Blade of Memories, Book One of the Black Shadow series, by Tina Hunter
While it won't be landing on my Favorites page anytime soon, Tina Hunter's Blade of Memories was quite good, and a joy to read. There weren't a whole lot of surprises, and there were a few parts of the book--like the whole thing with Lynn's ex--that had little to no relevance to the actual plot and only existed to set up future books. That's understandable for the first installation of a series, but it tried my patience when all I wanted was to get on with the actual story.
The pacing is excellent. It starts with a smaller heist that Lynn barely pulls off, introducing us to magic when she has to use enchanted crystals to scale walls and heal her broken arm. Funny enough, while magic crystals that anyone can use is widely accepted, people with innate magical abilities are harshly discriminated against. Which makes a certain amount of sense, as those with innate abilities are much more powerful than someone with a fancy glowing rock.
There are a few different cultures in this world that are very distinct and believable, and the magic system Hunter sets up is followed to the letter. I was intrigued to see that the setting is not based on Medieval Europe like 95% of epic fantasy. The existence of pistols and the costuming suggests something closer to the Victorian Era, though there is no steampunk element. The world-building is definitely an aspect that I want to see fleshed out in future books.
Lynn's relationship with Dorjee--the young runaway she takes under her wing--is an absolute treasure. In fact, every relationship Lynn has with each character is unique, complicated, and very real. Lynn herself is a good protagonist to root for: she's smart, crafty, compassionate, and we're empathetic to her because of the deck stacked against her. The only time I rolled my eyes at her character was near the beginning, when she agrees to undergo this impossible, extremely dangerous heist to get...a necklace. Maybe I'm just too practical for sentimentality, but even if it had belonged to her deceased mother, going through all of that hell for a hunk of rock just seems really stupid. Later we find out that it has magical value, but at the time of the deal Lynn doesn't know that. If she had even the vaguest idea, then it would have made it a much stronger MacGuffin and seemed like a more realistic reason to go through with everything.
Once the necklace-triggered plot gets started, though, it's a fun ride. Lynn has to try to lead a team of people who want nothing to do with her, encounters several family members who are involved and each have a stake in this, and has to find a way to pull of the heist to get the necklace without actually giving her boss the stolen goods, because she knows he's going to do something absolutely horrible with them.
I would recommend this for light summer reading, something fun to distract yourself with when you're recovering from the crippling death of a beloved character from another story. I will be picking up book two when it comes out.
My Favorite SFF Books Read in 2018
Christmas was, of course, last week. If any of you readers are like me, you asked for--and hopefully received!--a lot of books for the holiday this year. Never mind that I'm a Buddhist and don't believe in God or their controversial demigods, I will take any excuse to beg for books. And spend time on family, I guess.
For me personally, 2019 seems to the be the year that I should really consider getting an extra bookshelf rather than just piling all the books in my room. But before we move forward, I thought it would be fun to look back on the best sci-fi and fantasy books I personally read and reviewed in 2018.
Note: these are in no particular order. Don't ask me to choose my singular favorite or to even vaguely list them. That'd be like torture.
Another note: these are all books that I read in 2018. While some of them did come out this year, some are a few years older. But they're included in this list because it's my blog and therefore follows my rules of time, space, and physics. Enjoy!
Throne of Glass Series
The Adventure Zone Graphic Novel
By Fire Above
Trials of Apollo: The Burning Maze
The Nemesis series
What were your favorite books from this year? Let me know in the comments so I can add them to my reading list!
Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass series) by Sarah J. Maas
I've had conflicting views on this series as a whole, which I've made very clear in my overall series review and my LSQ article "How NOT to Write Romantic Subplots," and all of those views and emotions came to a head in this book.
Mind-bending plot twists? Check.
Aelin being awesome along with Maeve being a bitch? Check.
Unnecessary use of romantic subplots that honestly make me wish several of these characters would just die already? Check and mate.
If you follow my YouTube channel, you may have caught my review for Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, where I was endlessly frustrated not just by the books, but the fact that all of my problems with those books were major spoilers. So I kind of had to dance around them in my review while making it clear that there were some major issues. Well, it's the same thing with KoA: all of my complaints are spoilers, and I pledge myself to spoiler-free reviews. Which means this review is going to be short, with no small amount of frustration on my end.
So let me just say this: Sarah J. Maas needs to learn to kill off major characters. She uses the "saved by last-minute reinforcements" trope a few too many times in this book, and it kills the tension. Not to mention it makes this book incredibly crowded. When she does kill a character, it loses its impact because there are a dozen other characters for us to root for. To be completely honest, this is a big problem in the series as a whole. The only major characters she's killed this entire series are Nehemia and Sorscha. Remember them? I sure don't! Because there are too many goddamn characters!
And that...is my only real complaint, other than the usual "too many romantic subplots, not enough murder" bickering that's usually in my reviews, and I've already slammed into Maas for it on my BitchShelf column.
As usual, Maas has excellent characterization and pacing. I think my favorite part of this book is the temporary team-up between Dorian and Maeve. Yes, you read that right. Dorian and Maeve team up for a few chapters against Erawan, and it is incredible. I love the "bad guy and good guy are forced to work together against a worst guy" trope, and seeing Dorian and Maeve trying to manipulate each other while also manipulating Erawan was the highlight of my day.
I'll stop now because I'm dangerously close to spoiler territory. Bottom line: I do recommend this book and the series as a whole. It has it flaws, but it's still a good read. Anyone who's into YA fantasy will want this on their bookshelf.
With an excerpt from her upcoming novel Incantation
This week, the blog is being taken over by author and blogger Stephanie Barr. Last week she was kind enough to invite me onto her blog Rockets and Dragons for a post about Sovadron. So today, we’re going to be talking about the book Stephanie wrote with Mirren Hogan: Incantation. Including an excerpt from the novel itself!
Sure, you love magic and intrigue and, y'know, dragons. But there are plenty of reasons NOT to read the book I, Stephanie Barr, wrote with Mirren Hogan, Incantation:
Not to mention the fact that you can only find it in the book bundle Rite to Reign, which is a steal for 99 cents, because you also get more than twenty other great books by best-selling and award-winning authors.
And if you preorder it, you can get fifteen books and a custom spell book written by the authors.
And hey, here's an excerpt:
"I have just want you need." She ran to a large trunk in the back and began rummaging through it throwing this and that out over her shoulder. Some of the items were recognizable but plenty were a mystery. "This!" She trotted back, a carved crystal bottle between her withered hands.
"What is it?"
"Elixir of regeneration. One sip, and your magic will replenish. But only take one. If you take a second one in less than a month, you'll likely explode with the power."
David reached for it. "That will be twenty-five gold. Elixir doesn't come cheap you know."
David scrounged in his pocket and had to fish a few extra pieces from his other pocket. She handed him the bottle with a flourish, then turned her beady little eyes on Henry. "Now, for you."
He took a step back. "I don't know. I think maybe I'm fine after all." He didn't feel like exploding from using something wrong. He could endanger himself perfectly well without help.
"Come, come, the price has already been paid. You need only choose a card."
Henry sighed, but turned his face and tugged a card free. "It better not be the death card." He knew enough about tarot to know it only meant change, not literal death, but he still didn't want to see it.
"Strength," she said, her eyes brightening. "Aren't you the hidden treasure? Well, well." She gripped his hand before he could return the card. "Yes, yes, I feel it. So much strength. You only need the key. The key!" She tossed his hand aside and fetched an ornate jewelry box off the shelf, cackling to herself.
Henry wound a hand in the air near his ear, gesturing to David that he thought maybe she was at least a little bit crazy. They might be too, for listening to her.
"What kind of key?" he asked, not bothering to try to sound like he bought it.
"Well," David whispered to him, "she did know control is one of my weak spots."
"A-ha!" she exulted, swinging a silver chain over her head. "It's here," she said with great portent. "The key."
And there it was, a tiny silver key on a long thick silver chain.
"Well it's a key," Henry replied. "What does it do?" It looked like the kind which opened a child's diary, not a magical artifact of any actual use.
She ignored his reluctance and slipped the chain over his neck. "When the time is right," she said in a whisper with a blast of smoky breath, "it will let you open up the heart of your power."
"How much," said David, fishing the last of the coins from his pocket.
She waved a hand. "You've been such good customers. Call it a bonus."
Henry shrugged. “Thanks, I guess.” It probably wouldn’t do anything anyway. “We should get going.”
David nodded, but thanked the creepy old woman a little too warmly. Then, just before he left, he said, "Hey, do you know what unicorns eat? Is it the same as regular horses?"
"Of course not. Unicorns eat shit. They like cow and horse shit, but nothing makes them happier than dragon dung."
"Really?" David said before he was jerked out the front door.
"I think she was full of shit," Henry said, once they were out of earshot. "Who ever heard so much rubbish?"
So, if you want to read more, despite all the reasons not to, you can find it here.
And, if you do, don't forget your freebies:
The Adventure Zone Graphic Novel
Is there anything better in life than free books? My roommate is a fan of the podcast, bought the graphic novel, and ended up giving it to me for...I don’t know. Friendship? Fun? A poor attempt at bribing me to do the dishes? One of the three.
I found this graphic novel hilarious for two reasons. The first is that I myself will be publishing a graphic novel series loosely based on my own family’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures (see, Sovadron), so seeing someone else take that very same premise in a completely different direction is just good fun.
The second reason this book is so funny is because it is legitimately funny. I admit, the modern tone and swearing coming from characters in a medieval-ish setting threw me off a few times. And several of the jokes and at least one scene would not make sense to someone who is unfamiliar with roleplaying games. Especially the first battle, where Magnus hesitates for five whole minutes and debates with the DM on how exactly to kill the goblin. In the real world, of course, Magnus would be dead. But for D&D players, we are all intimately familiar with pausing the game while we try to figure out the best way to commit murder.
Pacing-wise, the story starts a bit slow. The characters had to find their footing and get properly motivated to go on an actual quest. But once it picks up, it's lightning quick.
A related note on tone: while about 75% of the story is funny, every now and then it takes an unexpectedly dark turn. There are several characters who die (for good reasons as well as stupid ones), and we’re dealing with Merle’s fucked-up family, including his very straight-laced cousin. If they were aiming for something like Cable from Deadpool 2, they missed by about a mile, namely because Cable at least lets Deadpool play off of him while the funnier Adventure Zone characters don’t really manage it.
But that’s honestly my only complaint about the story: exclusive humor with occasional sharp turns into grimdark territory. The plot is cohesive and gripping: there’s a large mystery that all falls neatly into place in the end (on a cliffhanger, of course, because they want us to buy volume two in 2019). While we know very little about the three main characters’ backstory, we are still very invested in them not getting stabbed, mutilated, or set on fire. The whole thing is just an excellent homage to Dungeons and Dragons and all of its fans.
I read this book in two large settings. It’s one of those reads where once you finish the last page, the only viable response is “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH!”
Anyway, it was great. There is a love triangle (groan), but it’s handled very well and is actually relevant and useful to the plot. Mare is the “standard” YA protagonist, in that she’s a poor girl from an oppressed class thrown into the deep end of the privileged class and has to balance her compassion with her desire to bring justice and the ultimate bloodbath that it will cause. It's thinly-veiled racism in a fantasy world and good social commentary on our real world.
While there is racism (bloodism?), there is surprisingly no sexism. Not even in the subtext. The main character (Mare) is a girl, as is the leader of the Scarlet Guard. The men--Reds and Silvers--treat the women as their equals. And the fighters are all co-ed! There's a scene where Mare is learning to use her gift with the Silvers in the training room, and ends up fighting Cal's fiancee, who's basically Magneto with an unhealthy obsession with knives.
You could argue that Aveyard, who's obviously trying to do a social commentary on oppression with her book, fails to talk about intersectionality, the overlap of social identities and all the privileges and oppressions associated therein. And to a certain extent, she does. At least in Red Queen, racism and classism are interchangeable (when in truth, they are not) and the LGBTQ+ community isn't present at all.
But in terms of women being able to fight, rule, and be otherwise kickass without being questioned at every turn, it's a nice breath of fresh air.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the grayness--the moral ambiguity--of the characters. The love triangle Mare finds herself in is, of course, between the two prince brothers: Cal and Maven. Maven is like Mare, believing that there needs to be change now, that radical action is needed to bring equality between Reds and Silvers. On the other hand, Cal ultimately agrees that while the injustice done to Reds cannot stand, he takes a more moderate approach. He points out that the other countries would likely punish them for bringing equality and that moving too fast will bring far more violence and chaos than they’re prepared to handle.
And then there are characters like Maven's mom, the queen, who's just an all-out bitch.
The pace is breakneck speed. I mentioned earlier that I read this in two settings, and that's just because I couldn't put it down. It's not like the slow burn of Lord of the Rings where you can casually pick it up, read a few pages, put it back down to return to cooking dinner, and then pick it up again while you're baking cookies. No, Red Queen is the kind of story where you don't want anything else going on around you. If you pick this up while you're cooking or baking, your food is going to burn and probably take a large chunk of the kitchen with it.
The book is first person POV, told entirely through Mare's eyes. Which means we learn everything about the world of the Silvers right along with her. As such, most of the book is dedicated to exposition. It’s kind of like Harry Potter: book one is an introduction, the end of which includes the gauntlet being thrown and the Big Bad Guy being revealed. The biggest difference between Red Queen and Harry Potter is that while Rowling kind of eased us into the character deaths and injustices, Aveyard cracks out the angst right away, while still leaving us with a hopeful ending.
The next books are Glass Sword, Cruel Crown, King’s Cage, and finally War Storm. So, if you’ll excuse me, I now have to raid a bookstore.
Want more? Become a patron!
Chapter One of Sovadron will be released on November 16th, 2018!
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
In a land without magic, where the king rules with an iron hand, an assassin is summoned to the castle. She comes not to kill the king, but to win her freedom. If she defeats twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition, she is released from prison to serve as the king's champion. Her name is Celaena Sardothien.
The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. But something evil dwells in the castle of glass--and it's there to kill. When her competitors start dying one by one, Celaena's fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival, and a desperate quest to root out the evil before it destroys her world.
With the seventh and final book of the Throne of Glass series (Kingdom of Ash) coming out this month, I thought I’d take the opportunity to review books one through six, plus the prequel anthology The Assassin’s Blade.
I hesitated to get started on Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, simply because the descriptive blurb of the first book makes it obvious that there’s a love triangle involved (it says something along the lines of Two men love her, the whole world fears her, and only she can save them all). That triangle gets resolved very quickly and maturely, thank God. And while I do have several complaints about Maas’s overuse of romantic subplots that I talked about in my Luna Station Quarterly article last month, overall this is an excellent series.
When talking about this series to friends, I tend to describe it as “the YA version of Game of Thrones, without the incest.” There’s a mile-long list of characters in a carefully crafted epic fantasy world facing an apocalyptic threat few people are ready to believe is real. The main character at the center of it all--Celaena--is an intriguing protagonist. She’s in many ways a reluctant hero. Despite her natural tendency to help and protect the innocent, she’s spent the last decade of her life as an assassin and has been running from her larger destiny. She’s arrogant, spoiled, a bookworm, self-hating, terrified, and charismatic.
She’s probably my second-favorite character, right behind Manon. We don’t meet that lovely badass or her coven--The Thirteen--until book three. Technically, they’re bad guys, being allied with the evil king. Manon is part of a clan called the Ironteeth witches, and those women are vicious. And they ride wyverns. Because why not? Manon and Celaena’s meeting is as explosive as you’d expect for two powerful women who balance hidden hearts with bloodthirsty tendencies and are on opposite sides of a war.
Maas has the character development down pat, but her true strength lies in total mind-fucks. Starting in book two and picking up in intensity, Maas regularly gives jaw-dropping plot-twists at least once a book, and they get crazy starting in book four. Sometimes it’s something Celaena does, as she becomes a master of setting up elaborate plans without telling anyone until the last minute. Sometimes it’s a big reveal as to a major character’s backstory. Sometimes it’s the real answer to the mystery that supposedly got solved four chapters ago. I can no longer read these books in public because I start swearing out loud when one of these twists comes out.
If you like fantasy mysteries with diverse characters and way too many romantic subplots, then this is the series for you. Fair warning: you should probably buy all the books at once, and you’re going to want to read them in this order:
Books 1-3 (Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, and Heir of Fire)
The prequel anthology The Assassin’s Blade
Books 4-6 (Queen of Shadows, Empire of Storms, and Tower of Dawn)
On April 30th, I started a crowdfund campaign for my upcoming graphic novel Sovadron. It's already written and edited; I just need to hire the illustrator, John Hawkins. It'll cost at least $10K to illustrate the entire thing, and so far we have enough for maybe one chapter.
We're halfway through the campaign, which ends on May 31st. To commemorate, I'm releasing a new perk! Originally, if you donated enough to receive a poster illustrated and signed by John Hawkins, you had to choose one: either Shakairra in the Field (right) or Sovadron Plays with Fire (left).
But now, when you donate $125 or more, you get BOTH, as well as a signed physical copy of the graphic novel, sneak peaks into its creation, and a minor character named after you in book two.
Can't afford to drop over a hundred bucks? Don't sweat it. There are a bunch of other perks to choose from: a free electronic copy of Sovadron, copies of some of my other works, sneak peaks, and more.
If you want Sovadron to become a reality, I need more than just well wishes and Facebook likes! Donate today and get a mountain of perks.
Lt. Shakairra Romazi isn’t sure who will kill her first: the enemy’s soldiers, or her own.
Her money is on the latter.
After barely surviving their country’s last war, Shakairra and her soldiers are pulled into another. Goblins have been kidnapping citizens and selling them into slavery. But when a foreign noble arrives to investigate the death of his sister, Shakairra learns that the greater threat is within her own ranks.
As the body count climbs and her allies diminish, Shakairra must place her trust--never in abundant supply--into four strangers to save her country. But they soon realize this conflict is greater than that. And before this is over, even the blood of gods will be spilled.
Dawn of War is the first book of an epic fantasy graphic novel series. If you like cover-to-cover action, diverse characters, and sword & sorcery with a twist, you’ll love the first installment of Christina “DZA” Marie’s new series.
Support Dawn of War to start the adventure today!
The Crowdfund Campaign for the Graphic Novel Sovadron is Up and Running!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!