Monday, January 31, 2022

January Site Update

The month's ten reviews have been archived and cross-linked at the main Brightdreamer Books site.


Thursday, January 27, 2022

Envy of Angels (Matt Wallace)

Envy of Angels
A Sin du Jour Affair, Book 1
Matt Wallace
Fiction, Fantasy/Humor
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Roomie chefs Darren and Lena thought their dreams of New York City careers were over after an unfortunate incident led to them being blackballed across the city... until they get a phone call from Chef Byron "Bronko" Luck with a job offer they literally cannot refuse (at least, not if they want to sleep anywhere but a park bench). The first sight of the nondescript front of Sin du Jour, tucked in a remote and unpromising corner of town, doesn't exactly fill them with confidence, nor does their first encounter with the staff, for whom the word "eccentric" is far too mild, but once again they don't have much choice, plus there's something intriguing about such a peculiar outfit. How intriguing, they don't quite understand, until Darren is attacked by the weird bug that explodes from a jar in the pantry... and until the first meal they're tasked with prepping has a very special main course: a real, live angel.
Sin du Jour caters to the sort of clientele the rest of the world doesn't even believe exists, such as sparring clans of demons and the government agencies tasks with keeping their eternal conflicts from claiming too many civilian lives. The angel feast is meant to commemorate a peace treaty between clans. But even Chef Luck, who has his share of questionable life choices and clients and whose elite finding team literally goes beyond the ends of the earth for rare delicacies and ingredients, can't bring himself to butcher one of God's own celestial servants, no matter how big the tip. The quest to find and prepare an acceptable substitute dish leads to no end of trouble, and to the deepest, darkest secrets behind one of the world's top fast food franchises.

REVIEW: Sometimes, I think there needs to be a memo posted somewhere explaining that just because a character is Eccentric, it doesn't make them interesting. Just because a concept is Silly, it doesn't make it interesting. Just because the author is practically staving in my ribs nudging my side and winking at how Clever and Quirky and Crude the story is, hammering it home with every sentence, it doesn't make said story remotely engaging, enjoyable, or interesting. Indeed, the harder an author tries, the less interesting I'm inclined to find it. And if I'm not interested, I'm not laughing.
The story starts off on an iffy note, introducing four unlikable characters engaged in unlikable antics - namely devouring the hatchlings of a giant mantid, whom they casually slaughter when it comes calling for revenge. This is all played for laughs, but does not predispose me to care one bit about any of these characters, except perhaps the poor mantid. Indeed, I half-expected these to be the bad guys, especially as they treat the whole incident like a drug deal gone sour, or some sort of illegal poaching ring. Then we cut to Darren and Lena, two cardboard caricatures in what will be an entire army of cardboard caricatures, whom I suspect existed just to lead the reader into the concept of Sin du Jour and provide an outsider's point of view to whom characters could explain things... only people don't really explain things, and the narrative jumps all over into random places and people anyway, and Darren and Lena get lost in the shuffle and don't really seem to belong or have a purpose for existing (Darren in particular). Then the author chucks a bucket full of Eccentric and Silly caricature characters at the reader, devotes far too much page time to the unlikable foursome from the introduction (who conduct their jobs, seeking out ingredients and recipes and espionage, like a crack team of thieves, only with so many out-of-the-blue gizmos and gadgets there really isn't much in the way of tension to the heist) while making tiresome and overplayed jabs at fast food megacorporations and the questionable nature of their food-colored products. Eventually, things get back to the catering event itself, where things take utterly absurd twists on the way to a finale that I think the author thought was very, very Clever. And, of course, it's only the first "affair" of a series dedicated to the Eccentric and Silly exploits of Chef Luck and Sin du Jour, which devolves the whole story into an overlong setup for a single joke.
Maybe if I worked in kitchens I'd laugh at the joke. Or maybe if I lived in New York City. Or maybe if I were someone other than myself, I'd be rolling on the floor trying not to crush my Kindle, laughing helplessly. But I have not worked in a kitchen, I do not live in New York City, and I am (much to my frequent dismay) not someone other than myself, and just because I was clobbered repeatedly over the head with Eccentric, Silly, Clever, Quirky, and Crude things, I failed to find more than a scrap of it interesting, let alone funny.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Confessions of a Gourmand, or How to Cook a Dragon (Tom Bruno) - My Review
A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking (T. Kingfisher) - My Review

The Conductors (Nicole Glover)

The Conductors
The Murder and Magic series, Book 1
Nicole Glover
Harper Voyager
Fiction, Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Mystery
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Years before the Civil War, slave girl Hetty and her sister Esther made a risky run for freedom... but only Hetty made it away. Along with Benjy, another escaped slave, she became a Conductor leading other slaves to safety, pitting celestial magic against White sorcery. Under their code names Sparrow and Finch, they garnered a larger than life reputation for their exploits, and for never leaving a soul behind whom they set out to guide to safety. But, though Hetty followed any whiff of a lead and got herself into numerous dangerous spots, she never stopped looking for Esther.
Years after the end of the war, Hetty and Benjy Rhodes have settled in Philadelphia's Seventh Ward and are building a new life, but their reputation lingers. Any time there's trouble, the people know to ask for the couple, who never met a mystery they couldn't best. When a former friend turns up dead in an alley, marked with a cursed star sigil, it's pretty clear that the murder is a warning... but a warning to whom? And who would want him dead? When more bodies turn up and every question they ask only leading to more puzzles, everyone becomes a suspect. If Hetty and Benjy can't unravel the mystery soon, the next bodies in Philadelphia's streets may be their own.

REVIEW: The Conductors melds elements of murder mysteries, Civil War and Reconstruction conflicts, and culturally diverse magical traditions to create an intriguing story populated with interesting characters, each of them scarred in various ways by slavery but not always in ways that unite them. Indeed, friction between those who want to pretend the past never happened and those still dealing with the experience, even seeking out those lost over the years of bondage, creates both trouble and suspects, not to mention the gap between former slaves and those born free in Philadelphia. There are even a few who blame Conductors like Hetty and Benjy for making things worse on those left behind. The addition of various forms of magic only makes things worse; it is still illegal to teach colored people sorcery, while Whites struggle to grasp the power and potential "primal" magics worked by non-white peoples, celestial magics and root magics and other traditions. Both magic and reason are brought to bear upon the mystery itself, which unfolds through various twists and turns that occasionally grew tangled. Interludes flash back to Hetty and Benjy's exploits during the war, the formation of a bond that only belatedly blossoms into actual love, for all that they married years ago; coming from backgrounds where marriages were too often more about White masters arranging for breeding fresh slaves (and where those with powers like Hetty and Benjy were considered too "dangerous" to propagate), it's understandable that they would come at the subject from somewhat wary perspectives, though it does take Hetty a little too long to figure out that her feelings have shifted toward her friend and partner. There's also a subplot about Hetty's ongoing search for Esther. It all builds up to a decently satisfactory and exciting conclusion, and the setup for further investigations by the Rhodes couple. Hetty and Benjy and their team of friends and allies prove to be a solid crime-solving force, the sort that would probably make a decent streaming series if someone were to do it right.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ring Shout (P. Djeli Clark) - My Review
The Flaw in All Magic (Ben S. Dobson) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo)

Six of Crows
The Grishaverse universe: The Six of Crows series, Book 1
Leigh Bardugo
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: The houses of Ketterdam's merchants may flow with gold and treasures from around the world, but the streets are full of grit and filth and rot. Here, survival means learning to fend for oneself, to become a predator or die as prey, and among the most cunning of these predators is young Kaz Brekker, known with some derision (and much fear) as Dirtyhands. A nominal soldier of the street gang known as the Dregs, it's little secret that he's actually the architect of their rise from a small band to one of the main contenders in Ketterdam's underworld among the district of ill repute known as the Barrel. As his nickname suggests, there's not a job too dark and dirty for Kaz and his small band of trusted colleagues to attempt - but when he is approached by one of the top merchants of the city, even he pauses. There is a new drug that magnifies the abilities of the magical Grisha to terrifying degrees... only to cripple and often kill them from addiction to the stuff. If any country secured a steady supply of this drug, there would literally be no stopping them, but fortunately just one man holds the formula - a man currently held by the Grisha-hating nation of Fjerda, in the impregnable fortress known as the Ice Court. Free him, and stop the drug. To be caught is to die, possibly after being tortured by the hard, prideful northerners. But it's not the temptation of the millions of kruge that the merchant offers, nor any national or civic pride or duty to protect the world or the Grisha mages from the drug's dangers, that draws Kaz in at last. It's the opportunity to exact revenge against the one man he blames for all that has gone wrong in his short life... and if he turns a profit on the side and establishes himself as a legend among thieves, so much the better.

REVIEW: After watching the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone, which melded characters in this book with events from Bardugo's previous Shadow and Bone trilogy about the Grisha mages, I read the titular book... and was disappointed. But my favorite parts of the series were the thieves, and I had heard very good things about Six of Crows, so even though this is technically a chronological jump (the events of this book take place some time after the original trilogy's conclusion, for which there are very minor spoilers, though this title largely works as a standalone), I decided to give this book a try - and was absolutely blown away.
Bardugo's writing has improved by leaps and bounds over Shadow and Bone, delivering a tense and complex magical heist novel as well as a portrait of broken people struggling to survive in a world that wants nothing more than to keep breaking them until there's nothing left. Kaz and his crew all have blood on their hands in some form or another, especially by the end, all of them deeply flawed and not always working toward the greater good. Indeed, it's rare that they work toward the greater good at all; Ketterdam is not a place that rewards optimism or naivete, save with a slit purse if you're lucky or a slit throat if you're not, and the gilded merchants of the city are every bit as selfish and devious as the lowest street rat. From the stinking streets of the Barrel to the deceptive glamour of the brothels and gaming parlors to the icy landscapes of Fjerda and the stark fortress of the Ice Court, the settings reflect the cold and harsh lives and situations of the characters, the unforgiving and often seemingly hopeless situations they find themselves in as their plans inevitably fall apart. The plot itself starts fairly fast and keeps raising the stakes and the tension with each new twist and betrayal, and nobody, not even Kaz, is above making potentially lethal mistakes, for all their streetwise cool and meticulous planning and down-to-the-minute coordination. It ends on something just shy of a cliffhanger, which is about the only real downside in the entire book. Fortunately, I have the second installment on its way, and it might end up jumping the backlog line once it gets here. After reading this, I'm tempted to circle back and slog through the rest of the original trilogy; Bardugo clearly grew into her craft, or maybe this was the kind of story she meant to write all along.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Shadow and Bone (Leigh Bardugo) - My Review
The Emperor's Edge (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Jade City (Fonda Lee) - My Review

Friday, January 21, 2022

Full Throttle (Joe Hill)

Full Throttle: Stories
Joe Hill
William Morrow
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Horror/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A biker gang is hunted by a trucker with a vendetta... a brother and sister follow a child's call for help into a field of tall grass that is less benign than it appears... a girl in the future rents an artificial friend to salvage a terrible birthday... a ruthless corporate "woodcutter" on an English train finds himself seated across from a wolf in a business suit... news of an "event" halfway around the world changes everything for the passengers of a commercial jet over the middle of America... These and other chilling stories by noted author Joe Hill appear in this collection.

REVIEW: Another audiobook to pass time at work, this edition featured different narrators for each story (some of which were better than others, or at least easier to hear in a somewhat noisy warehouse environment), plus an introduction and acknowledgements of influences and details of writing each story. As with most collections and anthologies, I found the contents a bit of a mixed bag. While each was solidy written, some clicked with me better than others, and a couple or three felt slightly drawn out past effectiveness. There's also a strong tendency to downer endings, which Hill himself acknowledges. Overall, though, these stories kept me entertained (which is more than I could say for the three audiobooks that failed to engage me before I got to this one in my Overdrive queue), and effectively evoked tension and terror, plus the additional information was interesting.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Anything Box (Zenna Henderson) - My Review
Heart-Shaped Box (Joe Hill) - My Review
Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight (Cat Rambo) - My Review

Sunday, January 16, 2022

One Word Kill (Mark Lawrence)

One Word Kill
The Impossible Times series, Book 1
Mark Lawrence
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Aside from being a math whiz, 1980's London teen Nick Hayes doesn't see himself as that special. He plays Dungeons and Dragons with a group of friends. He goes to a decent, but hardly elite, boys' school, with only a few bullies who bother him. He can't talk to a girl to save his life (though Mia, brought into the group by one of his gaming friends, isn't so bad).
And he just found out he has cancer.
While reeling from the diagnosis, he finds himself confronted with something even harder to wrap his mind around: a strange man who seems to be following him, and who knows more about Nick and his life than any stranger ought to know. The man's tale of time travel is sheer madness, an impossible invention beyond anything he ever encountered at the gaming table... but, if he's right, then maybe Nick can beat the disease that's eating him alive.
He forgot to ask the price. Because, in the game and in real life, great rewards seldom come without great costs...

REVIEW: On the plus side, One Word Kill reads fairly fast, and mostly resolves itself in one volume (though, being a series, there are of course a few threads left dangling). On the down side... there's quite a bit that weighed it down, unfortunately. Nick's selfish and occasionally way too slow on the uptake, and even with his cancer diagnosis it's hard to really care about him. He and his friends are a collection of mid-1980's early teen stereotypes, awkward and self-absorbed and far too familiar from countless other portrayals in countless other media, while the token girl Mia is little more original, all too often being an object or plot point rather than a person in her own right (because teen boy narrators can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea of females as something other than an alien species, a potential provider of sex, and/or a vaguely scary thing that needs masculine protection). And then there's the psychopathic bully Ian Rust; like everyone else in the book, he seems to lack an existence or purpose beyond the sphere of Nick, popping up to scare and torment him and his associates with increasingly exaggerated brutality. As in many time travel stories, the paradoxes become a sort of trap from which the characters can't escape, and the harder they try the more they fall right back in. By the (rather brutal) end, I'd already decided I wasn't going to be following the rest of the series. All that said, I've definitely read worse. It just was not my kind of story.

You Might Also Enjoy:
15 Minutes (Jill Cooper) - My Review
Recursion (Blake Crouch) - My Review
When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) - My Review

Friday, January 14, 2022

Lord Valentine's Castle (Robert Silverberg)

Lord Valentine's Castle
The Majipoor Cycle, Book 1
Robert Silverberg
Fiction, Fantasy/Sci-Fi
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: On a hillside beyond the coastal capital of Pidruid, the fair-haired wanderer Valentine finds himself alone, bereft of memory and purpose, yet with a pouch full of money. He falls in with a boy traveling to town for the coming festival, a visit from the grand Coronal who rules the great planet of Majipoor: a lord named Valentine, same as himself (but surely, it is a common name). The wanderer joins a troupe of human and Skandar jugglers, and thinks of no other future than traveling the land with them and honing his new trade, at which he proves uncommonly adept - until the dreams begin. On Majipoor, where the Lady of Sleep and King of Dreams have direct access to the sleeping minds of the citizens, it is known that dreams are rarely to be brushed aside as mere fancy, especially dreams as potent as the ones that plague Valentine. They tell him, impossibly, that he is actually the true Lord Valentine, that a usurper stole his body and his throne and cast him into this stranger's skin, and thousands of years of peace on the planet will end if the imposter is not deposed soon. Already, new and strange laws fly from Castle Mount, causing the first stirrings of unrest, and in his travels he sees more signs of problems, dreaming more intense dreams of the destiny set before him. But what can Valentine hope to do, when his memories and true face have been stolen and his only friends are mere common street performers?

REVIEW: This is something of a classic, melding genres in a story with mythic overtones. The world of Majipoor is literally larger than life, a vast planet much bigger than Earth, where many alien races live side by side in seemingly idyllic harmony (save the natives, shapeshifters known as metamorphs, who live in bitter isolation after losing a long-ago rebellion; some acknowledgment is made that the scars of conquest are not so easily healed, and may be behind the current unrest so long as rifts remain and the metamorphs are considered second-class citizens). Its wildly fantastic flora and fauna and geography are reminiscent of old planetary romances like Burroughs, where plausibility or scientific accuracy take a distant back seat to sense of wonder and mind's eye candy. And, indeed, there is much to wonder at in Majipoor, where sorcery and science (albeit a reduced science, owing to the dearth of native metals and fuels to power industry and an implied overall decline in interstellar trade, for all that other worlds and aliens are known) coexist, where "advancements" have pulled humanity (and aliens) full circle back to royal houses as the only fit and just rulers of the people (royal houses that are all human, despite the numerous other races on the planet, and Coronals who are all male, because the archetypes Silverberg invokes only allow for so much progress). The planet outshines the characters at several points, as Valentine and his juggler companions, who become his first devoted followers when his true identity comes to light, travel hither and thither and encounter all manner of great and wondrous sights and adventures and trials and travails.
The characters themselves tend to devolve into archetypes bordering on stereotypes, unfortunately, particularly Valentine, who becomes such a caricature of the Perfect King - divinely blessed with abilities beyond mere men, feeling the pains and troubles of his subjects to a fault, even reaching out in compassion and love repeatedly to his bloodthirsty and unworthy enemies because he dare not entertain base notions like anger or vengeance even after said enemies prove willing to casually slaughter billions of people - that I was almost rolling my eyes by the end. Several of the characters had potential to be more, but they're swallowed up in the greater quest to restore Lord Valentine to his throne and only occasionally bubble to the surface again. (There's a particularly wasted potential plot with an offworlder whom the party rescues from a sacrifice, only to be mostly forgotten about until meeting their fate later on. Why bother, except to prove the point that the true lords of Majipoor are such divinely gifted rulers that even offworlders, with no blood ties to the planet, fall under their spell and raise arms in their cause?) Their journey follows the standard epic arc of the lost ruler reclaiming their crown and purpose, putting Valentine and his companions through various tests of their mettle and wit (and Valentine's worthiness) on his way to the final confrontation with the usurper and the unmasking of the mastermind behind the treachery.
Still, for all that predictability and stereotype, there's something imaginative and compelling about the story and the setting, something recalling old epics and grand adventures painted on a wild, over-the-top scale one doesn't see so much of anymore. I'm not sure I'll follow the rest of the cycle, but I can't say I regret my time spent on Majipoor.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs) - My Review
The Fellowship of the Ring (J. R. R. Tolkien) - My Review
The Cloud Roads (Martha Wells) - My Review

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Penric's Demon (Lois McMaster Bujold)

Penric's Demon
The World of the Five Gods universe: The Penric and Desdemona series, Book 1
Lois McMaster Bujold
Spectrum Literary Agency
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a world of many kingdoms and five gods, the young Lord Penric rides to an arranged marriage with something less than his full enthusiasm. It's not that he hates the girl to which he's matched, daughter of a wealthy cheese merchant. It's just that he'd hoped for more from his life: more learning, more travel, more adventure. But the household coffers are too empty to indulge such dreams, so off he rides... until he chances upon a dying old woman and her distraught companions. Not just a woman - a sorceress, possessed of an old and powerful demon... one that chooses Penric, of all people, as its new host after her passing! Saddled with a capricious spirit he does not want and powers he cannot control, Penric - his betrothal naturally nullified, his family mortified - is swept off to distant Martensbridge, where disciples of the Bastard god (lord of chaos and demons) will decide the fate of both man and demon... assuming either survive a city of lies and treachery.

REVIEW: I suppose it's just me. I keep hearing wonderful, glowing praise of Bujold and her works. I keep wanting to see that. But this is the second swing and miss, and I'm starting to suspect she just isn't an author I'm ever going to click with.
The world itself, though part of her larger Five Gods milieu, is supposed to be the start of a stand-alone series, yet I kept feeling that I was two steps behind, especially when the story and characters keep pausing to cram in history and worldbuilding details, as if to make sure I understood that this little adventure was just one corner of a Vast and Wide World with Deep History and Intricate Theology and Other Fantastic Things. What I saw felt... generic, I suppose. The average pseudo-medieval European fantasy world, with lords and priests and mages and traders and horses and castles and all the usual trappings. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it all felt a bit been-there, done-that, especially with so many recent works drawing on other places and cultures for their influences. The characters... again, there was nothing inherently wrong with them, and they served the story decently, but I never felt any real spark of connection or particular interest. Penric's a naive bumbler plunged in way over his head with a demon as old and powerful and prone to minor trickery as Desdemona (yet who inexplicably sits back and lets Penric bumble them both into serious trouble), and other characters are generally flat, their schemes obvious, the problems and solutions too conveniently plot-shaped to really evoke much sense of peril. The ending, naturally, sets up the next stage of adventure for the wayward lord and clever demon, and left me still feeling like I was waiting for... something. A moment of true immersion. A flash of connection. A hook to drag me in and make me fumble the Kindle in my haste to download the second installment, or the first book of the Five Gods realm, or... just something. But it was never there.
This isn't a bad story, by any means. It hits its marks, and things happen, and it establishes a decent enough setting. I was just hoping to finally see the wonderful, brilliant things I keep hearing about this author. Once more, I must conclude that it is, indeed, just me who can't see them.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Green Rider (Kristen Britain) - My Review
Beguilement (Lois McMaster Bujold) - My Review
Fanuilh (Daniel Hood) - My Review

Friday, January 7, 2022

Granted (John David Anderson)

John David Anderson
Walden Pond Press
Fiction, MG Fantasy/Humor
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets is as focused and dedicated a fairy as ever lived in Haven, the hidden mountain sanctuary of her kind. She even belongs to the most rarefied guild, the Granters: the fairies who go out into the human world to grant wishes made on falling stars or birthday candles or coins dropped into fountains or such. Once upon a time, most any wish might be granted if a passing fairy took a fancy to it, but in this day and age, with fairies forced to hide in concealed sanctuaries and belief in wonder at an all-time low, there's scarcely enough magic to spare for a dozen wishes out of the countless valid wishes made in a day. So, while Ophelia has been trained for many seasons, she's never had a chance to go out in the field - until now. A girl in Ohio had wished upon a coin tossed into a mall fountain for a bike (a purple bike, because her bike was stolen, a nicely specific and worthwhile wish), and Ophelia has been charged with granting it. It should be a simple matter, a ritual ages old: find the nickel upon which the wish was made, sprinkle a little precious fairy dust on it, and say the magic words. But the fairy has never been in the human world before, and never realized how complicated it all was... or how easily one might be distracted by other wishes, others in need of a little magic in a world with precious little to spare...

REVIEW: This was a nice little break after some heavier, darker reads, and just long enough to last through a work shift as an audiobook. Ophelia and her kin are perhaps a bit on the twee end of the spectrum, little winged wish-granters of generally benevolent (if slightly mischievous and temperamental on occasion) disposition, but sometimes a bit of twee isn't that bad, and there's a little bit of weight to her and her world to make things interesting. The fae world, like the human world, is facing a resource crisis and what might be called a habitat or environmental crisis, pressured by humanity's increasing need to explore and know and drive out both the wild and the wonder that sustain fairies and their magic. Like humans, the fairies adapt as they can and generally (deliberately) do not look at how they arrived at their current crisis, most of them just doing their jobs and holding their festivals and dining at their cafes and otherwise not examining the rules or their society. Ophelia, as dedicated a rule-follower as ever flew, quickly learns that there are many things that the rules and her book studies haven't prepared her for, but she's a determined little heroine and refuses to let numerous setbacks break her will. She picks up a sidekick in the somewhat clueless stray mutt Sam, a comic relief companion who actually pulls his weight in the story. Pretty much everyone in the tale turns out to have extra dimensions to them, with their own stories and unspoken wishes, and Ophelia finds herself overwhelmed by how much need for magic there is, and how little she has to spare. Some of the turns are a little predictable (for an adult reader, at least), the humor can be a bit silly (again, to an adult), plus it could wander and dither a bit, but it's a fun enough adventure for what it is (and for its target audience), with a little more to it than one might expect from such an initially twee concept.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wishtree (Katherine Applegate) - My Review
Bright Shadow (Avi) - My Review
Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer) - My Review

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Beasts Made of Night (Tochi Onyebuchi)

Beasts Made of Night
The Beasts Made of Night series, Book 1
Tochi Onyebuchi
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In the great walled city of Kos, the people's sins cause sickness and death... unless they can afford a mage to draw it forth, giving it tangible substance, and an aki to kill and swallow the shadowstuff. Though the aki are essential, they are seen as untouchable, unclean, the marks of the sins they've eaten burning into their flesh like tattoos and the guilt of other people's misdeeds eventually driving them mad - all except for Taj. Known as Skyfist or Lightbringer among the other aki, Taj is among the longest-lived of his kind, and his sin marks never fade. He attributes his longevity and continued sanity to not caring about anyone but himself; if he focuses only on keeping himself alive and fed, on sending money home to the family he can never see again, he believes he can avoid the terrible fate of the rest of his kind. But when he is called to eat a sin of Kos's royal family, both Taj and his best friend Bo become part of a greater, deeper conspiracy, one that could see the aki raised from the shadows and brought into the light... or one that could see the whole city burned in the name of purification.

REVIEW: I previously read (and greatly enjoyed) another book by Onyebuchi, his brutal examination of the human cost of war and environmental devastation War Girls. So I looked forward to trying this, which was apparently his debut novel. The concept and setting certainly sounded intriguing. Unfortunately, I found Taj a rather dense main character to follow around. He insists he does not care about anyone, yet almost as soon as we meet him he's taking in an orphan, a new-minted aki, and showing him the ropes of his new life as both the lowest of the low and the city's only defense against the sickness of its sins... and against monsters out of legend, who will tear the city apart to cleanse it should the stain of sin grow too strong. He has flashbacks that show him very specific things, yet takes far too long to recognize said things when he sees them again. He has experiences that should drastically change how he views everything, even how he handles the shadow beasts... then he inexplicably forgets all about them until the very last minute. He also spends far too much time not really doing anything. Yes, he fights sin beasts and deals with the frustrations of his pariah existence, but he doesn't actually do much except react to things done to him. And yet somehow he's potentially the most important aki, possibly the most important person, in the city of Kos, and everyone seems to be fighting to control him and his destiny... especially the women, who too often feel like they exist solely based on their interest and usefulness to Taj. (This was especially disappointing given how much I enjoyed the fiercely independent and rounded women and girls of War Girls, who may have had terrible things done to them but also had some agency and were able to make their own decisions regardless of whether they benefited a man.) Then the story starts devolving into a sort of morality lesson, and ends on a cliffhanger setting up the second installment.
I enjoyed the originality of the setting, and the concept of the sin beasts and the aki. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy Taj or many of the other characters, especially as they seemed to spend more time meandering and dithering through the city than progressing the story. I doubt I'll bother pursuing the next installment, unless there's not much else available on Overdrive when I need a new audiobook.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi) - My Review
War Girls (Tochi Onyebuchi) - My Review
The Merciful Crow (Margaret Owen) - My Review

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Angel of the Overpass (Seanan McGuire)

Angel of the Overpass
The Ghost Roads series, Book 3
Seanan McGuire
Fiction, Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: It's been decades since Rose Marshall, the small-town Michigan teen girl from the wrong side of the tracks, was killed by Bobby Cross and his demonic car. Since then, she's been called many things - the Phantom Prom Queen, the Angel of the Overpass, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown - and done many things - served as psychopomp guiding new ghosts in the twilight America beneath the daylight world, helped out the odd mortal on the roadway, even traveled to the underworld for an audience with her patron goddess Persephone. But Bobby Cross has always loomed over her shoulder, the monster she can never escape, who still hunts her and those she loves, be they living or dead. She hates the man, but could never do anything about him while he had the power of the otherworldly crossroads at his back.
Now, the crossroads are dead, and all bets are off.
Without the trickster forces behind that unnatural place to back him up, Bobby Cross is growing more desperate, because for the first time since he made his dark bargain, he's vulnerable. Now, Rose Marshall no longer has to run. She can fight back and end his evil once and for all. But being vulnerable and desperate might make him more dangerous than he's ever been, and even though she's dead, Rose still has a lot to lose...

REVIEW: The third and (presumed) final tale of urban legend Rose Marshall and her nemesis Bobby Cross wraps the tale up in a suitably climactic fashion. Rose is not the girl she was when she was alive decades ago, and is not the same ghost she was when the series started, having gained and lost allies along the way. She's come to realize that it's not just about Bobby Cross's evil bargain to keep immortal life at the expense of the lives and ghosts that feed his demonic car; it's about other people trying to take control of (or take away) her life (or afterlife), and about those who feel they deserve things out of life or death when there never were such guarantees, willing to destroy anyone and anything to get what they feel they are "owed". Even Gary, the boy she would never meet at the dance, who spent his whole life searching for a way to join her in the afterlife only to end up reincarnated as a car upon the ghost roads, has been making decisions for her without actually talking to or even knowing her; the Rose he knew is the one whose bones are rotting in a Michigan cemetery, not the Rose she's become after decades as a hitcher ghost and urban legend. At times, the message (and some general meandering, which started feeling a bit like filler now and again) threatened to overwhelm the story, even as it cuts to the heart of what ultimately drives Rose Marshall to persist as she has in the afterlife, a determination to exist on her own terms in spite of the demands and limits placed upon her. This installment also seems tied more strongly with McGuire's related InCryptid urban fantasy series, which I've only read the first installment of. Nevertheless, in spite of sometimes feeling a touch drawn out, this makes a worthwhile conclusion to the tale of the Phantom Prom Queen, and while the door's clearly cracked open wide enough for future installments, things feel satisfactory where they are now.

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