Book Review: Crucible by James Rollins

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

Crucible by James Rollins

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Thriller

Series: Book 14 of Sigma Force

Publisher: William Morrow (January 22, 2019)

Length: 480 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

James Rollins is one of those authors who has been on the periphery of my attention for a while now, and so when I was offered a chance to review his newest Sigma Force novel, I decided to give it a try. Although Crucible is the fourteenth installment of the series and I usually balk at the idea of starting anywhere other than the beginning, I was reassured when I learned that book can be enjoyed as a standalone.

At the University of Coimbra in Portugal, the first test of an advanced artificial intelligence program is abruptly halted when the laboratory in which the experiment is taking place is invaded by a group of armed cultists. All the scientists in the room were slaughtered except for a young researcher named Mara, who had been the one to develop the powerful AI known as Eve. Frightened and alone, Mara has no idea why her lab was targeted, but knows that whoever the attackers are, they will stop at nothing until she and her creation are destroyed.

Meanwhile, in Silver Spring, Maryland, Commander Gray Pierce and his friend Monk of Sigma Force return home after a night out on Christmas Eve to find a horrific sight. Gray’s house has been ransacked, and his pregnant girlfriend Seichan is missing. Monk’s wife Kat is found unconscious on the kitchen floor with a serious head wound, and the couple’s young daughters are also gone, stolen away by whoever took Seichan. These mysterious kidnappers seem to believe that Sigma Force is linked to the massacre at the University of Coimbra, leading Gray and Monk to travel to Europe to investigate the possible connection and to try to get their loved ones back. Unfortunately, while Kat may be able to glean some information about their enemies, her injuries have put her into a comatose state. Knowing that his wife would do anything to save their girls, Monk agrees for her to be moved to a state-of-the-art MRI suite at the Princeton Medical Center, where Sigma Force members Lisa Cummings and Painter Crowe endeavor to work round the clock with the neurologists there to unlock the answers in Kat’s brain using cutting edge technology.

As a first-timer to Rollins, the best way I can describe Crucible is a techno-thriller and special ops action/adventure hybrid that blurs the lines between science fiction and reality, somewhat in a similar vein as Michael Crichton or Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. The main thrust behind this novel is the idea that a super artificial intelligence would eventually achieve self-awareness and one of its first orders of business would be protect itself against any kind of intervention from its human creators. However, the fear that a global catastrophe or even human extinction might occur if this happened has not halted the advancements in the AI field, which continue to be developed at an alarming pace.

In Crucible, Mara is the brilliant scientist who created Eve as an AI that would learn, evolve, and grow with empathy—presumably so that it would rethink going all Terminator on us if the program ever broke free from human control. But to the main baddies of this story, who are like the modern incarnation of the Spanish Inquisition, Mara and others like her who mess with the natural order of the world must be purged, as instructed in their venerated treatise, the Malleus Maleficarum, or the “Hammer of Witches”. To my surprise, while inundating us with details of high-tech gadgetry and complex scientific theory, the plot also includes elements that take us back to the seventeenth century for answers buried in the past.

Needless to say, there was a lot going on. Since this was also my first Sigma Force novel, I have no idea if this is standard for these books, but there were times where I felt completely overwhelmed with all the people, places, and things to keep track of. You had Mara on the run with her AI program. Kat in the neurology lab going through the most advanced and experimental neurological treatments. Seichan and the girls trying to stay alive in their kidnappers’ custody. Gray and Monk running all over Europe chasing down the clues to get their family members back. The main antagonists and their connection to secret society tracing back to Medieval Spain. Towards the end, Rollins even threw in some quantum physics and time travel for good measure, which I felt was a bit much. But again, this might be par for the course with these books, and for all I know, Crucible is simply serving up more of what fans want.

To its credit though, this book can indeed be enjoyed as a standalone despite the challenges of keeping up with all its moving parts. I felt only slightly disadvantaged when it came to not knowing the characters’ histories, and while I had some problems relating to their motivations and decisions, there was enough background information provided to make me at least understand. In a way, not being familiar with the characters also meant not being able to predict their behavior and actions, which might have actually increased the level of suspense and my enjoyment.

Overall, Crucible was wildly exhilarating, and as a reader coming to James Rollins for the first time, I also found his writing to be wonderfully readable and addictive. I also enjoyed his author’s note at the end describing all the topics he touched upon, revealing how there’s perhaps a lot more truth than fiction in many of the things he writes about. If this is the caliber of action, thrills and suspense I can expect from a Sigma Force novel, then I definitely wouldn’t mind reading another one after this.

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Waiting on Wednesday 02/20/19

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

The Girl the Sea Gave Back by Adrienne Young (September 3, 2019 by Wednesday Books)

It’s rare for me to come across YA debuts I love, so whenever it happens, I take note to remember to pick up the author’s future books. The Girl the Sea Gave Back is the follow-up to Adrienne Young’s Sky in the Deep that I enjoyed so much, and I believe it is a standalone set in the same world.

“For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.

For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again—a home.”

Book Review: Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan

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

Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Lord of the Islands

Publisher: Ace Books (February 19, 2019)

Length: 544 pages

Author Information: Website

Historical fiction writer Angus Donald begins a new epic fantasy series under his pseudonym Angus Macallan, drawing from his vast experience of living and working in Asia to create a world where nations war, rulers scheme, and in the midst of them all, a powerful sorcerer quietly pursues his bloodthirsty quest for the seven ancient artifacts required to destroy the world.

Gates of the Stone is the first novel of the Lord of the Islands series, and there are quite a few names and places to keep track of in this opening volume. Of the handful of key characters, however, the first of these is sixteen-year-old Princess Katerina of the Empire of the Ice-Bear. The story begins with the wedding between her and a foreign lord, but alas, their union is short-lived as the first thing Katerina does after their marriage is consummated is to jam the full length of a dull blade into the base of her husband’s brain. The princess has loftier ambitions than to be the wife of a mere lordling; she would have been heir to the throne of her homeland had her birthright not been snatched away because she was a woman, and she isn’t about to let this slight go unpunished. Murdering her husband and usurping his power was just the beginning; soon she will take her forces on the road to reclaim her inheritance from her traitorous cousin.

Next, we have Jun, a royal heir in his own right to a small idyllic island kingdom where he spends his days in lassitude working on his art and poetry. But all that peace is shattered one day when his home is invaded by an army led by a fiendish sorcerer, who killed Jun’s father and stole the blessed sword of their royal ancestors. Determined to get it back, Jun endeavors to get over his cowardice and joins a crew of unlikely allies to follow the sorcerer’s trail through pirate-infested seas. Then we have Farhan, who beneath his guise as a middle-aged merchant is actually part of a mercenary group with much larger designs. A man of many debts, Farhan also has a lot invested in the current venture, given that it is his only chance to get the creditors off his back. And finally, there’s Mangku, the dark sorcerer searching for the Seven Keys to fulfill his greatest undertaking in blood magic. A native of Laut Besar who has been shunned and beaten down his whole life, he is now one step closer to holding the power that will make the whole world break.

I’ll be honest, Gates of Stone was a novel that took me quite a while to get into. Much of the first half is not exactly what I would call fast-paced, and a lot of the “excitement” generated throughout the story felt very contrived and manufactured. From Katerina’s cold-blooded murder of her husband to the scene where she offers a fantastic sum of money to a drug addict to castrate himself, or the rape and torture that Jun encounters in the slave mines to the cannibalistic tribes that Farhan and his shipwrecked crewmates find on an island—all these examples were written in a way that made me think the author’s main priority was dramatic or sensationalist effect, which admittedly put me off for most of the book. The story obviously deals with a lot of dark and mature topics, yet unfortunately the presentation of many of these themes came across to me as superficial and overly simplistic, such as Katerina’s meteoric rise to power with little to no resistance, or her portrayal as cruel for the sake of being cruel. To be fair, these criticisms are likely the result of my own personal tastes in writing and storytelling style, but there were simply too many of these examples that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

More concerning to me were the POV characters, most of whom I found difficult to connect with because for the first half of the book they were all so two-dimensional with entire personas that could be summed up in a couple lines. It also didn’t help that they were saddled with very unpleasant flaws, and if readers were meant to find these characters distasteful from the start, I must say Macallan might have done his job a little too well. That said, things did start looking up in the second half as he began beef up both plot development and characterization, although I still found the supporting cast (Captain Lodi, Ketut, Ari, etc.) to be more interesting than our three main characters for the most part.

But here’s what I did like: the world-building of Gates of Stone is to die for, featuring a setting inspired by the island traditions and environments of Indonesia along with a slight smattering of influences from other Asian cultures like China and Japan. Macallan names this fictional region the Laut Besar, containing an archipelago in a tropical stretch of ocean teeming with pirates, slavers, and smugglers trafficking a potent narcotic known as obat. It’s ocean-faring adventures galore for those of us who love maritime fantasy; every place the plot takes us to is full of new wonders to discover. In fact, the world-building details were so richly described and vibrant and full of life, I only wished that our main POV characters had been given the same treatment.

Still, while it might seem like I’m being overly generous with my final rating of Gates of Stone considering all my criticisms, I could not bring myself to give it anything less. It’s true I couldn’t get on board with many of the characters, but at the same time, all this latent potential beneath the surface is proving irresistible and making me curious to find out where this story is headed. I also can’t deny that great leaps and bounds were made in the second half of the novel with regards to the plot and character development, which spells great promise for what’s to come in the sequel. As it stands now, I think the author’s first foray into the fantasy genre was an average but solid entry, and subsequent books are probably where the series’ full potential will be found and realized. As such, I’ll be waiting for news of the next volume with interest.

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

Today, the BiblioSanctum is pleased to welcome back Gareth L. Powell, who we’re excited to host again as part of a book tour in anticipation of the release of his new novel, Fleet of Knives! This sequel to Embers of War is the second volume in a three-part science fiction series about a sentient starship called the Trouble Dog, and is described as perfect for fans of Ann Leckie, Alastair Reynolds, and Adrian Tchaikovsky. Being perpetually behind, I am a bit late to this party, but I hope to be reading the first book real soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this guest post by Mr. Powell as he shares with us the process behind creating the Trouble Dog and all that makes this starship special. Published by Titan Books, Embers of War is currently available in stores while Fleet of Knives will be released on February 19th and can be pre-ordered now! Be sure to check it out and visit the other stops on the tour!

CREATING A SENTIENT STARSHIP
by Gareth L. Powell

Of all the characters in my Embers of War trilogy, the one that readers seem to respond to most is the starship Trouble Dog. Although much of the plot focuses on the humans she carries, Trouble Dog plays a decisive role in events. She even narrates part of the story herself. In fact, you could make the argument that she is the novel’s main protagonist.

In science fiction, intelligent starships are nothing new. One of the most famous examples is in Anne McCaffrey’s novel, The Ship Who Sang, in which the eponymous ship’s controlling intelligence is the brain of a disabled child that has been scooped out and inserted into the vessel. This concept was later updated and satirised by M. John Harrison in the novel Light, in which 14-year-old Seria Mau Genlicher escapes her sexually abusive father by having her limbs amputated so she can be inserted into the control matrix of an alien starship. Iain M. Banks wrote about a whole society of humanoids (the “Culture”) living inside ships and habitats that were vastly more intelligent than their inhabitants. And more recently, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice follows the fortunes of a several-thousand-year-old troop carrier that finds its mind suddenly trapped in one frail human body.

What sets the Trouble Dog apart is that she’s not a brain in a jar or a hyper intelligent computer. The organic sections of her brain were grown in a vat, cultured from the harvested stem cells of a dead soldier. They were then integrated with artificial processors and other systems, and, as she was designed to be a warship operating with five sister ships, canine genes were spliced into her DNA in order to enhance her tenacity and sense of loyalty to the pack.

The only problem comes later, when as the result of trauma, human feelings start welling-up from the organic matter and she develops a conscience.

 

Rather than simply write a sassy AI like Eddie in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, I wanted Trouble Dog to be a fully rounded character, every bit as flawed and complex as her human crew. And I think this is what makes her such a fun character to write, and why readers sympathise with her plight. She becomes very relatable as she’s torn between what is expected of her, and what her own nascent morality tells her is right. It’s the old question of nature versus nurture, played out in the head of a killing machine capable of torching a planet. Sometimes she feels it’s easier to give into her conditioning and unleash violence to achieve her goals; other times, she’s disgusted with herself and the things she’s done. And all the while, those canine genes long for her lost brothers and sisters, who she had to abandon when she resigned her commission.

Like Clint Eastwood’s reformed gunslinger in the movie Pale Rider, the Trouble Dog has her share of demons. But will she overcome her propensity for violence? Can she atone for the things she did in the Navy? Will she find a new pack to which to belong?

You’ll have to read the book…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

GARETH L. POWELL is a speculative fiction author from the UK. He has won the BSFA Award for Best Novel and been shortlisted for the Seiun Awards in Japan. His novels and novellas have been published in the UK and US by Solaris, Titan Books, and Tor.com Publishing. His short fiction has appeared in InterzoneClarkesworld, and Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction, and his story ‘Ride The Blue Horse’ was a finalist for the 2015 BSFA Award.

Gareth was born and raised in Bristol, UK, and was once fortunate enough to have Diana Wynne Jones critique one of his early short stories over coffee. Later, he went on to study creative writing under Helen Dunmore at the University of Glamorgan. Gareth has run creative writing workshops and given guest lectures at UK universities, been a guest speaker at the Arvon Foundation in Shropshire, and given talks about creative writing at various literature festivals around the country. His nonfiction book About Writing is an essential field guide for aspiring authors. Gareth has also written for The GuardianThe Irish Times2000 AD, and SFX. He has written scripts for corporate training videos, and is currently at work on a screenplay.

Fleet of Knives, the second book in the Embers of War trilogy is out on February 19th from Titan Books. You can find Gareth on Twitter at: @garethlpowell

YA Weekend: Slayer by Kiersten White

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

Slayer by Kiersten White

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Book 1 of Slayer

Publisher: Simon Pulse (January 8, 2019)

Length: 404 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Well, I had my doubts, but not anymore. In Slayer, Kiersten White has accomplished the formidable feat of writing a novel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe that not only provides a wistful trip down memory lane but also thoughtfully builds upon the existing lore and mythos of the franchise. Since this book technically picks up shortly after the Dark Horse comic book series which served as the show’s canonical eighth season, Buffy fans will likely be the ones to get the most out of it, but still, make no mistake—this is a new chapter in the saga and thus would make for a comfortable entrance even for newcomers.

Our story begins with the introduction to Nina and Artemis, the twin daughters of Merrick Jamison-Smythe who was the first Watcher of Buffy Summers. After their father’s death, the girls’ mother whisked them away to Ireland where the family lived in a castle with a remnant group of Watchers, carrying on their research even though the world has been much changed since all magic went away. In light of those events, the Watchers have begun altering their academy’s curriculum to include more martial training—weapons and hand-to-hand combat, endurance and agility, strategic planning and the like. But unfortunately for Nina, she will never be able to experience any of that. Her mother, an important member of the Council, had ordered that she remain on the sidelines while her sister Artemis was the one chosen to be groomed for Watcher-hood, though in some ways, Nina can’t really take the decision too hard. After all, she abhors violence and has always gravitated more towards the healing arts, as evidenced by her commitment to become a medic.

But over the last two months, Nina has been experiencing some unsettling changes. She has become stronger, her reflexes are faster, and her dreams have started to become filled with strange visions. Concerned that these changes had come immediately after the Seed of Wonder event that broke or weakened all magic, she kept it all to herself, fearing that she was a victim of demonic possession. However, as it turns out, the truth is much more complicated—and to Nina, not much better. Since the Seed’s destruction, no more Slayers could be called, but somehow, in an act of bravery and selflessness, Nina had triggered her innate potential right before the critical moment. Making her the last Slayer. And although this news is welcomed by some members of the Watcher’s Council, it does not please Nina at all. Her father died because of a Slayer. A Slayer ruined her family’s life and practically tore the world asunder because of her recklessness and impertinence. And now, Nina is one too.

I’ll be honest, even though I’ve watched every single episode of Buffy, seen the cheesy movie, and even read all the comics, I do not really consider myself a mega-fan. Along with the Macarena, AOL, and Tamagotchis, it’s just one of those things I left behind in the 90’s and haven’t really given much thought to in years. In a way, coming to Slayer with this equivocal and noncommittal attitude might have helped, because it allowed me to simply sit back and enjoy without the burden of expectation or hype. Not that I wasn’t feeling skeptical at all, but that was mostly over the novel’s concept of bringing in a new Slayer and keeping the Buffyverse relevant.

Still, I should have known that if anyone could pull this off, it would be Kiersten White. I’ve enjoyed her Conqueror’s Saga, which was a historical reimagining of the life of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia if he had been born a girl. While Slayer might seem very different, if you think about it, the writing challenges White had to face in that series, i.e. combining her own ideas with what is known, are kind of similar to the ones she had to tackle here. And I think she did a fantastic job. Her love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer is obvious from the way she wove the details into her story and characters, allowing readers to feel anchored in the Buffy world, not to mention the plentiful references and Easter eggs that call back to some of the best and most memorable moments from the show. At the same time though, what we have here is also completely fresh and different. Sometimes I felt the novel’s “Buffy-ness” keenly, while at other times not at all. In essence, I thought the book straddled that fine line between the old and the new, hitting that sweet spot where the known and unknown come together. It seemed appropriate, considering the author is writing for and about a whole new generation.

Speaking of which, I think Nina has the potential to become a memorable character and a worthy Slayer, though she was kind of wishy-washy and exasperating in this one, enough to grate slightly on my nerves. To be fair, she does get put through the wringer in this book, physically and emotionally. There’s also a lot of resentment and confusion to work out in her past, and much of the story involves Nina being pulled in every direction all at once. But hopefully with a clearer direction going forward, our protagonist will eventually grow into her own.

In sum, I think Kiersten White has something great going here. Slayer will be a treat for Buffy fans but also accessible enough for readers who have no prior knowledge of the show or the characters, as long as you’re willing to be a little patient as everything unfolds. This book had a good mix of drama, action, and intrigue which I enjoyed tremendously, and it will be interesting to see what’s next for this universe and Nina.

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 Orbit Books for sending along this beautiful finished copy of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. I’m really looking forward to this; I’ve read and enjoyed her Imperial Radch trilogy as well as Provenance but none of them exactly blew me away, so I’m curious to see if I’ll find that spark with her fantasy that I didn’t with her sci-fi.

And thank you to the kind folks at Titan Books for sending along this treasure trove of books in the last month: The Killing Joke by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips and The Court of Owls by Greg Cox are original novels adapted from their respective graphic novels, a thing they seem to be doing these days with DC’s most popular titles. The publisher was kind enough to send along hardcover copies of both, which I’m so grateful for because look how amazing they are! Can’t wait to dig in. Next up, I also received Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell, whose sequel is about to come out very soon. The BiblioSanctum is taking part in the book tour celebrating its release so be sure check back early next week for a guest post by the author, and you can be sure I’ll be tackling this first book posthaste in order to catch up. Finally, I also received a copy of The Smoke by Simon Ings, whose story I’ve been told is kind of on the weird and insane side which admittedly is making me kind of nervous, but I’m up for giving it a try.

Also thank you to 47North and the Wunderkind team for sending me a finished copy of Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg. I actually reviewed this book earlier in the week, be sure to check it out in the review links below.

Much thanks to Little, Brown and Company/Jimmy Patterson Publishing for sending me an ARC of Swipe Right for Murder by Derek Milman, and also a special shout out to the author for making it happen. I really enjoyed his debut Scream All Night last year, and he was kind enough to reach out to made sure I got a review copy of his upcoming YA thriller.

Thanks also to Ace/Roc/DAW for the following new arrivals: Terminal Uprising by Jim C. Hines is book two of the hilarious looking Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series which I haven’t had the pleasure to start yet, but these sci-fi humor books are definitely on the list; Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor is an omnibus collecting all three novellas of the series, and not only is this hardcover edition incredibly gorgeous, it’s also nice to have the books in one handy place plus a brand new Binti story; and Atlas Alone by Emma Newman is fourth in the sequence of standalone novels taking place in the author’s Planetfall universe. I’ve loved pretty much every book in the series so far and I’m quite eager to see what’s next, hence my thrill when I received this surprise ARC in the mail.

Plus a big thank you to Tor.com for sending along another unexpected arrival, this lovely copy of Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore. I find myself intrigued by this little novella, described as “a story of music, obsession, violence, and madness.” It looks like a super quick read too, so I’m going to do my best to read this one before the end of the month.

Last but not least, thank you to SourceBooks Fire for this surprise ARC of A Place For Wolves by Kosoko Jackson. A YA historical fiction, it’s a little outside my wheelhouse, but I’m also drawn to the themes of action, thrills, and an LGBT romance unfolding amidst the violence, pain and cruelty of war. I have some other SFF to prioritize first, but if I have time I’d love to give this one a look.

 

  

In the digital haul, courtesy of Simon and Schuster publicity I was sent a widget for a review copy of The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper. I’ve enjoyed his books in the past, and his new psychological thriller sounds amazing! With thanks to Tor Teen via NetGalley, I also decided pulled the trigger on Dark of the West by Joanna Hathaway. As you might recall from my Top Ten Tuesday post last week, I couldn’t make up my mind on this book, but thanks to several commenters chiming in to sing its praises, I realized I would be sorry if I didn’t at least give it a try. From Thomas & Mercer, I also wasted no time in downloading the galley of Wolfhunter River by Rachel Caine the moment I saw it pop up. This is the third book of her mystery-thriller series Stillhouse Lake, and I just can’t get enough. I also immediately grabbed Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia because it sounds totally awesome (a dark fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore) and also I will read anything this amazing lady writes. With thanks to Del Rey.

Wrapping up, I received a couple more listening copies in the audiobooks folder this week: Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard is the long anticipated third book in the Witchlands saga, and it feels like I’ve been waiting forever for this book, so I’m glad it’s finally here. And lastly, Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña is the fourth release in the DC Icons series of books, featuring an adventure starring the teenage Clark Kent and his best friend Lana Lang. Thank you to Listening Library for both of these!

Reviews

Here is a quick summary of my reviews posted since the last update. Will you look at that, my top two reads were both mystery-thrillers:

Murder Theory by Andrew Mayne (4.5 of 5 stars)
The Watcher in the Woods by Kelley Armstrong (4.5 of 5 stars)
The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor (4 of 5 stars)
Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik (4 of 5 stars)
The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross (4 of 5 stars)
The Triumphant by Lesley Livingston (4 of 5 stars)
The Night Agent by Matthew Quirk (3.5 of 5 stars)
Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg (3 of 5 stars)

Roundup Highlights:

 

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: Heart

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:

“…for Valentine’s day past.”
a cover featuring a HEART

Mogsy’s Pick:

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

There were actually several books I could have chosen to feature for this week’s theme, but then I’m not one to ever pass up a chance to shout about Sarah Pinborough. In Cross Her Heart, we follow the lives of Lisa and her sixteen-year-old daughter Ava. On the outside, theirs is like any other mother-daughter relationship. However, both are hiding secrets that can threaten to tear their lives apart, and neither realize that the other not knowing would ultimately lead them into great danger.

Let’s take a look at some of the covers:

From left to right, top to bottom:
William Morrow (2018) – HarperCollins (2018)

 

Dutch Edition (2018) – Czech Edition (2018) – Greek Edition (2018)

  

Italian Edition (2018) – French Edition (2019)

 

Winner:

To be honest, a lot of the text-heavy covers here are on the plain and boring side. So by default, the heart-shaped pincushion wins!

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

Book Review: The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross

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

The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Retelling

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Ace (February 12, 2019)

Length: 416 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Few retellings invite more scrutiny from me than Beauty and the Beast, one of the most beloved fairy tales, so I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this. As retellings go, The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross is pretty low-key, focusing on atmosphere and emotion instead of miring itself in attempts at audacious new twists. This makes it a somewhat slow and plodding tale, and while not all will have the patience for this, on my part I relished every moment.

Told from the perspective of the Beast, our story begins in the enchanted forest where our protagonist lives with the curse cast upon him long ago. Slowly, painfully, he begins to remember the man he once was, but has no memory of why he was made into this beastly form, let alone how to break the curse. For many years he lives alone in his crumbling castle where the magic of the place seems to know his very heart, for it appears to cater to his every need. But even his invisible servants cannot help him with his one true desire, until one day, a lone traveler arrives at his door seeking rest and shelter.

Allowed to stay the night, the traveler has dreams of his family as he slumbers. The Beast is able to see into them and is immediately drawn to the visions of the man’ s youngest daughter Isabeau, who had asked her father to bring her back a rose from his travels. As such, it is a rose that sets off the chain of events that leads to Isabeau to live with the Beast at his castle for one full year, though her father was also sent home with a treasure trove of gifts for his other daughters. For in this version of the tale, Isabeau has two older sisters, each dealing with their own private suffering at the loss of their youngest sibling who was the glue that held all of them together. Through letters delivered via an enchanted box as well as a magic mirror in the Beast’s chambers, readers are able to watch the family grow used to life without Isabeau, and in essence, we have two storylines: one following the Beast and Isabeau at the castle as he tries to win her heart to break the curse, and another less central one that focuses on the happenings back at Isabeau’s home with her Papa and sisters Claude and Marie.

My favorite part of this book is hands down Shallcross’ depiction of the Beast. He is no monster, and over time it becomes clear that there’s not a malicious bone in his body. In fact, I wasn’t even sure why he was cursed in the first place (though later we do get some answers). Regardless, the Beast is most definitely a man, and it is his compassion and humanity that eventually wins Isabeau over. That said, I was impressed with how the author still managed to convey the animalistic nature of the character, even if it was less in the way of a snarling, savage beast and more in the way of, say, a big snuggly St. Bernard. Admittedly, there was also a lot about this image I found pitying. So many times the Beast reminded me of a lovesick puppy trailing after Isabeau, hoping she’ll return his affections while powerless to affect his own situation. In a way though, this classic tortured hero motif worked well, and didn’t feel too out of place in the context of a fairy tale retelling.

I also enjoyed the parts we got to see of Isabeau’s sisters, because let’s face it—this book would have been terribly boring without them. This is not a fast-paced story to begin with, and there’s only so much you can show of the Beast and Isabeau’s daily routine before it becomes dull and repetitive, not to mention there are plenty of times where our protagonist is left alone to his own devices. Enter the magic mirror, in which he frequently checks up on how the rest of Isabeau’s family is doing. With fairy tale retellings being so common these days, I find it helpful when writing reviews to ask myself what makes one different and worth reading, and without a doubt, the answer for The Beast’s Heart is Claude and Marie. There’s a side story here involving the financial decline the family and the devasting effects it has had on all of them, and at the time of Isabeau’s departure, neither of her sisters were doing very well. Over time, however, we get to watch them pick themselves up and learn to be independent and flourish again, both in their personal ventures and in love. Unlike the original version of the Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty has elder sisters who are cruel and spoiled, Marie and Claude are sweet, sympathetic and care deeply about Isabeau. As such, both sisters’ individual stories were greatly endearing.

As for the atmosphere, The Beast’s Heart also offers a nice change of pace. It is dark, but not oppressively so; moody, but not to the point of being melodramatic. In fact, I found the whole book to be quite charming and lovely. But like I said, this is not a fast-paced read, and without the sections involving Isabeau’s sisters, this story probably could have been a short story instead of full-length novel. As you’d expect, there a ton of exposition and detail, albeit all written beautifully. Every now and then I also got the feeling the author was trying for some deeper meaning about what it means to be human (with the Beast’s plight) or even a lesson on self-reliance (because it took Isabeau’s absence for Claude and Marie to find their own strength) but in truth, I didn’t think the story needed any messages to be enjoyable in its own right.

All in all, The Beast’s Heart was a surprisingly good book, a passionately earnest and eloquent debut from Liefe Shallcross. A great read for lovers of quiet, evocative and lyrical fairy tale retellings, this interpretation told from the point-of-view of the Beast is well worth a look.

Waiting on Wednesday 02/13/19

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

Angel Mage by Garth Nix (October 1, 2019 by Katherine Tegen Books)

Confession time: I have never read Garth Nix (even though I have always wanted to, and several of his more popular books are on my TBR). I suppose that makes his upcoming young adult fantasy novel set in a brand new world even more appealing to me, not to mention I find the idea of an immortal woman with terrifying angelic powers absolutely intriguing.

“More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.

A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.

Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.

But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.

The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else…”

Book Review: Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg

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

Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Book 1 of Numina

Publisher: 47North (February 1, 2019)

Length: 332 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Smoke & Summons by Charlie N. Holmberg first caught my attention with its synopsis, but I became even more intrigued once I realized what I was looking at on the cover was the head of a fiery demon-like horse. The reason for this striking motif was soon revealed, as the story introduces readers to Sandis, who is no ordinary young woman. For one, she is a vessel, whose body is trained and primed to hold demon-like spirits called forth from the netherworld. She is also a slave of sorts, kept under lock and key by a cruel summoner named Kazen, who has captured a number of kids like Sandis for his nefarious purposes. And because what Kazen does is highly illegal, he operates underground in a top secret facility where he can hide his activities as well as keep his charges isolated and unaware of what’s going on in the outside world. This in essence is Sandis’ life, where all she does each day is keep her head down and obey the rules, as not to anger Kazen. After all, it’s painful enough what happens to her whenever he calls forth “her” demon, the fire horse Ireth, into her body.

But then one night, Sandis witnesses something at the facility that frightens her to her core, prompting her to leave immediately, escaping into the unfamiliar city. Her only hope is a name of an unknown relative she chanced to glimpse in Kazen’s records, perhaps a distant uncle who would recognize their kinship and protect her. Instead, Sandis finds Rone, a caddish thief who thought the poor lost girl would be easy prey to his charms. But to his surprise, it is actually Sandis who catches him off guard and ends up making off with something valuable of his: an extremely rare and powerful artifact called amarinth which grants its bearer immortality for one minute every day. To get it back, Rone tracks down Sandis, but then winds up getting swept along in her desperate attempt to escape Kazen and his minions. Understanding that the two of them need each other to survive, Sandis and Rone strike up a reluctant partnership. She needs to lie low until she can find her mysterious relative, and he’s hoping that the reward for helping her will earn him the money to free his mother from jail.

I’ll be honest, I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I not disliked the characters right off the bat. On the whole, Sandis was all right, even if her meekness sometimes bothered me—though at least this was in keeping with her background and history. Rone, on the other hand, was infinitely punchable and irritating. I despised his smugness and arrogance the moment he showed up on the page. He is also impulsive and shows an astounding lack of foresight and awareness of potential consequences. He has little consideration for others and barely ever thinks beyond his own self interests. It’s hard to feel bad for him when you know his own bad decisions are the cause of all his troubles. The reason he gets tangled up with Sandis is because he thought he could take advantage of her. The reason his mother is arrested is because she wound up being blamed for a crime he himself had committed. This guy thinks he has all these problems when, really, he is the problem, but of course, he’s too self-centered to realize it.

And the worst part? I don’t think Rone changed all that much. It would be one thing for an unlikeable character to redeem themselves throughout the course of a story, and though Rone did show some signs of turning around, when the moment of truth arrived in the second half of the novel, he completely blew the chance to prove himself and made me angry at him all over again. I’m glad I didn’t waste my sympathies on him, though I did feel bad for Sandis. There were times where I felt the author might have been hinting at an eventual romance for her two characters, but I was never really able to feel much of anything, let alone a spark of chemistry, between them. One reason for this is the power and knowledge imbalance where it seemed Rone always held all the cards despite Sandis being the one with the ability to channel a demon horse. He went freely about the world while she remained stashed away in some hidey hole as she always was, the naïve and innocent girl. The relationship had all the ingredients of one heading straight for trouble, but even when it turned out I was right, the confirmation brought little satisfaction.

But now, for the things I did like: without a doubt, the whole premise of summoning demons into human vessels was the most intriguing and memorable aspect of the book. There is an entire system involved in the process, from the blood sacrifices it requires to the permanent scars carved into a vessel’s flesh. Each individual vessel also has a power level associated with him or her, determining the strength of the demon that can be summoned. And then, there was Rone’s amarinth. As magical trinkets go, it doesn’t get much cooler or more imaginative than that, and reading about its effects immediately made me curious to know more about the object and others like it. Suffice it to say, a lot of hard work was put into developing the magic of this universe, given its layers upon layers of rich detail, and as a fantasy fan, I always delight discovering new and unique world-building.

Still, at the end of the day, I’m a “characters first” kind of reader, and admittedly, my loathing for one of the key characters most likely impacted my overall enjoyment of this novel. Still, I didn’t think Smoke & Summons was a bad book, despite having to put up with Rone, and I actually find myself curious to see how he and Sandis can move forward in the wake of the choices he made. Both are now changed from the experience, which should make the next book interesting.