I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Gallery Books (February 7, 2017)
Length: 384 pages
Don’t you just love it whenever a horror novel lives up to its promise? No joke, I actually had to stop reading this book at night because it was getting too disturbing and creepy for me, and you know I’m not one to scare easily. If this is what I’ve been missing out on for so many years, I wish to hell I’d started reading Ania Ahlborn much sooner.
In the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon lives a ten-year-old boy named Stevie Clark. Ostracized by the other kids at school because of his speech impediment and the missing fingers on one of his hands, Stevie has no friends except for his neighbor and cousin Jude Brighton. Whether it’s watching true crime shows on TV or building a secret fort out in the woods, the two of them do everything together and have been inseparable for years.
Then one day, Jude goes missing. The entire town mobilizes to try to find the boy, but after his bloody sweatshirt is found, the whole mood of Deer Valley seems to shift. To Stevie’s frustration, no one seems to think they’ll find his cousin alive anymore. After all, the search has already been going on for three days with no luck, and the locals all know the story about Max Larsen, another boy who met a gruesome end in these woods years ago, after disappearing under similar circumstances. That story doesn’t get talked about much though, not unlike the reports going back for years about the dogs and cats that go missing from their owners’ yards. There’s a good reason why there are no veterinarians in Deer Valley.
Last year I read and was a little disappointed by the book Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay, another horror novel with “a boy goes missing in the woods” main plot. Somehow I can’t help but think The Devil Crept In is what that story should have been. Ahlborn’s take on the premise is the real deal, the way a true horror of psychological thrills and supernatural suspense should have played out. It is a creepy tale worthy of the campfire, containing all the right ingredients: a small town with a big secret, a terrifying local legend that holds more truth than meets the eye, and a young innocent boy that no one takes seriously because of his disability.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from the start; like any good scary story, this one required a bit of setup. I would describe The Devil Crept In as a novel of three parts. Ahlborn uses the first to establish our main character, a boy who lives a troubled life. Stevie’s father walked out on his family when he was younger, and his mom remarried an abusive man who beats him while she looks the other way. Stevie also often feels frustration at his own speech disorder, unable to get his thoughts across without losing control of his words. He is the target of the worst bullying because of it, not only by the other kids but by his own older brother and some adults as well. So you can imagine how horrible it is for a someone like Stevie to lose his only friend, which means too that the entire first part of this book is taken up by his obsession with finding Jude, with the dogged determination you would expect from a ten-year-old. In my opinion, the introduction was a little too drawn out, with Stevie’s chapters becoming repetitive after a while.
Fortunately, that was probably the only point where I felt this book faltered. Ahlborn follows up with a second part that brings about the full-on creeps. The transition was a little jarring at first, as the narrative veers off into a completely different direction, starting over with a seemingly unrelated tale about a woman named Rosie. I’m not going to talk too much about her, as that would spoil the story; all I’ll say is that I quickly became riveted by the horrifying details of her tragic, disturbing life—like witnessing a bloody car wreck where you just can’t tear your eyes away. It might take some time for this part to make sense with the rest of the novel, but once it clicks into place, you’ll see how it all the pieces fit the big picture. The third and final part of The Devil Crept In is where all this magic happens, as elements from Jude’s disappearance and Rosie’s tale begin to gradually come together.
The results are eerily satisfying and really hit the spot. Note to self: no trips out to the woods anytime soon. For a straight-up entertaining and chill-you-t0-your-bones good read, I really can’t recommend this book enough. Mark my words, The Devil Crept In might be my first novel by Ania Ahlborn, but it certainly won’t be my last.
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 4 of Miriam Black
Publisher: Saga Press (February 28, 2017)
Length: 400 pages
Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite authors, and to date I must have read more than a dozen of his books. But whenever someone asks what I think is his best work, my mind always comes back to Miriam Black.
Oh Miriam, Miriam, Miriam, “my fair fuckin’ lady” Miriam. From the very start she had me with her snarky spitfire devil-may-care ways, though in truth it is her secret power that makes most people sit up and pay attention. With no more than the slightest touch, she can tell you when you’ll die and how it’ll happen. All she needs is a bit of skin-on-skin contact, and the visions will trigger and she will know.
But is such a power more of a gift or a curse? Very few people actually want the knowledge Miriam can glean, and her abilities have brought her more pain than anything else. Imagine foreseeing hundreds of deaths, many of which can be pretty disturbing or gruesome—accidents, car crashes, illnesses, murders, and suicides. Imagine seeing how those closest to you will die, but knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it or change it.
So Miriam has decided that she doesn’t want anything to do with death anymore. Thunderbird is the fourth novel of the series in which our protagonist begins to take the necessary steps to get rid of her powers. Last we saw her, she had just gotten a name of a person who might be able to help, so now she’s on her way to the Southwest to find the psychic known as Mary Scissors. Unfortunately, Mary is proving to be a hard woman to find, and soon Miriam and her friend Gabby are getting mixed up with the Arizona drug gangs and crazy militia cults.
Technically, it is possible to read Thunderbird on its own without having read the previous novels, though I have to say it’s probably not ideal. The story here is a culmination of everything that happened before, and knowing Miriam’s past will make it easier to understand why she has come to a point where she feels she has no choice but to get rid of her curse. There are also characters and references to events from the first three novels, and the significance of some of these appearances and mentions are going to be confusing if you haven’t read them yet. Even I had a few stumbles along the way because I couldn’t remember all the details of what happened; after all, it has been about three years since the last book came out, and it was a wait that felt like an eternity at times, given how much I adore this series.
Still, a part of me also has to wonder if the long hiatus affected my experience with this book, because there are certain aspects that feel a little different about it. One thing that first made me fall in love with the Miriam Black series was the sheer horror aspect of it; I still remember certain scenes from Blackbirds and Mockingbird that were so violently and gut-churningly graphic that I almost couldn’t bear to read anymore. And yet, I also once wrote how Wendig’s writing can make you desperately want to keep turning the pages and be scared to do so at the same time, and that is why I love these books.
Thunderbird, however, probably didn’t hit me as profoundly or affect me as viscerally. Is Miriam Black getting soft? I certainly hope not! But this book did strike me as being a little more conventional and having fewer sharp edges as the first three. One simply has to compare the villains in this story to the likes of those that came before (Ashley Gaynes? Shudder! The Mockingbird Killer? GAH!) and it’s easy to see why this one felt less terrifying and lacked a certain punch in that regard. I also had some mixed feelings about the interludes. Let’s just say they can be…tricky. Time jumps can be tough to pull off, and personally I didn’t think they worked all of the time. I enjoyed those flashbacks that dropped at appropriate moments, giving us important details or building up the atmosphere, but I didn’t like them so much when they disrupted the momentum and took away from the developing suspense.
That said, while this probably wasn’t my favorite book of the series (that distinction still belongs to The Cormorant, the previous one) I still think it’s great because of what it does for Miriam. Wendig has done an exceptional job developing her backstory and personality in Thunderbird, and in spite of all her faults and damaged psyche, I just love everything about her character. Beneath that sarcastic badass persona is a woman with a bigger heart than she would probably like to admit, and over the last couple installments we’ve been able to see that part of her emerge.
There really is no one else quite like Miriam Black, so if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet, what are you waiting for? I highly recommend picking up this series, and if you can, definitely start her story from the beginning. I promise you won’t regret it.
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Inkshares (January 17, 2017)
Length: 429 pages
The Seventh Age: Dawn certainly knows how to kick things off with style. In fact, the very first page opens with us standing twenty-one floors up above the city of Chicago on an I beam with our protagonist Mike Auburn, a man with a death wish. Rather, he is obsessed with death; everyone he has ever loved has crossed into the great unknown, and now Mike flirts regularly with it in the hopes of glimpsing the ghosts of his past on the other side. As it happens, Mike’s penchant for death defying stunts and near-death experiences also catches the attention of a group looking to recruit a candidate of his skills and interests.
Before long, Mike finds himself joining forces with a mysterious organization led by a man called O’Neil, enlisted into the war against the coming apocalypse. Soon our hero is battling demons, staving off the encroaching forces of the Unification whose aims involve resurrecting a powerful being named Lazarus so that they can usher in a new age where magic will once again reign supreme. After devouring the heart of the monster Golgoroth, Mike transcends his own humanity, becoming the key to an age-old conflict between the realms of supernatural beings.
I enjoyed The Seventh Age: Dawn for the most part, though I’ll also be honest and say that there were times where I really struggled. It’s an ambitious book for sure, though it also suffers occasionally from excessiveness and bloat, a common issue for first novels where you get the sense that the author is trying to cram as much as possible into their debut effort. Rick Heinz throws in everything but the kitchen sink: angels, demons, warlocks, vampires, ghosts, shapeshifters, and I’m sure there are quite a few more creatures that I’m forgetting. I believe therein lies part of the problem. There was simply too much to process such a short time, and in the end I felt like I was only able to absorb a small fraction of the information deluge.
Fortunately, after a few false starts I managed to fall into an easier rhythm, though I also can’t help but feel that “rhythm” might be a wildly inaccurate term to describe the nature of this book. The plot is complicated and rather dense, and the reader is dropped hard into the thick of things straight from the beginning. To the novel’s credit, at no point does the story slow down as we’re thrust into one frenetic situation after another. There’s really nothing soft or predictable about it.
That said though, for an urban fantasy, it’s a bit on the heavier side for my tastes. This is my go-to genre from straight-up fun, not to wrack my brain teasing out multiple impenetrable layers of hidden agendas or trying to work out who’s who. A book with so much action should not feel tedious, or else there’s something not right going on, and I just feel that the story tries to do too much at times and things can get very messy especially with the overabundance of POV characters. The constant shifts and back-and-forths made it nearly impossible to connect with any one person, and trying to keep all the names straight was one reason why I had difficulty getting into this book early on. Another issue is wordiness. In my opinion, there are quite a few scenes that could have been cut down or omitted altogether.
Still, the overall concept is a good one, even if the execution was a little shaky. For all the pomp and zeal that The Seven Age: Dawn tries to pack into its 400 or so pages, the overall plot is relatively light on substance, though that could change in the next installment. Rick Heinz may have tried to cover too much ground in this series opener, but there’s no denying that he’s created an interesting world that I wouldn’t mind exploring further. I also enjoyed the gritty dry tone he established for the rest of the series, a style which reminds me somewhat of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. Perhaps I just need to spend more time in this world to form stronger attachment to the characters and to get a better sense of where things stand.
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.
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!
Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts – Bastards gotta stick together. That’s what a group of court children who were born on the other side of the sheets learn when they stumble upon a crime they were never meant to witness, and now they’re all that stands between the kingdom and treachery. I don’t know about you, but this one sounds awesome! My thanks to Disney-Hyperion for the ARC!
Worldshaker by J.F. Lewis – My thanks to Pyr for this beautiful finished copy. That’s some seriously gorgeous cover art, which is a considerable improvement from the ARC edition if I’m remembering right!
Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop – I was also really excited to receive this fifth and final novel of The Others series. I’m actually a little nervous to read it because I still can’t quite believe it’s all coming to an end, but hopefully I’ll get to start it sometime next week. With thanks to Roc.
Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey – Much love to Tor for sending me this keeper copy! In case you missed my review for this book, you can find the link below. I loved it, but then it’s Jacqueline Carey and she never disappoints!
A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab – The wonderful folks at Tor also sent me a finished copy of this third and final novel of the Shades of Magic trilogy. This series has been growing on me and I find myself really looking forward to see how the finale will play out.
Eleanor by Jason Gurley – This book made some waves when it came out last year, and now its paperback release is on the horizon. I still really need to read this! With thanks to Broadway Books.
The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn – A great review of this from Jennifer over at Book Den convinced me to request it and give it a try, and I’m so glad I did. I already read it and it was creepy as hell! My thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley.
Borrowed Souls by Chelsea Mueller – Thank you to Talos for this e-galley which I grabbed as soon as I saw it pop up at Edelweiss. Borrowed Souls is on my list of most anticipated debuts of 2017 and I can’t wait to check it out.
The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley – I’ve wanted to read Ben Galley ever since last year’s SPFBO, so when he emailed me earlier this month asking if I would like to review his upcoming book, I said absolutely! Next month Ben should also be stopping by for a guest post, so stay tuned for that.
Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson – Audiobook, courtesy of Audible Studios. I only learned of Snapshot recently, but it’s Sanderson so of course I have to read it! Apparently this novella takes place in the same universe as The Reckoners, though I’m not sure how it all fits together yet. Can’t wait to listen and find out.
Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig and The Wanderers by Meg Howrey – More audiobooks, courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio. Of course I have to see the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy through, and The Wanderers was a book that caught my attention recently, when I saw a blurb describing it as Station Eleven meets The Martian.
Greedy Pigs by Matt Wallace and Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones – More novellas from the generous Tor.com team! I’m very curious about Mapping the Interior and I just finished Idle Ingredients so I should be all set now for Greedy Pigs!
Here’s a summary of my reviews posted since the last Roundup. For this week’s highlights, I want to bring attention to a couple of excellent reads: The Grey Bastards, which I read for SPFBO; and The Valiant, an amazing YA novel about female gladiators in Ancient Rome.
The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French (4.5 of 5 stars)
The Valiant by Lesley Livingston (4.5 of 5 stars)
Death’s Mistress by Terry Goodkind (4 of 5 stars)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (4 of 5 stars)
Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey (4 of 5 stars)
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire (3.5 of 5 stars)
Freeks by Amanda Hocking (3 of 5 stars)
Gilded Cage by Vic James (2.5 of 5 stars)
What I’ve Read Since the Last Update
Here’s what I’ve read recently, with a couple reviews already posted. The rest to come soon!
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!
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:
“Aliens–if they exist–are little green men with big eyes and spindly arms…or giant insects or something like a lumpy little creature”
~ a cover featuring ALIENS
Sundiver by David Brin
For this week’s theme, I’ve decided to go with an oldie but a goodie. Sundiver is the first book of The Uplift Saga, a series featuring the central theme of “biological uplift”, a term used to describe the process of transforming a certain species into more intelligent beings by other already intelligent beings. In this universe, humanity is an anomaly – a species that apparently got to where they are with no patron race. But is this truly the case? Or did a mysterious race begin the uplift of humankind a long time ago before abandoning them? The matter is one of fierce debate.
Let’s take a look at the following selection of covers from around the world:
From left to right, top to bottom: Bantam Spectra (2010) – Little Brown and Company (1996) – Bantam (1981)
Spanish (2010) – Romanian (2013) – Polish (1995) – Spanish (1993) – French (1995) – German (2014) – Czech (1995) – Russian (1995)
I hate to admit it, but some of these older covers are just way too goofy looking for my tastes, so simple and elegant wins it for me this week.
What do you think? Which one is your favorite?
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Dark Gifts
Publisher: Del Rey (February 14, 2017)
Length: 368 pages
Rarely have I read a story where my thoughts at the end are such a complete turnaround from my thoughts at the beginning. When I first started Gilded Cage, I was beyond pumped–the excellent writing, solid world-building, and strong portrayals of the main characters all made me think this book was going to have everything I wanted. Yet by the time I finished, I could barely even put my feelings into words. I didn’t love it, but I also didn’t hate it. The whole thing just left me cold.
In the alternate world of this young adult dystopian, Great Britain is nation starkly divided along class lines. The Equals are the ruling elites who run the government, live on sprawling estates, and enjoy the power granted to them by their magical gifts. Then there are the commoners, who may be the majority, but they have no representation and are expected to submit themselves to a mandatory ten-year term of service to the Equals. This period is called their “slavedays”, in which they will have all their rights stripped away and no longer be considered citizens.
When the story begins, we are introduced to a family about to begin their slavedays. Siblings Abi, Luke, and Daisy Hadley have been arranged to accompany their parents assigned to the Jardine estate, home of one of the most prominent nobles in Equal society. However, on the day the Hadleys are scheduled to depart, a misunderstanding occurs and 16-year-old Luke is instead separated from his family and shipped off to the slavetown of Millmoor. Feeling desperate and alone, he befriends a group of fellow slaves who teach him how to survive, which in turn makes Luke realize there are more ways to fight back than he’d previously believed.
Meanwhile at the Jardine estate, the rest of the Hadley family are exposed to all the political intrigues and scheming of the Lord and Lady Whittam, along with their three sons Gavar, Jenner, and Silyen. Nevertheless, Abi ends up falling for one of the noble-born young men against her better judgment, putting her in the terrible place of questioning her loyalties and having to decide between freedom and love.
Despite its hackneyed dystopian premise and the overly simplistic concepts, I really did enjoy the first part of this book. From Animal Farm to The Hunger Games, you see a lot of the same themes get used over and over for these types of stories, and yet I never seem to get enough. While the core ideas behind Gilded Cage might not be anything we haven’t seen before, I did enjoy seeing Vic James’ take on them and her attempt to inject a few twists. The prologue was a perfect ten what it came to capturing my attention, and what I read in first few chapters made me want to know more. The writing was also delectable.
So I was shocked when it hit me; somewhere around the quarter to midway point, all my previous enthusiasm had somehow drained away, and I hadn’t even realized it was happening. It just occurred to me suddenly that I was bored, I didn’t really care about the characters, and I was zoning out more and more. The feeling was ambivalence, also known as the death knell of a book under review.
Here’s what I think happened: 1) over time, the strength of the story began eroding due to too many POVs. I couldn’t help but feel the author was trying to emulating the structure and style of an epic fantasy, except, of course, Gilded Cage is not an epic fantasy. 2) The story got hung up on too many unnecessary details. Don’t get me wrong, though. Details are nice. Details are important. But when I find I can zone out or forget everything that was said for several pages at a time, and then have it make absolutely no difference at all in the end, that’s a problem. 3) The split storytelling between the Jardine estate and Millmoor was an interesting decision, but I’m not sure that it was carried out too well. While it was nice seeing a picture of both sides of the world, the ultimate effect was neither here nor there. I couldn’t form a connection to either storyline, and ended up shrugging off both.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m disappointed. What started off so promising ended up making me feel so…blah. Still, that’s not to say the book didn’t have it strengths. I recommend giving it a try if the description interests you. It has also been received very positively by a lot of other readers, and I encourage everyone to check out their reviews for another perspective because they do a fantastic job covering all of the story’s charms and high points. Simply put though, the strengths were not enough to overcome the ennui I felt for most of the book, which stumbled after a great beginning and unfortunately never recovered its momentum.
“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that lets us feature upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!
The Realms of God by Michael Livingston (November 7, 2017 by Tor Books)
Another great trilogy will come to an end this fall. While I look forward to seeing how things play out, I don’t know where I’ll be getting my Ancient Rome fix after this!
“The Ark of the Covenant has been spirited out of Egypt to Petra, along with the last of its guardians. But dark forces are in pursuit. Three demons, inadvertently unleashed by Juba of Numidia and the daughter of Cleopatra, are in league with Tiberius, son and heir of Augustus Caesar. They’ve seized two of the fabled Shards of Heaven, lost treasures said to possess the very power of God, and are desperately hunting the rest.
Through war and assassination, from Rome to the fabled Temple Mount of Jerusalem and on to the very gates of Heaven itself, the forces of good and evil will collide in a climactic battle that threatens the very fabric of Creation.
The Realms of God is the thrilling conclusion to Michael Livingston’s historical fantasy trilogy that continues the story begun in The Shards of Heaven and The Gates of Hell.”
When I started watching Battlestar Galactica, I did not expect to fall in love with Tricia Helfer. But when I saw the look on her face after she unwittingly killed an infant, I knew she was far, far more than a pretty face, and she has continued to prove that in every Pinocchio role she has made me cry through since. The look is exactly what Jenny Frisson captures on the cover of this trade, ensuring that I would pick it up without question. Frisson’s subsequent covers for each of the six issues were no less powerful and emotionally expressive — not that I expected any less from Frisson.
Unfortunately, the story and art on the inside don’t quite live up to the covers. This is meant as a prequel to the series, where the Cylon known as Six doesn’t know that she’s the Cylon known as Six. It begins with her as part of a mining team that undergoes violence and tragedy of which she is the only survivor, though her memories of the event are gone. Instead, she seems to be reliving other lives — and other deaths.
The Sixes were created as the archetype of love and sex, but Helfer revealed early on that Caprica Six in particular is also capable of incredible brutality, as well as beautiful sensitivity, which is epitomized in that scene of Six in the crowd with the baby.
But the book doesn’t really give me the latter, nor does it really connect the woman we read about here, with the seductress who is ready to destroy humanity for the mysterious plan that the Cylons are formulating. As one of my favourite characters from one of my favourite series, I definitely wanted more from this book over all, but was disappointed in the reality.
“And if there’s one thing I’ve learned the past 18 years, it’s that assistants run the world…”
But Velvet Templeton is not your ordinary secretary to the head of a top secret agency. She’s got her own dark past that comes to light when she’s framed for the murder of some of the agency’s top operatives. And it comes as a surprise to the people trying to hunt her down as she tries to clear her name and solve the crime.
Brubaker’s noir and spy game thrillers are almost always a hit with me in some way. Though the eras that he focuses on tend to mean that the female characters have to deal with sexism and misogyny, he writes those women well, and Velvet is no exception. She’s a Strong Female CharacterTM not because she can kick ass (she totally can) but because, after 18 years out of the service, she’s still discovering her own flaws and weaknesses and, as she finds out more about the murders, the truths that she believed in when she was younger start to fall apart.
We’ve seen this kind of mystery thriller before. but Brubaker is usually very good at adding just the right twist. In this case, he saves this for the end of the volume, leaving a cliffhanger that makes me demand more.
This is a grotesquely beautiful book, more so when you read the foreword and learn about Liu’s inspiration and see how she has translated the monstrosity of war into this story.
Maika is more than just a slave, and she is more than the psychic bond that links her to the monster inside her, but in order to understand her past, present and future, she must put together several pieces surrounding her mother’s archaeological discovery, all while fighting to save herself and others from those who hate and would use and abuse arcanics like herself.
The title of the book speaks of the monster that dwells inside of this girl, but, through the story and art, the monster inside all of us and the ugliness that is often masked by beauty is revealed. It is a harsh story of great pain and loss, but Maika’s strength and the loyalty of companions who would stand by her when that strength fails her seed the book with a powerful sense of hope, despite the darkness. A fitting read, given the times we currently live in…
Phase 2 of The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 is officially underway! For the six-month period from November 1, 2016 to the end of May 2017, we will be reviewing the ten finalists chosen by the blogger judges from the first phase of the competition. For full details and the list of books, see our SPFBO 2016 page.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Grey Bastards
Publisher: Jonathan French (October 16, 2015)
Length: 386 pages
I fucking loved this book. The Grey Bastards went down like a shot of good top-shelf tequila: warm and smooth, but with one hell of a spicy kick. If SPFBO has taught me any lessons, it’s that you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a self-published novel, but many stars aligned to make this one work immensely well for me. It happened to perfectly fit my tastes, for one. With a title and cover like that, you can be sure this dark epic fantasy will have plenty of grit and violence. Throw in some breakneck pacing and a dash of that crude and vulgar brand of humor, then you’ve got yourself a recipe for a good time.
The story follows a half-orc named Jackal who is sworn to the The Grey Bastards hoof, one of the eight brotherhoods of former slaves that now live on the land known as the Lots. Shunned by humans but also hostile to the orcs, the mongrel bands are all that’s left standing between the city of Hispartha and the forces that want to see it fall.
Life among the hoofs has its own trials, however. Long has Jackal wanted to challenge their warchief Claymaster for leadership of The Grey Bastards, but because a failed bid can mean his own death, our protagonist is prepared to wait until he has more support beyond that of his good friends, Oats and Fetch.
Still, that was before their so-called allies started turning against them, or before the Claymaster started sparing their orc enemies instead of swiftly dispatching them, and certainly before before a wily wizard named Crafty managed to weasel his way into the warchief’s good graces. More and more, Jackal is noticing erratic behavior in their gnarled and plague-ridden leader, reaffirming his beliefs that the old half-orc should be deposed. The final straw finally comes in the form of an elf girl named Starling, whom Jackal rescues from a terrible fate. Vehemently disagreeing with the Claymaster on their next course of action, Jackal feels he has no choice but to throw down his ax—thus declaring his challenge and sealing his fate for the inevitable course of turmoil to come.
So yeah, I liked this book. I liked it a lot. And thing is, there isn’t any one aspect of the story that I can single out and claim that I liked the most, since it was the culmination of all of its parts—and all at once—that made The Grey Bastards such a memorable and spectacularly good read. I enjoyed how the plot started small before snowballing to become something much bigger, and at no point did it take a step back or even pause for a breather; there was only aggressive forward motion, constantly driving forward.
I’ll also admit a love for reading dark fantasy featuring raw, gritty, foul-mouthed and violence-seeking characters—call me old softie, but I reserve a special place in my heart for these kinds of anti-heroes. However, an author can wind up with a whole cast of virtually indistinguishable characters if they’re not careful, which is a common pitfall for books in this genre. Fortunately though, French manages to avoid this problem in The Grey Bastards, giving all his half-orc characters their own unique and individual personalities. Jackal is our main protagonist, with his lofty ambitions which can sometimes blind him to other perspectives around him. In part, this book is the story of how he finally opens his eyes to see the big picture, but the journey to get there is a tough one indeed. Lucky for Jackal, he has his friends to back him up. Oats is a thrice (so called because they are three-quarters orc, making them physically larger than their half-orc brethren) who is as loyal as they come, and rounding out the inseparable trio is Fetch, the only female in the Grey Bastards who had to fight tooth and nail for her position in the hoof. Like all friendships, the three of them have their ups and downs, but the well-developed relationships between them made these dynamics very convincing.
In terms of story, The Grey Bastards was a book that pulled me in straight away. It’s fun and exciting, full of unexpected twists and turns, though I feel I have to warn prospective readers that this is not one for the faint of heart. If you are easily turned off by brutal graphic violence or crude and offensive language, then this is probably not for you. French pulls no punches in this vicious and no-holds-barred world full of orcs, humans, elves, halflings, and even centaurs all fighting one and another, with scenes of skirmishing and great battles punctuating the narrative every few chapters. This sets a very fast and readable pace with rich world-building that is not so much inserted as it is integrated into the story, often done in a seamless way that is in context with the events playing out on the page. This has got to be one of the most interesting and fleshed-out fantasy worlds I have ever read, and the author made it all seem so effortless.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond impressed with The Grey Bastards. In reading it I got to experience a strikingly vivid world come to life before my eyes, populated by characters who are at once wild and wonderful. Jonathan French is a fantastic writer and talented storyteller who has created a very special gem here, and the story even ends with potential for our characters to engage in more future adventures. Here’s hoping Jackal and his fellow Bastards will get a sequel soon, because you can bet I’ll be all over that.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Sister of Darkness: The Nicci Chronicles
Publisher: Tor (January 10, 2017)
Length: 512 pages
To put it bluntly, I never thought I would read anything else by Terry Goodkind again. After my disastrous first attempt to get into The Sword of Truth series, I almost turned down the opportunity to read Death’s Mistress, but now I’m very glad I didn’t. It’s been years since I last read Wizard’s First Rule, and it seemed a shame to potentially miss out on a good start to a new series especially when the author’s style or my reading tastes could have changed so much since. And as things turned out, I did have a surprisingly good time with this.
I also had initial concerns about jumping in without having read the entirety of the previous series, but that was not a problem. The book follows Nicci, a “Death’s Mistress” and a former lieutenant of Emperor Jagang who has since switched her alliance after being converted to the right side by Richard. Now that the latter has solidified his rule, Nicci travels the world helping spread the word of his benevolence and letting everyone know that the world is free, while accompanied by the ex-prophet and wizard Nathan.
At the beginning of this story Nathan decides to seek out the witch called Red, and Nicci offers to go along with him for protection, knowing they can trust no one and must be prepared for anything. Sure enough, after their visit, the witch imparts upon them the following obscure message: travel to a dangerous place far away called Kol Adair, where Nathan will find the answers to his struggle with his waning magic. Little do Nicci and Nathan know, that by embarking on this adventure they will also be a part of something much bigger, bringing back peace and hope to many along the way. Indeed, before they can even set off in earnest, Nicci saves the life of a young sailor named Bannon on the docks, preventing him from being mugged and killed by a gang of thugs. Grateful for her help, Bannon offers his services to the Death’s Mistress, volunteering to fight alongside her and Nathan while on their journey to Kol Adair.
I must confess, the story’s introduction was a bit of a whirlwind for me, with the bewildering circumstances around Red and her message, as well as the reasons for Nicci and Nathan to head to Kol Adair. It’s clear that I’ve missed a lot of history, not having followed The Sword of Truth. Trying to piece together everything that has happened since the last time I spent time in this world admittedly took up most of my attention, though fortunately once our characters actually begin their adventure, the path ahead gave way to clearer purposes and more exciting and engaging motifs. Death’s Mistress has a strong traditional fantasy vibe to it, with emphasis on the classic quest narrative. The question why Nicci, Nathan and Bannon were on this journey in the first place became less important to me overtime, while the details surrounding where they’ll go or what they’ll do when they get there or who they’ll meet gradually became more fascinating and relevant.
If there’s a bigger story, it hardly matters—at least at this point. Goodkind is starting a new series here, and you can tell he’s doing his best to make Death’s Mistress as accessible as possible. There’s not much history or deep context in play, and no greater conflict to concern ourselves with…yet. Rather, our characters are given a relatively straight forward task (go to Kol Adair, spread the word of Richard’s reign) and while on their travels they encounter various situations in which they can lend a hand or help solve a problem (picking up some side-quests along the way, so to speak). In fact, the structure of the plot can almost be described as “episodic”, the way our adventuring party moves from one place to the next, setting things aright before moving on again to save the next village or help defend the next town.
The results are surprisingly enjoyable. After all, few things are better than being able to explore new worlds, meet new people, and witness epic battles infused with a real sense of excitement and magic. If you’re a fantasy reader, these are the moments we live for, and this book had a way of satisfying all those little pleasures. From our time with our characters on the high seas, to watching them fight alongside a fishing village against a fleet of attacking slavers, to being with them as they try to save a land leeched of life, it’s never a dull moment with this book. The characters are also memorable, with Nicci being a strong protagonist I could sympathize with and root for. Supporting characters are also well-written and fleshed out, leading to some highly emotional and shocking surprises near the end.
Like I said, I’m very glad I decided to give Death’s Mistress a chance. At times, Goodkind’s writing still has the subtlety of a cudgel and some of his scenes can be a little schmaltzy, but on the whole my experience was a lot better than I expected. Nothing too complicated here in terms of plot, but I think in this case, the straightforward and simple approach worked in the book’s favor, offering readers a chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride.