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Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Wisdom of Crowds

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: Age of Madness #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Chaos. Fury. Destruction. The Great Change is upon us . . . Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds. With nothing left to lose, Citizen Brock is determined to become a new hero for the new age, while Citizeness Savine must turn her talents from profit to survival before she can claw her way to redemption. Orso will find that when the world is turned upside down, no one is lower than a monarch. And in the bloody North, Rikke and her fragile Protectorate are running out of allies . . . while Black Calder gathers his forces and plots his vengeance. The banks have fallen, the sun of the Union has been torn down, and in the darkness behind the scenes, the threads of the Weaver’s ruthless plan are slowly being drawn together . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m going to have to come to grips with the fact that I’m current with Abercrombie’s adult fantasy novels. I knew this day would come, and prepared for it a bit, but it still hurts.

Is he now my top author? He certainly has been creeping up the board lately – knocking down authors I thought would hold those spots forever. I’m not sure he’s quite managed to dethrone Robin Hobb, but damn, he has made a case for himself.

As the finale in the trilogy, Wisdom of Crowds had all of that amazing momentum I’d been hoping for. All of those moments that make you stop what your reading and just go, “wow.” There we’re so many fun plot tools used in this story that I don’t usually see done well, but here they were executed flawlessly. And I think that’s in no small part due to how rich, real, and rounded his characters are. Real people are dynamic, complicated creatures who do irrational things all the time. In books, however, it’s really difficult to convey that without making your characters come across inconsistent or under-developed. Abercrombie’s brilliant character work allowed him to showcase some amazing scenes that are now among my favorites from the whole saga. And it made this final book so, so satisfying to read.

Not that I think we’ve seen the last of the First Law world. There was definitely some compelling setup for more to come, but as I understand it, that’s a ways out.

Many people have asked me how this trilogy holds up compared to the books that came before it. I think it’s definitely more in line with the slow-burn, politically-driven novels we got in the first trilogy rather than the more action-packed stand-alones. Arguably, this was the most difficult one to read yet, as the characters are frustrating, the situation complicated and brutal (in true Abercrombie fashion), and there were several points where I both loved (because of appreciation of the craft) and hated (the awful things that happen) what I was reading. It was evoking and amazing and horrible, and I really would love nothing more than to be put through all of it again in his next book. Us Abercrombie readers are a bit masochistic, is all I’m sayin’.

Recommendations: I wasn’t a die-hard Abercrombie fan with his initial trilogy. I WAS a die-hard Glokta fan within that, but it took seeing Abe’s writing strengthen to brilliance in Best Served Cold before I was won over. And now it’s all I can do with my life not to become an blathering fangirl. If like me you thought First Law was just okay after the first trilogy, keep reading! You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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DNF Q&A: The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Title: The Winds of Khalakovo

Author: Bradley P. Beaulieu

Series: Lays of Anuskaya #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 1/5 stars [DNF]

The Overview: Among inhospitable and unforgiving seas stands Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands, its prominent eyrie stretching a thousand feet into the sky. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo’s eyrie stands at the crossroads of world trade. But all is not well in Khalakovo. Conflict has erupted between the ruling Landed, the indigenous Aramahn, and the fanatical Maharraht, and a wasting disease has grown rampant over the past decade. Now, Khalakovo is to play host to the Nine Dukes, a meeting which will weigh heavily upon Khalakovo’s future. When an elemental spirit attacks an incoming windship, murdering the Grand Duke and his retinue, Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, is tasked with finding the child prodigy believed to be behind the summoning. However, Nikandr discovers that the boy is an autistic savant who may hold the key to lifting the blight that has been sweeping the islands. Can the Dukes, thirsty for revenge, be held at bay? Can Khalakovo be saved? The elusive answer drifts upon the Winds of Khalakovo… –Goodreads

The Q&A:

Inspired by Nikki at ThereWereBooksInvolved, this is my favorite way to discuss DNFs. As my list of “amazing books to read” continues to grow, I find I have less and less time and patience to devote to the books I’m just not enjoying. I never would have considered DNFing a book ten years ago, but then I came across a quote, “Read the best books first, for you might not have the chance to read them all,” and have since made it my personal mantra. So let the Q&A begin!

Did you really give The Winds of Khalakovo a chance?

More so than I normally do for a DNF – I made it to about the 50% mark before finally throwing in the towel. It had a lot of potential, so I kept hoping it would get better.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre before?

Yes! Arguably many of my reviews are skewed in favor of books with strong world-building elements. I’m always drawn to the ones with exotic covers (to varying success, as many have amazing covers with text that just doesn’t quite measure up to those promises). Here are a few books with awesome covers that actually panned out (don’t judge me on the Glenda larke, haha. I loved the variety in flora and fauna it promised):

While I think the basic premise of Khalakovo was original and interesting, it lost me on execution.

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

Yes, as mentioned I was expecting rich world-building, trading politics, and lots of adventure and excitement! It ultimately delivered on none of those things by the time I put it down.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

When it was clear none of that dynamic politicking, fun adventures, and epic world building was happening, I contented myself with just diving into this character-driven novel. The trouble is, even with characters as really the ONLY focus of the book, they were surprisingly thin.

I believe part of the problem was in the structure of the plot. It’s seemingly designed to keep a lot of important info away from the reader in favor of some reveals later (I’m assuming the payoff is there even though I lost patience before making it that far). The author didn’t allow the reader to see what motivated any of the characters, save the main bloke. Nor what connected one character to the other (we knew they were important, but never why). And, essentially, why the reader should care about these people and what they’ve got going on. After the umpteenth intimate dialogue scene between two characters without me having any more info than I started with, I’d had enough.

The writing style was also unnecessarily clunky. The author was clearly going for a particular style of formal communication between characters (possibly to help establish his world-building), but for me the formality, even in the thought-patterns of the characters, was excessively wordy, effectively keeping them feeling like caricatures rather than real, relatable people.

There was also a lack of contractions in the text (like can’t and wouldn’t) that contributed to the story feeling drawn-out. I realize some authors prefer the sound of their story when all words are fully written out, but to me it comes across a bit condescending, reminiscent of the types of sentences in my Kindergartner’s practice reading books.

I would argue that adjusting the language and cutting out all of the unnecessary words would’ve reduced the book by about 20%, making the pacing much more enjoyable, and increasing connection to the characters tenfold. But that’s if it were my book. Beaulieu’s success in the fantasy market proves he’s doing something right. But it’s clear his tastes and mine do not align in this instance. I had trouble with the writing in the Twelve Kings of Sharakhai as well, but gave the benefit of the doubt that it might have been more a pacing issue due to the abundant flashbacks in that story. Now I’m wondering in hindsight if my weird disconnection to that book had anything to do with the the basic writing itself…. We’ll see, if I ever make time to reread and continue that one.

Was there anything you liked about The Winds of Khalakovo?

What world-building their was (air ships!!) was a ton of fun even if it wasn’t prevalent. The action scenes were exciting (all two pages of them between every 50 of dialogue). And I still really loved the overall conflict of this “blighted” land introduced very early on in the book – it gave the main character a personal investment in the issue, which was pretty cool. However, at 50% he had made exactly 0% progress on trying to find answers.

Would you read anything else by this author?

Yes, I will probably read his novella The Burning Light and also reread the Twelve Kings of Sharakhai with the intention of getting further in that series. Atm I’ve no interest in continuing this one.

So you DNF’d the book – would you still recommend it?

Surprisingly, yes. The thick language probably wouldn’t bother people as much as it did me. Some people like those types of plots where nothing is made easy for the reader. And the overall atmosphere was cool enough that I think it would keep more patient readers engaged, especially if they like the characters. It wasn’t poorly written, it was just written completely opposite from everything I personally look for in my books.

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Doors of Sleep by T.A. Pratt

Title: Doors of Sleep

Author: Tim Pratt

Series: Journals of Zaxony Delatree #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Every time Zax Delatree falls asleep, he travels to a new reality. He has no control over his destination and never knows what he will see when he opens his eyes. Sometimes he wakes up in technological utopias, and other times in the bombed-out ruins of collapsed civilizations. All he has to live by are his wits and the small aides he has picked up along the way – technological advantages from techno-utopias, sedatives to escape dangerous worlds, and stimulants to extend his stay in pleasant ones. Thankfully, Zax isn’t always alone. He can take people with him, if they’re unconscious in his arms when he falls asleep. But someone unwelcome is on his tail, and they are after something that Zax cannot spare – the blood running through his veins, the power to travel through worlds… -Goodreads

The Review:

Truthfully, I would not have picked up Doors of Sleep had it not been a book club selection. And even then, I resisted. It’s not my usual brand of novel. But the beauty of a book club is that it encourages you to try things you might not have otherwise, so here we are.

The verdict? It was okay.

I liked the first half better than the second. It introduced the premise for the story, infused some interesting characters, and gave a page-turning conflict. I found myself genuinely interested in continuing.

And then I got to the magic cornucopia.

This is not my first venture into Pratt’s work. The first 6 or so Marla Mason books are among the strongest urban fantasies I’ve ever read. I loved the first few (and the prequel) with a passion… and then lost patience once he started self-publishing them.

His ideas, which are already wildly creative and out-there, got too ridiculous and wild without a publisher’s careful eye on keeping the content geared towards the most mass- appeal. I find I have no patience when the things that happen in the book start to get stupid, but I know my tolerance level is less so than most. I just don’t enjoy the far-fetched.

So when things started taking that turn in Doors of Sleep, I lost a lot of the investment I was feeling in the story. Pair that with some lengthy existential dialogue passages, add a slowdown in pacing, then top it off with some very abrupt, convenient, and non-sequitur character growths, and you have the reasons for my eventual dissatisfaction. I also did not particularly enjoy the antagonists, which I’m sure didn’t help the experience.

Overall, I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It had a lot of promise and a cool idea, which I feel was explored pretty well in this first book. However I probably won’t be continuing the series.

Recommendations: if you appreciate the more conceptual novels and really don’t mind when things get ridiculous/weird, then Doors of Sleep might be your jam. I can definitely say I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Other books you might like (Note: because I’ve never read anything quite like Doors of Sleep, my OBYML selections are just a compilation of the last five weird books I’ve read…. perhaps they’ll strike a similar chord):

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Title: In the Shadow of Lightning

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Glass Immortals #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

Release Date: June 21, 2022

The Overview: Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out. Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it. -Goodreads

The Review:

In the Shadow of Lightning is one of the most unconventional fantasy books I’ve read in a while.

There are a lot of weird components that probably shouldn’t work, but somehow McClellan managed to weave them all together in a (mostly) seamless manner. Truth be told, it’s a bit more bizarre than I usually prefer. I’m not sure I would’ve given the benefit of the doubt had it been from any other author. But seeing as both Powder Mage trilogies are among my all-time favorites, I went in with a huge level of trust that McClellan would be able to deliver. Thank goodness he did, in flying colors (or glass shards, as the case may be).

My favorite thing about the book was the magic system. Magic-forged glass of varying colors, each type offering a different benefit to the user. It went into some good details on how the glass was created and used, which were among the best parts of the story for me – I love reading about people who are exceptional in their field of work. I also really enjoyed seeing the magic used in the many hand-to-hand combat scenes. Really cool.

The only element that didn’t quite land for me was the mystery. Have y’all ever read those Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys mash-up novels where the plot and mystery are much more exciting than either ND or HB on their own… but they’re still kids books and you can totally see the formula for the mystery where the breadcrumbs are all in a neat little row for them to follow? That’s how the mystery in this book came across to me. I gave it the benefit of the doubt from the beginning to see how it would develop and unfortunately had everything figured out hundreds of pages before I think I was supposed to. Oh well.

Lackluster mystery aside, at least I enjoyed the characters enough to go through the motions with them. There were several POVs, and all of them added a different flavor to the story. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, as they all contributed in a meaningful way towards the bottom-line and I liked them all. One of my favorite things about McClellan’s writing in the PM trilogies was how he was able to create such deep connections between characters. It’s one of the best examples of amazing character work that I’ve ever read, and a huge part of why he’s one of my top authors. I saw a bit of that brilliance peek through here and there in this story, but not to the degree I was expecting. I’m hoping for a bit more in the second book, as I will definitely be reading on. No spoilers, obviously, but he dropped a bomb (figuratively) in the epilogue that had me going… “wth did I just read?!” So now I really need to get my hands on the next one.

Recommendations: this is an incredibly creative and original fantasy that has the power to jolt (pun) anyone out of a reading rut. Truthfully, I don’t think I would’ve been quite so accepting of the wild ideas if the author hadn’t already established my trust in the Powder Mage trilogies. So proceed with caution if this is your first McClellan. While wildly entertaining, it didn’t strike the same chord with me as other works have. At least not yet… the series is young.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

Title: Shadow of the Gods

Author: John Gwynne

Series: Bloodsworn Saga #1

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: After the gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrið. Now a new world is rising, where power-hungry jarls feud and monsters stalk the woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out. Now, as whispers of war echo across the mountains and fjords, fate follows in the footsteps of three people: a huntress on a dangerous quest, a noblewoman who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who seeks vengeance among the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn. All three will shape the fate of the world as it once more falls under the shadow of the gods . . . –Goodreads

The Review:

Even though Shadow of the Gods came highly praised, I went in really apprehensive. To start with, I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a Norse-inspired indigenous story even if it did promise a little magic. I’m also skeptical anytime something gets as much hype as this book has. But color me surprised:

The book was every bit as good as people say it is.

It’s a slow burn, but one that had me engaged from the beginning. Gwynne is such a thoughtful writer. He has all of these cool story ideas (many things I’ve never seen done well before) but instead of hitting you over the head with endless explanations, he lets you experience them naturally, revealing information in careful increments every few chapters that continually nurtured my investment in the story throughout the entire thing. It was brilliantly done. And I can’t wait to see where all of those careful reveals will take me in the next book.

The story bounced pretty evenly between three POVs. Two I liked right out of the gate, the other one took me until halfway through the book before I was fully invested. These were great characters to follow. Perhaps on the extreme ends of human behavior based on the harsh circumstances of the book, but more or less relatable in their earnest humanity. I especially loved the female characters and more and more appreciate Gwynne for how he writes them. Being a strong female in a fantasy series is not something that has to be highlighted as remarkable or unusual in this series. They’re just unapologetically badass and I loved it. It’s awesome to see intelligent characters who can think through situations, but are still flawed and prone to mistakes. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Gwynne managed well.

The world-building in this book was unlike anything I’ve read before. It was so subtle, almost on the periphery of the story, yet at the same time completely integral to the plot. Even though I didn’t learn as much as I wanted to in this first book, I can see how solid the baseline is for everything – Gwynne has my complete trust to deliver on all these cool ideas in future books.

The only thing I have to note is the pacing. I remember thinking around the halfway point that it’s a good thing I’m heavily invested in the characters and the plot because things are sooo slow right now. Then on the flip side, because the story bounces between the three POVs, when things started careening at the end, it was an oddly disjointed feeling to bounce between stories climaxing at different rates (there’s a joke in there somewhere), so the momentum of the book as a whole was a bit off for me. But that’s a minor complaint for sure.

Recommendations: this is an awesome slow-burn, character-driven fantasy. I loved everything from the flowing writing to the careful plot construction to the great characters to the subtle yet powerful world-building (it’s a square of appreciation). The book worked for my on every account. It seems like those I’ve seen struggle with it had issues with the slow pacing which means they probably weren’t invested in the characters. So if you can find a connection early, you’ll probably love the book as much as I did.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: Shorefall

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Series: Foundryside #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Having narrowly saved the metropolis of Tevanne from destruction, Sancia Grado and her allies have turned to their next task: sowing the seeds of a full-on magical-industrial revolution. If they succeed, the secrets behind scriving—the art of imbuing everyday objects with sentience—will be accessible to all of Tevanne’s citizens, much to the displeasure of the robber-barons who’ve hoarded this knowledge for themselves. But one of Sancia’s enemies has embarked on a desperate gambit, an attempt to resurrect a figure straight out of legend—an immortal being known as a heirophant. Long ago, the heirophant was an ordinary man, but he’s used scriving to transform himself into something closer to a god. Once awakened, he’ll stop at nothing to remake the world in his horrifying image. And if Sancia can’t stop this ancient power from returning? Well, the only way to fight a god…is with another god. -Goodreads

The Review:

After dishing out some of my highest praise for Foundryside, I’m disappointed to say I didn’t like Shorefall nearly as much as I thought I would.

Which is surprising considering 100% of the feedback I got after talking about Foundryside was that “Shorefall is even better!” So what has me the grumpy outlier in a sea of praise for this second book? Possibly inflated expectations. Probably an issue with the story components. And definitely a problem with pacing.

The book starts out with mach-10 level of intense action and drama (which, compared to the relative slower development in of the first book is probably why a lot of people liked this one better) and maintained that same level straight through the first 75% of the book, only to be broken up occasionally for some evil monologing. For me the lack of variety meant no opportunity to reconnect with the characters. No slower moments to appreciate the cool inventions of this world. And no time to give my brain a rest between all of the excitement. It felt like one of those fantasy battle scenes where after a while nothing seems exciting because it’s all exciting so it flat-lines and you start tuning things out until a change of pace startles you back in… and like I said, it took about 75% of the book before that happened for me.

In this case, I can’t tell whether the feeling of continuous fast pacing was due entirely to the text. While I felt the unconventional audiobook narrator was a good match for the first book, I noticed in this one that her non-stop edge of panic and intensity for almost the entire novel was hard to listen to. I’m planning a physical read of the final book, so we’ll see if that makes a significant difference. It’s always unpleasant when you feel like someone is yelling/nagging at you for 10 hours straight.

But alas, once I started getting irritated with the pacing and the narration, it was difficult not to nitpick other elements of the story that just were not working for me. There were a lot.

1. I didn’t like the villain. In the first book he was this creepy enigma that I wasn’t even sure would get a significant role in the second book (it felt like finale sort of buildup), but as soon as the mystery was stripped away I found my interest in him waning. I’ve never been a fan of including villain POVs in books unless you’re willing to do a deep character exploration with the perspective. Otherwise they usually come across superficial and cheesy. No exception here. What’s more, the more opportunities they have to explain their grand plans of evil to the main character where nothing actually happens to said character only serves to take away from the suspense of the story. I think there was a good foundation here for mysterious evil workings on the periphery of the story that would’ve worked well, and I for one would’ve enjoyed it better had all the evil plans not been laid bare at every turn. As it was it was kind of stupid.

2. I didn’t like the “whys” behind the plot. I wasn’t on board with WHY these characters had to be the ones to handle the big bad threat and why they seemed completely isolated in handling it. Compound that with some (I feel) stupid decisions, unnecessary risks, and exceptionally far-fetched plans that only work because the story needs them too, and I’m just meh. Even worse, characters who acknowledge they’re taking a calculated risk, then spend 20 pages whining about it in endless dialogue when they’re betrayed… I’m telling you, it was all I could do to get through this book at 2x my regular reading speed. “Just get it over with” is not a mentality you want to have while reading a book you were excited about.

3. I don’t like where the story is going. All the mystery is gone. All the suspense is gone. I don’t have energy for the angst. And I think this is the reading gods punishing me for requesting an ARC of Locklands before having read the second book. I know better than that. I even wrote a guide, then promptly ignored my own rule.

I’m starting to recognize a few of my personal reading biases. Foremost of which is, once a book isn’t working for me, my critical mind sees that as permission to go hogwild in tearing apart every aspect of the story. So I’m always, always, a lot more harsh on things that probably weren’t as bad as I’m making them out to be. If I step back from the emotion of my review for a moment and look at the book again, it’s fine. Perhaps not my cup of tea, but I can see why a lot of people really enjoyed it. Therefore, my rating is coming in at a 2.5/5 stars. Meaning I can recognize that the book was better than “just okay,” but I personally didn’t like it. If I couldn’t see any merit, it would’ve gotten 2 stars or less. That’s probably more info than most of you needed.

Things I liked: Orso is funny as shit. The magic system is still a blast to read about. The physical book is pretty.

Recommendations: I did a complete 180 from the first book here, but I seem to be in the minority from most people who actually liked Shorefall even more than Foundryside. If I came across my own review, I’d still give the book a go lol.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes