Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk

Series: Book 1 of The Books of Babel

Publisher: Orbit (January 16, 2018)

Length: 448 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

The BiblioSanctum was part of the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) the year Senlin Ascends made a huge splash despite not making it to the final round—proof that the “word-of-mouth phenomenon” is not to be underestimated—so as you can imagine, trying not to let the hype color my opinion of this book was nearly impossible. Had I gone in blind, my experience might have been different, but clearly that ship has sailed now, and nothing could have changed the fact that my expectations were through the roof when I picked this up. Perhaps that would explain why I was not as taken with it as I thought I would be.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this was a great book and I enjoyed it. But I did not fall head over heels in love the way I wanted to. The story follows Thomas Senlin, the unassuming headmaster of a small schoolhouse in a rural fishing village. Everyone was surprised when he marries the vivacious Marya, whose unpredictable nature seemed a poor match for his stuffiness and formality. Still, the two of them were in love, and for their honeymoon, Senlin arranges for them to visit the Tower of Babel, which is the greatest wonder in the world. Ancient and immense, the structure is made up of an untold number of Ringdoms layered on top of the other, each one containing a city with its own unique characteristics and cultures. Tourists from everywhere flock to the Tower to experience its marvelous sights and sounds, and Senlin hopes to impress his new bride with all the information he has learned from the guidebook he possesses.

Unfortunately, the newlyweds are separated in the hectic crowds almost as soon as they arrive at their destination. Desperate to find Marya, Senlin realizes that the Tower of Babel isn’t exactly all it’s hailed to be. Beneath its wondrous façade lies the ugly truth, that far from orderly, the Ringdoms are worlds of danger and chaos. It turns out that his wife is not the first to become lost in their depths, but Senlin is determined to find her, and to do that he must enter the Tower and discover its secrets.

For the most part, this book was very enjoyable and kept my attention. Josiah Bancroft’s writing is wonderful, far beyond what I would have expected from a novel that was originally self-published. There’s also an art and elegance to his prose, as well as a quality to his story construction that is self-evident. After all, creative presentation can go a long way. Detailed descriptions also helped bolster the world-building, and one of the reasons why I was so captivated early in the novel was due to the sheer amount of imagination displayed in the portrayal of the different Ringdoms. My absolute favorite was the Parlour; as one of the earlier levels we got to experience through Senlin’s bewildered eyes, this strange and unsettling place helped set the tone of the rest of the story.

Speaking of Senlin, he’s an interesting study. Not exactly a classic hero nor the warmest of protagonists, there’s an air of aloofness about him that effectively also keeps the reader at arm’s length. Thus, it surprised me a bit to realize halfway through the book how deeply I cared about his character. This connection only grew stronger as I watched Senlin become shaped by the things he witnessed in the Tower, the way he was forced to evolve or rethink his worldview after each pivotal encounter. Despite his stiff uppity attitude, there’s no denying his love for Marya (even if he does pride himself too much on his self-control to really show it at the beginning), and his determination to find her is enough to pull on anyone’s heartstrings.

For me, the first signs of trouble appeared around the three-quarters mark. Before this, I was happily devouring the story, delighting in every moment. Somewhere in the middle of Part III though, the plot began to lose its hold on me and I felt my focus waver. I don’t know what happened exactly, but I felt myself gradually becoming less interested in the events unfolding on the page. It’s possible that the novelty was starting to wear off at this point, or perhaps I’d suddenly hit my limit of weirdness that I was willing to put up with in one book—whatever the case, these later chapters of Senlin’s journey were just not enough to keep my attention. Admittedly, I did feel that the last hundred pages of the novel meandered too much, with Senlin losing sight of his main goal. And when the action finally came, it struck me as too-little-too-late, not to mention the tone of it didn’t exactly feel in sync with everything that came before. It’s just a shame because I think a book like this deserves a much stronger ending, one that enhances the story’s themes instead of distracting from them.

However, keep in mine how much I’d hyped myself up for this book, and perhaps my expectations were too high—which is something I understand is all on me. At the end of the day, I still enjoyed Senlin Ascends, just not to the point where I’d call it a personal favorite, but I can also see why so many readers praise it so highly. There’s certainly a lot to love here, and no question about it, I’ll be reading the sequel.

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Audiobook Review: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Random House Audio (January 9, 2018)

Length: 9 hrs and 50 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Euan Morton

I’m trying to add more mysteries and thrillers to my reading repertoire this year, so earlier this month when an opportunity to review The Chalk Man audiobook landed into my lap, I decided to take it. After all, you can hardly expect me to say no to a book that has been compared to the works of Stephen King and Stranger Things.

Described as a tale of psychological suspense and a murder mystery, this book is told through the eyes of protagonist Eddie Adams in a narrative divided between two timelines. In the summer of 1986, Eddie is a 12-year-old boy doing what all 12-year-olds do when school’s out and the weather’s nice: he and his friends Hoppo, Metal Mickey, Fat Gav, and Nicky spend their days playing in the park, riding their bikes, and exploring the woods around their quiet English village of Anderbury. Then Fat Gav receives a bucket of chalk for his birthday, which inspires the five of them to invent a way of communicating amongst themselves by using coded chalk drawings. Soon, all of them are using this system to leave each other secret messages—until one day, someone else uses their code to lead them to a grisly discovery.

Fast forward to 2016, and Eddie is a middle-aged man recalling the day thirty years ago when those unexplained chalk drawings pointed him and his friends to a dismembered body in the woods. He had thought the past was behind him, but then he receives a letter in the mail with a single stick figure drawn in chalk. The mystery deepens when he finds out that his friends also got the same message, reminding them all of what happened that summer. The whole town had thought the murder was solved, the killer identified, and the case put to rest—but the little chalk man suggests otherwise. Then one of Eddie’s friends, who claims to know who the real killer was, ends up dead. It seems the past will continue to haunt them all, unless Eddie can uncover the truth of what happened all those years ago.

This book had me engrossed from beginning to end. Like all debuts it had its flaws, but nevertheless, it’s hard to believe this was the author’s first novel, since she seemed to have such a firm grasp on all the touchstones of the genre. Atmosphere was something Tudor managed exceedingly well, creating a story filled with tension and suspense. The 1986 chapters painted a very authentic picture of the time period and of life in a small insular village where everyone knows each other’s business. As such, there were plenty of opportunities for side plots involving the townsfolk, as well as other elements all going on at the same time, and these were all blended perfectly together to add drama and intrigue to the main storyline. This kept the overall mystery unpredictable with carefully constructed false leads and surprising twists, resulting in a very entertaining experience.

This book was also a very detailed study on the character of Eddie Adams. We get to know him fairly well, seeing the events through his point of view as a child on the verge of adolescence, and then as a grown man. However, there’s a touch of the “unreliable narrator” about him too, especially when it becomes clear early on that Eddie is himself a bit of an oddity. Like many of the townspeople, our protagonist has plenty of his own secrets, and really, what 12-year-old boy is a paragon of honesty? As an adult, Eddie is more even-tempered and mature, though there’s no doubt that the events of that summer have affected him deeply, and we also get the sense of a man full of regret. Throughout the novel, there’s a recurring theme of inaction leading to misery, as well as unintentional acts leading to harm or misfortune, which might explain why the 42-year-old Eddie is so driven to find the truth, possibly because he feels the need to make up for past mistakes.

Engaging and intense, The Chalk Man is a book that will have you constantly wondering who, what, how, and why. Non-linear narratives can be tricky, but C.J. Tudor uses the alternating timelines to great effect, timing the twists and revelations perfectly to induce horror and suspense, creating an atmosphere of unease that is always creeping at the edge of your consciousness. Her debut is a psychological thriller worthy of the genre, well written with slow teases and cleverly dropped clues that gradually build up to a chilling finale. Highly recommended.

Audiobook Comments: Euan Morton was a great narrator, who pulled me into the story straight away. Between his reading and the author’s writing, this was an audiobook I couldn’t stop listening to and I finished it in two days.

YA Weekend Audio: The Defiant by Lesley Livingston

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Defiant by Lesley Livingston

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Book 2 of The Valiant

Publisher: Listening Library (February 13, 2018)

Length: 10 hrs and 19 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Fiona Hardingham

I adored the first book—finally, a Young Adult novel I was really hyped up for that didn’t disappoint me—but this sequel was even better. I think it’s safe to say if you enjoyed The Valiant, then The Defiant will continue to impress.

Warning: possible spoilers for the first book if you haven’t read it yet! Our series protagonist, Fallon, has gone from Celtic princess to captured slave to Rome’s most beloved gladiatrix, but now she’s about to learn that fame comes with a price. Following the events of The Valiant, Fallon is looking forward to spending some time with her sister Sorcha, with whom she was recently reunited. Their gladiator academy is also flourishing, having gained the favor of Caesar as well as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

But those Fallon has wronged have not forgotten nor forgiven the way she humiliated them. Bent on revenge, a rival school is about to threaten everything Fallon fought so hard to gain, including the autonomy she has won for herself and her fellow gladiatrices. Then there’s Cai, the Roman soldier she fell in love with, who is pulled into the conflict as Fallon and her friends are forced to make a desperate escape from their home in the middle of the night. With Sorcha missing and everyone fearing the worst, Fallon’s only hope now lies in locating a lost tribe of warrior women said to be descended from the mythical Amazons.

The Defiant was an addictive read. Lesley Livingston once again shows her talent for engaging storytelling as she brings this series to a whole new level, delivering fast-paced action and nonstop entertainment. Old foes return and new alliances are forged in this sequel, which also focuses on exploring the relationships between characters we’ve come to know and love. In addition, the story addresses some of the questions we were left with at the end of The Valiant: what exactly was the dark ritual Fallon witnessed, and how deep does the corruption go?

I loved what this book did for the main protagonist, showing us once more what a talented leader and fighter she is. Fallon also comes across as genuinely capable and motivated, and she has this no-nonsense approach that I find really refreshing. This attitude extended to the romance between her and Cai, which had the appropriate amount of tension without going overboard with the melodrama. It certainly didn’t distract from the main storyline, which the author has packed with plenty of action and intrigue.

The Defiant also brings interesting new developments to the overall series, and compared to the first book, this sequel does feel quite a bit meatier in terms of substance. It’s as if all the elements that worked in The Valiant were honed, polished, and made even better. There were also improvements aplenty, from more detailed world-building and character development to cleaner prose and writing. Livingston has been working hard at her craft, and it shows.

As a reader, it’s always a joy to find a sequel which surpasses its predecessor, especially when I already love the first book so much. It’s rare enough, especially in YA fiction, that I didn’t dare get my hopes up, approaching The Defiant with realistic expectations, not knowing that the book would ultimately exceed all of them. With luck, the trend will continue into the third installment, which I’m already looking forward to with much excitement.

Audiobook Comments: I just had to go with the audio edition for this one, considering the amazing time I had with the audiobook of The Valiant. Fiona Hardingham returns for the narration, and she was once again brilliant in her role as Fallon. Her wonderful accents, intonations, and impeccable sense of timing are all reasons why she’s one of my favorite narrators, and why I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this series in audio.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Valiant (Book 1)

Friday Face-Off: Letters & Words

Welcome to The Friday Face-Off, a weekly meme created by Books by Proxy! Each Friday, we will pit cover against cover while also taking the opportunity to showcase gorgeous artwork and feature some of our favorite book covers. If you want to join the fun, simply choose a book each Friday that fits that week’s predetermined theme, post and compare two or more different covers available for that book, then name your favorite. A list of future weeks’ themes are available at Lynn’s Book Blog.

This week’s theme is:

“You know your A, B, Cs”
~ a cover featuring only LETTERS & WORDS

Mogsy’s Pick:
World War Z by Max Brooks

It feels apt to choose an epistolary novel for the theme this week, and I’ve gone with a fun one. World War Z is a apocalyptic horror novel featuring a collection of individual accounts chronicling the global devastation following a zombie plague.

Let’s take a look at some of the covers:

First row, from left to right: Crown (2006) – Broadway Books (2013) – Duckworth (2011) – Thorndike Press (2006)

   

Second row, from left to right: Finnish Edition (2011) – French Edition (2010) – Italian Edition (2013) – Portuguese Edition (2010)

   

Third row, from left to right: German Edition (2010) – Polish Edition (2008) – Norwegian Edition (2012) – Romanian Edition (2012)

   

Fourth row, from left to right: Persian Edition (2006) – Spanish Edition (2008) – Thai Edition (2012) – Bulgarian Edition (2012)

   

Winner:

I’m not exactly the biggest fan of text-only covers, so I was glad to find plenty of graphical ones to choose from as well. These ranged from the atmospheric (Romanian Edition) and chaotic (Bulgarian Edition) to the creepy (Finnish Edition) to the downright insane (Thai Edition). In terms of overall aesthetics and art style preference, however, I’m going to have to go with the Portuguese Edition as my winner. It’s just so “classically zombie”.

But what do you think? Which one is your favorite?

Book Review: The Infernal Battalion by Django Wexler

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Infernal Battalion by Django Wexler

Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 5 of The Shadow Campaigns

Publisher: Ace (January 9, 2018)

Length: 480 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Often it is said that the final book that can either make or break a series, but I’m thrilled to report that The Infernal Battalion is a finale that exceeded my expectations, bringing about a stunning conclusion to The Shadow Campaigns.

As this is a review for the fifth and final installment of the series, the usual caveats apply: beware of possible spoilers for the previous books, if you are not already caught up. A great deal has happened to bring us to this point, including the escape of the Beast—the demon of all demons, and a force of unspeakable evil—from its ancient prison beneath Elysium. Its influence spreads the way it feeds, absorbing the minds and controlling the bodies of all those it infects. Now it has amassed an unstoppable army of these drone-like soldiers, and at the head of this infernal host is none other than General Janus bet Vhalnich, whose faculties the Beast had stolen at the end of The Guns of Empire.

But to those who are unaware of Janus’s possession, his actions seemed like the worst kind of betrayal. Vordan has only just emerged from a bloody war, and Queen Raesinia had been looking forward to a period of peace for rebuilding. Instead, she now finds herself under threat from the very same man who won her kingdom its many victories in battle. Janus has declared himself Emperor, and his message to Raesinia is loud and clear: surrender her throne, or else he and his army will destroy anyone who stands in his way.

For readers who have been following The Shadow Campaigns and are familiar with Janus’s military prowess, we know perfectly well what his character is capable of. Perhaps it only makes sense for Vordan’s greatest hope to become its greatest threat, and in retrospect, this crux of the series might have been in development for several books now, under Wexler’s subtle guidance. It made for a gripping premise, one worthy of a grand finale, for not only did the phenomenal battle sequences and action make this the most intense novel of the series, Janus’s apparent betrayal also created a lot of interesting conflicts for our characters. Many of them are unaware that their general is under the control of the Beast, giving rise to a lot of uncertainty and tension—an element of suspense that I felt was missing in the previous book.

As you may recall, in my review of The Guns of Empire, I noted the sporadic pacing of the book, almost like the series seemed to be biding its time, holding itself back for the right moment to unleash its full force. Well, that time has finally come. Wexler is in his element as The Infernal Battalion shifts the focus back to the chaos and violence of the frontlines, making this one an action-packed installment.

However, the true strength of the novel lies in its characters. We’ve seen the cast expand in size and diversity over the course of five books, but the three main protagonists—Winter, Marcus, Raesinia—remain the heart and soul of this series. Individually, they’ve each endured so much, and now that we’ve arrived at the end of this journey, I desperately needed to know what would become of them. Happily, this finale did not disappoint; all three of our stars get their moments to shine, and there were plenty of revelations about them as well, with the surprises coming at us hard and fast. Marcus won my love in this one, as he was in the most unenviable position of having to go up against Janus—his former commanding officer that he greatly admired and considered a friend—knowing that his chances of winning were practically nil. I was also touched by his love and loyalty to Raesinia, even with their romance full of ups and downs. Winter was a joy to follow too, despite her constant guilt-ridden thoughts and self-pity parties, and I think her epic actions in the climax will end up being one of the series’ most memorable moments.

In sum, The Infernal Battalion is the culmination of everything that has been building up throughout The Shadow Campaigns. As a finale, I couldn’t have asked for more; the plot and characters were engaging, the ending was satisfying, and as far as I’m concerned, Django Wexler has written a pitch-perfect conclusion to one of my favorite series. It has been an incredible journey, one that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone with a love for epic fantasy fiction.

*** Originally reviewed at The Speculative Herald ***

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Thousand Names (Book 1)
Review of The Shadow Throne (Book 2)
Review of The Shadow of Elysium (Book 2.5)
Review of The Price of Valor (Book 3)
Review of The Guns of Empire (Book 4)
Guest Post: “Writing the Revolution” by Django Wexler

Waiting on Wednesday 01/17/18

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (June 26, 2018 by Saga Press)

This book has been described as a Max Max: Fury Road inspired dystopian starring a monster-hunting Navajo heroine. I haven’t looked forward to a book this much in ages, and I just have one thing to say: please let this be as good as it sounds.

“While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.”

Book Review: Blood and Sand by C. V. Wyk

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Blood and Sand by C. V. Wyk

Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Genre: Historial Fiction, Young Adult

Series: Book 1 of Blood and Sand

Publisher: Tor Teen (January 16, 2018)

Length: 320 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Well, that was, unfortunately, not as good as it could have been. Though, if you’re simply hankering for a standard Young Adult novel with a flavor of Ancient Rome, I’m sure this book will serve its purpose. I just wish it hadn’t been so…hokey.

What do I mean by that? You could feel the intrusive force of the author’s hand, nudging her characters through to the desired storyline every step of the way. None of it felt organic, from the events that transpired to the relationships between the characters. It sucked all the joy and charm out of what could have been an excellent novel.

The author begins with a note informing readers that many of the people and events that take place in the story are based on the historical record…except when it suits her needs. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of historical fiction and I know how it works; I don’t mind the occasional tweak here or there for the sake of making your story work better or more interesting. However, blatant manipulation of dates, say, for the express purpose of ending your novel on an “eruptive” note makes things seem far too contrived, if you know what I mean. This and other developments were “twists” I saw coming a mile away. Like I said, nothing unfolded organically; everything felt scripted.

Speaking of which, this segues perfectly into how I felt about the characters. The stars of Blood and Sand are Attia, a 17-year-old Thracian princess, and Xanthus, a Briton slave boy who grew to become the mightiest gladiator in Rome. Despite being a girl, Attia was chosen and trained by her father, the Maedi chieftain, to be his heir following the death of his wife and son. If the Romans had known, they would have killed her on the spot when they invaded her land and slaughtered her people, but they were expecting the Maedi heir to be a boy, which led to Attia to be captured and enslaved. In Rome, she was bought by Timeus, the dominus of a gladiatorial school, who wished to gift a beautiful Thracian girl to his best gladiator, Xanthus. Expecting the Champion of Rome to be a cruel violent brute, Attia prepares to fight tooth and nail to escape, only to find that Xanthus is nothing more than a misunderstood and tortured soul, soft-spoken, thoughtful, and gentle as a lamb (sigh…because of course he is). All her reservations about him disappear miraculously overnight. The two of them spend literally one night talking, and suddenly they are madly in love.

There was nothing to convince me these two had formed any kind of complex or emotional connection beyond sharing a few details in a very strained, orchestrated conversation about their past. Nothing to convince me that Attia would throw away her all-consuming desire for freedom and revenge for the sake of a stranger she’s only known for a short time. This has become a common refrain from me regarding the state of Young Adult romances as of late, but there was simply no spark of chemistry.

For a novel being pitched as a story about a “female Spartacus”, I was also profoundly disappointed by the lack of action we saw from Attia. We mostly got to see her kick ass in just one pivotal scene in the middle of the book, following a sequence of events that felt awkward and scripted in the manner they came about. Characters appeared to go out of their way to maneuver themselves into that very situation, even if their reasoning made little sense. Most of the supporting cast are also lightly sketched and felt like props for the author to use as she saw fit—namely, to make Attia and Xanthus look good. Xanthus’s gladiator brothers are hardly around except when they’re needed to talk up Attia’s beauty or battle prowess, and characters like Lucrezia and Rory felt written in for the sole purpose of being Attia’s charity cases.

Finally, this did not feel like a complete book. Early in the story, Xanthus is given the news that he will have an opportunity to face his sworn enemy in the ring, an event that never materialized, so presumably there will be at least one sequel where this will be covered. The novel instead ends with no resolution to any conflict, though to the author’s credit, she did seek to close things out with a spectacular bang—an effort in which she was successful, even if the ending left me with no sense of closure or satisfaction. There are loose ends aplenty, but somehow, I have a feeling I already know how a lot of them will resolve, given how predictable I found this novel.

Blood and Sand was a book I had high hopes for, and in truth, the first few chapters did make me think that perhaps I held a winner in my hands. With that said, perhaps the source of my frustration lies in the genuine potential for greatness that I glimpsed in this debut, if only it hadn’t been constrained by so many common first-timer mistakes as time wore on. My tepid response notwithstanding, I don’t think this was a bad book, just that it was too contrived for my liking, which killed a lot of my enthusiasm for the story and characters. Still, there’s room to grow with this series, so I’m not writing it off yet, but I’ll probably adopt a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the sequel.

Book Review: The Supernaturals by David L. Golemon

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Supernaturals by David L. Golemon

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Horror

Series: Book 1 of The Supernaturals

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (October 18, 2016)

Length: 400 pages

Author Information: Website

As far as haunted house stories go, I’ve read better but I’ve also read worse. Following the current trend of bringing reality television and social media into the horror genre, The Supernaturals attempts a modern twist on a classic premise.

Nestled in the picturesque Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania is said to be a luxurious mansion, built at the turn of the twentieth century to serve as a retreat for the rich and famous. Known as Summer Place, it is also alleged to have inspired Shirley Jackson’s famous horror masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. While it’s hard to imagine such a beautiful, charming place as the inspiration for such evil and terror, the mansion does have a somewhat checkered past. The most recent incident occurred in 2003, when a team of university students led by behavioral psychologist Professor Gabriel Kennedy ventured into Summer Place to debunk the presence of paranormal activity—only, the group re-emerged from the ordeal grieving and traumatized, with one less member. To this day, Gabriel has never forgiven himself for the loss of one of his students, who disappeared mysteriously without a trace that night, as though swallowed up by the very walls of the house itself.

Seven years later, a television producer named Kelly Delaphoy is eyeing Summer Place as the key to her big break: an ambitious undertaking to broadcast a live ghost-hunting event to millions of viewers on Halloween night. To lend legitimacy to the project, she convinces a reluctant Gabriel Kennedy to act as a consultant on the show, and he in turn recruits a few of his old friends to help, including a Native American dreamwalker; a young woman possessed by the spirit of a 1950s singer; a convict who is a clairvoyant; and a former gang member turned computer genius. Also along for the ride are an investigative field reporter smelling the opportunity for an exposé, as well as a homicide detective who has never stopped suspecting Gabriel for the disappearance of his student.

As you can see, there are quite a few characters to keep track of, and I can’t say many of them are very likeable (though to be fair, I think this is by design). Unfortunately, far too much page time is devoted to these unlikeable characters, and not enough on the really interesting ones like John Lonetree, George Cordero, Julie, or Lionel—Gabriel’s crack team of “Supernaturals”. While each of them had a compelling talent and backstory, ultimately I felt they were underutilized. It also probably comes as no surprise that the story became a lot more interesting once Gabriel’s team entered the picture—which doesn’t occur until well into the book.

As such, pacing issues abounded, and were perhaps this novel’s greatest weakness. I liked many of the ideas, but also got the sense that the author was overwhelmed in trying to include them all in his story. The plot was all over the place, like puzzle pieces that fit poorly together, and the result was an uneven narrative with stretches where nothing of importance would happen, punctuated with genuine moments of intrigue—though those were fewer and far between. It made me think this book could have benefited from more rigorous editing; it certainly didn’t have to be so long, and I think cutting down the more tedious sections would have improved the pacing.

As it is now, only final hundred pages or so held the real meat of the story. Still, what a conclusion it was! Full of thrills and chills, as all the build-up finally came to a head in Kelly Delaphoy’s live Halloween special. Secrets were revealed and mysteries were unraveled, and if some of the answers ended up being a little too predictable, at least I had fun.

The Supernaturals would probably make a good book for casual readers of horror, so long as you go in with the right expectations. Though it clearly draws inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s classic, this novel is far from being the next Haunting of Hill House, simply because the writing lacked the same intensity and the right sense of timing. Still, it was decent enough for a bit of light entertainment, and despite its weaknesses, I would put it on a list of “paranormal activity” novels worth looking into, especially if you’re a fan of haunted house stories.

Book Review: Mass Effect: Annihilation by N.K. Jemisin & Mac Walters

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Mass Effect: Annihilation by N.K. Jemisin & Mac Walters

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Media Tie-In

Series: Book 2 of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Publisher: Titan Books (November 28, 2017)

Length: 304 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I’ve been on a tie-in kick lately, with Mass Effect: Initiation being my latest foray into the world of one of my favorite video game series. The fact that they also got Hugo Award winning author N.K. Jemisin to lend her writing chops to this project certainly didn’t hurt. Co-written by Bioware creative director Mac Walters, Initiation is the second prequel novel to Mass Effect: Andromeda, focusing on the events that take place in the months before the game starts. However, no knowledge or experience with the games (or any of the previous books) in the Mass Effect series is required to enjoy this story.

It is 2185, approximately half a year before the start of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Lieutenant Cora Harper, formerly of the Systems Alliance military, is returning to human territory after four years spent with Talein’s Daughters, an elite Asari commando squad, as part of an interspecies training program.  Now one of humanity’s most powerful biotics, Cora is recommended for Alec Ryder’s Andromeda Initiative, a civilian-backed multi-species project to settle colonists in the Andromeda Galaxy. Called the Pathfinder, Alec is initially skeptical of Cora’s motivations (or rather, the lack of them) but nevertheless agrees to take her on, giving her what was supposed to be a straightforward assignment to recover some stolen data.

However, the mission ends in spectacular failure, with Cora barely escaping with her life. Clearly, there is more to the stolen property that Alec Ryder had tasked her to retrieve, and Cora intends to find some answers. But the more she digs, the more she discovers too many secrets, and Alec’s tight-lipped refusal to let her in on the truth means that it is up to Cora to protect the Andromeda Initiative against the incoming threat.

For a sci-fi action novel, Initiation is well-written and solid. For a media tie-in, I found it exceptional. Either way, you can’t lose. Jemisin and Walters have written a fast-paced and adrenaline-fueled adventure that packs all the entertainment and thrills expected from a Mass Effect story. If you’ve played the Andromeda, Cora Harper is one of your game-controlled squad mates, but her role as lead protagonist here gives us a lot more insight into the history and personality of the character. She comes across as genuine and real. A tough and seasoned soldier, Cora is nonetheless in a vulnerable position when we first meet her upon her return from Asari space, feeling like the odd woman out in a world that no longer feels familiar to her. She also has no idea how to deal with pushy reporters getting into her face, or the toxic, xenophobic attitudes directed at her for “betraying” humanity just because she worked with aliens. We get this sense of a lost and confused woman, cast adrift now that she feels she is no longer needed.

Fortunately, the Andromeda Initiative gives Cora the new motivational drive she’s been looking for—that, and trying to find out who’s trying to kill her. As her professionalism and tactical skills begin to shine though, we are treated to the “real” Cora—the one who possesses a fierce and unbending loyalty, impeccable discipline, and a wry sense of humor (which frequently reveals itself when she interacts with SAM-E, the experimental “virtual intelligence” she was implanted with when she first joined the Initiative). Cora is also a goals-oriented individual who is in her element when given something to fight for, and I liked that the authors took the time to highlight her bravery and tenacity.

The story was fun, very different from what I’ve seen from Jemisin so far with her work in the fantasy genre—but I sure hope she’ll continue writing more like this. I loved the exciting and intense action, which kept the book’s pacing rapid and engaging. At the same time, we got a level of character exploration not typically seen in a lot of media tie-in novels, and here, I have no doubt we have Jemisin’s influence to thank. When it comes to developing character personalities and backgrounds, she’s one of the best.

I must admit though, despite Jemisin’s name attached to this novel, I wasn’t expecting much from Mass Effect: Initiation when I first picked it up. Needless to say, I was quickly disabused of that notion within the first few pages. This was a great book, with lots of fun and lots of thrills. It just goes to show the bias against media tie-ins still runs deep, even for someone like me, who reads almost one a month. However, as more books like Initiation prove that books based on video games can be just as engaging, well-written, and worth reading, hopefully those perceptions won’t linger for long.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Wendy’s Review of Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising (Book 1)
Tiara’s Review of Mass Effect: Nexus Uprising (Book 1)

Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every other weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I round up what I’ve read since the last update and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.

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Happy new year and welcome to the first Bookshelf Roundup of 2018! In other news, I am already so behind on my reading. Hopefully it won’t take me too long to get back into the rhythm; January kicks off with a ton of new releases, and it only gets better from here.

Received for Review

Thank you to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received. For more details and full descriptions of the books, be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages!

With thanks to Hogarth/Crown Publishing for sending me a finished copy of The Sky is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith. I’m hoping to start the book this weekend, and the excitement they’ve drummed up for this is really catching. And that’s not it – Crown also sent along the movie tie-in edition to Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s one of my favorite books ever and words cannot describe how much I’m looking forward to see the movie.

Patently Absurd by Bradley W. Schenck is a collection of six short stories complete with illustrations from the same author as the retro-style sci-fi novel I read last year, Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom. So when Bradley contacted me just before the end of the last year offering an opportunity to review this anthology, I very enthusiastically accepted! Thank you to Radio Planet Books for sending me an ARC.

Next up comes a trio of finished copies from Tor Books: Survival by Ben Bova is third book of Star Quest, wrapping up a trilogy (unfortunately, I have not read the first two books); Mad Hatters and March Hares edited by Ellen Datlow is described as a collection of weird tales inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and Nemo Rising by C. Courtney Joyner is a sort-of sequel to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, continuing the adventures of Captain Nemo. I’ve been seeing some mixed reviews, but out of these three surprise arrivals I think this last one interests me the most!

  

  

  

On to the digital haul, my thanks to Harper Voyager for the following e-galleys: Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon is an epic dark fantasy novel which looks to have potential, given the big names behind this collaboration, and The Feed by Nick Clark Windo is a post-apocalyptic novel that explores the future of humanity in a technology saturated world.

With thanks to Penguin Random House Audio I also received a couple of audio review copies. First of these is The Defiant by Lesley Livingston. I’ve already listened to this one and I loved it! It might even be better than the first book. Keep an eye out for my review sometime next week. I’ve also resolved to read more in the thriller-mystery genre this year, which is why I also downloaded The Chalkman by C.J. Tudor, a psychological suspense thriller about a group of boys in the 80’s who are led to a dismembered body by a trail of little chalk stick men. Now grown, their past have come back to haunt them when each of them receive a single chalk figure in the mail. Sounds creepy.

And with a new year comes new novellas from Tor.com! Thank you to the publisher for the following eARCs. The Warrior Within by Angus McIntyre is a debut science fiction adventure about a man who lives with the personalities of multiple people in his head, each a master of a different set of skills. This does remind me a lot of Brandon Sanderson’s Legion, but we’ll see how this book handles the concept. The Barrow Will Send What It May by Margaret Killjoy is book two of the anarcho-punk fantasy series Danielle Cainwhich began last summer with The Lamb Will Slaughter the LionStone Mad by Elizabeth Bear is a novella set in the the same world as Karen Memory (a great book!) following the eponymous heroine on a new story set in a steampunk/Victorian era-inspired Pacific Northwest. Memory’s Blade by Spencer Ellsworth is the conclusion of the Starfire space opera trilogy. I didn’t even realize the second book had come out! Looks like I have a lot of catching up to do. And finally, , Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson is an interesting looking sci-fi which seeks to blend time travel with climate fiction and historical fantasy.

Reviews

The flood of end-of-the-year best-of lists and looking-forward-to-in-2018 posts meant the last couple weeks were pretty light on reviews, but here’s a quick summary of what I’ve managed to put up since the last update:

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold (4 of 5 stars)
Black Star Renegades by Michael Moreci (3.5 of 5 stars)
Deadlands: Boneyard by Seanan McGuire (3.5 of 5 stars)
Killman Creek by Rachel Caine (3.5 of 5 stars)
Unearthed by Amie Kaufman by Meagan Spooner (2.5 of 5 stars)

What I’ve Read Since the Last Update

It’s taken me some time to ease back into my regular reading and reviewing schedule, but I’m getting there. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve managed to finish the following books. A few of them have been reviewed already, with the rest coming soon.

   

   

 

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Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read! Let me know what you plan on checking out. Until next time, see you next Roundup!:)