Serena’s Review: “The Apocalypse Seven”

Book: “The Apocalypse Seven” by Gene Doucette

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whatever.

The whateverpocalypse. That’s what Touré, a twenty-something Cambridge coder, calls it after waking up one morning to find himself seemingly the only person left in the city. Once he finds Robbie and Carol, two equally disoriented Harvard freshmen, he realizes he isn’t alone, but the name sticks: Whateverpocalypse. But it doesn’t explain where everyone went. It doesn’t explain how the city became overgrown with vegetation in the space of a night. Or how wild animals with no fear of humans came to roam the streets.

Add freakish weather to the mix, swings of temperature that spawn tornadoes one minute and snowstorms the next, and it seems things can’t get much weirder. Yet even as a handful of new survivors appear—Paul, a preacher as quick with a gun as a Bible verse; Win, a young professional with a horse; Bethany, a thirteen-year-old juvenile delinquent; and Ananda, an MIT astrophysics adjunct—life in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets stranger and stranger.

The self-styled Apocalypse Seven are tired of questions with no answers. Tired of being hunted by things seen and unseen. Now, armed with curiosity, desperation, a shotgun, and a bow, they become the hunters. And that’s when things truly get weird.  

Review: There was definitely a phase for post-apocalyptic books a few years back. It seemed you couldn’t help but run into about five different ones the moment you stepped foot in a bookstore or library. No, however, the trends have seemed to move on. But that doesn’t mean readers who enjoy the genre have! So I was pleased to see this book pop up and read it straight away. Sadly, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me, though I think the concept was interesting enough.

Overnight, it happens. The world ends, nature runs wild, and people disappear. All but seven random individuals who wake up to find themselves seemingly alone on an almost unrecognizable planet. Vegetation has reclaimed the cities, and animals have climbed back to the top of the food chains. To say nothing about the bizarre weather. Slowly, these seven begin to run into each other, piecing together their own experiences and trying to make sense of their new reality. Where did everyone go? Why were they left behind? And what do they do next?

While this book didn’t really work for me, I did like the essential premise. The fact that the apocalypse happens suddenly, with no warning, and with no obvious explanations. I’ll also note that this is a handy little trick for an author who wants to just get down to the business of writing the immediate aftermath without needing to put much explanation out there. On one hand, this could be seen as lazy. On the other hand, it could leave open the door for an author to really dig into a more action-oriented story with mysteries that can build toward a resolution as the story progresses. Unfortunately, whichever was the original purpose of the choice, I don’t think the author really used it to its best advantage.

Instead of getting a head start on the story, it felt like sixty percent or so of the book itself was preamble. It takes forever for the seven characters to actually meet up and somehow, in a story full of wild animals and strange weather, everything seemed to kind of plod along. Definitely not what you want for a story with the type of stakes that are set up here, something that should lend itself towards quick action and swift pacing.

The story also didn’t seem to want to (or be able to) fully explore the philosophies and themes touched on in the story. Where does humanity go in the face of the loss of most of humankind itself? What role does religion play in one’s individual journey in these circumstances? Do people rise to the occasion or sink under existential hopelessness? There’s a lot of rich material to be explored with this type of book and, indeed, the story touches on many of these themes. However, it does nothing more than just touch on them. In many ways, it read like post-apocalyptic-lite, unable to settle on a lane between light and comedic or deep and thoughtful. Instead, the book seemed to try to both and thus failed at each.

In the end, I felt like this book was more of a good idea than it was an actual read. I’m not sure if the author just wasn’t sure of exactly what he was attempting to accomplish or just wasn’t up to the task, in the end. Those who are really hankering for a post-apocalyptic story might enjoy this. But, especially for those who don’t mind YA, I’d definitely point readers towards “Dustborn” instead.

Rating 6: Ultimately, the book was unable to fully amount to much, resting too hard on the concept itself and not providing enough fleshed-out story to support itself.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Apocalypse Seven” is a newer title, so it isn’t on any Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Best Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”

Find “The Apocalypse Seven” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “The Wolf and the Woodsman”

Book: “The Wolf and the Woodsman” by Ava Reid

Publishing Info: Del Rey, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Review: Apparently summer 2021 was the time for all of the publishers to release books with titles/themes derived from “Red Riding Hood.” This is the first of three, yes THREE, books that have something to do with this story and come out within weeks of each other. It’s pretty crazy! This was the first one I picked up, and it definitely started out this run strong.

Growing up in a remote village made up of women who are persecuted for their powers, Evike has grown up as a point of persecution herself for her own lack of power. The daughter of a mother who died when she was young and a father from a different religion and land, Evike has had no place to call her own. But when she’s sacrificed by her own village to be sent to the capitol city as tribute, she finds an unlikely ally in the crown prince, a young man who understands what it means to grow up with your feet in different worlds. Together, they travel to distant corners of the cold, bitter land, attempting to find a magic powerful enough to protect a country that doesn’t want them from the prince’s fanatical brother.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. Strangely, I think one of the things I most appreciated about it was that while the book description could sound very “YA fantasy” (and don’t get me wrong, I still love YA fantasy), the book itself is definitely an adult fantasy novel. Not only are our main characters in their mid-twenties with the life experiences that come along with that, but the story itself was quite dark and brutal at times. The stakes felt appropriately high, and when things went poorly, they went very poorly.

I also enjoyed the seamless merger of pagan beliefs, fairytales (references to Baba Yaga, the fabled firebird, and, of course, the “Red Riding Hood” bit), and the various religions that make up this world. Evike’s village’s background represent pagan beliefs, a belief that is often more centered around feminine power, thus in this story the magical abilities are limited to the women of the village. Evike’s father is Yehuli, a faith and people that clearly represent Judaism, with parallel examples of the type of systemic persecution Jewish people have experienced throughout history, essentially having no land or home of their own and constantly under suspicion where ever they are. The primary religion doesn’t necessarily line up with any one religion, but it does have the general traits of the pitfalls that can fall upon a country when its people begin to only recognize one faith as valid.

I also really enjoyed how the fairytale elements were woven into the story. The monsters were truly scary, and their connections to the more traditional monsters that we think of in fairytales were done in unique, subtle ways that felt clever and interesting. I will say, however, that a few of the portions of the story that dealt with these disparate creatures or events started to feel a bit disjointed from the overall plot. Like, they were almost small, short stories in their own right. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but you could definitely lift a number of them straight out of the book and not even notice. So your appreciation of them really comes down to how much you’re enjoying the main characters and overall style of writing.

Other than some of these extra pieces of story that didn’t necessarily fit in, my only other criticism comes to some of the mid- to late-game decision making of our two main characters. Each seemed at times bizarrely naïve and willing/unwilling to act at strange moments. Evike makes some sense in that she grew up in such a remote location that her ability to evaluate the stakes and situations of the “outside world” could be questionable. But the prince, also, seemed to make strange decisions at times that didn’t really make much sense.

Overall, however, I still enjoyed these two characters, and I particularly appreciated the slow-burn romance that developed between them. There were no short-cuts that got them over the fact that their experiences of life, while similar in some ways, were still miles apart. The end was also very satisfying in that it neatly wrapped up storylines and left our characters in a situation that was pleasing but not perfect. Again, no easy answers to the realities of this world.

Rating 8: Other than a few quibbles regarding pacing and characterization, I really enjoyed this story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Wolf and the Woodsman” is on these Goodreads lists: Best Upcoming Fantasy Debuts (2021) and Jewish Inspired SFF.

Find “The Wolf and the Woodsman” at the library using WorldCat!

Monthly Marillier: “Flame of Sevenwaters”

“Monthly Marillier” is a review series that is, essentially, an excuse for me to go back and re-read one of my favorite author’s back catalog. Ever since I first discovered her work over fifteen years ago, Juliet Marillier has been one of my favorite authors. Her stories are the perfect mixture of so many things I love: strong heroines, beautiful romances, fairytale-like magic, and whimsical writing. Even better, Marillier is a prolific author and has regularly put out new books almost once a year since I began following her. I own almost all of them, and most of those I’ve read several times. Tor began re-releasing her original Sevenwaters trilogy, so that’s all the excuse I needed to begin a new series in which I indulge myself in a massive re-read of her books. I’ll be posting a new entry in this series on the first Friday of every month.

Book: “Flame of Sevenwaters” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Roc Hardcover, November 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Maeve, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters, was badly burned as a child and carries the legacy of that fire in her crippled hands. After ten years she’s returning home, a courageous, forthright woman. But while her body’s scars have healed, her spirit remains fragile, fearing the shadows of her past.
 
Sevenwaters is in turmoil. The fey prince Mac Dara is desperate to see his only son, married to Maeve’s sister, return to the Otherworld. To force Lord Sean’s hand, Mac Dara has caused a party of innocent travelers on the Sevenwaters border to vanish—only to allow their murdered bodies to be found one by one.
 
When Maeve finds a body in a remote part of the woods, she and her brother, Finbar, embark on a journey that could bring about the end of Mac Dara’s reign—or lead to a hideous death. If she is successful, Maeve may open the door to a future she has not dared to believe possible…

Review: After the disappointment that was “Seer of Sevenwaters,” I remember wondering if Marillier should just leave well enough alone and not return again to this series. It was just a dud for me that it even took me a bit to want to pick this one up for the first time when it came out. But thank goodness I did! Not only did Marillier come back strong with this third book in the trilogy, but I think it ended up being my favorite of the three! So I was excited to get to read it again for this re-read, and, not surprisingly, I enjoyed it just as much this second time around.

Though a daughter of Sevenwaters, Maeve has grown up across the sea in the household of her Aunt Liadan and her husband, Bran. There, she learned how to adjust to her new life after suffering terrible burns as a child. With limited mobility, Maeve has found a special connection to the animals around her, especially a magnificent stallion. Eventually, she is called back to Sevenwaters, but she find the house in a state of unrest. The Fae world has crept ever closer, playing dangerous games with travelers through the forest. Soon enough, Maeve, who would like nothing more than to tend to her horse and the two stray dogs she finds in the woods, finds herself getting pulled into a feud that will test her as she’s never been tested before.

There are a few things that made this book stand-out in the last trio in Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” series. First of all, the main character felt refreshingly unique and held her own as an individual among the other leading ladies in this series (some of whom can begin to feel repetitive, with an emphasis on women who enjoy homily tasks but are strong of spirit to the shock of those around them). Maeve’s journey in this book is only the last bit of a path she’s been travelling since before the book starts, and that fact is very felt by the reader. Maeve’s narration focuses a lot on the limitations of the injuries she suffered in a house fire when she was a child. These, of course, include the loss of dexterity in her hands, but also a fear of being pitied by those around her and a lack of trust in her own ability to care for the creatures she loves (her beloved dog was lost in the same fire that burnt her). So much of this book is covering not only the strides that Maeve has already taken to accept and move forward through her struggles, but we also see her confronting her own walls that she has put up to her ongoing recovery. It’s a compelling and new storyline for a heroine in this series.

I also really enjoyed the focus on the animals in Maeve’s life. First, her relationship with the beautiful, but high strung, horse that she travels home to accompany. And secondly with the two dogs that she adopts while living there. The dogs, in particular, are a special relationship and particularly challenging to depict given the layers of feelings that were being worked out on Maeve’s side through these animals. Throughout much of the book, these various animals are the biggest relationships in Maeve’s life and stand in for any other human side characters. So it speaks to Marillier’s strength as a writer that each of the three (horse and two dogs) felt like a fully fleshed out character in its own right.

I also really liked how this book wrapped up the over-arching conflict of this second trilogy. It even did so in a manner that wrapped a few loose ends from the original trilogy, as well. The magical elements were also a bit more creepy in this book, lending a stronger sense of fear and danger to the Otherworld that Maeve eventually has to travel through. Some of the mysteries were, perhaps, a bit easy to spot, but that didn’t make the reveals any less satisfying in the end.

Overall, this was probably either my favorite in the last trilogy or, perhaps, tied with the first one. But it was such a massive improvement on the previous book that I think it often feels like the best in a straight read-through of the trilogy. It’s perhaps the lightest on the romance of the three, but the romantic story that it does have is sweet and works well within the framework of what this story is trying to accomplish. That is, it’s greater focus on Maeve’s own personal journey through reclaiming her life. Fans of the “Sevenwaters” series will surely enjoy this conclusion.

Rating 8: A lovely story of finding your own personal strength with a focus on the beautiful bound to be found between people and their animals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Flame of Sevenwaters” is on these Goodreads lists: Powerful Female Protagonists and Ancient Ireland: Celtic Mythology and Historical Fiction

Find “Flame of Sevenwaters” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Questland”

Book: “Questland” by Carrie Vaughn

Publishing Info: John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books, June 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Dr. Addie Cox is a literature professor living a happy, if sheltered, life in her ivory tower when Harris Lang, the famously eccentric billionaire tech genius, hires her to guide a mercenary strike team to his island retreat off the northwest coast of the United States. Cox is puzzled by their need for her, until she understands what Lang has built. It’s said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and Lang wanted to prove it. On this distant outpost, he has created an enclave full of fantasy and gaming tropes made real, with magic rings that work via neurotransmitters, invisible cloaks made of nanotech smart fabric, and mythological creatures built from genetic engineering and bionics.

Unfortunately for Lang, the designers and engineers hired to construct his Questland have mutinied. Using an energy field, they’ve cut off any communications and are preventing any approach to the island. Lang must retake control before the U.S. military intervenes. The problem? The mutiny is being led by the project’s chief designer, Dominic Brand, who also happens to be Addie Cox’s ex-boyfriend. It’s up to her to quell the brewing tensions between the tech genius, the armed mercenaries, and her former lover before the island goes up in flames.

Review: This was an impulse read for me based purely on the fact that the description sounded sort of like “Jurassic Park but with magic.” Plus, how often do you get to see a literature professor be the hero of the story? As a literature major myself, not often, I’ll say! The concept altogether seemed just weird enough to work. Unfortunately, for me, it landed a bit flat. Which is the exact opposite of what you want from a story that should be a high octane romp!

Addie’s life, while not particularly thrilling, is stable and predictable. For example, one evening while in her office at work, it is completely predictable to be faced with a student who has not fully thought through their paper idea that sounds suspiciously like an excuse to just play a lot of video games. What is a surprise, however, is to be suddenly whisked away by mysterious players and informed that her unique skillsets have qualified her for a mission. Namely, she’s familiar with stories and an island that has been technically enhanced to play out these stories in real life has gone rogue. Now Addie and a team must venture into the wilds and make contact with Addie’s ex-boyfriend, the brilliant man at the heart of the dysfunctional island.

There were definitely some fun ideas in this book. For fantasy fans, spotting all of the references and similarities to classic fantasy works and tropes made for much of the enjoyment. “Lord of the Rings” got a heavy dose, so that in particular stood out. And the general character beats hit well. Addie is the survivor of a school shooting that left her boyfriend and best friend dead. Her struggles with PTSD have driven her life to a large extent and make her particularly uncomfortable working with the military task force who breach the island alongside her. I really enjoyed watching the mutual respect between these two forces come together, particularly the clear (to the reader, maybe not to Addie) understanding that the military characters had for Addie and how she was tackling a struggle that is so real for many in that field.

Ultimately, however, I struggled to really buy into the scenario at the heart of the book. In many ways, the concept (and goals) are similar to “Ready Player One.” Essentially, the author creates some sort of system that allows for their character and readers to revel in all the best-hits of whatever genre their focusing on. For “Ready Player One,” that was 80s pop culture. For this book, it’s classic fantasy and RPG tropes. However, the concept of the island was hard for me to really buy into. We’re meant to believe it has gone rogue for five months, that a team of military personnel have already died trying to reach it, and that, somehow, this is all still operating in secret and without the knowledge of the government.

From there, the decisions of Addie’s ex-boyfriend and the crew that worked with him were equally hard to understand. Their end goal seemed silly, that somehow cutting off contact to the island would result in them being given control of it from the tech billionaire who owned it and employed them. From a team of people who must be incredibly smart to build the island’s systems in the first place, they seemed remarkably dumb about real-world concepts and consequences. It made it really hard to take them, or their position, seriously.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of the very small subgenre that is LitRPG. With this book, it seems that the author is attempting to merge that type of storytelling with more classic, and generally approachable, fantasy fare. I’m not sure it’s a success, however. I feel that many LitRPG readers would prefer books that simply went that route more fully, and that classic fantasy readers will struggle to accept the premise as its laid out. If you’re a fan of LitRPG, this might be worth checking out. But it’s a fairly lackluster fantasy novel at its bare bones.

Rating 6: I struggled to believe the basic concept at the heart of the story, and from there, even the best character work wasn’t enough to save it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Questland” isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but it should be on a list like this Books About Video Games and Virtual Reality.

Find “Questland” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng”

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2021

Book Description: Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” and “The Ikessar Falcon”

Review: This series started out from a fairly noncommittal position for me. I had never heard of the author before, and was, frankly, a bit put off by the series title “Chronicles of the Bitch Queen.” But, on the other hand, I have a very hard time resisting an adult high fantasy story that features a grown woman protagonist. Add to that that she’s a warrior queen. And thankfully, I let my general genre preferences rule the day, because I’ve absolutely adored this entire series. I’ll just spoil the lead here: this was the perfect conclusion to what had been an excellent series up to this point already.

The queen has finally made it home. But what had seemed like such an insurmountable challenge for the last two books was only the beginning. Her nation and its people hang together by only the merest threads. Distrusted and, often, disliked, Talyien must navigate the fraught waters full of suspicious and ruthless lords, ambitious foreign nationals, and her own perilous position as she attempts to save the son who has been stolen away from her. With the few people who remain that she trusts and depend on, Talyien must work to carve out a future for herself and her country.

Bizarrely, sometimes it’s the most hard to write reviews for a series of books where every entry is fantastic. When you’ve already raved about plotting, characters, and world-building in two earlier reviews, what do you say in a third about a book that was equally strong on all of those points?? But I’ll give it a go!

The world-building has always been fantastic in this series. But in many ways, the fantasy elements involved have been sparse and only sprinkled in here and there. We’ve heard a few mentions of dragons and the threat they had posed in times long ago, but no one thinks much about them now other than recognizing fortifications built to resist them, now crumbling with time. So I was very excited to see the dragons themselves begin to play more of a role in this book. I didn’t necessarily need this added level of straight fantasy, but I’m never going to say no to dragons!

I also liked the continued exploration of parenthood and the expectations and burdens set upon each generation from the one that came before it. We’ve seen this play out in Tali’s memories of her father, and here we get an even deeper insight into why the brutal warlord made many of the choices he did. We also see Tali and Rayyel begin to understand that they are now this generation, that their choices will shape the country and will be the bright path or heavy burden set upon not only their son but the generation of children growing up right now. It’s a very human realization and shift, and one that is strange to experience. It’s the high fantasy, grand scale version of a grown child realizing that they’re now responsible for hosting holidays! Much more complex than that, of course, but sometimes these simplest, most relatable feelings are the ones that take hold the strongest. Even when you have dragons!

I was also happy to see more of Thanh, Tali’s beloved son. For most of the series up to this point, mother and son have been separated by an ocean. And while we hear Tali’s frantic thoughts and worries over him, her deep love for him driving all of her choices, we never get to actually see their relationship in person. Not only were the two of them lovely together, but I also enjoyed Thanh as a character in his own right. There was also a shift in Rayyel, Thanh’s estranged father. Up to this point, he had been a fairly villainous character. So I was happy to see more given to his character to soften some of these aspects and make him more sympathetic.

Beyond that, everything I’ve raved about in the first two books remains true here! Tali is an excellent leading lady, flawed but constantly taking action and moving forward with the cards life has dealt her. I enjoyed the way the romantic plot line continued to unfold. And I was very impressed by the way all of the loose ends were tied together in a satisfying way here at the end of the trilogy. Fans of this series will love this thrilling conclusion! And don’t forget to enter our giveaway to win a copy of this book!

Enter the giveaway!

Rating 8: A fantastic end to this trilogy with higher stakes than ever while focusing on themes of parenthood and the burden of responsibility.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” is a newer title, so it isn’t on that many Goodreads lists. But it is on Fantasy Books Releasing in 2021.

Find “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” at your library using WorldCat!

Giveaway: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng”

Book: “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng” by K. S. Villoso

Publishing Info: Orbit, May 2021

Book Description: Queen Talyien is finally home, but dangers she never imagined await her in the shadowed halls of her father’s castle.

War is on the horizon. Her son has been stolen from her, her warlords despise her, and across the sea, a cursed prince threatens her nation with invasion in order to win her hand.

Worse yet, her father’s ancient secrets are dangerous enough to bring Jin Sayeng to ruin. Dark magic tears rifts in the sky, preparing to rain down madness, chaos, and the possibility of setting her nation aflame.

Bearing the brunt of the past and uncertain about her future, Talyien will need to decide between fleeing her shadows or embracing them before the whole world becomes an inferno.

Previously Reviewed: “The Wolf of Oren-Yaro” and “The Ikessar Falcon”

Giveaway Details: I’ve been pleased to be able to host giveaways for the first two books in this series, so I was incredibly excited to receive an extra copy to host another one for this last book in the trilogy. Given the building tension and ever-growing stakes in the story, fans of the series will likely be as eager to get their hands on this last installment as I was.

In many ways, this trilogy reads like the story that I wish “Game of Thrones” had allowed Daenerys to have. Women, especially queens who must make the same incredibly tough calls that kings have had to make for ages, balancing the weight of evils and the sacrifices necessary for the greater good, are just as capable of being as ruthless and driven as men without it indicating some sort of madness. I could rant forever about that particular choice, especially as it plays out in the show. But, thankfully, in Talyien we find a queen truly worth rooting for. She is a warrior and a woman and, simply, a person who is flawed, has insecurities, has made poor choices, but also has an inner strength and drive that sees her rising to the challenges before her.

All three books have, in their own way, seen Talyien’s situation become more and more dire. Queen though she may be, she is still vulnerable to the maneuverings of the men that surround her. Worse, in this book, we see the lingering damage that even a dead man, her own father, can wreak on her life. I’m so excited to see how everything plays out. It feels like there are a bunch of moving pieces and many issues coming in to roost.

I’ll post my full review this coming Friday. But in the meantime, make sure to enter to win a paperback copy of “The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng!”

Enter to win!

Serena’s Review: “The Midnight Bargain”


Book: “The Midnight Bargain” by C.L. Polk

Publishing Info: Erewhon, October 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken? 

Review: I requested this one last fall, mostly because I always like historical fantasy novels and because of the simple, but beautiful, cover art. Romance is always a plus too! But here we are in the spring of 2021 before I finally got around to it. Part of that is due to my own poor management of my TBR pile, of course. But my recent enjoyment of “Sorcerer to the Crown,” a title to which this one sounds similar, was really the kick in the pants I needed top finally pick this one up. Unfortunately, that same comparison that spurred my renewed interest is also the thing that ultimately hurt this book for me in the end.

For Beatrice, the life path laid out before her is as set-in-stone as it is unwanted. With a destitute family depending on her, she unhappily looks ahead to a life where she will be forced to give up her magic in order to marry well and restore her family’s prospects. In her efforts to avoid this life, Beatrice pursues a powerful, magical book that will unlock her abilities and make her a Magnus. But as she gets closer and closer to this opportunity, the choices before her become harder and harder. When she meets an intriguing young man, she begins to realize that she will have to lose one of her loves: a beloved husband or her magic.

While I didn’t love this book, there were a few things that stood out to me on the positive side. I thought the integration of the magical system and the Regency world-building was interesting and unique. It was fairly simplistic, but in some ways I think that worked well for this book that was trying to span at least three different genres: fantasy, historical fiction, and romance. And what included was interesting in its own right, with the grimoires and the summoning of spirits at the heart of the fantasy. I also thought the complication of the dangers magic posed to childbearing was an interesting, if a bit heavy-handed, wrinkle to throw in the fold.

However, there were a few too many things that got in the way of my enjoying those aspects of the story too much. Immediately, I struggled with the writing. There is a lot of telling and a distinct lack of showing in the style of the story. And this is especially tedious in the beginning of the story where many bits of information are rather inexpertly dumped on to readers with very little done to obscure this goal. This is a personal preference, of course, but I also found myself becoming increasingly distracted and annoyed by the use of exclamation points in the writing. Not simply in dialogue, but in the actual description of events. It made many of these passages read as juvenile and a bit ridiculous.

I also found the main character fairly unlikable, coming across more annoying than fierce. The love story was also very superficial. It’s pretty much your typical insta-love story, and from there all the “drama” feels artificial and contrived. None of which helps the main character’s likability in the least. The conflict between her (instant) love with the hero, who seemed like obviously a genuinely good guy right from the start, and retaining her magic began to lose its weight fairly early.

The story itself had strange pacing, seeming to drag for long periods in the middle only to pick up again, briefly, towards the end. This wasn’t helped by the fact that, all told, it’s a fairly straight-forward and predictable affair. I struggled quite a bit to maintain interest, which is always a fairly bad sign when I reflect back on my feelings on a book. Overall, I think there are likely better examples of books like this, “Sorcerer to the Crown” (obviously) and also “The Dark Days Club” and its sequels come to mind.

Rating 6: A unique idea falters under poor pacing and a plot that veers to closely to predictable tropes.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Midnight Bargain” is on these Goodreads lists: Fantasy of Manners and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Find “The Midnight Bargain” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Black Water Sister”

Book: “Black Water Sister” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace Books, May 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Review: I was obviously on a bit of a Zen Cho kick recently. In reality, I had requested this one from Edelweiss+ thinking it was part of her “Sorcerer Royal” series. And with that in mind, thought to myself “Oh, shoot! I need to read the second one before this one comes out!” So, off I went to read/review that book. Only to get to this one and discover that this is not, in fact, part of the series and is instead a modern, stand-alone fantasy. Little peak behind the oh, so exciting review process, and my own inability to properly research the books I request!

Sometimes the voices in your head are real. Sure, Jess figured it was just the stress of moving back to a homeland she doesn’t remember, not having two cents to rub together, and feeling locked away from her true self. But when mediums run in your family, there just might be another cause to strange voices. When Jess’s deceased grandmother begins speaking to her about feuds and powerful deities, Jess finds that uncovering her true identity may be much more complicated than she had thought.

First off, props to the cover artist. It’s a beautiful work of art, and it fits the overall feel of the book perfectly. Silly me should really have been able to pick up on the fact that of course this wasn’t in the “Sorcerer Royal” series just based on that, but…yeah, I have no excuses here.

It’s hard to evaluate this book because I was honestly a bit disappointed that it wasn’t part of her historical fantasy series. But that’s on me and not the book. I also don’t typically read a lot of contemporary fantasy. However, the story of a young woman getting tangled up in a feud between gang leaders and a centuries-old deity? Heck yeah! Like Cho’s work in her other series, the magical elements in this book were excellent. I particularly liked the god-like being at the heart, the titular Black Water Sister. I also liked the ghosts and how they were described/used in the story.

However, the characters and writing, two aspects of Cho’s “Sorcerer” series that I found particularly compelling, were less strong here. The tone and style used in that series, the type of “historical” writing that you see in Jane Austen novels and other books of that time, is incredibly challenging. It relies on long, drawn-out sentences and an extensive vocabulary. It’s hard to master, but Cho excelled. So, here, with the much more straight-forward style of writing found in any old contemporary book…it all kind of just fell flat. There were a few lines of dialogue that were witty and clever, but the descriptions, actions, general prose didn’t really stand out or capture me in any way.

I also had a really hard time liking Jess herself. There’s a reason I don’t typically read contemporary books. I’m not very interested in family dramas or the coming-of-age stories you often find in these types of stories. Jess is definitely going through one of these “needs to find herself” moments, and I really struggled to care. As a character, she didn’t feel very distinct or unique, and any actions she took were often forced upon her. Her relationship with her secret girlfriend flounders because of this very thing: Jess’s inability to take action in her own life and come out to her parents. That on its own is understandable, as it’s a very tough thing for those in the LGBT community. But when it is just one example of an ongoing, central trait for the main character in this book? It made for some dull reading.

In the end, this book wasn’t really my thing. Fans of contemporary fantasy will likely enjoy it more. The real strength to be found here was in Cho’s descriptions of Malaysia, and Jess’s experiences returning to a homeland she didn’t recognize. But the characters and writing felt a bit flat. Those looking for a book that is similar to Cho’s “Sorcerer” series should be warned that that is definitely not what’s in store here. Take it or leave it as to whether that’s a good thing for you or not!

Rating 6: An interesting look into Malaysia with a unique fantasy overlay, but the main character was too frustrating for me to fully enjoy this read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Black Water Sister” can be found on these Goodreads lists: 2021 Books by Women of Color and 2021 Queer SFF.

Find “Black Water Sister” at your library using WorldCat!

Diving into Sub-Genres: Space Opera

We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

The term “space opera” was originally coined as a dismissive term applied to some science fiction. It was essentially a variation on the term “soap opera” and was used to convey a similar, high-minded rather snobby view of the book being described. Often, these would be ensemble cast stories featuring a space ship, a crew, and the shenanigans they would get into. The use of the term often indicated that the reviewer thought there wasn’t enough “hard science” in the story, and the book had an over-reliance on character beats and corny adventures.

“Star Wars” is the classic example of a space opera film. It’s light-hearted, features a story that revolves largely around the personal stories of its characters, jumps from planet to planet, and isn’t too interested in getting into the how’s and why’s of how its space elements work (how is the “Force” different than magic? how does the Death Star’s planet killing ray actually work in space?, etc.) However, over the last several decades, the term has begun to not only be used in a much less negative light (science fiction reviewers must have realized everyone seems to love “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”), but it has also begun to describe a different sort of science fiction story altogether.

Today’s space opera is essentially the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy more than anything else. There are no hard and fast rules (like all sub-genres, really), but more often than not, modern space operas operate on a grand scale. There are multiple planets and space systems with layered political maneuverings taking place between these players. Most stories include interstellar travel with characters who move between various locations and who are influenced or influencing the larger movements between these forces. While there is still an emphasis on adventure and character, the stories are often of a more serious nature, veering even further away from the “soap opera” caricature from which the term was derived.

Here is a list of some examples of space opera science fiction. I’ve read most of them, but not all, and have varying opinions on my enjoyment of some. But each, in their own way, helps represent the scope and range to be found within this sub-genre.

Book: “A Memory Called Empire” by Arkady Martine

This and its sequel, “A Desolation Called Peace,” are the two most recent space opera science fiction books I’ve read recently. They are also perfect examples of what the sub-genre represents to modern readers. The title itself makes the grand scale of the story clear. This isn’t a book concerned only with the small happenings on one planet. It covers and entire Empire and the continuous tug and pull this sprawling force on the outlying stations and planets that have not yet been consumed into this grand, but overwhelming, force. But on a smaller scale, the story follow the more straight-forward adventure of a diplomat who finds herself entangled in the political maneuverings within the Empire itself, all while trying to maintain her own entity and that of the independent station that she represents. On top of all of that, there’s a clear, focused use of scientific advancements that allow these societies to exist. They all feel appropriately futuristic, but they are also easy to imagine as the next step to technologies we see in our own world currently.

Book: “Red Rising” Saga by Pierce Brown

“Red Rising” is an example of a series that starts out with a book that only walks the line of space opera but is the beginning to a set of books that definitely fits the bill. On its own, “Red Rising” can be summed up as “Hunger Games in space,” essentially. There is reference to the multitude of planets and systems that make up this universe, but the story itself feels more contained and insularly focused. But as the series continues, the focus broadens and by the end, the story is fully re-focused on huge battles and political movements that are reshaping the way these planets and systems have organized themselves. These books also have a stronger helping of action than “A Memory Called Empire.” In the beginning, we see smaller fights between the young adults battling each other to earn spots in the greater spectrum of society. And from there we see action-packed space battles with large forces coming together with a clash. While we have one hero, he is surrounded by a larger cast of characters, another common trait found in space operas where the stories follow ensembles and ships with large crews.

Book: “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is a classic example of “space opera.” It’s also part of a very loose series (there are concepts and references to technology that are the focus of other books, but it can be read as a standalone story). This book stands out from the first two I highlighted in that it has the more old-fashioned space opera focus on interactions between humans and the native alien species of the planets they encounter (the first two I mentioned above are mostly focused on the politics between various human factions). The story itself follows a fairly traditional colonization conflict. The human race show up at a planet whose environment is essentially one huge forest. The native people have built their entire system of life around this habitat. They are also unfamiliar with the concepts of tyranny and slavery, so the culture clash is real and painful. When a terrible event sparks resistance, the trajectory of both cultures is changed forever. The story definitely is of the time it was written (the late 70s), but it’s an excellent example of classic space opera.

Book: “Leviathan Wakes” by James S. A. Corey

I mean, it’s right there on the front page: “kickass space opera.” But it would also be fairly impossible to create this list currently without including this book, the first in the “Expanse” series that inspired the popular Amazon show. While “Star Trek” reigns alongside “Star Wars” as some of the most popular space operas stories to grace the silver and big screens, the “Expanse” series is one of the few, popular science fiction shows that is currently running. Fantasy seems to be in vogue a bit more at this time (the lasting affect of “Game of Thrones,” likely). Like “Red Rising,” “Leviathan Wakes” focuses on the politics of various human colonies within our solar system, Mars, the Moon, and the Asteroid belts. But it also narrows in on a group of individuals who begin to uncover secrets that will forever shake the boundaries of these systems and their conflicts. It deftly balances the grand scale of various factions within the solar system with the smaller, personal stakes of one ship’s crew and a few key players. It’s a long-running series and definitely one to check out if you’re interested in a multi-book space opera story.

Book: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

This is space opera at its most removed. The story is set far in the future and features such a shift in the culture and world-building that in many ways very little is recognizable. Which makes the book particularly challenging and definitely one that will likely only appeal to the strongest science fiction fans. In a time where gender is essentially not even recognized and “she” pronouns are used to identify everyone, a individual crew member who was once a great starship wanders a remote planet. With a sharp focus on loss and the collective nature of a ship and its crew, the story is a slow build of redemption and justice. It’s probably one of the hardest books to tackle on this list, but it is also very beloved by many science fiction fans and an award-winner to boot.

Book: “A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

This is a more recent example of a science fiction novel that meets the more classic definition of space opera. It features a crew made up of quirky individuals, both alien and human, and the story essentially follows their adventures as they travel the galaxy. It’s more light-hearted than any of the other books on this list and places a greater emphasis on the characters themselves and how their escapades affect each of them individually. It’s not a soap opera, by any means, but it’s definitely the kind of book that the original penners of the term “space opera” would have thought was beneath the dignity of “true” science fiction. It’s a fun read and probably the most approachable book on this list for those looking to dabble their feet into science fiction and “space opera.”

What’s your favorite space opera??

Serena’s review: “The True Queen”

Book: “The True Queen” by Zen Cho

Publishing Info: Ace, March 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: When sisters Muna and Sakti wake up on the peaceful beach of the island of Janda Baik, they can’t remember anything, except that they are bound as only sisters can be. They have been cursed by an unknown enchanter, and slowly Sakti starts to fade away. The only hope of saving her is to go to distant Britain, where the Sorceress Royal has established an academy to train women in magic.

If Muna is to save her sister, she must learn to navigate high society, and trick the English magicians into believing she is a magical prodigy. As she’s drawn into their intrigues, she must uncover the secrets of her past, and journey into a world with more magic than she had ever dreamed. 

Previously Reviewed: “Sorcerer to the Crown”

Review: Kate and I both read “Sorcerer to the Crown” for bookclub a few months ago. It had been my pick, a book that had been sitting on my shelf inexplicably unread for years. Boy could I have kicked myself for that after getting through with it! I loved the fantasy of manners feel of the book, and the main characters were incredibly compelling. I also liked how the book tackled complicated issues surrounding race, identity, and sexism all within a book that, overall, still felt light0hearted and fun. With all that to recommend it, I was fully committed to continuing on with the series as soon as possible. And, while I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much of as the first, I still had a blast reading this second entry.

Muna and her sister Sakti wake up on a beach with no memory of who they are or where they came from. They know they are sisters, but nothing else. Muna is satisfied to lead a quiet life, but when Sakti begins to succumb to a curse that sees her slowly disappearing, Muna must venture forth to save her sister. But with no magic to her name, Muna’s task is a perilous one. In a foreign country, and with the aide of the powerful Sorcerer to the Crown, Prunella, Muna must convince everyone that she is in fact a powerful magical force in her own right. Soon, she is more steeped in magic and magical beings than she ever would have wished. But to save her sister, Muna will brave most anything.

One of the main things that still stands out to me when now reading this second book by Cho is the perfect marriage of old-fashioned-style writing and unique, fantasy elements. If there weren’t dragons and talk of the land of Fae in every other sentence, it would be easy to imagine one is simply reading a good Jane Austen novel or any other historical fiction story written in that time. Now, the mileage of that style of writing really varies from reader to reader as, indeed, it’s a style that lends itself towards long, drawn out sentences. But I love this type of verbose writing, so this kind of book is right up my alley.

10 Most Unforgettable JUSTIFIED Quotes | Movie TV Tech Geeks News
Regency authors and Boyd Crowder apparently have a lot in common.

I was also pleased to see that while Muna has the majority of the POV chapters, we also returned to Prunella as well. In fact, the contrast between the two almost made each stronger. Prunella was still her confident, action-oriented self. However, Muna was a much more reserved character. From the start, she is only pushed into this adventure in a desire to save her sister. For herself, she would have been happy with a quiet life, only faintly disturbed by her missing memories. She was an excellent foil to Prunella, and, while the two faced similar barriers to their roles in society (as women, and, worse, women with magical abilities), we see how Muna is affected by these forces and reacts differently than Prunella.

I also enjoyed the additional layers that were added to the fantasy elements in this story. Most especially, I enjoyed the deeper look into the world of Fae itself, with its strange habits and fearsome (and sometimes very funny!) cast of characters. It was also interesting seeing how various nations understood this magical world, and the different ways they approached their relationship with this powerful place and its people.

Once again, the book also delved into some social aspects and themes that aren’t often found in a historical work like this. I’m not quite sure if this was as successful as the first book was, however. The romance between the two women, for one things, feels very out of the blue and tacked on at the very end. It is definitely possible to read this as a building romance between the two the entire time, but when one character is in a straight relationship for almost the entire book only to suddenly switch at the end…it’s just not very deftly handled.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It contained much of what I enjoyed from the first book, and Muna was a fantastic new main character. I’m still very intrigued by this world and would love to re-visit it whenever Cho chooses! Fans of the first book should definitely check this one out!

Rating 8: A smart, Regency fantasy that continues to build on the excellent foundation of social commentary that the first book established.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The True Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: LGBT Scifi and Fantasy 2015-2020 and Asian Adult Fiction 2018.

Find “The True Queen” at your library using WorldCat!