushed by an Acrasian scouting party, he does the forbidden for a member of the ruling family: He picks up a fallen sword and defends himself.

Disowned and dismissed to the military, Nels establishes himself as a leader as Eledore begins to shatter under the attack of the Acrasians, who the Kainen had previously dismissed as barbarians. But Nels knows differently, and with the aid of Suvi, who has allied with pirates, he mounts a military offensive with sword, canon, and what little magic is left in the world.

~*~

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Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

~*~

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In Seth Dickinson’s highly-anticipated debut The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a young woman from a conquered people tries to transform an empire in this richly imagined geopolitical fantasy.

Baru Cormorant believes any price is worth paying to liberate her people-even her soul.

When the Empire of Masks conquers her island home, overwrites her culture, criminalizes her customs, and murders one of her fathers, Baru vows to swallow her hate, join the Empire’s civil service, and claw her way high enough to set her people free.

Sent as an Imperial agent to distant Aurdwynn, another conquered country, Baru discovers it’s on the brink of rebellion. Drawn by the intriguing duchess Tain Hu into a circle of seditious dukes, Baru may be able to use her position to help. As she pursues a precarious balance between the rebels and a shadowy cabal within the Empire, she orchestrates a do-or-die gambit with freedom as the prize.

But the cost of winning the long game of saving her people may be far greater than Baru imagines.

~*~

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Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

By Ria Posted in 2015

Top 10 SFF Books of 2015

There were so many books that came out in 2015 that I regret not having read, books that I hear were fantastic and I probably would have loved them, but for whatever reason I didn’t read them, or couldn’t, or what have you.

But that’s not to say that I didn’t read any books of note this past year. On the contrary. Even if I couldn’t read all the books I wanted to, I still found some absolutely fantastic novels. So here’s my chance to bring them all together in one spectacular post, so you can see which of 2015’s books stood out for me.

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Review here.

Summary: Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career… chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind, and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech programme inches towards a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past… and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: The fate of mankind has nothing to do with mankind…

Born of an angel and a daimon, Diago Alvarez is a singular being in a country torn by a looming civil war and the spiritual struggle between the forces of angels and daimons. With allegiance to no one but his partner Miquel, he is content to simply live in Barcelona, caring only for the man he loves and the music he makes. Yet, neither side is satisfied to let him lead this domesticated life and, knowing they can’t get to him directly, they do the one thing he’s always feared.

They go after Miquel.

Now, in order to save his lover’s life, he is forced by an angel to perform a gruesome task: feed a child to the daimon Moloch in exchange for a coin that will limit the extent of the world’s next war. The mission is fraught with danger, the time he has to accomplish it is limited…and the child he is to sacrifice is the son Diago never knew existed.

A lyrical tale in a world of music and magic, T. Frohock’s In Midnight’s Silence shows the lengths a man will go to save the people he loves, and the sides he’ll choose when the sidelines are no longer an option.

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: After a lifetime of avoiding his family, Fort has discovered that working for them isn’t half bad—even if his mother, Madeline, is a terrifying, murderous vampire. His newfound career has given him a purpose and a paycheck and has even helped him get his partner, foxy kitsune Suzume, to agree to be his girlfriend. All in all, things are looking up.

Only, just as Fort is getting comfortable managing a supernatural empire that stretches from New Jersey to Ontario, Madeline’s health starts failing, throwing Fort into the middle of an uncomfortable and dangerous battle for succession. His older sister, Prudence, is determined to take over the territory. But Fort isn’t the only one wary of her sociopathic tendencies, and allies, old and new, are turning to him to keep Prudence from gaining power.

Now, as Fort fights against his impending transition into vampire adulthood, he must also battle to keep Prudence from destroying their mother’s kingdom—before she takes him down with it…

~*~

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Summary: Love something enough, and your obsession will punch holes through the laws of physics. That devotion creates unique magics: videogamemancers. Origamimancers. Culinomancers.
But when ‘mancers battle, cities tremble…

ALIYAH TSABO-DAWSON: The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl. Burned by a terrorist’s magic, gifted strange powers beyond measure. She’s furious that she has to hide her abilities from her friends, her teachers, even her mother – and her temper tantrums can kill.

PAUL TSABO: Bureaucromancer. Magical drug-dealer. Desperate father. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the government’s conscription squads of brain-burned Unimancers, and he’ll lie to anyone to keep Aliyah out of their hands – whether Aliyah likes it or not.

THE KING OF NEW YORK: The mysterious power player hell-bent on capturing the two of them. A man packing a private army of illegal ‘mancers.

Paul’s family is the key to keep the King’s crumbling empire afloat. But offering them paradise is the catalyst that inflames Aliyah’s deadly rebellious streak…

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

~*~

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Summary: Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings — cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.

Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.

 

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: Dev’s never been a man afraid of a challenge. Not only has he kept his vow to his dead mentor, rescuing a child in the face of impossible odds, but he’s freed his mage friend Kiran from both the sadistic master who seeks to enslave him and the foreign Council that wants to kill him.

But Kiran’s master Ruslan is planning a brutal revenge, one that will raze an entire country to blood and ashes. Kiran is the key to stopping Ruslan; yet Kiran is dying by inches, victim of the Alathian Council’s attempt to chain him. Worse yet, Dev and Kiran have drawn the attention of demons from the darkest of ancient legends. Demons whose power Dev knows is all too real, and that he has every reason to fear.

A fear that grows, as he and Kiran struggle to outmaneuver Ruslan and uncover the secrets locked in Kiran’s forgotten childhood. For the demons are playing their own deadly game – and the price of survival may be too terrible to bear.

~*~

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Review here.

Summary: Global unrest spreads as mass protests advance throughout the US and China, Nexus-upgraded riot police battle against upgraded protestors, and a once-dead scientist plans to take over the planet’s electronic systems. The world has never experienced turmoil of this type, on this scale.They call them the Apex – humanity’s replacement. They’re smarter, faster, better. And infinitely more dangerous.

Humanity is dying. Long live the Apex.

By Ria Posted in 2015

The Labyrinth of Flame, by Courtney Schafer

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Author’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2015

Summary: Dev’s never been a man afraid of a challenge. Not only has he kept his vow to his dead mentor, rescuing a child in the face of impossible odds, but he’s freed his mage friend Kiran from both the sadistic master who seeks to enslave him and the foreign Council that wants to kill him.

But Kiran’s master Ruslan is planning a brutal revenge, one that will raze an entire country to blood and ashes. Kiran is the key to stopping Ruslan; yet Kiran is dying by inches, victim of the Alathian Council’s attempt to chain him. Worse yet, Dev and Kiran have drawn the attention of demons from the darkest of ancient legends. Demons whose power Dev knows is all too real, and that he has every reason to fear.

A fear that grows, as he and Kiran struggle to outmaneuver Ruslan and uncover the secrets locked in Kiran’s forgotten childhood. For the demons are playing their own deadly game – and the price of survival may be too terrible to bear.

Review: If you’ve followed my reviews or see me around on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably heard me rave about the two previous books in the Shattered Sigil series, The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City. I adored them. So very much. They inspired dozens of conversations with friends, speculation about how the series would end, and yes, plenty of discussions about shipping certain characters, too (you know the ones I’m talking about). It got me excited in the way few other series have managed to do in recent years, and I had amazingly high hopes for The Labyrinth of Flame.

And despite how high my hopes were, Schafer still managed to surpass them.

The book starts shortly after where The Tainted City left off, with Dev and Kiran making their way to Prosul Akheba, trying to keep a low profile so that neither Ruslan nor demons find them. Kiran is still missing the memories burned away by Ruslan, is reliant on a dwindling supply of a drug, and must face the fact that some part of him is undeniably connected to the demons that dog their footsteps. As if dodging Ruslan and demons wasn’t enough, there’s a tribe of Shaikar-worshippers chasing them, and the solution to all of their problems might be buried in memories Kiran didn’t even suspect he held.

It’s a layered plot of chaos and desperation, and pretty much as of about 1/3 of the way through, the pace doesn’t let up for a second. “One more chapter” syndrome hits hard. There are new reveals and new dangers around every turn, the plot gets even more full of twists and complications, and yet it never once feels like things are over the top, or like the author is trying to one-up anything previously done. The story all flows naturally, it all makes sense, and it isn’t filled with big impressive events just for the sake of big impressive events. It’s beautifully done, and I enjoyed just how much I was on the edge of my seat for most of the reading.

It is, however, really difficult to talk about the plot of the book because so much happens, so many things change, that it’s tough to give context without also giving spoilers. I could talk about how Kiran develops his confidence and his power, or how Dev might finally have learned to stop living in a convoluted web of deceit caused by making too many promises to too many people, but to say more than that would risk spoiling some major plot twists, or else remaining pointlessly vague. I often find that some of the best books are the hardest to review; they’re better read than read about.

There are definitely things that I can talk about without introducing too many spoilers. I love, for instance, how Melly got a decent-sized role in The Labyrinth of Flame, where in previous books she got a couple of scenes and largely existed as Dev’s motivation. Here, she finds strength and plays an active part of the story, not content to be a tag-along or to be shunted to the side because of her age. I love the parallels between Kiran and Ruslan, and how they both take the “I’m doing this for your own good” path even as they approach from opposite ends. I love seeing how Ruslan and Lizaveta are more than just generic villains; they always were, even in previous books, but you get to see more of their past here and more of how they think and what influences them, and it’s a wonderful piece of insight into how twisted by grief and power a person can become.

I love the way the book challenges cultural norms all over the place, but particularly I like how it does this with romance and relationships. A presentation of people who don’t typically follow a pattern of only choosing one partner at a time but instead are rather polyamourous (and more fluid in their associated sexuality, at least sometimes, and depending on the person) is wonderful to see in fiction, not because I believe that’s the only proper way to have a healthy relationship, but because it breaks molds and shows that there are more ways to have a healthy relationship than just monogamy. I love to see this stuff explored, and I love that Schafer explored it with respect and compassion.

The same thing can be said for sexuality, in that there’s a surprisingly amount of positive bisexual representation in this book. It’s not something you see that often, to be truthful; usually characters that break sexual molds are almost always gay, and bisexuality doesn’t get brought up that often. But here you not only have a main character who’s perfectly okay with romance and sex with either gender, but multiple main characters who feel that way. And it’s presented as absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. No surprise, no comments of, “I didn’t know you felt that way,” no revelation, nothing. Just acceptance of that’s how some people are, and that’s how some characters themselves are, and what’s so weird about that?

Which brings me to the book’s ending, and I have to say this: the ending of The Labyrinth of Flame is quite possibly the most satisfying ending to a series I’ve ever read. It ties up everything wonderfully, leaves room for the future, and left me with flailing around like an idiot over what happens to the people I ship. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any possible better way for this book and this series to have ended. It closed on a high note, filled with hope and optimism even for difficult tasks ahead, and I’m going to be honest with you all — I actually just went and reread the last chapter again while writing this, because I love the ending that much. It left me with the first book hangover I’ve ever experienced, and despite having just reread the first two books in the series in preparation for reading this one, all I wanted to do when it was over was pick up The Whitefire Crossing and start over, so that I didn’t have to leave the world and characters behind.

Fantasy just doesn’t get much better than this!

You are my anchor stone; abandoning you would mean ripping out the best part of myself.

Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

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

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

SPFBO Review: The Weight of a Crown, by Tavish Kaeden

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – August 9, 2011

Summary: Thousands dream of it; still more die for it. Yet, how many can truly bear it?

After centuries of bitter conflict the realm of Esmoria is at last united under the banner of a single king. On the surface the realm appears to be enjoying its first taste of peace, but lingering resentment and the untimely death of the new ruler threaten to return Esmoria to political chaos.

Meanwhile, in the farthest reaches of the frozen north, a dethroned monarch’s plot for revenge awakens a long-forgotten evil. As darkness and treachery descend upon the realm, a young escapee from a forced labor camp, a disenfranchised soldier, and an epileptic engraver’s apprentice find themselves at the heart of the troubles.

Thoughts: I seem to have saved some of the best of the SPFBO novels for last, entirely inadvertently. I have to say, though, it was a great way to close out the challenge! The Weight of a Crown may not have been the absolute best book I read, but it was pretty high up on the list, and for the faults I could find with it I have to also admit that I had a very hard time putting it down.

The story revolves around 4 main characters: Bokrham, regent to the Blood Marsh throne, struggling with the politics of having to hold a kingdom strong against threats both from without and within; Jeina, a convict sent to a labour camp to atone for her crime, who stumbles upon an ancient secret and has to flee for her life; Xasho, a Curahshena warrior who stumbles across some fascinating and life-changing weapons after a military blunder, and Nicolas, once apprentice to an engraver but now associating with the only one who can both explain the strange quality to his seizures and keep them from killing him.

You’ll notice this is the point where, in my reviews, I typically mention how their separate stories all come together to make a cohesive narrative. The reason I didn’t do so there is because it takes about half of the book before you really start to see hints of how their stories might be connected, and it’s not until after two thirds of the book have passed that everything comes together. Until then, it feels like you’re reading a book of entirely separate stories that just happen to take place in the same world. And in the early sections of the book, where each chapter ends with an exciting event or a question or some form of impending change, the constant flipping back and forth between multiple utterly-disconnected characters did leave me wondering why I should care about them. I felt like the chapter endings were supposed to be more impressive, to have you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen the next time that character’s chapter comes around, but it didn’t really do that for me, not for quite a while.

So is this a drawback? Well, yes. While multiple character perspectives are fine, especially when they all come from very different backgrounds and see things in different ways, having there be little or nothing that connects them makes the overall story very hard to grasp. I could tell you, at the halfway mark, what was happening in every individual’s story. But the overarching plot of the novel? Not a clue, at that point, and that’s a lot to expect readers to hang in there for.

It also means that it’s difficult for me to mention just about anything about said overarching plot without spoiling events that will take readers most of the book to actually reach.

And yet I still really enjoyed this book. The chapters were short, which was a drawback in terms of character development but it also meant that “one more chapter” syndrome was very easy to fall into. Kaeden’s writing style was very fluid, very engaging, and not knowing what was going on until relatively late in the book, I found myself enjoying the journey to that discovery. For me, it was one of those books that pulls you in very easily, the kind that, when you do stop reading, makes you wonder just how so much time could have passed because it didn’t feel as long as it was. It’s amazing how much that kind of readability can make up for other weaknesses.

So where do I stand on The Weight of a Crown? Given that I enjoyed it so much, I’ve got my eye on the sequel, for one thing. For another, I have to say that this too is a book that shucks off perceived limitations of self-published novels. If you work under the assumption that all self-published novels are ones that weren’t good enough to be taken on by traditional publishers (which clearly isn’t the case, but bear with me on this), then I’d swear that this one did come from a traditional publisher. The quality’s there, as is the effort, and the potential for improvement. So this was a fantastic book to end the SPFBO challenge on, and one that I’m very happy to have been able to read. It may take a while to really get going, but it’s worth the time you put into it, and I’m curious to see how Kaeden’s writing career will further develop.

SPFBO Review: Bloodrush, by Ben Galley

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – December 16, 2014

Summary: “Magick ain’t pretty, it ain’t stars and sparkles. Magick is dirty. It’s rough. Raw. It’s blood and guts and vomit. You hear me?”

When Prime Lord Hark is found in a pool of his own blood on the steps of his halls, Tonmerion Hark finds his world not only turned upside down, but inside out. His father’s last will and testament forces him west across the Iron Ocean, to the very brink of the Endless Land and all civilisation. They call it Wyoming.

This is a story of murder and family.

In the dusty frontier town of Fell Falls, there is no silverware, no servants, no plush velvet nor towering spires. Only dust, danger, and the railway. Tonmerion has only one friend to help him escape the torturous heat and unravel his father’s murder. A faerie named Rhin. A twelve-inch tall outcast of his own kind.

This is a story of blood and magick.

But there are darker things at work in Fell Falls, and not just the railwraiths or the savages. Secrets lurk in Tonmerion’s bloodline. Secrets that will redefine this young Hark.

This is a story of the edge of the world.

Thoughts: I’m not much for westerns. They just don’t really interest me. So while I had it on good authority that Bloodrush was a good novel, I saved it for one of the last books of Round 2 just because I expected that it really wouldn’t end up being my thing after all.

So colour me surprised when it turned out that I really loved it!

This is more than just a fantasy with western elements. This is alternate historical fantasy. Or possibly it would be better to say that it’s a parallel universe rather than just alternate history, since alternate history tends to imply that a major event went a different way and history branched from there. This is alternate in the way that His Dark Materials is alternate; there are plenty of parallels, you feel generally comfortable knowing the place and time, but there are enough differences to make it stand out and the culture is noticeably affected. Whether you’re taking a stroll through London’s Jekyll Park reading about the politics of England’s Prime Lord and Queen Victorious, or you cross the Iron Ocean to visit the New Kingdom of America, Galley’s vision of a twisted past shows much care and attention to detail. The more small changes were unearthed, the further I fell happily into the book, because it was another layer for me to explore.

Tonmerion Hark, known to his friends as Merion, has been sent away against his will, following the murder of his father. For reasons unknown to him, he has been sent to live with his aunt in Wyoming, an ocean and a country away from the Empire he grew up in, until he comes of age and receives his inheritance. But the circumstances of his father’s murder are mysterious, and Wyoming is a terrifying place on the frontier and is filled with strangers and angry creatures, and Merion quickly finds himself with another ten questions for every answer. Together with Rhin, his faerie companion and exile in his own right, they won’t stop until they get to the bottom of the mysteries now plaguing Merion’s new American life.

While Tonmerion is only 13 at the outset of the book, this isn’t what I’d label a young adult novel. The tone is darker, more detailed and mature, and though the detail of blood and gore is kept to a tasteful level, details of dissecting mutilated corpses isn’t something you’d typically find in books where the protagonist is Merion’s age. So if you start off hoping to find a YA story within these pages, however creative, you’re probably going to end up disappointed. This is an adult fantasy with a young adult protagonist, something that isn’t commonly done but that Galley did very well. You can’t help but roll your eyes at Merion’s entitlement, which comes across very well as a young rich man who suddenly finds himself in what he views as an uncultured place full of ignorant people not giving him his due. He straddles the line between innocent ignorance and outright arrogance, which gives him the overall feel of being a lovable young jerk with the potential to grow.

Mention must be made of the magic system in Bloodrush, which involves ingesting blood in order to gain powers or abilities from the source. The power to do this runs on Merion’s bloodline, and to read that, you’d think that the his discovery of this would be one of those things that’s a huge surprise to him but not to the reader because of course the protagonist has to have magic when magic is available. The thing of it is, you go through more than a quarter of the novel before you even start to pick up hints that there’s something going on that involves blood, but full details aren’t really revealed until later, so it’s a slow building of small hints that creep up on you. I didn’t figure there would be magic at all in this book, or at least not magic that wasn’t Fae-oriented. Galley has this fantastic ability to bring you into it all so slowly, so carefully, that you don’t quite realize your view of the world is shifting until it’s shifted.

But for all that, Bloodrush isn’t a slow burn kind of novel. It starts off by throwing you into the thick of things and keeps bringing new situations in with a steady pace that begs to have you keep reading just one more chapter, just one more, so you can keep the story going and find out what’s happening now.

Echoing my comment on What Remains of Heroes, I can easily see this book getting enough interest that traditional publishers might want in on the action. It’s unique, it’s highly entertaining, the pacing is superb, and the characters varied and a lot of fun to read about. This is one is one of the best of the bunch, definitely worth paying attention to, and if it’s not one of the top 3 SPFBO novels, I’ll be extremely surprised.

SPFBO Review: What Remains of Heroes, by David Benem

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 8.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 17, 2015

Summary: Lannick deVeers used to be somebody. A hero, even. Then, he ran afoul of the kingdom’s most powerful general and the cost he paid was nearly too much to bear. In the years that followed, his grief turned him into a shadow of his former self, and he spent his days drowning his regrets in tankards of ale.

But now an unexpected encounter casts Lannick upon an unlikely path to revenge. If he can just find the strength to overcome the many mistakes of his past, he can seize the chance to become a hero once more.

And with an ancient enemy lurking at the kingdom’s doorstep, he’d better…

Thoughts: Every so often, when reading self-published novels, you run across one that makes you wonder why the author chose to buck tradition and go with self-publishing as their main option. Was it because self-publishing was quicker than sending manuscripts to agents and/or publishers and hoping for the best? Was it because they saw an opportunity to make a greater financial return on their efforts? Was it because they did apply with agents and publishers and their novel was turned down?

I sincerely hope it wasn’t the last one. David Benem’s What Remains of Heroes is exactly the kind of novel that breaks down the stereotypes about the quality and content of self-publishing, and makes me think that if a traditional publisher did pass on this one, it was to their detriment.

Lannick is a man who used to be someone. Loving family, prestige, captain of an army. Until he made a mistake and paid the price, and now spends his days drunk and in debt. Until he makes another, more costly mistake, and finds himself thrust into a plot of old gods and new heroes. Bale is a priest, channeling magic in the name of the goddess of light, studying forbidden histories and legends that turn out to have more than a grain of truth to them. Through good luck or ill, he is sent to investigate the murder of the head of his religion, to uncover the truth about strange dealings and religious secrecy. Karnag is a mercenary, the man who killed the head of Bale’s order, whose companions now watch in confusion and fear as he turns aside from his old life and heads toward a new frontier of blood and carnage as war approaches, following the new voices and urges in his head that tell him his hands will never be stained with enough blood.

Within the space of half a chapter, I found myself wanting to keep reading with no interruptions. What Remains of Heroes dips into the darker side of fantasy without being overly depressing or brutal. There’s plenty of violence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s in appropriate levels for the various situations, and none of it feels like the author was trying to be dark and edgy for the sake of being dark and edgy. Each of the primary characters feels, to a degree, out of place in the world at large, even if they have their place within their particular microcosm, and especially with Lannick and Bale there seems almost a desperate attempt to make sense of where they fit in, what their role in. Karnag’s struggle is of a similar but different sort, trying to adjust to how he has changed and why, and Fencress’s challenge is, in part, figuring out what happened to Karnag.

It’s worth taking a moment to express here that while there’s a serious minority of female characters in this book, and Fencress’s story is very much entwined with Karnag’s, Fencress herself is not some cardboard cutout character, intended only to show what’s happening with Karnag. Her role starts small and grows much larger as the story continues, and she is very much a solid well-defined character in her own right. I loved reading her chapters, because she’s a great character, and also the type of female character that doesn’t get showcased very often in male-dominated fantasy. Most female characters in such books are either prizes or backdrops for the hero, or else they’re good fighters or mages and can hold their own in a fight, absolutely, but are also held up as an ideal, a paragon of light and good. Fencress is a mercenary, at home with intimidating and putting knives in people if they stand between her and her goal, and she knows it. She’s nobody’s ideal and she has no interest in pretending to be so, and for that, I love her.

There’s some good worldbuilding in here, too. It, like many other books I’ve encountered in this challenge, is built on a foundation of medieval European fantasy, but that’s no a bad thing, and there’s still plenty of scope for originality within those bounds. And Benem works to create a dark fantasy world that’s manages to be familiar without feeling overly stereotyped, complex without being bogged down in complications from attempts to add too many never-before-seen things. It may not be the most original setting, but it is well crafted, and it feels as complete as any other good fantasy world I have encountered. It doesn’t break any boundaries, but it’s very good at being what it is.

Benem’s writing shines amid a sea of lackluster novels, and it’s no surprise to see that What Remains of Heroes passed to the second round of the SPFBO challenge. It’s a strong first novel, impressive and well done, and it’s got wonderful appeal to fans of dark traditional fantasy who are looking for some new voices. This was a fantastic find, and I’m already looking forward to the second book in the series! I expect that What Remains of Heroes will be a strong contender for the crown in the SPFBO, when the final scores are tallied.

SPFBO Review: Shattered Sands, by W G Saraband

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 6/10
Author’s GoodReads page
Publication date – August 7, 2015

Summary: For years, Tamazi felt she was nothing like the other slave-girls. It was not until her master disappeared, the Great Vizier of the desert kingdom of Rilmaaqah, that a power older than the sands themselves took hold of her; a power that could finally free her, or enslave her forever.

Rilmaaqah is in chaos. The fires of rebellion spread, and the winds of change threaten the Mageocracy, as the common people rise with the courage to claim their share. But the sands hide many things, and it falls to an unlikely group of people to put a stop to death, before she sings her lullaby to the living.

Thoughts: I can’t say that Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy is popular these days, exactly, but I do seem to come across more and more of it as time goes on. Shattered Sands falls firmly into that category, which makes it a welcome change from most of the other books in the SPFBO, which are largely the European-based fantasy that has become a genre standard.

The story is an interesting one, and it starts out grabbing the reader’s attention rather than allowing for a slow build. There is a power struggle in Rilmaaqah, political lines one the verge of shifting. Moreso when the ruling vizier vanishes, taken by force, and the only person who comes close to being a witness is his slave, Tamazi, who stood outside his door when the disappearance happened. Tamazi, who seems like little more than what her surface shows, until an unforeseen event shows her to be something far more. Running parallel to her story is that of Sabra, a young woman whose father has died under mysterious circumstances, and who, without his knowledge of tonics, is now prone to debilitating headaches that belie a far more serious and interesting condition. As these two go about their journeys of discovery, alliance shift, war approaches, and magic seems to be at the centre of it all.

I’m a fan of non-European inspiration in fantasy worlds, so Shattered Sands definitely delivers in that regard. But more than that, Saraband takes the obvious inspiration and builds upon it, not simply transposing one region from this world into a secondary world, but using it as a foundation to build something more concrete and stand-alone. It is more than just its source. Saraband plays with language in a way that looks, at first glance, purely like Arabic, but there are enough differences to say that the language, too, is built upon a solid foundation until it becomes something new in its own right. I love seeing the little touches like history and geography, things that don’t have to be there per se, but that make for a much more interesting setting when they are. So kudos to Saraband for putting the work in where worldbuilding is concerned.

So why the relatively low rating if the world is interesting and the story is good? Because, in short, this book just wasn’t ready. It suffers from an all-too-common problem with self-published novels: a lack of editing. This ranges from very odd turns of phrase (such as a comment that rumours don’t “make [someone] justice”) to incorrect word usage (“recipient” was used when “receptacle” would have made far more sense”), common mistakes in similarly spelled words (“then” versus “than”) to just plain missing words (“I’m a servant Emperor Apion”).  The language often had a rather stilted feel to it, too, which is somewhat forgivable since it lends well to an epic story that seems like a story, rather than a series of epic events that one is watching or participating in, and given the setting, the author may have been going for an Arabian Nights feel in that regard. Also I’m aware that English is not the author’s primary language, which can make writing a large story that much more difficult.

However, I feel that just underscores the need for solid editing, rather than excusing a lack of it.

Shattered Sands definitely has great potential, and I can see why it made it to the second round of the challenge. There’s a great story in here, one that was entertaining to read, but the lack of editing makes it a contributor to the notion that self-published books are rushed to market sooner than they ought to be, and I can’t recommend it much when part of the job remains undone. I can, however, see returning to this book and rereading it if it gets the editing it needs. Good stories deserve quality treatment in that regard, and this book deserves better than to suffer for its lack.

SPFO Review: Priest, by Matthew Colville

Buy from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble
Rating – 8/10
Author’s GoodReads page
Publication date – May 28, 2010

Summary: After years spent in the inn he bought and never opened, Heden is drawn out, and sent into a dark forest to investigate the death of a knight.

Nothing is what it seems. Why was Heden chosen for this mission? Who killed the knight and why? Why won’t anyone talk to him? As the Green Order awaits Heden’s final judgement, he finds his morality, perspective, and sense of self are each challenged and then destroyed.

Perhaps nothing, even right and wrong, can survive in the haunted wood.

Thoughts: There’s a certain amount of truth in the stereotypes about self-published fiction. It’s less likely to be as well-edited as traditionally published work. There a lot of bad stuff out there that you have to slog through to find the good stuff. But the good stuff is worth reading when you find it.

This, my friends, is the good stuff.

Heden’s a man with a mysterious and undiscussed past, and man who owns an inn that never opens, who does favours for the church and clearly has a history with them but who seems to see religious dealings in more of a practical light than a spiritual one. He’s a man who knows that the expedient thing isn’t always the thing that saves you the most trouble in the end, a man who baffles people around him by his mix of action and inaction. A man who is chosen by the church of Cavall to investigate the Green Order, and why this reclusive group of knights who have lived in isolation for centuries are dying out, and what that means for the church and for Heden himself.

There’s a high degree of cynicism that goes along with this story, shown primarily in Heden’s dealings with the Green Knights themselves. The Order holds true to knightly ideals, for good and for ill, which is bound to be frustrating when an outsider comes in and starts demanding that people explain themselves when they’ve vowed to keep silent about the deal of their Knight Commander. For all that none of them are comfortable with what happened, and know that Heden is there to judge and to bring justice if he can, they stick to their code and refuse to reveal the truth, a conflict of interest that makes Heden seem to want to beat his head off walls at times. At what point does being loyal to an ideal absolve you of betraying someone who holds to that same ideal? The reader’s frustrations mirror Heden’s as he and the Knights talk circles and get nowhere for much of the book.

Which admittedly was not the most fun to read, and I think a few conversations would have been better cut or at least condensed. Conversations about nothing tended to drag on for pages, and while it certainly gave me a good feel for what Heden was going through, it slowed the story down. And considering Heden’s on a bit of a time limit to solve the Green Order’s problems (without absolution, the Knights can’t leave in defense of a soon-to-be-attacked town, and without truth, Heden can’t give absolution), slowing down the story to focus on circular conversations may not have been the best move.

One thing I really loved about Priest is the way I just fell into the world, a comfortably familiar fantasy setting while still showing signs of personal tweaking by the author. While the book largely focuses on human characters, there are plenty of non-human races mentioned all over the place. Urq, who are not just orcs with a weirdly spelled name but instead seem to resemble trolls from the Elder Scrolls games, aggressive and bred for battle and hatred of other races. Brocc, a sort of anthropomorphic badger people. Polder, which I kept picturing as a cross between a gnome and a hobbit. Little tweaks all over to make the world feel original, fleshed-out and full, while still being a very clear traditional Western-based fantasy.

The biggest drawback this book had, aside from the frustrating circular conversations and the way every piece of information practically had to be squeezed out of characters, was the modes of speech. Now, I like the way the Knights had their cant, talking with “thee”s and “thou”s because that’s how they believe knights should speak. I thought that was a nice touch. But it’s always a bit strange to hear characters say, “Okay,” when you’re dealing with secondary-world fantasy. And people said that a lot in Priest, jarring me out of the reading groove whenever it happened.

I can rationalize this to an extent by my usual belief that characters in secondary-world fantasy are not speaking English, so their words on the page are, essentially, a translation for the reader’s sake. And so I can stretch that a little further to say that when characters said, “okay,” it was in place of a similar slang term in the affirmative, one that’s used as commonly there as “okay” is here. But it still felt out of place, a modern interloper.

But really, those are minor nitpicks when you compare them to the way I just fell into this story and didn’t want to leave it. This is the sort of novel people ought to pay more attention to in the self-published piles. It’s not perfect, but it’s a cut above most of the rest, and it’s a great example of the treasures that can be hiding behind other offerings. I enjoyed Priest from the first page, the tone of the writing and the way the characters came to life so quickly, and I have to say that this one leaves my hands quite well-recommended.

SPFBO Review: The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, by Michael McClung

Buy from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble
Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 28, 2012

Summary: “They butchered Corbin right out in the street. That’s how it really started. He was a rogue and a thief, of course. But then, so am I. So when he got himself hacked up in front of his house off Silk Street, I decided somebody had to be made to pay. They thought that they could just sweep him away like rubbish. They were wrong.”

Amra Thetys is a thief with morals: She won’t steal from anybody poorer than she is. Fortunately, anybody that poor generally doesn’t have much worth stealing! But when a fellow thief and good friend is killed in a deal gone wrong, Amra turns her back on burglary and goes after something far more precious: Revenge.

Review: A thief with morals isn’t a new thing in fantasy fiction, but even if it has been done before, seeing it again is still a welcome change from the brutish rogue who indiscriminately steals from anyone who passes them on the street. That alone can turn the idea of the thief from a flimsy stereotype to a more realistic character, one you want to pay attention to because they’re likely not just there to be part of the background.

Amra Thetys is such a character. However, you don’t actually get to see too much of her being a thief. You get to see her living on the fringes of society, her not being your typical “nice girl” and instead being fairly rough around the edges, but the biggest way her being a thief comes into it is that she knows other thieves and fences and that knowledge pulls her into the book’s plot. When fellow thief Corbin comes to her and asks her to safeguard an item he stole while he deals with double-crossing clients, Amrys agrees to keep the ugly statue hidden. It’s not until Corbin is found dead on the streets that things start to get hairy. Nobility gets involved. Secret identities are revealed. And Amrys finds herself in the centre of a messed up situation involving the statue and magic and some revelations about the city of Lucernis that keeps both Amra and the reader fairly well on their toes.

While I can’t say there was a lot of world-building per se, there was a good deal of city-building, since Amra doesn’t leave Lucernis to explore the wider world. The story is well contained within the city’s boundaries, resulting in no need for additional details about the world the characters aren’t really interacting with. It’s good that things didn’t get bogged down with loads of information about outside things that aren’t relevant to the plot, but it did give the whole thing a feeling of strong isolation. As thought Lucernis exists entirely apart from the world around it, disconnected and alone. I like the detail that was put into Lucernis and its idiosyncracies, the wonderful things that make it unique and give it depth and character all its own, so it’s not like the lack of outside connections hurt the development of it as a real-seeming place, but it still had that oddly isolated feel that made me wonder if, at this point in the series, there were any plans to take the story outside the city at all.

As a comparison, Marshall Ryan Maresca’s Maradaine novels all take place within the same city, but that city feels very much connected to the rest of the world, with a variety of people from different places and mentions of other cities and all of that. I found similar stuff to be lacking in The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids.

Amra did make an interesting character to ride on the shoulders of, though. With her sarcastic jaded worldview, she made an excellent counterpoint to the sheer number of fantasy characters who always see goodness and hope in any situation. Amra wants to get things done so that Corbin’s death can be avenged and she can go on living the way she wants to live. The book is told from her viewpoint, first-person perspective, so her internal commentary is abrasive and intelligent and wonderful to read. I love her tone, I love the way she can be rude and snarky and ride the line between being great to read about without being over-the-top insulting to anything and anyone. McClung struck a great balance with the book’s tone.

The pacing was swift and fairly even, the lore around Lucernis was done well and was interesting, and Amra is a character unlike many others, all of which combined into a quick fun read. I’m definitely glad this one made it to the second round of the challenge, and it’s definitely a worthy contender.