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Book Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

Title: The Emperor’s Blades

Author: Brian Staveley

Series: Unhewn Throne #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again… The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must bury their grief and prepare to unmask a conspiracy. His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. He expected a challenge, but after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can take action, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation. Meanwhile, the Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital itself. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. And Kaden, heir to an empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways – which Kaden must master to unlock their ancient powers. When an imperial delegation arrives, he’s learnt enough to perceive evil intent. But will this keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move? -Goodread

The Review:

This review has been a long time coming, as Emperor’s Blades is still one of the best books I’ve read this year (actual Goodreads update: “5/5 stars! And a new addition to my shelf of favorites!”). But for some reason I’ve been stalling on writing the review. Maybe because I know logically the book had a few problems and won’t work for everyone, but I tell you, every single aspect of the story worked for me. So I’m going to proceed fangirling as if I was unaware of of the things others found fault in. ;P

To start it off, y’all know how much I love books that have training sequences and competition, and Emperor’s Blades had both in abundance! These Kettral warriors train endlessly in a really brutal regiment to become deadly strike force… and I ate up every single moment. What’s more, the giant birds (badass mofos (cover image background) that for all intents and purposes are feathered dragons), were the cherry on top of what was an already riveting segment. I found this POV (Valyn) the most compelling through the series, made even better by all the great side characters around him.

And then we move into another POV (Kaden) who is going through training for a religious order and brings with him a whole host of skill-honing (more along the lines of mind-over-body and minor magic-wielding). While Valyn’s POV was fast paced action and excitement, Kaden’s provided a slow burn to break it up. Both were equally interesting to me at this point in the series (this is the problem I get into with waiting too long to review – reading the rest of the series inevitably affects my overall impressions).

And then we have the final POV, Adare. I really liked the political intrigue this perspective offered, and spent most of the book fascinated with this character. I sincerely couldn’t figure out if she was that painfully nieve, or if there was a grander plan in place I’d yet to discover (you’ll have to tell me what you think – I won’t spoil anything here). What I saw in this first book was the potential for some really great character growth with Adare, and that prospect enticed me.

This book also contained a mini murder mystery that had me actively trying to narrow down “whodunnit.” I absolutely love when a book gets me analyzing things about it when I’m not actively reading it, so you can see why Emperor’s Blades was such a success for me. I’m just going to try my hardest to forget that someone spilled the beans on whodunnit before I got that far… I’m not bitter.

Overall, Emperor’s Blades had all of the things that excite me about reading fantasy – in abundance! I won’t endorse it as the perfect read, but it was a perfect match for me and I loved every single gut-wrenching moment.

Series status: I’ve since finished the entire series and enjoyed it as a whole. The last two are perhaps not quite as good as this first book, but they’re still very much worth reading (mere 4/5 stars ;P). I’ll definitely be picking up anything else Brian Staveley chooses to write.

Recommendations: if you glance at that cover and are even mildly interested in what you see – give the book a go! It’s a well-done trilogy that offers lots of action and excitement. I would feel comfortable handing this to both seasoned fantasy readers and those new to the genre. A great pick! :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Empire of Ashes by Anthony Ryan

Title: Empire of Ashes

Author: Anthony Ryan

Series: Draconis Memoria #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: For hundreds of years, the Ironship Trading Syndicate was fueled by drake blood–and protected by the Blood-blessed, those few who could drink it and wield fearsome powers. But now the very thing that sustained the corporate world threatens to destroy it. A drake of unimaginable power has risen, and it commands an army of both beasts and men. Rogue Blood-blessed Claydon Torcreek, Syndicate agent Lizanne Lethridge, and Ironship captain Corrick Hilemore, spread to disparate corners of the world, must rely upon the new powers and knowledge they have gained at great price to halt its forces–or face the end of all they know. -Goodreads

The Review:

Empire of Ashes solidified Draconius Memoria as one of the best series I’ve ever read!

For me this book started out with a bang and didn’t let up until the whirlwind finale. So much action and conflicts coming to a head that I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the last 25% if you have to get up early the next morning. This isn’t the kind of book easily set aside.

My favorite part was the convergence of storylines. This multiple POV series is unique for me because I feel equally drawn to all of the characters. It made for an amazing read because no matter which perspective had the stage, I was enjoying the ride immensely. Seeing how each person’s tale ended was particularly satisfying, as was the conclusion. I was really nervous this final book was going to be a letdown after how hard I’ve been fangirling for the series. It had a lot to live up to, and I’m so happy to report that it delivered.

As you would assume, this final book focuses more on action and conflict than exploration. The discovery of so many breathtaking places in the first two volumes is what helped solidify this series as a favorite. However in Empire of Ashes exploration is set aside in favor of action, conflict, and momentum. I missed that component a little, but at some point I guess it had to end (maybe I’m most upset that it ended at all – I want more!!). The story also contained quite a few answers to some burning questions I’ve had throughout the series. I find that the more I know, the more I want to discover. I’ll just throw it out there that this world is screaming for a prequel trilogy – there’s so much cool stuff packed into the histories that I feel we’ve only just scraped the surface thus far (Anthony Ryan, please write more!). :)

Let’s talk a minute about the dragons (or drakes, if you want to get picky). I absolutely love how well this series portrays dragons. Every aspect of their existence on this world and how it’s in conflict/harmony with humanity was in line with my favorite types of dragon stories. They’re not magical or ethereal, but their raw bestial attributes makes them feel magical, but still like the type of beings that could exist in our world. It might be funny to call them “realistic” dragons, but that’s how my dragon-obsessed mind thinks about them and why I loved them so much. Add to all of that practical uses for their blood (in the same vein that metals are useful to humans in Sanderson’s Mistborn series), and consider me sold.

Overall, Empire of Ashes had a lot of expectations to hold up to, and I’m thrilled it met all of mine. I’m still kind of reeling from the ending, but I’m certain that these gorgeous hardcovers will have a place of honor on my favorites shelf from here on out.

Recommendations: this series has quickly become my #1 recommend for fantasy readers, especially those who love dragons. It’s a cool flintlock fantasy that promises adventure, excitement, and intrigue at every turn. It is among my personal favorites and has the Obsessive Bookseller’s official stamp of endorsement. ;)

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Anthony Ryan, and NetGalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Empire of Ashes. It was my most anticipated release of 2018, and you seriously made my year! :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Title: Twelve Kings in Sharakhai

Author: Bradley P. Beaulieu

Series: Song of the Shattered Sands #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings — cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.

Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first. -Goodreads

The Review:

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai is a book I’ve had high on my priority list ever since that enticing cover came across my radar in 2015. The cover is actually a pretty good indication of what to expect from this book – excellent attention to world-building and a main character determined to shake up the status quo using swordsmanship and stealth. It was a very entertaining read, but it did leave a few elements on the table.

Pacing was by far the biggest miss for me. This book is riddled with flashbacks that, while interesting, effectively killed momentum for the main story. Actual forward plot advancement took forever. It’s only saving grace was that the flashbacks contained a good number of “reveals” that I think were supposed to serve as plot advancing tools (where the story moves forward in concept instead of action), but I think it could’ve done with far fewer (as it was, I occasionally got confused and forgot which timeframe I was reading and had to reorient). Eventually, it all came together, but the lack of momentum made for the type of read I didn’t have qualms setting it aside for other reads.

The characters also lacked a little bit of depth. They had great backstory (as was emphasized practically every other chapter), but never really pulled me in more than surface level. Perhaps this issue was also caused by so many flashbacks taking away time from development. Whatever the case, I’m sitting here really liking the characters but not feeling anything for them.

To that effect, other than the occasional language and sex scenes, both the character profiles and love story came off very YA (okay, maybe a leveled-up YA), but fantasy readers will probably find it a little thin when compared to the likes of Malazan or even Game of Thrones. I actually think Twelve Kings in Sharakhai could be a great recommend for those in that transition between YA and adult Fantasy, as several elements (the setting and fight scenes) reminded me strongly of Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series (specifically the prequel, Assassin’s Blade). When I say something “came off YA” I usually mean that in a disparaging way, but in this case I didn’t count it a bad thing.

Overall, this isn’t the strongest I’ve read in the genre, but the world building and story were enough to keep me engaged when the pacing started to lag. Good drop-in details about a new world always goes a long way with me, so I definitely came away from this happy to have read it.

Series status: I liked it, but if it wasn’t for the scheduled buddy read for the sequel I signed up for, I wouldn’t be in a huge hurry to continue. Especially since discovering that it’s planned for a six book series instead of what I thought completed as a trilogy. Even so, I’m hopeful for the best in the next one.

Recommendations: I’d hand this to fantasy readers in the mood for something light and creative, or to YA fantasy fans who want a good translation series from Throne of Glass to adult fantasy. The world building was easily the biggest selling point for me, so if you like to immerse in new places, give it a try. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows

Title: A Tyranny of Queens

Author: Foz Meadows

Series: Manifold Worlds #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns? -Goodreads

The Review:

Reading A Tyranny of Queens positively changed some of my overall impressions of An Accident of Stars (book 1). You see, the story arc and general issues with pacing in the first book (where I thought a lot of things were inconsequential) actually came full circle in this second book, completing the story. I’m now looking at it as one full novel separated into two parts and, as a whole, the story ultimately provided me with all the components I felt were missing in reading book one as a standalone. Honestly, I don’t think that’s necessarily the best marketing strategy, but luckily for me I was committed to finishing, so no harm done. It does make it a bit harder to recommend though.

That’s not to say the first book was bad, by any means – it had engaging (LGBT friendly) characters who carried the story and were just as strong in Tyranny of Queens. The world-building was good, if a little shy of its potential (but still creative enough to keep me intrigued). And it gave the religion and politics a good base to expand on in the second book (which it did, kind of).

Tyranny of Queens felt like it had more separate POVs, and I did find myself more interested in some than others. However, when they all started to merge again, the story really gained momentum. I have to say, though, as interesting as the characters and the story were, I kind of expected more travel and adventure from a self-proclaimed “Portal Fantasy.” I basically wanted a Stargate experience. I’m hoping Meadows continues to write in this saga with a heavier focus on exploration. The cover image world was really cool and exactly the kind of stuff I was after, but we didn’t get do spend a lot of “page time” there, which is a shame.

One thing I’d like to mention about the author is how impressed I was with her writing (as in, the components that make up her sentences). She’s really good at imagery and nuances within a scene, such as facial expressions and gestures, and I found myself admiring how well she could “articulate” her thoughts. It’s hard to describe what I’m talking about (ironically), but every time I’ve seen other writers try to add what she does, it always comes off as overworked. So, issues with story components aside, the writing gets an “A” from me.

Series status: Up to Date. If Meadows writes more in this world, I’ll definitely read it, but at the moment I’m sitting satisfied with what felt like a completed duology (with potential for more but no real loose ends). I’m going to mark this as a finished series until anything else pops up on my radar.

Recommendations: this “portal” fantasy is a great pick if you want something heavily character-driven. It’s also LGBT friendly, which is always awesome to see on the market. I’d venture in with the mindset that you’ll have to read both books to get the most out of experience.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Naamah’s Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

Title: Naamah’s Blessing

Author: Jacqueline Carey

Series: Moiren’s Trilogy (Naamah) #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Returning to Terre d’Ange, Moirin finds the royal family broken. Wracked by unrelenting grief at the loss of his wife, Queen Jehanne, King Daniel is unable to rule. Prince Thierry, leading an expedition to explore the deadly jungles of Terra Nova, is halfway across the world. And three year old Desirée is a vision of her mother: tempestuous, intelligent, and fiery, but desperately lonely, and a vulnerable pawn in a game of shifting political allegiances.

As tensions mount, King Daniel asks that Moirin become Desirée’s oath-sworn protector. Navigating the intricate political landscape of the Court proves a difficult challenge, and when dire news arrives from overseas, the spirit of Queen Jehanne visits Moirin in a dream and bids her undertake an impossible quest. -Goodreads

The Review:

I think I’ve gotten the question “is this trilogy worth reading?” more times since starting it than I can count. People obviously know how much I loved Phedre’s and Imriel’s trilogies (and in most cases they share that love), and are wondering how this final series compares. I’ve been waiting until finishing the trilogy before giving a final assessment, and here it is:

Its not quite as good, but it’s still worth reading.

In some ways it’s like apples to oranges. Phedre’s and Imriel’s stories were a lot more narrowly focused, where the court dynamics and political intrigue played a huge role in lending complexity to the series. It focused on the beauty of Terre d’Ange and its surrounding lands in a manner that made the places almost ethereal. Comparatively, Moiren’s tale focused on a much broader scope. As fun as it was to explore the world, this structure kept the story kind of superficial because we didn’t get to spend enough time in any of the places to really dig in to the nuances of politics. Not that Moiren’s character profile was set up to handle nuance, anyway. Part of what made the first two trilogies such page turners for me was how politically savvy the characters were. They always had their fingers on the pulse of Terre D’Ange, which allowed a narrative driven by the small details. This trilogy is significantly more straight-forward because Moiren (a cave-raised bear witch) doesn’t have the background or the training to really engage in all the politics. Her ignorance of societal dynamics was both refreshing in it’s innocence yet frustrating because it kept the plot from gaining any sort of depth.

Moiren is a lovely character, and if I take anything away from this series, it’s her beautifully kind outlook on the world and her determination to do what feels right despite brutal consequences to herself. Her love is given without expectation, and reading about a character so poignantly selfless was a treat. Even though I wasn’t as in love with this trilogy’s love story, I definitely always felt the depth of Moiren’s love for other characters and mourned the losses fiercely. So, even though a few elements fall short of expectation, Moiren is why you read this series.

Moiren is Naamah’s child, and bid to do her will, which essentially means that she’s compelled to use sex as a healing mechanism whenever required. Where Phedre’s encounters never felt inappropriate to her character or the story, for whatever reason many of Moiren’s encounters felt a little cheap and forced (almost to the eye-rolling point at times, if I’m totally honest). Maybe that’s because the encounters were more of a “duty” where’s Phedre’s came off as a mutually agreed “pleasure,” I’m not sure, but by this final book I was physically cringing every time the story headed in that direction. It is what it is.

Overall, even though the story lacked the plot depth, political intrigue, and oddly compelling sexual encounters (elements that made the first two trilogies so special), it offers instead a beautifully poignant main character and the chance to explore many wonders of the world through Carey’ slens. It might not satisfy the same craving, but it is still definitely a journey worth experiencing.

Recommendations: venture into this trilogy only after reading Phedre’s (Kushiel’s Dart) and Imriel’s (Kushiel’s Scion) trilogies, as this is a future generation continuation. Because I love Carey’s writing and stories so much, I’d definitely recommended it if you haven’t gotten around to continuing yet, but with a few disclaimers to moderate your expectations.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Title: Grey Sister

Author: Mark Lawrence

Series: Book of Ancestor #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Behind its walls, the Convent of Sweet Mercy has trained young girls to hone their skills for centuries. In Mystic Class, Novice Nona Grey has begun to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the convent, Nona must choose which order to dedicate herself to—and whether her path will lead to a life of prayer and service or one of the blade and the fist. All that stands between her and these choices are the pride of a thwarted assassin, the designs of a would-be empress wielding the Inquisition like a knife, and the vengeance of the empire’s richest lord. As the world narrows around her, and her enemies attack her through the system she is sworn to, Nona must find her own path despite the competing pulls of friendship, revenge, ambition, and loyalty. And in all this only one thing is certain: there will be blood. -Goodreads

The Review:

I hate to say it, but I think Grey Sister suffered from middle-book syndrome.

It kind of did the opposite of Red Sister, which started out slow and gained momentum. Grey Sister started out with a bang and engaged me with all the things I look for in a good fantasy. It was a nice continuation of the story that took place primarily in a school setting (I never get tired of school settings). There were also a lot of great character dynamics and some really interesting training scenes. Nona was testing her boundaries to see if she had the makings to be a “grey sister,” which was easily the highlight of the book for me.

The trouble is, none of those awesome things had anything to do with the second half of the book. By about the 75% I was seriously considering a DNF. What ultimately kept me reading was a general appreciation for the complex world and interesting cast of characters. And a mild curiosity over where the story would go next. I also really like Nona as a main character. She’s smart and resourceful without feeling too superhuman. It’s nice to finally see her start to open up her heart.

Although the last 50% had quick pacing and a lot of action scenes, it didn’t feel like anything was happing to advance the overall plot of the series. It felt like we were on one big tangent with no purpose other than as filler content. I acknowledge that it may serve a purpose in the greater scheme at some point (after all, I’ve no idea what’s planned next), but unfortunately for me it felt inconsequential and was a struggle to get through.

The world really has a lot of things going on – so many ideas left and right that it’s on the cusp of throwing in the kitchen sink. However they’re woven together well enough that it all seems to work. This last book has me feeling a slight Fifth Season (Jemisin) vibe and I really like where the overall story is developing. I think my profound interest in that is both why I want to continue reading, but also why I was so disappointed in the lack of expansion.

Series status: downgraded. I’d like to see where the story goes next, but have to admit I’m no longer eager to pick it up asap.

Recommendations: I think there are a lot of cool elements to this series. It currently lands itself in the middle of my recommendation spectrum. I buddy read this with my Goodreads group and, while most agreed it lost momentum in the second half, I think they all liked it more than I did, so take my rating with a grain of salt. ;P [I wrote this review and assigned a rating, then I checked how others rated it on Goodreads… I’m definitely the anomaly here].

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by Niki Hawkes