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: Book 1 of The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings
Publisher: Saga Press (June 23, 2020)
Length: 608 pages
It’s probably no surprise that The Kingdom of Liars was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2020, with a premise that promises magic, intrigue, and adventure. Although the novel does falter slightly at times, as debuts often do, I’m pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations and I found it to be an excellent and compelling read.
The protagonist of the story is Michael Kingman, son of the most notorious traitor the Hollows has ever seen. But while David Kingman was put to death for murdering the child prince nearly a decade ago, his wife and children are still suffering for his sins, scorned and mistrusted by their noble peers. Still, how far does the apple really fall from the tree? As the novel begins, Michael is being held prisoner, awaiting his trial and execution. His purported crime? For killing the king.
The story then flashes back to recent events as Michael begins to recount the harrowing journey which led to his arrest and current situation. It all started on the eve of the Endless Waltz, a long-standing tradition among Hollow nobility to present themselves and prove their worth. But for Michael, the event becomes an opportunity to rejoin high society and restore his family name. After all, the last ten years have been difficult the Kingmans. Michael himself barely survives off the money he makes as a petty con artist, while his sister Gwen works at the asylum, caring for their mind-addled mother. So when Michael is offered a well-paying job to be a chaperone for a heavy drinking, free-wheeling high noble named Charles Domet, he is forced to accept.
The older nobleman, however, is nothing like Michael expected. A talented Fabricator and adept at using magic, Domet agrees to teach Michael to develop his own fledgling skills while also sharing a secret piece of information our protagonist had long hoped for but never dared to believe—that his father, David Kingman, had been innocent and framed for his crime.
Over the years, I’ve read a great number of books involving unreliable narrators, but this one might be one of the most intriguing ways of handling the concept that I’ve ever seen. For one thing, have you ever thought about why this novel is called The Kingdom of Liars? Well, let’s put things this way—can you really trust someone to speak the truth, if they don’t remember it? Because that’s the crux behind the whole system of magic in the world of the Hollow. To use it costs memories, which means all experienced Fabricators have a way to help them remember the important details of their lives. However, our main character Michael Kingman’s abilities are just emerging, and with no telling when or how often he’s used his abilities, all we know is there are big gaps in his memories where he can’t recall certain details or remember someone who insists they’ve met before.
Not gonna lie, at times this made Michael and incredible frustrating protagonist. He bungles his way through his life, doing certain things while knowing full well he lacks the pertinent information to make good decisions. He’s also impulsive and easily manipulated, which made it difficult to sympathize with him when he inevitable does or says something stupid to get himself in trouble. That said, there’s a significant portion of this that is clearly done by design, and once we moved into the later parts of the story, that was when I gained a better understanding and appreciation for what author Nick Martell was trying to achieve with his character development.
The technical aspects of the novel were also impressive, if a bit raw. In many ways, The Kingdom of Liars reminded me very much of the early works by Brandon Sanderson, such as Elantris or Mistborn—just a tad unpolished and slightly rough around the edges, but the story and the concepts themselves are solid. Take the world-building, for example. Several major details shine through, most notably the idea of a crumbling moon whose pieces sometimes fall to earth and wreak havoc on the Hollow, but the larger picture still needs fleshing out, such as of how the society works or more clarification on the Fabrication system. There are also minor issues with the writing such as an overreliance on epic fantasy tropes, with the obvious one being the protagonist sharing his life story in flashback. And while Martell is cognizant enough of showing not telling, he often falls back on familiar clichés to do so, like the old hand-on-the-back-of-the-head/neck action to convey embarrassment or discomfort (a very anime thing to do, which is why I took notice of the several times this cropped up in the text).
But did any of these issues seriously affect my enjoyment or overall experience? Heck no. Most of the ones I pointed out aren’t so much complaints but rather observations or minor hiccups that need to be ironed out, and I have no doubt that they will with some time and experience. Nick Martell is poised to become a promising and inspiring powerhouse in the fantasy genre, and I look forward to reading more of his work for years to come.
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: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor Books (April 21, 2020)
Length: 256 pages
Wow, what did I just read!? Talk about being bowled over, considering I’d been on the fence on this book for a while due to the strangeness of its description. Admittedly, I only picked up You Let Me In because it had been languishing in my review pile and I needed a quick fantasy read for Wyrd & Wonder, but I ended up loving it to bits. Guess it just goes to show, you never know until you try.
But first, if you’re considering this book, my advice is not to put too much stock in its synopsis, which severely undersells what it’s actually about. This is no mere crime drama or murder mystery, for its true nature defies genre labels and encompasses so much more. At the heart of this tale is Cassandra Tripp, a 74-year-old romance author known for her steamy novels and the fact she was the main suspect at the murder trial of her husband almost forty years ago. Although she was acquitted, many questions related to the case were never solved, and now Cassandra is missing, leading police to believe that her disappearance may be linked to her dubious past. As more than a year has passed since she vanished without a trace, however, the authorities have reason to believe she is dead, thus putting in motion the procedures stipulated in her will regarding her sizeable estate.
In life, Cassandra was an eccentric prone to flights of fancy, so it was no surprise to anyone, least of all to her niece Penelope and nephew Janus, that her last wishes were filled with bizarre conditions. As her sole beneficiaries, they were each given the same instructions: to go to their aunt’s house in the woods, find a manuscript in her study and discover within a password that they can use to claim their inheritance—that is, should they decide they still want it after reading the manuscript, which turns out to be a wildly uncanny and oftentimes chilling account of Cassandra’s life growing up among a group of faeries only she could see, as well as the truth of what really happened to her husband.
As you’ve probably guessed, You Let Me In is this manuscript, a tell-all style memoir told from Cassandra’s point of view, revealing a troubled childhood and a long history with mental illness—or at least, that’s what her parents and the doctors said were the causes of her odd behaviors and anti-social tendencies. But to Cassandra, her faeries were very real, and it all began with the Pepper-Man, who is nothing like a child’s typical imaginary friend. A monstrous creature, he started visiting Cassandra when she was just a girl, and as you’ll soon see from this dark tale, he’s had a hand in almost everything bad that has happened to her since, even if no one believes her.
Although the niece and nephew are just peripheral pieces in this novel, I think it helps that the author really puts you in their shoes from the start, so that as the reader you feel fully invested in knowing the outcome of the story. After all, a lot of money is on the line, and the opportunity to finally learn everything there is to know about your crazy aunt is just too tempting to resist. But after a while, Cassandra’s voice emerges as a powerful force on its own, and then of course, the tragedies, shock, and horror take over in providing a strong hook. Let’s just say calling this one a twisted fairy tale is an understatement, for I guarantee it will mess with your mind in more ways than it’s ever been messed with before.
One reason for this is the unique way this narrative unfolds, and here I really have to hand it to Camilla Bruce for taking on this challenging mode of storytelling and pulling it off with flying colors. It relies on the unreliable narrator device to some extent, resulting in multiple versions of events, leaving it up to you to decide what to believe. The intrigue and mystery behind this aspect of the novel was what appealed to me the most and kept me glued the pages. That said, I can see how the unconventional style might turn some readers off, and I suspect the fact that we’re stuck in Cassandra’s head the whole time will also make some folks uncomfortable. It isn’t always a happy or nice place to be, and whether it’s due to some past trauma or just the way her brain is wired, sometimes her reactions or attitudes will come across frustratingly dispassionate or just plain off. Finally, this book also deals with some sensitive topics and difficult subject matters some readers might struggle with, so I advise discretion.
If this book sounds like something you would enjoy though, go ahead and check it out. I for one am glad I gave it a try, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more by Camilla Bruce, because if this is what she has for us for her debut, she clearly has a promising writing career in front of her.
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: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing (April 14, 2020)
Length: 12 hrs and 31 mins
I’ve always said Francis Hardinge’s imagination is unrivaled, and Deeplight was another dark delight. This time, we are transported to the Myriad archipelago, home to a people who worshiped a pantheon of terrifying, monster-like gods that would rise every so often from the Undersea and wreak havoc on the islands. But just three decades before, something strange happened. The gods turned on each other, and no one knows why.
Now, all the gods are dead…but are they truly gone? Hark, our adolescent protagonist isn’t exactly concerned about such matters. An orphan, he’s too busy trying to survive on the streets, swindling the endless supply of gullible suckers who come to these islands looking for godware, the fragments of the destroyed gods left behind after their mutual slaughter. Even a small chunk of the real deal can fetch a fortune, if it still retains some of its magical properties. The way Hark sees it though, there’s no harm in making up a tall tale here and there, selling some not-so-genuine pieces if it helps him get by and also gives his mark a good story to tell. Nobody is hurt and everyone goes home happy.
But pretty soon, Hark’s luck runs out, and he ends up on the prisoner’s auction block after a heist gone wrong. A godware researcher named Dr. Vyne buys his contract and immediately puts him to work, though she is also good to him, promising a better life and an education if he follows her rules. One, he must never lie to her, and two, he must cut all ties with everything and everyone from his shady past. Before long, though, Hark finds himself breaking both rules as his best friend Jelt manages to track him down, demanding help on yet another one of his hare-brained jobs. Unable to resist Jelt’s manipulative ways, Hark agrees, and the two of them embark on a treacherous dive into the unexplored deep. What they find there though, will change both their lives forever.
Frances Hardinge’s novels are known for their endless wonders and curiosities, and the world of Deeplight is even stranger and darker than her previous works I’ve read before. As a protagonist, Hark is sharp-witted and crafty, but also devastatingly flawed. His biggest weakness is undoubtedly his relationship with Jelt. Even though the two of them are like brothers, with Hark owing much of his upbringing to the older boy, Jelt is a bully—no kinder way to put it. There’s clearly a deliberate lesson here for readers who see the way Jelt treats Hark and the way the latter just caves to the verbal abuse and emotional blackmail. Still, Hark’s massive blind spot for this complicated friendship might be the only point that irked me about this book, and given the huge role it plays in the overall plotline as well as the development of the protagonist’s character arc, I’m not sure it even counts as a criticism.
On the whole, I really enjoyed Deeplight. The relationships are deep and well-drawn, as I alluded to before, with these extending beyond just Hark and Jelt. Dr. Vyne also brought an interesting dynamic to this tale, along with other memorable players such as the old priest named Quest and a young pirate girl named Selphin. The world-building was magnificent, which was no less than I expected from the author, who must have put a lot of thought and research into her detailed portrayal of the culture and history of Myriad and its islanders. An example of how everything is connected can be seen in the deep-diving traditions of the people and the way that maritime living has shaped their way of life. With near drownings being an unfortunate yet common occurrence among deep sea scavengers, they even have a name for the condition of hearing loss suffered by many survivors, along with a system of sign language used widely among certain groups as a result.
Then there are the gods and their mildly Lovecraftian depictions, whose underlying tones of supernatural horror and uncanniness I simply adored. Indeed, there’s an awful lot of background lore in Deeplight—and if there’s one little quibble I had with the writing, it’s that the pacing of the story was a bit uneven, namely with the intro sections being weighed down with layers of world-building detail, causing a slower start. That said, none of it feels like an info-dump, with every bit of it filling me with fascination. With a little patience, this book will pay you back in spades once the story really takes off.
Honestly, I haven’t been disappointed by a Frances Hardinge book yet. Deeplight was another winner for me, a deftly written fantastical adventure filled with imagination and heart. I was also lucky enough to score the audio edition for review, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Impressively narrated by Joshua Akehurst who brought the story to life, this audiobook drew me in and held me captivated in its beguiling, mysterious world from start to finish.
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.
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!
I was surprised to see a couple more book packages trickle in late last week and this week, but I have a feeling these will be the last ones for a while. First a big thanks to St. Martin’s Press for this ARC of The Night Swim by Megan Goldin. The author’s name sounded so familiar to me, and a quick check on Goodreads showed that I’d actually read one of her books last year, The Escape Room! I did enjoy it, so I’ll most likely be giving this one a look as well.
Next up, I also received a couple finished copies with thanks to Tor Books. With the shutdown, I really had not expected to get a print copy of The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff, so I had already requested and listened to the audiobook. Imagine my shock when it turned up! Still, I couldn’t be happier, because now I have the full set! I was also pretty excited to receive Critical Point by S.L. Huang, which is the third book in the Cas Russell series. Silly me though, I’d thought I was all caught up, but it appears I’ve not actually read the second book, so I’m definitely going to rectify that posthaste.
I’ve been trying to take this opportunity to cut back on requests. That being said, with no telling when shipping capacities will return to normal, I grabbed the eARC of Peace Talks by Jim Butcher so I can get started early, with thanks to Ace Books. Courtesy of Henry Holt and Co., I was also sent a widget for The Unsuitable by Molly Pohlig, which was just too damn hard to resist! I’ve been seeing some great things about it around the blogosphere and the rave reviews have me intrigued. Finally, like a fool, I wandered into my NetGalley auto-approvals section and came away with one new book in spite of myself. Hey, I could have gone nuts, but I didn’t. What I grabbed was The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, with thanks to Tor Books. The author has written stuff that’s hit or miss with me, but this one does sound completely up my alley.
From Edelweiss with thanks to Titan Books, I was also approved for Night Train by David Quantick, a horror novel I’ve been eyeing for a while now. And earlier this week I also received a pitch for a novella called Consider the Dust by Casey Blair, with thanks to the author for supplying an eARC!
This Week’s Reads
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:
“Love belongs to Desire, and Desire is always cruel”
~ a GRAPHIC NOVEL cover
I used to read a lot more comics than I do now, especially in the early 2000s. Back then, I read my fair share of Marvel and DC superhero titles, but I also had a soft spot for anything by Vertigo – Hellblazer, Preacher,100 Bullets, Transmetropolitan, Y the Last Man…you name it. And of course, Fables, one of their most successful title based on the various characters and stories from fairy tales and folklore deserves a mention. As we celebrate Wyrd and Wonder for the month of May, I figured this would be the perfect series to showcase for today. During its 150-issue run, the comic also saw plenty of gorgeous covers, and here are some of my favorites.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Minotaur Books (April 21, 2020)
Length: 352 pages
When it comes to writing dark and twisted thrillers, Jennifer Hillier is scarily good at what she does. I learned that first with Jar of Hearts, and Little Secrets has only reinforced that belief. If you’re looking for a compulsive read to get lost in, the kind of book that makes you resurface after a full day of reading, wondering, “Damn, where has the time gone?” then this one’s for you—just mind that it can get a little distressing and emotionally intense…especially if you are a parent.
The worst day of Marin’s life came just before Christmas. She and her young son Sebastien were shopping at Seattle’s Pike Place Market when she let her attention slip just for one moment, and the next thing she knew, her 4-year-old was gone. Hours later, detectives showed Marin and her husband Derek the footage from a security camera which captured their son being led away by a man dressed in a Santa suit, the only promising lead they had. For months afterward, the investigation went nowhere, forcing the police to give up on the search.
But more than a year after Sebastien’s disappearance, Marin has not given up her own search. Her once perfect life may now be in shambles following a suicide attempt, hours of therapy and support group sessions, as well as a growing distance between herself and her husband, but Marin just needs to know someone is out there still looking for her boy. So she hires a private investigator, who gets back to her almost right away with new information—except it is not about Sebastien, but Derek. It appears that for the last six months, Marin’s husband has been having an affair. Thanks to social media, it doesn’t take long to find out everything about his mistress, a 24-year-old art student named Kenzie Li.
Angry and humiliated, Marin finds a new target for all the suffering she has endured for the last year and a half, channeling it all into her hatred for the woman who is destroying her marriage. For support, Marin turns to Sal, her best friend and former flame with a checkered past. What she seeks isn’t advice or words of comfort, however, but rather Sal’s connections to his old prison friends who can fix certain…problems.
You just never know what you’re going to get with this author’s books. Are we going to have a happy ending, or is this going to turn out badly for everyone? You won’t find out unless you keep reading, and that’s why Little Secrets was so hard to put down. With a flip of switch, we go from a story about a missing child and a mother’s pain to one about a lurid affair and the fury and vengeance of a wife betrayed. And yet, both these threads worked well in tandem, especially once Hillier dropped a surprise on us in the form of Kenzie Li’s POV, allowing readers a look through the eyes of “the other woman.”
Eventually, everything comes together in this shocker of a twist ending, which I confess I failed to connect the dots and predict until close to the end. More on this I will not say because that will just spoil the fun, but do be prepared to go through a rollercoaster of emotions as we shift back and forth between Marin and Kenzie’s perspectives. There will be rage, sympathy, disgust, pity, horror and a whole lot more as past relationships and secrets are revealed about each woman.
Needless to say, at times Marin’s chapters were unbearably difficult and heartrending to read, due to the fact she is living a parent’s worst nightmare, with the descriptions of her guilt and grief over losing Sebastien hitting me over and over like a flurry of gut punches. It made even some of her more questionable decisions and reactions believable, if not always agreeable. Reading through Kenzie’s chapters, on the other hand, is an even more tumultuous ride as the mystery of her character begins the moment she appears. Who is Kenzie Li? Is she just a young and naïve college student, duped by the charms of a rich older man? Or were Marin’s initial instincts about her correct, that there has got to be something more to the young woman’s designs on Derek?
Bottom line, this is one psychological thriller you won’t want to miss. Packed with suspenseful moments and heart-stopping twists, Little Secrets is an addictive novel of diabolical motives and mind games that will keep you guessing. Jennifer Hillier has become one of my must-read authors.
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!
To celebrate Wyrd and Wonder, I’ll be featuring fantasy/paranormal-related picks for my Waiting on Wednesday posts for the whole month of May! Gothic horror, you say? With a bit of ghosts and the supernatural? I love this combination, and I’m glad that these types of stories seem to be making a comeback in recent years. I’ve also been quite impressed with the offerings from Crooked Lane Books as of late, so I’m very curious about this one!
They say there’s a door in Wakefield that never opens…
Sam Wakefield’s ancestral home, a decaying mansion built on the edge of a swamp, isn’t a place for children. Its labyrinthine halls, built by her mad ancestors, are filled with echoes of the past: ghosts and memories knotted together as one. In the presence of phantoms, it’s all Sam can do to disentangle past from present in her daily life.
But when her pregnant sister Elizabeth moves in after a fight with her husband, something in the house shifts. Already navigating her tumultuous relationship with Elizabeth, Sam is even more unsettled by the appearance of a new ghost: a faceless boy who commits disturbing acts–threatening animals, terrorizing other children, and following Sam into the depths of the house wielding a knife. When it becomes clear the boy is connected to a locked, forgotten room, one which is never entered, Sam realizes this ghost is not like the others. This boy brings doom…
As Elizabeth’s due date approaches, Sam must unravel the mysteries of Wakefield before her sister brings new life into a house marked by death. But as the faceless boy grows stronger, Sam will learn that some doors should stay closed–and some secrets are safer locked away forever.”
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 4 of The Nine Realms
Publisher: Tor Books (April 21, 2020)
Length: 512 pages
Narrator: Imogen Church
Following a whirlwind release schedule, the four-part Nine Realms series has finally come to a close, and quite honestly, I’m a bit torn as to how I feel about this concluding volume. While it was both invigorating and satisfying enough for an ending, the path the overall story took wasn’t like anything I expected and it’s possible that may have biased me from the start.
The Cerulean Queen by Sarah Kozloff picks up right after the end of the previous book, and Princess Cérulia is broken no more. In fact, she wastes no time taking back her throne and cleaning house. Ever since her mother’s death, the ruling class of Weirandale has become even more corrupted, leaving Cérulia in a bind because she has no idea who she can trust.
On top of that, many of her loyal subjects had been castigated, imprisoned, or outright killed, resulting in the realm in chaos and families torn apart. The war with the Oros is also ongoing, with their army on Cérulia’s doorstep. She now finds herself in over the head, trying to be a good ruler while relearning all the intricacies of palace etiquette. She hasn’t forgotten either that, as queen, she is expected to marry quickly and produce a daughter to carry on the royal line, especially with her so precarious.
Fortunately though, Cérulia need not carry the burdens of her duties all alone. There are still a few advisors at the palace loyal to her, and she has also regained full control over her gift of communicating with animals, recruiting the palace dogs to literally sniff out any remaining traitors. Her adoptive family has given her their support as well, and Cérulia is overjoyed to be reunited with her loved ones. Sometimes she can almost forget that Weirandale is still a mess, and that as queen, everyone is counting on her to keep them safe. Her time in exile has taught her many things, but sooner or later, a time will come where her resolve will be tested.
I will say this right off the bat—the best parts of the book were in the first hundred pages and the last hundred pages, which leaves a good chunk of this 500-page novel that I thought was just okay. First off, I had not expected Cérulia to take back her throne so quickly; I had thought we would get a nice steady build up to the big battle, but all this pretty much took place in the intro. What came next was a lot of what I called “administrative drama” or the subtleties of running a kingdom. From the weeding out of Cérulia’s enemies to the tracking down the secret prisons where many of her supporters were held, I understood why these developments were important—but the truth was they also dragged down the whole book. I also didn’t think these sections needed to be so detailed. After the umpteenth courtroom scene or conversation about Cérulia’s wardrobe, my patience wore thin and I simply wanted the story to get moving.
To the author’s credit, I did like how the themes of The Cerulean Queen unified the series. Cérulia’s experiences in the last three books have given her the wisdom and skills to be a good queen, as well as taught her how to handle all kinds of challenges in her fledgling reign. Kozloff also continues to expand upon the world-building, detailing the spiritual realm of the gods and the nature of the protagonist’s gift. Several of the characters Cérulia encountered on her journey are back to support her, which speaking of, one of the major side arcs includes her reunion with Thalen and the development of their romantic spark. All these threads converge as the last section of the novel sees pacing pick up again, building up to the final showdown—and thank goodness for that, because that climax may have single-handedly won me over to the ending, making up for the sluggish parts in the middle sections.
All in all, I was happy with the way The Cerulean Queen concluded the Nine Realms series. If the epilogue was a bit cheesy and wrapped things up a little too neatly, at least it put a smile on my face. This final volume has also cemented Sarah Kozloff’s status as an able storyteller and a talented builder of fantasy worlds and systems on a grand scale. I’m impressed by the saga she has crafted here, and I’ll be sure to be there for her next project.
Audibook Comments: After reading the first three books in print, I came to this fourth one in audio and I won’t lie, it was a bit jarring to switch formats this late in the game, but I enjoyed the narrator Imogen Church’s performance. Some of her voices were a bit on the goofy side, but for a series with so many characters, I understood the need to differentiate between them, and she was able to cover an impressive range of accents and tones.
Mogsy’s Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: TStand Alone
Publisher: Harper Voyager (April 21, 2020)
Length: 544 pages
I’d be shocked if Race the Sands doesn’t end up topping my list of favorite reads at the end of the year. I mean, I’ve been following Sarah Beth Durst for a while and I love her work, but wow, she’s certainly outdone herself this time. There’s literally nothing I disliked about this book, a spectacular effusion of excitement, adventure, and really wild things!
Welcome to Becar, a world where reincarnation exists. While those with good, clean souls can be rewarded by being reborn as humans, only the purest of the pure can become augurs, gifted with the ability to read the auras of others and determine their fate. Individuals with flawed auras can expect to reincarnate as animals—a jackal, a turtle, or a bird perhaps—and those whose souls are more corrupted might even end up a slug. All you can do is hope that your next life will give you a better chance at changing your fate.
That said, for the evildoers whose crimes are so unforgivable that their spirits are forever tainted, there is no redemption. These wretched men and women are cursed to come back as kehoks—chimeric monsters whose forms combine the traits of many different aniemals—and forever after, they will never be reborn as anything else. Their only chance at breaking this cycle is a special charm, created by the augurs and gifted to the champion of the kehok races that all of Becar flock to see each year. While it is impossible to completely tame a kehok, gutsy individuals who are bold and determined enough can impose their wills on these beasts long enough to ride them and compete in th races, earning fame and fortune too if they win.
Tamra Verlas used to be one these champion riders, her name known to every fan. Although she is now retired from the racing scene, she still trains riders for the money to put her young daughter through the expensive augur training at the temple. However, an unfortunate incident with one of her students last season has all but ruined Tamra’s reputation, forcing her to scout her own rider and kehok to enter in the races. She ends up finding both at the market—a fearsome lion-like kehok, freshly captured by a hunter, as well as Raia, a young runaway who needs a place to lie low from her abusive parents. Raia has never ridden a kehok before, but she is desperate for a job, and Tamra is also desperate for a new student.
Meanwhile, an undercurrent of anxiety threatens the future of the realm as the royal augurs have thus far been unable to locate the reincarnated soul of their late emperor, resulting in the delay of his successor’s coronation. Without a leader, Becar is vulnerable to attack from its enemies, who are even now readying their armies to invade. But while it may be unthinkable, and sacrilegious to even suggest it, there could be another explanation why the palace has been having trouble finding the emperor’s current incarnation. After all, while the augurs can be thorough in surveying all creatures, they would never look to a kehok for the soul of their illustrious emperor, whose aura should not have been so corrupted. In the end, only one courageous augur named Yorbel is willing to go against the grain and put a theory to the test.
Truly, my absolute love for this book cannot be contained! I’ll start with the premise and the world-building, which made this book so delightful and captivating. While familiar tropes abound in Race the Sands, Durst’s talent is to write them in a way that made it all feel new and fresh. Racing motifs feature prominently, obviously, but there is also the theme of the disgraced trainer who needs to make a champion out of an inexperienced rookie, as well as a good dash of the sort of creature/rider bonding trope you would find in Temeraire or How to Train your Dragon. Set to the backdrop of the desert world of Becar and the spiritual beliefs of its people though, these ideas and concepts are given new life. The author also adds a few twists of her own so that the direction of this tale as well as its resolution will contain plenty of surprises.
Speaking of which, the storytelling was superb. I’ve always appreciated the crossover appeal of Durst’s books, and Race the Sands also has that same quality, written in an easy flowing style that will make YA fans feel right at home while not turning off readers of adult fantasy. Of course, the novel’s characters also help with this, since we have one protagonist in her teens, and another in her middle-aged years who is a mother to boot. Both are well-written and impressively developed, portrayed with their individual motivations, genuine personalities, and in-depth backstories. In particular, I want to give a nod to the way the author depicts motherhood, and in her books I’ve read that feature mom protagonists (the Queen of Renthia series, for example), they are always strong, ferociously protective and loving women who would go to the ends of the earth for their children. Tamra has a young daughter but she also takes Raia under her wing in this one, and this amazing woman is just so solid, competent and badass that it is no wonder that she was my favorite.
Other noteworthy characters include Lady Evara (you will see why once you read this and meet her), who surprised me on several occasions, and Yorbel with his gentle demeanor and wisdom. A few others also added interest and depth to the story with their roles, such as Prince Dar and the Ranir ambassador giving insight into Becar’s political troubles. And of course, who can forget Raia’s magnificent lion? While he may be a monstrous creature with no spoken lines or POV, his indomitable presence can still be felt throughout the novel, and overall I adored the concept of kehoks and the way they come in so many different shapes and sizes.
And yet, I still feel words aren’t enough to express just how much I loved this book! All I can say is, you really must try it to see for yourself. My expectations were already sky-high considering how much I’ve enjoyed Sarah Beth Durst’s other novels in the past, but she still managed to blow them all away with this one. Truly, her characterization, storytelling skills and world-building ideas are unparalleled, and with Race the Sands, she has pretty much raised the bar for all the books I’ll read for the rest of the year.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of Legacy Trilogy
Publisher: Orbit (April 9, 2020)
Length: 800 pages
Reading-wise, this has been a month of ups and downs, with plenty of surprises but also some disappointments. Then there are books like Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward which fell somewhere in the middle, making it a tough one to rate. You know how it is with epic fantasies—especially debuts. Often they are highly ambitious, full-hearted, and brimming with potential, but at the same time, you just can’t but feel there’s something holding them back. Sometimes it’s easy to put your finger on why exactly, but other times the problem is harder to spot because it may be a combination of little things compounded. I suspect this might be the case here, for while I was unable to find any major fault with this novel, I never really found myself hooked by it either.
Of course, the story’s scope may be a factor. Boiling it all down into a couple paragraphs for this review is going to be tough, but for context, the main conflict at the heart of Legacy of Ash is a rivalry between two factions. On one side of this dispute is the Tressian Republic and its champion Victor Akadra, trying his best to keep the peace within his realm, and on the other side is the Southshires, represented by Josiri and his younger sister Calenne. As the last two remaining heirs of Phoenix, who headed the insurrection against Tressia fifteen years ago, the siblings are political figureheads of a sort, doing their best to keep their heads down while trying to honor their mother’s memory and cause. But Josiri isn’t sure how long he can keep toeing the line as he comes under more and more pressure to rise up against the true authority in the south, held by the very man who killed his mother and crushed her rebellion.
However, few are aware just how tenuous Viktor’s position truly is. Although he is hailed as a hero, he harbors a dark secret, and knows how quickly the tides would turn against him if it is discovered. He is also a warrior and not a diplomat, the council’s politicking often leaving him out of his depth. Meanwhile, a new threat looms on the horizon in the form of an invading army from the Hadari Empire. Beset with enemies within and without, the Tressian Republic will need every single one of its defenders, even if it means old foes will need to set aside generations of animosity and hatred to work together.
Putting it that way, the premise behind Legacy of Ash seems pretty straightforward—even simple, almost. In reality though, many more characters and minor plot arcs are threaded through this main framework, fleshing out the novel. We’re offered a glimpse into every part of the world and a voice for each side of the conflict, thanks to the sheer number of characters and their perspectives. Here, Ward’s extensive background as a world designer and architect of tabletop games makes itself obvious; you can feel his passion for world-building and character and story development behind every detail and plot point. As a lover of RPGs, I definitely appreciated his effort to put together this robust setting and craft a sense of place right down to the smallest detail.
Still, what works for a tabletop campaign might not be ideal when it comes to an epic fantasy novel. You want to provide all the right elements in the right amounts without overwhelming the reader, and finding that balance can be tricky. If your story is going to be told through multiple POVs, for example, you’ll also need to develop each one fully so that their personalities resonate, and on this point, Legacy of Ash suffers a bit. Simply put, I felt myself inundated with POVs from the get-go, and they just kept coming. While following along wasn’t a problem—I’ve had enough experience with this genre—I found myself struggling to care about or feel invested in any of these characters. To be fair, I think effort was clearly made to balance page time and attention between all of them, but it wasn’t enough. There was no emotional attachment, interest in their relationships or concern over the outcome of their fates. As characters are what usually motivates me to keep reading, perhaps it’s no surprise that some parts presented a struggle.
Legacy of Ash left feeling torn as a result. After all, the technical aspects are strong, including the skill of the writing, tightness in the plotting and details of the world-building. What it lacked though, was something that’s maybe more personal, which left me feeling cold and neither here nor there, unable to tell if I truly enjoyed myself or not. That said, I do place high importance on characters, and when I can’t get into them, that tends to impact my experience heavily. My opinion is in the minority here though, with plenty of others having loved this book, so don’t let my review sway you from checking it out if you’re looking to try a new epic fantasy and the synopsis intrigues you. Despite the flaws I found it, it’s a decent and well-written debut that would appeal to the right audience.