Kate’s Review: “Distant Early Warning”

Book: “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst

Publishing Info: Renaissance, April 2021 (originally published 2014)

Book Description: Canada is in crisis. Global warming has taken hold, and amid the flooding and the super storms, another horror has risen, more devastating than the rest. The dead begin rising from the ground at night, screaming out strange gibberish songs that terrify and entrance anyone who hears them. With people dying and fleeing all around, the north quickly becomes a wild west, without the west.

Felicia “Denny” Dennigan lives far from the crisis, with a good job at the university and a roof over her head, but her life is far from perfect. A perpetual loner, she relies on sporadic visits from her Dad as her only lifeline to friends or family. So, when Dad doesn’t return one fall day, and his dog, Geoff, shows up without him, Denny is concerned for his safety. The last postcard he sent her was from Sudbury, on the edge of the chaos up North…

Denny’s worst fears are confirmed when she sees Dad on TV, dead, and screaming. Desperate to end his suffering, Denny gives up her job, buys supplies, and heads out with Geoff to discover the truth behind her father’s death, but truth always comes with a cost. What Denny discovers in the wilds of Northern Ontario will shatter all of her assumptions about her life, and what lies beyond.

Review: Thank you to Renaissance for sending me an ARC of this book!

It’s been a bit since I delved into a zombie tale, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m zombied out, or if I just haven’t been seeing as many lately. Whatever the case may be, I haven’t been hanging with the undead as of late. But when I was approached by Renaissance to read and review “Distant Early Warning” by Elizabeth Hirst, I was immediately interested, for a couple of reasons. 1) It sounded like a new take on a zombie tale, which I’m always down for, and 2) it’s a story set in the wilds of Canada! As a Minnesotan, I feel a deep kinship with our neighbors to the North, so I absolutely am game for any tale that takes place there. If you got a horror story on top of it, that sounds like a party!

And let me tell you, once international travel is safe again, I intend to go visit! (source)

Overall, I enjoyed about “Distant Early Warning”. I really liked Denny as our main character. For one, I thought that she was wry and funny, and I liked her scrappy spirit and her determination to figure out what happened to her father. She has a lot of relatable moments, and I liked that she is described in ways that feel not really of the norm from what you’d expect from a zombie story heroine. I loved her connection to Geoff, her father’s dog, and I liked seeing her slowly come into her own as she goes on her journey into the wild. And yes, I’m that sucker who liked the slow building relationship between her and Wayne, a man she meets under suspicious circumstances, but someone who she comes to rely upon for companionship (as he too relies upon her). Denny was easy to invest in, and was easy to root for. And the complicated relationship she had with her father is a journey that slowly unfolds and has a lot of pathos to it.

In terms of the zombie story themes, I thought that the Screamers and some of the ways that they functioned were pretty cool and original. They could range from the general menace to more of a boss fight in a video game, but what made it even more intriguing was that (without giving much away) Denny has the skills to counteract them in ways that hasn’t been seen in stories like this before. There are also clear moments of ‘the humans are the real monsters’ within the narrative, and we get the realization that 1) climate change that is man made has really screwed up everything else on top of the whole Screamers thing, and 2) it’s hard to know who you can trust when you stumble upon humans in these lawless areas. The climate change aspect felt pretty unique to me, even if the humans as the real threat has been done many times over in zombie tales. But I also liked the fact that there just kind of had a bit of hopefulness tinging the story as we go forward, from Denny finding strength that she didn’t know she had, to her being able to actually open up to people in face of hardship and loss.

In some ways “Distant Early Warning” keeps to well treaded paths of a zombie tale, but in other ways it has uniqueness to it that I enjoyed. It’s entertaining, has a great heroine, and a cute dog. What more could you want?

Rating 7: An at times unique take on a zombie tale with some mild eco-horror thrown in, “Distant Early Warning” is entertaining as well as hopeful in the face of the unknown.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Distant Early Warning” isn’t on any Goodreads lists as of yet, but I think it would fit in on “Eco Horror Books”, and “Horror Novels Set in Canada”.

Find “Distant Early Warning” on the publisher’s website!

ALSO, before I end this post, I want to share some links to organizations and groups that are collecting donations for Daunte Wright’s family members during this awful time, as well as the community of Brooklyn Center. Daunte Wright should be alive. Black Lives Matter.

Brooklyn Center Mutual Aid

Donations to Chyna, Daunte’s girlfriend and mother of his son, through a local health organization

A GoFundMe Campaign set up by Duante’s family

Emergency Housing Resources for families who live in the apartment buildings across from the police station (as tear gas and flashbangs have been going off right outside their home)

Serena’s Review: “The Brass Queen”

Book: “The Brass Queen” by Elizabeth Chatsworth

Publishing Info: CamCat Books, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In 1897, a fiery British aristocrat and an inept US spy search for a stolen invisibility serum that could spark a global war.

Miss Constance Haltwhistle is the last in a line of blue-blooded rogue inventors. Selling exotic firearms under her alias, the ‘Brass Queen,’ has kept her baronial estate’s coffers full. But when US spy, Trusdale, saves her from assassins, she’s pulled into a search for a scientist with an invisibility serum. As royal foes create an invisible army to start a global war, Constance and Trusdale must learn to trust each other. If they don’t, the world they know will literally disappear before their eyes.

Review: I haven’t reviewed a lot of them, but that’s because I don’t really see them around that much, but I do really enjoy a good steampunk fantasy when I can find it. It’s a neat, little quirky subgenre in fantasy fiction that is kind of bizarre in the specific elements that are seemingly expected from the genre: must involve steam-powered machine, often set in the Victorian period or some historical-feeling setting, has a decent overlap with Manners period pieces, etc. Those are all things I typically enjoy, so combine them well, and you’ve probably got a winner for me! Ah, but combining them well….

Constance must marry. Her family home is in danger, and with an absent father and no other recourse before her, the marriage market is her only way forward. Of course, she must find a husband who can either ignore or not see the other identity that Constance keeps under tight wraps: her position as the “Brass Queen,” a well-respected, underground weapons dealer. All is going exactly not to plan when her debut ball is interrupted by thieves. She quickly finds herself caught up in an elaborate plot that extends past Britain’s own borders. Not only that, she’s paired up a ridiculous U.S. spy whom she’s not sure she can even trust. What could go wrong next?

Like I said, I generally enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, and this one in particular had some interesting things going for it, like our heroine’s secret life as the Brass Queen. I also liked the way the author explored the idea of this imagined version of England with its machines and mechanized creations. The very first scene sees Constance opening a ball in a room overseen by towering animatronic suits that can be piloted by riders within. Constance’s own alternate identity gives the reader a direct line into the ins and outs of how this type of weaponization has and could be used. There was a lot of creativity here and elements to pique one’s interest.

But other than these aspects of the world-building, I struggled with this story. Constance, for one thing, was a walking, talking contradiction whom I could never quite understand or believe in as a living, breathing person. On one hand, she’s this weapons dealer who works with great power players all of the time. And yet in the very first scene, we’re supposed to believe that she’s been bumbling around the ball room this entire time and is about to fall to pieces over a simple speech? Someone who runs an underground weapons dealership would surely have a firm hand on proper decorum and behavior and much experience talking to strangers, likely to even more important people and with greater stakes at play. This contradiction continued throughout the book. I just had a hard time buying a lot of Constance’s actions when set against the idea that she was supposed to be this powerful, underground operator (as many characters remind us).

I also felt like the romance was a bit off the entire time. I’m not sure if this was because I was constantly distracted by Constance, or what exactly the problem was. I think part of it was Trusdale had a very “American cowboy in Britain” thing going on that I also had a hard time taking seriously. The book was clearly trying to incorporate a good amount of humor, and some the bantering between these two was actually quite good. But the balance was just slightly off and some of the humorous moments early on made it hard for me to take either of these characters too seriously or care overly much about their romance as a whole.

I also struggled with the writing in general. I had a hard time picturing some of the elements of the story, never a good thing for a fantasy book. And the story sometimes had jarring jumps between one scene and another. The formatting on my Kindle e-galley didn’t help with this. Hopefully the finalized version will have better page breaks to distinguish these scenes a bit better.

Overall, I had a fairly middling response to this book. There was nothing that I really disliked, but I also didn’t care about the story that much. The writing wasn’t quite strong enough to support some of the more fantastical elements, and the characters weren’t complicated enough to add any weight to the action. If you really enjoy steampunk fantasy stories, this might be worth checking out, but it wasn’t quite all I had hoped it would be.

Rating 7: Fun enough at times, but not all I had hoped it could be.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Brass Queen” is on these Goodreads lists: Gaslamp Fantasy and 2021 Swoony Awards.

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

Kate’s Review: “The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End”

Book: “The Sandman (Vol. 8): Worlds’ End” by Neil Gaiman, Mike Allred (Ill.), Gary Amaro (Ill.), Mark Buckingham (Ill.), David Giordano (Ill.), Tony Harris (Ill.), Steve Leialoha (Ill.), Vince Locke (Ill.), Shea Anton Pensa (Ill.), Alec Stevens (Ill.), Bryan Talbot (Ill.), John Watkiss (Ill.), & Michael Zulli (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, 1993

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Caught in the vortex of a reality storm, wayfarers from throughout time, myth and the imagination converge on a mysterious inn at WORLD’S END. In the tradition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as the travelers all wait out the tempest that rages around them, they share stories of the places they’ve been, the things they’ve seen… and those that they’ve dreamed.

Review: We’ve entered the last fourth of my “The Sandman” re-read, and after the strong note that we ended on at the end of “Brief Lives” I was, admittedly, disappointed to see the number of illustrators coming into “The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End”. That many illustrators can only mean one thing: we’re getting a number of stand alone short stories. This has been something we’ve seen Gaiman tinker with as the series has gone on, but given that I haven’t remembered many of them as I’ve gone through this re-read, it kind of goes to show that for me these moments of pushing boundaries of storytelling aren’t as effective as the main plot of Morpheus and his siblings. I figured that the same would be said for “Worlds’ End”, and for the most part I was right. Except for one significant moment near the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Worlds’ End” is an homage to “The Canterbury Tales”, as a number of travelers have found themselves at a mysterious tavern that seems to meet at the nexus of dimensions. There are humans, creatures, entities, and spirits, and all have wound up at the Worlds’ End Tavern due to a strange ‘reality storm’ that has thrown all of them out of their home planes. We arrive with Brant Tucker and his travel companion Charlene, after he crashes her car in the middle of a snowstorm that happens to be occurring in June. Clearly something is up, and as he and Charlene take shelter, the other travelers engage each other with stories to pass the time. As someone who hasn’t read “The Canterbury Tales”, I wasn’t lost, per se, but I was wondering if I was missing something because of my ignorance. The stories range from fantasy to surrealist to creepy. Two really stood out for me in the stand alone stories list. The first is “Hob’s Leviathan”. For one, it brings back fan favorite and Morpheus friend Hob Gadling, but it doesn’t center him at the heart. Instead it focuses on “Jim”, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy to travel on sailing ships. As Jim and Hob travel, their ship encounters a humungous sea serpent. Jim wants to tell the world; Hob knows that the world won’t listen. I liked this one for two main reasons. The first is the reintroduction of Hob. I love Hob! He’s a fun character and it was fun seeing him through the eyes of someone else. The other is Jim, as any tale that has a woman trying to extend past societies expectations is a-okay in my book.

The other story I really liked was “The Golden Boy”. At one point during DC Comics’s Bronze Age there was a character named Prez Rickard, who was a teenage president of the United States. In “The Golden Boy”, Gaiman expands and adds complexity to this concept, following Prez as he maneuvers as President through multiple crises of 20th Century America, which is very clearly a country that has burned brightly but on the verge of starting to burn out. While Prez is never swayed by corrupting influences (specifically an otherworldly entity called Boss Smiley, who looks like the Smiley Face Icon from the 1970s), the ills of the world beat him down and he fades slowly out. It’s a strange and bittersweet but also hopeful story, and one that was VERY weird to read in the America that we’re living in right now.

The other original stories in this collection didn’t really connect with me. But there is one final story that is by far my favorite in its power, its emotion, and what it shows is on the way. The last tale is that of the travelers at Worlds’ End who are still waiting out the storm, and wondering what has caused this strange event, as it certainly must be something significant and ghastly to do such damage to reality. And then, across the sky, they see a funeral procession. They don’t know what they are seeing. We as readers don’t really know what we are seeing. But we do see various Endless in the procession, with Delirium and Death trailing behind at the end. Brant describes the entire thing in a sorrowful and yet dreamy way, and once we get to the end and see Death and the look on her face…. Guys, I wept. I think that in part it’s because I know what’s coming. But it’s also such a beautiful moment filled with poignancy and loss. This story was my favorite, and if shifted my perception.

The artwork in this collection is, as you may imagine, incredibly varied (LOOK AT ALL THE NAMES AT THE TOP OF THIS POST). Gaiman says in an afterword in my edition that he wanted to showcase all these different artists talents, and he does. But my favorite was definitely Gary Amaro, who created the funeral procession with such celestial grace and dejection that it just cuts me to the bone.

“The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End” is the last of the standalone story collections in the series. I’m glad to move on to the rest of the main storyline and characters, but I will say that the end of this one is probably the most powerful moment in the series for me. I’m glad to have been reminded of it.

Rating 7: Another collection of unrelated stories shows off Gaiman’s creativity and the illustrators’s talents. But after a strong previous story arc I was a little underwhelmed, outside of a powerful moment of foreshadowing…

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Sandman (Vol.8): Worlds’ End” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best of Vertigo Comics”, and “Books for the INFJ”.

Find “The Sandman (Vol.8) Worlds’ End” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “An Unexpected Peril”

Book: “An Unexpected Peril” by Deanna Raybourn

Publishing Info: Berkley, March 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: January 1889. As the newest member of the Curiosity Club—an elite society of brilliant, intrepid women—Veronica Speedwell is excited to put her many skills to good use. As she assembles a memorial exhibition for pioneering mountain climber Alice Baker-Greene, Veronica discovers evidence that the recent death was not a tragic climbing accident but murder. Veronica and her natural historian beau, Stoker, tell the patron of the exhibit, Princess Gisela of Alpenwald, of their findings. With Europe on the verge of war, Gisela’s chancellor, Count von Rechstein, does not want to make waves—and before Veronica and Stoker can figure out their next move, the princess disappears.

Having noted Veronica’s resemblance to the princess, von Rechstein begs her to pose as Gisela for the sake of the peace treaty that brought the princess to England. Veronica reluctantly agrees to the scheme. She and Stoker must work together to keep the treaty intact while navigating unwelcome advances, assassination attempts, and Veronica’s own family—the royalty who has never claimed her.

Previously Reviewed: “A Curious Beginning,” “A Perilous Undertaking,” , “A Treacherous Curse” , “A Dangerous Collaboration” , and “A Murderous Relation”

Review: I think I’ve started my reviews for the last several books in this series the same way: my enjoyment of these stories has been very hit and miss. The first several were all very enjoyable, but as the series progressed, it felt like the author was stalling on the romance and losing some creativity with the mysteries themselves. The book directly previous to this one, for example, very much felt like a recycled version of plot elements from several of the books before it. However, optimistic as ever, I’ve continued on. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, it did again bounce back from the previous low point.

Surprising no one but perhaps Stoker (his optimism for an end to his and Veronica’s dangerous mysteries is perhaps more endearing than it is realistic), murder and mystery has once again found Veronica Speedwell. The death of a fellow female explore, Alice Baker-Greene, a famous mountaineer, raises suspicion from Veronica, especially in light of the cagey response by the Princess of the country in which Alice died. When the Princess herself next disappears, Veronica finds herself thrust into royal company posing as a doppleganger and hoping to suss out more clues as to Alice’s fate. But are Veronica and Stoker once again straying too close to danger?

I was pleased to see that this new entry into Veronica and Stoker’s story was taking us into uncharted territory for the most part. I really enjoyed the backstory we are given for Alice, a woman of Veronica’s own ilk but whose talents were directed towards mountain climbing rather than butterflies. I was able to guess a few of the mysteries tied up in her story, but I was also flummoxed by a few others. The added twist of the Princess’s disappearance adds an interesting extra layer to the proceedings.

Veronica and Stoker are still interesting characters, but I do feel that each is beginning to run a bit dry on character development. Once again, Stoker is so far in the background of this story that I often felt like he was barely present. Over the last two books, there has been practically no growth or arch for this character and it’s definitely starting to show. And for her part, Veronica is growing only marginally. We see her here struggle with the prospect of her future and the changes that her burgeoning relationship with Stoker may have upon that. This was an interesting concept, but I don’t feel like the author really gave it enough room to grow and resolve.

Instead, we find Veronica again getting caught up into the tired story line regarding her connections to the Royal family. Seriously, knock it off with this. It was a great reveal for the first book and coming up here and there is fine. But every single book now seems to include this aspect of Veronica’s life, but without having anything new to say or any new conclusion to reach. It’s dull and starting to feel really lazy. I complained about this same thing in my last review, and I’m disappointed to be repeating myself again here.

Overall, however, I was pleased with the mystery itself. When the story started out, I had hopes that Veronica and Stoker would travel to Alpenwald to conduct their investigation. I’m starting to think that a change of location would help the series a lot. One of my favorite entries, “A Dangerous Collaboration,” took place elsewhere, and I think it helped the story get out of a few of the ruts it gets stuck in when remaining in London. If there’s a next entry in the series, hopefully a relocation like this will help breathe some new life into this series. I’ll probably still continue on, but at this point I would probably only recommend it to those who are fairly devoted. The last few entries have just been too shallow and dull to amount to a stronger recommendation to a new reader.

Rating 7: An improvement on the last book, but still stuck in some tired tropes of its own making.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Unexpected Peril” is on these Goodreads lists: Historical Mystery 2021 and Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.

Find “An Unexpected Peril” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Follower”

Book: “The Follower” by Kate Doughty

Publishing Info: Amulet Books, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A spine-tingling YA thriller, based on a still-unfolding true story
 
Instagram-famous triplets Cecily, Amber, and Rudy—the children of home renovation superstars—are ready for a perfect summer. They’ve just moved into the site of their parents’ latest renovation project when they begin to receive chilling messages from someone called The Follower. It soon becomes clear that this anonymous threat is more than a simple Internet troll, and he can’t wait to shatter the Cole family’s perfect veneer and take back what’s his. The Follower examines the implications of what it is to be watched in the era of social media fame—as well as the lies we tell and the lengths we’ll go to uphold a perfect image, when our lives depend on it.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

One of the things that most caught my eye about “The Follower” by Kate Doughty is that in the description it says that it’s ‘based on a still-unfolding true story’. Sure, I’ve seen ‘based on a true story’ until the cows come home, but ‘still-unfolding true story’?

Like, WHAT? (source)

I did a little digging, and found out that this book takes some inspiration from the still unsolved “Watcher” case, in which a family moved into a house, and started getting harassing and threatening letters from an unknown person. This went on for awhile, the person was never caught, the family moved out. HERE is an article about it if you want to know more, and you probably do because it’s BANANAS. But ‘still-unfolding’ may be a little misleading, as it sounds like it’s stalled out and will probably never be solved. That said, “The Follower”, though taking inspiration, does not leave the reader hanging like reality did! In fact, it captured my attention and held it, making it so I had a really hard time putting this book down.

What I liked best about “The Follower” was how fast paced and generally addictive it was. We hit the ground running in the very first pages, and we never really paused to take a breather. This made for a book that I just kept on taking in, which was great in the moment. While it’s true that sometimes this fast paced momentum meant that we’d feel like we would trip through moments that needed maybe a little bit of a slow down, this only happened a couple times and the awkward pacing wasn’t too distracting. I also liked all three of the Cole Triplets, when I assumed that at least one of them was going to fall more by the wayside. But all three of them had well rounded personalities and motivations, as well as insecurities and flaws that made them feel human in spite of their ‘influencer’ lives. I especially liked how we got to explore Amber’s drive to be a fashion master while being plus sized, and how while she was hurt by how people (specifically her mother) think that she isn’t as valuable because of her body, she herself is happy with how she is because why shouldn’t she be? Also, the snippets of the social media comments were a fun way to show how their experience at the house and with The Follower was being perceived, and how when ‘fans’ on social media get whipped up into a frenzy of perceived wrongdoing/their own entitlement and or outrage, it can be REALLY damaging. I’m not going to say that it’s going so far as to be a critique of so called ‘cancel culture’, but I will say that it raises good points about how toxic fandoms can be towards living breathing people because of the faux intimacy of social media.

In terms of the actual mystery of who “The Follower” is, there were parts that were pretty obvious from the get go if you are familiar with tropes that go with these kinds of stories. If a character has a beloved pet, it will probably meet an untimely end. If things move around and no one fesses up to doing it, that may mean something more. The family can’t leave the house in which they are being terrorized because it’s a money pit. And so forth. It’s not BAD, per se, and these tropes are familiar and cozy in a way that means that they work just fine. But it also didn’t really make for many big surprises as the story went on. There were a number of moments that should have been ‘ah HA’ in nature, but because I knew the tropes and tricks from many stories before, almost all of them were not surprising, and even somewhat predictable. That being said, I’ve been consuming these kinds of stories for many years now, so for readers who are just getting started there could be things to discover.

“The Follower” was a comfortable read for me that gave me all the reliable elements that I like of a YA thriller. I look forward to seeing what Kate Doughty comes out with in the future, and will definitely be checking it out, whatever it may be.

Rating 7: Fast paced and a page turner, “The Follower” is a pretty satisfying thriller, if at times a predictable and reliant on tropes seen many times before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Follower” is pretty new and not featured on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Involving Stalking”, and “Unwanted Attention”.

Find “The Follower” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “As the Shadow Rises”

Book: “As the Shadow Rises” by Katy Rose Pool

Publishing Info: Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: The Last Prophet has been found, yet he sees destruction ahead.

In this sequel to the critically-acclaimed “There Will Come a Darkness,” kingdoms have begun to fall to a doomsday cult, the magical Graced are being persecuted, and an ancient power threatens to break free. But with the world hurtling toward its prophesized end, Anton’s haunting vision reveals the dangerous beginnings of a plan to stop the Age of Darkness.

As Jude, Keeper of the Order of the Last Light, returns home in disgrace, his quest to aid the Prophet is complicated by his growing feelings for Anton. Meanwhile, the assassin known as the Pale Hand will stop at nothing to find her undead sister before she dies for good, even if it means letting the world burn. And in Nazirah, Hassan, the kingdom-less Prince, forms a risky pact to try to regain his throne. When the forces of light and darkness collide in the City of Mercy, old wounds are reopened, new alliances are tested, and the end of the world begins.

Previously Reviewed: “There Will Come a Darkness”

Review: I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book in this series, as my review above with testify to. But it’s hard to resist returning to a series when the sequel is so highly praised (but then again, so was the first one, and we saw how that turned out). But this book currently has a 4.25 star rating on Goodreads, which is definitely not something to turn your nose up at. So I requested it and tried to be open to what others are seeing in this series that I didn’t. Sadly, I still don’t see it.

Our main characters are spread far and wide. And while the Last Prophet has been identified, the world still seems to be burning around them. Hassan has lost his country to his scheming Aunt. Jude returns in disgrace having let his feelings get ahead of his mission time and again. And our favorite assassin wanders the land looking for her self-destructive, undead sister. Not to mention the doomsday cult that only seems to have gotten started. As their paths weave in and out of each other’s stories, the way forward begins to look more and more complicated and challenging. If there even is a way forward.

Well, I will say that I liked this one better than the first. With so many POV characters, the first one had to devote a huge chunk of its page time introducing each of its characters and attempting to instill equal importance and interest in them all. For me, this last part wasn’t successful, but there was no avoiding the first part. One could make an argument for this being why multiple POV books should probably be much more rare than they seem to be at the moment. But for all of those reasons, the first book didn’t have much of a plot until the last quarter of the story where it did, finally, kick into gear. Here, the story was able to take off much more quickly for all that work already being done. Our threats have been better identified, the world-building better established, and it all results in a book that has much better pacing and action than the first.

I also liked the fact that the story is leaning into the darker, twisty aspects of the story. The first one I thought was pretty predictable and what were meant to land as big shocks were easily seen chapters ahead of time. Here, I was pleased that I was only able to predict a few of the twists and turns with more of them taking me genuinely by surprise. So if you enjoyed that aspect of the first book, this one is sure to satisfy.

Unfortunately, for me, most books live and die on their characters. And that was my biggest problem with the first, and that feeling only intensified with this one. There’s a combination of problems here, really. With so many POVs, there will always be favorites. This happens even with books/authors who can handle a large ensemble cast well. But here there are really only one or two characters whose stories I’m really invested in. For the others, there’s a combination of boredom by some and then dislike of others. Both of these feelings, I’m sure, are unintentional. Boring, for sure. And the dislike? I’m not quite so sure, but I think that we’re still meant to like most of these people. And it’s not even the morally ambiguous ones (assassins always are!) that are always the unlikeable ones here! I didn’t like Hassan much in the first, and he really doesn’t improve here. And while Jude has an interesting story, I’m still cringing over his complete failure to live up to what we’re meant to believe is rigorous training he went through his entire life. He has similar struggles here.

I did like the moments when the characters crossed paths with one another. That was a favorite part of the first book, too. It’s nice to see a story that doesn’t just get all of the characters together and then leave them that way. Here, like there, we see people come and go from each other’s stories, making the fact that they are all individuals with very different goals and objectives stay at the forefront of the mind. While they have different connections and interests in one another, they are not a team like we often see in other ensemble books.

Overall, I think this was an improvement on the first book. I liked that the story took me more by surprise. And the fact that so much of the introduction leg work had already been gotten out of the way really helped the pacing and action of the plot. Unfortunately, my problems with many of the characters only intensified and at times it felt like a real chore reading some of their chapters. However, if you were a fan of the first book, I’m sure you’ll like this one. And if your problems with the first one had to do more with its introductory nature more than anything else, this might be an improvement for you as well! Just expect more of the same, character-wise.

Rating 7: An improvement on the first, but I still found myself skimming through certain characters’ chapters.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As the Shadow Rises” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, weirdly, but it is on Books with Red Covers.

Find “As the Shadow Rises” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Corpsing”

Book: “Corpsing” by Kayleigh Marie Edwards

Publishing Info: Sinister Horror Company, July 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eBook from the author.

Book Description: Kayleigh Marie Edwards has been entertaining and chilling audiences with her own eclectic mix of horror and comedy. Now, for the first time, this popular author has collected her works together, reviewing and revising each one to bring you the definitive versions of her unique tales.

From murderous children to nightmarish trips to an ill-fated zombie apocalypse, Corpsing will send you running for the light switch, but smiling as you do it. Featuring the stories: Bitey Bachman, Bits and Bobs, Siren, Now You See Them, Skin, ‘S’ Day, Barry’s Last Day & ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

Review: Thank you to Kayleigh Marie Edwards for reaching out and sending me an eBook of this novel!

Since I’ve had a pretty okay run with short stories recently, there may not be a reason for me to do a disclaimer, but I’m going to do it anyway. Short stories or anthologies as a format for a book is VERY hit or miss for me. While there are definitely collections I’ve enjoyed, a good number in recent years, I still tend to stay away of my own volition unless it’s an author I REALLY love. But when Kayleigh Marie Edwards approached our blog about her short story collection “Corpsing”, I wanted to give it a shot, because the info I found out about it made it sound like it was going to be a treat. And let me tell you, when the first story in the collection had MANY “Rocky Horror Picture Show” references, I knew that I had made the right call.

One might say it makes me wanna take Charles Atlas by the hand. (source)

“Corpsing” is a very fast collection, clocking in under one hundred pages, so was able to finish it in an evening. But that isn’t to say that the stories within it feel rushed or incomplete in any way. On the contrary, Edwards has crafted some creepy, grotesque, and sometimes quite funny tales that make up this collection, all of them feeling well thought out with clear arcs. As per usual, I shall talk about my favorite stories, and then tackle the collection as a whole.

“Siren”

By far the scariest story of the bunch, “Siren” is about a girl named Lucy who moves to a new home with her mother, her father staying behind as their marriage has fallen apart. Lucy is resentful and bitter, but then she looks out her window overlooking a lake and sees a girl who appears to be floating on the surface. Lucy gets to know Alice, a ghost who is convinced that they are going to be the best of friends. “Siren” has so many creepy moments, from imagery to interactions to an unsettling feeling as the story progresses, and it is probably one of the most serious stories of the bunch just because of how bleak it feels. You get Lucy’s isolation and resentment, and she feels like a very realistic tween girl who doesn’t quite get the full consequences of her actions or the actions of those around her, and as she depends more and more on Alice the dread builds more and more. And again, back to the imagery I mentioned: holy shit. There was one moment in particular that made me shiver.

“Barry’s Last Day”

As someone who has felt resentment towards a job, I thought this was a pretty fun one. Barry has worked at his company for many years, only to be passed over in his promotion for a young and smarmy man named Todd. As he’s leaving his job, he wants to take revenge on those he feels wronged him, but it may not go to plan. “Barry’s Last Day” isn’t really a scary story per se, but it definitely falls into the suspenseful ‘will this work out for him, and if it does, what does that mean?’ realm. Barry isn’t particularly likable or sympathetic, but I feel like lots of people could relate to him in his frustration. And I laughed out loud at the dark gallows humor throughout, especially once everything shakes out in the conclusion.

“‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”

Jim has taken his sons Dan and Nathan out to chop down a Christmas tree, but the only one they can find is growing in an animal cemetery, and hadn’t been there the year previously when they buried the family cat. Jim brings it home anyway, as what could possibly go wrong? This one was such a creative concept, and I don’t really want to spoil it, but I feel like this one was the best in the collection in terms of combining true horror with the funny. And again, I don’t want to spoil anything. But the last line made me laugh out loud and clap. I see what you did there, Kayleigh Marie Edwards, and I APPROVE.

In terms of the other stories, I think that were I more into visceral splatter horror and body horror I may have enjoyed them more, so while a couple didn’t click with me, it is probably because the subgenres aren’t my jam for the most part. But they were still engaging and quick reads, so those who do like more body horror things and want a quick collection will probably be right at home with them. And yes, the dark humor is there for those who like that mixed in with their scares. Edwards does it well and captures a well balanced tone when they do mix.

“Corpsing” was a fun and fast read! Definitely seek it out if you’re looking for something quick with wit and gore.

Rating 7: A quick and nasty (in a good way!) collection of short stories that is sure to have something for everyone, “Corpsing” is a fun collection with a couple stories that really stood out for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Corpsing” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Spooky Short Story Collections”.

Find “Corpsing” at your library using WorldCat, or at sinisterhorrorcompany.com!

Serena’s Review: “We are the Fire”

Book: “We are the Fire” by Sam Taylor

Publishing Info: Swoon Reads, February 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: In the cold, treacherous land of Vesimaa, children are stolen from their families by a cruel emperor, forced to undergo a horrific transformative procedure, and serve in the army as magical fire-wielding soldiers. Pran and Oksana―both taken from their homeland at a young age―only have each other to hold onto in this heartless place.

Pran dreams of one day rebelling against their oppressors and destroying the empire; Oksana only dreams of returning home and creating a peaceful life for them both.

When they discover the emperor has a new, more terrible mission than ever for their kind, Pran and Oksana vow to escape his tyranny once and for all. But their methods and ideals differ drastically, driving a wedge between them. Worse still, they both soon find that the only way to defeat the monsters that subjugated them may be to become monsters themselves.

Review: Two books in a row that I requested based on intriguing covers! Plus a bunch of other things of course: fire magic, a central romance, and whatever those antlers are that they’re wearing in the cover art! This is the first book for this author, so it’s also always nice to support a new voice to the genre. While I did have some criticisms of the story in the end, overall, this was a fun, fast read.

Pran and Oksana share the same tragic story as most of their fellow soldiers: forcibly stolen from their families at a young age and then experimented on and trained to be fire warriors. Not only are the experiments that give them their abilities painful and cruel, there’s no guarantee they’ll even survive their training, all for the privilege of fighting for a nation that has invaded their own lands. But Pran and Oksana aren’t content to simply survive; they want to do away with the entire system. The struggle that follows will test their individual abilities and strengths as well as the heart of their relationship itself.

To start off, this book was very readable. A weird bit of praise for a book that is mean to be, you know, read, but it’s something that more than enough books still fail at anyways. The writing was perhaps simple, but it moved at a quick pace and I found myself blowing through the story in only a day or two. The story of two soldiers forced into battle and working against a tyrannical system and ruler is compelling and the action is tense. The story also doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the world it has built. I originally started questioning whether the book was actually going to demonstrate how bad things were (our hero and heroine escape horrible situations a few times too many to be entirely plausible), but the author really goes there about half way through with a pretty dark scene. It’s a weird thing to say, but I think this book might have benefited from leaning even more into this darker aspect of the story.

Like I alluded to earlier, Pran and Oksana, as interesting as they are as characters, did seem to have pretty obvious plot armor throughout the story. All main characters have this to some extent, but it depends on an author’s ability how well this fact can be masked. Here, it was less so. But simply as characters, Pran and Oksana do well enough. We see how the way they were forced into service has impacted all of their decisions going forward, for better and for worse. Their various relationships with the idea of family and the homes that they left behind drive them each to imagine a better life but direct them down very different paths to accomplish it.

I also liked the fact that the romance is already established at the beginning of the book. Yes, drama is added to give an arc to this relationship, but a story built around the challenges found in a previously strong romance is definitely unique among so many others that focus only on the beginnings. I could have used a bit more fleshing out, here, however. The story refers back to a few scenes that build up how these two came together, but perhaps a extending these into actual flashbacks might have helped make the romance feel more fully fleshed out as a whole.

My main criticism of the story is a bit hard to put my finger on. I think what it comes down to was that everything was a bit too simply described. There are the broad strokes of a world. The broad strokes of a magic system. The broad strokes of characters and their motivations. But I never felt like I was getting any details. I couldn’t describe the fort in which they lived. I couldn’t tell you what any characters looked like other than Pran and Oksana (and even there all I really knew for sure was that Oksana had red hair and what we see on the cover). I didn’t have a good sense of scope of the nations they each came from. It felt a bit like the author was writing a “just the fun bits” type of novel. I have read and liked a good number of fan fiction pieces, so I don’t say this as a heavy ding, but it kind of felt like those stories can: a bit simplistic with an over emphasis on the main characters’ inner thoughts and feelings at the detriment of fleshing out the world and story itself.

But like I said, this was a fun, fast read, if not fully realized. Fans of romantic fantasy who don’t require much deep world-building or intricacy to their magic systems will likely enjoy this book. Also, fans of the show “The 100″…the cover art looks bizarrely like Bellamy and Clarke, I think. A ship that I followed until it crashed and burned, so this was a bit like fan fiction in that sense too: wish fulfillment.

Right?! You see it too!

Rating 7: A sweet romance if a bit unsupported in other aspects of the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“We are the Fire” is on these Goodreads lists: Monsters and Magic Society and YA Fantasy Standalone Books.

Find “We are the Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Survivors”

Book: “The Survivors” by Jane Harper

Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, February 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Coming home dredges up deeply buried secrets...

Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that still haunts him resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal community he once called home. Kieran’s parents are struggling in a town where fortunes are forged by the sea. Between them all is his absent brother, Finn. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away… 

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

Someday, when the world isn’t dealing with a pandemic and I don’t have to worry about traveling with a little one, I have every intention of going to Australia. My time in the Sydney airport on the way to New Zealand doesn’t count. When I think about a trip there my mind hovers in big cities like Sydney, and also thinks about The Outback, but I’d do well to remember that there are also oceanside towns, which I tend to love no matter what the continent. I was reminded of such facts as I read “The Survivors” by Jane Harper, her newest mystery, another standalone that’s separate from the Aaron Falk Series (and I’m not sure when we’re getting another one of those, but patience is a virtue, I guess? So I’m told, I wouldn’t know).

One of the common strengths of Harper’s stories is the ability she has to bring out strong atmosphere and sense of place, and “The Survivors” is no different. Evelyn Bay is a seaside town in Tasmania, and you immediately feel the close knit strength of the community, the strength and reverence of and for the ocean, and the pitfalls that come with all of these things. Just as there is a strong sense of community, for some people that can be a downfall. Our protagonist, Kieran, knows this from first hand experience, and has only come back because he and his girlfriend Mia have a new baby, and because his father Brian is falling more and more into dementia. We know that a terrible accident happened that caused Kieran to flee this town as soon as he could, and we see the consequences, both the good and the bad, for those who stayed behind. There are those in town who hold a grudge against Kieran because of his role in the tragedy during a bad storm, and it is slowly shown just how much Kieran has held in and how much his guilt has weighed him down. Harper explores the complications of family in the wake of a tragedy, as well as unresolved trauma and grief. You throw in the worries and anxieties of being a new parent, and the sadness and stress of dealing with an ailing father, and Kieran is having a rough go all around, even BEFORE a local murder dredges up past hurts, suspicions, and ills. It’s a painful time unpacking a lot of this, and the emotions are raw and real, but that’s really the strongest aspect of this book.

The two mysteries that are the hearts of “The Survivors” are years apart, but similar in nature. During the storm that upturned Kieran’s life, a local girl went missing. She has connections to Kieran, as she was the younger sister of his friend Olivia, as well as the best friend of his now girlfriend Mia. And it just so happens that during Kieran’s visit, a young woman named Bronte is discovered dead on the beach, reigniting fears and suspicions in the community. The questions are who killed Bronte, is it connected to the past case, and who knows something. I was happy that from the get go it’s made clear that Kieran isn’t really a true suspect, at least in the reader’s eyes, as that would have been a red herring I would have had a hard time dealing with on top of all the other garbage in his life. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t red herrings; because boy are there. The mysteries take a bit of a backseat to Kieran’s inner turmoil and the atmosphere of a small town in disarray, which made it a little hard to be invested in either of them, at least to a level that I would have expected. But all that said, the clues are carefully plotted out, and there were enough curve balls thrown that I was left guessing and left pretty entertained. It was a little slow to be an addictive read, but that was alright in the end.

“The Survivors” is heavy and emotional, and certainly an interesting examination of one man’s baggage. Harper continues to show us her talents as a mystery author, and now we wait to see what she comes up with next!

Rating 7: An emotional mystery about trauma, family, and the darkness in small towns, “The Survivors” is a new entertaining thriller from Jane Harper.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Survivors” is included on the Goodreads lists “Down By The Sea”, and “Fictitious Australia”.

Find “The Survivors” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Serena’s Review: “Siege of Rage and Ruin”

Book: “Siege of Rage and Ruin” by Django Wexler

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, January 2021

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Isoka has done the impossible–she’s captured the ghost ship Soliton.

With her crew of mages, including the love of her life Princess Meroe, Isoka returns to the empire that sent her on her deadly mission. She’s ready to hand over the ghost ship as ransom for her sister Tori’s life, but arrives to find her home city under siege. And Tori at the helm of a rebellion.

Neither Isoka’s mastery of combat magic, nor Tori’s proficiency with mind control, could have prepared them for the feelings their reunion surfaces. But they’re soon drawn back into the rebels’ fight to free the city that almost killed them.

Previously Reviewed: “Ship of Smoke and Steel” and “City of Stone and Silence”

Review: After blowing through the first two books in this trilogy last January, I had to hunker down for the long wait until January 2021 to finally get the to the release of the final book. As much as I like being current with many of the books coming out in real-time, I have to say, there’s something to be said for just waiting for a series/trilogy to be finished so you can enjoy it in one, big, binge read. Ah well. And, while this wasn’t my favorite book in the trilogy, I was overall quite pleased with this book and for the way the series wrapped up as a whole.

On her way back to her home city, Isoka imagines that nothing ahead can pose a bigger challenge than what she’s accomplished already. She simply needs to rescue Tori and head back to the mysterious land from which Soliton came. But Tori is no longer the innocent girl Isoka remembers. Instead, she’s a rebel leader caught up in a revolution that seems to be on the brink of failure. What’s more, she has a powerful magical ability to influence the minds and actions of others, a power she had kept hidden from Isoka for all of these years. Together, the sisters must work to re-learn the sibling they thought they knew while also saving a city that seems doomed to fall.

While I did enjoy this book and still love the heck out of Isoka as a main character, I did struggle with this one more than the first two. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, like the second book in this trilogy, Isoka now shares the narrative with Tori which essentially splits her portion in half.

Tori isn’t a bad character in her own right, but she simply can’t compete with the explosive force that is Isoka. Tori’s own story is much less sympathetic and her overall arch feels less complete. The last book saw her do some pretty terrible things and that’s never really addressed going forward. On one hand, I like the fact that the book doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that are done in revolutions, even by those fighting for the “good” side. But Tori also never seems to resolve her feelings of being “monstrous” in any real way. Isoka kind of just brushes the whole thing aside when she learns about it, and Tori just seems to get over it suddenly at the end for no apparent reason.

Isoka’s own story feels like it takes a back seat to Tori’s as this book is largely about the revolution Tori started and thus naturally falls more in her wheelhouse. I still loved Isoka’s chapters, if mostly because her voice and character feel so alive and compelling. But, like Tori, it didn’t feel like she had much of a character arc in this story. She’d already come into her own as a leader and recognized the fact that she didn’t enjoy brutal killing. So there’s nowhere really for her to go in this story.

The second challenge, beyond the lack of character arcs for our two leads, was my own personal preference for the unique, fantastical elements presented in the first two books. There was so much creativity to the fantasy aspect of the story in the first and second book, between the ship Soliton and the Harbor with its spooky leader, Prime. Here, the story of a fairly straightforward rebellion and a pretty predictable resolution just wasn’t cutting it. I really missed the fantasy aspects of the series and was disappointed that not much new was introduced. I never was very invested in Tori’s rebellion and to have this entire last book focused on that was a pretty big let-down. But this was definitely more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

The writing itself was still incredibly strong and Wexler shines with his action scenes. Isoka’s fights were as thrilling as ever and her companions were fun supporting characters. I think it’s telling of Wexler’s skill that Jack, who could easily have become gimmicky and annoying, served well in her role as comedic relief throughout. I was also pleased to see Tori’s romance plotline take a decided backseat role, as that was another aspect of the second book that I was not at all invested in.

Overall, this was definitely the weakest of the three books, but it did tie up the story well and ended in a satisfactory manner. Readers’ enjoyment of it will likely be directly tied to their interest in Tori and the storyline that was introduced with her in the second book. But I’d say that fans of the first two, regardless of preference, should definitely check this last book out.

Rating 7: Lacking the fantasy elements that I’ve come to love, but still a satisfying end to the trilogy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Siege of Rage and Ruin” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it is on Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2021.

Find “Siege of Rage and Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!