Tag: Fantasy Fiction

A World of Secrets (The Firewall Trilogy #2) by James Maxwell

A World of Secrets (The Firewall Trilogy Book 2) by [James Maxwell]

Oh Mr. Maxwell, I really really tried to get into this one. A Girl From Nowhere had such great potential, and the battle scenes were masterfully choreographed, but what we got in A World of Secrets is the story-bridge equivalent of Back to the Future Part II.

Yes, we did get to see a bit more of the relationship between Taimin and Selena grow, and a pretty big character roadblock was “fixed” in a cheeky way that, in my opinion, was an insult to the character.

I will say, I did enjoy the last quarter of the book, but the first three-quarters felt, to me, like a bit of a drudge. There was some slight character development, and the story slightly pushed along, but much as in Back to the Future Part II, this was just a platform to bridge book one to book three without really adding much to the bigger story other than a pivotal twist at the end.

Yes, the pivot was practically genre-jumping, and a real game-changer in what is going on, but we had to get through a lot of what basically gets flashed into irrelevancy in the final pages of the book.

I do understand that there was a bigger journey that was important to what was built up in book one, but the transition to the “big reveal” came across, again, in my opinion, as mildly insulting.

Sadly, I just don’t have the motivation right now to continue on to book three.

The Maleficent Seven by Cameron Johnston

When the synopsis for this novel came across my field of vision, it was damn near love at first sight. Here is a story that deals in very familiar tropes, pivoting the usual angles on their proverbial ears and taking a swipe at the entire concept of good vs bad, right vs wrong, and holy vs evil. To say the least, The Maleficent Seven definitely caught my attention.

I’m going to get a tad more spoiler-y than I usually do in my reviews, so you have been warned.

Very basically stated, The Maleficent Seven is the story of an evil demonologist general, Black Herran, who disappeared forty years previous to our story, right on the cusp of bringing the entire continent of Essoran to its knees before her along with her band of six merciless warrior generals.

With her abandonment, the royal families of Essoran prevailed, and the generals all went their separate ways.

Fast forwarding to our tale, a new force is wending it’s way through Essoran, and it’s threat is far different than what the citizenry faced with Black Herran: the army of the Bright One.

Headed up by the Falcon Prince, the army of the Bright One is charging through Essoran destroying every town and village who follow the ways of the Elder Gods: basically killing a majority of the populace in the process.

Here’s where the twist comes in (and where I get a bit spoiler-y): Black Herran has been hiding in one of these small towns as a “normal” citizen for these past forty years!

It turns out the Falcon Prince’s holy knights are making their way towards the town of Tarnbrooke: where Black Herran has been in hiding, and she is now forced to give up her simple life to, once again, become the terrible threat she was notorious for. Also, she’s decided to convince her dreaded six generals to help her in the effort.

If you weren’t already in on this stunner of a tale, let me give you a rundown of the generals.

There is a necromancer, a vampire lord, a demigod, an orcish warleader, a pirate queen, and a very mentally unstable alchemist. Almost all of these folks hate Black Herran with burning passions, as well as being not to fond of each other. It’s an absolute dream for the reader.

There are, naturally, some parallels with the nigh-homophonic title inspiration The Magnificent Seven[1], but it is the originality of The Maleficent Seven that really hit it home for me. Everyone loves a good villain, and there are seven that have been so meticulously constructed that I would absolutely love some off-shoot novels regarding their forty-year stories (hint, hint, Mr. Johnston).

Yes, the Falcon Prince is the real “baddie” of the story, and masterfully neglected by Mr. Johnston in his character development. That is one-hundred percent not a slight. Aside from the pressing threat, the Falcon Prince, for me, is only as useful as the mega-fight that is promised in the buildup of the rest of the story. It takes some serious dedication to stay that path, and Mr. Johnston delivers.

The Maleficent Seven is not the most profound novel I will read this year, but it will, absolutely, be on my favorites list. It’s mirthful, gory, drunken and gritty, and I absolutely loved it. It’s not often I gleefully giggle through battlefield dismemberment (oh, who’s kidding, it happens a lot), but there is a lot of that in this one.

[1] I prefer the 1960 John Sturges version over the 2016 Antoine Fuqua version, but both have their merits. It is also probably considered criminal to not to consider the original, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), since it is widely considered an epic masterpiece of cinema.

The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston

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

It may be a very simple stance, but, in my humblest of opinion, any book that prefaces with a map is bound to be interesting. Provide me multiple maps, and I’m liable to put on a helmet before tackling chapter one.

This is how I knew that The Knave of Secrets was going to be an absolute page-turner.

After a quick little study of the two map (yes, TWO!), we drop right into an excerpt from a fictional reference book. That’s just next-level world-building, and now I’m really excited about this tale.

The Knave of Secrets is about Valen Quinol, his wife Margo, and his two-person crew — Teneriève and Jacquemin, respectably — and the cardsharping shenanigans Valen drags the rest into on a constant basis.

This is a story about power, the perception of power, and the gaps where all the in-between slides around to bolster, or destroy this power. Mr. Livingston does a marvelous job of setting up a myriad of class and political systems to reinforce the gap between the haves and the have-nots, along with the larger undercurrent of the shadow powers as well as how “common” street gangs fit into the mix.

The politics in The Knave of Secrets are vitally important. Much as it is in many modern societies, the established gentry are quite loathe to welcome newcomers to the table, and many complex steps are taken to keep the “new” away.

Tying absolutely everything together at all levels of society are the games. In fact, Mr. Livingston was kind enough to offer a very in-depth “Catalogue of Games” in the appendices to help the reader appreciate just how ingrained in the culture these games are.

Here’s the gist. Valen, naturally, gets into a bit of a mess because of his insatiable need to be on top of any game of chance that might be going on around him. As it is, he is staked to take part in a prestigious tournament where secrets are the currency of choice. What Valen, Ten and Jac get pulled into could shake the foundations of society, and have much larger ramifications in regards to the larger political climate.

It’s a total mess, but it’s up to Valen to hold all the pieces together: quite literally.

As I mentioned previously, Mr. Livingston goes above and beyond in the world-building department. The attention to detail, and the meticulous building of history and lore is just astounding.

Then there is the banter. The repartee between our merry miscreants is so incredibly natural and indicative of a very well-established, and well-tested, relationship. It was such a joy to barrel through the ribbons of sharp and flowing interactions the characters have. The familiar interactions intertwine and test with witty jabs and history-tested considerations while the exchanges between oft suspicious strangers is wildly calculated and sharp. This flowing consideration of vocabulary and inflection is just a treat for the readers.

I dare not spill any of the beans on how this wonderful tale builds or resolves, but I can say that I really hope that Mr. Livingston is not done with this world. My appetite has been whetted, and I absolutely desire more.

The City of Dusk (The Dark Gods #1) by Tara Sim

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

The City of Dusk (The Dark Gods Book 1) by [Tara Sim]

Sometimes you stumble on a book that hits all the right buttons at just the right time. Boy howdy, The City of Dusk sure did.

Set in the realm of Nexus (a very telling name, no?) in the city of Vaega, The City of Dusk is the story of four noble houses: each with their own divine magic affiliation and abilities. Well, really it’s about the heirs of these houses and their interaction with each other, their deities, and with the impending doom they sense coming.

The gods these houses descended from have shut off the realm that contains Nexus from the other realms of magic. To add a special twist, the Holy King may announce one of the heirs the heir to the crown at any moment.

Yeah, all the makings of some serious grimdark tomfoolery.

Above all The City of Dusk massively excels at a pervasive inner conflict that roils through each and every one of the main characters. Attitudes, allegiances and even relationships sway back and forth, caroming off of every obstacle imaginable. Just when things begin to even out a little bit, some new bit of madness drops in out of the ether and everything is upended. As a plot device, however, it really really adds to the sense of uncertainty that is practically a character in its own right. Ms. Sims deftly weaves together impossible and improbable situations that each of the heirs has to traverse, and, in some cases, there doesn’t seem to be a plausible “right answer” that can be achieved. It’s absolutely delicious.

This is a series that is going to pain me greatly to have to wait for. This first book isn’t even officially “out in the wild,” and I’m craving the second. This book is definitely bound to be on several of the “best of” lists for 2022. On March 22, make sure you have your copy.

Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley

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

Rosalind Featherstone is a badass. Yeah, she might not always make the best decisions; she’s a little impulsive, and she probably drinks too much, but, nonetheless, Roz is a badass. When we first meet her at The Skinned Cat — one of the few taverns she is still welcome in — Roz manages to get in a bit of a knock-down, drag-out scuffle whilst waiting for her partner, the humongous Lysander Tunning.

Lysander has lined up a cherry of a job for him and Roz: rescuing the kidnapped infant of the highly respected Lord Edmund which was kidnapped by the relatively new and notorious Alath Mages Guild.

That’s how this marvelous tale kicks off. From there we drop right into hardboiled noir, magic, spirits, deception and a little bit of sexy time. J.S. Kelley has absolutely nailed the banter between our two primary protagonists. Roz and Lye and old friends and the relationship is just so beautifully executed. In fantasy fiction such as this, you usually expect the big lunk to be the hot-headed one, but it is just absolutely refreshing for Lye to be the voice of reason while Roz will pretty much take on anything regardless of risk. That being said, though, Roz has a real intuitive noggin on her shoulders. The mystery aspect of Gutter Mage is what really sets it apart from much of the fantasy fiction that is out there. I would think I had a certain twist sorted, and be absolutely wrong: an incredibly enjoyable feeling when navigating a new book.

Rolling this all up in Roz’s semi-mysterious history is just the icing on the cake. J.S. Kelley definitely has some serious talent at character development, and the worldbuilding in Gutter Mage is also incredibly top notch. Do yourself a favor and put this one in your TBR stack. I honestly can’t think of a more enjoyable mystery novel that I have read in the past year. I feel like a night out drinking with Roz would lead to some serious mirth.

I do hope that this is not the last that we see of this world. I feel like there were enough unanswered questions to warrant another book (or ten), and, honestly, I just can’t wait for more.

Vampire Brother by Steve Stephenson

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

Vampire Brother

Elves and vampires; what a fantastic combination! I never like to fault an author for releasing their works out into the world because it is horribly stressful, and, for some, quite traumatic. That being said, I just couldn’t get into this book. It had all of the hallmarks of being right up my alley, but it just falls flat on so many fronts.

First of all, there is a massive amount of lore that is just gently glossed over. The way certain things are addressed in Vampire Brother, it is as if this is a middle book in a series. History and mythology are hinted at, but not expounded upon. There seems to be a literal cast of thousands, and the story switches perspective very often. At points I just felt like I was reading my notes from previous sessions of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The action was there, but very little flavor.

If developed, this could have been a very good multi-book series, but just too much was tackled, and in a semi-haphazard way for my liking. I really detest being harsh, but I have to be honest.

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!

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.

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.

A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe (The Dryad’s Crown, #2) by David Hopkins

A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe: Book Two of the Dryad's Crown by [David Hopkins, Daniel Decena, Francesca Baerald]

Mr. Hopkins has done it again. While the serialized releases of his Dryad’s Crown series are excruciating because of the waiting, A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe really made the wait worth it.

Previously we were introduced to the semi-mysterious Silbrey, her family, and her near-insane past. She, and her two children have settled down in a farmhouse next to a forest that seems to provide some comfort to Silbrey and her restlessness.

Gydan, Silbrey’s daughter begins to hear voices that beckon her to come into the woods and provide rescue. I’ll just leave the recap there, because it gets really really spicy after that.

A Hidden Burrow Near Barcombe turns out to be the story of one wallop of an extended fight, and an opportunity of discovery.

In the conflict that breaks out, you can definitely see the framework of Mr. Hopkins’ tabletop role playing game experience. The staging and posturing was perfect, and, unlike other authors who try to choreograph combat, there was always a clear vision of how the fight was positioned. This is a difficult skill to execute without muddying the scene with “lost” combatants or just general chaos.

Now that we have a second book in The Dryad’s Crown, a grander story is slowly starting to unfold. I cannot wait to see where it takes us.

As I said in my previous review, the worldbuilding that Mr. Hopkins has melded together is one of wonder. To make things even more amazing, this tale occurs in a world of his design, Efre Ousel, which he has amazingly created as “open content” in the hopes of fostering a collaborative community of storytellers with the goal of building on each others’ work. The potential gives me shivers.

There is already a wiki and a D&D 5e compatible campaign setting. I just can’t wait to see what the community comes up with.