Author: Justin Bowers

Justin is a purveyor of fine code, a collector of many many things, and a sympathetic reader. Aside from here, you can find his inane rantings on Twitter at @aquaphase or on Goodreads. Justin can be reached here.

A Red Moon Over Rhyll (The Dryad’s Crown, #3) by David Hopkins

A Red Moon Over Rhyll: Book Three of the Dryad's Crown by [David Hopkins, Daniel Decena, Francesca Baerald]

There is something completely magical, and utterly frustrating about serialized short fiction. That being said, Mr. Hopkins has been quite adept at tapping into the cliff-hanger aspect of it that I seriously admire.

When we last left our intrepid heroes, Gydan and Yurig, children of the mysterious Silbrey, had just escaped certain doom from what can only be described as a sleeper attack near their farmhouse. An attack that gained Gydan a dragon, Yurig a spellbook, and Silbrey a sense that not all was well in the tiny corner of the world they inhabited. To make matters worse, the trio was headed into uncomfortable territory to “do their duty” to Bren Caius, the high general of the land: with whom Silbrey has a very distinct history.

The maddening thing about reviewing short fiction is trying to put a certain point across without giving away the meat of the story. As I am not deft at dodging and feinting around anything, I will just tell you, this book is where it starts to get deeply spicy.

As is his forte, Mr. Hopkins presents a situation that amplifies itself into a white-knuckled area of “What the hell happens next?!?!?!?” in a very gentle manner. New epic heroes enter the scene, and we are introduced to the most imposing of epic villains. A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe was just a taste of the action that was to proceed. We tasted some blood, and Mr. Hopkins was happy to oblige us with a tad more.

Shifting gears, I do have to give even more kudos to the world building that is going on with this series. There is a new level of politicking that goes on in A Red Moon Over Rhyll that is just absolutely sublime. One thing I found very welcome was an expansion of existing character development on top of these new twists. This started out a Silbrey series, but I’d be willing to bet that Gydan and Yurig will be polished into the sheen of the deepest heartwood during this progression. I’m elated and a little afraid.

Bring on book four!

City of Iron and Dust by J.P. Oakes

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

City of Iron and Dust by [J.P. Oakes]

There is something about approaching a debut novel by an author that is very awe-inspiring to me. It may sound incredibly hokey, but I feel like it is akin to unwrapping a writer for the very first time, and seeing what their wonder and peculiarities are, and, by the time I make it partially through the book, see how this fledgling will fare.

To follow further into this horrible metaphor, when I approached Mr. Oakes’ “nest” of City of Iron and Dust, he shot out of the nest, circled me a few times and then promptly took a few dive-bombs at me in the first handful of pages.

Our intrepid journey begins with a prologue explaining how the world was all magic, happiness, and light amongst the fae folk until the goblins came streaming down from the North headed up by the terrible Mab. Using her horrible magic, Mab destroyed the fae forest cities, and, in their place, the goblins created great cities of iron, steel, and glass: subjugating the fae until they withered under the oppression.

For the years after, the goblins ruled, and the fae became the downtrodden grist for the mill. Five great Goblin Houses arose, and with each, a tower. The current-day portion of the story, however, kicks off with a mysterious penthouse/charnel house and an even more mysterious package of white powder.

From the prologue we begin to see how this story is going to unfold. Like all good adventures, this story kicks off in a bar. A working-class fae dive, to be exact. Three goblins enter the picture. These goblins should not be in this bar, let alone the entire neighborhood, but the ringleader, Jag, heir to House Red Cap, is trying to make a point to her half-goblin/half-sister, Sil, who also happens to be Jag’s bodyguard. Also accompanying is Bazzack, but he is hardly important.

Also in this bar are two other very important characters to this story, Knull and Edwyll, though neither knows the other is there (this becomes important later).

This all sets the scene, and when that scene blows up (and it blows up spectacularly), this wave of destruction fans out throughout the Iron City and fae society. Some of it is related, some of it pure coincidence. Either way, the story gets very spicy very quickly. Let’s just say that fae insurrection, a whole lot of magical drug, and even more Goblin House posturing and politicking makes for an incredibly interesting read.

What I love most about City of Iron and Dust is all of the big things it hits on that are so familiar in my years of consuming popular culture, literature and film. The entire setup — as well as most of the story — just reeks of a massive Shadowrun campaign (someone should seriously write one). I was also often reminded of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, certain aspects of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a dash of Manchurian Candidate, and you just can’t avoid the giant Akira’s Tetsuo moment near the end.

What held me in the story was the structure of how it was written, and the visceral meat of the political and class intrigue. The reader really does get to see all facets of this highly oppressive society, and where there is a lot of unexplained “mixing” and counter-ideologies that seem to sprout from no logical place. There is compassion where the nature of that character would not dictate it, and there is cruelty that seems to sprout from all the wrong reasons.

One thing I really loved about this novel, which, oddly, has annoyed me with others, is Mr. Oakes’ style of heading up each section with the name of the character from whom the point of view is presented. In many scenes, this allowed me to consider the change in perspective when several of the characters might be experiencing the same scene, and maybe even be in the same room.

The other thing I rather enjoyed is the pacing. City of Iron and Dust is very fast-paced, but it does not feel rushed. Mr. Oakes takes the time to fully develop each interaction, and, as such, the reader is able to develop a very well-defined view of what might be going on in the many scenes of total chaos. The incredibly puzzle-piece fit of the dialogue also helps immensely with this.

Don’t even get me started on the conflict choreography and styling. It’s an utter masterpiece.

City of Iron and Dust has so many themes that would appeal to a hugely wide variety of potential readers. If you like high magic/fantasy, that box is checked. If you like political intrigue, that box is also checked. If you like crime, drug, or class war stories, all of those boxes are checked. Finally, if you like stories of perseverance and truly believing in what you fight for (good or bad), that box has a big ol’ check.

Kudos to Mr. Oakes for putting this one out there. I really hope this is a world that we get to revisit in the future. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

The Mask Falling (The Bone Season #4) by Samantha Shannon

Eight years ago I picked up this book with book with one of the most interesting premises I’d run across: a criminal who steals thoughts and information from peoples’ minds, and operates under an oppressive regime where people with her sorts of gifts are imprisoned and executed.

Little did I know that this was just the tip of the iceberg for young Paige Mahoney. Over the next few years, books 2 and 3 were released with the tale of Paige’s exploits growing exponentially. After book 2, I was really convinced that Ms. Shannon didn’t like Paige very much, and book 3 pretty much cemented that.

Then came the gap. Paige Mahoney had just gotten out of an absolute horror of a situation, and book 4 was just “coming soon.”

Boy was the wait worth it. The Mask Falling opens with Paige and Arcturus (Warden), escaping England and ending up in a safe house in the Scion Citadel of Paris. Paige is in really rough shape, but has been taken in by the mysterious Domino Program; who want to use her abilities and skills to help subvert Scion control. While she has been told to stay put and heal, Paige also wants to leverage her position of Underqueen to gain audience with the Court of Miracles — the voyant syndicate of France — to continue her own flavor of assault on Scion, and, hopefully, learn the fates of many of her friends.

This one is a real rollercoaster, but I often found myself giving Paige the ol’ “What the hell are you doing?!?!?!?”

Paige’s stubbornness is definitely her biggest weakness. Sure, her bond with Arcturus definitely affects her judgement sometimes, but it is Paige’s unwillingness to accept compromise that really seems to put her in all the pickles in The Mask Falling. Especially when things get wacky, and, boy howdy, they get wacky.

One thing about this series that I greatly appreciate is Ms. Shannon’s boldness in worldbuilding. The Scion Citadel of Paris is absolutely nothing like the Scion Citadel of London, yet she could have used the uniformity of Scion to make them far similar. Details like this, and her amazing obsession with tweaking language (definitely read the afterword about how she tweaked Scion French) show a masterful attention to what makes each location, and subsequently culture, unique.

I dearly hope we don’t have to wait too long for book 5.

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance #2) by Naomi Novik

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

The Last Graduate (The Scholomance, #2)

Oh poor Galadriel Higgins. El’s affinity for super destructive magic, her desire to be semi-anti-social, and her torn feelings for one Orion Lake really put her in an interesting spot coming into her senior year at the Scholomance.

Now that graduation is upon El, she has set it in her mind that she will get out as many students as possible. As she begins to enlist more and more of the student body in her seemingly hare-brained plans, they all begin to understand just what a powerhouse El really is. To make matters worse, it appears that the school is beginning to turn on her.

I absolutely love this series, and was super excited to be given the opportunity to tackle an early copy of book 2. The Last Graduate really does take off right where A Deadly Education ended, and Ms. Novik has really honed her masterful craft of deft first-person narration. El really is the embodiment of snarky power, and the wide variety of characters, each with their own foibles, really make for an enjoyable experience.

There is so much more I would love to gush about this book, but I would give away far too much.

Once this book drops, I’ll definitely be picking up the audiobook. Anisha Dadia did an absolute masterful job with the first book, and I really can’t wait to hear her doing book 2.

Mister Impossible (Dreamer Trilogy #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

I’ve been mulling over how to approach a review for this amazing piece of fiction. Ms. Steifvater’s work is often very transcendent, but Mister Impossible just takes the cake.

The Dreamer Trilogy, follow up series to the wildly popular Raven Cycle, is focused on seminal “bad boy” Ronan Lynch and a wider exploration into his dreaming powers.

Where Call Down the Hawk set up the situations surrounding the current storyline — introducing the Hennessys, Bryde, the Moderators, etc. — Mister Impossible is more an etheric epic poem. Very quickly the deep dive into the ley lines, the quest for understanding around sweetmetals, and the indomitable personality that is Bryde, folds this novel into a dreamy story state that often doesn’t seem at home in the waking nor the dreaming world.

Per usual, the writing and character development are absolutely top notch. Ms. Steifvater always has a unique perspective on how to present scenes and situations, and Mister Impossible is a perfect example of this. There is suspense, humor and drama all present with a undertone of surrealism that just builds and builds and builds.

As the larger direction starts to unfold, there are still plenty of twists and turns that Ms. Stiefvater takes us down in a masterful execution of really looking at what the definition of humanity really is.

There is an unveiling towards the end of the book that I would absolutely love to make a parallel connection to a popular culture stalwart, but I’m just not the type of guy to spoil a storyline with one phrase. I will say that I am totally shocked and cannot wait to see how everything plays out in book three. That being said, I can’t believe I now have to wait for freakin’ book three!

I wanted to recognize special kudos to the amazing Will Patton for the audiobook of this manuscript. Mr. Patton is a remarkable performer who has breathed life into all of these two series of books. His tone and inflection definitely bring something to the table that enhances the experience.

Among the Beasts & Briars by Ashley Poston

I feel like I was well into my adult years before truly appreciating the warmth and familiarity of fables, fairy tales and folklore. I find this funny because in my life and studies as a young man, I was very much entrenched in several very rich cultural traditions of story telling and lore.

Regardless, the genres now hold a very dear place in my heart and Ms. Poston really scratches that itch with Among the Beasts & Briars.

This is the tale of the Kingdom of Aloriya: a place of perfect wonder with no drought or disease, and a happy population looked over by a magical royal bloodline to prevent the horrors of the woods from overtaking them.

Our protagonist, Cerys, is the daughter of the Royal Gardener and best friends with the soon to be queen: Princess Arwen. Cerys also hides a very special gift that should only be able to be wielded by the royal family: she can do magic.

As Arwen stands ready to be coronated Queen, things get really interesting as the monsters and magicks of the woods attack. Escaping with barely her wits and the magical crown of Aloriya, Cerys runs into the woods to attempt to find the hidden city of Voryn and possible help from the magical Lady of the Wilds.

This story has some incredibly tense moments. There are some major themes of trust and bravery, along with what I read into a xenophobia. With a storyline that relies heavily on the impending doom of Cerys — and her traveling companions — being overtaken by the horrors in the woods, the story gets a little stress-y, but in that “I’m just going to keep flipping pages” way.

The thing that makes Among the Beasts & Briars so great to me is the consistency with which the story and settings develop and unfold. I love a good book with a map in the front because that tells me that the author has thought about the bigger aspects of their created world, and possibly considered what the ramifications of their storytelling might wreak on the bigger picture.

Most importantly, and it really takes a good portion of the novel to get there, Among the Beasts & Briars is a story about redemption and trust. Yes, there is some predictability in how the story unfolds, but that, for me, is a comforting aspect in a fairy tale. The dawn after the harrowing night is the reward.

I really do hope Ms. Poston has some more stories hidden in the depths of Vaiyl. I feel there is so much more potential.

The Unbound (The Archived #2) by Victoria Schwab

I’m not really sure why I never got around to reading this wrap-up of the Archived duology. Two years ago I read book one and then flitted off to something else before picking up number two.

Boy was that dumb.

The Unbound continues the story set up after the hyper-dramatic end of The Archived. Mackenzie Bishop is still a Keeper trying to keep violent Histories in their place, but The Unbound adds the bonus of poor Mac having to start her junior year at Hyde School: a very posh and very small private school where she knows absolutely no one (or so she thinks).

When people Mac glances into start disappearing, she and Wesley start digging into what could possibly be going on. All this along with Keeper work, school work, and juggling new friends.

Then it all starts to get really interesting, and we are all left to wonder if Mac might be losing her mind.

The marvelous thing about The Unbound is that it immediately picked up right where The Archived left off. Even though I had a two year gap between reading the two books, The Unbound just flowed perfectly in to place.

The main reason for this is that Ms. Schwab truly is a master of her craft. Her ability to quickly build and establish fantastical worlds with multi-dimensional characters is really an amazing gift. Rather than rest on the laurels of an amazing set of characters introduced in The Archived, Ms. Schwab expands the tableau with another smattering of very well-developed individuals; fully formed with charisma and depth. Basically, The Unbound is everything perfect about The Archived with an added bonus of all the toppings.

I would really love to have more Mackenzie and Wesley adventures in the future, but we’ll just have to see what happens.

Victories Greater Than Death (Unstoppable #1) by Charlie Jane Anders

I cannot get over this book. I picked it up because Ms. Anders has some serious Sci-Fi chops, the premise sounded interesting, and, duhhh, it’s YA Space Opera. What I got, however, was unlike anything I have ever read.

The basic story is that our protagonist, Tina Mains, is not just the typical teenager. She contains a interplanetary rescue beacon in her chest and is fully aware that, some day, it will be activated and her destiny as an alien disguised as a human will be unveiled.

As you can imagine, the time arrives and it is so much bigger than Tina could have anticipated. It turns out that Tina is the disguised copy of the galactic legend Captain Thaoh Argentian, and the Royal Fleet is relying on restoring Captain Argentian to help save the galaxy. Naturally, things don’t go as planned and Tina is really just turned into “Space Wikipedia.”

The very real threat, however, is not stopping, so Tina, her best friend Rachel, and an incredible crew of various alien races now have to figure out a mysterious puzzle and beat the horrible Compassion to gaining potential god-like powers.

There were several things about Victories Greater Than Death that struck me. First off, I’m not sure I have read a work that was so incredibly inclusive and sensitive to, well, just about everything. I understood, from the acknowledgements, that Ms. Anders employed a crew of sensitivity readers, and that is incredibly apparent. Even in the face of some pretty harsh speciesism, the story manages to be incredibly respectful.

The second thing that struck me was the incredible thought given to the people and places of Victories Greater Than Death. Alien races are presented with history and character/physiological traits that are oft referenced and really fine-tune the characters in a deft and refined way. Where many authors use an aside to describe alien morphology, Ms. Anders weaves these traits into the presentation of inter-character conversations.

Thirdly, was the action description. I have mentioned before how in awe I am of authors who can orchestrate battles where nothing seems to get lost in the telling, and Ms. Anders is a total natural. There is some serious action in Victories Greater Than Death, and it is presented in white-knuckled, amazingly detailed glory. This is a writing trait that I absolutely adore.

Lastly, for YA, Victories Greater Than Death tackles some seriously heavy subjects without getting preachy or letting the emotional themes detract from the greater story. In fact, it is these themes that really help propel the story as well as bond the reader with the characters. This is literary magic not often wielded well.

The one thing that I’m disappointed in is that I am now going to have to wait FOREVER for Unstoppable #2 to come out.

Rule of Wolves (King of Scars #2) by Leigh Bardugo

I guess the best way to describe this book is “attack of the Grishaverse all-stars!” Ms. Bardugo really went all out with this effort and really delivered on the setup she prepared with King of Scars two years ago (how has it been two years?!?!?!).

Basically stated, Ravka is in a pickle and Fjerda is getting ready to drop the hammer on young Nikolai Lantsov and his merry armies.

At the same time, deep in the heart of Fjerda, Nina Zenik remains very deep undercover in the home of her greatest enemy: Jarl Brum. Nina spends a lot of this tale battling between enacting revenge, providing valuable information for the salvation of Ravka, and tending to Jarl’s daughter, and Grisha in hiding, Hanne Brum.

Absolutely everyone from the Grishaverse makes an appearance, and Rule of Wolves was just a pure delight and awesome mix of amazing storylines and fan service.

This book really hits on the themes of obligation, responsibilities, and accepting or denying one’s personal emotions in the face of great adversity. There are so many twists and shock moments that really compels the reader to just hold on and motor through as quickly as possible.

The one thing I really love about this novel is the way it really pulls together the previous six efforts in the greater Grishaverse saga, yet also leaves the door open for an incredible expansion with future efforts. Ms. Bardugo really is a master of her craft, and, with the Grishaverse gaining greater exposure thanks to the Shadow and Bone television series, there are almost endless possibilities on where to go next.

The Last Shimmer by Sage Hyatt (Ryan Hyatt, ed.)

Short fiction, like a well-executed amuse-bouche, is very hard to pull off satisfyingly. Due to the nature of the back-lying mechanics of it, there is just so much opportunity to lean on one pillar of the story structure while not paying enough attention to one of the others.

Miss Hyatt understands this. The Last Shimmer balances a very well-developed storyline along with fully formed characters and a richly described setting in a way that is downright envious.

Without giving too much of it away, The Last Shimmer is the story of Tiger Lily Dander, her friend Stacy and the fanciful supposition of:

What if our shadows turned on us?

It works, it really really does, and, like I said before, Miss Hyatt develops a situation and a group of characters that work incredibly well for this piece.

This is twenty-seven pages of wonderful middle-grade horror with an absolute bow on top. Sure, it is not my normal fare, but I’m very much reconsidering the role of short fiction as a sort of palate cleanser between bigger works. I definitely needed this, and I really think all of you will enjoy it as well.