Review – Eleanor by Jason Gurley (2014)

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Hardcover, 384 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Crown (first published 2016)

Authors get asked to do a lot of blurbs, especially once they’re on bigger publishers. However, some authors give blurbs that I take very seriously, especially if they follow up by repeatedly praising a book – Hugh Howey is one of those guys for me, and he has bestowed the quality of Jason Gurley’s work for some time. While I am very crappy at it, I do my best to support local guys as well, and Gurley is a Portland guy like myself, and I have had him on my to-read for a while. On my to-read, but not actually read, and I was never quite sure why, other than I just didn’t quite get to it. With a to-read list like mine, and a slow reading schedule, the best way to get read by me is to be available on audio, and Gurley finally was as of a couple months ago – rejoice!

Eleanor is what I’ve noticed recently called “magical realism” – a story in an otherwise normal, (usually) modern earth, but with some magical elements. Seemingly differentiated from ‘urban fantasy’ by the focus – less on first person magical character, more on mundane people with magical abilities, or in a slightly-magical world. I’ve read a lot in this “genre” of late – This Census-Taker by China Mieville, and A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab being the most obvious. However, Eleanor trumps those – and how.

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Eleanor begins as the tale of a young mother, a depressed mother of young Agnes, who has watch her dreams fail due to her family/relationship choices, and lives in a constant state of resentment. Until, one day, she disappears. The story then switches to that of Agnes and her two twin daughters, one of whom named after aforementioned young mother, Eleanor. Another depressed mother, living in resentment, until a tragic accident takes the life of one of her daughters. We then shift into the main POV character, that of the remaining daughter of Agnes, Eleanor.

We watch as Eleanor 2.0 copes with her father, Paul, having left Agnes and Eleanor, largely caused by Agnes’ spiral into nothingness, drinking her life away and doing little else other than lashing out at those around her, and feeling sorry for herself. Meanwhile, her young and emotionally damaged daughter is forced to single-handedly care for herself, while coping with harsh migraines and mental distress, as well as the lack of real parenting. However, one day, Eleanor is at school, and as she enters a doorway, she feels an electric crackling sensation, and is suddenly no longer in her school, but rather an entire place entirely.

We follow Eleanor as she, as well as her best friend Jack, her father, her mother, and her aunt, try to figure out why Eleanor suddenly disappears, reappearing (sometimes forcefully) in different places, over varying time delays. We also explore the people behind these disappearances, their motivations, their struggles, and eventually, their identity. It is hard to describe much more without giving away spoilers, at least without giving away more spoilers than I already have.

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I am not quite sure what I expected going into Eleanor – I had honestly heard very little about the novel, aside from “it’s really good”. I wasn’t aware of the setting or characters, and I certainly was not prepared for what it was: a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story of a family in peril, numerous tragedies, and a young girl forced to cope with all of this without much help from around her, aside from essentially one single person.

However, this, as well as almost every other aspect of the novel, is brilliantly and skillfully handled by Gurley. Eleanor feels as close to a real, tangible girl in her age bracket as I could possibly imagine, especially being written by someone who was not a preteen girl (I assume?). Considering the number of tragic events, the family trauma, the degeneration mentally of many characters, it was integral to the success of this novel for this grief to be written well, to have the characters address situations in a manner that is both realistic, but also does not limit the story progress. Thankfully, Jason handles these situations brilliantly, and I frequently found myself feeling as though I’d been punched, sympathizing with the characters, rooting for them, grieving their losses, feeling their pains.

The novel builds and builds as it goes – it begins so bleak, so harsh, and so shockingly. You’re introduced to characters, before they change drastically, or go away altogether. This is a book of loss, of handling loss, of addressing adversity. Everyone in the novel seems to go through serious and terrible events, and everyone is forced to cope, to manage their grief, to either move on and try to live, or spiral in self-destruction. Everyone handles things differently, everyone feels their pain differently. It was as close to perfect as I think I’ve read in that aspect – unique characters handle situations in unique and suitable ways.

Eleanor’s growth is brilliant as well – her changes from being a young girl, to an overly-mature-for-her-age teenager, to a constantly traumatized adult who had no time to adapt to the years of her life she’d lost due to her ‘blips’ (for lack of a spoiler-free way of putting it). No change is as drastic as hers, but the other characters all evolve, all adapt to their situations in varying ways. This is the biggest strong point of the book to me, as my immersion was kept at a consistent level because the characters always felt realistic, and visceral, and engaging.

The creativity of the book varies, but I am not looking for groundbreaking changes all the time – I’m looking for great writing, great characters, and enough unique aspects to keep me interested. There’s a portal aspect to this story, as well as a certain level of magical beings and/or powers, or at least unexplainable powers. I thought the escalation of the side-storyline was terrific, as we were led closer and closer to the climax and conclusion, as Eleanor figured out what was happening, explored it, and completed what she needed to.

My biggest complaint about the book was the odd gender discrepancy. I am one of the last people to complain about this kind of thing in books (really), but I could not help but notice in the novel that the male characters are, largely, featuring only minor flaws. Jack is a borderline Gary Stu – he is the best friend a person could have, always forgiving and protecting Eleanor, being there for her at all times, altruistic in his actions and feelings, and despite being head over heels in love with Eleanor, he is patient with her even when she disappears. Paul, while struggling with losing a daughter and not getting much out of Eleanor, does his best, doesn’t do anything outwardly negative, and swoops back in to care for Agnes later in the book.

Meanwhile, basically all of the female characters are heavily broken in one way or another. The original Eleanor is self-centered, whiny, and apathetic, essentially caring for her feelings only, caring about how upset she is, how the things that happen to her and the events in her life are unfair, until she throws it all voluntarily away, leaving everyone else behind to deal with things. Agnes herself takes up her mother’s footsteps, having a major anger problem, reacting aggressively to Paul’s business trips and work schedule, harboring animosity towards almost everyone, including, eventually, her own daughter, going as far as to blame her for her sister’s death, when it was clearly Agnes’ fault. Even our Eleanor is flawed, not only having massive headaches and health issues, but frequently snapping out at people, and while she was more perfect than any of the other females, she still had huge issues.

Again, I normally would not even notice a thing like this, but the fact I did means it was a bit of a glaring dichotomy. Maybe there was an intent there by Gurley that I missed, some message or metaphor, but if there was, I missed it, and it just felt like the females were all inherently largely flawed, while the males were much less so. Despite that, it did not really distract me from the story much, and I felt the female characters were well written, including their flaws.

Overall, I was blown away by the book. I invested emotionally into it significantly more than I have with almost any recent novel I can think of. I felt for the characters, I was anxious for them, and I was hooked – always wanting to know what happened next, how things would turn out. I blasted through the book in only a few days, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. If this is the kind of quality I can expect from Jason Gurley, then I absolutely agree with Hugh Howey’s assessment – he’s excellent.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Quick Review – The Price of Valor by Django Wexler (2015)

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Kindle Edition, 515 pages
Published July 7th 2015 by Roc (first published July 2nd 2015)

One of the biggest books on my “Books I Meant To Read But Somehow Didn’t Get To” from 2015 was the third in the Shadow Campaigns series, The Price of Valor by NW Author Django Wexler. I have a big habit of reading the first book of a series, enjoying it, then never quite going back to the rest of the series. However, generally, if I like the first book in a series enough to read the second, I’ll continue reading throughout the course of the series. This was the case with The Shadow Campaigns, where I found the first book, The Thousand Names, to be exceptionally fresh, interesting, and well written. The second novel, The Shadow Throne, was equally as enjoyable. 

Thankfully, my patience (ok ok, laziness) paid off, and The Price of Valor was exactly what I wanted, and needed, to revitalize my feelings towards the genre. Wexler manages to avoid the “more of the same” feel that a third book in a longer series could fall victim to, keeping things feeling fresh. The book was, for the majority, much more mild and slower moving than the first two, fewer battles, fewer major events, and a lot of character development. Luckily, Django handles this very well, the interplay between Winter and her peers, her lover Jane, and her superiors enthralling, and it’s impossible not to cheer for her. Winter is one of the more relatable and likable characters I can think of, despite being not remotely relatable to me (can’t say I could ever find myself in the same situation).

The action picks up later in the book, and when it comes, it’s hot and heavy. Django does a really great job with the military aspects of the novel, but when things break down to the actual action, it’s exciting, nerve-wracking, and a total page-turn situation. The book picks up in intensity as it goes, and finishes with a flourish, followed by some very intense moments, and one of the more “oh snap!” epilogues I’ve ever read.

Overall, I did not feel the book was the best in the series, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through it. The ending really kicked things up a notch, but despite the lack of ‘action’, the rest of the novel stayed interesting and fun, as well as incredibly smooth to read.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Review: The Second Death by T. Frohock (2016)

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Kindle Edition, 128 pages
Published March 29th 2016 by Harper Voyager Impulse
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

Wow.

I should start by clarifying that this piece, The Second Death, is the third and final entry in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series of novellas. Obviously, you will need to read the first two to actually understand what’s going on here – but that’s a good thing, because they’re wonderful. And I apologize in advance to Teresa if I misuse any wording or abbreviations while writing this review – I’m not sure of all of the correct terms 🙂

As this series has progressed, things have gotten more and more intense; the different threads of the story, the deceptions, the hatred, the two-timing, the relationships, and the implications of each series of events. We left Without Light or Guide with Diago and Miguel hiding in Don Guillermo’s Santuari, with Diago’s son, Rafael. Diago is still recovering from his previous injuries and trauma, and suffering lingering symptoms of that, however is trying to reintegrate himself with the Los Nefilim as quickly as possible, while getting to the bottom of the events unfolding around him.

All of this is thrown for a quick loop, as Diago is attacked outside of his home, and him and  Rafael are taken prisoner by corrupt German Nefil, who are conspiring with certain members of the Spanish Los Nefilim, and their distrust of Diago, and his daimon blood. Diago’s husband, Miguel, springs into action to recover his lover and their boy, along with the help of Don Guillermo, the leader of the Los Nefilim, and one of Diago’s few true supporters. Along the way, they gain help of a pair of ancient angels of death as well, and some of their allies in the Los Nefilim.

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Diago is frantic to rescue his son, who is being used as leverage by the Die Nefil, the German Nefilim, who are working alongside the Nazis it appears, and are seeking plans for an ultra powerful magical weapon that the Nazis plan to use. Diago is forced to choose between unthinkable events – helping to aid the Die Nefil and the Nazis to save his son, and potentially doom them all, losing his son forever as he would receive the Second Death, or a potentially even worse idea, especially for his reputation amongst those who doubt him – turning to daimons for help.

The Second Death is a thrilling, heart-wrenching conclusion to this series, and one that engrossed me from the start. Much of the unexplained aspects of Frohock’s world are explored in this novel, at least to some degree, and some of the lingering questions were answered. We learn a lot more about the other Nefil branches, and how easily swayed in different directions and philosophies they can be. The corruption within the Los Nefilim alone becomes more apparent, as an overthrow attempt is made on Don Guillermo’s claim to power among the Spanish Los Nefilim.

We also learn more of the true star of the series – Miguel. A patient, understanding lover, who supports Diago through everything; his problems, his infidelity/rape, his lack of perspective and understanding, his health. Miguel accepts Diago’s child, borne of infidelity, as his own, bonding with the boy, taking care of Rafael when Diago can’t, and in ways that Diago cannot due to his overwhelming personal problems. Miguel is the best spouse anyone can ask for, and Diago struggles knowing that Miguel is far more than he deserves, knowing that Miguel has laid it all on the line for him time and time again, as he struggles with his own self worth and self-trust, even as those who care about him support him.

Diago’s internal struggles make up much of the entire series, and it was really fascinating to watch him grow, change, adapt. He struggles with the turmoil around him, with his own thoughts, with his doubts, with the doubts of others, with his upbringing and his relationship with his daimonic father. He struggles at every turn, and it makes him a much more real and relatable character, not superhuman, not able to shrug off things just at the drop of a hat in the name of moving the plot forward, as you see in so many other books. He’s the most ‘human’ character I’ve may be ever read, while simultaneously not truly being human – ironic, isn’t it?

Death is a large theme in the series – while many of the characters are, essentially, immortal, the fear of the dreaded second death looms over them all. To kill an immortal so that they cannot reincarnate, to end their lives forever. Rafael being threatened with the second death is a heartbreaking and terrifying prospect for Diago, much more so than his own personal death, and leads him to risk it all by negotiating with his father, who has become one with the evil Moloch, in order to try and save his son by fooling the German Nefil into thinking they’d received the plans for their weapon.

Frohock brilliantly handles almost every aspect of the series, keeps it interesting, keeps things moving, while not ruining the pacing, not overdoing it. A lot of questions are still left unanswered, but that’s a reality when you are writing a short novella series, and don’t have the time and space to really explore things. I feel she could do significantly more to explore this world, and I hope she opts to do so going forward. However, the amount of info given in the books, the level of understanding the reader leaves with, while still leaving a large amount of intrigue and questions, is skillfully done, and very enjoyable.

I loved this series, and I just want more of it. Diago and Miguel and Rafael, their family of bears, are near-and-dear to my heart after spending this time with them. The incomparable Don Guillermo, his family, their friends in the Los Nefilim have left an impression on me that will last. I couldn’t recommend this series more – to fans of dark fantasy, of fantasy horror, or to people looking to branch out into something new. Los Nefilim is approachable, quick to read, incredibly well-written, and above all – it’s just really, really damn entertaining.

Bravo, Teresa.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville (2016)

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Hardcover, 210 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Del Rey (first published January 5th 2016)

My relationship with China Mieville’s works are….tumultuous. He simultaneously has written one of my favorite books (The City & The City), and one of my least favorite books ever (Perdido Street Station). Mieville is another author whom many people I respect adore, but my first impressions were not very good. However, I feel motivated to figure out what it is people see in him. Luckily, my last couple book experiences with China’s novels were generally positive. This Census-Taker was another one of those successes for me.

The story is told from the perspective of a young man – an incredibly unreliable young man. He is a victim, he is naive and uninformed, and he is scared. After noticing a disturbing pattern with his father’s behavior, he walks in on his father committing a heinous act. He runs to town, for protection, for escape, for comfort – only to find that the townsfolk do not believe his story, find his inconsistencies in telling to be suspicious, and side with his father, releasing him back to his father’s care. He stays with his father, alone, until a knock on the door comes, and his world is turned upside down yet again.

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A novella-length novel is a bit of an odd format for a guy like Mieville, and because of that, the book is a very ambiguous telling. Little background is given, even at the end, and the reader is left to fill in pieces in their head, following along as the young man figures out what is happening around him, tries to piece together why his life is falling apart before his eyes. You’re left wondering what exactly is going on at every turn, whether the narrator is accurately depicting or interpreting things, whether there’s something less obvious happening behind the scenes.

Additionally, this book is DARK. Right from the start, you’re smashed in the face with tragic events, and they continue as the story progresses, along with undercurrents of even more sinister things. It does not feel “dark for the sake of being dark”, it feels dark for a purpose. It drew me into the book even more, as I could feel the confusion and terror of the protagonist, I could feel the impact of the terrible things occurring, I could feel his exasperation at the lack of support he’s receiving, and his feelings of helplessness. His terror was palpable.

There are periods of the novella where I was a bit confused, a bit lost – but that was part of the point. With a drastic economy of space, Mieville paints a vivid picture, the gaps in the story leaving the imagination to fill in the rest – not in a lazy way, but in an incredibly skillful way. The prose and wording lack some of the “overcomplication” that Mieville can get himself into, such as he did in the New Crobuzon novels. Instead, we’re fed an eloquent and enjoyable format, one suited to following a young boy experiencing trauma, but not one that feels YA or childish. I was never left searching for a dictionary, nor was I left wishing for more .

It’s open-ended enough, especially the ending and some of the details about the narrator’s future (where he is telling the story under guard and incarceration for some reason). The unreliability is further enhanced by changes in tense, switching from second to third to first to third, and giving a bit of a schizophrenic feel. Very little is ever laid out in the book – it’s implied, it’s subtle, it’s gently addressed.

It’s a weird format, but it’s coming from a weird author. And it works.

Rating: 4 / 5

Throwback Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (2006)

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Paperback, 368 pages
Published January 3rd 2006 by Harper Paperbacks (first published 2004)

“Destiny is all. And now, looking back, I see the pattern of my life’s journey. It began in Bebbanburg and took me south, ever southward, until I reached the farthest coast of England and could go no farther and still hear my own language. That was my childhood’s journey. As a man I have gone the other way, ever northward, carrying sword and spear and ax to clear the path back to where I began. Destiny.”

Why do more people not read Bernard Cornwell novels? This is my third from him, and I have LOVED all three so far, and intend to continue reading more. As far as historical fiction is concerned, there are very few authors that I have found to even remotely hold a candle to Cornwell.

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This is a retelling of historical events, which follow Uhtrid, a young Englishman, son of a noble landholder, who is captured by the invading Danes. He is subsequently accepted into their culture and family as a son, trained to fight, trained in their ways, and even helps the Danes fighting the British. However, he is returned to the English at the behest of their king, Alfred, who has visions for the young man his scouts identified as assimilating into the Danish culture.

Alfred is an ultra-pious Christian, as most everyone seems to be at that point. However, Uhtrid, having spent some time as a child around the extra strict Christians, finds he prefers the Danish way of life much more, namely it’s warrior culture and lack of rules. He begrudgingly agrees to help King Alfred fight the Danes, protect his lanes, and provides info and fighting prowess. He bounces around quite a bit through his youth and teen years, back and forth between the Danes and English, accepted by both, fighting for both and against both, before finally settling with the English, marrying at the command of his king, and assisting in bringing down the invading Danish forces and protecting Alfred’s quickly shrinking lands.

The story is, in a word, outstanding. Cornwell’s writing style, prose, dialogue, fight scenes and other action – all are fantastic. I loved watching Uhtred grow, change his views, become self-reflective on how he is a child being manipulated, including realizing at one point that he “follows the last person who spoke with him”, upon becoming conscious of the fact that he tends to agree and follow the Danes when they speak with him, and the English when they speak to him. It’s a refreshing change from the oblivious, head-down characters that are so often present.

Cornwell does an excellent job of portraying information without feeling “dumpy”, and his dialogue always felt realistic, un-stuffy, and smooth. Characters interacted well, reacted and grew based upon their conversations, and tended to act within character, rather than catering to the story being told (which, admittedly, is limited due to being close to historical records). The pious nature of the English is well handled – presented often and assertively, but without feeling hamfisted or awkward. It was a great presentation of Uhtred’s struggles with his countrymen’s religion versus his own beliefs, his struggle for identity, swapping between the Danes and English often as his moods, motivations, and maturity level changed.

I really, truly enjoyed everything about this book. I could make minor complaints – it is a bit jumpy at points, skips over some periods of time. The standard ‘ye olde strong female character’ is another English girl who is captured while Uhtred is with the Danes, and sticks around with Uhtrid as he goes back and forth between the English and Danish. She is, however, a bit bland, and I found she did not contribute a whole lot other than an occasional assistance in talking their way out of a sticky situation, or just kind of ‘being there’. I would have liked to see her play a bigger role than she did, and the way she exited the story was abrupt and did not serve a lot of purpose.

However, speaking of endings: this book’s was SPECTACULAR. A huge battle between Uhtrid and one of his former friends and leaders, with some snappy dialogue and a very satisfying finish. The final line of the book, without spoiling, is a tribute to the quote I made at the top of this review, and felt like a total “mic drop” situation. It was badass, and I was left going “Daaaaamn”. I loved it.

I am eager to read more of these stories.

Additionally, the audio narration done by Jonathan Keeble is some of the best I’ve EVER listened to – he gets excitable when needed, and adds an edge to important battle scenes or dramatic moments. His accent adds a feeling of authenticity to the English protagonist, but is thin enough to not distract from the story. Absolutely A+ work by him.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review – A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (2015)

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Hardcover, 398 pages
Published February 24th 2015 by Tor Books
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

A Darker Shade of Magic is a wildly creative book, encompassing parallel worlds that, for the sake of the book’s POV, contain four variations of the city of London. Our main protagonist, Kell, is a magician, who possesses the increasingly rare ability to travel between these Londons, and thus is afforded a life as, essentially, an honorary prince for a noble family, used to travel between these parallel Londons and relay messages between the royal families of each. His London, “Red” London, is still magical, still a place where folks like Kell are embraced. “White” London…not so much. Magic is scarce there. “Grey” London has no magic remaining, no signs of it, little to no knowledge of it. And “Black” London? Well, we don’t really want to talk about Black London.

The worldbuilding for the book is a lot of fun – there aren’t a TON of details about each individual London to go around, but the entire situation is handled fluidly by Schwab, keeping things interesting while introducing the concepts, never leaving the reader feeling as though they’re the victim of a textbook-style infodump, while simultaneously getting a lot of relevant items across. Kell’s early struggles seamlessly expose us to the majority of the information we need, including the creative blood magic that he (and one of his counterparts) possess, as well as the varying differences between the parallel Londons.

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The writing quality of the book stays consistent – Schwab has a very eloquent, approachable prose, that keeps the pages turning. I felt as though I was finally getting some of that ‘whimsy’ that everyone is so in love with in books – it felt like a bit of a cross between Neil Gaiman and, say, Jo Walton. The book had a fairy-tale quality overall, but without sacrificing it’s structure and validity in the process. The dialogue was generally snappy and witty, the various characters bright and vibrant.

However, the main issue I took with the book was, in fact, it’s characters. Not because they were poorly written, but because I just didn’t like them. Kell, for a powerful magician with a rather interesting history, is often 10-ply soft. He waxes emotional poetic about how the family that took him in, cared for him, accepted him as one of their own, and provided him with many of the luxuries and power of a full fledged royal did not love him enough, or the motivations behind their acceptance of him. He gives in to almost everyone, then will turn around and use very powerful magic to kill someone. It was an interesting dichotomy, and often the switches back and forth were jarring. That said, I felt connected to him, I felt some understanding of his struggles, and I felt for him as he watched his princely brother suffer and almost die, the closest friend he had.

The bigger problem, however, was our secondary protagonist, Lila. Lila is a pickpocket/thief in grey London, and robs Kell of an important bauble that could have huge-scale negative effects if it fell into the wrong hands, and forces Kell to pursue her. The issue I took was that Lila was gods damned obnoxious. She was arrogant, childish, extremely immature, self-centered, and downright annoying at times. She was, essentially, every negative aspect you could pick out if you hung around a group of middle school preteens, wrapped into one adult-aged overgrown brat. She is ungrateful, defiant in EVERY way, so self-aggrandizing as to think she’s significantly more important and powerful than she is, and essentially constantly says “no” to everyone and everything said to her. Yet, somehow, she comes out as the hero in the end, which was a VERY “YA” style touch, to me. I appreciate what Schwab was trying to do with her, but she just came across as a constant thorn in everyone’s side, a TERRIBLE person overall, and one of the most grating characters I’ve ever had to read.

I would find myself reading the book, smiling, really enjoying the whimsy and story progression, then it would be broken up by Lila acting out like a petulant preteen, and I would immediately groan and be taken out of my enjoyment and immersion in the story. It’s frustrating to read other reviews and see people loving Lila – I just found her to be abhorrent, some ways blatant and some subtle; she reveled in murder, bragging to Kell about how much she enjoyed the aspects of killing. She reveled in her self-centered thievery, robbing those who cared for her and gave her love, despite her complete lack of appreciation. She refused to listen to any instructions or suggestions, instead selfishly hoarding the magical item for her own use and putting it in constant further peril. She was, frankly, a monster.

I’d like to clarify, here, that I don’t rate down books because people act badly, or are evil. Jorg Ancrath is a terrible person, but I loved him and his stories. However, Lila has a grating quality, and it felt like every third thing she said or did made me physically cringe, made me uncomfortable, made me angry and annoyed. She was well-written as that style of character, and I feel like everyone knows some obnoxious, self-centered snob like Lila in real life, to compare her to. However, the “annoying” factor really drug her down for me.

That giant rant aside, Lila’s nature did not take away from the book quite enough to drag it down. Schwab’s writing was wonderful, and the story had a fantastic ‘feel’ to it. The actual plot of the story wasn’t the most creative ever, but at this point, there’s only so many different story types to choose from. The details, however, were creative and lovely, and I enjoyed the way that, despite the main character having control over the magics, they still felt powerful, rare, scarce. The worldbuilding, overall, was really well done, and really transported me into the story. I can’t rightly give exceptional marks to a story where I hated a character so much, however, the rest of the story warranted praise, and I can safely say that I really enjoyed the book overall, and plan to read the sequels.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review – Calamity by Brandon Sanderson (2016)

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Hardcover, 421 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by Delacorte Press
PURCHASE ON AMAZON ($10 hardcover as of today!)

Calamity is the conclusion to Brandon’s ambitious ‘Reckoners‘ series – a young adult, superhero epic that deconstructs what it means to be a superhero, and what would happen if superpowers tainted their users into selfish, evil acts. It’s a fantastic concept, and a really fresh take on what is, often, a bit of a worn out concept (especially considering the rush of superhero movies and TV media of late).

I will admit, openly, that I often struggle with YA books – I find that, more often than not, YA novels feel watered down, neutered, unfulfilled. There are obvious exceptions – the brilliant Hunger Games comes to mind, as well as a piece of art such as Red Rising (which was not really a YA novel). However, if Brandon Sanderson writes something, I will read it – in the case of the Reckoners series, I’m glad that fact pulled me in, as I’ve enjoyed my ride through this world.

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Brandon and I – Worldcon 2015, Spokane, WA

Calamity picks up where Firefight left off – Prof has given into the evil that his powers brought, leaving the Reckoners behind. Meanwhile, Megan, formerly working with Steelheart, continues to help the Reckoners alongside her boyfriend – our protagonist and POV – David. The team is fighting to stop the destruction of more cities, stop Prof and hopefully turn him back into his old self, free of the taint of being a high Epic. The end goal is, of course, to stop Calamity, the head Epic, so to speak, from continuing his path of destruction and influence over the other epics.

The feel of Calamity, for me, was a tad different than the previous novels. It’s the same band of characters, plus a few new faces, but the focus in this novel focuses a lot more on those characters themselves, whereas the previous novels spent a lot more time looking into the Epics, exploring the ramifications of their actions, and highlighting the Oceans 11 style plans the team comes up with to bring them down. While the team is still planning, the Epics are still Epicing, and there is ample high-intensity fighting, Calamity pumps the brakes a bit on the pacing, brings things back into focus, and puts the character changes and development into a much bigger spotlight.

Which, in this case, both works, and also does not necessarily work. I really enjoyed watching some real, tangible character growth – especially towards the end of this novel. More “Oh, damn, I guess I need to change how I think about things” moments, rather than discovering a problem or solution, and just going with it. The downside to this, however, is that with how much focus is placed on this, the action and development of their plan and course of action is stunted, and it brings the series’ rapid pace down quite a bit. It was more of a shock related to the change of pace, rather than a real ‘problem’.

On that note, I did enjoy the characters quite a bit. The Reckoners squad are a lot of fun – a varied group, almost like a stock textbook photo; people of all sexes, races and backgrounds. They work together, each having their own unique speech patterns and quirks: David’s terrible metaphors, Abraham’s sage knowledge, Cody’s ridiculous made up Scotland stories. They are entertaining as hell, and the interplay between these characters, as well as the slight focus placed on each of their ‘quirks’, makes for a very fluid read when they’re interacting with each other. I enjoyed the addition of Nighthawk quite a bit, and thought his predicament was very unique (avoiding spoilers there).

Where this fails a bit is with Calamity himself, the ubervillain of this tale. While all the other characters were bright, fleshed out, explored – Calamity feels…incomplete. He comes across as a whiny, spoiled child, but has little else to him. His background is not explored nearly enough, and I was left with a bit of longing towards the end, wishing I knew more about him, more about his motivations, more than him just being a malevolent baddie. I know in superhero roles, the bad guys are often black/white “baddies”, but this series transcends those “typical” characters, explores them quite a bit, and I wanted Calamity to be explored a lot more.

The ending, as a whole, didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t understand some pieces of it – why certain characters had certain powers, why certain characters gained aforementioned certain powers, and the general feeling of…unfulfillment. I enjoyed my journey through this series, but was left feeling that the conclusion was too open-ended, and not the satisfying, fleshed-out series completions I’ve come to know and love from Sanderson. The book had all of the characteristic things I love from a Brandon book, but the ending came across as a more watered down version of the ending I expected.

The feel-good portions of the ending, namely in the epilogue, I enjoyed quite a bit. I didn’t really see it coming, and it made it all the more enjoyable. I’m normally not the kind of guy who actively seeks a happy ending, but I was glad to see one in this series – it just felt right, it felt like it SHOULD have a happy ending, so I was glad that decision was made.

Overall, I enjoyed Calamity quite a bit. There were a lot of laughable points, some sadness, and a lot of moments in character growth that I really enjoyed. That said, the book felt a bit incomplete, the ending leaving a bit to be desired. I’m a bit torn overall, as I really did have a great time reading this book, as well as the rest of the series, and I’m a bit sad to see it go (for now). This wasn’t my favorite Sanderson novel, but his bar is set so high that I feel I’m not saying much by stating that. Sanderson with some ‘holes’ in the writing is still better than 99% of writers out there, so needless to say, it’s still a great book, a great series, and an enjoyable read.

It just wasn’t perfect.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Review – The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan (2015)

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Hardcover, Second Edition, 448 pages
Published July 28th 2015 by Tor Books
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Few books gathered more anxious and excited energy in 2014 and early 2015 than The Dinosaur Lords. Armed with a brilliant piece of cover art, a big publisher, and a very unique and (potentially) exciting premise, the novel seemed poised to take off upon it’s release. However, following it’s late July arrival, talk of it all but disappeared in the fantasy communities, and the reviews coming back at that point were tepid, at best. Why?

Well, mostly because it’s not a very good book.

The synopsis on the book cover implied, essentially, that we were entering into a world where dinosaurs of all types are present, and humans have harnessed the powers of some of them to be used as mounts or weapons. Sounds epic, right?

If only. We’re thrown into some action to start the book, in the only manner that would be acceptable in a book like this – a skirmish, wherein mounted dinosaur knights ride in and sway the course of the battle. This is going to be great! Except then it falls flat on it’s face. The dinosaurs, for the majority of the book, become little more than an afterthought – a talking point. And unfortunately, when they are mentioned, it’s in the most bland ways possible – discussing constantly how their body weight is their real weapon, how the knights are just an ancillary piece and that the dinosaurs are the true weapons, etc. However, the dinosaurs are vastly under-utilized, and despite being the cover schtick and main focus of the blurb, they are far from the main focus of the novel.

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Yes, this is his actual author photo from Goodreads

This might be a minor complaint, if the rest of the story, characters, and world were intriguing enough to carry the book. However, they simply aren’t. The book surrounds a handful of main characters, most of which were of varying levels of ‘being awesome’. I very rarely felt like they were in true danger, as one of them would always come up with a plan to save the day. Some of them, especially Rob, were uninventive and very boring – very little character development occurred over the course of the book. He essentially spends his time praising or worshiping other characters, and doing very little for himself.

The worldbuilding leaves a TON to be desired. With the concept of the novel in mind, and knowing that there are dinosaurs and ample room to develop somewhere for them to live, Milan instead injects the novel with “Paradise“, a cookie-cutter pseudo-medieval world. However, despite the dinosaurs and medieval-age technology, there’s a lot of modern twists – a lot of Spanish influence, money in the form of Pesos, people measuring things in the metric system. On top of that, it’s frequently referenced that there was a previous world that people came from back in history, but there was no explanation at any point as to how they got to “Paradise”, no explanation for how the dinosaurs were tamed, no explanation for how this planet even works. It’s very disappointing, and a very lackluster job of developing a setting.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only writing blunder. The prose of the book is acceptable most of the time, however there are a pretty large number of errors in judgement that bring the book down. I noted multiple times in my updates that the book was boring – and that is true, the plot moves at a glacial speed, despite the relatively short page count of the book. There are long speeches early on that involve a lot of characters we do not know, nor do we have any vested interest in, so they come across as hollow and lacking consequence. The dialogue itself is rough as well – often stiff and unrealistic conversations, laden with profanity that would make Joe Abercrombie blush. I’ve no problem with naughty words, but they need to be used appropriately, and they’re just flung around like the crew are proverbial sailors.

The structure of thoughts and dialogue are even worse. I lost track of the number of times there was a line such as “xxxx, she thought to herself” in the middle of dialogue. I appreciate jumping into the head of POV characters, giving some insight as to what they’re seeing and feeling, etc. But Milan interjects almost every conversation with multiple instances of this, and it comes across as extremely clumsy and amateur. It breaks up the flow of dialogue, and often adds next to nothing to the situation. He also struggles with repeating himself – repeating phrases, repeating descriptions, repeating certain points. Perhaps the most egregious is his use of simile – multiple times, he compared falling soldiers to other falling items – namely describing one as dropped cutlery, and another as, I believe (not going to go back and find exact quote), “like pots and pans being dropped off a castle wall”. OUCH.

There were some other cringeworthy moments, such as one of the most vulgar sex scenes I’ve ever read. As with profanity, I have no aversion to smut in my books, as long as they’re used well. However, mentioning the female’s “bush” at least 4 times during a sex scene is just awkward at best, and really terribly written at worst. I also wonder if Victor Milan has either had sex with a woman, or knows women – his main female character is permanently horny, almost voraciously so, and in the aforementioned sex scene she orgasmed explosively within the first few seconds of their sexual encounter, and the orgasm lasted throughout their sexual escapade. I actually said “What the hell?” aloud after that scene – was like a teenager who had only ever read smut on the internet had written it.

All of these components add up quickly to form the basis for a very dull, disappointing book. One with a lot of potential, ideas and concept wise, but lacking sorely in execution. I struggled to find positive things to say about it – it’s far from the worst book I’ve ever read, but it made up for that gap by being such a letdown, such a missed opportunity. The writing was sub-par, and the decisions that went into the book even more so. The Dinosaur Lords had churned up a lot of hype and excitement, but in the end, left the reader with little satisfaction.

Rating: 1 / 5 

Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

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Paperback, 306 pages
Published April 10th 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton
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It’s certainly a relevant point to say that the SFF genre, as a whole, has a need for some diversity. We have no problem believing, accepting, and creating fanciful alternative worlds, continents, planets, the works – however, we always seem to create these in an caucasian-centric, Western-style world. Sure, Westeros, Elan, or any of the other magical worlds we know and love are interesting, unique, even extremely creative. But at the end of the day, they’re still Western worlds, with Western people and cultures.

Which is all well and good, most of the time. It’s tried and true, it’s popular and it’s worked, and us white folk are plenty comfortable with it, because it’s what we know. However, at this point in time, it seems like we should be able to diversify a bit, and appreciate other cultures, appreciate their lore and customs, and appreciate the people and places that exist outside of our western world. And it stands to reason that we should be able to come up with some creative, non-anglo worlds, does it not?

One would think.

However, the unfortunate truth in my reading world is that many of these are not successful. I adore the idea of an African, Asian, or Middle-Eastern set and fashioned fantasy. There’s a huge pile of untapped lore, culture, settings and styles that are waiting to be tapped and used in this genre of literature, and interesting and compelling novels are desperately needed in these areas. Some novels have come out in these settings that have been successful in my eyes – Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings was wonderful. Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars and Under Heaven are great, albeit not heavy on the culture of the area. Unfortunately, I’ve had qualms with many of the other books in Eastern/African settings – books such as Throne of the Crescent MoonThe Black God’s War, or The Emperor’s Knife offered a glimpse of greatness, the possibilities of these settings, but just did not *click* for me, did not put all the pieces together.

Alas, Lagoon again was full of potential – Nnedi Okorafor is someone who I’ve read about quite a bit, read samples of some of her work, and find her to be an interesting and cool person. She’s the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, a scholar in many writing-related fields, and has won many awards for her work. Naturally, I had very high hopes coming into Lagoon, and hoped it would be a successful African culture fantasy that would help springboard me into more similar works. However, it didn’t quite hit that mark for me.

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The plot of Lagoon centers around 3 main characters, as well as a handful of ancillary characters, of varying levels of interest. They happen to be at the same place at the same time, when mysterious aliens land outside the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Much of the book is spent introducing these aliens, and trying to complete their request of getting them to the Nigerian president. This is essentially the crux of the entire story.

It sounds interesting in theory, but unfortunately, the ‘in theory’ is the extent of it. Lagoon is a relatively short novel, however it attempts to wedge a lot into those pages. I say “attempts” simply because it’s just not successful in this venture. So many cultural commentary pieces, human rights, political and religious corruption, human nature and a plethora of other social and ecological issues are introduced, but very few play a significant enough part, and it sometimes feels like ideas are brought up just so they are present in the book, without serving much purpose.

The biggest downfall of the book are the directional and writing decisions. Several characters are introduced into the story, but end up serving very little purpose – some of these even get POV-type chapters, but just fizzle out and get no resolution. Certain aspects are pushed and repeated over and over, in a very hamfisted manner – the most obvious of these are the anti-Christian sentiment. The Christian characters are presented as one-dimensionally misguided, the ‘father’ is presented as completely corrupt, going as far as to introduce him by “walking between his BMW and his Mercedes”. I’m no fan of Christianity or religions as a whole, but they’re presented in a very black-and-white manner in this novel.

So many of the plot pieces get explained very little, or explored very little. The aliens are omnipresent, but are explored almost not-at-all, and very little is filled in on them. There’s a sentient road that eat bones, which people talk about constantly and there are seemingly whole chapters devoted to, yet nothing becomes of it and the plot line for that just ends. This is a repeat problem throughout the book with many of the threads that are started.

The writing itself is alright at points, but I had a lot of qualms with it. Nnedi seems obsessed with mentioning brand names at every turn, and it often comes across as extremely awkward. I don’t know how many times “Youtube” was used, but it was a lot. People didn’t pull out their cell phones, they pulled out Blackberries. I cringed at one point when “flat-screen high definition television” was used – how is all of that relevant? What did you gain by not just saying “television” there? It felt as though there was constant pop culture references, as if a desperate attempt to say “look at how relevant the book is! Look at all this pop culture!”. It just came across to me as awkward. Also, apparently Drake is a “shitty, whiny rapper” – just in case you were wondering.

Some of the idiosyncrasies got a bit old as well. I seriously lost track of the number of times people sucked their teeth – I swear, probably 50+ in the book?  It happened over and over and over, and after a while it was downright nails-on-chalkboard style for me. I cringed every time another person sucked their teeth, including one towards the end where a woman did it 3 times in one paragraph. I don’t know if this is an African culture thing, or just a weird writing quirk, but it was infuriating after a while.

The repetition bled over into the prose as well – often character names would be repeated over and over and over in a short period of time, yet other time gender pronouns were used instead, over and over, making certain conversations very confusing. Characters would repeat dialogue phrases numerous times, whether externally or internally, and it became a bit grating, and left a lot of feelings of deja vu – I even went back and reread a portion because I thought I’d already read it.

The ideas and setting for this book are interesting, and really could be promising for future works. However, the execution was lacking on the writing and organizational side, as well as the editing front. This book either needed to be much longer, or needed to have a lot of pieces removed that did not fit with the rest of the story, or did not serve a long-term purpose. Lagoon was a novel with plenty going for it, but it just could not get it’s act together enough to make it into a good book for me. Nnedi is still a fascinating author and person to me, and I’ve heard good things about some of her shorts, so I’m not going to write her off. However, I do have trouble recommending Lagoon to others.

Rating: 2 / 5 

Review: Staked by Kevin Hearne (2016)

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Hardcover, 310 pages
Published January 26th 2016 by Del Rey
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

I have long been a fan of what I call ‘snack’ (or ‘junk food’) books. I use this as a term of endearment, rather than in a derogatory manner; I don’t always want a candy bar, but every so often, a Coffee Crisp is EXACTLY what I want and need. My intention with this designation are signifying books that are short, entertaining, usually somewhat humorous, generally in a series form and often in mass market paperback out of the gates; for me, they’re a nice break from 700 page epic fantasy series that take me weeks and weeks to read, and require a ton of time to digest. For one reason or another, most of the ones I read seem to be urban fantasy, which have their own style to them, and tend to meet my guidelines for ‘snack’ books. I get reading fatigue at times, and I generally like to break up my reading by going long – short – long – short.

Examples of fantasy series that I’ve read that fall into this category are The Dresden Files, Sandman Slim, Discworld, Jig The Goblin, Libriomancer, Geekomancy. Being a ‘snack’ book definitely doesn’t mean they’re of lower quality, less depth, or less content – just means they’re in a shorter format, easier to read, easy to binge through and destroy in a couple sittings without stressing about it.

For some time, Iron Druid has been my go-to in this style; one or two books a year, quick easy read, lots of humor, some depth and a lot of fun. Luckily for me, I began reading the series after the first book, Hounded, was released, so I’ve been able to follow along as it comes out. I often will skip large series, as I’m a bit intimidated by longer epic sagas that will take me months and months of solid reading to finish (see: Malazan). They immediately appealed to me in a way that a lot of other similar series didn’t: effortless humor that never felt overly forced, very interesting historical elements, interactive gods that weren’t obnoxious, and a protagonist that I didn’t detest. I trudged through 9 books of the Dresden Files series, as for a while they were my main snack, but I just could no longer stand Harry Dresden as a character, and Butcher’s writing just didn’t speak to me.

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For the most part, it’s been an enjoyable journey through the series. I’ve given generally favorable reviews (1x 5-star, 5x 4-star and 1x 3-star), and left positive comments. It’s not perfect, but I don’t expect it to be – I want them to be entertaining, fun, page-turning reads. And in that area, Iron Druid delivers.

For those uninitiated, this is the 8th book in the series (of 9 total, plus a handful of novellas), which follows Atticus O’Sullivan, a several thousand year old druid, who for a long period of time was the only remaining druid on earth. He is kept alive by a magical concoction he calls “ImmortaliTea”, which is a blend of herbs that he magically enhances, and gives the consumer essentially endless life at their current age (does not make them invulnerable). He proceeds over the series to get into various sticky situations involving witches, werewolves, and gods from all societies and all historical periods. He has a couple chats with Jesus, for example, and an epic battle with the Greek gods.

Atticus is accompanied by a colorful cast of friends and allies, the most notable of which is his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon. Atticus has a telepathic link with Oberon that allows him to communicate back and forth, and the resulting conversations have proven one of the best parts of the entire series, providing comic relief at almost every instance. Additionally, he takes on an apprentice/lover, Granuaile, who is a local bartender at a pub Atticus frequents. Later in the series, his mentor, frozen in a time prison, is released, and Owen provides some of the best commentary in the entire series, as he navigates a modern world that he was previously not introduced to.

Irish Wolfhound dog portrait

Where we stand heading into this book is as such: Atticus is on a campaign to wipe out the vampires, and more specifically, the oldest living vampire, Theophilus. Granuaile is waging her own war against the god Loki, who she severely injured in an ambush, but who she naturally assumes will be on her tail soon. She’s currently with a coven of witches in Poland, seeking to make a protective magical cloak to help protect her. Owen is settling in with the Tempe pack of werewolves, and looking to start a new grove in order to start training druids for the future, to try and recover the order of druids from extinction.

That said, I essentially just summarized the new book as well. It felt like less happened in this novel than in any of the previous (perhaps as a setup for the final book?). I mean, plenty did happen, but much of it felt minor, less impactful – there weren’t the large-scale god battles, or even some of the interpersonal conflict that there generally have been in the books. Atticus largely travels around searching for Theophilus, and the book seems to focus very heavily on destinations, cities and their cultures, and making commentary on those. Kevin’s awesome in that he researches his destinations and uses real places, but he also leans on that very heavily in this novel. We spend a lot of time in stores, restaurants and other places in Toronto, Rome, Poland, Germany. After a while, it felt like a bit of a platform to discuss vacation cities.

I still got plenty of laughs from the book – Owen is an absolute riot, especially when placed in the incredibly capable hands (lips?) of Luke Daniels, the audiobook narrator. His curmudgeony attitude is endearing in it’s own way, and some of his complaints and observations elicited full on belly laughs. As always, Oberon and Atticus have extremely entertaining mental conversations, though for much of the book, Oberon was basically told “Sit, stay, good boy” while Atticus did things on his own. Which, to me, is a missed opportunity – a chunk of the success of the series is their interactions and Oberon’s commentary – I say it’s akin to Inglorious Basterds, where Brad Pitt’s character Aldo Raine felt sorely underused (despite the movie being brilliant regardless).

And just to get it out of the way – Granuaile at this point does nothing for me as a character, and I found most of her chapters extremely boring. She lacks a lot of the charm and pizazz of Atticus and Owen, her hound is not funny or interesting the way Oberon is, and for most of this book, she does next to nothing. She hangs out with witches and learns some Polish, goes on a quick mission to rescue a horse, and then spends more time with the witches, before finally briefly reuniting with Atticus to save the day. I appreciate and accept the need and value in strong female characters, and she most certainly is one of those. She has ample depth, a great history, and interesting upbringing into being a druid. However, very little of that translated in Staked, and I found myself half groaning during her chapters, just wishing things would get back to Atticus or Owen.

One thing the book did fantastically (and the series as a whole, frankly) is deal with consequences. While the book centers around superpowered druids, as well as nearly invulnerable gods from all different cultures, there are generally lasting effects and troubling moments related to actions and decisions. Atticus at this point is starting to feel the weight of his history, and of all of his past actions. Some of his decisions have lead to the death of friends, and in the end of the novel, he suffers perhaps the worst blow to his mental health and wellbeing that he has yet received. I thought it was handled excellently, I thought Owen delivering that blow to Atticus was brilliantly written, very impactful, and very moving. It was a terrific passage, and was the crowning jewel of this novel for sure.

I’ve invested enough into this series that I will see it out, and I enjoy Kevin and his writing enough to follow him into his new series afterwards. However, for me, this was the weakest book in the series to date – not that it was bad, because it certainly wasn’t. It was just lacking some of the ‘oomph’ that the other novels in the series had, and despite it’s short length (310 hardcover pages) still felt like it had some space filler in it, rather than plot movement. I fully expect the final piece of this series to be longer, and for it to go out with a ‘bang’. Hearne’s writing is as good, or better, than it’s ever been, but it did not directly translate into Staked.

Rating: 3 / 5