Land of the Burning Sands by Rachel Neumeier

Land of the Burning Sands
Rachel Neumeier

This is the second book in the Griffin Mage trilogy. I think you could probably read this book without reading the first one, as the main characters are different and it focuses on a different country (Casmantium rather than Feierabiand), but there are reappearances from characters in the first book and it does continue a wide-reaching story arc. Land of the Burning Sands was sent to me for review by Orbit books.

My review of the first book, Lord of the Changing Winds can be found here:

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The Premise: The story begins with Gereint Enseichen, a geas-bound man in Casmantium,  who, when his master’s town is being evacuated, sees an opportunity to escape his magical bounds. Eventually his escape through the desert around the town of Melentser creates consequences that reach further than he would have expected.

My Thoughts: Since Land of the Burning Sands starts its focus with Gereint rather than any of the characters from the first book in this series, it initially doesn’t feel like a continuation and more like a separate standalone. Gereint has a layperson’s idea of what happened in Feierbiand, but it’s only relevant to him because it means the evacuation of Melentser, and a means to escape his geas. What we focus on when we begin Land of the Burning Sands on isn’t the griffins, but whether Gereint is going to escape or even survive.

Because I’m more drawn to character-driven stories, this focus on Gereint’s journey made the first half of Land of the Burning Sands faster read to me than Lord of the Changing Winds. I think the more limited scope just appealed to me more, at least from this writer, and while I did like the dreamy descriptions of the searing desert and alien griffins in the first book, they do their job too well sometimes, and can wear me down as a reader. There was less of that here. I enjoyed reading about Gereint, who despite his status came off as well read and educated (it made me smile that he included the theft of a book in his survival supplies!) I was curious about his human problems – whether he’ll be identified for what he is and caught, and what will happen to the people who helped him. I also liked that along the way we learn more about the magic system. This book sheds light on the Casmantium affinity for making (the people of Feierbiand have instead an affinity for animals, and Linularinum for words), the geas binding that Gereint tests every chance he gets, and further along, the Casmantium’s Cold Mages.

Of course, this isn’t just the story of Gereint. Over the course of the book his path merges with the larger story of Casmantium and the griffins, and the scope of the story begins to widen. He meets Tehre Amnachudran Tanshan, a brilliant but absentminded maker/scientist, and after this, the focus shifts back and forth between their two characters. It is after her character is introduced that the King of Castmantium, and the last Cold Mage, Beguchren Teshrichten, both characters that first appeared in Lord of the Changing Winds are brought into the story. They bring Tehre and Gereint into the ongoing issues brought on by what happened in Lord of the Changing Winds. Gereint and Tehre’s stories split up. They both make separate journeys, Gereint with the Cold Mage, and Tehre, frustrated with being labeled ineffectual when she is not, follows with Lord Bertraud, the Feierabiand king’s advisor and principle character in the first book.

At this point of the book, where the focus is once more on the wider scope of a country rather than an individual’s problems, that the book began to slow down for me. I found it obvious where the book was going. There were hints throughout, but the author takes the long route to reveal the repercussions of the end of Lord of the Changing Winds to the main characters in Land of the Burning Sands, and I felt really impatient with that.  I thought the details of their days journeying to save their country were somewhat tedious, but  the climax, which involve the griffin mages in book one, caught my interest again. I really liked that we got to see Kes and the griffins from a different point of view in this installment. There was a stark difference in who I was rooting for here, and I was struck by how well the author changed my perspective. I also liked how things were ultimately resolved. I’m not sure what will happen in the third book but there was a teaser for it at the end of this one which has piqued my interest. My guess is we will be learning about Linularinum. The third book, Law of the Broken Earth, is coming out in December.

Overall: This is shaping up to be a solid, well-written fantasy series. I’m enjoying the world building and the characters in this story, and the pacing in comparison to the first book was much better, with less parts I found slow. I think that you could probably read this out of order from the rest of the series, even though there are reappearances by characters from the previous book, they are not the principle ones.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
My world.. in words and pages – positive review

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

This is an ARC that I picked up at BEA. Cassandra Clare is an author who is relatively new to me. I’ve read a short story of hers but none of her full length books. I was assured however that while this new series (The Infernal Devices) is related to one that she has out (The Mortal Instruments), I could start Clockwork Angel without reading the other one.

The Premise: This is the story of Tessa Gray. Tessa’s aunt just died and because Tessa has no where else to go, she’s moving from her home in New York to join her brother Nate in Victorian London. Unfortunately, as soon as Tessa steps off the boat, she’s pretty much kidnapped by the Dark Sisters, members of the secretive Pandemonium Club, who tell her that she has to do what they tell her or her brother will be hurt. What they do is surprising – they train Tessa to shapechange. Tessa realizes that she may not be completely human, but what she is, she doesn’t know. What she does know is that the Dark Sisters are training Tessa for the mysterious head of their Club – the Magister. Tessa manages to escape with the help of yet another hidden organization – the Shadowhunters, who protect humanity by policing the Downworlders like the warlocks, demons and vampires who haunt London streets.

Read an excerpt of Clockwork Angel here

My Thoughts: I was going to be lazy and just cut and paste the blurb for this book because I thought that it would describe the world and the premise better than what I could come up with, but on second thought I decided not to. Why?  Well, it implies a love triangle that I didn’t really think was there for about 80 percent of the book. I think that it’s pretty clear who Tessa is most attracted to, and while she cares about Boy #2  and they have their private moments, I felt like that relationship is mostly in the friend territory, until bam, near the end. So: a little spoilery, that blurb (but go read it if you just want to see who is in the love triangle, I’m sure you can guess).

Since this is the first book in what I assume will be at least a trilogy, there’s a lot of what feels like set up for long running story arcs. Through Tessa we’re introduced to a whole world and to several characters that work and live in the London Institute. Among the Shadowhunters are other teens – the volatile Will, the zenlike James (Jem), and the spoiled Jessamine who are under the guidance of Charlotte and Henry Branwell. Then there are servants around the age of the teens – Sophie and Thomas, and an older cook – Agatha. Most of the characters have a past, and Tessa, as the nosy newcomer, discovers their individual personalities and nuggets of their backstory.  There’s a lot in this book that is hinted at and ambiguous, like a story sort of taking shape but leaving much hidden. The hints of the complex relationships between the characters is one example. The mysterious back story of every character is another (the best example of this is Will, but Jem, Jessamine, Sophie, even Tessa’s past is shrouded in mystery). This is all while the Shadowhunters try to figure out who is behind the Pandemonium Club and what their plans are with Tessa. Once the story is over, we discover very little of our questions as readers have been answered. The many dangling plot strings and Mysterious Pasts peppered throughout the story feel like manipulation so you have to pick up the second book. Usually I don’t mind being manipulated a little to read on, but Clockwork Angel seemed to take it to another level.

Setting that aside, the story was entertaining. Even with the length (the ARC is 476 pages, but big font), the pacing went at a fast clip with plenty going on. I can’t go into much here without spoiling it so I’ll just say there is lots of action – fights and chases, but also very interesting developments between characters. The world was described in lush detail, with lots of steampunky elements – little clockwork tokens, automatons, and Henry Branwell, an absentminded inventor, against a backdrop of the huge and amazing church on whose ruins the London Institute was built (there’s a lot of description, but I liked it). Tessa also has the mentality of someone of that era. She quotes books she’s read that come from that time, and was brought up thinking there are things that women do not do, although the Shadowhunters have her changing her mind on that. Jessamine’s anger seems related to this too – wanting to just be a Lady – someone who stays a home and isn’t expected to kill Demons. She and Will were the darkest and most interesting characters.  Jessamine for being unlikeable, but with the opportunity to grow, and Will for his tendency to push people away (sometimes cruelly if truth be told), although I think all the characters in this book had some depth.

Overall: Hmm. I had a hard time classifying how I felt about this book so I will settle for: diverting but feels like it’s target is teens. It’s fast paced and it has boys who are beautiful and a little mysterious, a plucky heroine who has something special about her, and I’m entertained and want to know what happens in the next book because it deliberately dangles carrots to make me want to. There’s something that kind of bothers me in that, but I was entertained, so I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Clockwork Angel comes out August 31st

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Wicked Walker – 4.5 stars

Websites:
The Infernal Devices

Lord of the Changing Winds by Rachel Neumeier

This was a series that caught my eye by virtue of the cover alone. I just love that griffin eye and the title font, not to mention the title itself. Overall a very striking package which led me to buy the book on impulse (yes, I am drawn to pretty things).

The Premise: This is the first book in the Griffin Mage trilogy and begins with a young girl named Kes watching the arrival of griffins to the land of Feierabiand. She’s drawn to them, but knows her sister wouldn’t approve of her dreaming and strangeness. In the meantime her town is in an uproar about the griffins, and want them out. Just as the consensus begins to be that the army must be called in, a mysterious stranger arrives and asks Kes to help heal his people.  What Kes sees right away is that he is a griffin, and when he magically whisks her away, it’s apparent that he’s a mage too. The arrival of his people in Feierabiand marks the beginning of conflict in Feierabiand, as well as the beginning of Kes’s change into something else.

Read an excerpt here

My Thoughts: The author does really well in describing the otherness of the griffin. Both in their thinking and in their physical presence which generates desert out of simple farmland. By merely being there the world is changed and there are plenty of passages in the book which illustrate a beautiful poetry in their affinity with fire and the desert: “He dreamed of rivers of burning liquid rock that ran across a jagged iron-dark land and cast droplets of fire into the air when it burst against stone. The air smelled like hot brass and burning stone.” Granted there was a repetitiveness in the descriptions, but I think it added to rather than took away from the inexorable power the desert had on those who didn’t belong there.

The author also gives the griffins their own language and their own culture. The names of each griffin is long (like Eskainiane Escaile Sehaikiu), which makes them harder for me to remember when I’m reading, but the author makes it easier by referring to their first names and their colors and ranks.  Their relationships to each other are unique and not easily translated to the human equivalent, and they have different values and way of thinking than humans do. They have different ideas of honor.

Putting Kes, a shy 15 year old girl, in the midst of these creatures was fascinating. When the book begins, the story focuses on Kes, and I was hoping that she would be the primary protagonist. However the narrative shifts between what happens to Kes and to Bertaud, the king of Feierabiand’s right hand man.  Bertaud is a a good guy, loyal to his king and does what he thinks is right at the time, despite what cost it may have to himself. At first I was disappointed that we were following someone other than Kes, but he grew on me. The story also widened it’s scope when Bertaud was introduced. Now we don’t only see Kes and the griffin’s world, we see the reactions of the countries affected by the migration of griffins – Feierabiand and Casmantium.

There are three closely neighboring countries involved in this tale – Feierabiand is where the book is set, but it is bookended on either side by Casmantium and Linularinum. The people of each country has certain affinities – Feierabiand for animals, Casmantium for making things, and Linularinum for words, but this is considered an everyday sort of magic – anyone can have an affinity. The rare magic is that of mages, and there are Earth mages, Cold mages (which are a variation of Earth mages), and Fire mages. Humans are creatures of Earth, and griffins are creatures of Fire. Because Kes has been exposed to Fire, she’s losing her connection to Earth. This is one of the many details that are part of a fascinating magic system in this book – the aversion that exists between those of Fire and those of Earth, and it’s something that affects the interaction between griffin and human.

Much of the book deals with Kes and Bertaud’s front row seat perspectives in dealing with the griffins in Feierabiand. Casmantium becomes involved and there is a lot of page space spent on determining the motives of others, and reacting to them in the hope that the best outcome will be reached. This means skirmishes and strategy, arguments and self-questioning. There’s definitely a larger scope to this story than the two people we follow, but it is not an epic story of battle either.  I’m not sure how readers will take this. I personally like character driven stories so I wanted a smaller scope, but I think others may like a bigger one. For me, the strategizing and battles made the pace of the book feel slow because I wasn’t so interested in them, but I know this is a personal preference. I’ve been told that the second book (Land of the Burning Sands) will be in a different setting and with different characters (and that it’s better than the first), so I plan to read it soon.

Overall: I enjoyed the dreamy alieness of the griffins and the internal struggles of the individuals in this story, but the wider scope which involved military strategy and skirmishes, didn’t capture my attention as much. It’s a well-written and interesting world, but there were parts that were slow for me.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers – 7 (Very Good)
Fantasy Literature – “good solid fantasy”
Unbound – positive review (“a really refreshing, original book”)
Fantasy Book Critic –  positive review (“Very impressed”, “After getting through the big portion of descriptions in the first half of the book, the novel seemed to fly right by)
Persephone Reads – positive review (“is not fast paced; it is quiet at times”)
My world..in words and pages – positive review (“solid fantasy style read”)
Grasping for the Wind – “good but not great epic fantasy”

Mind Games by Carolyn Crane

Mind Games
Carolyn Crane

This has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2010, mostly because I’ve been reading and loving The Thrillionth Page, which is the author’s blog, and her creativity mixed with the promising premise is a difficult combination to resist. The only reason I didn’t read this earlier was it kept getting pre-empted by other books I’d promised people I’d read. Luckily this means less of a wait for me for book 2! I’m so relieved that this book did not disappoint.

The Premise: Justine Jones is a hypochondriac who fears vein star syndrome, a condition her mother also feared and actually died of. Despite constant trips to the ER, Justine manages to maintain the semblance of normality – with a job as a clothing store manager and a long term boyfriend named Cubby. Then she meets Sterling Packard, the owner of the Chinese restaurant, Mongolian Delites. Packard is a highcap (a person with special mental powers) with the ability to read a person’s psychology, and he says he can help Justine if she joins his team of Disillusionists. Justine will be able to fight crime by channeling her fear into criminals and breaking them down so that they can be reprogrammed to be productive members of society. In return Justine will release the fear that cripples her.  That’s what she’s told anyway.

Read an excerpt of the first chapter of Mind Games

My Thoughts: The title of this book is perfect. Mind games are explored on several levels, from the mind against the self, to one mind against another, and outwards as highcaps affect a whole city.  We begin with Justine, the first person narrator who readily admits she has a psychological problem (unique in urban fantasy in itself). As a hypochondriac, Justine’s fears lead her to lose perspective which affects her work and her relationship with her boyfriend, not to mention pushing Justine closer and closer to a breakdown. When Justine learns how to push those fears into others, the mind game is extended. Not only does Justine have to play a game – pretending to be someone else to get close to her marks to Disillusion them, but then she gets to see them go through the very thing she suffers through on a regular basis. As Justine becomes more involved in this new life, she begins to realize that there is even more games being played. In the same way Justine chooses to mislead and Disillusion people for the Greater Good, it seems that Packard chooses to keep his plans secret from his team. When Justine discovers more of Packard’s secrets, she begins to question everything.

And therein we have what I find delicious in this book. Ambiguity! It’s a real puzzle figuring out the good guys and the bad guys are.  Justine wants to do the right thing, but what she’s doing is not within the law. She’s essentially part of a ragtag group of vigilantes who follow a mastermind of dubious reputation. And yet, she is drawn to Packard in a way that is different from other men. Cubby, and another love interest are perfect on the surface for being really normal and fitting Justine’s idea of perfect, but Packard sees Justine in a way that they don’t. Essentially, I think that Packard may look like the bad guy now, but this could change, and this is possibly the first time in a long time I found myself rooting for the “Bad Boy” over the “Nice Guy”. Of course, I could be totally wrong. I really am not sure if Packard is the right choice either.  I can see things going very badly depending on his leadership, and I honestly can’t tell which way he leans or whether his idea of right and wrong is something I’d agree with. The uncertainty! It is so good.

There are other things I liked besides the delightful premise and the ambiguity of it’s characters.  There is of course the setting. Midcity is a fictional place which seems to nod at comic book tropes. It’s a place where many believe in high capacity humans (highcaps), while many do not. A place where the dashing Chief of Police, Otto Sanchez fights a Brick throwing killer, and the vigilante Disillusionists fight crime secretly in the background. This is all a lovely backdrop, but what I liked first and foremost was Justine. You would think that her anxiety would make her annoying, but I found her to be a strong. logical character who happens to have this fear. On a personal level, anxiety runs in my family, so her description of the ramp up to an attack (especially when she watches her victims go through it) was both true-to-life and strangely comforting. Some of the things people do to reassure themselves they are ok, while simultaneously doing the opposite struck a cord.  I also enjoyed the secondary characters who felt fully-fleshed no matter how short their time on the page. From Shelby, a Disillusionist girlfriend, who thinks that happiness is an unattainable illusion, to the Silver Widow, a target of disillusionment with a disturbing intellect mixed with no moral code. All of these things together made for a very strong story.

The only complaint I have (and it’s a small one) was that I wanted to know more. More in particular about what happened to the people Justine disillusioned. Once her part is done, it’s up to another Disillusionist to take over and we don’t really know what happens once Justine moves on to the next target. These are things that may be resolved in the next book however, and I’m eager to find out if they do.

Overall: So good! If you are a fan of UF or of stories with moral ambiguity, do go read this one. I thought this was a fast-paced urban fantasy with a refreshing new premise and a flawed, Everywoman main character who I liked, a plot with plenty of surprises, and plenty of gray areas to keep me turning things over in my head for months. I’m eagerly anticipating the second book, Double Cross (coming out September 28th this year).

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Lurv a la Mode – 3 scoops (out of 5)
See Michelle Read – positive review
Ellz Readz – positive review
The Book Smugglersdouble 8’s (Excellent – a joint review)
SciFiChick – positive review
Read React Review – positive review
Angieville (and an interview) – positive review
Smexy Books – 5 (out of 5)

Naamah’s Curse by Jacqueline Carey

Naamah's Curse
Jacqueline Carey

I was sent an ARC of this book to review from Hachette Books.

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THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST BOOK, Naamah’s Kiss

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The Premise: This is the continuing story of Moirin mac Fainche, and her adventures away from home. Moirin is of the Maghuin Dhonn (a clan in Alba that honors a Great Bear) but also a descendant of Alais de la Courcel (from Terre de Ange, across the sea) and so to find herself, she sets into the world, at first to find her father, then to help the Ch’in. At the end of book 1, Naamah’s Kiss, Moirin is in the land of the Ch’in, but her lover Bao has left because he’s still coming to grips with his second life and with the diadh-anam that he and Moirin now share as a result. Moirin lets him go, but after some time has past, she can’t wait for him anymore. She sets off after him, following the second half of the spark they share. This leads her out of Ch’in to Tartar territory, and then to Bao. Of course, things are never simple, and because of Bao’s rash decisions which anger the Great Khan Naram, Moirin and Bao are forced apart once more.

My Thoughts: As with the first book, Carey’s writing has a simplicity that allows you to read without really feeling bogged down. At 567 pages, I was a little daunted by the length of Naamah’s Curse, and it certainly isn’t a book I could read in one sitting, but it wasn’t one that I felt I had to slog through. Like in Naamah’s Kiss, Moirin, covers many miles, through an amazing world that is of course familiar, since it’s a fantastic version of our own. The encounters with the Ch’in, Tartars and the Bhodistani made me want to see many of the places and people that Moirin describes. I particularly liked the families that took Moirin in. The cheerfulness of being surrounded by a large family who took their host duties seriously was comforting to read.

I would divide this book into three major parts: Moirin’s search for Bao through Ch’in and in the Tartar lands, her time separated from Bao in Vralia, and looking for him again in the mountainous Bhodistan.

Moirin is of mixed heritage and because of this heritage, she is a follower of more than one god, the Maghuin Dhonn from her mother’s clan in Alba, and Naamah, who she is connected to through her D’Angeline blood on her father’s side. Both of these deities favor her but also push her to do their will which they convey through visions and Moirin’s diadh-anam, which flares up inside her to steer her towards her Destiny. This is an unusual combination but it means that Moirin is very open to other people’s beliefs. I noticed this spirituality in Naamah’s Kiss, and Moirin stays true to character in Naamah’s Curse, but she discovers that she’s still an innocent when it comes to what other people believe. In Ch’in she sees  that people have different ideas of modesty than she may, but I don’t think she really knows how far some people would go when they think their beliefs are correct and hers are wrong.

When Moirin meets the Vralian Patriarch of Riva, Moirin sees how man may interpret the word of their gods for their own ends, and it’s a lesson bitterly learned. The Patriarch (a “Father” of the Church of the Yeshua), blames Moirin’s Alban ancestor for a schism in the current church, and declares Terre d’Ange a “bastion of depravity”. Moirin is a way for him to further his ambitions and he forces her to convert to his faith. His character with his shiver-inducing “creamy smile” and his absolute views made me wonder where the author was going because the book seemed to be condemning just Christianity as a religion of close-mindedness.  Just when I thought that this was going to be anti-Yeshuite/anti-Christian book, the story is saved by characters that are followers of Yeshua but who take a gentler, broader, view. Moirin also imagines a gentle god – Yeshua who forgives, not an harsh god who promotes suffering, but she can’t bring herself to fully convert and lose her connection to her own gods. I thought this part of the book was the strongest. It brings up a lot of interesting ideas about religion and I think it stirred up the most emotion in me, reading this section and worrying over Moirin. The lessons about men and the words of gods are also used later on in the story when Moirin sees a similar case where men have interpreted god’s words in a way that benefits them.

It’s a little telling that enjoyed the sections where Moirin was alone and traveling the most, rather than when she is with Bao, which was in the first and last thirds of the book. If I take them at face value, they have cute moments together and they’re well matched in terms of both being impulsive, sharing a diadh-anam, and liking one another. However, if I think about it beyond that – and I mean by looking at their actions, it feels like Moirin is with Bao by default, and this book does not make me warm to him. She had other lovers, but they were either in previously established relationships that they didn’t want to leave, or they were friends sharing a bed out of curiosity rather than romance. The latter group often also seemed like a stretch – like inserting sex just to reinforce Moirin’s role as a child of Naamah rather than to show the reader something more profound. Anyway, back to Bao. He truly acted like an idiot in this book, and it seemed contrary to his matter-of-factness and streetsmarts in the first book. The only explanation I can think of is that there needed to be a reason for why Moirin was traveling from Ch’in to Tartar lands and beyond, so following Bao, and having him run away and be an idiot was the reason. Sadly, it undermined my belief in their relationship.

As with Naamah’s Kiss, Naamah’s Curse ends in a satisfying place with just enough of  a hint of more adventures to come to continue the series.

Overall: This was a strong second book, which continues it’s epic tale of a wild Beauty traveling the world and changing it as she does. Naamah’s Curse has particularly engrossing elements on religion, which I think will make it linger long in my mind. The only issue I had was with the primary relationship, and I hope to find it more convincing in the third book, Naamah’s Blessing.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Fantasy Book Critic – “Overall Naamah’s Curse (Strong A) is an excellent follow-up to the brilliant Naamah’s Kiss
The Book Smugglers – 8 Excellent, again, leaning towards a 9 (one of her favorite reads of 2010)
Fantasy Literature –  “a “ripping good yarn” and kept me enthralled for days”

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

I’ve been seeing lots of good reviews for this book but the cover wasn’t particularly pulling me in. It was reading an excerpt that sold me (and why I bought the book), but now that I’ve read it I have changed my mind about the cover – it’s not just a random fantasy castle. The column it sits upon means something, as does the dark figure with hair whipping around it’s face. I think I like the cover more after reading the book!

The Premise: Yeine Darr’s mother has recently died, and soon after the death Yeine was called to the palace in Sky, seat of the powerful Arameri family. Yeine expects to be killed off is surprised when her grandfather, who disowned her mother years ago, formally announces that she is now one of his heirs. The problem is that he already has two heirs – Yeine’s cousins Relad and Scimina. To be Arameri is to be utterly ruthless, and Yeine does not fit into this world although as a Darr she’s a leader in her own right. Yeine is being thrown into the mix without much knowledge of the family and the palace of Sky, including it’s four resident gods, who have been chained in human form by Itempas, the Skyfather.

Read chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 3 of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

My Thoughts: This book started off very strong for me. I loved the world building and the beautiful palace of Sky which towers over the city of Sky on top of a giant, impossible column – a palace created by gods. When Yeine meets her relatives they don’t think much of her and her “barbaric” upbringing as a Darr. It doesn’t help that she is really half Darr and half-Amn, since her mother abdicated when she met Yeine’s father. (A minus for Yeine’s family, a big plus for me – I love a heroine of mixed race). It seems like a big clash of cultures where Yeine’s world is equivalent to a matriarchal, Amazonian, tribal society who are used to plain speaking, while the Arameri are a metropolitan, Euro-centric society who value treachery and maneuvering. The power is definitely in the hands of the Arameri, who have magic, religion, and four captive gods to rule the world, and who are ahead of the game of succession against Yeine.

The basic story of the universe begins with one god, Nahadoth, who represents chaos, darkness, and change. He is joined by his brother Itempas, who is his opposite – the god of order and light, and their sister Enefa was the gray in between, and bringer of Life to the universe. They also have children. If you have ever read Greek or Roman mythology you should have and idea regarding the things that gods do which seem dysfunctional and childish to mere mortals. This is the case here – their morality is different from Yeine’s and our own and sometimes their relationships are surprising.

The gods were fascinating characters. Yeine’s first encounter with them starts off with a bang when her cousin Scimina sics the most powerful of the gods, Nahadoth, on her like a horrifying hunting dog. The desperate race through the castle is riveting. Anyway, Yeine meets the gods and throughout the book she learns the real events that led to their slavery, rather than the story she was brought up to believe. The gods want to be free from the chains put upon them by Itempas and they have plans that involve Yeine.

Yeine finds herself manipulated from multiple directions. From the gods, and from her family, who have their own power struggles that she is not completely privy to. In the meantime, Yeine has her own agenda. She didn’t come to Sky because she was summoned. She wants to find out what really happened in her mother’s recent death. Her first suspects are of course her Arameri relatives, and so she asks questions about her mother and learns the family dynamics. Not all the answers are easy. Yeine’s mother, who she remembers as loving and open, was someone else in the palace of Sky. Somehow this is related to the current fight for succession.

I thought the multiple machinations were very clever in sucking me into the story. I wanted to know who was doing what, what had happened in the past and what was going to happen. This story is told from the first person POV, but throughout the book Yeine’s recalling what has happened to her and sometimes her memory is faulty. Once in a while, she backs up and restarts, and she has conversations with herself about what was happening or what will happen next. Not to say that the book was confusing – it was the opposite. The prose is clear and simple – it has a sort of young adult feel because of this. The hints of what would happen next were the most effective in keeping me reading to see if my guess was right.  Usually I was still wrong. There were a couple of plot twists I did not expect.

Like Yeine, I was drawn to the gods and in particular Nahadoth, although Sieh, his son, the god of mischief who usually takes the form of a child, was compelling as well. Sieh seems almost human in his need for comfort, but Nahadoth was temperamental and hard to read, like you’d expect from the god of chaos. The idea that a slip of the tongue from an Arameri in commanding him and he will happily kill them added to his fearful power. Any one of the gods is capable of horror beyond imagining. That’s why when the relationship between Yeine and the gods changes, it began to feel nonsensical.  After the narrative stresses how immense their power is, how time moves differently for them, how alien their minds are compared to a mortals, the idea that Yeine would mean much to them in the short time this book spans was difficult to believe. I allow that the gods shared the feeling of being trapped with Yeine, and she has another quality that draws them to her, but I struggled with anything beyond that. I can’t really go into detail without giving spoilers, but there was one part of the relationship where I thought the scene that I had trouble buying could have been removed completely and the story wouldn’t have really changed, so I don’t understand why it’s there at all.

Overall: This was a keeper. The writing let me slide smoothly into a story of treacherous families (both human and divine) living in a beautiful palace called Sky. Yeine’s impact on these families (and their impact on her), knocked my socks off, but I did have reservations regarding the extent of Yeine’s relationship with the gods, and because I struggled with that, the book was just shy of being on my uber-selective Blew Me Away pile (but it came very close). If I think about the reservation, I feel like saying “Don’t mind me. Read this book”. Basically – I’d recommend The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because I don’t think everyone will have the reservation I did, and frankly, I loved rest of it.

I’m looking forward to the next book, The Broken Kingdoms (expecially after reading the excerpt at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). The cover (which may still be a work in progress, I don’t know for sure), looks excellent.

Buy: Amazon | Powells | The Book Depository

Other reviews:

Review at tor.com by Kate Nepveu – loves it “almost without reservation”
My Favourite Books – positive review
My World…in words and pages – positive review
Fantasy Cafe – 9/10
Fantasy Literature – “a very solid debut”
Fantasy Literature – “Almost perfect debut”
The Book Smugglers – 9 (Damn Near Perfection)
Fantasy Book Critic – “almost-perfect debut”
Starmetal Oak – A+
bookblather – positive review

Before the Storm by Marian Perera

This is book that I finished off during the 24 hour readathon. It first came to my attention through moirarogersbree on twitter who said she was excited about it’s release because of the cover, the premise and the excerpt. I read the excerpt and really liked it, and I got even more excited because the author is Sri Lankan (I’m biased, I grew up there).

The Premise: Alexis Kayne (Alex) is a courtesan in the coronet city of Radiath, in the country called Dagre.  She is known as the Black Mare and owned by a powerful man named Stephan Garnath. She hates Stephen and his treatment of her and waits for the day that she can escape, but before she does, Stephen suddenly gifts her to one of his enemies, Lord Robert Demeresna, baron of Dawnever. Neither Alex or Robert know why, but they both know that Stephen never does anything without a reason. Robert thinks that Alex could be a killer sent to his home, but he’d rather she travel with him than behind him. Alex believes that Robert is a despot because of his reputation as the Bloody Baron (a reputation Robert cultivated to dissuade attacks), but she can’t escape.

Read an excerpt of Chapter one of Before the Storm here

My Thoughts: The first thing I have to say is that I wish this cover was a little bit different. It does a very good job in that it conveys the small steampunk aspects, the romance, and the war. Even the lightening behind the couple is significant to the story. I just wish that the couple was wearing clothes. My first impression was this story was erotic or had high heat content because of the topless people. Steaminess that isn’t what I tend to gravitate towards (and reading that the main character was a “whore” being given away doesn’t help the impression). What this book really is, is a fantasy with romantic aspects which I do read, so that’s my one nitpick about the cover perhaps not being ideal for it’s audience.

So upfront: this is not erotica/erotic romance. This is a fantasy with a bit of romance. There’s one sex scene in the whole book and it isn’t something that happens early on. It also has some steampunk elements in the form of machines of war. They do have a significant part in the story, but the are not the focus so I’d call this steampunk influenced but not really steampunk.

In this world, there are two main groups that have the power.  First there is Stephen Garnath. He rules everything but in name (the Governing Hand is supposed to have control but Stephen controls it). Stephen rules through force and fear. To me, he represented one extreme – that of depravity. He’s extremely cunning but takes pleasure in making people he has power over suffer. The second group in power is the Quorum. They are a religious group who serve The Benevolent Ones, and who have their own agenda. I felt like they represented the other extreme. They preach piousness and virtue but don’t take practical considerations or grey areas into account. And they were often hypocritical in their views compared to their actions.

Robert Demeresna is part of a small group who sits somewhere in the middle of these two opposing powers. His land is far from the main city and not that influenced by the Quorum. Robert just wants what’s best for his people, and his rule is has neither the extremes of the other two. Unfortunately for him, neither Stephen Garnath or the Quorumlords allow him to be a neutral party in the struggle for the country.

Alex and Robert are well suited for each other. Alex may be beautiful, but she’s also got a quick mind and she’s had an insider’s view of how Stephen thinks, so she becomes a very important asset (I really enjoyed her strong character). Robert is someone who can see the gray in the world so he’s more open minded than others in the story are. He was a leader but he was neither an alpha or beta male. I enjoyed the way their relationship progressed.  It happens slowly so you see the beginnings of respect and attraction that turn into more. It was refreshing that Alex doesn’t find Robert attractive until she gets to know him. That’s not to say that this relationship didn’t have it’s missteps for me. Robert says some idiotic things when arguing with Alex that I never felt he really apologized fully for, and his realization of his feelings needed a kick-in-the-pants moment to happen rather than figuring it out himself.

I also liked the secondary characters in this story. There’s Robert’s right hand man, Mayerd, who was exiled from his own land, and his backstory was an interesting one. Then there’s Robert’s allies. Perera writes strong female characters, so there’s Robert’s cousin Susanna who has a pet maddog (two headed dog!), and Quorumlord Victoria who annoyed many but had depth. And there was the Word who was an ally in the Quorum who I despised even more than Stephen Garnath.  I thought he was interesting in the way he highlighted the hypocrisy of the Quorum, but the author doesn’t really preach against religion, so much as it being misused by certain people I think.

Most of the story deals with the war that Stephen brings to Robert’s home. There are alliances and maneuvering, secret (steam!) weapons, betrayals, ambushes, and many weary days on the road. The battles are a large part of the book, and at times the details of the skirmishes dragged for me, but there were some interesting tricks that Robert’s smaller army used to even the odds, and interesting side battles fought in magic between Stephen’s pet sorcerer and Robert’s right hand man. The best part was the exciting culmination of the whole thing. I loved that Alex was an integral part of it all and didn’t just sit pretty while the fighting was happening.

This is the first in a planned trilogy.

Overall: I feel like I discovered a hidden gem in this new author. This was a lovely fantasy story with a slow moving romance amid battles and steam machines. The characters are strong minded and interesting, and it left me with things to ponder. My only reservation may be pacing because there are a lot of battle scenes, but your mileage may vary on that count.

Buy (it’s in ebook only as of this review): Samhain | Amazon
(if you buy through My Bookstore & more link through Samhain, there’s a 20% off deal now by entering “shinynew” at checkout)

WIN IT!! – Interview and contest with Marian Perera @ Moira Rogers’ blog (enter soon because I am not sure when the deadline is!)

Links:
Marian Perera’s website
Marian Perera’s blog

War of the Soulites by Natasha Bennett

The author offered me an ecopy of this novella length story (about 176 pages in my ereader) to review last month.

The Premise: Captain Renolds Osiris is a first time captain after 15 years at a desk job, his second in command, Marcus Collingway, was a resistance fighter responsible for the deaths of thousands, his security chief Telsia is another cold-blooded killer, and the rest of his crew is mostly inexperienced. To top all that off, their ship, the Vigilant may be newly overhauled, but it has a gruesome past. It’s the site where the previous crew went mad and killed each other. Only one survivor made it. And that’s just the beginning because on their maiden voyage, barely a day in space, they’re attacked by an alien race called the Soulites.

Excerpt of War of the Soulites

My Thoughts: The author has created a cast of gray characters – they aren’t always doing the right things, people don’t like each other, they believe things about one another that may be untrue, but somehow they have to learn to work together. There is no one main character that is the focus. The third person narration shifts between members the Vigilante crew, particularly the senior crew. The story draws you in by making you curious about the characters and their individual mysterious pasts, and about what they are fighting. As the story goes on, it’s revealed that some people know more than they say they do, and discoveries are slowly revealed like layers of an onion. What are the Soulites? Why did they attack Earth? How much did NAVA, the ruling organization of Earth, know about them? One answer seems to bring about five more questions.

There’s a very high paced plot to this story as the crew is knocked from one disaster to another in rapid succession. I like a high paced story, but in War of the Soulites, this is where I had a problem. Disaster seems to be the only thing that moves the plot forward. There is almost no downtime and the narration jumps from scene to scene, cutting away at the very height of the action to another scene. After a while I started to get mentally exhausted by all the cliffhangers, and I found myself needing breaks. It was difficult not to get disconnected from the story not only because of the jumping around but because it became hard to believe that so many disasters could befall this group.

The story ends in a good place but without a resolution to the problem with the Soulites, which leaves things open for the second book in the trilogy.

Overall: Despite the horrible cover, the story isn’t bad. It has an interesting plot and characters. Unfortunately I couldn’t keep up with the forced continuous action, which brought down the story’s overall appeal.

Buy here

Links:
War of the Soulites book trailer.

The Hidden Worlds by Kristin Landon

The Hidden Worlds
Kristin Landon

This is a book that keeps popping up as a recommendation on Amazon, based on what I seem to search for there. I finally bought it after a long time with it languishing in my wishlist.

The Premise: Linnea Kiaho is a young woman who lives in a fishing village in the world of Santandru, where people are rough and poor, believe deeply in their religion, and elk out livings in a hostile environment. When the village’s fishing boat is destroyed Linnea is an unmarried woman trying to keep her sister and her sister’s kids together.  No one is hiring in the nearby town and in desperation for money, Linnea uses a family secret passed down from her mother to try to get money from the Pilot Masters. The Pilot Masters are the leaders of the system of planets – the only people with the genetic ability to pilot ships between worlds. Their offer is that of work for Linnea as a servant on Nexus, which Linnea accepts despite the shunning she receives from everyone (Nexus is considered decadent and sinful). Linnea hopes that she can convince the Pilot Masters to renew their trade contract with Santandru, which is the only means that her people can continue to survive. There Linnea is indentured under the Pilot Iain sen Paolo, who is embroiled in his own troubles and doesn’t want her. Unfortunately, the secret Linnea holds entangles their lives and puts targets on them both. This is the first book in a completed trilogy.

Excerpt of Chapter 1

My Thoughts: I loved how this book started. The contrast between technology and the lives of the poor fishing village was striking. I was sucked into the setting of a poor planet that depends on trade with other worlds so that they can get parts for their fishing ships, and the problems when “the brain” of the ship stops functioning.  Despite the presence of high technology, these people are too poor to really afford it. Not everyone knows how to read, women are expected to marry young, and Linnea is considered strange for not being unmarried (she’s nineteen).  I also liked the idea of Nexus, the home world of the Pilot Masters as seen through the eyes of this backwater planet.  It’s rich and decadent, but Nexus doesn’t have the same beliefs or culture that they do, so it is Evil, even though no one that Linnea knows on Santandru has ever been there.

When Linnea finally gets to Nexus, it is a huge change. The people are mostly men, because only men can be pilots, and they only want boy babies. Woman are only allowed there when they have a contract, and births are very strictly regulated. Only people of the Line, who have been vetted by the Council, are allowed to have children. In the meantime, the men are very open about relationships with other men, and casual sex is the norm.  In their eyes, Linnea is an ignorant country girl. It was interesting to see the culture clash.

I really enjoyed the book up to when Linnea meets Iain and gets adjusted to his home. Until that point I was reading this book non-stop, and then I had to put it down to go to sleep for work the next day. The next time I picked up the book, the focus had changed and I found myself less engrossed. Rather than centering on Linnea and Iain and they’re getting to know each other, the book begins to focus on other problems – Iain’s political rivals, his uncle and his cousin, and on Iain’s father. Linnea suddenly becomes a tool in their power struggle and Iain’s relationships with the other men becomes more important in the story, and the stubborn woman becomes a submissive servant. By the time we get back to focusing on Linnea, it is further along in the story. Despite the danger for Iain and Linnea, the things Iain’s father refuses to hide from him, and the sadistic manipulations of Iain’s cousin,  I was disconnected from the story on Nexus.

The romance in this book was understated. The relationship grows because they only have each other to turn to, and it’s not an easy path for either of them. There are a few things for them to overcome, like abuse and their different backgrounds, but the basis for the relationship is put down in this book. I think it will be interesting to see where it goes in the rest of the trilogy.

A note on the cover: I like the cover – the colors and the couple suggest that it’s a science fiction romance, but the guns are misleading and my idea of Linnea and Iain from reading the book is really different from the cover models.

Overall: A promising new science fiction romance series. Very good world building and writing. I liked this book, but found the second half less strong than the first.  It sets things up for an interesting series which I plan to continue reading.

Buy: Amazon | Powells

Reviews and links:
Patricia’s Vampire Notes
Calico_reaction’s review – she liked this one

Kristin Landon Interview at Galaxy Express
Heather Massey guest blogs at SF Signal
Catch a Rising Star: Kristin Landon (at Galaxy Express)

The Way of Shadows (Night Angel book 1) by Brent Weeks

This book languished on my nightstand for a few months. My husband bought this series after realizing it’s about assassins and he recommended it to me after he finished. The 645 page length was daunting though so I didn’t get around to reading it until I was threatened, err, reminded that my husband wanted to lend it to a friend and I better read it before he gave it to them.

The Premise:
The first book in the Night Angel trilogy, this is an epic tale about the citizens of Cenaria, but the focus is on Azoth, a street urchin who lives on the streets with a ragtag band of other children. His group all hand in most of their earnings to Rat, one of the “Bigs” of their group, who leads through terror. Azoth rashly provokes Rat who decides to use him as an example and Azoth’s only hope for survival (and protect his two friends, Jarl and Doll Girl) is to apprentice under Durzo Blint, the best wetboy (an assassin with a magical edge) in the city. Durzo is never afraid and Azoth wants to never be afraid again. That’s how the book begins, but it becomes bigger and more complex as we meet new characters and see the intricate interactions between them their ramifications on the fate of Cenaria.

My Thoughts: How do I describe this book? It starts off sort of simple and then becomes more complex as you go along. At first when I got a sense of the city, I wasn’t that impressed by the world building. II felt like it wasn’t something I hadn’t seen before: the groups of street children, the idea of Guilds, the corrupt king and unrest while a neighboring land populated by evil magic-doers plots to invade. It reminds me of a lot of other fantasy, but that was okay, because after the world building foundation was in place, the characters and the plot were so unique fascinating my earlier quibbles were forgotten and I enjoyed the book. The author also introduces some new-to-me magical aspects which are peppered throughout the story.

The Way of Shadows begins as a coming of age tale. Azoth has nothing to protect himself or his two friends, the young, mute Doll Girl and the smart but small framed Jarl, and he dreams desperately of leaving the streets and apprenticing under the number one wetboy in the city, Durzo Blint. Azoth’s dream is an almost impossible one, but he does manage to catch Blint’s attention and Durzo promises to teach him only if he passes a test. I was really engrossed by this part of the story – wanting Azoth to pass his test and to destroy Rat, but it is also probably one of the most violent parts of the book. The abuse against children, by other children, while adults may know what’s going on and do nothing, was really hard to read. It gave me chills, but it sets up the story so you know not to expect things to go the way you want them to.

The second part is the apprentice-ship phase where Azoth becomes someone else–Kylar. He trains and grows up and so do his friends and enemies. The focus of the book shifts a little and we get introduced to the points of view of some other characters. Brents starts setting the characters up like pieces on a chessboard. Friendships and actions that occur in this phase may be small and seemingly insignificant but have greater repercussions later on. We also get a lot of interesting characters and begin to learn about their motivations and secret griefs. I particularly liked Durzo Blint who avoids morality and emotional connection. Finding out why and whether it really works for him is part of the fun. Azoth/Kylar’s training as a wetboy was fascinating but not glamorized. The book doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the job.

The final part of the book is Azoth’s final trial to become a full-fledged wetboy. The one thing you should keep in mind if you read this book is DO NOT expect things to go the way you think. At first the twists are minor, but the further you get into the story, the more you realize much of the book is set up for more and more surprises and turns. I think this author has an evil streak, because characters I had begun to like as suddenly killed off while characters I hated kept being despicable and unchecked. Each of the characters only knows his or her little part of the story and often acts without knowing that they’re doing the wrong thing for the overall picture. If you really connect to a character you may get disappointed at what happens to them, but ultimately I thought that the book did end in a hopeful place despite all the things that go wrong. Of course, this book is LONG. I was 200 pages from the end and wondering how we weren’t already at the end, because the sh*t was hitting the fan and I couldn’t see how there were 200 pages to go. Usually in fantasy the ending happens shortly after a battle, but in The Way of Shadows, the author was not done, things kept coming, more and more twists showed up, I couldn’t believe it. While I could appreciate the twists, if I can find any fault, I’d say they did start to feel improbable just by how often a new one was thrown in.

Overall: An gritty epic fantasy tale with more twists than a bag of pretzels. It didn’t quite wring me out and I thought it was ultimately hopeful and worth the read, but it was a roller coaster. I’m very curious where things will go now.

Buy: Amazon | Powells

Other reviews:
Hello, Ilona Andrews liked it! (link has Andrews’ thoughts plus an interview with Brent Weeks)
Un:bound – Haglerat called it a wonderfully rich traditional fantasy
Tempting Persephone – also liked it and recommends it
Fantasy/SciFi Book review – loved it
Fantasy Book Critic – Highly recommended
My Favourite Books – also a positive review
Giraffe Days – a mixed review