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Book Review: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

Title: Ashes of the Sun

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Burningblade & Silvereye #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world, in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy. Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order. Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.Goodreads

The Review:

Although there were a lot of things I really enjoyed about Ashes of the Sun, I didn’t like it as much as I think I should have… and I can’t quite pinpoint why. From an evaluation standpoint, it had all the elements I expect from a high fantasy: intriguing world-building, great characters, an interesting plot, good pacing, and a more than adept writing style. It had a good mix of exciting action scenes and slower character development moments. So what’s my malfunction?

I think part of the problem may have been the audiobook narrator. In some ways the characters felt over-performed, coming across as more caricatures than real people. On one hand it set the tone for cheeky characters who I think were supposed to bring a bit of lightheartedness and fun to the novel (which they did), but on the other hand it made a couple of them come across a bit juvenile even though on paper they were actually pretty badass. The final nail in the coffin in this regard may have been how recently I’ve read Wexler’s YA Ship of Smoke and Steel. Both female leads, Maya (AotS) and Isoka (SoSaS) were a bit more similar to each other than I’d have preferred.

Also, based on the name of the series and where the story culminated, it kind of read like a prequel.

Also, also, I don’t know who had the idea first, but the magical constructs in the book were very, very similar to the villain in season 3 of Stranger Things. It’s entirely possible both ideas originated organically (much like the monsters themselves, lol), but either way the timing is quite unfortunate. Had I read this a year ago I think it would’ve come across a tad more original.

Okay, so on to the things I liked, which were plentiful. The world-building. Perhaps not completely original, but the framework for the story – an empire still suffering the after-effects of a war for power fought hundreds of years ago – set a wicked cool atmosphere with a city divided into factions, underground vies for power (often literally underground), and ongoing biases of politics. I loved the expansive feel of some of the settings and felt completely satisfied at how much Wexler helped me explore in this first book. It also added another great dynamic that the main characters fought on opposite sides of the conflict.

Another thing I liked was the overall character construction and how the author treated them. The beginning had a lot of great camaraderie, which really connected me to the characters. I like that he gave some of the minor characters a bit of a spotlight here and there because the way he did it felt unconventional. I’m not sure I liked where the story headed for many of them because I’m trying to wrap my head around what to expect in the sequel, but for this novel alone it was great.

So overall I’m battling between a rating based on comparable merit (solid 4 stars) and my own personal enjoyment of the book (3 stars). There were parts that had me glued to it mixed with others that had me wondering if I should consider a DNF. I’m going to split the difference with a 3.5 rating with the disclaimer that I think others will enjoy it a lot more than I did. It has a lot of things going for it.

Recommendations: this is a great high fantasy novel for fans of Wexler’s work. Dive in if you’re looking for great character dynamics, a cool world, and good action scenes. Maybe, just maybe, consider skipping the audio version.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk

Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk

Title: Death and Relaxation

Author: Devon Monk

Series: Ordinary Magic #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Police Chief Delaney Reed can handle the Valkyries, werewolves, gill-men and other paranormal creatures who call the small beach town of Ordinary, Oregon their home. It’s the vacationing gods who keep her up at night. With the famous Rhubarb Festival right around the corner, small-town tensions, tempers, and godly tantrums are at an all-time high. The last thing Delaney needs is her ex-boyfriend reappearing just when she’s finally caught the attention of Ryder Bailey, the one man she should never love. No, scratch that. The actual last thing she needs is a dead body washing ashore, especially since the dead body is a god. Catching a murderer, wrestling a god power, and re-scheduling the apocalypse? Just another day on the job in Ordinary. Falling in love with her childhood friend while trying to keep the secrets of her town secret? That’s gonna take some work.Goodreads

The Review:

I’ve had a high opinion of Devon Monk’s writing for a while now, so when Death and Relaxation was offered as a review copy (audio production quality) I snatched it up. I’ve been on a pretty hard urban fantasy kick lately, but I’ll admit this series wasn’t even on my radar (probably because of the atrocious cover). But I tell you what – it hit the spot!

It had a great combination of concept (small town Oregon where gods go to vacation), character (a young female police chief who takes over the department after her father dies), mystery (who the heck is ballsy enough to commit a murder in a town of gods?), and love story (the cute dynamic between the MC and the love interest – it’s just enough to be a clear selling point of the novel, but not overdone to the point where it becomes the sole focus). It was one of those books perfectly suited to my mood, and because it came from a seasoned author I trust, I was able to turn off my over-critical eye and just enjoy the ride.

Admittedly the concept wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s clear from the start that its main purpose is to enhance the quirky nature of this small touristy town. I started with the novella (Dues and Don’ts – Free on the author’s webiste), which I would recommend because it sets the stage on what to expect in this town a lot better than the first book. It incorporated the tradition of local artisans hiding glass figurines along the beach for tourists to find, which apparently is something that actually happens in the town the series is based on. I was enamored with the whole thing. I think the fun dynamics between all the characters in this little community is my biggest source of delight. Quirky fun things like rhubarb cooking contests an long-standing interpersonal squabbles (which, naturally, involve the whole town). Any Gilmore Girls fan out there will get a better idea if I say it’s a supernatural version of Stars Hollow (only without the aggravating characters that take the fun out of the scenes – Mayor Taylor Doose, I’m talking to you).

The only ding against its rating is that I thought the solution to one of the main conflicts of the story was completely obvious right from the start. I can half-rationalize it away if I try hard enough. Like, maybe the main character had too many things going on to see it clearly. But really it would’ve made the book stronger to either hide it better or to have the characters figure it out sooner. So far that has been my only gripe.

This is one of my new personal favorite series starters – I enjoyed it that much. It is definitely more on the lighthearted side of the genre. There’s not a lot of dark grittiness that sets the tone for comparable series. But maybe that’s what I’d needed – a bit of a pick-me-up. :)

Recommendations: start with the novella! I’d hand this series to people who like urban fantasy without the semi-horror aspect. It’s actually a great crossover novel between uf, mystery, and romance. If you can snag the GraphicAudio version, you’re in for a treat! Go in with a light heart and have some fun. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Peace Talks by Jim Butcher [July 14, 2020]

Title: Peace Talks

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #16

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: July 14, 2020

The Overview: When the Supernatural nations of the world meet up to negotiate an end to ongoing hostilities, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, joins the White Council’s security team to make sure the talks stay civil. But can he succeed, when dark political manipulations threaten the very existence of Chicago–and all he holds dear?Goodreads

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The Review:

Peace Talks was everything I hoped it would be and more. Totally worth the wait! ^_^ Especially because we’re getting TWO Dresden novels this year (Battle Ground is currently slated for release September 29th!).

The last few Dresden novels have been hit or miss. Ghost Story and Cold Days were by-far my least favorite books in the series. I briefly considered abandoning it, but then Skin Game (possibly the best of the series – PARKOUR!!) came along and fuego! – total re-ignition. I didn’t know what to expect after so much time between books, but luckily Peace Talks was more of all the things that make this series great: good characters, funny dialogue, supernatural politics, lots of magic, and stakes that keep getting higher and higher. It’s a relief because I wasn’t sure I liked the direction the story has been heading in the last few books. Butcher jumped the shark at some point and I was afraid it was going to get too far from the original essence of the story while dealing with the multidimensional shit. It didn’t. Instead it struck a nice balance between the familiar and the new concepts.

The book did take a bit of time for gentle reintroductions to the characters, but it wasn’t distracting. Frankly I could’ve used more reminders on the differences between the white court, the red court, the winter court, the summer court, etc. I’ve got most of it straight, but still get lost on occasion with anything to do with the fae. That’s more of an attention span thing though – early on in the series, all the evil beings sounded and acted the same so I never bothered to get them straight. Now I’m paying for being lazy because they’ve stuck around. Anyway, Peace Talks wasn’t as action-packed as Skin game, but it more than made up for it with political intrigue and plot-advancements between key characters. There were definitely a few “omg!” moments. The story arc didn’t feel as robust as some of his other books, but that’s probably why we’re getting another novel this year. I’m ready for that one to knock me on my ass.

Really, the only thing that would’ve made my reading experience of Peace Talks better is James Marsters crooning to me on the audio version. Other than that, it was awesome!

Recommendations: Dresden continues to be an absolute joy to read, and seems to embrace its flaws to the point where it wouldn’t be a satisfying Dresden novel without them (they’re not so much flaws anymore as trademark Dresden-isms). If you haven’t read this series yet and are even mildly interested in the genre, it’s a great pick (give it until at least book 4). Oh! And if you haven’t had a chance to read the novellas yet, now would be a good time to pick up the Bigfoot ones before diving into Peace Talks. ;)

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Netgalley, and Jim Butcher for providing an early review copy of Peace Talks – you made my year!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

Title: The Betrothed

Author: Kiera Cass

Series: The Betrothed #1

Genre: Teen Romance

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: When King Jameson declares his love for Lady Hollis Brite, Hollis is shocked—and thrilled. After all, she’s grown up at Keresken Castle, vying for the king’s attention alongside other daughters of the nobility. Capturing his heart is a dream come true.

But Hollis soon realizes that falling in love with a king and being crowned queen may not be the happily ever after she thought it would be. And when she meets a commoner with the mysterious power to see right into her heart, she finds that the future she really wants is one that she never thought to imagine. -Goodreads

The Review:

A lot of people seem to be aboard the Kiera Cass hate train. I’m not one of them. Her writing is what it is, and that’s okay that it doesn’t work for some, but the projected disgust at a lot of her works seems a little over the top. It almost feels like shaming her books is what it takes to sit at the cool kids’ table. And if that’s the case, I’ll go sit outside by myself and read her books while I eat.

That said, The Betrothed was not a strong installment. I absolutely loved the Siren and the first two Selection books, but this one left a few key elements on the table.

Firstly, she didn’t take the time to establish the main character’s credibility. Her merit as the perfect candidate for the king was just a given, and I think it would’ve gone a long way to start the story earlier and SHOW how she’s different and what circumstances made her that way. As it stood, it was baffling enough to see how vastly opposite she was from her incompetent and overbearing parents, yet she miraculously knew how to perfectly navigate court life and the attentions of royalty. It just didn’t add up. So the only thing left to assume was that all of her success has been based on purely superficial things, which is very much not a satisfying thing to read about… unless it’s intentional and part of the character’s growth arc (it wasn’t). It was mentioned a couple of times that the lady was the only one to make the king laugh, and she wasn’t desperate for the throne or his love, so I suppose those are decent reasons for her to stand apart. But it wasn’t emphasized, the characters even going so far as to discuss how random the first encounter was and how it could’ve been anybody. None of it accounted for the how’s and why’s of it all. I wanted more development.

Second, the character didn’t have to struggle for anything. Wealthy, beautiful, witty – this character entered the picture with the world at her feet and only petty court ladies and her own questionable decision making as obstacles. Skill without having earned it in stories is unrelatable, unbelievable, and a bit of a snore. As conflict is inevitably what drives a story, a character plodding along without anything substantial to overcome was just meh. It was doubly annoying for the character to be given the world on a silver platter only to dash it to pieces without a care. She’d faced some trials by the very end of the book, but it was a bit too late to make up for the lack at the beginning.

Finally, the character didn’t exhibit a lot of emotion. If she didn’t appear to care, why should the reader? A king is fawning over you? Cool! We’ll see how long it lasts. That bitch over there is calling you names? Whatevs, I think I’ll just make friends with her. Your parents are trying to rule your life? Meh, I do what I want anyway. It all sounds rather cavalier, but in execution it led to a character that just appeared to be floating through life without any real drive or desire to contribute to her own future and well-being.

Recommendations: The Betrothed was not one of my favorites. It did not highlight the things Cass does well, and that’s unfortunate. If you’re going to try one of her books, pick either the Siren or the Selection series, but be warned that her works are incredibly polarizing. I, personally, have delighted in a few of her books and still plan on picking up future releases (aside from this series). It just missed the mark. For an adult, anyway. My observations are mostly craft-related and I don’t think my 13 yr old self would’ve cared about any of that, but rather just delighted in the loveliness of the setting, the clothes, the jewelry, and perhaps would’ve even been enamored with the love story. Tame enough for younger eyes, I think this one would be better suited for tweens and early teens.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: American Demon by Kim Harrison

American Demon by Kim Harrison [June 6, 2020]

Title: American Demon

Author: Kim Harrison

Series: Return to the Hollows #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: What happens after you’ve saved the world? Well, if you’re Rachel Mariana Morgan, witch-born demon, you quickly discover that something might have gone just a little bit wrong. That the very same acts you and your friends took to forge new powers may have released something bound by the old. With a rash of zombies, some strange new murders, and an exceedingly mysterious new demon in town, it will take everything Rachel has to counter this new threat to the world–and it may demand the sacrifice of what she holds most dear. -Goodreads

The Review:

If you can just mentally delete the epilogue that ended the series at book #13, American Demon is a fantastic continuation to the Hollows series.

I kind of like that American Demon is an (initially) unplanned continuation because otherwise the series might have felt too drawn out. Now it’s moving forward with a fresh intention, and that’s exciting. The book dealt with the aftermath of the crazy things that went down in the first series, and it truly felt like a new beginning in this world. Harrison did an excellent job expanding the playing field by adding a bunch of new characters, and the demon Hodin became an instant favorite (I love characters with duality). But the best part is that this new installment is still filled with the characters we’ve built connections with over the first 13 books, so it already has that developed depth that makes longtime fans like me fawn over every page.

I was enjoying the story for all the things listed above, but what really set this book apart as a strong addition to the series was the inclusion of a lot of complicated spellwork. It was awesome! I remember Rachel spelling in previous books, but I don’t recall it ever being quite this involved. She was trying to develop a new spell, and I found every stage of the process absolutely fascinating. I hope this leveled-up component continues in the next book.

The Hollows is one of my top urban fantasy series. It’s not my overall favorite, precisely, but it is responsible for a couple of my single favorite scenes across any genre. Harrison really knows how to build momentum, and she has truly dazzled me with some of her most epic moments. But that gradual momentum that always leads to amazing payoffs takes time to develop. And so, as we’re just beginning another story arc in American Demon, the pacing is rather casual throughout most of the story. Which is just fine, because when a series touches you like this one has me, even the slower parts have a lot of merit. It was a great way to ease back into the world.

Recommendations: this is a must-read for fans of the series – the story quality continues as strong as ever. With that in mind, I wouldn’t recommend new readers diving in without first reading the main Hollows series. Also, Harrison published a really good prequel novel (The Turn) that she referenced often in American Demon, so if you haven’t had a chance to read that one yet, I think it added a lot to the experience.

I want to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Kim Harrison, and Netgalley for allowing me access to an early copy of American Demon – you made my year! 

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The Stone Sky

Author: N.K. Jemisin

Series: Broken Earth #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: This is the way the world ends… for the last time. The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women. Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe. For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed. -Goodreads

The Review:

The Stone Sky left me shook.

I had so many mixed feelings after finishing it (…in 2017. I’ll explain). On one hand, there had been a lot of buildup in the previous two books and I wasn’t totally convinced I liked the direction the story headed for about the first 75%. I was worried it wasn’t going to live up to my incredibly high expectations. And then some of the most truly profound scenes played out and I can still feel the emotional reverberation every time I think about it even years later. This trilogy is brilliant.

I held off on writing a review for two reasons: 1. When I finished it, my feed was filled with countless solid 5-star reviews and I didn’t feel strongly enough about my criticisms to become a rallying counterpoint to all of that positivity (and didn’t really want to because of how special the series had been for me overall). And 2. It left me so confused that I didn’t know how to express my slight disappointment at the direction but at the same time emphasize the 10+ star scenes that still kind of haunt me to this day. Do I dock my rating for what I didn’t like? Or keep it a solid 5 because the amazing parts were strong enough to overpower everything else? I think with time and perspective, I can finally land on 4 as a rating for this specific book with the disclaimer that the series still feels like a solid 5-stars as a whole. There are so many things I loved about it, but my favorite element by far is the basis for why parts of the books are written with different POV styles (specifically the controversial second-person present-tense passages). It’s brilliant. Or did I say that already? 

Ultimately, even though the story didn’t go along with any of my theories, it still shattered me. It’s also my emphatic, quintessential recommendation whenever someone mentions “unique” or “cool writing styles” or “unconventional.” It’s truly a masterpiece. My only recommendation: experience it for yourself.

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by Niki Hawkes