Book Review: Beyond Varallan by S.L. Viehl

Beyond Varallan by S.L. Viehl

Beyond Varallan by S.L. Viehl

Title: Beyond Varallan

Author: S.L. Viehl

Series: Stardoc #2

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Dr. Cherijo is living the perfect life–if you think that finding out you’re a clone, then being declared “non-sentient” by your father/creator is your idea of perfect.Things could be worse. But when the Human League comes after her, with bounty hunters of every race trying to bring her in, Cherijo figures it can’t get any worse… Until someone begins stalking her dreams. -Goodreads

The Review:

This series took a weird direction.

And considering the basic premise is a genetically manipulated xenobiological medical doctor proficient in operating on aliens, that’s really saying something. This second installment had a lot of issues. I didn’t hate it, but it stole some of my confidence that the author would be able to sustain me for an entire series.

The first issue was extremely erratic decision making by the main character. She was almost idiotically irrational at times throughout the book and I could argue that most of the senseless conflicts derived solely from her weird behavior. It just didn’t make sense. And that’s one thing that always drives me crazy in books. Now, as it turns out, there was an explanation for some of her actions, which alleviates my annoyance a little, but it was probably too little too late. It seemed a tad early in the series to be messing with the character profile so much because to a degree you’re still trying to establish character and endear them to your audience. The person I read about in this book was vastly different than the one in the first book and I most decidedly did NOT enjoy her new POV. The author took a risk and unfortunately I don’t think it paid off.

The plot was equally all over the place. I quite enjoyed the mystery – it’s the consistent through-line that kept me reading when I was unsure about a lot of other things. But all of the other storyline components were just friggin weird. A lot of the traditions and laws of the alien species hosting the MC seemed like mere constructs contrived solely to prolong the conflicts of the story (because they didn’t make any sense). There continued to be a theme of personal violations and “almost” rape scenes. And the back and forth between the main character and one of the aliens was so unnecessary and ridiculous that I kept wondering why she was being so stupid by not removing herself from the situation. It was hard to read.

So why didn’t I DNF with all of those objections? Setting aside the fact that I already own the entire series and DNFing means I’ve been hauling them around for 20 years for nothing, I truly love reading about all of the medical procedures performed on aliens. It was so cool! And quite realistic and thorough. The author has a surgical background and it definitely shows. It’s the main selling point of the story for me and one of the main reasons I might actually still continue with the series (for at least one more book – the first book was great, so I’m hoping this one was a fluke). The author managed to pull me back in just enough at the end to give the benefit of the doubt going forward.

Recommendations: this book was a flop compared to the first one, but had just enough good moments to keep me reading til the end. I recommend at least the first one for readers who love scifi with excellent alien creations and world building. The jury is still out on the series as a whole. Stay tuned…

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: The Floating Island by Elizabeth Haydon

The Floating Island by Elizabeth Haydon

Title: The Floating Island

Author: Elizabeth Haydon

Series: The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme #1

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Long ago, in the Second Age of history, a young Nain explorer by the name of Ven Polypheme traveled much of the known and unknown world, recording his adventures. Recently discovered by archaeologists, a few fragments of his original journals are reproduced in this book. Great care has been taken to reconstruct the parts of the journal that did not survive, so that a whole story can be told… Charles Magnus Ven Polypheme–known as Ven–is the youngest son of a long line of famous shipwrights. He dreams not of building ships, but of sailing them to far-off lands where magic thrives. Ven gets his chance when he is chosen to direct the Inspection of his family’s latest ship–and sets sail on the journey of a lifetime. Attacked by fire pirates, lost at sea and near death, Ven is rescued by a passing ship on its way to the Island of Serendair. Thankful to be alive, little does Ven know that the pirate attack–and his subsequent rescue–may not have been an accident. Shadowy figures are hunting for the famed Floating Island, the only source of the mystical Water of Life. They think Ven can lead them to this treasure, and will stop at nothing to get it–even murder. In a narrative that alternates entries from his journals and drawings from his sketchbooks, Ven begins the famous chronicles of his exciting and exotic adventures–adventures that would later earn him renown as the author of The Book of All Human Knowledge and All the World’s Magic. –Goodreads

The Review:

Middle grade books have a special place in my heart, but I’ll admit that it’s difficult to find titles that give me the same overall satisfaction as adult novels (for obvious reasons). So when one comes along with substance and depth, I geek out. Aside from Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and a handful of others, my list of MG favorites is a short one… and now Floating Island is among them!

Not that I’m terribly surprised. As a longtime fan of Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series, I’d hoped the quality of writing and storytelling would be on par with her adult fantasy, and it was. What’s more, this series takes place in the same world as SoA, which solidified my interest in it even more because I have the mechanisms and histories of the world as a solid baseline. That said, it does stand really well on its own for those new to Haydon’s works.

What I liked most was the sense of adventure and discovery the pages offered. And the concept: a young boy traveling to new places and documenting his findings along the way. Granted there wasn’t a ton of discovery in this first book, but it set the stage nicely for what I hope will be a wild ride in future books.

The writing was anything but simplistic. Told in an almost lyrical fashion, the tale is spun with a distinctive elegant voice that somehow elevates the fantastical nature of the story. It’s a lot more sophisticated than I’ve seen from the genre, but not in a way that makes it any less accessible to kids. It’s a true testament to quality that it can appeal to a wide range of ages. I loved the delivery – which included a bunch of passages from Ven’s Journal, the art, and also loved that the plot had enough twists to keep me guessing.

I’ve only one gripe, and it’s a marketing critique: there aren’t any dragons in this first book. I mean, I’ve read the adult series, so I still felt their presence to a small degree, but for anyone who’s only read this series I imagine the cover art doesn’t seem relevant at all. But dragons sell books. Just look at me. I’m pretty sure I bought these before knowing what they were, solely on the cover art. But misrepresentation for sake of sales is a new personal gripe of mine.

Recommendations: Floating Island was a great little adventure and one of the best I’ve read from the genre in a long while. It has great writing, interesting world building, and fun characters, all adding up to a story that will appeal to both kids and adults alike. It’s set in the same world as Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series but can be read independently. I enjoyed it so much, it is now among my personal favorites for the middle grade genre.

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by Niki Hawkes


Tackling the TBR [66]: February 2021

tackling the TBR

It’s once again time for my favorite feature: Tackling the TBR! There’s nothing I love more than picking out which books to read next, and this slightly organized method of reading has really amped my enjoyment to the next level. Bring on the mantras!

Read the best books first.
Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying.

However you put together your TBR for the next month, the goal is to reduce the amount of obligation in reading and increase the fun.

Here’s a look at how the system works:

1. Identify the titles that take top priority in your TBR.
2. Combine them all in your own Tackling the TBR post.
3. Throughout the month pick from that pile as the mood strikes you.

Here’s what mine looks like:

February 2021 TBR Tackler Shelf:

I may have been a little overly optimistic for my January selections. Deadhouse Gates is fantastic so far but going MUCH slower than I’d anticipated because I’m reading it at a snail’s pace. Not to mention I had a baby this month and the combination of sleep deprivation and taking care of a tiny human doesn’t leave me a lot of reading time. In any case, I bumped a title off my list for February to give myself a chance to finish DG, then on to another Abercrombie and a much-anticipated buddy read for Malice. I don’t think I’m going to get through them all this month, but at least I’m focusing on the best books first. Progress not perfection, as they say.

I did some reading analytics at the end of 2020 and realized 90% of the books I was rating poorly were YA, yet I read almost 20 of them last year. On the flip side, almost all of the fantasy books I read got high ratings (I was really selective in choosing my titles, so this didn’t surprise me). It occurred to me that all of that effort I’m spending on books I’m not really liking could be much better spent on ones I’m statistically more likely to enjoy based on my analysis. So 2021 has become the year of as many fantasy novels as I can possibly cram in. Consisting of Malazan, Faithful and the Fallen, First Law, and many others I’ve been “saving” for a rainy day. I’m cashing in for the rainy year that was 2020. So far this change has served me well. 

Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes



Book Review: The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winters

Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

Title: The Rage of Dragons

Author: Evan Winters

Series: The Burning #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine. Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war. Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance. Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him. -Goodreads

The Review:

Rage of Dragons was a promising start to a new series.

The dueling/battle scenes were fantastic! Among the best I’ve read. They offered a lot of variation in execution and tactics and the focus was always more on the motives of the characters within them then just and endless stream of sword bashing. I generally find battle scenes boring, even in books I’m loving otherwise. It’s rare to find some this engaging. This is a good thing, because it felt like the book was about 75% fighting with little room for anything else. If you’re going to highlight something at that volume, it had better be done well. Truthfully, how well they were executed (pun) is the main reason I rated the book so favorable. They went a long way to compensate for the book’s flaws, and it did have a few.

Character development left a little to be desired. Many of the profiles felt contrived, especially at the beginning. The relationships and feelings were conveyed, but they weren’t shown with any depth. Then, somewhere around the 80% mark, that changed. I began to feel the bond between the main character and his comrades and from that point on the book lived up to its potential. I also had a hard time with the single-minded focus of the main character. He was kind of an idiot in that regard and didn’t really serve his end-game that well with some of his rash decisions. I will at least concede that he was a consistent character – kind of an idiot in all aspects – so it felt like his behavior was a part of his construct rather than a means to advance plot. And actually he was probably more realistic because his obsessive pursuit of vengeance at any cost defied rational decision making in itself. I also liked that he was an underdog. Not even particularly gifted in swordplay, he had to work hard for everything he achieved, and that sort of development is always massively satisfying to read about. The author got major bonus points for taking the time to develop that aspect of character thoroughly. Overall, this area was decent enough as a whole to keep me entertained, but I can see how those who desire a stronger connection to the characters from the get-go might struggle.

For a book with such interesting concepts and exotic setting, the world-building felt like a missed opportunity. The premise is a people trying to aggressively settle a new land after fleeing their own. There’s not a satisfying explanation about their origins, their magic systems, or their end-goals. Just a lot of fighting. What’s more, the indigenous people who are defending their homeland don’t get any screen-time until near the end. I’m hoping many of these things will be expanded on in future books (I think it’s slated as a 4 book series), but at the moment I wish I’d learned a bit more. After talking to some peeps here on Goodreads and my book club members, there’s a consensus that the overall plot is hard to get behind. The entire perspective is from the invaders and it’s very difficult to root for a people who are so obviously the instigators. It didn’t bother me as much while I was reading, but after all the discussion it’s clear that is an issue.

And speaking of world-building, there was a distinct lack of dragons. I expected them to be integrated into the story more, but through the entire thing they were only on the periphery. When they did make an appearance it was vague, lacking a lot of detail and description to really ground the imagery into my head. I get it – they’re important to the entire plot, but not the main focus of the book – but I wanted more (I always do with dragons).

I did like the writing style. The author mentions in his clever review of the book that he was going for a Pierce Brown/Red Rising affect and I could definitely see the influence. It was very fast-paced and in the moment (which is probably why the fight scenes were so good), and highlighted events and action more than anything else. Note that I say “fast-paced” to describe the writing within each scene. The overall plot progression was actually kind of slow (not a bad thing). In comparison, I think it could’ve used a few more slower moments for reflection and character development to make it feel more robust, but the overall style was a mark in its favor.

Recommendations: This is a battle-rich novel with an interesting if controversial premise. It has some of the most entertaining fight scenes (in abundance) that I’ve ever read and a fast-paced writing style. The character development took a while to feel authentic and the world-building had some missed opportunities. However, the strengths outweighed the weaknesses and I would recommend this as a good start to a series. Great for those who want a good action flick. Warning: there be few dragons.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Covenants by Lorna Freeman

Title: Covenants

Author: Lorna Freeman

Series: Borderlands #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Rabbit is a trooper on the Border Guards, just another body in the King’s army. But when his patrol encounters a Faena-one of the magical guardians of an uneasy ally-Rabbit is thrust into a political and magical intrigue that could start a war. Because Rabbit isn’t just another trooper. He is the son of nobility-and a mage who doesn’t know his own power… -Goodreads

The Review:

I’d call this a hidden gem.

I went through my entire collection of unread books and combined my highest priorities into a bookshelf on Goodreads. Of them all, Covenants happened to have the highest average rating among my peers. Aka, a perfect place to start.

And I was not disappointed.

This is one of those slow burn classic fantasy reads that focuses on character development and immersing the reader in the world. If you sit down and map out all of the major plot points it wouldn’t take you very long because the story was more about the journey than the destination. I enjoyed the flow of the writing so much that I didn’t even really notice this was the case until about halfway through the book.

If a book is going to be highly character-driven, those characters better be good. Rabbit was understated and relatable but also strong-willed and funny. It made for a good combination. My favorite moments were the banters between him and the other characters. Almost all of them left an imprint on my memory, which is saying something considering I don’t always retain even the names of main characters in books.

There was enough solid world-building to spark my interest, and the author did a great job expanding on it as the book progressed. It’s a cool combination of magicals and non-magicals many years after a war between them, and I liked the role the magical world had on the mundane. It explores prejudices, self righteousness, religious zealotry, and fear of the unfamiliar in ways I thought frighteningly applicable to real life. It’s a great example of how fantasy novels are just as adept at teaching empathy and understanding as “serious” fiction. As much as I enjoyed the world and the concepts, I’m not sure the author left a lot of room for expansion in future books, but we shall see.

Because I was enjoying it so much, I gave it a lot of leeway on the few “just go with it” scenes. The book isn’t perfect, but what it does well, it does well enough to compensate for the flaws. I’ll be continuing the series with delight, even if that means reading the old, nasty copy I found secondhand (my only option – book #2 was rather difficult to get ahold of). I will be wearing gloves to read it (germaphobe alert!), so that should tell you my commitment to the series at this point.

Recommendations: Covenants was a delightful surprise and one I’m glad I read. The writing style, heavy focus on character development, and memorable plot reminded me strongly of Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. The first two are only available in print format, so that might be my only holdup for recommending. Other than that, it was great!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Empire of Dreams by Rae Carson

Title: Empire of Dreams

Author: Rae Carson

Series: Girl of Fire and Thorns #4

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Even though Red Sparkle Stone is a foundling orphan with an odd name and a veiled past, she’s about to be adopted into the royal family—by Empress Elisa herself. Sixteen-year-old Red can hardly believe her luck. Then, in a stunning political masterstroke, the empress’s greatest rival blocks the adoption, and Red is left with no family and no future. Grieving and lost, but determined to find her place, Red hatches a daring plan: she will prove herself as a recruit for the world’s most elite fighting force, the legendary Royal Guard—something no woman has done before. But it’s no coincidence that someone wanted her to fail as a princess, someone whose shadowy agenda puts everything she loves at risk. As danger closes in, it will be up to Red and her new friends—and maybe some new enemies—to save the empire. If they can survive recruitment year. -Goodreads

The Review:

The first book in the Fire and Thorns series happens to be my favorite YA book of all time. The first two Goldseer books also rank high up on the list. I love Carson’s writing, characters, and knack for storytelling. That said, I enjoyed Empire of Dreams (which felt more like a spin-off than a continuation – it follows a side character), but not quite as much as I thought I would.

The basic premise is a girl joining the royal military in the hopes of proving her worth. It offers a bunch of flashbacks to her rough childhood, which gave her a lot more depth than we got in the trilogy – I particularly enjoyed those passages. It balanced that with a plethora of interesting training sessions. I complain a lot about YA books that include training but don’t take time to let the reader experience any of it. This novel had sparing and practicing in abundance, which was the highlight of the novel for me.

Now, I realize the book is a YA and not meant to really be compared to robust adult fantasy novels, but even taking that in consideration, I thought the military training and Red’s relationships with the other initiates was rather juvenile. There was some good “us vs. them” dynamics at first, but then all the other characters got SUPER emotionally supportive and communicative about their feelings. It made the recruits come across much younger than they were. I think the story could’ve benefitted from a bit more grit. However (a big however), that sort of cooperation and teamwork wasn’t unpleasant to read about. It’s a feel-good story for sure, and I’m fighting some guilt at criticizing it for something I should probably be appreciating it for. So I’m splitting the difference by celebrating the expanded training sequences with the disclaimer that they’re not robust, they’re just fun.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I have a lot of patience for narrators in general and can usually work past ones I’m not particularly enjoying (heck, I even tolerate text to speech on my Kindle app). I’m sorry to say that the narrator for this book was one of my least favorite I’ve ever listened too. Literally every line and piece of dialogue was delivered with this sharp conviction that pierced my ears. There were no dynamics or variety in the performance, so the entire book was an endless experience of being snapped at. It was really unpleasant. I half wonder if my rating would’ve been higher had I physically read the whole thing rather than just part of it.

Recommendations: this is a YA fantasy for fans of the Fire and Thorns series. I don’t think it added anything to the experience as a whole, but I do think it was a lot of fun. Skip the audiobook for this one.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes