Thriller Thursday: The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter

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

The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Thriller, Suspense

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Minotaur Books (May 25, 2021)

Length: 288 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Less a mystery thriller and more of a suspenseful character study, The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter is like a cautionary tale about how seemingly well-adjusted people can in fact be hiding a batshit crazy version of themselves beneath a façade of kindness and normalcy. It’s what made this book so creepy, especially considering the protagonist is something of an expert on creating illusions and presenting only the best sides of a subject. For you see, Delta Dawn is a professional photographer, specializing in family portraits and events. It’s her job to capture perfect memories for her upper crust clients, even if it is all a lie. After all, in her line of work, some post-production editing is always to be expected. The real magic happens later in her studio, where lighting effects can be manipulated, flaws erased with software, and frowns and tears transformed into smiles and laughter with just a few clicks of a button. It’s one of the reasons why Delta’s services are so highly-sought after by the elite families of New York City—everyone wants what she’s selling, a version of themselves they wish were real.

So when Delta was hired to photograph the Straub’s daughter Natalie, she was unfazed by the pomp and pageantry surrounding the eleven-year-old’s birthday party. However, that was before she became enchanted by the family’s gorgeously styled house as well as the sophistication, beauty, and elegance of the Straubs themselves. Fritz and Amelia Straub are both architects, and Delta is impressed by their understanding of lighting and use of clean lines in the design of their own home. With them, she also feels a kindred spirit and can’t help but be drawn to the couple. Sensing an opportunity, Delta volunteers to be their babysitter, giving her an excuse to get closer and a reason to be alone in their home once Natalie is asleep. Before long, Delta is dreaming of what it would be like to be fully inserted into the Straubs’ lives, imagining herself as Amelia’s best friend or Fritz’s mistress, going as far as to photoshop herself into their pictures in rather, um, compromising positions in some cases. And then, she finds out that Amelia is desperate to have a second child but is struggling with fertility issues. This gives Delta an idea, one that takes her to a whole new level of obsession and derangement as she develops a plan which would ensure her a permanent place in the Straubs’ lives.

Believe it or not, all this is just scratching the surface. Make no mistake, Delta is a deeply disturbed and dangerous woman, even if she doesn’t show it in any kind of overt or violent way. Like I said, it’s what made The Photographer such a hair-raisingly uncomfortable read, because had we not been inside Delta’s head, there would have been no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary. While she might seem like your average everyday sane person, her public face or what she chooses to present to the rest of the world is about as authentic as the photos she takes for her high society clients–that is to say, not at all. The reader learns very quickly to doubt everything she tells us, leaving one to guess what might be real and what might be pure fabrication.

Delta herself is a complicated puzzle, the kind of character who gives rise to sick fascination and curiosity. You will feel plenty of rage and disgust at her for the things she does and says, there’s no doubt about that. The woman has no sense of respect for boundaries, crossing the lines of propriety again and again while hiding behind a façade of selflessness and friendship. She lies, she manipulates, she obfuscates. Still, as misguided as she is, there’s no denying the conviction of her actions or the pure desperation behind her desire to be a part of the Straubs’ lives. Her devotion to Amelia and Fritz is frighteningly real, and it’s also very sad, because one gets the sense that she is the way she is because her own existence is so empty, she feels the need to fill the void with something, anything. Plus, in spite of yourself, you might even come to admire her sheer audacity or have your mind blown by the lengths she will go to get what she wants. She is calculating and also patient, a dangerous combo.

The Straubs are also interesting here, because the author certainly did not intend for you to feel too sorry for them. Amelia, Fritz, and Natalie are written to be more in line with your typical domestic suspense and psychological thriller family—perfect on the outside, but in reality, everything is falling apart. As Amelia spirals out of control from her own poisonous fixation with having another child, the daughter she already has is neglected and swept aside. It’s heartbreaking, really. And in fact, Delta’s single most redeeming quality may be her genuine affection for Natalie and her awareness that what Amelia is doing to the young girl is wrong.

In sum, The Photographer is a very different kind of psychological thriller. Sure, you might have to overlook a few minor plot holes or suspend your disbelief here or there, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s not such a bad deal considering the amount of entertainment you’ll be getting. There are also no huge twists, mainly because a story like this doesn’t need any. Believe me, Delta herself is enough to contend with, her unpredictable psyche and mercurial moods keeping the reader on their toes, which guarantees never a dull moment. I blew through this book, which kept me glued to the pages—exactly what I wanted.

Waiting on Wednesday 05/26/21

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

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher (April 26, 2022 by Tor Books)

The release of Nettle & Bone is still so far away, but I’m always excited to see a new T. Kingfisher book. Start the countdown now!

“With her signature mix of the grim and the delightful, award-winning author T. Kingfisher takes the old bones of fantasy and fairytale and makes them into something entirely new in this enchanting adventure.

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.”

#WyrdAndWonder Fantasy 5 Tuesday: Training School

Back in November I ran a series of posts called “Sci-5 Tuesdays” to celebrate Sci-Fi Month, so for Wyrd & Wonder, I thought it would be fun to do something similar to highlight some of the fantasy tropes and themes that I find simply irresistible! In the last few years, I’ve also been fortunate to read some wonderful new books in the genre, so to give them some extra attention, for each Tuesday’s topic I will also be featuring five titles that I recently enjoyed.

For our final week, we are looking at the TRAINING SCHOOL trope, a perennial favorite of mine! Whether it’s a school of magic for young wizards or a military institute where fledging heroes and heroines go to get beaten up and build character, fantasy writers and readers appear obsessed with academia!

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War is the story of Rin, a war orphan who was adopted into an opium-running peasant family from a poor southern province of Nikara. Life was hard, but tolerable—that is, until they tried to marry her off to a man three times her age. A girl like her has few other options, however; but Rin is determined not to become some fat merchant’s bed slave, surprising everyone when she decides to study for the Keju imperial examinations and ends up acing them to get the top score in the province. An achievement like this automatically gets her into Sinegard, the empire’s foremost academy for military and combat training, and more importantly for Rin, it also gives her a way out of her arranged marriage and a reason to finally leave her old life behind. But as it turns out, Sinegard is no easy place for a poor southern girl, where the student body is mostly made up children of the Nikan Warlords and elites. To earn an apprenticeship, Rin must work harder than everyone else in the first year to prove her worth. Eventually though, the school’s eccentric Lore master agrees to take her on, recognizing in her a deadly potential. Under Jiang’s tutelage, Rin begins to learn of secret histories and the lost art of communing with the gods, beginning her journey to master the near-mythological forces of shamanism. (Read the full review…)

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister introduces us to the icebound world of Abeth, populated by people who descend from four main “tribes”: the Gerant, distinguished by their great size and strength; the Hunska, dark-eyed and dark haired, capable of great speed; the Marjal, who possess the ability to tap into the lesser magics; and finally the Quantal, who are gifted with the ability to work greater magics and enter a state known as “walking the Path”. Children who manifest even a single talent characterized by any of these four tribes are highly sought after by various institutions from churches to academies, and those who display two or three can even be worth more than their weight in gold. Across the land, children are given away or sold if they show potential, which is how protagonist Nona Grey ends up traveling in a cage along with a dozen other boys and girls her age, being carted off to a prospective buyer. But things don’t exactly work out for Nona. At the age of eight, she finds herself facing the hangman’s noose for committing savage attack on a member of a noble family. However, just before her execution can take place, she is rescued by the abbess of Sweet Mercy, who whisks Nona away to her convent where young girls are trained to be fighters. There, Nona flourishes as a novice and learns the ways of the sisters, becoming especially adept in the arts of combat because of her Hunska blood. (Read the full review…)

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education takes place in Scholomance, a school for magically gifted children. Galadriel “El” Higgins is the main character of this tale. Before she was born, her father had died while protecting her pregnant mother at their graduation ceremony, where both of them had been seniors facing their final challenge—a battle against a swarm of maleficaria, or “mals”, which are monsters that routinely break into the school to devour unwary students. El’s mother had brought her to her father’s family after she was born, hoping for love and support, but instead receives a dire warning. El has an affinity for dark magic, and one day, she is foretold to bring destruction and ruin to the world’s magical enclaves. Having something like that over your head can be rough, and not surprisingly, El grows up to be a rather cynical and surly young woman. Herself now a student at Scholomance, she has poured her full attention into her studies. Everyone who has heard about the prophecy has wisely decided to stay far away—all except another student named Orion Lake. A promising wizard and talented monster slayer in his own right, Orion has apparently made it his personal mission to rescue El from all mal attacks, not realizing he is spoiling all her carefully laid plans. With graduation fast approaching, El has no choice but to alter her tactics, overcoming her disdain for relationships in order to form some new alliances. With this year’s crop of mals especially strong, vicious, and hungry, there will be no surviving the gauntlet without help. (Read the full review…)

The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst

The Queen of Blood introduces us to the world where humans and nature spirits coexist in a state of precarious equilibrium. Spirits are destructive forces, but they are also one with the natural world, and without them there would be no rain, no fire, no life. So humans have learned to adapt. In Aratay, a Queen holds control over all the spirits and protects her people from harm. To choose a Queen, girls with an affinity to sense and manipulate the spirits are identified and invited to an academy to learn how to use their powers. The most promising students are chosen to become potential heirs, so that in the event that the Queen dies there will always be a successor to take her place and keep the spirits in line. Sometimes though, there are accidents. The book begins with a spirit attack on a village, which leaves many dead. Our protagonist, a young girl named Daleina was only able to save herself and her family when her powers manifested during the massacre. That ultimately leads her to the academy, where unfortunately, she discovers that her abilities are actually very weak compared to the many more talented girls in her class. But as more villages fall prey to spirits each year, it is becoming clear that the current Queen is starting to lose control. Something very bad is coming, but will Daleina and her fellow aspirants be powerful or prepared enough to confront it? (Read the full review…)

The Harp of Kings by Juliet Marillier

The Harp of Kings follows three characters—siblings Liobhan and Brocc, and their companion Dau. Our trio of young protagonists are initiates on Swan Island, a society that trains warrior and spies. Eager to prove themselves and become full-fledged members, they are thus elated when their superiors tap the three of them for a top secret mission to retrieve an artifact known as the Harp of Kings, so named because it would be ceremonially required at the naming of the next monarch. Without the harp, which has gone missing, it is feared that the people will not accept their new king, so it is of utmost importance that the instrument is found before the upcoming coronation. But as it turns out, their mission might not be so simple. Assigned new names and backgrounds, they must go undercover and adopt their new identities completely as not to arouse suspicion. Sister and brother team Liobhan and Brocc, both being talented musicians, are tasked to pose as traveling bards, but Dau, their fellow trainee, is given the role of a mute stable boy. Together, they travel to meet Prince Rodan, the one who would soon be crowned king, only to find he’s a boorish little cad that nobody likes. Worse, as our characters learn about the harp and the history of the royal family, they come to realize there may be more otherworldly forces at play. (Read the full review…)

#WyrdAndWonder Novella Review: The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

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

The Album of Dr. Moreau by Daryl Gregory

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Paranormal, Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Tordotcom

Length: 176 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mr. Gregory, please do not ever apologize for writing ridiculous mashups! In fact, I sincerely hope you will decide to write more of them. I have been a fan of the author for a long time, and knowing that The Album of Dr. Moreau is the latest from the same creative mind who brought us such unforgettable quirky reads like Spoonbenders, Harrison Squared, and We Are All Completely Fine, I just knew this one was going to offer some unexpected twists!

In this story, readers have the pleasure of meeting the WyldBoyZ, a hit pop music boyhand made up of genetically engineered human-animal hybrid singers Bobby the ocelot (“the cute one”), Matt the bat (“the funny one”), Tim the pangolin (“the shy one”), Devin the bonobo (“the romantic one”), and Tusk the elephant (“the smart one”).  They have just wrapped up the last night of their musical tour which happens to be in Las Vegas, and true to form, the “boyz” have decided to celebrate by throwing a party that’s out of this world.

The next morning, however, housekeeping knocks on the door to Bobby’s room and enters to find the ocelot groggy and confused, his fur drenched in blood. Next to him in the bed are the remains of the band’s manager Dr. M torn to shreds. Before long, the police are on scene, led by LVPD Detective Luce Delgado who wishes she hadn’t been assigned to the case. Her own nine-year-old daughter is a huge fan of the WyldBoyZ, and Luce knows that once all this gets out, little Melanie would be heartbroken. It’s bad enough that any of the members could be a suspect in the killing, but all of them also have a motive—after all, it’s no secret how Dr. M treated them, and the rumor was that they were about to break up. No matter how things play out, it’s looking like the end for the WyldBoyZ.

Still, there is a murder to be solved and Luce is too good a detective to let anything get in the way of her job. Together with her partner Mickey Banks, they start putting together a list of persons of interest to interview, which is not limited to the band members. There’s a rather huge list of party attendees to comb through, which includes the WyldBoyZ’s extensive crew of roadies as well as a number of megafans who were lucky enough to be invited, and of course, there’s also Dr. M’s wife herself, the inscrutable Mrs. Marilyn Bendix. Any of them could have done it, and Luce must race the clock to get to the bottom of the mystery before the case is taken out of her hands.

Does this plot sound completely weird and absurd? Yes, but hear me out—The Album of Dr. Moreau is a legit locked room murder mystery featuring a classic detective storyline structure complete with red herrings, complex clues, and of course plenty of suspenseful surprises. Luce Delgado is an empathetic but also intelligent and tough-as-nails kickass female sleuth I was happy to see on the case, as her fierce tenacity is matched only by her sense of decency and compassion.

And boy, was this book funny! As a preteen in the 90s, I was sort of at the heart of the boyband craze, and while my musical interests ran more towards alternative rock and grunge, back then my CD tower also contained its fair share of albums from the likes of The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Westlife, Take That, and—oh heck, you get the picture. Looking back, it was definitely a pop culture phenomenon, one which Gregory does not hesitate to exploit or poke fun at mercilessly for this novella, and for that I am grateful because it resulted in lots of laughs. For you see, while the WyldBoyZ may be a completely unique and original creation, they are similar to their inspirations in that the band’s music is only a small part of their success, with the arguably more important part being made up of the group’s carefully managed image. With his sharp sense of humor but also what’s clearly a deep affection, the author pays homage to these defining stereotypes and idiosyncratic characteristics of 90s boybands using witty references, clever puns, and other little bonuses and easter eggs related to that style of music and their fanbase at the time. Just take a look at the chapter headings to see what I mean.

Finally, this being a book by Daryl Gregory, you can of course expect his signature flair for the uncanny. While the story is a mystery at its heart, there are also several plots exploring its more supernatural aspects, not to mention a few nods to the original H.G. Wells classic The Island of Dr. Moreau whose “Beast Folk” provided much of the basis for the members of WyldBoyZ. Add in some weightier social topics and emotional content, and you have yourself a compelling and thought-provoking read.

In sum, I’m usually very picky with novellas, but The Album of Dr. Moreau impressed me in that it was the perfect length to deliver this story’s main ideas and themes. Check it out, and just be sure to have a couple hours uninterrupted reading time before you do, because I promise you’ll not want to stop once you start.

#WyrdAndWonder YA Weekend: Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas

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

Lost in the Never Woods by Aiden Thomas

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Swoon Reads | Macmillan Audio (March 23, 2021)

Length: 384 pages | 12 hrs and 14 mins

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Narrator: Avi Roque

My YA burnout continues, and I think that’s where a lot of my reluctance to pick up even books with stories that look interesting to me, but I thought for sure I couldn’t go wrong with a dark Peter Pan retelling. Well, guess I was wrong. It’s not that Lost in the Never Woods was a bad story, but it was completely unremarkable, and it just doesn’t stand out or feel unique enough.

Wendy Darling has just turned eighteen. It has been five years since she and her brothers Michael and John went into the woods near their house, but only Wendy walked out months later, with no memory of what happened or any idea where the boys could be. Her amnesia and confusion were chalked up to trauma, and despite the efforts of the authorities, no traces of her brothers were ever found.

But now, children in their local community are going missing again, bringing Michael and John’s disappearance back into the public eye. The renewed interest in the case has put a strain on the family, especially on Wendy, who retreats into her artwork in an attempt to forget the past. When she and her brothers were younger, their mother always told them stories about Peter Pan, and lately Wendy has been sketching the boy who never grew up, imagining in her head what he might look like. The last thing she expected though, was to actually meet him in the flesh. But that is exactly what happens, as Wendy drives home one night and almost runs over an unconscious boy lying in the middle of the road. Rushing out to help, she is shocked when she sees his face clearly and realizes it’s the same one that she has been drawing in her sketchbook for months.

Like I said, Lost in the Never Woods may begin with a good hook, but unfortunately the spark itself never materializes. We spend way too much time establishing Wendy’s life at the hospital volunteering with her best friend, sitting through a bunch of contrived and canned conversations between the two teenage girls. Things start looking up a bit once Peter enters the picture and readers get to catch the first few hints on a possible villain, but then they slow to crawl again as we fall right back into autopilot and continue down the path of mediocrity. The romance is completely paint-by-numbers, and Peter’s cutesy pseudo-charming demeanor also felt really cringey and forced at times.

The ending was just about the only thing I liked, because with those revelations the story came through on its promise of darkness. In fact, when the truth finally hit, the utter devastation of it was kind of jarring, given the overall lighter tone of the novel. It’s like, holy crap, the author actually went and did that! Wow and yay! Despite being totally blindsided, I’m still pleased things turned out that way, giving the conclusion its much needed weight and focus.

Of course, whether it was enough to make up for the lackluster parts of the book is another matter. In fact, I think there are some poignant themes in this book, like messages about growing up or the futility of holding on to the negative emotions of the past, but most of it gets lost in the noise of the more banal, melodramatic YA tropes.

It’s too bad, really, because Lost in the Never Woods could have been so much more. Certain aspects of the story and characters just seemed too shallow and unpolished, and I can only truly recommend this for dedicated fans of Peter Pan retellings who may wish to read every single one they can get their hands on. Otherwise, there are probably better ones out there more worthy of your time and attention.

Bookshelf Roundup: 05/22/21: 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!

From the awesome team at Subterranean Press, this week I received The Night and the Music by Lawrence Block, a collection of the author’s Matthew Scudder short stories. Also included in this volume is the story “One Last Night at Grogan’s” which was written especially for this collection.

I’d also like to thank Inkshares for sending me a review copy of Smithy by Amanda Desiree, an epistolary horror novel about a group of researchers attempting to study the psychology of primates by teaching American Sign Language to a gifted chimpanzee. Set in a rundown mansion in the 1970s, in particular, this sentence in the blurb gives me chills: “As the summer deepens and the history of the mansion manifests, the messages signed by their research subject becomes increasingly spectral.” I haven’t read anything from Inkshares from a while, but they always publish good horror, so I’m intrigued!

And thanks also to Minotaur Books for an ARC of The Guilt Trip by Sandie Jones, a suspenseful thriller about three couples arriving at a gorgeous cliff-side villa for a weekend full of adventure and fun. Of course, everyone’s having a great time…until they don’t. This will be my third Sandie Jones novel and I can’t wait to read it! Her thrillers are always a blast.

In the digital haul, with thanks to Penguin Audio for an ALC of Shutter by Melissa Larsen, a mystery thriller about a young woman who agrees to star in a filmmaker’s latest project, but soon realizes the movie is nothing like she expected.

Reviews

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman (4 of 5 stars)
The Next Wife by Kaira Rouda (3.5 of 5 stars)

What I’ve Been Reading

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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!

Friday Face-Off: The Top Hat

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:

~ a cover featuring a TOP HAT

Mogsy’s Pick:

The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher

Before he wrote A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, C.A. Fletcher AKA Charlie Fletcher also wrote children’s and YA stories, as well as The Oversight trilogy, his first adult fantasy series.  Headquartered in a Neo-Gothic Victorian-like version of London, the Oversight is a secret society that has since dwindled down to a mere five members after a tragedy devastated their numbers thirty years ago. But five, being a sacred number, is enough. Five is all The Oversight needs to keep things running, guarding the borders between the magical and the mundane and protecting the unsuspecting public from the nasty things that go bump in the night.

But creatures from the Otherworld aren’t the only threats. Danger comes in the form of more earthly foes as well, from sinister factions to witch-hunters who won’t rest until they see the last remnants of the Oversight destroyed. When a young girl with special abilities shows up at the Oversight safehouse, Sara Falk wants badly to believe she has found a fellow Glint and potential new recruit in Lucy Harker. However, it soon becomes clear that Lucy’s appearance is part of a more sinister and unsettling plot to strike at the Oversight. The question is…just whose plot is it?

From left to right:
Orbit (2014) – Polish Edition (2017) – Persian Edition (2018)

Winner:

Okay, let’s see what we’ve got here! Orbit edition…pretty boring. Polish edition…while I’ll admit it’s been quite some time since I’ve read the book and I can’t recall all its details, why they saw fit to put some random vagrant on the cover, I just don’t know. And Persian edition…it’s pretty enough, but such a shame that it’s all so hazy. Still, I guess I’ll go with it.

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

#WyrdAndWonder Book Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

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

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Blacktongue

Publisher: Tor (May 25, 2021)

Length: 416 pages

Author Information: Twitter

The Blacktongue Thief was one eccentric little fantasy novel, and I mean that in the best way possible! Now, I’ve followed Christopher Buehlman for a while, and I’m a big fan of his horror novels. This one is my fifth book by the author, his first fantasy, and like so many others I was curious to see what he could bring to the genre.

The story follows Kinch Na Shannack, a blacktongue thief who belongs to the Takers Guild in every sense of the word. They trained him, taught him everything he knew, and now he owes them for all that education, an obligation marked by a tattoo on his face where it will remain until his debt is repaid. Every day he gets closer to his goal, doing jobs for the Guild, until one day he picks the wrong mark and ends up being slapped down by Galva, a warrior and veteran of the goblin wars, sworn to the goddess of death. She is on a quest too, searching for her missing queen to restore to her rightful place on the throne.

Before long, Kinch finds himself embarking on a shared quest with Galva, instructed by the Guild to follow her and learn more about her mission. But there will be many dangers along the way, including mysterious forces that will want to stop or hinder them. Kinch himself is desperate to be rid of the Guild, but they are secretive about their motives and when our protagonist eventually finds out the truth, he is left at a crossroads on how to move forward, caught between his loyalties and his desire for freedom.

Without a doubt, your overall impression of The Blacktongue Thief will make or break with the question, “How do you feel about Kinch Na Shannack?” Our protagonist is a smooth-talking rogue with no filter. Not only is his very distinctive voice peppered with bawdy obscenities, lurid metaphors and other creatively crude insults, but his internal thoughts also run about a mile a minute, making the reading experience akin to listening to an overactive child talk about their day, i.e., with lots of tangents, the inability to get to the point any time fast and, of course, an exaggerated and sometimes unreliable narrative. While he’s spewing words like a broken watermain, he’s also prone to burst into song or randomly launch into funny anecdotes to make you laugh. Bottom line, I suppose, you’ll either want to throttle him or give him a fist bump.

Thankfully, I fell into the latter group. Despite some of his more exasperating traits, Kinch is also a clever, resourceful and persevering thief, and I enjoyed his smart-ass sense of humor. Eventually though, you must learn to appreciate some of his more admirable habits, or else getting through this novel with your patience intact will be a challenge. For you see, not only do you have to contend with the larger-than-life personality of the main character, the haphazard nature of his narration also prevents the plot of The Blacktongue Thief from following any kind of conventional structure or storytelling. At times, the story is little more than a string of action sequences punctuated by moments where the characters trade quick barbs and snarky one-liners, well executed as they may be. Other times, it can be a bit like watching all the episodes of a TV show out of order. The writing doesn’t do much handholding, leaving the reader to work certain things out for themselves, and while you may end up appreciating this in later parts of the book, the earlier sections might result in some frustration.

Like I said, this was a very eccentric novel, whose elements might not jive as well for those who prefer more traditional fantasy stories or a more structured narrative. Being a bit off-the-wall, though, does have its advantages. The world-building was impressive, straddling the line between quirky and gritty. The many different cultures, deities, traditions, and magic systems are unique and interesting, though it probably wouldn’t hurt if the author had provided just a bit more historical insight or explanation into some of these aspects, just to add some context.

Bottom line, being something of an oddball, The Blacktongue Thief might work for you or it might not, but I personally enjoyed it. I came to this book as a fan of Christopher Buehlman so I already knew he could tell a good story, but now I know he can also spin a bold and funny fantasy yarn that’s one of kind, and I’m sure this one will gain him even more followers.

Waiting on Wednesday 05/19/21

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

Cackle by Rachel Harrison (October 5, 2021 by Berkley)

As you may recall, last year I reviewed Rachel Harrison’s debut The Return and liked it a lot, and I’m excited to hear she’ll have a new book out later this year, and it sounds awesome!

“A darkly funny, frightening novel about a young woman learning how to take what she wants from a witch who may be too good to be true, from the author of The Return.

All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. The people are all friendly and warm. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation.

Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. That’s how Sophie lives. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, wanting to spend more and more time with her, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. And like, okay. There are some things. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?”

#WyrdAndWonder Fantasy Five Tuesday: We’re Going On A Quest

Back in November I ran a series of posts called “Sci-5 Tuesdays” to celebrate Sci-Fi Month, so for Wyrd & Wonder, I thought it would be fun to do something similar to highlight some of the fantasy tropes and themes that I find simply irresistible! In the last few years, I’ve also been fortunate to read some wonderful new books in the genre, so to give them some extra attention, for each Tuesday’s topic I will also be featuring five titles that I recently enjoyed.

In Week 3, we’ll be looking at QUESTS, arguably the most timeless, classic trope in fantasy literature. These often begin with a goal that our hero (or group of heroes) will need to fulfill, usually involving a long journey through multiple exotic locations thus allowing plenty of opportunities for “side quests” or other mini-adventures along the way.

The Bard’s Blade by Brian D. Anderson

It’s always good to get back to the basics. Brian D. Anderson reminds us all that an epic fantasy novel isn’t required to be filled with sweeping battles, an indecipherable morass of politics and magical systems, or enough characters to fill a small village in order to be a hit with readers. Sometimes simple is best, even though finding that sweet spot between originality and conventionality can be tricky. However, I think Anderson manages to strike the right balance. In this opening volume of The Sorcerer’s Song, we meet Mariyah, the daughter of a wine merchant, as well as her betrothed, a talented musician named Lem. They two of them live in Vylari, a peaceful realm magically protected by a barrier hiding it from Lamoria, the dangerous world beyond. One night, Lem returns home to find a stranger claiming to have come from Lamoria, which shouldn’t be possible, as no one should be able to breach the magical wards. Except, as Lem later learns, it’s actually happened once before. Lem’s mother had purportedly passed over and come back, bearing him in her womb. Rocked by these revelations, Lem is driven by the need to know the truth of his origins as well as to fulfill his quest on this new path destiny has set for him. To stop a rising darkness and protect those he loves, he will need to leave Vylari—and, as much as it breaks his heart, Mariyah. (Read the full review…)

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Told through multiple perspectives, Black Sun takes place in a world inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas. As the winter solstice descends upon the holy city of Tova, all the members of the Sky Made clans under the newly appointed Sun Priest would normally be preparing for the upcoming celebrations. But this year, the event would be coinciding with the solar eclipse, a sign of great disturbance. In Carrion Crow, disgraced among the clans, a fanatical group of renegades believe that it is a sign of the imminent return of their god who will take vengeance upon those who stripped them of their power generations ago. Meanwhile in the city of Cuecola, exiled far from home, a Teek captain named Xiala finds herself taking on an unusual assignment. The job sounded easy enough when she agreed to it, involving the transport of a single passenger across the seas to Tova. As it turns out though, the passenger in question is a strange and unnerving young man—blinded, scarred, and rumored to have the ability to speak to crows. Called Serapio, his very presence makes Xiala and the crew uneasy, added to the fact that their benefactor has stipulated a nearly impossible deadline for their journey through treacherous waters. Beautifully crafted and filled with lusciously detailed descriptions of exotic locales and memorable characters, Black Sun is as close to perfection as you can get. These are the kinds of stories we live for, richly woven adventures that whisk us away to imaginative worlds full of complex magic. (Read the full review…)

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

Taking place in a fantasy world inspired by history and culture of feudal Japan, Shadow of the Fox is told through the eyes of three characters from very different walks of life. First we have Yumeko, a half-kitsune girl who was raised by monks at the Silent Winds temple. Her whole life, she has been taught she must hide her true nature or else she would be hunted down for her part yokai heritage. However, one day her home comes under attack by demons trying to steal a powerful scroll hidden in the temple. Yumeko, the only survivor of the massacre, manages to escape with the precious artifact, vowing to do all she can to transport it somewhere safe. Almost right away, she encounters a lone samurai working on behalf of the mysterious Shadow Clan, who has also been tasked to retrieve the scroll for his masters. Kage Tatsumi is a demon hunter, who’s only following his orders. When he meets the girl named Yumeko who claims to have fled from the ruined temple and knows where the scroll has been taken for safekeeping, he has no choice but to follow her and keep her safe while she leads him to his goal (not knowing, of course, that what he seeks has been on her the entire time). Like a roleplaying game, our party of heroes combine their knowledge and skills to solve the problem, and as things took a turn towards a quest narrative, these became wonderufl opportunties to cement their alliances. (Read the full review…)

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Steeped in rich history and mythology, the world was Starless was a delight to discover and experience. Deep in the deserts of Zarkhoum there lives a brotherhood of warrior-priests who dedicate themselves to the god Pahrkun the Scouring Wind. It is here that we find Khai, identified as the Princess Zariya’s “shadow”, destined to be her protector. But being chosen by their god also meant that Khai was entrusted to the Brotherhood of Pahrkun to raise and train as a warrior—and there was just one major complication. While the solution ultimately presented itself in the form of an age-old desert tradition, it meant that Khai had to grow up without knowing an important truth. Split into several parts, the story first begins in the desert, where readers get to catch a glimpse of Khai’s early years growing up within the Brotherhood. The second part of the book opens up the world a bit more, introducing readers to the court of the royal family. Khai also finally gets to meet Princess Zariya for the first time, making a shift from a monastery full of men to close quarters dominated by women. Finally, the story shifts gears almost completely for the last part of the book, throwing readers headfirst into a more traditional fantasy quest narrative which puts more emphasis on action and adventure. Most impressive of all is that Jacqueline Carey was able to pull off this powerful, multi-faceted tale in just a single volume. (Read the full review…)

All The Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter

Set in the 19th century on the Irish coast, the story follows protagonist Miren who is last of the “true” O’Malleys, an old family which has long held sway over the local community. But even as their wealth has dwindled over the years and their ancestral home of Hob’s Hallow stands in near ruins, the O’Malley name still much power and influence. For this reason, Miren’s grandmother Aoife has arranged a marriage for her to her cousin Aidan in the hopes of restoring the family’s fortunes. In a twist of fate though, Miren soon discovers a secret revealed in a collection of her late grandfather’s old letters. Growing up, she’d always been told her parents died when she was a baby, which was why she was raised by her grandparents. But now, she has reason to believe her mother and father are still alive, living at a place called Blackwater. No one knows where that might be, but Miren is determined to find it and confront her parents on why they gave her up. Besides, she has no desire to lose her freedom or to stay at Hob’s Hallow—especially once she realizes the awful bargain her ancestors had struck to ensure the O’Malley’s prosperity, and that Aoife wants to Miren and Aidan follow in their footsteps. With the sudden death of her grandmother, Miren realizes she has no reason left to stay, and so she makes her daring escape. What follows is a beautifully written tale, with as much excitement as there is danger and unknown wonders in this fairy tale inspired adventure. (Read the full review…)