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Book Review: Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

Title: Sins of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Gods of Blood and Powder #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: The young nation of Fatrasta is a turbulent place – a frontier destination for criminals, fortune-hunters, brave settlers, and sorcerers seeking relics of the past. Only the iron will of the lady chancellor and her secret police holds the capital city of Landfall together against the unrest of a suppressed population and the machinations of powerful empires. The insurrection that threatens Landfall must be purged with wile and force, a task which falls on the shoulders of a spy named Michel Bravis, convicted war hero Ben Styke, and Lady Vlora Flint, a mercenary general with a past as turbulent as Landfall’s present. As loyalties are tested, revealed, and destroyed, a grim specter as old as time has been unearthed in this wild land, and the people of Landfall will soon discover that rebellion is the least of their worries. -Goodreads

The Review:

So damn good! McClellan is now definitely among my conservative list of favorite authors, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for me next!

Just like the entirety of the Powder Mage Trilogy, Sins of Empire absorbed me completely from start to finish. It’s a slow-burn story that built beautifully to a snowball ending that had me on the edge of my seat!

External conflicts aside, the true beauty of this author is his ability to develop characters. They feel like real people, which might be the magic X-factor that pushes books over the edge into “phenomenal” for me. These characters have so much depth, and he doesn’t even bother telling you outright some of their quirks and tendencies, but chooses instead to reveal them casually so you can make your own assumptions. It’s brilliant. But what’s even more impressive to me, and what makes these stories so damn good, is how these amazing characters relate to one another. The bonds between them are magic. And because of that, every single scene has meaning and relatability. Of all the novels I’ve read, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it done better. Add to that situational humor that delights me to no end, and we have a winner.

After finishing the book, I checked out a bunch of other reviews and was surprised to discover how many people don’t like Vlora (not as a side character, not as a main character, not in a house, not with a mouse). I guess I can understand to a degree their objections, because she’s a little more understated (not underdeveloped, imo) than the other characters in the series. But… that’s kind of what I liked most about her. She has this calm, unfaltering conviction that I loved seeing played out in different situations. I like that she’s had to put personal needs and wants aside to maintain her high-ranking position, but she still has a few soft spots that come out during more vulnerable moments (which I personally found the most endearing). And I love that her success is often based on the good relationships she builds with others. So, zero objections here on that front – I’m excited to see where her story goes next.

Recommendations: It is truly few and far between that a book can hook me as wonderfully as this one did, and I’m grateful it’s only the first book of a continuation trilogy. I don’t hand out 5 starts very often anymore these days (perhaps 2 or 3 per year), so take this as an endorsement of a series I really stand behind as a solid recommendation. Start with Promise of Blood (which incidentally got one of my precious 5-stars last year). Amazing characters, great story, good magic system, brilliant writing… all the things! :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Title: Clean Sweep

Authors: Ilona Andrews

Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy (kinda)

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina. And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night….Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ilona Andrews are my feel-good authors.

It’s pretty much a guarantee at this point that I’m going to enjoy everything they produce. And they’re only getting better with time. Innkeeper happens to be my last unexplored series from them, and I plan to savor it.

Clean Sweep was delightful. One of the funniest I’ve read from them, it’s biggest selling point was how much fun they clearly had with it. The world building is wildly random compared to other books in the genre (low fantasy setting and feel, urban fantasy beings, and a slight science fiction influence) but somehow it worked. There’s a lot of unexplored territory that bodes well for an interesting expansion in future books… I can’t wait. :)

The characters were also 100% Ilona Andrews trademarks, meaning they were strong-willed, capable, cheeky, and a complete pleasure to read. Dina might be one of my favorites because she’s a little more understated and I like the depth of the backstory driving her actions. The male lead fits the carbon copy, but he’s just different enough that I didn’t mind it.

For such a quick read, the book did have a few small pacing issues. Everything was engaging and interesting, but I think there were too many info-drop scenes. It is a slightly more complicated world and setting than usual, but hopefully it will go more smoothly in the next novel. My rating also reflects comparisons to other books they’ve written, some of which have completely knocked my socks off! Clean Sweep was just a solid, entertaining story by comparison.

Recommendations: these authors (it’s a duo writing under one name) are among my favorites for a reason – they always produce fun, creative, and exciting stories. Clean sweep was an excellent start to this ongoing series, and I’d recommend it as a good starter if you haven’t tried an IA yet. I’m going to start calling Ilona Andrews my “instant mood-boosters.” :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Rebel by Marie Lu

Title: Rebel

Author: Marie Lu

Series: Legend #4

Genre: YA Dystopian

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: With unmatched suspense and her signature cinematic storytelling, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Marie Lu plunges readers back into the unforgettable world of Legend for a truly grand finale. Eden Wing has been living in his brother’s shadow for years. Even though he’s a top student at his academy in Ross City, Antarctica, and a brilliant inventor, most people know him only as Daniel Wing’s little brother. A decade ago, Daniel was known as Day, the boy from the streets who led a revolution that saved the Republic of America. But Day is no longer the same young man who was once a national hero. These days he’d rather hide out from the world and leave his past behind. All that matters to him now is keeping Eden safe―even if that also means giving up June, the great love of Daniel’s life. As the two brothers struggle to accept who they’ve each become since their time in the Republic, a new danger creeps into the distance that’s grown between them. Eden soon finds himself drawn so far into Ross City’s dark side, even his legendary brother can’t save him. At least not on his own . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I remember loving the original Legend Trilogy. In hindsight, however, I think I rated it so highly because I was only comparing it to other YA dystopians. Of the dozens I tried at the time, Legend ranked close to the top of my list. I don’t know that I would have been so generous with my ratings had I honesty compared them to all books I enjoyed and not just that very specific branch of the YA market.

Rebel was just okay. The plot was cute, extending the romance between June and Day. Actually it’s biggest selling point was how much better this ending wrapped up their love story. Unfortunately, everything else was really surface-level. The plot didn’t get complex, the characters didn’t have a lot of depth, and the concept for the story wasn’t really that compelling. In my review for earlier books, I mentioned that I loved the point-system hierarchy (where you rise in rank and status based on how much you contribute) of the society she created in Antarctica, and since Rebel takes place there, it should’ve provided a much more in-depth exploration of it. It did not. I suppose world building is not usually the main focus of a straightforward YA, but even so, I let my expectations drive my experience a bit, and my overall rating reflects that. At the end of the day, I wish this resolution had come out much closer to when I’d read the first three books because it does do a good job at wrapping things up. It’s highly recommendable for Marie Lu’s Legend fans. But for my reading tastes these days, it was a decently entertaining bit of fluff and not much more.

Other books you might like*:

*I decided to go with less-typical recommends because, let’s face it, if you like the genre you’ve most definitely already read the mainstream ones like Divergent and Hunger Games. I recommended these books for similar vibes, setting, and character motive. :)

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Title: Ship of Smoke and Steel

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Wells of Sorcery #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka comes to collect when there’s money owing. When her ability to access the Well of Combat is discovered by the Empire—an ability she should have declared and placed at His Imperial Majesty’s service—she’s sent on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit. -Goodreads

The Review:

I love it when high fantasy authors transition to YA. Their stories are always much more robust than other books in the genre because they’re used to creating expansive worlds, complex characters, and detailed plots for their audience.

Wexler didn’t dumb things down, but he did pull a few punches to make the story more accessible… but not by much. There’s some grit here (older teen appropriate), and I appreciated how ruthless the main character was right out of the gate. She surprised me a few times, and that’s difficult to do these days.

The concept sold me right away. A “ghost” ship riddled with monsters that’s more or less a lifelong prison to anyone who boards it. It provided an eerie atmosphere, and was definitely memorable. I’ve read so many high-seas fantasy novels… it’s nice to find one with a unique twist. The swordplay was also a highlight – you can tell Wexler enjoys writing fight scenes because he does them well.

My least favorite aspect of the story was the sentimentality, oddly. Although it showed some meaningful character growth, the main character got a little too soft for my tastes, especially since there are more books to come in this series. That said, at least it was a gradual cracking of her hard demeanor. I also thought the magic system was vastly underplayed to the point where I don’t think I could even describe how it works.

This is my first Django Wexler, and it definitely won’t be my last. I’m interested in the sequel to this book, but I’m more excited about starting his Shadow Campaigns fantasy series, now that I know I like his writing style.

Recommendations: this is a gritty breath of fresh air for the YA fantasy market. I’d hand it to older teens and adults, especially ones who don’t want romance as the main focus (although it does contain some). Y’all will have to let me know how it compares to Wexler’s high fantasy works!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

Title: Sapphire Flames

Author: Ilona Andrews

Series: Hidden Legacy #4

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: In a world where magic is the key to power and wealth, Catalina Baylor is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, and the Head of her House. Catalina has always been afraid to use her unique powers, but when her friend’s mother and sister are murdered, Catalina risks her reputation and safety to unravel the mystery. But behind the scenes powerful forces are at work, and one of them is Alessandro Sagredo, the Italian Prime who was once Catalina’s teenage crush. Dangerous and unpredictable, Alessandro’s true motives are unclear, but he’s drawn to Catalina like a moth to a flame. To help her friend, Catalina must test the limits of her extraordinary powers, but doing so may cost her both her House–and her heart. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’ll take a hundred more Hidden Legacy books, thank you very much. Sapphire Flames was a ton of fun and easily one of my favorite reads of the year.

My favorite thing about it was the main character, Catalina. I really like her. Unlike most of Andrews’ leading ladies, Catalina isn’t inherently a kickass face-everything-head-on type of person. Stepping up to things takes a lot of courage, and watching her face down those fears and be a total badass anyway was inspiring. Not to mention relatable. Then you add in a sweet schoolgirl infatuation with a handsome boy, and I was sold. Awkward heroines always speak to me more, especially when it’s a subtle awkwardness of behavior and thoughts. I can’t wait to see how she develops in future books.

Don’t be swayed by the overly cheesy book covers for this series. It’s a robust story filled with great character dynamics, good world building, and plots with substance. That’s not to say it takes itself too seriously. It has some elements that risk eye rolls if they were executed any less flawlessly. But these authors always know how to make it work. No matter how silly a plot element seems, I never cringe, I just enjoy the story. They also never cheapen the story and recognize that a slow burn can be really effective, and that’s one of my favorite things about them.

Overall, I’m at the point where a new Ilona Andrews book gets top priority in my TBR. I always know I’m in for a great read, and recently I’ve even given out a few sacred 5 stars to some of them. If their storytelling formula works for you, you’re in for a boatload of fun.

Recommendations: don’t let the covers scare you – these are high-functioning urban fantasies that manage to create depth while still maintaining the fun factor. If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t picked up the 3.5 prequel (Diamond Fire), you’ll totally want to do that before diving into this one. For any who haven’t read these authors yet, they’re my favorite urban fantasy writers and I can’t fangirl enough. The only book I haven’t loved from them is the very first Kate Daniels. Keep reading. It’s worth it!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

Title: Turning Darkness Into Light

Author: Marie Brennan

Series: N/A (yet… and technically it’s a next-gen continuation of the Memoirs of Lady Trent)

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late. -Goodreads

The Review:

Marie Brennan delivers again! Although the first Memoirs of Lady Trent book garnered mixed emotions from me, the series quickly developed into one of the most personally meaningful ones I’ve ever read. It spoke to me on so many levels, foremost of which was Lady Trent’s passion for understanding dragons. The whole caboodle was summarized beautifully with this quote:

“It’s the way we find the things we’re passionate about and then chase them with everything we’ve got.”

It’s precisely what I love about the series because it focuses on highly skilled people with a relentless determination for following their passions, having grand adventures, and making epic discoveries. The specific focus for Turning Darkness Into Light was on transcribing ancient Draconian texts, and I have to say I ate up every detail. The only downside to this spinoff is that if had absolutely nothing to do with dragons, which was a bummer, but I frankly was so absorbed that I didn’t notice their absence until well into the book.

The characters were great. I love that they felt relatable because they all had prominent flaws. Flaws that risked making them unlikable at times (which for me always makes them far more interesting to read about… Robin Hobb’s Elderling series comes to mind as a prime example of this aspect). But they were also focused and impassioned, and the magic of the book was experiencing the highs and lows of their discovery journey.

The format was also a positive aspect. Told using an epistolary technique, it broke up the same old story presentations and was done cleverly enough that I didn’t feel anything lacked because she didn’t utilize more traditional layouts. It added more personality to an already effervescent read.

If I had any one complaint about the story, it was that I didn’t find the content of the text they were translating very interesting. The whole book kind of revolved around it, and I appreciate what it added to the story, but I would’ve preferred something different (I have a specific in mind but I don’t want to give any spoilers. The discovery is half the fun of this read!). As far as objections go, that one’s pretty minor.

Overall, If I could have one job, dragon naturalist would be at the very top of the list. Lady Trent allowed me to live vicariously through the characters, and will always have a special place in my heart. I’m so glad the storyline continued, even if it had a new focus with the next generation of researchers. It appealed to my highly organized and detail-oriented bookseller self on another level. Brennan seems to get what makes me tick… I think we’d get along.

Recommendations: this would be a rather difficult book to fully appreciate if you haven’t read Memoirs of Lady Trent first. It’s a next-generation continuation focused on the development of Lady Trent’s most famous discoveries. I’d recommend reading that series first, and please give it a bit to get going. I had a love/hate relationship with A Natural History of Dragons, but eventually came to adore the series as a whole. It’s dragon-tastic and completely endearing to obsessed souls like myself. Dragons rock. Even though this continuation wasn’t about dragons, it still had all the same appeal as the first series channeled into even more of an academic focus. So this one was kind of book-tastic instead, and I didn’t hate it.

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by Niki Hawkes