Book Review: Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

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

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Book 1 of Embers of War

Publisher: Titan (February 20, 2018)

Length: 411 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell is a sci-fi military space opera that has been on my radar ever since it was released last year, but it wasn’t until news of the sequel arrived that I was finally spurred to pick it up. And now that I’ve finished it, I’m kicking myself wondering why it took me so long. This novel has everything I wanted out of the genre and more, and I had a lot of fun reading it.

Following a handful of different characters, the story is set in the aftermath of a bitter and violent war fought in a galaxy rife with political tensions. Disgusted with the part she played, the sentient warship Trouble Dog has decided on a new course for her life, joining the House of Reclamation, an organization that answers the calls of distressed starships, in the hopes of atoning for the atrocities she committed. Sal Konstanz, who once fought against Trouble Dog, now finds herself on the same side as the ship as her captain. Together with their crew of medics and rescue workers, they follow a signal from a downed vessel to a touristy but disputed area of space called the Gallery, a system whose planets have all been carved into gargantuan intricate shapes by an ancient alien race.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the system is another example of former enemies now working together as allies. Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka, agents from opposing sides team up to locate a missing poet who was rumored to have been on the ship that went down in the Gallery. And indeed, the missing woman in question is Ona Sudak, whose relaxing pleasure cruise with her travel companion has turned into a nightmare after the attack on her ship leaves them marooned on a strange planet surrounded by all kinds of mysterious threats.

Out of all the characters though, the one I was most looking forward to going into the book—and whose point-of-view turned out to be my favorite—was Trouble Dog. The idea of sentient starships is becoming more and more popular in science fiction, a trend I’m enjoying very much, and Powell’s take is both interesting and inventive. While the concept of a living ship made up of both organic and machine parts is nothing new, Trouble Dog gets her own chapters written in the first person, allowing readers an intimate look into the way she thinks and feels. Although warship class vessels should be unaffected by emotion, the better to do their job, that clearly didn’t turn out to be the case for Trouble Dog who struggles with her fair share of hang-ups as well as memories she’d much rather forget. For a ship character to feel even more “human” than some of her actual human co-stars in a book is no small achievement, and I applaud the author’s skill in pulling this off, though I’m also pleased that he allowed Trouble Dog to retain many of her A.I. traits, resulting in a perspective that it is truly memorable and unique.

And while we only get to visit a relatively small slice of this universe—mainly the Gallery, where most of the book’s action takes place—I’m already in love with the setting. Everything I find irresistible about the space in science fiction is embodied in the mystery and majesty of this system, where entire planets are sculpted into works of art by some unknown civilization many eons ago, using advanced technology we can only dream of. The effect is both inspiring and a little eerie, but I’m intrigued and excited to explore further.

In terms of the story, I’m pleased with how all the different threads came together. However, as much as I enjoy space operas featuring ensemble crews, most novels told via multiple perspectives inevitably lead to some character arcs being more compelling than others. This is what I found with Embers of War, which saw Trouble Dog and Sal Konstanz emerging as my clear favorites almost as soon as the book began. Namely, this was because a character was only as interesting as their interactions with other characters, with the ship and her captain’s dynamic being the best example of a relationship that immediately stood out. Other perspectives like Ashton Child or Nod, the ship’s no-nonsense engineer, were not as appealing, though I understood their need to show another side of the story or flesh out the world-building. In addition, there were plenty of secrets beneath the surface as well as a number of interconnected events whose links aren’t revealed until later, which made discovering them one of the highlights of the novel’s climax and concluding chapters.

All in all, Embers of War was a great read that ticked off the boxes when it comes to what I look for in a military sci-fi or space opera. On top of that, I thought it laid out the groundwork for the sequel quite nicely, and I am beyond excited to jump into the next book Fleet of Knives where I hope Gareth L. Powell will continue to develop the series’ fascinating concepts and themes.

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

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

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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!

With thanks to Ace Books for sending along finished copies of The True Queen by Zen Cho and Wild Country by Anne Bishop. Both are highly anticipated sequels I’m really excited to read!

Also thanks to the kind folks at Night Shade Books and Talos for the following haul: a copy of the brand new re-issue of The Heirs of Babylon by Glen Cook, his long out-of-print debut novel; Mythic Journeys edited by Paula Guran, a collection of classic myths and legends retold by some of the most popular SFF authors of today including Neil Gaiman, Catherynne M. Valente, Ann Leckie, Ken Liu and more; a finished copy of Darksoul by Anna Stephens, the sequel to Godblind which I have already read and reviewed here; and The Warship by Neal Asher, book two in the author’s Rise of the Jain series.

My thanks also to Subterranean Press for this pair of lovely ARCs: Small Kingdoms by Charlaine Harris is an anthology featuring a handful of linked stories by the author collected in one volume for the first time, and Before I Wake by David Morrell is the author’s third short story collection containing fourteen tales featuring a wide range of genres and topics.

From Tor, I also received finished copies of The Revenant Express by George Mann which is the fifth book in a steampunk series called Newbury and Hobbes, as well as Endgames by L.E. Modesitt Jr. which is the twelfth novel in his Imager Portfolio series. Considering how both series are new to me, it’s highly unlikely I’ll get to either of these, but my thanks to the publisher regardless!

And a huge thank you to the amazing team at Berkley for this surprise ARC of The Girl in Red by Christina Henry that landed in my mailbox last week. I’ve enjoyed all of Henry’s dark fairy tale retellings so far, which makes me optimistic for this upcoming post-apocalyptic take on Little Red Riding Hood.

Also much love to DAW for this wonderful surprise of Pariah by W. Michael Gear, the ARC of the final book in the Donovan trilogy which I have been enjoying very much. I’m looking to seeing how things will wrap up.

Courtesy of Tachyon Publications, I also received an ARC of The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, a historical fantasy inspired by the Russian Revolution with dragons!

Thank you also to Orbit/Redhook for these new arrivals: a finished copy of The Witch’s Kind by Louisa Morgan, a historical fantasy about magic, family, love and sacrifice from the author who brought us A Secret History of Witches; an ARC of Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky, the hugely anticipated follow-up to one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Children of Time; and a finished copy of Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey, the eighth book of the epic space opera series The Expanse. Words cannot describe how excited I am about this next installment.

Also thanks to Simon & Schuster for offering to send a print ARC of The Philosopher’s War by Tom Miller, the sequel to one of my favorite books I read in 2018, The Philosopher’s Flight.

And finally, my thanks to Flatiron Books for an ARC of this quirky looking book called FKA USA by Reed King. Described as something of a mashup of The Wizard of OzA Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyThe Road, and Ready Player One, how could I not be curious about this fascinating debut that seems to have a little bit of everything?

In the digital pile, with thanks to Audible Studios for The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, a door-stopper of a tome which I’d hoped to tackle in audio so I was thrilled to receive a listening copy. And from Penguin Random House Audio, I received a listening copy of The Municipalists by Seth Fried, a book featuring the unlikely partnership between a U.S. Municipal Survey worker and a day-drinking know-it-all supercomputer. Color me intrigued.

Feeling hungry for a new thriller, I also requested The Rumor by Lesley Kara, with thanks to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for the eARC. And last but not least, thank you to Tor.com for sending me e-galleys for The Undefeated by Una McCormack and Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan, both of which I’m looking forward to checking out.

Reviews

A quick summary of my reviews posted since the last update:

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock (4 of 5 stars)
Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte (4 of 5 stars)
Slayer by Kiersten White (4 of 5 stars)
Crucible by James Rollins (3.5 of 5 stars)
Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan (3.5 of 5 stars)
King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo (3 of 5 stars)
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie (2 of 5 stars)

Interviews & Guest Posts

A shout out to the authors who stopped by The BiblioSanctum these last two weeks!

Guest Post: “Under Ordshaw’s Covers” by Phil Williams

Guest Post: “Creating a Sentient Starship” by Gareth L. Powell

What I’ve Read Since the Last Update

Here’s what I’ve managed to “unstack” from the TBR since the last update. More reviews coming soon!

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

Friday Face-Off: Store or Market

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:

“Who will buy this wonderful morning?”
a cover featuring a STORE OR MARKET

Mogsy’s Pick:

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

I racked my brain this week for a cover featuring a shop or market setting, and the closest I could come up with was Grady Hendrix’s big-box furniture store horror which pokes fun at retail culture while offering a chillingly spooky experience. I had a great time with this novel and its memorable and quirky take on the classic haunted house story  which takes place in an Orsk superstore, the author’s razor-sharp parody of our real world’s IKEA.

There’s something strange about this particular Orsk store, though. Every morning, store employees arrive at work to find damaged and vandalized goods, not to mention the creepy “HELP” messages that randomly show up on everyone’s cell phones. To get to the bottom of this mystery once and for all, store manager Basil recruits our protagonist Amy and her fellow sales associate Ruth Anne for an overnight shift. Expecting to find some innocuous and mundane reason for all the strange things going on, they are totally unprepared for the horrors awaiting them on showroom floor in the dead of night.

Shall we look at the available covers?

Quirk Books (2014)

Blackstone Audio (2014)

Thai Edition (2017)

Winner:

There’s no contest this week. The cover design and appearance of the Quirk edition is just so clever that I even made special mention of it in my review of the book. The fact that this book comes published in the shape and size of a glossy mail order catalog complete with product illustrations, descriptions, “coupons”, order forms, and other such features might seem like a gimmick, but hey, it works. The creepy face and hands in the picture frames further seal the deal. High marks for creativity and presentation.

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

Book Review: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

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

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Orbit (February 26, 2019)

Length: 432 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I am but a simple reader, with simple tastes. I can appreciate when an author tries different things, or when a novel tries to break out of its genre and stylistic norms. But at the end of the day, all I want to do is read a good story I can relate to and, above all else, enjoy. Which, unfortunately, was not The Raven Tower.

Thing is, this novel does in fact contain a fascinating premise: in a prosperous kingdom named Iraden, a god called the Raven watches and protects his land and its people, staving off all threats with his magic. But this protection comes at a price—one exacted in blood. To sustain the Raven’s power, a sacrifice must be offered by the ruler of Iraden known as the Raven’s Lease, a human chosen by the god to carry out his will in the mortal realm. As long as this tradition continues, the land remains safe and thriving.

But now, the power of the Raven is waning. Another god called the Strength and Patience of the Hill narrates this tale, watching events play out in its stonebound form. Iraden’s downfall begins as Mawat, the heir to the current Lease, returns home to find his father missing and the throne usurped by his uncle. In the middle of this chaos, an unassuming aide named Eolo tries to help Mawat reclaim his birthright, unwittingly stumbling upon a grave secret beneath the foundations of the Raven’s Tower.

Now here’s the rub: told in a mix of first and second person narration, you as the reader are essentially Eolo, and the narrator is the Strength and Patience of the Hill using its all-seeing gaze to tell you all that’s happening, what you are doing and thinking, and pretty much everything else there is to know about what’s going on. Not that you, as Eolo, can really be aware all the time that the god is speaking all the time, though. Like its name implies, the Strength and Patience of the Hill has also been around for a long, long time. It has seen quite a lot of things and it also isn’t shy about waxing poetic—to itself—about its age-old history and the past.

Consequently, I think the writing style will be the biggest point of contention for readers, and the determining factor in whether you will love this novel or hate it. Personally, I have a somewhat thorny relationship with the second-person narrative mode, though I concede that if used sparingly, or in specific situations that call for it, it can be very effective. Regrettably though, the way it was done here grated on my nerves like nails raked across a chalkboard. I’m not saying the idea wasn’t clever or that Leckie’s technique in employing it wasn’t skillful, but the constant distraction of it was mentally exhausting and frankly not very pleasant at all.

Which is why, as much as I wanted to like this novel, I struggled to connect with nearly every aspect of it. In particular, the characters were a bust. While you are supposed to be Eolo, use of the second person device immediately distances you from everything you do and everything you are supposed to be. From there, everything else failed to spark my interest, which is a shame because in theory, the inspiration behind the story and its lore is actually quite imaginative and compelling. Thematically, it reminded me a little of Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki in that the narrative almost takes on a mythical quality, using the god-and-mortal relationship to explore concepts like power, knowledge and ideology through a philosophical lens. It’s just unfortunate that Leckie’s execution and interpretation did not work for me at all.

Bottom line? If a unique and an entirely different kind of fantasy is what you’re looking for, The Raven Tower is a book you might want to consider, but I also recommend reading samples or plenty of reviews to determine if the style is to your taste. Who knows, this could very well end up being your favorite book of the year. But if what you find strikes you as ludicrously complicated or irritating and awkward to the extreme, then it’s probably safe to say this novel is not for you. I have great admiration for Ann Leckie and think she’s a talented writer. I reasonably enjoyed reading her Imperial Radch trilogy and Provenance, though neither really blew me away, so it was initially my hope that her first foray into epic fantasy would be more my speed. But well, c’est la vie, as they say.

Waiting on Wednesday 02/27/19

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

Dragon Unleashed by Grace Draven (September 24, 2019 by Ace Books)

Grace Draven has become one of my favorite authors now that I know I can count on her for the perfect balance of fantasy and romance. Dragon Unleashed will be the second book set in her Fallen Empire universe and the standalone follow-up to Phoenix Unbound!

“A dragon shapeshifter and a healer with power over the earth fight a corrupt empire in this thrilling and deeply emotional romantic fantasy from the USA Today bestselling author of Radiance.

Magic is outlawed in the Krael Empire and punishable by death. Born with the gift of earth magic, the free trader Halani keeps her dangerous secret closely guarded. When her uncle buys a mysterious artifact, a piece of bone belonging to a long-dead draga, Halani knows it’s far more than what it seems.

Dragas haven’t been seen for more than a century, and most believe them extinct. They’re wrong. Dragas still walk among the denizens of the Empire, disguised as humans. Malachus is a draga living on borrowed time. The magic that has protected him will soon turn on him–unless he finds a key part of his heritage. He has tracked it to a group of free traders, among them a grave-robbing earth witch who fascinates him as much as she frustrates him with her many secrets.

Unbeknownst to both, the Empire’s twisted empress searches for a draga of her own, to capture and kill as a trophy. As Malachus the hunter becomes the hunted, Halani must risk herself and all she loves to save him from the Empire’s machinations and his own lethal birthright.”

Book Review: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock

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

A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery by Curtis Craddock

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of The Risen Kingdoms

Publisher: Tor (January 22, 2019)

Length: 416 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I loved An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock, so you can imagine my excitement when it came time to dive into its sequel. To my delight, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery turned out to be every bit as enchanting and mysterious as the first book, featuring the same incredible fusion of genre elements that captured my imagination so completely.

Once again, we’re transported back into the world of The Risen Kingdoms, where protagonist Isabelle des Zephyrs has been struggling with both the success and failures necessary for a leader’s development. Le Grand Leon has made her ambassador to the Great Peace, but unfortunately, the job has come with a lot more strings attached than she anticipated. What’s more, on top of her increased responsibilities, Isabelle finds herself dealing with her newfound well of magic—a discovery which has certainly elevated her status in court but has also meant increased scrutiny for her behavior and actions.

In a cutthroat environment like this, Isabelle knows she must step lightly, but there are also certain lines she is determined never to cross. Soon enough, her morals are put to the test, and when one of her decisions leads to a diplomatic incident, she finds herself thrown under a bus and stripped of all authority and protection. Thankfully, Isabelle’s friend and guardian Jean-Claude has remained faithfully by her side throughout the entire ordeal, keeping her spirits up as she ponders her next step. That decision is quickly made for her though, as Jean-Claude, in his own work as a King’s Musketeer, uncovers a horrific plot involving human experimentation perpetrated by a shadowy enemy known as the Harvest King, inevitably drawing them both into a tangled web of danger and conspiracy.

And here I thought An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was complex, but its sequel proved to be an even more twisted and suspenseful read. Like its predecessor, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery was filled with courtly secrets and political intrigue as Craddock continues to build upon the plotlines he’s already established. Almost immediately, multiple threads arise to seize the reader’s interest, introducing even more mystery to the series. I honestly could never tell where the story was going to take me next; at times it almost got to be overwhelming because there were so many possibilities and nothing was ever predictable.

As well, I’m impressed with character development and the direction in which our main characters’ relationships are headed. The author has ensured that his protagonists have evolved with their experiences while retaining the core of their true selves, and Isabelle is a prime example, sticking to her guns even when she knows that it will cost her dearly. That said, she would then utilize her intelligence and whatever resources she can gather to keep moving forward, and I loved that she also started exploring her romantic side as part of her soul-searching. Moreover, I was beside myself with happiness when it came to Jean-Claude, who was my favorite character in the first book. He won me over yet again in this sequel, demonstrating, over and over why his loyalty is one of his most endearing traits. Interestingly enough, we also got to glean some details of his past which showed he was not always the kind of man we know him to be, but somehow these glimpses into his youth only made me like him more, knowing that he had matured and learned from his mistakes.

And of course, I would be remiss if I made no mention to the gorgeous world-building. Craddock greatly expands it in this volume, adding to the already vibrant atmosphere and history of The Risen Kingdoms. As I wrote in my review of the first book, there are honestly few things that this series doesn’t have. Examples from many genres are represented, including intricate magic systems, powerful shapeshifters, clockwork automata, flying airships, floating kingdoms, dashing musketeers and much, much more. With book two, this world has further solidified itself as a complex network of all these disparate but interconnected elements.

Initially, I was concerned that this novel wouldn’t feel quite as fun or surprising, given how a lot of the luster and novelty had worn off. Fortunately though, that was not the case, and A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery turned out to be a riveting and worthy sequel. This is a series I would highly recommend if you enjoy narratives that contains a number of different genres, themes, and ideas. I really hope more people will discover the wonders of Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms, and I await the next installment with great anticipation.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (Book 1)

Guest Post: “Under Ordshaw’s Covers” by Phil Williams

As you may have gathered, from our old Cover Lover feature to our participation in the Friday Face-Off meme each week, we love book covers here at the BiblioSanctum–and not just the art itself, but the entire process of planning and designing too–which is why today I am very pleased to welcome author Phil Williams to the blog. If you have been following the coverage of this year’s SPFBO you might recognize his name and novel Under Ordshaw, most notably from Lynn’s Book Blog where it was one of the books she considered when it came to choosing her finalist. But did you know that Phil is also a talented designer who created all the covers for the books in his Ordshaw world? When he reached out to me earlier this month about this series of interconnected urban fantasy thrillers, not only was I intrigued by the stories, I was also immediately fascinated with their colorful covers. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Phil offered to write a guest post providing a glimpse into his cover design process, and as a special treat, we’ll even get to see the finished cover for his upcoming Ordshaw novella, The City Screams, which is set to come out in April! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did, and be sure to check out the books of Ordshaw.

UNDER ORDSHAW’S COVERS
by Phil Williams

I don’t have the talents of the artists I’ve worked with on book design. But I do have a tight purse, and a dream of producing over a dozen books in the Ordshaw series, so I took a course in cover design. Sadly, my path to simple commercial mimicry was thwarted by the exacting demands of a slightly unconventional series.

In urban fantasy, the predominant cover style sets a sexy woman in (or partially out of) leathers, swimming in bright colours, against urban grunge. Fine for a sexy story of magic, but Ordshaw’s protagonist, Pax, is unfit, dresses in cotton and doesn’t wield balls of light. Her casual urban look is less ‘torn-jeans showing off tight skin’, more ‘can I pretend this food stain just happened?’

It’s not an easy look to capture using stock models.

After extensive searching for my Pax, I gave up in lieu of finding an alternative contemporary fantasy style. Fortunately, there are more minimalist designs in the market: like the Rivers of London series or V.E. Schwab’s books. Unique, and clearly done by branding pros, such styles were unlikely to be easily attainable or commercial for a thrifty unknown author – so I aspired to something fractionally as good using some more common cover design ideas.

I started by going with the trope of splitting the page with a city skyline; particularly fitting for Under Ordshaw, featuring secrets lurking beneath the city. As a prayer for commerciality, I added a text-style based on the modern thriller genre.

Less straight-forward was how to represent the actual story. I wanted to show so many things, including but not limited to: an ancient book describing unheard-of monsters; actual monsters; creepy tunnels; poker; not magic, but something resembling unnatural energies; guns; fairies?!

At some point I settled on two options: 1) Go abstract with one simple image; or 2) create a specific, silhouetted scene from the book.

I created both. The first option was far simpler: easiest way to say fantasy and danger without luminescent magic? Monsters. What says monster? Evil eyes or claw marks. The eye was born.

The scenic choice was more complex. I recreated a scene from about a quarter of the way into the book; something encountered in a tunnel. I carefully combined tons of images, and after extensive editing was quite proud of the result: it actually resembled how it looked in my head.

I opened the pair of images up to feedback, and everyone preferred the eye. My editor said the scenic image simultaneously left little to the imagination and wasn’t satisfying imagery.

So.

The Ordshaw style was settled, and the cover for Under Ordshaw unleashed upon the world.

The second book, Blue Angel, was a simpler affair: all it needed was a new cityscape (the biggest task, as the Ordshaw cityscapes are not pre-existing skylines), a new colour scheme and a new image. Having rejected the claw for Book 1, it came naturally to Book 2, but with added electricity, capturing a theme of the book in the abstract.

Now I’m onto a third book (not Book 3, but a standalone novella, Ordshaw’s unconventional manners swinging around again). The City Screams, out soon, is set in Tokyo, so the cityscape was simple. I hit a hurdle on other visuals, though, as the threats in The City Screams are unseen. I reluctantly went human – but with the style already settled this proved easier than before. And I wasn’t hunting for a Pax, which made me more forgiving (though the end result is still an edited combination of different people who weren’t quite right).

Three books in, with two more rapidly approaching, I’m really happy with how the series imagery is panning out. I’m not sure it fits the commercial bill, in the end, but, for a series standing somewhere between noir, urban fantasy and horror, I at least think I’ve captured the mood.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phil Williams writes contemporary fantasy and dystopian fiction and non-fiction grammar guides. His novels include the interconnected Ordshaw urban fantasy thrillers, the post-apocalyptic Estalia saga and the action-packed Faergrowe series. He also runs the website English Lessons Brighton, and writes reference books to help foreign learners master the nuances of English.

Phil lives with his wife by the coast in Sussex, UK, and now spends a great deal of time walking his impossibly fluffy dog, Herbert.

You can visit him at his website at http://phil-williams.co.uk or on Twitter at @fantasticphil.

YA Weekend Audio: King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

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

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: The Grishaverse, Book 1 of The Nikolai Lantsov Duology

Publisher: Audible Studios (January 29, 2019)

Length: 16 hrs and 13 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Lauren Fortgang

Between the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, I’ve had some great times in the Grishaverse. However, as glad as I am for the opportunity to read King of Scars and embark on this next chapter of the journey, I can’t say unequivocally that I really enjoyed this book. It had its moments, but overall, I didn’t think it was as well put together as some of Bardugo’s better work.

It has been three years since the end of Ravka’s bloody civil war as we saw in the conclusion of Ruin and Rising, but sadly, the nation is still in turmoil. As King Nikolai struggles to keep his kingdom from tearing itself apart again before old rifts can even heal, he is also dealing with a terrible secret that can threaten everything he has ever built. A darkness has made itself at home within him, and it is growing stronger every day, making Nikolai fear for himself, his friends, and his people. With the help of those closest to him, he devises a plan to travel abroad to find a way to banish his curse, while putting a double on the throne to allay suspicions of his true whereabouts.

Meanwhile, following the events of Crooked Kingdom, Nina has made her way to Fjerda in her grief to seek out more Grisha. It is a difficult mission, for those who have the art of matter manipulation are still mistrusted and hunted down and killed, but Nina manages to find a promising young recruit in a wild region of the country full of mysteries and secrets.

In the months leading up to the publication of King of Scars, I remember stumbling upon an interview with Bardugo where she admitted she never planned on writing a book about Nikolai—and honestly, I wish she hadn’t. I know I’m being harsh, but I really did not enjoy his sections of the book (which is most of it) at all. Nothing against his character—I liked him very much in the original Grisha trilogy—but I found his storyline here incredibly dull and disjointed. And I may catch some flak for this, but I am so over the Darkling. Actually, I was never into him to begin with, never having understood the appeal for such an irredeemable monster who has done such abusive, horrible things. So it annoyed me a bit when I came across many sections of this story that felt like blatant fan service for the character, what with the entire cult that worshiped the Darkling and saw him as some kind of saint. It just left a real bad taste in my mouth.

Fortunately, the other storylines fared much better. Although Nina’s mission took a while to take off, I think her arc was the most interesting from an emotional standpoint. She goes through so many different feelings and inclinations on this journey, and I liked that it dealt with everything from loss to love. Her sections also introduced some of the best new characters, including Hanne, whom Nina forms a deep bond with by the end of the novel. And speaking of new characters, there’s Isaak—poor, poor Isaak…though strangely enough, I think his POV was my favorite of all. Between the slogging parts of both Nikolai and Nina’s storylines, Isaak’s role was like a shining beacon of humor and surprises.

On the whole though, King of Scars really could have been better. As it is now, my feelings are ambivalent, and I’m only glad I didn’t go into this one with hyped up expectations or I might have been terribly disappointed. The thing is, the first half of the book was just sooooo slow. During this time, I kept on asking myself these questions that had no clear answers—like, where is the main conflict? Or, what am I supposed to be caring about? It wasn’t until much later that I started getting an idea, and considering this one clocks in at more than five hundred pages, that’s a lot to demand from your readers. I also don’t recommend tackling this one until you’ve read all the main novels of both series that came before. The narrative does make a valiant attempt at rehashing some of the world’s previous events, but it was neither here nor there, and all it did was probably slow the plot down further.

But I did also say the book had its moments, and I stand by that. There was lots of excitement in the ending, as each storyline comes to a head. While it might not have been enough to increase my overall regard for King of Scars, the concluding sections injected some much-needed energy into what I thought was a pretty mediocre novel. And another silver lining? The ending made me feel much more confident in the next book in this duology, which I do plan on reading. I still love Bardugo and her Grishaverse, and despite the hitches, I’m optimistic that things will get back on track.

Audiobook Comments: I listen to a lot of YA in audio, enough that over time I have developed a list of favorite narrators that I know will never disappoint. Lauren Fortgang is one of them; I loved her performance on King of Scars as well as her work on all the other Grisha audiobooks, so to me she is the voice of this series. In fact, listening to this in audio might have helped me finished the book because I probably would have stalled on the slower parts had I read the print.

YA Weekend: Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

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

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR (February 26, 2019)

Length: 432 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Wow, Four Dead Queens was pretty great, and if you’ve followed my reviews for a while, you probably know that’s not praise I bestow on YA too lightly, especially when it comes to debuts. Then again, it’s not often that I encounter a YA debut that completely takes me by surprise, which immediately made this one special—and I loved that it didn’t turn out the way I expected.

First of all, this story is really more of murder mystery—but with a twist. And there’s not much more I can say about that without spoiling the plot, but suffice it to say, it made things very interesting indeed. The book’s title refers to the four queens that rule the nation of Quadara, so named because it is divided into four quadrants, each boasting its own unique culture and specialties. Each queen is closely linked to the respective quadrant that she rules, governing the citizens within it with the help of a personal advisor. Queens are sequestered in their palace, never allowed to leave, and the only through death or abdication could they pass on their rule to an heir, who must be a daughter of their blood.

But what happens when a queen dies without an heir? This is the problem Quadara currently faces, with four queens on the throne who have yet to produce female issue—that anyone knows of, at least. And now they are being systematically targeted by a mysterious assassin, who seems bent on destroying the very foundation of the realm and its traditions.

Meanwhile in the Concord, a central area where the four sections of Quadara come together, a plucky thief named Keralie has unwitting stumbled upon a find of a lifetime. However, no great treasure ever comes without its dangers, which our hapless protagonist soon learns when the comm disks she’d managed to intercept are revealed to contain records of how all four queens are brutally murdered. Together with Varin, the messenger she originally stole her bounty from, Keralie must trace the origin and path of comm disks to discover the identity of those conspiring against Quadara and stop their plot before it’s too late.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Four Dead Queens was the story, which isn’t always the strongest aspect of a YA novel. There’s a tendency in this genre to retread common plot tropes, and for me, those books usually end up in the forgettable pile after a few months. Astrid Scholt’s debut, however, was different. While political machinations and threat of death at court are certainly not new ideas, the author chose a very bold and unique way to frame these themes in her novel, and only time will tell if her ambitious move pays off, but it sure worked wonders for yours truly. I loved how the main plot was told through Keralie’s eyes, but that the queens also got a chance to tell their side of the story. And even though more POVs often lead to pacing problems and confusion, I didn’t think that was the case here. In fact, I felt their queens’ part in it only added to the overall depth of the narrative, providing details in a way that wouldn’t have been quite as interesting or effective had they been revealed any way else.

The world-building was also fascinating, even if it wasn’t perfect. While I liked the idea of the four quadrants of Quadara being separate and different culturally and ideologically—e.g. Toria values intellect and education, Ludia values pleasure and entertainment, Archia values the natural world and is inclined towards a simpler lifestyle, and Eonia values logic, science, and technology—none of it really makes sense on a deeper level, and the systems in which they operate are superficial to the point of being absurd. Thankfully, the bulk of this story takes place within the palace and doesn’t venture much beyond, or I probably would have taken greater issue with this facile, all-or-nothing approach to world-building. One must simply accept this is the way of Quadara, and that somehow everything miraculously runs smoothly despite little to no explanation into how inter-quadrant relationships work or what the queens actually do to govern their country.

There were a few other minor issues, mostly related to how time was presented in this story because of the way it was written, but they weren’t enough to detract from my overall enjoyment. The overarching plot was really the main drive behind the novel, which kept me engaged and turning the pages. All in all, I thought the plot of Four Dead Queens was a refreshing change from a lot of the typical YA I’ve been reading as of late, and I found the characters and the mystery entertaining. It’s also a standalone that ties up quite nicely, but even though there will be no sequel to anticipate, that doesn’t mean I won’t be looking forward to Astrid Scholt’s future projects with interest. She’s got my attention now, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for what she writes next.

Friday Face-Off: Abandoned Buildings

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:

“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.”
a cover featuring ABANDONED BUILDINGS

Mogsy’s Pick:

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Behold Newcago – the setting of Steelheart, the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s YA superhero trilogy. Built upon the metallic ruins of the city formerly known as Chicago, what’s left is a landscape made up of completely solid steel after a High Epic named Steelheart went bonkers and transformed everything around him with his superpowers. And just as I expected, this post-apocalyptic dystopian’s covers are rife with imagery depicting abandoned buildings and other defunct structures. Let’s check them out now:

From left to right, top to bottom:
Delacorte Press (2013) – Orion Books (2013) – Ember (2014)

French Edition (2015) – Danish Edition (2015) – German Edition (2016)

Polish Edition (2015) – Portuguese Edition (2016) – Russian Edition (2015)

Slovak Edition (2014) – Greek Edition (2016) – Czech Edition (2015)

Italian Edition (2014) –Dutch Edition (2016) – Thai Edition (2015)

 

Chinese Edition (2014) – Bulgarian Edition (2013) – Indonesian Edition (2016)

Winner:

So many covers, and representing such a wide range of styles and themes! Many of them aren’t half bad either, making it very difficult to choose my favorite this week. But maybe it’s my current mood, or just the cold, grey and drab weather outside right now, but I find myself repeatedly drawn back to the dark, moody atmosphere of the 2015 Danish edition. I also love the simple yet powerful effect of the sepia tones and just the stark drama of the crumbling ruins captured in this image.

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