Saint’s Blood, by Sebastien de Castell

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 7, 2016

Summary: How do you kill a Saint?

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are about to find out, because someone has figured out a way to do it and they’ve started with a friend.

The Dukes were already looking for ways out of their agreement to put Aline on the throne, but with the Saints turning up dead, rumours are spreading that the Gods themselves oppose her ascension. Now churches are looking to protect themselves by bringing back the military orders of religious soldiers, assassins, and (especially) Inquisitors – a move that could turn the country into a theocracy. The only way Falcio can put a stop to it is by finding the murderer. He has only one clue: a terrifying iron mask which makes the Saints vulnerable by driving them mad. But even if he can find the killer, he’ll still have to face him in battle.

And that may be a duel that no swordsman, no matter how skilled, can hope to win.

Review: Tristia is falling even more into chaos, and the weight of fixing it lies on the shoulders on Falcio and his companions. Aline is so young to rule, and yet she must stand up and be the queen few people want her to be. Falcio himself has terrible flashbacks to his time being tortured, yet can’t leave things alone and is constantly pushing himself past his limits in the attempt to improve his land on the orders of a dead king. Ethalia’s role in the world changes dramatically, much to her consternation and confusion. Kest’s ability to use swords is waning. Brasti is, as ever, Brasti. And as if that all wasn’t enough, now along comes a new threat in the form of monotheistic zealots who feel no pain and are inhumanly strong, seeking to destroy the Saints and to establish a theocracy in Tristia instead.

Myself, I love reading books that involve twists on religion, especially when those twists show what can happen when religion gets out of hand. Bonus points for throwing in the debate over whether deities were there before people prayed to them, or whether people prayed to them so they were created (like a far more metaphysical “chicken or egg” issue). That de Castell does just those things in Saint’s Blood makes me very inclined to like it, and I’d probably do so whether or not I’d enjoyed the first two books in the series beforehand.

As with the previous books, I absolutely adore the dialogue, especially between Falcio, Brasti, and Kest. The way they banter and play off each other is a real treat to read, and it makes me grin a lot. True, some of the jokes get a little old since they’re played so often (in particular, the long-running gag about Brasti not being able to find the right word for what he wants to express), but even that’s not overdone to the point where all the humour is lost. But the interplay between those three characters is superb, and does so much to really drive home the idea that they’re comfortable around each other and have worked together for a long time. They have the banter of friends, of long-time colleagues, and it’s great to read.

De Castell has great skill with writing a complex story that slowly reveals itself piece by piece. As opposed to some books I’ve read, which have an equally complex and multilayered story as Saint’s Blood, the book isn’t spent drowning the reader in unfathomable acts which only make sense once the final reveal has happened. There’s nothing wrong with that method of storytelling per se, and it can make for a great reread so that you can see events unfold with the end knowledge in mind, but I vastly prefer books where I figure things out only a few pages before the characters themselves do. It feels a lot like I’m on the journey with them, invested as much as they are, and they’re trying to puzzle things out in the same way that I am. It keeps me invested in the progression, the story as both a whole and a series of steps, and the way the plot with God’s Needles was uncovered was just wonderful. It takes skill to peel back the layers little by little without revealing too much, and still while having it all make sense.

It’s worth taking time to examine more of Falcio’s character here, because he’s evolved a fair bit from the opening scenes of Traitor’s Blade. He still carries much of his naivete with him, clinging to ideals that aren’t necessarily attainable no matter how hard he tries, and on some level that’s commendable, because it means he’s not willing to easily compromise the things he holds dear. On the other hand, it was very nice to see people try to hammer home that the past isn’t always appropriate to the present, that things need to change going forward instead of returning to what was behind, and that sometimes what you’re holding onto are idealized versions that you’ve built up in your mind, the epitome of everything you want that thing to be instead of a reflection of reality. Falcio’s process of slowly absorbing this lesson was both heartbreaking and gratifying; it meant letting go of some aspects of the past that he loved and held close to himself, but it was also an awakening for him, seeing what could be done with reality instead of uncompromising ideals that nobody can live up to.

That’s a big theme throughout Saint’s Blood, not surprisingly. Learning to let go. Not just with Falcio, but with most of the main cast. Kest had to let go of who he was to find who he had become. Valiana had to let go of her stifling protection and embrace madness in order to overcome it and find her strength. Ethalia had to let go of her assumptions about her Sainthood in order to properly embody it.

The ending was just beautiful, and I was on the edge of my seat while reading it. The old drops away to reveal the new, whatever it’s worth. The future of Tristia isn’t assured, and it’s not pretty, but so much has changed and all anyone can do is try to move forward, even if it means leaving things behind and learning to live with how they’ and the people around them have changed. I could practically hear the triumphant soundtrack as the Greatcoats find their new roles and new purpose as they take down the newly-created god and the Blacksmith. The way de Castell writes it all, from Falcio’s perspective but still not revealing everything that Falcio knows until it would have great dramatic effect, adds a lot to the scene, and it all came together in something that made me want to cheer for the heroes as they fought their greatest battle.

Between that and the exploration of religious zealotry and the lengths to which people will go to achieve their goals (misguided or otherwise), Saint’s Blood remains the fun epic adventure that the previous books in the series were. I’m fairly hooked on Falcio’s adventures and misadventures, I adore the dialogue, and the humour in the book is top notch. This is the kind of series that takes the epic adventures that children want and scales it up for adults, and it’s rewarding and unfailingly entertaining. De Castell is a master of adventure, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.

The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

This is a little girl’s account of her life after death, and our unique version of The Lovely Bones. It defies the conventional definition of genres. A ghost story, yes, and YA, too. Dark fantasy with humor. Literary fiction with prepubescent innocence and manga sensibilities. It is many things but a simple story, too. You’ll be fascinated with the unique world of Otsuichi, a very young and prolific author, in his first published work.

Review: I’ve been making extra effort recently to read fiction involving non-Western cultures that’s actually written by people who have spent time living in that culture. It doesn’t guarantee a work free from cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it does allow me a better opportunity to experience works that came from other cultures, written in them rather than about them, if that distinction makes sense. Research came take you a long way, but only do far; there’s a level of experience that one can only get with immersion, and the depth of immersion also depends on whether you approach the culture as an outsider or as someone who was raised within it.

Japan has been a long-time love of mine, so reading things about it and from within it always appeals to me. And over time I’ve learned that fiction from the “about” perspective usually have their problems; ones which I can spot easily, and I haven’t even been there yet. Problems with the language, problems with names, problems with weird assumptions that people often get from having watching a few anime and spent a semester of university there and then never doing more research than that. It’s probably safest for me to dive deeper into books written primarily  by Japanese people when I yearn for fiction, especially SFF, about Japan.

Otsuichi’s Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is a republication of 2 short stories. The first one, told from the perspective of young dead Satsuki, seems simple enough at first, but gradually grows in complexity and creepiness. Satsuki tells the story of how her best friend accidentally-on-purpose killed her, and the subsequent attempts to cover up the death so that nobody discovers what happened. The narrative seems a bit distanced at times, though that does make sense since Satsuki is the passive observer to all the events, incapable of acting upon anything or influencing the story due to her death. She watches as her friend and her friend’s brother go to increasing lengths to hide the body, as the tension heightens and they worry they’ll be caught, and the eventual surprising assistance by an unassuming young woman who is no stranger to hiding dead bodies.

And that final reveal was baffling for a moment, and then utterly chilling. It actually made me stop reading for a moment to consider the ramifications, and to think that Satsuki’s story was actually only a small part of a larger and grander tale. Very disturbing, and that Otsuichi wrote this kind of compelling fiction while still in high school is impressive.

The second story in the book, Yuko, is told mostly from the perspective of Kiyone, a young woman who cooks and cleans for an aged man and his never-seen wife. Kiyone thinks little of this for a while, accepting that the unseen Yuko is very ill, until one day she starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, trespasses in the elderly couple’s rooms, and sees Yuko surrounded by a lot of dolls.

Yuko, who appears to be a doll herself.

Kiyone hears from people in town that the man she works for once had a wife, but the wife passed away years ago.

And yet, we see snippets of him sometimes talking to Yuko. But is he talking to a real woman, a woman so ill she often can’t move and appears lifeless, or a life-size doll that he believes is his dead wife?

The ending is actually a bit ambiguous, and it’s easy to interpret things in one way or the other. I have my own theories on what happened, but things in the story aren’t as clear as they seem to be, and there’s always another layer to the mystery, along with speculation. For all that it was short, it said a lot, both about the lengths to which we will go to delude ourselves, the assumptions we will make about people will illnesses and disabilities, and the danger of knowing too much or too little. It’s a story for reading and then for reading between the lines.

I’d say this was a good introduction to Otsuichi’s work, a nice teaser for what’s to come. It’s low-investment; you can finish both of these stories pretty quickly, and there’s an appeal to a wide age range, since they’re rather YA-oriented but still creepy and nuanced enough to appeal to adults who want to feel a quick tingle down their spine. It’s worth a real if you’re curious about the kind of ghost stories that can come out of Japan, and, if like me, you want to read more books written by people whose native language isn’t English.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: Nolan doesn’t see darkness when he closes his eyes. Instead, he’s transported into the mind of Amara, a girl living in a different world. Nolan’s life in his small Arizona town is full of history tests, family tension, and laundry; his parents think he has epilepsy, judging from his frequent blackouts. Amara’s world is full of magic and danger — she’s a mute servant girl who’s tasked with protecting a renegade princess. Nolan is only an observer in Amara’s world — until he learns to control her. At first, Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious. But to keep the princess — and themselves — alive, they’ll have to work together and discover the truth behind their connection.

Review: Recommended to me by Sarah of Bookworm Blues as part of the Our Words book club, I expected that this book was going to be a good one. I didn’t expect that I’d get quite so addicted to it, however. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading, and I was constantly surprised and impressed by what kept happening on the pages.

Nolan experiences a rare type of seizure. Or at least, that’s what everyone, including his family and doctors, believe. In reality, whenever he closes his eyes, even for just the space of a blink, he sees into Amara’s world instead of the darkness behind his eyelids. To say that it’s a distraction is an understatement; Nolan gets sucked into Amara’s world so easily, and Amara’s life is such a part of his that he often finds himself closing his eyes and zoning out of his world so that he can better focus on hers. Amara, for most of her life, hasn’t even realized that Nolan can see through her eyes, and goes about her days keeping Cilla safe from the curse that plagues her. Cilla’s curse means that if even a drop of her blood is spilled, the world around her rebels and tries to kill her, seeking out that blood with a vengeance. Amara’s presence is necessary because she can heal, and so if accidents happen and blood is shed, Amara will smear Cilla’s blood on herself to distract the curse, allowing her body to be broken until the curse is satisfied, knowing that despite the agony she experiences, she, at least, will be able to put her body back together again.

But when Nolan discovers that his new medication allows him moments of control over Amara’s body, Amara becomes very much aware of Nolan’s presence, and just what that means for her and for Cilla.

Amara’s world at first to just be yet another generic fantasy world, only it quickly reveals itself to be pretty well-built and well-defined. There are multiple different cultures and subcultures portrayed, not just nationalities but social classes. Fine details like not signing or speaking aloud the names of the deceased, lest you attract their spirits and prevent them from resting, were touches that seem small and inconsequential on their own, but they add up to create a world that feels fleshed-out and real. And happily, the worldbuilding wasn’t done in the form of infodumping, but in casual mentions that leave it to the reader to pick up and understand. It may not have been the most  unique fantasy world I’ve ever encountered in books, but it was still complete and comprehensible, and that counts for a lot.

It’s no surprise that Duyvis’s book touches on the realities and implications of disabilities. Nolan’s perceived epilepsy affects how others treat him, for one thing, and it affects the lives of his family. To help pay for treatment that Nolan guiltily knows isn’t working, his mother takes a second job, for instance. Even knowing that he’s not having seizures so much as he’s seeing into another world, Nolan’s life isn’t what you’d call easy. It’s difficult for him to focus. He’s withdrawn, misses much of his schoolwork, has few friends and hobbies. He may not have a rare form of epilepsy, but his ability to view another world when his eyes are closed affects so many aspects of his life that he can’t separate the two.

Cilla’s curse also manifests as a form of disability, as she is hyper-aware of anything around her that could even scratch her skin, with the possibility of drawing blood. As I was reading about the diligence she and Amara used to keep her safe, I was reminded of stories of people with hemophilia, aware that bleeding can be dangerous for them and yet running that risk every moment of every day, especially in a time and place where medicines to treat such a condition weren’t available.

But it isn’t just disability that Otherbound tackles. No, running through the novel are multiple themes of duty and servitude, and the question of how much of a person’s actions are related to their relative social position and how much are because of their genuine thoughts and feelings. There are themes of abuse, with Jorn’s repeated over-the-top punishments of Amara, such as burning her hands to make her feel pain, knowing she wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the act. There are themes of love, obviously, because there are few books that don’t, and seeing the development of the relationships between Amara and Maart, and Amara and Cilla, were just fantastic. There’s the question of whether it’s good or bad to use someone without their permission if it results in saving them; Nolan took over Amara’s body and acted through her in order to save her, and save others, even when she actively didn’t want him around. It’s a complex and multi-layered story, one that surprised me since I’m used to seeing so many YA novels these days make passes at complexity while really only brushing lightly by it.

Otherbound constantly throws new twists at the reader. Just when I thought I understood what was going on, some new piece of information would be uncovered, or somebody would have an epiphany, and the plot would get deeper and more interesting, and I just found myself devouring this book. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down. Alternating the chapters between Amara’s viewpoint and Nolan’s (which often included more glimpses into Amara’s world, so Nolan’s chapters were still in part Amara’s too) was a good way to convey the whole story, showing how the two worlds and the two people were so connected.

Not to mention I have a weakness for stories that involve two spirits or minds in the same body, and it’s so rare that I find stories that actually incorporate that. Where at first I thought that this was going to be somewhat akin to Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, where the main character is mostly a passive observer until they themselves are changed by the character in their head, Nolan and Amara’s relationship grew more consciously symbiotic as the book progressed, until both of them knew how much they were needed. The driving force of the story still was centered in Amara’s world rather than Nolan’s, but there was some wonderful bleedover, and it was great to see the two stories intersect and combine in ways that I didn’t always predict.

But the ending. Oh god, that ending had me open-mouthed, in tears for a moment, because damn, does Duyvis ever know how to tug at my heartstrings! Much of the second half of the novel focuses on ending Cilla’s curse, and whether or not there’s a way to do it without killing her. I don’t want to give the ending away (though I will say that if you think it ends by Cilla dying, that’s not the whole picture, and there’s so much more to it), but suffice it to say that I was on the edge of my seat as I read through it, wondering whether each moment would be the last, wondering how it would all play out and come together in the end. I haven’t felt that kind of tension in a book, let alone a YA book, for quite some time, and my hat’s off to Duyvis for pulling it off.

Otherbound is a book that isn’t making as many waves as it ought to. I hadn’t even heard of it before seeing it mentioned on Our Words. It has good representation of disability, good representation of bisexuality, good representation of so much that it’s amazing to me that it slipped under my radar. I enjoyed it so much. There were some plot threads that I felt could have been expanded upon (or thrown in without much reason or purpose), but aside from that, really, it was a phenomenal book, and I think fans of YA fantasy and urban fantasy will eat this up just as much as I did. This leaves my hands highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing more of what Duyvis will do in the future.

Stories of the Raksura: Volume 1, by Martha Wells

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

Summary: In “The Falling World,” Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud Court, has traveled with Chime and Balm to another Raksuran court. When she fails to return, her consort, Moon, along with Stone and a party of warriors and hunters, must track them down. Finding them turns out to be the easy part; freeing them from an ancient trap hidden in the depths of the Reaches is much more difficult.

“The Tale of Indigo and Cloud” explores the history of the Indigo Cloud Court, long before Moon was born. In the distant past, Indigo stole Cloud from Emerald Twilight. But in doing so, the reigning Queen Cerise and Indigo are now poised for a conflict that could spark war throughout all the courts of the Reaches.

Stories of Moon and the shape changers of Raksura have delighted readers for years. This world is a dangerous place full of strange mysteries, where the future can never be taken for granted and must always be fought for with wits and ingenuity, and often tooth and claw. With two brand-new novellas, Martha Wells shows that the world of the Raksura has many more stories to tell…

Review: It took me a little while to fall in love with the world of the Raksura, but when I finally fell, I fell hard. The main trilogy has become a favourite of mine, one that fills me with comfort and happiness when I read it. Extra stories that take place both before and after? Sign me up!

The book advertises that it’s two novellas, but there are also an additional two short stories thrown in, so you get more bang for your buck, so to speak. The first novella, The Falling World, involves Moon (and others) hunting for Jade and Chime (and others, but admit it, we’re all mostly concerned about those three) after they go missing, and the strange fallen city they discover along the way. There’s something I really like about seeing Moon be protective toward those he cares for, so the way he gets frantic and irritable when trails run cold and mysteries keep leading them onward really appeals to me. Possibly because it’s in tandem with nobody letting him let his possessive tendencies get out of control. The mystery of how the city fell and what happened to the people who lived there was a fascinating one, and I won’t give away anything major in case people have yet to read this collection, but suffice it to say that Wells does a good job dealing out pieces of the mystery little by little, leading readers onward and making us guess pretty much right until the end.

The Tale of Indigo and Cloud was quite possibly my favourite piece in the collection, since it delved into the very origins of the Indigo Cloud court, when Indigo stole Cloud from another court and everybody had to deal with the ensuing political chaos. The whole situation was a great one to read about; the way Cloud manipulated Indigo, the way Indigo tried to proclaim and them deny her feelings for Cloud, the way Argent was more concerned with her pride than justice. It was a great story, full of nuance and with more to it than it seemed in the beginning, and it was fantastic to not only see the origins of the court that’s central to the other books, but also to take a jump to Moon’s time and see everyone’s reactions to uncovering the whole story in the first place.

Also, to see a young Stone who giggles. That image made me grin!

The two included short stories were both heartbreaking to read. The first involved Moon’s childhood, after he had lost his family and while living with a group of groundlings, the struggle of trying to fit in with them even when he’s so different, and the jealousy that eventually causes him to leave. Knowing that was only the first of many similar situations was what made this such a sad story, though. Out of context, it was just a story of children overreacting and not understanding the subtleties of emotion and relationships. In context, you know it’s just the first note in a long song for Moon.

The second piece of broken-heart came in the last short story, which dealt with Chime’s transformation from mentor to warrior, and his difficult adjustment to a life lost and an unfamiliar and unwanted gain. In the main trilogy you see Chime’s bitterness over what happened to him, and his attempts to leave behind what he lost, but only here do you get to see it happen, to see that pain when it’s new and fresh, and to see him struggle with an unfamiliar body and a new way of living. In many ways, it mirrors sudden disability, and the adjustment period. You lose familiar aspects of yourself, have to find a new sense of self in new circumstances, people don’t know how to treat you and some react with hostility, and even if you have a community of support, everything’s so new to you that it’s difficult to see it because you’re in mourning for something you may not be able to get back. It’s the early stages of grief, and even though there are probably hundreds who would love to suddenly gain the power of flight the way Chime did, it can’t be denied that he lost much of how he once defined himself in the process.

Stories of the Raksura: volume 1 is an excellent set of stories that are perfect for fans of the main series who can’t stop asking about what happened off the page. The collection gives you more: more stories, more insight, more entertainment, with Wells’s signature flare and a wonderful cast of characters that I’ve come to know and love. I can’t wait to dive into the second collection in the future!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love in this haunting debut novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).

What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of?

Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.

Review: Being an artist is residence is something I’ve dreamed of for years. It’s still a goal of mine, to be good enough that someone’s willing to provide me space and exposure so that I can focus on my art for a time, even if that means paying a hefty chunk of change. It’s something that pushes me to improve my art, that goal down the road that keeps me moving forward. I’ve had a fascination with them ever since I learned what they were.

So, a dark urban fantasy set in an artist residence? Sign me the hell up!

I want to take a quick moment to state, before the review really begins, that whoever in marketing decided that this should have a whole load of YA blogger outreach, well, didn’t really understand the book. This isn’t a YA novel. It lacks all the hallmarks of a YA novel. That isn’t to say that people who read a lot of YA won’t enjoy this, but teens aren’t the intended audience for this, and it’s pretty clear early on. I’d maybe class it as new adult, if I had to categorize it as something other than “a damn good urban fantasy novel” to begin with.

Now that’s aside, on to the meat of the review.

Imogen and Marin are sisters with a dark past. Abused by their mother, who saw Marin as potential for her own glory and Imogen as nothing compared to her sister, they both drown themselves in their art; writing and ballet, respectively. So when both of them win a residency spot at the highly-regarded Melete, a place that will pair them with a mentor and give them time and assistance to advance their chosen arts, it seems like something of a dream come true.

Only the dreams turn to nightmares as Melete’s true nature is revealed, peeling back the layers and stripping people bare and forcing them to confront the ultimate artist’s question: What would you sacrifice to achieve your dreams?

Be prepared to confront some disturbing darkness while reading Roses and Rot. It’s the kind of book that will strike chords with those who have experienced parental abuse or neglect, especially that driven by a parent who thinks their child’s success is nothing more than a reflection of the parent. Marin and Imogen’s mother treated them very differently, pushing Marin to succeed at ballet by constant negative reinforcement, threats, and insults, while treating Imogen as though she were less than dirt, only a hindrance to her talented sister, going so far as to burn Imogen’s hands when she’s discovered writing stories. The sisters experience a constant layer of dread in their lives, even after becoming adults and moving away from home, the knowledge that their mother will always try to contact them, try to worm her way back in, try to put them down and make their achievements all about her. I didn’t experience a family situation that bad, thankfully, but my own childhood was rough enough, and I know well that underfeeling of anxiety about every email, every phone call. Howard portrayed all that extremely well, and I felt that tension throughout the novel, even to the sort-of-resolution at the end.

The twist on fairy tales is beautifully done in Roses and Rot, and I couldn’t find fault with the setup at all. It was actually quite intriguing, and it left me wondering, at numerous points, what I would do were I in such a situation. Would I accept 10 years of imprisonment in another realm, essentially letting fairies feed from me, for the prize of success, of a guaranteed career that would last and would let me achieve all I worked for. The whole story was a tale of sacrifice, of potential, and or wondering what might be. It was great to see it all unfold, and to have so many thoughts provoked in me. What would you give up for success? How much is security worth? How much can you love someone or something, to exchange it for something else? These are hard questions to ask, ones that have no answer outside the individual, and Howard stressed them constantly through the book without letting the reader feel like they were being beaten over the head with an unanswerable moral judgment.

There’s so much I want to say about this book that, unfortunately, would result in my spoiling a beautiful and well-told story. What’s happening at Melete doesn’t stay a secret for long, and yet at every turn there was a new surprise, something unexpected, something to make my heart lurch. I shed tears more than once, while reading this. There’s some sections that will be triggering for some, particularly relating to child abuse, anxiety, and suicide. The content is dark and profound, beautiful and raw and full of emotion. It’s not an easy read. There’s love, betrayal, beauty, death, resolution, and sacrifice. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time, and the weight of Imogen’s decision can be felt increasingly as the story progresses.

In a nutshell, this book wrecked me. Wrung me out and left me a brand new shape, because it touched on so many personal fears and experiences and dreams; there’s no way I could have read this and been left untouched. It’s one of those rare books that inspired me in ways that few other books have accomplished, rekindling embers and making me believe that yes, there is hope for my dreams, and this book shows it. It will appeal to the artist, it will appeal to those who love dark fantasy, and it will appeal to those looking for something a bit different in their reading. This isn’t your average fairy tale. The fairies here have teeth, will cheerfully hurt you, and you’ll turn the page and let them do it again because you know that the further you go, the more you read, the better it will be in the end.

(Received from the publisher for review.)

In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: In the Labyrinth of Drakes: the thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, as the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent’s expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.

Review: The fourth book in the series of memoirs by the fictional Lady Trent, we are once again whisked off to a new corner of a fantasy world as she embarks upon yet another journey to deepen the scientific understanding of dragons. This time, though, there is a reason beyond mere scientific exploration that is driving her actions, or at least there is on the surface. While Isabella and Tom’s interest is primarily that of general discovery, the nation of Scirland wishes to fund their expedition to Akhia in order to uncover the secrets of dragon breeding, so that they might use dragons as tools of war.

Akhia is a place based largely upon the Middle East, and similar to the other locations in previous books, Brennan has done a pretty good job of not dipping into the well of stereotypes in order to build society. That isn’t to say that Akhia is a place where gender segregation doesn’t happens, doesn’t have nomadic desert tribes, or doesn’t have a mix of religions that correspond extremely well to Islam and Judaism. But Brennan is respectful in her treatment of culture, presenting things from the viewpoint of the outsider who isn’t there to pass judgment on culture but to study creatures native to the area. Is it wholly accurate, with the exception of names? I couldn’t say for certain. But it is respectful.

Were it just a matter of uncovering the secret to getting dragons to breed and thrive in captivity, In the Labyrinth of Drakes would be an interesting enough novel. But as in other books, things get more complicated and, of course, more political. As things tend to do when war is approaching. Isabella’s primary interest is in figuring things out, but her government, and thus Akhia due to the political arrangements made, wants her emphasis to be on breeding. And true to form for people who don’t quite understand the intricacies of scientific discovery, the people by whose graces she is even in Akhia want faster results than she can give. Someone is out to sabotage the project, by killing her and Tom if they must. The project faces difficulties, as before they arrived, someone else headed the project and the dragons were ill treated.

But the true discoveries come when Isabella gets her chance to visit the fabled Labyrinth of Drakes…

I have to admit, one of the things I love about this book is something I loved in previous books: that Isabella and Tom do not hook up. For all that it’s often said that of course a man and a woman can be friends without their relationship getting romantic or sexual, even for a time, very rarely do I see that portrayed in fiction. If a woman has a close male friend of colleague, chances are they’re going to be involved in a love triangle, or at least some unresolved sexual tension. But throughout the series, their relationship stays cordial, that of friends and colleagues and equals who are discovering the secrets of the world together, and neither of them express even a fleeting interest in each other or wonder about getting together. And while early in the series you could claim that’s due to Isabella being married or mourning the death of her husband, that argument breaks down as years go by and characters develop. And as Suhail is introduced. But I will forever love that Isabella and Tom can stay friends when in-book there’s scandal and rumour about them already, and in literary context that just so rarely happens.

And where romance is concerned, I seriously love the connection between Isabella and Suhail. I won’t go into detail here, to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that if you liked seeing their friendship develop in Voyage of the Basilisk, you’re going to appreciate what happens in In the Labyrinth of Drakes. It’s wonderfully done, and I’m a big fan of how it all came together for them in the end.

If there’s anything I particularly disliked about this book, though, it’s that it felt rather unfinished. It ends with them making a huge discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes, breakthroughs about the ancient Draconean society, which is understandably great and it was glued to the book as the team made their explorations, but there were so many unanswered questions by the end. Why the breeding project was ultimately cancelled. Whether war is actually upon them? So much of the book was about the breeding project, regardless of its ultimate purpose, so to have it end at the discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes felt like part of the story went unwritten, and it was a bit of a let-down.

Not an inappropriate one, contextually, since the books are written with the assumption that you want to know more about Lady Trent’s discoveries and contributions to science, and the main discovery of that time was in regard to Draconean society. So I understand that was an appropriate place to leave off the story, all things considered. But it still wasn’t really satisfying, and was possibly the least satisfying ending of the series thus far.

But all things considered, even if I wasn’t overly fond of how it ended, I still loved the book, in the same way that I loved the rest of the series. Something I heard a long time ago stuck with me, in that an old friend declared they didn’t like fantasy because fantasy “had no rules.” Dragons couldn’t really exist and fly and breathe fire the way they do in stories, magic is done arbitrarily and has no guidelines, etc. To which I always said that person couldn’t have read much fantasy, since even at the time I’d read plenty of books that set down rules for magic and attempted to explain various fantastical creatures. But never before this series had I seen one attempt to do so with such appeal to science, the tedium of watching and making notes and doing small experiments and making more notes, and actually attempting to bring what we see today as good hard science to a fantasy world. It’s an uncommon series, one that stands out because of its natural science approach, and one that takes readers on great journeys to far-flung fictional countries that so resemble pieces of our own world’s history and cultures and does it all in a way that can’t really be argued with. It’s all observation, all the tedium of watching and making notes, but exciting and thrilling, with all the associated joy of making a breakthrough and shifting how you understand the world around you. It’s just so incredibly well done.

Long story short, if you enjoyed the previous books in the series, you’re going to enjoy In the Labyrinth of Drakes just as much. It has everything I’ve come to expect from the series, Isabella’s wonderful wit and commentary, the thrill of discovery, and all set in a world that’s familiar and new at the same time. It’s a series that I don’t want to see end, because I always get the feeling that new discoveries are just around the corner, and I want to be right by Isabella’s side as she changes the world.

Fellside, by M R Carey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

Review: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading Fellside. The author apparently did a fantastic job with another well-known and popular novel (I haven’t read it, which is why I say ‘apparently’), but that didn’t mean this one would be equally as great. Still, I was more than willing to take a chance and see where it all led me, to see if Carey could weave a story as complex and compelling as I’d been told by other reviewers.

Turns out the answer is yes. Yes, Carey can. Fellside turned out to be more than a murder mystery with a twist, more than a prison ghost story, but an exploration of expectations and falsehoods, of the lengths to which people will go to get what they want, and a story in which nobody is blameless.

The story starts with Jess waking up in a hospital, badly burned from a fire she’s being accused of starting, a fire which claimed the life of a young neighbour boy. She remembers this only vaguely, having been high on heroin at the time. Consumed by guilt and knowing that she’ll spend the rest of her life in a high-security women’s prison anyway, she makes the decision to end her life by starvation, a slow suicide to atone for her crime. That is, until she makes happenchance contact with a ghost, a ghost she firmly believes to be the boy she killed, who himself is convinced that Jess was not to blame for his death.

Murder mysteries in which a dead person helps the accused uncover the identity of the real killer aren’t unheard of, but they’re uncommon enough that even if the rest of the novel had focused solely on this plot, it would have held interest for me. But there’s so much more to Fellside than that. Life in Fellside prison isn’t exactly kind to Jess, though there are most certainly moments of rough kindness going on, but between a long-running drug-ring and other abuses of power, to Jess’s attempts to not only prove but also believe her own innocence, there’s a rich and varied tapestry of story at work here, told from multiple viewpoints of some extremely messed-up and flawed characters. Even when you sympathize with some of their positions, they’re often hard to sympathize with as people. Everyone is guilty of something, even if that ‘something’ is cowardice that allows a rotten situation to continue when they know a well-timed word could end it.

But some characters are more sympathetic than others, for certain. It’s hard to find much to like about Devlin or Grace, as they’re extremely self-centered and out for each other. The only point of sympathy I can find for Devlin is that he genuinely seems to want to please Grace and believes that the feeling is mutual, but even then, that’s slim sympathy, and he’s still someone I think would be better off dead. But even characters like Liz, scary as she is, become far more sympathetic when you learn more of her history, and when she was first introduced, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to feel so much for her character by the end. She’s a deeply hurt human being, struggling with numerous terrible scars, and while she’s still not exactly a character you want to root for, her story is brilliant and as compelling as Jess’s, in its way.

And then you get characters like Paul Levine, who is undeniably creepy with his misplaced affection for Jess, which drives his desire to do anything he can to please her, even when it means possibly sabotaging her appeal by finding irrelevent-to-the-case info. But that obsessive affection turns out to be the thing that has him looking in all the weird places and results in evidence coming to light that ultimately proves Jess’s innocence. With him it’s a weird case, because people like Paul are rather disturbing in their desires, but you can’t deny that those twisted emotions led to a good place in the end. How much does the end outweigh the means, or the motivation? How much bad gets to be done in the name of goodness and justice?

That’s not a one-time theme in Fellside, either. You see that thread run through multiple story arcs, in one form or another. It’s never a clear-cut issue, either. There’s a prison nurse who treats Jess extremely badly in early sections of the book, believing her to be a child-killer and thinking that Jess certainly didn’t need any gentleness as she was starving herself to death. And many people, I think, would agree with her assessment of that; why make comfortable somebody who committed a heinous crime and is trying to die in penance anyway? Only hindsight and third-person omniscience show that Jess didn’t commit the crime she was convicted of. Morality is a complicated issue, truth can be subjective, and yes, some people do terrible things in the name of justice. Everybody is guilty of something.

But my favourite theme of the book was how expectations shape reality. I suppose that ties back in with what I just said, given that whether or not Jess committed a crime, people believing she did affected how they behaved toward her. Jess’s expectation of her own guilt and punishment nearly led to her death. Paul’s expectation of Jess’s gratitude took him to extraordinary lengths to find evidence of her innocence. But far more than that, there’s the issue of Alex’s ghost, who keeps giving Jess contradictory information about his own life, about Jess’s hand in his death. How he and Jess are capable on influencing the dreams of people around them, and the far-reaching effects of that. I don’t want to give away too much of the story or too many big reveals, but suffice it to say that little is what it appears to be when it comes to Jess and Alex, that their stories run fascinatingly deep, and that perceptions can be true and yet still wrong.

So after all that, Fellside turned out to be an unexpectedly great novel that approached multiple complicated issues from multiple angles, and for that I think it deserves some praise. For the author being able to keep track of everything and make it a properly coherent story, if nothing else! It won’t appeal to all readers, since as much as I can say that depictions of brutality in prison were apt, they weren’t really to my taste in reading, and some scenes were very emotionally charged and difficult to get through. But it was, regardless, a wonderful mystery that kept me guessing on some things right to the very end, and it managed to wrap things up with only a couple of minor dangling plot threads when all was said and done. I’m certain now that I want to see more of Carey’s work in the future; if it’s anything like this, I expect nuance and complexity all over the place, in the right amounts to keep me intrigued and entertained until the last page. Recommended for those who enjoy a good supernatural murder mystery and are up for some frank discussions of unpleasant prison realities along the way.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

A Daughter of No Nation, by A M Dellamonica

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

Summary: As soon as Sophie Hansa returned to our world, she is anxious to once again go back to Stormwrack. Unable to discuss the wondrous sights she has seen, and unable to tell anyone what happened to her in her time away, Sophie is in a holding pattern, focused entirely on her eventual chance to return.

With the sudden arrival of Garland Parrish, Sophie is once again gone. This time, she has been called back to Stormwrack in order to spend time with her father, a Duelist-Adjudicator, who is an unrivaled combatant and fearsome negotiator. But is he driven by his commitment to seeing justice prevail, or is he a sociopath? Soon, she discovers something repellent about him that makes her reject him, and everything he is offering.

Adrift again, she discovers that her time spent with her father is not without advantages, however, for Sophie has discovered there is nothing to stop her from setting up a forensic institute in Stormwrack, investigating cases that have been bogged down in the courts, sometimes for years. Her fresh look into a long-standing case between two of the islands turns up new information that could get her, and her friends, pulled into something bold and daring, which changes the entire way she approaches this strange new world…

Review: I have every reason to have loved Child of a Hidden Sea when I read it in 2014. Circumstances conspired to have me read it at the same time that things were going well in life, and I was at a bit of a happy high. It was, as I called it, “pure indulgent fantasy,” the concept reminiscent of many old daydreams that used to entertain me when I was younger. And it was written by A M Dellamonica, an author I’d previously established was a damn good writer and who had great talent for writing phenomenal characters that I want to spend time with. It was set up for success in my mind.

So unsurprisingly, I was excited to be able to read the sequel, and I had very high hopes for it.

The book starts with Sophie doing her level best to prepare for an eventual return to Stormwrack. She’s taking self-defense lessons, learning what she can about nautical navigation, trying to find a way to make sure she can take full advantage of everything when she returns to that other world. But when she does return, all her preparations seem pointless when she’s expressly forbidden to actively learn anything. No access to books, people aren’t to give her too much information about science or geography or the like, and Sophie’s frustration is pretty understandable when put up against people who want to keep her in the dark about the world she’s determined to be a part of.

On top of that, her biological father wants to reconnect, and Sophie’s not at all averse to this idea, especially when it seems that he’ll actually encourage her in learning about Stormwrack rather than stymie her.

I have to say that A Daughter of No Nation wasn’t quite what I was expecting. While the previous book in the series did heavily feature exploration and discovery, it was better mixed with action and tension than this one. Here, most of the story is just about Sophie learning, getting into arguments with people, and trying to solve a couple of mysteries that present themselves along the way, one of which she latches onto like a dog with a bone despite having little reason to beyond a hunch. Turns out it was a bigger deal than everyone else thought, and it seemed like many of them followed leads just to indulge her, so that subplot felt a bit forced and incidental than necessary. It would pop up from time to time, a small new revelation would occur, then the story would go back to the main focus.

I’m no expert, but I suspect I’d have been more interested in developments had that all been conveyed more actively than passively. Other people did the investigation, out of sight, while Sophie did other things, and so it felt very divorced from, well, just about everything. It had its purpose, but it was nearly all background stuff until it came to a head, so it came across rather like a small series of unimportant things that suddenly became huge, out of nowhere. Despite Sophie wanting it investigated, and despite other characters investigating and updating her. It was easy to ignore because it was sidelined so often, only to rear its head half a dozen chapters later for maybe a few paragraphs.

But enough of that. What about the rest of the book?

If you’re looking for an action-packed tale of adventure on the high seas, you won’t really find too much of it here. Rather, this is more of Sophie discovering who she is and where she fits into a world that she’s only recently discovered but still has many ties to. It’s like a combination coming-of-age story, a political debate, and a crime drama, rolled into one and set in a fantasy world. As such, while it definitely appealed to me (and will thus probably appeal similarly to those who really enjoy some good solid culture-building), it won’t appeal to everybody, and I suspect some readers will be left rather bored at the lack of development in much other than Sophie’s personal life.

But Dellamonica’s presentation of multiple different culture clashes gave me plenty of food for thought. Is it better to allow a lesser evil if it means a greater evil can’t endure, or is it better to hold true to shared ideals and to fight against what you see as immoral rather than embracing it with concessions? How much of your own morals might you sacrifice in the pursuit of something you hold dear? Sophie and Parrish’s love life was a bit of an echo of Fleet politics: in some ways they hold different opinions on certain matters but are still willing to make a go of being a couple. This is generally see as a good and healthy thing, the willingness to make compromises, but this being something of a mirror of how the Fleet views different nations (and Sophie finding some concessions abhorrent), I found it interesting that what we praise as individuals we often frown on when presented politically.

I also love how we get a much deeper understanding of what Stormwrack really is. In my previous review I speculated that it was an alternate world, since there were elements of shared mythology. And this isn’t an issue that Sophie overlooks; through her research she speculates that most likely Stormwrack is the world of the future, or at least A future, which which massive climate changed caused equally massive flooding over the whole planet. Add to that her investigations into evolution, and some of the book starts to look an awful lot like science-fiction, although a kind that isn’t particularly common since it has its strongest roots in fantasy. Sci-fi that looks like fantasy tends to get a lot of criticism unless it’s game-changing for both genres, but really, I rather like it. It’s in the same way that I enjoy the way authors establish firm rules for how their fantasy worlds work, not just in geography and a few different cultures but in how magic happens and affects things and how technology develops and all of little aspects of life that can get taken for granted in a lot of fantasy novels. Approaching fantasy in a scientific manner has always fascinated me, so I loved that I got to see more of how it all works behind the scenes. Sophie’s inquisitive mind and determination to learn more about things works extremely well to convey all this to the reader, and we discover it exactly as she does, lending another connection between reader and protagonist.

So while this book isn’t heavy on action, or real forward motion in terms of a over-arching series plot, it was still a good book that has its appeal to certain audiences, and I still enjoyed reading it. I lover Dellamonica’s writing style, and the way she writes people as wonderful flawed complex creatures will never cease to entertain me. For those who enjoyed the first book in the series, depending on which parts of it you liked best, then I recommend continuing on with A Daughter of No Nation. Others may find its lack of active tension a major drawback, however. But for my part, the world intrigues me, the characters fascinate me, and I’ll be continuing my journey of discovery right alongside Sophie in any future novels Dellamonica writes.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Siren Depths, by Martha Wells

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 4, 2012

Summary: All his life, Moon roamed the Three Worlds, a solitary wanderer forced to hide his true nature — until he was reunited with his own kind, the Raksura, and found a new life as consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. But now a rival court has laid claim to him, and Jade may or may not be willing to fight for him. Beset by doubts, Moon must travel in the company of strangers to a distant realm where he will finally face the forgotten secrets of his past, even as an old enemy returns with a vengeance. The Fell, a vicious race of shape-shifting predators, menaces groundlings and Raksura alike. Determined to crossbreed with the Raksura for arcane purposes, they are driven by an ancient voice that cries out from… The siren depths.

Review: Moon is finally settling into his role as Jade’s consort, and while life isn’t perfect for him, it’s better than it’s been in a long while. His place at court may still be contested by some, but he does still have a place, especially after being so involved in saving the colony tree in the last novel.

But because good luck never stays with Moon for long, his tenuous peace comes crashing down when he learns that not only is his birth court still around when he believed it destroyed for so long, but they’ve heard of him and want him back, claiming that Jade had no right to take him as her consort without their permission.

And worse, he’s seeing signs that suggest Jade may not be as happy with Moon as her consort as she claims.

Where previous books in the trilogy throw you into Raksuran society at an almost breakneck pace, leaving the reader floundering at times as much as Moon himself is, The Siren Depths takes a little while to step back and make more aspects of their daily lives and culture clear. It was nice to save some things explicitly explained instead of just having people shush Moon’s questions and concerns because more important things were going on, and for those who felt they had a decent grasp on Raksuran culture before, what’s presented in this novel really just works to solidify everything. I found myself enjoying the slower scenes as much as the more tense action-packed ones, purely for the culture-building.

As far as explorations of culture go, I really do like how it’s all handled in this entire series. Moon isn’t a blank slate character, not by a long shot, but he starts out wholly unfamiliar with Raksuran culture, and has to learn consciously what most people pick up by observation and imitation through their whole lives. And much like with any newcomer to a culture, sometimes people can’t always explain the why and the how to full satisfaction, leaving a gap between, in this case, Moon and just about everybody else. But Moon isn’t one to stop asking questions, either for clarification or as push-back against something he sees as unfair or ridiculous. It’s a fine balance to strike when writing fiction, really, straddling that line between criticizing an unfamiliar culture and just seeking to understanding it. Sometimes both are needed.

Also, serious bonus points for establishing in no uncertain terms that Raksura are generally cool with same-sex couplings. (And there I was, spending so long thinking that when it was mentioned that Moon and Chime sometimes slept together, it was meant as them literally just sleeping in the same bed. Colour me innocent, I guess.)

And happily, at no point does Moon ever pull an, “I know better than you,” bit and start preaching that his way of thinking is superior to a way he just doesn’t understand or appreciate. Undoubtedly a side-effect of having spent so much time among various cultures in his life. You may question but you may not seek to change, just because it doesn’t suit you.

But aside from the phenomenal culture-building (which is evident all through the rest of the trilogy, not just this book), there is plenty of action to keep pulses pounding and pages turning. As Moon learns more about his past, a traitor within his birth court seeks to eliminate him. The Fell once again make an appearance and are the main antagonists, once again bringing the focus back to their plot to return to former glory and regain their connection to the Raksura. The first half of the book may take it slow, but the second half is almost entirely non-stop action, with Moon and his companions — both new and old — trying to stop the Fell from doing untold damage and releasing something lurking beneath the waves that’s better left imprisoned.

I remember when I first started reading this series. It struck me as pretty original, but I couldn’t quite see why so many people raved about it the way they did. It was notable for not having any human characters, and of course for being well-written, and I could see those things, but it didn’t really hit me the way it hit some. Then I reread the first two books, and finally finished this one, and my opinions upon rereading have shifted. There were nuances I hadn’t noticed before, levels and layers that made everything feel more complex and complete. The whole trilogy is now firmly listed as comfort reading for me, as the world and the people and the story feel like sinking into a warm bath. Jumping into that world is a bit like coming home, like visiting old friends, like somewhere I’ll always be able to enjoy. It’s an experience to be savoured, satisfying and rich, and well worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Skyborn, by David Dalglish

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 17, 2015

Summary: 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.

Review: In what we can assume is a far-future time though it’s never explicitly stated as such, the world is very different from what most people imagine fantasy worlds to be. Instead of taking place on terra firma, humanity has moved to islands in the sky, kept aloft by the grace of God and the theotechs of Center. Kael and Bree, whose parents were killed years ago, are tested for elemental affinity and chosen to join the seraphim, winged fighters and defenders of the islands, following in the footsteps of their deceased parents. But things aren’t quite as straight-forward as they seem, and as time goes on, both Kael and Bree find increasing evidence to show that all is not right with the world, and that their very presence may have further-reaching consequences than either of them could predict.

The world that Dalglish sets up is one that appeals to me. Maybe I’ve just been spending a lot of time in worlds that centre around flight, but something about the seraphim really caught my attention. The seraphim of Skyborn aren’t so much winged messengers of God so much as they are humans with elemental affinity, given mechanical wings powered by magic to enable them to fly. Beyond the thrilling prospect of flight, there was the very notion of the islands themselves, and how they came to be. I like it when books play with religious elements and twist them around a little, so the idea that God might have come and changed humanity, allowing a theocracy to spring up and use magic to keep floating islands going so that people can be closer to God… Yes, there was definitely something in that idea that struck a chord with me, and while I thought that most of the world-building was done on the surface rather than digging deep, it was developed enough to keep me intrigued, and it didn’t raise any questions that had contradictory answers within the text. Dalglish did a lot by keeping things vague, allowing the reader to focus on the world and events at hand rather than dwelling too much on what got them there in the first place.

However, the story itself felt like it was padded in too many places. Allowance can be made for some of this, since the reader is, at times, learning alongside the two protagonists. Their lives have changed, a new chapter begun, and so it makes sense that there’ll be some info-dumping now and again, because they’re getting it too. But when the first chapter essentially has someone walking Bree through the steps involved in strapping on a pair of borrowed wings and how to use her body to maneuver while in flight, it feels unnecessary. Much of that scene could have been skipped, the lessons stated later on. Or the scenes in which Bree and Kael build their respective romantic relationships. Good for character development, bad for pacing, because after a while, it gets dull to read about them going on dates when what I want to know is what’s happening next in the main plot.

And the bulk of the plot doesn’t really pick up in pace until well past the halfway point, leaving the first half feeling much like a, “Here’s what I did at flight camp today” story. Details are great, but at times it seemed like they were coming at the expense of the story.

As far as characters go, much of what needs to be said is about Bree. While Kael plays a part in the story, Bree is the centre of attention for much of the novel. Which is understandable. After all, she has a natural talent at flight, breaks academy records, is insubordinate when she feels like things aren’t going her way, attracts the attention of an older student, and has such a headstrong hot-tempered personality that her control over her fire element is practically nonexistent and yet is the most powerful anybody’s ever seen.

It’s hard to read a lot of her scenes without Mary Sue accusations. And really, she does fit the mold. Even her flaws turn into strengths in the end. Every major event that happens, happens because of her. Even other characters admit it. Which could be find if Bree was the only main character, despite all of her overblown awesomeness. But when she’s alongside Kael, who is average in most ways except for the fact that he ends up dating a royal daughter, the focus comes off as very lopsided, and you start to wonder what the point of Kael is to begin with.

Maybe he’ll play a larger role in later novels in the series. I hope so, because he really doesn’t get much time to shine in Skyborn, overshadowed as he is by his sister.

But despite those fairly large flaws, Skyborn is, over all, an enjoyable book. It ends on a fascinating cliffhanger, things are really starting to heat up politically, and while I wish Bree hadn’t been so overpowered, I am interested in seeing how her story continues in future novels. And Kael’s. Because he needs more love. The writing is smooth even when the pacing is off, the world is interesting and only getting moreso, and Dalglish has given us a pretty compelling beginning to a new aerial fantasy series. Consider me in for future installments.