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.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Persephone Station by [Stina Leicht]

Space Opera is a genre that has been around for almost one-hundred years. In this century of epic space battles and the triumph over good and evil — of which I read a lot — I have finally found a story that had a super-unique approach, and that is the total gem that is Ms. Leicht’s Persephone Station.

Billing this novel as Feminist Science Fiction is incredibly apt, but I feel it does not fully encompass the level of unique inclusion presented.

Persephone Station is the story of Rosie, bar owner in the singular town of West Brynner on the seriously backwater planet of Persephone. Rosie’s Monk’s Bar caters to a wide variety of regular clients, but it is in the back room where the action happens: where the elite criminal class mingles with the sorts of folks who wish to procure services from them.

Rosie has a unique tie to the planet of Persephone and it is this tie that predicates the involvement of our other main protagonist: Angel de la Reza. Angel is an ex-marine who gathered up a rag-tag group of ex-military, some mercs and a damn good sniper to handle jobs coming out of the Monk’s Bar skirting around the Serrao-Orlov Corporation who recently obtained ownership of the planet.

What happens next pits Angel and Rosie — on different fronts — up against the incredible machine that is Serrao-Orlov in a frantic effort to protect both their own necks and the secrets hidden on Persephone.

This book was just a blast to read. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop, but I got a definite Kelly’s Heroes and Magnificent Seven vibe from it. Angel’s team does not mess around when it comes to the job, but the amazing banter and personality quirks are what really make this story so remarkable.

It’s the nuance and the slow unfolding of both the story and the backstories of the characters that I enjoyed the most in this work of Ms. Leicht’s. Hell, even the ship computer systems were a delight to read.

Persephone Station is one of those books that is going to end up on a lot of “best of 2021” lists, and I really wouldn’t surprise if it ended up on the nomination lists for the Hugos or the Lammys.

It’s an amazingly entertaining journey that I heartily recommend. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

TRUEL1F3 (LIFEL1K3 #3) by Jay Kristoff

Mr. Kristoff has an uncanny ability to suck readers into his elaborate world and then leave them hanging on every word until the series is complete. He has done it — again — masterfully in TRUEL1F3, the conclusion of the LIFEL1K3 series. One thing I have absolutely loved about this series is how the character focus one-hundred percent flipped in the midst of book two (well, probably some in book one as well, but that’s going to have to be a deeper dive). For the most part, TRUEL1F3 is all about Lemon Fresh and the resolution of the unlocking of the Myriad supercomputer and the secrets of the Libertas code. Oh, there’s a corporate war getting pretty hot, too.

Let’s just say, there is a whole lot of story packed into these 480 pages.

For me, LIFEL1K3 was a roller coaster of a book, but DEV1AT3 tended to drag a little. The story was still very amazing, but it definitely feels like the bridge of the trilogy. I was a tad worried that TRUEL1F3 might fizzle, but now I see that DEV1AT3 positioned all of the pieces for the wallop that TRUEL1F3 delivered. While I very much appreciate the dynamic between the technologists, the biotech-heads, the lifelikes and the freaks; the storyline that intrigued me the most was the Libertas virus and how much the implications of it distress Cricket.

This book definitely gets far more emotional than the previous two, but I guess that was to be expected in the finale of a series with a pretty emotionally-charged core storyline. This one worked pretty well, though. More often than not, post-apocalyptic dystopian semi-cyberpunk relies wholly on the tech and confrontations rather than delve into the humanity (or meta-humanity) of the characters. For me, this entire series is about how the concepts of humanity can transcend the technology, and Mr. Kristoff has a solid track record of writing amazing inter-character relationships.

Did I imagine I would get teary-eyed about the super-emotional interaction between a girl and her giant warbot best friend? No, but that’s where we ended up.

Pick up this series. It’s a quick read and well worth it.

Bridge of Souls (Cassidy Blake #3) by Victoria Schwab

It’s no secret that Ms. Schwab is one of my absolute favorite authors. One thing that I’m super jealous about is her ability to pivot her mindset to better address her audience. It’s practically a superpower.

Bridge of Souls is the third book in the Cassidy Blake series about young Cassidy Blake, her ghostly best friend Jacob, and the scary situations the two of them get into as a result of Cass’ parents being on-air ghost investigators.

This particular tome takes us to the famously haunted city of New Orleans, and starts to address a bit of the insanity that happened to Cassidy in Paris at the end of Tunnel of Bones.

I really really want to delve into the story elements of this book, but it gets very spoilery very fast, and that’s just unfair to anyone totally engrossed in this series. This series is aimed towards eight to twelve year-olds, so I was super surprised that Ms. Schwab chose to tackle the LaLurie Mansion (look it up, it’s a total shocker), but did so very deftly.

Again, not getting too spoilery, the second half of this quick read gets very emotional very quickly. I would say that I was surprised that “kid lit” almost brought me to tears, but I’m very familiar with Ms. Schwab’s body of work, and her masterful skill at building up emotion. It’s masterful.

At the end of the day, one of the best things about Bridge of Souls as well as all of the Cassidy Blake books is that this is reading material you can definitely read along with your kids. I find it incredibly smart and engaging for all ages, and there is never any point in which the plot or situations are dumbed down — a trend I despise — to avoid “hard questions.” Hell, this entire series is basically about death and dying.

Read this book, and read the entire series. They go rather quickly, but are an absolute delight. Ms. Schwab has said that this may be the last in the series for a while, and I can understand that with her busy docket of current work, but I really hope that she revisits these characters some day. They are absolutely delightful.

Stay Younger Longer (Terrafide #3) by Ryan Hyatt

*** This book was provided to me by the author for a fair and honest review ***

Stay Younger Longer (Terrafide Book 3) by [Ryan Hyatt]

Mr. Hyatt appears to love to wear his readers out, and Stay Younger Longer is absolute proof of it.

Dick White is a journalist in the midst of an ongoing personal crisis who, despite copious idiocy and self-medication, has been given the opportunity to break open the story of the century: the secrets behind the anti-aging drug Euphoria.

It turns out, though, that Dick isn’t the only one interested in the “so-called” cure that has been hinted at. I’d love to say that shenanigans ensue, but that is horribly misleading. Basically, Dick gets himself in and out of a ton of crazy situations and barely escapes with his life a lot.

In context with the rest of the Terrafide books, I was glad that I read this one last. Unconventionally, Mr. Hyatt released these books in semi-sideways order. Stay Younger Longer came first, followed by Rise of the Liberators which outlines a bit of what is going on in regards to the military aspect of things, and then The Psychic’s Memoirs which really puts everything in perspective as to how this all got started. I accidentally read the series in story chronological order and it was very enlightening to see the progression. There are a few instances of story weirdness, but the subject matter more than makes up for any anomalies.

As I have said in previous reviews, Mr. Hyatt is masterful at story and character building. You really want to like Dick White and his semi-dystopian Los Angeles, but you also really don’t want to like him. Dick is an anti-hero who kind of tries to do the right thing, but is more driven by his vices than his sense of righteousness. There are large swaths of this story that deal with Dick just getting into bad social situations that may seem extraneous, but I think they are there to show us just where his brain is really at.

The Los Angeles of Stay Younger Longer is a dystopian future that I really can see us achieving easily. There are a few fantastical elements, but the majority of it is just downright believable. The fact that this book was released in 2015, and some of the elements that are “true” today, six years later, is oddly prescient.

Bottom line, read this book. Hell, read the entire series. I really hope there is another book coming to help fill in some of the questions I have, but I’m happy with where I’m currently at.

Rise of the Liberators (Terrafide #1) by Ryan Hyatt

*** This book was provided to me by the author for a fair and honest review ***

Rise of the Liberators (Terrafide Book 1) by [Ryan Hyatt]

Ray Salvatore is an out of work Marine who is about to lose his house in the midst of the Greatest Depression. Ray is completely screwed and very desperate about his lack of control over his situation.

Out of the blue, Ray is called up with an opportunity to take care of his family for life, and, head up a new military secret weapons project. All he has to do is wage a little war.

The secret project that Ray gets involved in is the Liberators: huge armored mecha that are unlike any military hardware on Earth. Ray’s job is to get up to speed on the ins and outs of the system(s), and then lead a group of moderately misfit Marines in learning how to effectively use the Liberator.

Questions abound, but Ray is focused on the task at hand and trying to whip his soldiers (often unconventionally) into shape to take on Iran.

While I really enjoyed this book and the character and scene building, there is a story split about halfway through the book introducing a new character, a new situation, and an entirely new set of technologies and problems. While this story arc does circle back to the primary one, I think it would have better been developed as a complimentary story (Terrafide #1.5, perhaps), and not in the primary novel.

That being said, Mr. Hyatt is exceedingly good at building up semi-dystopian urban environments. There are a lot of unique characters to juggle in Rise of the Liberators, and Mr. Hyatt does so deftly. Having already read Terrafide #2, I knew a little of what to expect from where Rise of the Liberators was going, but it was a damn enjoyable ride.

I mean, who doesn’t love giant robots?