Tag: magic

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.

Hollywood Dead (Sandman Slim #10) by Richard Kadrey

James Stark can seriously not catch a break. Good ol’ Sandman Slim is freshly back from Hell thanks to making a deal with Wormwood, but — because it’s Wormwood — there’s a catch. Stark has to do some errands for the horrible organization and he only gets brought back at half-strength to do them. Typical Wormwood.

There is some serious shit brewing that Stark has to try to either diffuse or destroy, and he’s got a super limited timeline to do so. Naturally everything goes haywire and Stark — who is trying to lie low since he’s been dead for a year — has to go back to enlist some help from some old friends.

The Sandman Slim novels are just good damn fun to read, and they are always very inventive. Mr. Kadrey has a proven record of building some seriously screwed up situations to get Stark in, and some very creative solutions as to how Stark gets out of them. Stark’s LA is exactly the type of gritty hell-hole it needs to be, and the wide range of creatures, magicks, weirdos, groupies and goons makes for the perfect melange of fantasy noir.

Yes, a ten (actually twelve) book series is very daunting to approach, but I highly suggest devouring these as soon as you can. This has been one of my favorite series for a decade and I recommend it to everyone.

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.

The Kill Society (Sandman Slim #9) by Richard Kadrey

One of my absolute favorite fictional characters is James “Sandman Slim” Stark. The just amazingly insane escapades that Mr. Kadrey has put ol’ Jimmy through over the years is just gargantuan.

I’m not sure how I messed up and missed the release of four books, but now I get the opportunity to motor through the rest of the series all in one fell swoop.

In the Kill Society, Stark finds himself deposited by his old buddy Death back into a far reaching part of the Tenebrae. Almost instantly he is set upon by what seems to be a nomadic caravan who has more questions that Stark has answers. When dragged before the mysterious Magistrate who leads the caravan, Stark comes upon a very familiar face: Father Traven.

The Magistrate is fascinated by Stark (who is going by a false name so this group doesn’t know he’s Sandman Slim) and keeps him on to help with a mysterious plan that he has.

Very quickly, Stark finds himself teamed up with the preferred elite of this group, which he hilariously calls the Dog Pack.

Working with the Dog Pack, Stark begins to find out more and more bits of information about what the Magistrate is trying to achieve. The rest I shall leave for you to find out.

Per usual, Mr. Kadrey excels at setting up a remarkable description of the landscapes and challenges of his version of Hell. Worldbuilding is definitely a forte of his. The Kill Society had a very large cast of characters that were executed perfectly with individual voices and quirks. This is nothing new in the Sandman Slim universe, but it is very refreshing in its consistency.

This is the type of fun reading that I really really appreciate as a book lover and constant story consumer. I don’t have to rack my brain reading them, but the scratch every itch I love about gritty urban fantasy. Watching the way that Sandman Slim has developed over all these years has been just fantastic, and, while Stark’s attitude is slowly shifting away from just being an evil bastard, there is still all of that aggression and scathing wit that makes him such a delightful character to read. I cannot wait to jump into book number ten!

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.

In the Ravenous Dark by A.M. Strickland

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

It’s no secret that I have a severe love for YA Fantasy novels. I was already excited about taking on In the Ravenous Dark just from the synopsis, and, let me tell you, it is pure gold. Hell, this book brought me to actual tears a couple of times; I was that dialed into it.

The story opens up introducing young Rovan. Rovan and her father hold a very deep secret that could destroy their family if the knowledge slipped out: they can wield blood magic.

In a slip-up, Rovan’s father ends up dying to protect her from the ruling class of Thanopolis and that is really where the story takes off.

Twelve-ish years later a very mischievous Rovan ends up slipping and using her magic in public to save a friend/lover, and she is dragged into the royal court to adhere to their rule of being paired with a spirit guardian. This is where it gets really wacky. It turns out her father did not perish, and was forced to marry into the royal family to protect and propagate his bloodline: the source of his magical history and power.

Because of her proclivity to the power, Rovan is plopped right into a society she doesn’t understand, and really doesn’t like. She does, however, pair up with a couple of the other royal bloodmages: Lydea and Japha. Rovan takes on the full power of her bloodline which results in her father’s death, and she stays at odds with her mysterious guardian: Ivrilos.

At this point, there is a massive plot twist that I would feel disingenuous sharing, so I’m just going to say pick up this book.

Ms. Strickland powerfully built a complex world with all manners of details that really warrant more exploration. Rovan is the perfect little pain in the ass hero, and her interactions with Ivrilos, Lydea and Japha are downright legendary. This book was an extremely fun read, and the attention to picturesque detail is downright stunning. I really really really hope this is a first book in a series, because I can’t stand the thought that the motley band of bloodmages is at the end of their tale.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I learned from reading The Once and Future Witches that Ms. Harrow is an excellent storyteller; a writer capable of weaving delicate wisps of plot and story that intertwine innocently until they don’t.

I was hesitant, however to pick up The Ten Thousand Doors of January because it was her first novel, and I just enjoyed Witches so damn much.

Boy am I a moron.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the story of January Scallar: the semi-ward of a wealthy Vermont businessman/collector/eccentric. January doesn’t really fit in this world. She is basically holed up in Mr. Locke’s Vermont mansion while her father travels the world building up Locke’s collections of interesting artifacts.

As the story progresses, we start to learn that there is quite a bit more going on surrounding Mr. Locke, January’s father, and January herself. There are a multitude of worlds hidden behind random doors all over this world.

As I do not like to spoil any novel I read, I’m going to leave the synopsis at that.

As I mentioned earlier, what strikes me in reading Ms. Harrow’s works is the rolling and organic way her storytelling develops. Both of the works I’ve read from her, and especially this one, showcase and absolute love of the storytelling tradition and her adroit way of pulling in the reader as if in conversation. I absolutely love this style and I wish there was more of it.

The sensory descriptions in this book absolutely lend to the style. All of the smells, sounds, tastes and textures come to life in a flowing language that gently cradles the reader like a warm hearth. Cheesy description, but apt.

I know that Ms. Harrow has stated a few times that she has no plans of revisiting the tales of January and the multitude of doors, but, with so many doors, who says that intentions have to be stated?

The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

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

The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry

It’s very hard to start in on a review of something as magical as The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry because it just has so many facets and layers.

At first glance we get the feeling that one Miss Dellaria Wells is pretty much a hopeless case. An uneducated fire witch subsisting in the back alleys and barrooms of Leiscourt, just trying to find a way to keep a roof over her head and, sometimes, take care of her mam.

As this book really gets rolling, we find Delly stumbling her way into a very high paying job to watch over — with a passel of other more “high society” witches — a bride-to-be at a statuesque manor outside of Leiscourt.

Oh, but that’s just the start of it.

As the story ensues, we find our Delly embroiled in all manner of plot and chicanery. All of which I dare not share here as to keep the surprises to you, the reader.

In this book, Ms. Waggoner builds a robust semi-Victorian world full of class struggles, new love and some of the absolute best language I have come across in a very long time. Where else are you going to find a perfectly acceptable use for the word “enkittenated?”

I was very much reminded of Jen Williams’ The Copper Cat Series, and, especially the titular character of Wydrin. Delly and Wyd would probably be at each others’ throats a scant few pages in.

This is a book that you will not want to put down, nor want to finish. The characters all have amazing depth (even the dripper trash), and the personalities practically ooze off the page.

It would be a releftin’ shame if Ms. Waggoner did not continue to dabble in this world she has so lovingly built. I really cannot wait for more.

Oh, and then there’s Buttons… (bong)

Spellbreaker (Spellbreaker Duology #1) by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is the story of Elsie Camden, a young woman who was born with the ability to unmake spells much like unraveling a sweater.

Set in a semi-Victorian England, Spellbreaker tells the story of young Elsie and her search for stability in her life. Orphaned by her family, Elsie is rescued from the work house by a mysterious group of magic wielding “Robin Hood-esque” types know as the Cowls. Throwing another monkey into the barrel: Elsie is an unregistered and unlicensed magic user (or un-user as it is), so she must hide her abilities and her mysterious jobs for the Cowls.

One one such mission, Elsie runs afoul of almost Master Spellcaster Bacchus Kelsey. Bacchus catches Elsie red-handed, and, rather than turn her over to the authorities, he “gives her the opportunity” to work off her “crimes” with him on the Duke’s estate where he is currently residing.

All along the way, and a recurring theme in this book, Elsie is frantically searching for some news as to the whereabouts of the family that up and left her so many years before.

Going too much further into the plot would reveal spoilers that I’d rather not divulge.

In Spellbreaker, Ms. Holmberg presents a very well-formed environment with oodles of the backstory I just love in a read. While I would have rather enjoyed some more practical displays of the wider variety of magic use, I can appreciate staying on task with the story because there is a lot to unpack.

The characters are all marvelously charismatic and there is a real feel of everyone’s individuality in their interactions (trust me, this is important).

Topping it all off is the cliffhanger that — if I’m being honest — I did not totally see coming.

My one whiny gripe about duologies (or trilogies, for that matter) is the waiting required to get to the conclusion. Luckily, Spellmaker is due out March 9, 2021, so I only have to wait a few months.

Spellbreaker is a fun little read. It has a nice airy mix of magic, mystery, the scandalous hint of romance and Victorian England. The language is light and quaint, and the whole production has all the fond reminiscences of MASTERPIECE Mystery!.