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.

The Dark Archive (The Invisible Library #7) by Genevieve Cogman

This book was provided to me by NetGalley in return for a fair review

So this one fell in my lap, and it sounded like a very interesting premise. I had no idea it was book 7 in a series, or I would not have requested it. I absolutely hate jumping into a series mid-stream, but I went ahead anyway.

By a seventh book, it is implied that there is going to be a lot of lore and backstory in a series, and this was different. I quite enjoyed the summary device at the beginning, but felt like there was going to be a lot I was going to miss. Oh well, now I have a new series to pick up.

Ms. Cogman does a remarkable job of character development, but, for me, the worldbuilding was a tad scattered. While Irene Winters is definitely the central character of this book, I felt that there were a variety of sub-stories that were not formed fully enough to my liking.

The Dark Archive was a quick read, but not the most satisfying of reads. I would have very much liked to see Vale’s story fleshed out a bit more in this book, and the antagonists did not seem to occupy a lot of the primary focus.

My thoughts may change after I read the other books in the series, but I can’t really recommend this particular tome as a standalone.

Battle Ground (Dresden Files #17) by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground (Dresden Files Book 17) by [Jim Butcher]

OK, first things first. If you have not read Peace Talks (Dresden Files #16), then stop reading right here and go read that. Slight spoilers are absolutely inevitable.

OK, on to Battle Ground.

I love this book, and I hate this book. On top of that, I love that I hate it, and hate that I love it. Additionally, I hate Mr. Butcher for writing this book, and I’m terrified where we go from here.

I actually finished the novel about a week ago, and I’ve been wrapping my head around how I wanted to approach a review. Not the easiest task.

Battle Ground is really the biggest pressure release valve that the series has seen, and it’s pretty much 418 pages of non-stop crazy action. With the entire grimoire of supernaturals jumping in to take on the Last Titan, and, incidentally, the Fomor, I would have subtitled this book “Harry Dresden and the Battle for Chicago.”

Shit got crazy, and it got crazy very fast. We’ve seen Harry deal with all manner of threat and challenge in all the previous novels, but this one seriously takes the cake. Throughout my read, I constantly wondered if this was the one where Mr. Butcher was throwing in the towel and wrapping up the Dresden Files for good. I can’t imagine he is, after all we learn towards the conclusion of the story, but it would not have surprised me.

One thing that sets this particular novel apart from many of the other ones in the series is the emotion. We see sides of a lot of core characters that we have never seen before, and some of it is downright frightening.

I’m super curious to hear what other fans of the series thought about this one.

Oh, the bonus “Christmas Eve” story tacked on to the end of this book was a delightful palette cleanser and a pretty darn good little tale. Do not skip it.

Peace Talks (Dresden Files #16) by Jim Butcher

Peace Talks (Dresden Files Book 16) by [Jim Butcher]

Almost twenty years ago I picked up a book on a whim because the blurb described the story of a wizard for hire in Chicago. That book was Mr. Butcher’s first Harry Dresden novel — Storm Front — and I’ve not looked back since.

To say that I devour Dresden content is an understatement. I supported the television show (even though it wasn’t the best, and really should have had James Marsters in the title role), and even read each comic book adaptation.

Adventures with Harry were like clockwork: every year there would be something new. Then, after book 15 — Skin Game — came the lull. Six whole years without a new book. And, boy howdy, Skin Game did not end cleanly. I’m not going to spoil anything, but that was an agonizing wait.

Suddenly, it’s 2020 and, lo and behold, there’s a new Dresden book dropping in July! So I subtly shuffle my ever-growing to-be-read list around and slide it in as quickly as possible.

Let me tell you, this is exactly the Dresden book I needed. Yes I whined that it had been six years with no new fix, but this one made great strides towards mending that wound. We get new characters, old characters with new-found talents, new alliances, and stunning new foes.

About halfway through the book I get a notification that book seventeen of the Dresden Files is dropping on September 29. Two Dresden books in less than four months?!?!?!? So this is what Mr. Butcher has been doing for the last six years (I’m still waiting for another Cinder Spires book, too). Battle Ground will get its own review after I am done devouring it, and, while Peace Talks and Battle Ground could have been one giant epic of Harry Dresden greatness, I totally understand the split, and why it was very important to have an oh so brief pause between the two.

Peace Talks is the perfect stage-setter for what is to come while also building up an interesting semi-reboot of the the series. Harry, interestingly enough, has become less impulsive, more introspective, and is beginning to realize the responsibilities he has to himself, his family and loved ones, and the obligations he has gotten himself into. Hell, I think I counted less than ten FUEGO! mentions in the entire book!

Ultimately, it’s good to have Harry back, and it’s even better to have something other than short story case files in hand from Mr. Butcher.

I am still waiting for Cinder Spires book two, though…

Ruthless Gods (Something Dark and Holy #2) by Emily A. Duncan

Lore is something that keeps me totally invested in a book. Give me a well thought out world where there is far much more going on than is in just the setting of the primary story, and we’ve got something. I’m not talking about the insane heights of world building like J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin does, but I find myself more sucked into a story where you get little hints and mentions of other lands, or random factoids that just traipse across the page because they can, and not because the are 100% germane to the story.

This is the sort of detail that has made the current two Something Dark and Holy books so enjoyable to read.

Wicked Saints had a fun little romp with some toyed at romance and political intrigue. Ruthless Gods is all nitty gritty. To be honest, I’m not sure there are many scenes where someone isn’t bleeding.

Ultimately, this epic-ness of a middle book really blows the lightness of the first one out of the water. There are definitely small gems of joy that pop up throughout the story, but, by and large, it really lives up to the “dark and holy” moniker of the series.

Nadya is running away from all magic, Serefin is pretty much being torn apart, and there is never any telling if it’s going to be Malachiasz or the Black Vulture who shows up to a conversation… Sometimes both.

I absolutely love the way magic is presented in this series: as not just a singular thing from a singular source. We have divine magic, blood magic, relic magic, and probably several other versions that we just haven’t had the opportunity to unveil. Nothing is easy in these stories (not even dying), and nothing is sacred or safe. Beautiful scenes open onto eldritch horrors, and not even Divinity is as it seems.

I cannot wait for, but am totally terrified by, what lies between the covers of book number three. Also, there just aren’t enough tales set in a Slavic setting.

By the way, I just wanted to throw it out there that I would absolutely buy a set of the “reference books” Ms. Duncan quotes in the epigraphs of each chapter. I feel like I really need them in my life.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

43575115. sy475

Every so often I come across a book that is both incredibly enjoyable, and masterfully constructed. The Starless Sea is definitely one of those books.

I really enjoyed Ms. Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, so I figured I’d give this one a go after it sat in my “to be read” pile for a good chunk of the year. I am both happy and sad that I sat on this one. Happy that it did not get to overshadow a lot of what I have read in 2020, and sad that I did not have the characters within in my life sooner.

The Starless Sea is the story of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, the son of a fortune teller and lover of books. Without giving too much away, the story really starts to progress when Zachary stumbles across a very particular and mysterious book with no apparent author or origin.

What ensues is a grand adventure involving deception, intrigue, secret societies, and, of course the Starless Sea.

To me, this story really captures a perfected world of fantastic fables and storytelling. Hold your hands together like you are packing a snowball. What lies within that sphere of space in your empty hands is how I imagine the world within The Starless Sea: it is compact, mysterious, yet perfectly contained.

I cannot wait to read what Ms. Morgenstern has in store for us next.

Down World by Rebecca Phelps

This book was provided to me by NetGalley in return for a fair review

Imagine Stranger Things crossed with Back to the Future all tied together with teen angst and the guilt of loss and secrecy. That’s pretty much the premise of Down World.

This is the story of Marina, a girl who lost her brother to a train accident four years previously. She is starting her sophomore year at public school; having gone to private school previously.

As the story unfolds, we discover that the high school, formerly a military base, has portals to different planes deep in its bowels that people have been using for years to visit alternate realities. That’s where things start to get very interesting, and Marina’s world changes drastically.

Ms. Phelps does a great job at world building and character development in this quick read. The foibles of high school life, and the navigation of potential romance make the “normal” portions of this book seem very believable.

Where I was disappointed, however, were the leaps in trying to rush certain portions of the story along to get to the next waypoint. Concepts and situations were introduced, not really ever resolved, and that stuck with me. For me, there is a wide swath of the “Down World” story that would have benefited from a better introduction, or even just an in-story summary of the bigger situation. There were opportunities to expound on this, but it was a path just not taken.

Four Tombstones (Josie Jameson #1) by Jennifer L. Hotes

This book was provided to me by NetGalley in return for a fair review

Four Tombstones: a Josie Jameson mystery by [Jennifer Hotes]

I’m a huge fan of magic/mystery books, an even greater fan of YA; and Four Tombstones hits all the right buttons in what I look for in a book.

The story of Josie Jameson, a Seattle-area teenager who lost her mother to cancer six years ago, Four Tombstones is a story of love, loss, hope and mystery.

Everything opens with Josie desperately wanting to connect with her mother through dragging her four friends — the Baby Group — to the cemetery where her mother is buried in the guise of having some Halloween night fun to make some grave rubbings. As a result of that fateful night, new connections are made, Josie and her friends each end up getting set on tasks that will both bring them all closer, and, at some points, threaten to break them all apart.

The genuineness in Ms. Hotes’ writing really sells each of the journeys. Each member of the Baby Group faces some sort of harsh reality, and each have to grow a bit more out of childhood to reckon with their dilemmas: both individual and collective.

An air of the mystical permeates most of Josie’s story, and she tackles the unknown with both vigor and trepidation. It was not until I got to the end of this book that I was made aware that there are two others in the series. I very much look forward to reading more about Josie and her friends’ adventures.

Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff

While I do not want to address the television adaptation of this novel, it is definitely the elephant in the room, and I will be honest that I picked up this book because the show trailer looked so fascinating (and I had ignored the recommendation last year from a dear friend).

OK, elephant addressed.

Lovecraft Country is a marvelous tale of horror, science fiction, and navigation of Jim Crow America of the 1950’s. Delightfully broken into vignettes and paying a whole lot of homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s style both in subject matter and story construction.

Throughout the bigger work, a larger story arc is weaving itself featuring arcane rituals, mystical objects, powerful magicks, Indiana Jones-style adventure, and more than a little overt racism.

Wrapped around the larger story are small tales of new worlds, cursed objects, hauntings, debts paid and self-discovery. Again, very much flavored with the struggles of being Black in America during a time where being non-white put one at a very overt and accepted disadvantage.

While the book was a relatively quick read, I found the world-building quite intricate and well-developed. The protagonists are very likable: even with their quirks and flaws; and the “villains” run the gamut of mystical to brutish.

Quite the literary treat.

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

The Conductors (A Murder & Magic Novel) by [Nicole Glover]

This book was provided to me by NetGalley in return for a fair review

It’s only been recently that I have started reading more in the realm of historical fiction, but I’m finding I am enjoying it more and more. In The Conductors, Ms. Glover — in her debut offering, by the way — weaves an intriguing tale of a very closely knit community in Philadelphia; loosely tied together by their traditions, a heritage of stellar magic, and two former conductors on the underground railroad who now spend time solving some of the mysteries of this community.

Interspersed with looks back to pre-freedom times, and how a fair number of the primary characters came into the orbit of Hetty and Benjy (our crafty protagonists), one cannot help but see the comparisons to Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

This novel, however, very much stands on its own two feet. With the introduction of a mysterious murder of someone close in their circle, the two main characters — Hetty and Benjy Rhodes — begin an investigation that uncovers intrigue, shame, lies to one another, and lies to oneself.

Above all, though, I find The Conductors a story of love and self-discovery. Even without the wonderful booster of magic, sorcery, and the acceptance and acceptable use thereof; this novel would still reach its intended point. The magic, though, makes it all that much more interesting.

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

There are stories one reads that one hopes will never end; then there are stories that absolutely cannot end. Harrow the Ninth falls firmly in the second category.

I absolutely fell in love with the wit and language of Gideon the Ninth and the story of Lyctor and last necromancer of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus is right up there in caliber. The glorious weaving of language and humor tied into yet another catastrophic mystery makes for one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had all year.

Yes, parts of the story are confusing as all hell, but that’s part of the story. Sometimes you just have to let go and patiently observe the author taking you on a wild rollercoaster ride, and you’ll just have to like it. Believe me, the ride is worth it.

Extra kudos to Moira Quirk who did the voice acting/narration for the audiobook. These stories are made that much better because of her involvement in the project. The characters are as much hers as they are Ms. Muir’s.