Book Review: The Night Country by Melissa Albert

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

The Night Country by Melissa Albert

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Book 2 of The Hazel Wood

Publisher: Flatiron Books (January 7, 2020)

Length: 352 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

The theme for 2020 so far seems to be sequels with a different tone or feel than their originals. The latest book to fall into this pattern appears to be The Night Country, the follow-up to Melissa Albert’s debut The Hazel Wood, which I really enjoyed. Believe it or not, this one goes even deeper in already dark territory, but I loved how these changes enhanced the story’s haunted atmosphere and complex characters.

Anyway, as with all my sequel reviews, the usual caveat applies: the following may contain discussion involving plot details from earlier books in the series, so be sure to be caught up with The Hazel Wood before proceeding! The beginning of The Night Country takes us back to the story of Alice Proserpine, once called Alice-Three-Times, a princess of a fairy-tale realm known as the Hinterland. With the help of her friend Ellery Finch, she was able to escape the Hinterland’s clutches to attempt living as a mortal in the heart of New York City. However, the shadow cast by her enigmatic grandmother is long, and for Alice and the other survivors who were caught up in the sudden exodus, things will never be the same again. Alice, for one, is finding that living a wholly average and non-magical life as a normal teenager is tougher than she thought, not to mention someone is also out there hunting Hinterland’s ex-inhabitants, killing them in a horrible, gruesome manner…

Meanwhile, Finch finds himself wandering the many pathways of the otherworld dimensions, navigating its mysteries and attempting to unlock its many secrets. He is determined to make his way back to Alice, while trying to make sense of the strange things he encounters in this world where time passes differently and behaves in bizarre ways. On his journey, he learns of a place called The Night Country, which may be his key to understanding Alice and to reunite with her.

With the narrative alternating between Alice’s and Finch’s perspectives, the tone of The Night Country is moodier and has a lot more bite now that the two of them are mostly apart, without their banter to lighten things up. In fact, their story lines don’t come together until nearly the end, when the plot culminates into a stunning climax and conclusion. Until that point though, there’s still plenty of intrigue and darkness in both threads to keep the reader’s attention hooked. Melissa Albert’s handling of the whole “fairy tale genre” is certainly different, putting an imaginative and macabre twist on her storytelling. The little vignettes woven throughout were stroke of genius and added so much to the overall haunting vibes of the novel.

I also liked what has been done with the characters. Alice’s experiences, as well as the knowledge she has gained from the first book have mellowed her out. She’s reached another stage of her life, trying to figure out her next steps. The revelations about her past have turned her world upside down, made her confused about her identity. She’s also trying to work out her feelings for Ellery Finch, and one of the things I enjoyed about this sequel was the way it handled their relationship. I really liked Finch from the first book and was so happy to get so much from his point-of-view, immersing myself in his exploration and discoveries. Without delving too much into the romance that was lightly teased in the first book, The Night Country still managed to create a deeply nuanced and meaningful dynamic between him and Alice.

The author has also made great strides in her writing, tightening up her descriptions and dialing up the atmosphere to make this one an engaging read. Combining fairy tale elements with urban fantasy can be a challenging task, but Albert seems to have no trouble finding the right balance. Her prose ranges from whimsical to haunting, depending on what is required, creating memorable scenes and moments that leaped out at you.

All told, if you enjoyed The Hazel Wood, then you must do yourself a favor and pick up The Night Country, a worthy follow-up that is even more luscious, imaginative, and satisfying. It’s dark yet compelling, and I have to say this new direction has made me even more interested in seeing what the author will do next. Apparently, she will have a short story collection set in the same world called Tales from the Hinterland. I’m not really into anthologies, but I might have to read this one, because I’m just loving the hell out of Melissa Albert’s approach to fairy tales.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Hazel Wood (Book 1)

Audiobook Review: Mr. Nobody by Catherine Steadman

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

Mr. Nobody by Catherine Steadman

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Mystery, Suspense

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Random House Audio (January 7, 2020)

Length: 11 hrs and 32 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Catherine Steadman

Well, this wasn’t bad, but I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a disappointment after the hard-hitting psychological suspense and intense thriller that was Something in the Water, Catherine Steadman’s debut. Clearly, she tried to capture the same kind of magic in Mr. Nobody, but I regret to say that it just wasn’t there.

Told mainly from the point-of-view of Dr. Emma Lewis, one of the UK’s leading authorities on memory disorders, the story begins when she receives a phone call from a colleague offering to connect her with a high profile case involving a man found washed up on a beach. Dubbed “Matthew” because he has no recollection of what his real name is or where he came from, the man has been taken to a nearby hospital where he is being closely monitored, while teams of police and healthcare providers work around the clock to determine who he is. Could he be a refugee, with no ties to the country and that’s why no one has come forward to identify him despite his face plastered all over the news? Or might he be a soldier, suffering from PTSD which has affected his ability to remember and communicate? From all reports, Matthew hasn’t uttered a word since being found, but apart from that and the complete memory loss, he appears to be in good health and spirits.

Having dedicated her life to studying retrograde amnesia, Emma is thrilled at the prospect of being able to work with their “Mr. Nobody”, but there is one catch. The hospital where they have taken Matthew is in her hometown, a place she thought she’d left behind forever. For you see, our protagonist hasn’t always been known as Emma Lewis, and only a handful of people know that. During her first meeting with Matthew, however, not only does the amnesic man speak for the first time when he sees her, but he says her name—her true name, the one she had before she had to change it and move away.

Emma knows it shouldn’t be impossible, because she’s pretty sure she’s never seen Matthew before in her life. Yet somehow, he seems to recognize her and is familiar with certain details of her past. But how can that be? What is their connection? These questions and more were what made the first part of this novel so addictive and fascinating. I love a good amnesia story, and credit goes to Steadman for laying down the groundwork and establishing the mystery so effectively. The intrigue only deepened with every interaction between our characters, especially once Emma begins putting Matthew through various neurological scans and tests, revealing the curious nature of his fugue.

Thing is though, I thought I had signed up for a thriller, and I’m afraid in that area, Mr. Nobody kind of fell flat. I think it’s safe to say it works far better as a slow-burn novel of mystery and suspense. The pacing slowed to crawl in places, and overall, the story just didn’t have the energy or momentum I’d been hoping for. The book’s structure was also frustrating, jumping between multiple POVs with frequent switches in narrative modes. It wasn’t very ideal for this story, since for it to work, so much depended on our two main characters keeping certain details from the reader, and after a while this grew very awkward and tiresome.

Then there was the big reveal in the climax and ending. Unfortunately, that whole section felt rushed with explanations and answers that were glossed over. It was sufficient enough, I suppose, but ultimately I was left feeling unsatisfied and a little cheated. I also didn’t think many of the side plots involving supporting characters were resolved or integrated too well, compared to Something in the Water where all the separate pieces fell into place so perfectly in the end. The final chapters of Mr. Nobody, on the other hand, felt rather slapdash and thrown together haphazardly, thus muting the impact and shock value from the so-called final twist.

All told, what began as a promising intro eventually morphed into a pretty weak-sauce thriller that felt more like a medical mystery at times, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. However, I was in the mood for something punchier, and was disappointed when Mr. Nobody failed to deliver. Like I said, it’s not a bad book, but sadly the style of it did not mesh very well with my overall expectations.

Audiobook Comments: Catherine Steadman, known for being on Downton Abbey, is an experienced and accomplished actress so it was no surprise when I saw that she was narrating her own book again. Once more, she delivered a professional and stunning performance, and the novel was definitely made better because she, as the author, knew exactly which tone to take and when to stress certain lines. I think the only change that would have improved the audiobook version of Mr. Nobody is if they had brought in a second reader for Matthew’s sections, which would have lessened the confusion between POV skips, but other than that I really have no complaints about the narration.

Bookshelf Roundup 01/18/20: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every 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 summarize what I’ve finished reading in the last week 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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Received for Review

My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!

First, a big thank you to William Morrow for sending me a surprise copy of Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough! This is on my list of highly anticipated books for February, so I was pretty excited. Also thank you to Tor for sending along A Queen in Hiding by Sarah Kozloff, the first book in a four-volume series called The Nine Realms. All the books will be published within a month of each other, so looks like I’ll be kept quite busy if I end up enjoying this! And from Minotaur Books, I received The Hollows by Jess Montgomery. Even though it is the second book in a series called Kinship, I believe it can be read as a standalone and I am quite curious to check out this historical mystery.

In the digital pile, I received a few audiobooks for review this week. With thanks to Tantor Audio for a listening copy of Watchdog by Will McIntosh, his 2017 middle grade novel that’s finally getting an audio release. Also from Listening Library I received Rebelwing by Andrea Tang which I’m really curious about, and from HarperAudio I received Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, a YA fantasy which seems to be getting quite a lot of buzz lately.

I’ve also been maintaining a pretty high ratio on NetGalley these days, so I figured a few more requests this week wouldn’t hurt. With thanks to Delacorte I received the eARC of Shielded by KayLynn Flanders, a book I recently featured for Waiting on Wednesday. I was also thrilled to have my request of Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia be approved by the folks at Polis Books. And finally, because I enjoyed the first book so much, I grabbed Ballistic by Marko Kloos, the second novel of The Palladium Wars.

Reviews

The God Game by Danny Tobey (5 of 5 stars)
The Hanged Man by K.D. Edwards (4 of 5 stars)
The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang (4 of 5 stars)

Roundup Highlights:

This Week’s Reads

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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!:)

Friday Face-Off: Horizon

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:

“Your ‘beautiful’ ship killed its crew, Doctor.”
~ a cover featuring a HORIZON

Mogsy’s Pick:

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

There’s something dreamy and everlasting about the concept of a horizon, which is probably why the original cover for this book immediately popped into my head when I saw what was today’s theme. At its core, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a love story, but it is also a heartbreaking character study of its protagonist Caterina Novak, daughter of a brilliant yet a eccentric inventor and cybernetics expert. We follow Cat’s development from childhood to her adult years, witnessing as, at five years old, she first lays eyes on Finn, the android her father brings home to be her tutor. But as Cat grows, she discovers Finn is different from other androids. With every year that passes, their relationship becomes increasingly complicated as Cat starts to see Finn as someone more than just a tutor and friend.

When Angry Robot was sold to Watkins Media, a lot of their books/authors also ended up being picked up and re-issued by Saga Press, and this was one of them. So today we’ll be doing a simple head to head, comparing the covers to these two editions:

Angry Robot (2013) vs. Saga Press (2016)

Winner:

Although the newer Saga cover has an edgier and more modern look, there’s a reason why the original Angry Robot cover works so well. I feel it is better at capturing the atmosphere and tone of the story, and the art style also lends the image quite a bit of nostalgia and personality, not to mention it uses the horizon to great effect.

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

Book Review: The God Game by Danny Tobey

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

The God Game by Danny Tobey

Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (January 7, 2020)

Length: 496 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Some books simply deserve five stars because of how thoroughly and overwhelmingly it hooked me. The God Game by Danny Tobey was definitely one of these, a novel which first captured my attention because of its augmented-reality gaming angle, but soon I found myself completely wrapped up in its other aspects as I ravenously devoured its pages.

Although the story largely follows a group of five gifted teenagers at a Texas high school, The God Game is a mature thriller heavily influenced by the likes of Black Mirror, Stranger Things, and the works of Stephen King. The characters are generally seen as outcasts, gifted kids who don’t really fit into any of the other social cliques, so they formed their own. Calling themselves the Vindicators, they began as a group of overachieving geeks who met frequently in the school computer lab, bonding over a love of video games and coding.

But as the teens entered their senior year, much has changed in the recent past to alter the group dynamic. Charlie, who used to be a top student, saw his life and grades spiral out of control after he lost his mother to cancer. His close friend Vanhi, whose family immigrated to the United States from India to seek a better life, has her sights set on Harvard, though one lousy grade in AP History may have just put an end to those dreams. Then there’s quiet and unassuming Kenny, an aspiring journalist who is caught up in his own troubles at home and rivalries at the student newspaper at school. Next is Alex, whose strict Asian upbringing places high expectations on education. Unfortunately though, he’s been struggling in math and every time he brings home a failing test his father beats him black and blue. And finally, there’s Peter, the charming and popular rich kid who everyone likes. He can flit from group to group, rubbing elbows with jocks and geeks alike, though secretly, the other Vindicators take some pride in the fact that out of all the social cliques on campus, Peter has chosen them.

Then one day, Peter introduces his Vindicator friends to a big secret—the G.O.D. game, an old-school style text-based program he claims is run by an A.I. chat bot that believes it is God. Once you accept the invitation to play, he explains, the game will issue instructions. Good actions by the player will earn them “Goldz” currency, used to buy perks like special privileges and rewards, while disobedience will result in “Blaxx”, demerit points that can lead to bodily harm and even death. If you win though, the A.I. promises to make all your dreams come true. Intrigued by the idea, and believing it to be just a harmless game, Charlie, Alex, Vanhi and Kenny decide to play. At first, the teens are awed by the augmented reality technology, especially once they earn special glasses so that they can be connected to the game world at all times. However, what started as a handful of innocent instructions from G.O.D. rapidly begins escalating into more dangerous, malicious, and underhanded attacks on others, including their fellow Vindicators.

The issue of moral choice plays a huge role in The God Game. Although the characters are in their late teens, their ambitions are wholly relatable, sometimes gut-wrenchingly so. After all, whether you’re a senior in high school or an adult in the workplace, deep down all human beings need and want more or less the same things: to achieve their goals and to succeed, to love and be loved in return, to gain affirmation and be accepted. What makes the game in the book so sinister is the way it feeds on the Vindicators’ worst fears while dangling their deepest desires in front of them as bait. In this way, even the brightest, most mild-mannered kids can be pressured to commit senseless violence and do the most ruthless things to get ahead.

But no doubt the driving force behind the novel is the thriller aspect of it, which on occasion crosses over into horror territory. Tobey is well-versed in AR gaming, knows his pop culture, and has clearly spent time trawling through online social media communities such as Reddit, incorporating memes and other references into The God Game. The AI entity in this story is pretty scary indeed, made omnipresent and all-powerful by the internet and the fact that more and more facets of our lives are now being supported by monitoring and reporting technology. G.O.D. has eyes everywhere, knows your likes and dislikes, your darkest secrets, and can even accurately predict your next moves. While the concept of the game and many of the scenarios in this book may seem farfetched, somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about online privacy and how information can be abused and used against you, and that part is definitely no fiction.

Still, I would recommend The God Game to fans of sci-fi, as long as you don’t expect too much in the way of explanations. Like I said, the plot can sometimes get a little over-the-top, the game itself doesn’t operate on clear rules, and the world-building surrounding it is a bit fuzzy. I also wouldn’t categorize the novel as traditional YA fiction, but if you have low tolerance for teen drama like high school crushes, bully problems, or conflicts between kids and parents, do be aware there’s quite a lot of that in here. That said, if you like stories involving crazy, out-of-control bots and AI, then you’re in for a treat, as that is the book’s most prominent theme. Fans of thrillers should take note as well, since the storytelling style is a good match for the genre. I was kept riveted by the great characters, fascinating concept, and the plot’s fast pacing, and I’m pleased to say the momentum never ends.

Waiting on Wednesday 01/15/20

“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

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison (June 23, 2020 by Tor Books)

I read The Goblin Emperor when it came out, about five years ago, but I still remember the story and the characters think of them fondly. I’m pretty excited to read The Angel of Crows, which sounds very different, but the description is great and reading it gave me chills.

“Katherine Addison, author of The Goblin Emperor, returns with a fantasy novel of alternate 1880s London, where killers stalk the night and the ultimate power is naming.

This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.

In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.

Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.“

 

Top Ten Tuesdays: Top Ten Books that Surprised Me in 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish. They created the meme because they love lists. Who doesn’t love lists? They wanted to share these list with fellow book lovers and ask that we share in return to connect with our fellow book lovers. To learn more about participating in the challenge, stop by their page dedicated to it and dive in!

This week’s topic: Top Ten Books that Surprised Me in 2019

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday theme is “Bookish Discoveries I Made In 2019”, but as we all know discoveries can also be accidental surprises, and lucky me, I had quite a few of those last year. The following are the books that might not have made it onto any of my “best of” lists, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy them immensely. For a couple, it may be a shocking turn of events that blew my mind, while others may have been outside my comfort zone but ended up growing on me nonetheless. So without further ado, here are ten books in 2019 that surprised me in some way.

Anyone by Charles Soule

Having very much enjoyed Charles Soule’s debut The Oracle Year, I was curious about Anyone and was surprised to find that it to be a bit of a departure. A relentless sci-fi thriller that would also make any fan of Blake Crouch or Black Mirror feel right at home, Anyone is old through multiple timelines, with the story first taking us inside a barn in Ann Arbor, Michigan where brilliant neuroscientist Dr. Gabriella White is on the verge of a breakthrough in her Alzheimer’s research project. Unfortunately, her funding is also about to run out, leading Gabby to throw caution to the wind and risk it all in an act of desperation. To her horror, after experimenting with her equipment in a way she’s never had before, she finds her mind mysteriously transported into the body of her husband Paul. And thus, “flash technology” was born, a process which allows an individual to transfer their consciousness into another person’s body, a process which would change the world forever—for of course, no discovery this big can stay buried for long. To say that I was impressed is an understatement. Soule has truly outdone himself by writing an even more unique and mind-blowing novel, ratcheting up the excitement and knuckle-blanching action. (Read the full review…)

The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I was a bit nervous about starting Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo, but I actually ended up enjoying it quite a bit. I think many reviewers have hit the nail on the head with this one, when they say how you feel about the book will be highly dependent on your expectations and whether you were hoping for something similar to the author’s previous work, because I am telling you now—it is not. First of all, Ninth House takes place in a contemporary real-world setting, and boy, can it get too real sometimes. The story follows 20-year-old Galaxy “Alex” Stern, newly admitted into the freshman class at Yale. An ex-junkie, raised by a hippie single mom in Los Angeles where her life plunged into a downward spiral of chaos and darkness after dropping out of school, Alex never thought she would find herself in New Haven getting a second chance. But of course, there is more to everything than meets the eye. For you see, Alex can see ghosts. Called “Grays”, these spirits of the dead are everywhere on campus, drawn to the occult ritual energies performed by magical practitioners of the secret societies known as the Ancient Eight. Ninth House was marketed as Leigh Bardugo’s adult debut, and in this book, she makes no bones about tasting this new freedom and spreading her wings, going bolder and darker than she’s ever gone before. The darker, grittier, and more mature tone of this novel was a stark but welcome change, one I personally felt was quite refreshing. There’s just something about this one that’s so real and from the heart, that despite its grimmer outlook and more macabre themes, I’m glad I read it. (Read the full review…)

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd Jones

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. The Bone Houses follows seventeen-year-old Aderyn—Ryn for short—who lives in the remote village of Colbren with her younger brother and sister at the edge of the woods. Their mother had died shortly after the disappearance of their father, who walked into the forest years ago on a job and never returned. To make ends meet, as well as to pay off the debts of her drunken uncle, Ryn works as a gravedigger for the town. However, with the recent spate of cases involving the rising dead, business has been significantly impacted, to say the least. One night, Ryn ends up saving the life of a young mapmaker named Ellis, who has come to Colbren to map the nearby mountains for the prince. But Ellis also has his own personal reasons to be here. An orphan, he was found as a child wandering these woods alone before he was rescued and brought to the city to be raised. Fifteen years later, it is his hope to find some trace of his true parents, so he offers to hire Ryn to guide him through the treacherous wilderness. What I loved most about this book is that it felt like a haunted fairy tale. Because of this, I didn’t mind so much that the story itself was relatively predictable. Traditional folklore features strongly in the plot, and I enjoyed the fascinating mix of eeriness and magic. The ending twist also brought it all together in a way that was satisfying and emotionally significant. (Read the full review…)

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

On principle, I don’t DNF, even though they say life is too short for bad books. But then once in a while, a book like Gideon the Ninth will come along and make me glad I hold to that rule. I’m just so glad I kept reading until the end, because against all odds, I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit. The story starts with a introduction to our eponymous protagonist, an orphan who has grown up living in servitude to the Ninth House. For as long as she can remember, death and necromancy has been a part of Gideon Nav’s life, as well as being tormented by the young scion of the house, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, a powerful bone witch in her own right. Eventually though, Gideon becomes tired of always having to play the servant to the princess and devises a plan to get off planet in an escape shuttle. However, before she can make her move, a major shakeup at the Ninth House suddenly causes all of Gideon’s plans to fall apart. If you’re thinking about picking this novel up, I say give it a chance. It has all the hallmarks of a “either love it or hate it” book, and the fact that its elements are so different and eclectic means that it’s best experienced personally. I didn’t think it would be for me, but obviously the end of the book changed my mind, and after this wild ride, I find myself looking forward to checking out the next volume in the series. (Read the full review…)

Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen

To be honest, I almost didn’t want to read this. After the way Danielle L. Jensen’s first series ended, which left a horrible taste in my mouth, I’ve learned to be cautious of anything else she writes. However, because the description of Dark Shores sounded so enticing with its promise of sea-faring adventures and pirates, ultimately I decided it might be worth a shot. Fortunately, in the end, the book gave me no cause to regret that decision. Set in a world inspired by Ancient Rome, our story features a fractured empire with characters from both sides of the divide including a mariner princess and a soldier of the legion. In this world, conquest is the name of the game, and the Celendor Empire means to win it. Ruled by a corrupt and power-hungry senate, the Cel have long a long history of subjugating nations and their peoples in the name of bringing in more wealth for themselves. Now the only places they have left to conquer are the seas and Dark Shores, the near mythical land on the other side of the world. I had a good time with this book, which went a long way in making up for the cruel parting shot in the final chapter of the author’s Malediction trilogy. So long as Jensen doesn’t rip my heart out and stomp it to pieces like that again, I think this new series and I will get along just fine. (Read the full review…)

One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence

Having only read Mark Lawrence’s fantasy before this point, I had thought The Book of the Ancestor was a departure for him, but One Word Kill was truly an entirely different beast. It was also a novel I inhaled in about two sittings, and it is now up there among my favorites by the author. The story takes place in the 1980s, following 15-year-old protagonist Nick Hayes and his small group of friends who get together every week for their role-playing sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. But at the beginning of the book, Nick receives the devastating news that he has terminal cancer, and the consequences and the events following his diagnosis bring them together in solidarity in a way that no one could have possibly imagined. Despite its short length and YA vibes, this book isn’t just all about geeky fun and secret heist action, for it is also a character-first story that packs an emotional punch, combining cheerful sweetness and poignant feeling in equal measure. It also has time travel, even though it doesn’t feel like any time travel story I’ve read before. Honestly, I think it’s because Lawrence never allows the tech and science-y bits to gain the foreground, focusing instead on the human aspects. As a result, this story plays out like a very personal drama. If this is what we can expect from the next installment, it’s going to be awesome. (Read the full review…)

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree is a labor of love. As a reader, I could sense so much passion and effort poured into this novel, it is no wonder Samantha Shannon decided to take a break from The Bone Season series in order to birth this one into the world. But let’s first just get this out of the way: clocking in at more than 800 pages, this book certainly measures up to the task, but it also contains all the strengths and weaknesses one might anticipate with such an ambitious undertaking, especially considering we are dealing with the author’s first foray into the epic fantasy genre. Clearly inspired by the traditions established by authors like George R. R. Martin or Robin Hobb, Shannon tries her hand at a sprawling, world-spanning saga of myth, dragons, and political intrigue. But with so much world-building and character development to establish, this story takes a long time to find its legs. Still, the main forces driving The Priory of the Orange Tree are compelling, especially once character motivations are revealed and they become the most important factors fueling the story’s many conflicts. This isn’t a perfect novel, but quite honestly, I did not expect it to be. Epic fantasy can be a tricky genre riddled with traps and pitfalls for even the most experienced authors, and in spite of this, even given the novel’s flaws I think Shannon did a marvelous job pulling it all together. (Read the full review…)

Slayer by Kiersten White

Well, I had my doubts, but not anymore. In Slayer, Kiersten White has accomplished the formidable feat of writing a novel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe that not only provides a wistful trip down memory lane but also thoughtfully builds upon the existing lore and mythos of the franchise. Our story begins with the introduction to Nina and Artemis, the twin daughters of Merrick Jamison-Smythe who was the first Watcher of Buffy Summers. After their father’s death, the girls’ mother whisked them away to Ireland where the family lived in a castle with a remnant group of Watchers, carrying on their research even though the world has been much changed since all magic went away. But over the last two months, Nina has been experiencing some unsettling changes. She has become stronger, her reflexes are faster, and her dreams have started to become filled with strange visions. Since the Seed of Wonder event, no more Slayers could be called, but somehow, in an act of bravery and selflessness, Nina had triggered her innate potential right before the critical moment, making her the last Slayer. I’ll be honest, I don’t really consider myself a Buffy mega-fan, but in a way, coming to Slayer with this equivocal and noncommittal attitude might have helped, because it allowed me to simply sit back and enjoy without the burden of expectation or hype. This book had a good mix of drama, action, and intrigue which I enjoyed tremendously, and it will be interesting to see what’s next. (Read the full review…)

The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross

Few retellings invite more scrutiny from me than Beauty and the Beast, one of the most beloved fairy tales, so I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Told from the perspective of the Beast, our story begins in the enchanted forest where our protagonist lives with the curse cast upon him long ago. Slowly, painfully, he begins to remember the man he once was, but has no memory of why he was made into this beastly form, let alone how to break the curse. For many years he lives alone in his crumbling castle where the magic of the place seems to know his very heart, for it appears to cater to his every need. But even his invisible servants cannot help him with his one true desire, until one day, a lone traveler arrives at his door seeking rest and shelter. My favorite part of this book is hands down Shallcross’ depiction of the Beast. He is no monster, and over time it becomes clear that there’s not a malicious bone in his body. As for the atmosphere, The Beast’s Heart also offers a nice change of pace. It is dark, but not oppressively so; moody, but not to the point of being melodramatic. As retellings go, this one’s pretty low-key, which makes it a somewhat slow and plodding tale. And while not all will have the patience for this, on my part I relished every moment. (Read the full review…)

Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

Not gonna lie, I’ve always been hard on the romances in my fiction. While I have nothing against romance, I’ve always said that if there’s going to be a romance arc in any book, it needs to be convincing—not to mention I also want the characters, plot and other story elements to be strong. It also helps when a novel is upfront with the reader on what to expect. In the case of Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, it is an example of a sci-fi romance mashup that handles all these points very well. As the fifth of six children, our protagonist Ada’s usefulness to her wealthy family only extends to her marriageability into one of the other High Houses, and to avoid that fate, she ran away years ago. As our story begins, Ada finds herself in a holding cell with another prisoner named Marcus Loch aboard a bounty hunter’s ship, soon to be handed off to the man she was supposed to marry. Though Ada knows better than to trust Loch, she’s also aware he’s her only chance to escape. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Loch is hot as hell and has the body of a Greek god. In case it’s not glaringly obvious, Polaris Rising is mostly a romance first, and a genre novel second. It can be awfully self-indulgent at times, thought it goes about it boldly and with no apology. Admittedly, the romance genre is not something I can take in large doses. But like a rich, fluffy and decadent dessert, whenever I do read these kinds of books they’re always oh so satisfying and delicious. (Read the full review…)

Book Review: The Hanged Man by K.D. Edwards

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

The Hanged Man by K.D. Edwards

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of The Tarot Sequence

Publisher: Pyr (December 17, 2019)

Length: 383 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Unlike a lot of readers, I wasn’t really as bedazzled by The Last Sun. A good story cannot be supported by action alone, no matter how many battle sequences or daring escapades you throw in my face. Despite the spectacular world-building and relentless pacing, all throughout the first book I couldn’t shake the feeling that much of it was meant to compensate for (or distract me from) a rather thin plot. It’s true that I wanted something a bit more substantial, especially from a series opener, and while overall I enjoyed the book, by the end of it I was also exhausted and feeling no small amount of relief that it was over.

But now we have the sequel, The Hanged Man, and I’m pleased to say I found it to be a lot more balanced with regards to story and plotting, more restrained in its action, and best of all, more time was given to character and relationship development. Before I proceed with the review though, I highly recommend being caught up with the series because spoilers for The Last Sun are possible. In this sequel, which once more centers on the lives of Rune Saint John and his friends, we are delving deeper into complicated world of the Atlantean court whose members represent the Major Arcana of a Tarot deck. Known as Scions, these individuals are possessed of powerful magic, able to store and utilize spells in the form of sigils. The story picks up soon after the events at the end of the previous book with a bombshell development that involves Rune’s ward, Max. It appears that the monstrously cruel and vicious Scion known as The Hanged Man has set his sights on the young man, intending to force him into a marriage contract against his will.

Needless to say, Rune and Brand are going to do whatever it takes to make sure that will never happen. However, it soon appears that our protagonist’s troubles are merely beginning. As the story shifts its attention to the Dawncreeks and Rune’s friendship with Corrine, we find out that her son Layne is missing, and it’s feared that his disappearance may have something to do with The Hanged Man’s sick and twisted agenda.

Rewinding back to my review of The Last Sun, I noted how amidst all the furious action and excitement, the irony was that my favorite parts of the novel were always and unfailing the quieter moments especially when Rune had his stolen moments of connection to those closest to him. To me, those were the scenes that defined his character and brought meaning to a novel that sometimes felt like it was more concerned with delivering wise-cracking lines and fast thrills. In contrast though, I was glad to see that in The Hanged Man we got more of these precious, emotionally revealing conversations between our protagonist and the people who mattered to him most. For one thing, it gave us more insight into the bond he has with Brand, and for another—and this was important for me, personally—some of the interactions between Rune and Addam in this one provided some much needed clarity into the nature of their romance which was something that felt off to me in the first book and never sat quite right.

I also liked how the flow of the story remained snappy without becoming overwhelming this time around. It’s possible that some of this can be attributed to what I wrote about above, which had a balancing effect on the pacing. The Hanged Man is also much darker, featuring higher stakes with consequences that are more significant and far-reaching. As someone who thought the tone of the first book was occasionally too flippant in the face of some of its heavier themes, I appreciated how this installment brought in greater depth and profundity to make me care more about the characters and the story.

Finally, it would be a crime to discuss a novel of The Tarot Sequence without mentioning the world-building. I think this element remains the strongest of author K.D. Edwards’ writing, and he continues to build upon the existing lore and magic of New Atlantis, dishing out answers to some questions while raising many more. The world of this series is a vast system—living, breathing, and complete—but clearly, it’s not ready to give up all its secrets yet. And that’s a good thing, considering how many more books are planned (nine all together, apparently!) and I hope to savor each and every discovery as Edwards adds more layers with each installment.

Overall, I was very pleased with The Hanged Man, which managed to step up as a sequel should. It continued to excel in the things the first novel did well, while improving on the things it didn’t. If this trend continues, The Tarot Sequence will become a force to be reckoned with—not that it isn’t a big deal already, making some huge waves in SFF circles. Truly, I think its potential can only grow, and I’m curious and excited to see where series is headed.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Last Sun (Book 1)

Book Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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

The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of The Poppy War

Publisher: Harper Voyager (August 8, 2019)

Length: 560 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

4 stars for The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang, and just barely. This was a good book, but considering how unreservedly I adored The Poppy War, it’s hard not to see this as a slight downgrade. I had a harder time getting into this sequel, for a couple of reasons. First, I think it suffers from a touch of second-book syndrome, and second, perhaps most disappointing of all was that the main character felt like a shadow of herself compared to the previous novel.

But before we start, this review assumes the reader has completed The Poppy War, so beware of possible spoilers for the first book if you are not yet caught up. The Dragon Republic picks up almost immediately following the events at the end of book one, and Rin is barely holding herself together in the aftermath of all the destruction. She also has to come to terms with her devastating power as a shaman of the Phoenix, and the fact that in the light of Alton’s demise, she is now the last Speerly. Drowning the grief and trauma of her losses with the numbing effects of opium, Rin becomes addicted to the drug, and it is severely impacting her ability to lead the Cike, the special squadron of god-touched magic-using individuals placed under her command.

Before long, the Cike are captured by the Dragon Warlord, who presses Rin into his service and orders her to put an end to the traitorous Empress’ rule and help him unite the Nikan empire under one republic. Hungering for vengeance, Rin goes along with the assassination plot, but filled with rage and destabilized by the poppy, she struggles to control the power of the Phoenix. Her growing disillusionment is further complicated by the Warlords’ tactics, and upon witnessing the suffering of Nikara, Rin begins to question her purpose. What is she fighting for, if not to improve the lives of the people?

Yes, Rin has it rough in The Dragon Republic. She’s seen things, done things that have messed her up. Her mind is not all together hers these days, because of the addiction. She’s also angry, confused, full of guilt and resentment. In fact, not one chapter goes by without something to remind us all what a great big ball of angst she is. And let me tell you, it was exasperating as hell. I went from rooting for Rin all the way in The Poppy War to wanting to beat the living shit out of her in this sequel. I get it; our hero had to hit rock bottom in order to gain the insight she needs to rise again, to truly appreciate where she could be and what was possible and all that jazz. I didn’t mind that part. What I did mind, however, was how Rin became a wholly unlikeable brat in this book, completely ruled by her selfish, emotional, and downright violent impulses.

Ironically, The Dragon Republic contains darker and more mature themes, but the overall tone of the book feels more juvenile and childish because of the callow behaviors of its protagonist. Also, for a dead guy, Alton sure seemed to get a lot of page time. While Rin’s admiration and fondness for him was understandable, the story’s constant dwelling on his life and legacy grew tiresome after a while. Ultimately, this bizarre fixation with Alton did nothing to develop Rin’s character, and in fact it did quite the opposite, anchoring her to the past and prolonging the whininess and self-pity.

Thank goodness the second half of the book saved the first half, and that’s no exaggeration. Once Rin started getting her act together, that was when the story finally felt like it was going somewhere. Until that point, we were spinning our wheels, watching her direct her anger at everyone and everything. The character was adrift, which I guess was part of the point, but in turn, that frustration and lack of power also sent the plot into a directionless tailspin type of tedium. But the moment Rin started to care about something more than her problems, everything changed. Even though the disillusionment is still there and as strong as ever, at least our protagonist’s realizations gave her (and the story) a more discernable roadmap.

Other commendable aspects include the development of the supporting cast, when they’re not there just to be abused by Rin. Thing is, the protagonist is so cantankerous in this book that even her foes are sometimes more enjoyable to read about, including the wily Vaisra. Aside from familiar faces like the members of the Cike, Kuang also introduces a few new players and factions. As vile as they are, the appearance of the Hesperians adds an intriguing element to the mix, which is just one of many examples of the author beefing up her world-building. In addition to expanding the history, lore, and cultures of the various nations and their peoples, development also occurs at the character level, with some getting more detailed backstories and important roles. Speaking of which, I loved Kitay. And Nezha? Nezha damn near broke my heart.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed The Dragon Republic, but it didn’t even come close to capturing my attention, imagination and heart the way The Poppy War did. Chalk it up to a slight case of middle book syndrome, or the fact that the protagonist was just too unbearably annoying in this sequel, but overall I have to say the magic was lacking this time around. Still, I have high hopes for the next book. This one was good, but fingers crossed that the next installment will once more elevate this series to fabulously amazing again.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Poppy War (Book 1)

Bookshelf Roundup 01/11/20: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every 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 summarize what I’ve finished reading in the last week 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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Received for Review

My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!

To my great excitement, I received an ARC of Crush the King by Jennifer Estep earlier this week, thanks to the kind folks at Harper Voyager. I’m really enjoying this series and I can’t wait to read book three. With thanks to the Forge Books team I also received a copy of Remembrance by Rita Woods. A historical fiction novel that weaves in a light touch of magic, it’s a bit out of my wheelhouse but looks good nonetheless. Courtesy of Subterranean Press, I also received an ARC of their re-issue of Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler, a collection that includes the stories “A Necessary Being” and “Childfinder”. As a side note, seeing these last two books next to each other, it seems cover artists need some new ideas. Next up, I’d like to thank 47North and Wunderkind PR for sending me a finished copy of The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg. I had mixed feelings about the last book I read by the author so I haven’t decided if I’ll read this one yet, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on reviews. And from Ace Books, I received a surprise copy of Stars Beyond by S.K. Dunstall, the second installment of the Stars Uncharted series. I enjoyed the first book, so I might just check out this one if I have time.

In the digital haul, I received a listening copy of Seven Deadly Shadows by Courtney Alameda with thanks to Harper Audio. I enjoyed the author’s Shutter a few years back and I’m curious to read another one of her books. NetGalley has also been a lot more active now that the holidays are over, and I ventured into my auto-approvals section for the first time in weeks to see what was available. Big mistake, I almost caved in to a lot of temptations, but in the end I only grabbed two horror/thriller themed titles: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Grapham Jones with thanks to Saga Press and You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce with thanks to Tor Books.

Reviews

Jade City by Fonda Lee (5 of 5 stars)
The Queen’s Road by R.S. Belcher (5 of 5 stars)
The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan (3.5 of 5 stars)

Roundup Highlights:

This Week’s Reads

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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!:)