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DNF Q&A: Cygnet by Patricia McKillip

Title: Cygnet

Author: Patricia Mckillip

Series: Cygnet #1&2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 1/5 stars [DNF]

The Overview: In the realm of fantasy, one name stands out from the crowd. For many years, Patricia A. McKillip has charmed readers with her unique brand of prose magic (Locus). Now, for the first time in one volume, she offers two of her classic tales-The Sorceress and the Cygnet and The Cygnet and the Firebird-which delve into the fate of the Ro family and an otherworld rich in myth and mayhem, magic and adventure. -Goodreads

The Q&A:

This is a reviewing feature I’ve been eyeballing on one of my favorite book blogs There Were Books Involved (who’s website has since been deleted) for a couple years now because I think it’s an excellent way to talk about an unfinished book fairly. I’m incredibly grateful because Nikki (the brains behind the blog, who has a most excellent name)  kindly allowed me to steal the idea and questions for my own blog. 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 Cygnet a chance?

It was clear to me from the first few chapters that this author and I weren’t going to get along. Surprisingly, I read almost 45% of the first book (this is a two-in-one compilation) and even considered finishing it since it was such a fast read. Then I decided I’d rather spend the time on something else…

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre before?

I’m not really sure in what genre to classify this. Weird classic fantasy? What I have enjoyed are these other works that verged from the norm, but actually in a good way. All other resemblances are coincidental.

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

Well, based on the cover, I was hoping it would have something to do with dragons who just happen to be called “cygnets” in this book, but alas it is referring to an actual swan. Maybe dragons make an appearance later on, but I didn’t make it far enough to report. I was also expecting dated writing, but not to the degree where it made the prose hard to understand/follow.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

Among other things, it was too ridiculous and I don’t have the patience for a lot of far-fetched elements in my books. By the time he was going through a cabin with a thousand rooms in the middle of a swamp and given a couple of prophecies to follow to have an effect on eternal beings, I was out. The story was so far removed from what I signed up for in the first chapter, and nothing about it made sense. My objections with the plot were boundless. And on top of that I didn’t like the writing style at all. It was disjointed and used a lot of incomplete sentences. I’m all about creative prose, but when it’s at the expense of your reader actually understanding what you’re trying to say, it’s too much. I could’ve kept reading, but I knew I was so uninvested that even had I finished, the rating wasn’t going to be any better than a two star. If that.

Was there anything you liked about Cygnet?

Um.. perhaps the basic concept at the beginning and it’s unconventionality. But the latter might be a stretch because I think it was perhaps a bit too unconventional. I still appreciate people who march to their own drum, even if I don’t want to go watch the parade.

Would you read anything else by this author?

No. In fact reading this one convinced me it would be wise to donate my other McKillip books. We’re just not on the same brainwave.

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

I would not feel okay recommending this book in place of the vast array of others I think were more enjoyable fantasy works. Perhaps if you like more whimsical, ridiculous fantasy like Piers Anthony, this will be more up your alley, but I find I lack the patience for it.

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Joust by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Joust

Author: Mercedes Lackey

Series: Dragon Jousters #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Vetch was an Altan serf working the land which had once been his family’s farm. Young and slight, Vetch would have died of overwork, exposure, and starvation if not for the anger which was his only real sustenance–anger that he had lost his home and family in a war of conquest waged by the dragon-riding Jousters of Tia. Tia had usurped nearly halt of Alta’s lands and enslaved or killed many of Vetch’s countrymen. Sometimes it seemed that his entire cruel fate revolved around dragons and the Jousters who rode them. But his fate changed forever the day he first saw a dragon…. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m thrilled to say that Joust held up to the test of time.

I’d first read it some 15 odd years ago, back when I’d done more than dip my toes into the fantasy, but didn’t yet consider myself a well-rounded reader of the genre. I was worried a reread would showcase a story I’d given a lot of concessions to because of how much I love dragons. While that’s probably still the case today, time and distance didn’t alter my enjoyment of the book in the slightest.

Having buddy read Joust both times, it’s clear I’m always the one in the group who rates it the highest. Others like the story well enough, but sometimes struggle with the pacing. As someone who loveslovesloves the idea of following along the minutia, day-to-day monotony of taking care of a dragon, every part of this story sang to my soul. I even loved the few parts where he’s organizing his master’s chambers, lol. It was an immersive experience and I loved it.

The book does a great job at showcasing the dragons. They are the focal point of the story and Lackey doesn’t take a lot of extra time, save at the beginning, to highlight the external plot of this world. It was there, for sure, but the focus was ever on the dragons themselves. At this point in the series, I really couldn’t have cared less about what was going on beyond the walls of the dragon stables, but do concede that the conflict felt rather thin. I do remember it getting a bit more important and more well-done as the series progressed, but I’d have to continue my reread to be sure.

Recommendations: if you’re as enamored with dragons as I am, you’ll have a lot of fun with this series. It remains one of my all-time favorites, perhaps even more so after my reread. Venture in expecting a slow, intimate plot centered on a boy and his dragon. :)

Other DRAGON books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Locklands by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: Locklands

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Series: Founders #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: A god wages war—using all of humanity as its pawns—in the unforgettable conclusion to the Founders trilogy. Sancia, Clef, and Berenice have gone up against plenty of long odds in the past. But the war they’re fighting now is one even they can’t win. This time, they’re not facing robber-baron elites, or even an immortal hierophant, but an entity whose intelligence is spread over half the globe—a ghost in the machine that uses the magic of scriving to possess and control not just objects, but human minds. To fight it, they’ve used scriving technology to transform themselves and their allies into an army—a society—that’s like nothing humanity has seen before. With its strength at their backs, they’ve freed a handful of their enemy’s hosts from servitude, even brought down some of its fearsome, reality-altering dreadnaughts. Yet despite their efforts, their enemy marches on—implacable. Unstoppable. [It goes on, but really even if you don’t know a little of what it will be about by this point in the series, I doubt you’re paying much attention to lengthy overviews]. –Goodreads

The Review:

Locklands was a satisfying ending to a unique trilogy.

If I’m honest, I had a weird reading experience with this series. I read the first book, Foundryside, on a complete whim and absolutely loved it. Within days of finishing, an eARC of Locklands became available and I pounced on it without a second thought.

And then I read Shorefall (book 2) and did not enjoy my experience with it at all (in hindsight I’m thinking it was at least partially due to the lack of voice variation in the audio – everything was delivered in full voice and I felt like the book was screaming at me the whole time).

So there I was, clutching my ereader loaded with the final book in the trilogy and feeling absolutely no motivation to pick it up. But I’d committed. So I read it. And I’m happy to report that I enjoyed my experience with it a lot more than I thought I would.

I don’t normally preface my reviews with so much backstory, but it’s important to note that I went into Locklands almost begrudgingly, so my experience was skewed right from the beginning. In evaluating all three books as objectively as I can, I think Locklands will provide a better than 3-star rating for most readers who have loved the series up to this point. I, however, thought it was a good installment, but not quite on the same wow-scale as the first book.

Locklands brought back more of that awesome magic system involving infusing objects with predetermined commands. It’s such a cool combination of magic systems and I think what I liked most about this final book was seeing how all of the technology evolved over the series and the types of things the characters are able to do with it now by contrast. It’s a very satisfying growth arc, and readers who eat up books where smart characters get more adept at cool systems as the story progresses will likely enjoy this series too.

The book was also a great mix of high and low moments, with a culminating arc at the end which was a complete snowball of events. The book had more dynamics than the second one, and I appreciated that it at least gave me a few moments to breathe between hitting me over the head with action scenes.

Another thing I loved about the first book was finding out more about the lore of the world and all of the magic predecessors. Locklands did a great job answering some burning questions and giving more depth to characters we’ve been curious about since the beginning.

It also avoided excessive evil monologuing, which I appreciate tremendously.

So, while reading this when I wasn’t in the mood was a weird experience, one I’ll take more care to avoid in the future when ARC requesting, ultimately I’m glad I got to see how the trilogy ended. I think readers who are less cranky than me about the whole thing will enjoy it immensely.

Recommendations: if you like cheeky characters, cool & intricate magic systems, and loads of action and excitement, this series is a great pick. The audio worked well for the first book but I’d skip it on the second two.

I want to thank Random House Publishing Group, Robert Jackson Bennett, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Locklands.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Title: She Who Became the Sun

Author: Shelley Parker-Chan

Series: Radiant Emperor #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness… In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate. After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu uses takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness. -Goodreads

The Review:

She Who Became the Sun felt like two books in one.

The first book (i.e. Part 1) was one of my favorite things I’ve read this year. It was a rich, immersive character study with a single POV that was frankly one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read. I felt for this character, I cared about her motives, and I was completely absorbed and 100% there for the journey. Brilliant.

And then Parts 2&3 happened.

It felt like the last two thirds of the book were written by a much less developed writer who went back years later to compose Part 1 (kind of like how Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy was a clear showcase of the author’s growth and gives a much stronger intro to the series than his earlier Icewind Dale trilogy). As much as I really wanted to love the rest of the book, it soon degraded into a huge struggle to finish.

Here are some of my objections:

1. The expansion to include multiple POVs. As the brilliance of the story so far was in the connection carefully garnered between the reader and the one main character, branching out to include more POVs without also taking the same time to develop those characters made them come across very, very thin by comparison. And from what I can recall, very little of the page count was given back to that first POV and a lot of what happened to her was viewed from someone else, thereby pushing the reader even further from that original connection.

What’s more, I didn’t think the perspectives that were added were very valuable. One in particular had next to no growth the entire story and basically just spent endless pages hashing and rehashing the exact same conflict with other characters without any action on it. Another character, one I at least appreciated for the unconventionality, felt included solely as a vehicle for delivering a standard of morality, which could’ve been just as effective (perhaps more so) experienced within the main character’s POV. This character’s POVs also felt like a huge tangent.

2. Parts 2&3 didn’t even come close to delivering on the promises made in Part 1. The premise of the book was this girl building an inspiring conviction of who she wants to become and how much pain she’s willing to endure to get there. That’s the type of character who, in my mind, will relentlessly pursue what she wants, regardless of the cost (Rin from Poppy War comes to mind). The trouble is, after that first part, the character did absolutely nothing to help ensure her own success. You want to become a warrior? Great! But… wouldn’t you at least consider learning how to fight? You want to be a leader? Great! But… might it be helpful to get into some academics and study battle tactics and strategies? Oooh!! Or even politics so you can be as successful on the field as off?! Those seem like good ideas. Oh.. you’re going to rely on dumb luck, happenstance, and being considered not a threat? M’kay, good luck. I’m out.

In all seriousness, I didn’t like a single thing about how the main character got from point A to point B. Nowhere in that character mock-up in Part 1 did I see someone who was passive and willing to just sit back to see how things go. I prefer characters who are catalysts of their own destiny and the sheer lack of personal initiative shown by the MC throughout most of the book was maddening.

Had her story continued to develop in a way I found meaningful, I may have been more forgiving about the additional POVs. But as it stands, the book offered me nothing of substance to cling to. Had I not experience this author at the height of brilliance in Part 1, I would’ve definitely called a DNF for the rest of the book. But I kept holding out hope she would come full-circle and dazzle me again.

Even though I remained annoyed at the rest of the book because it didn’t go the way I I expected it to, I’m ironically still sitting here appreciating some of the unconventionally in what I read. The author has some cool ideas for storyline, most of which I hadn’t seen before. Where she lost me was in execution. If we’re going somewhere new, I need to see the plausibility and continue feeling something for the characters (which I didn’t). At the moment, I don’t see myself picking up the second one anytime soon, if at all (not that it’s out yet).

I’d like to add (more positively) that the book was more accessible than I thought it would be. Anytime I see something labeled “Asian fantasy” I go in braced for graphic violence. Even though the subject matter was occasionally tough to read, it was never overly explicit in execution. You knew someone was dying horribly, but you didn’t have to experience it. I remember thinking it was nice to have an option to recommend to readers who don’t enjoy a lot of graphic violence in their books. So it’s a win on that regard, but the book does have a couple of descriptive sex scenes to compensate. As a bookseller I usually had to be aware of both of those things, else customers come back angry with me lol.

Overall, with the amazing 5 star first half and the 1-2 star second half of with some kudos for originality thrown in, I’m landing at a final 3 star rating. I think the first bit was good enough to make it worth your time regardless, but I’m still feeling a little let down.

Recommendations: pick this up for an unconventional Asian fantasy with one of the strongest beginnings on the market. Be aware, though, that the story changes significantly in Part 2.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

Title: The Thousand Names

Author: Django Wexler

Series: Shadow Campaigns #1

Genre: Flintlock Fantasy

The Overview: Enter an epic fantasy world that echoes with the thunder of muskets and the clang of steel—but where the real battle is against a subtle and sinister magic…. Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, commander of one of the Vordanai empire’s colonial garrisons, was resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost. But that was before a rebellion upended his life. And once the powder smoke settled, he was left in charge of a demoralized force clinging tenuously to a small fortress at the edge of the desert. To flee from her past, Winter Ihernglass masqueraded as a man and enlisted as a ranker in the Vordanai Colonials, hoping only to avoid notice. But when chance sees her promoted to command, she must win the hearts of her men and lead them into battle against impossible odds. The fates of both these soldiers and all the men they lead depend on the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, who has been sent by the ailing king to restore order. His military genius seems to know no bounds, and under his command, Marcus and Winter can feel the tide turning. But their allegiance will be tested as they begin to suspect that the enigmatic Janus’s ambitions extend beyond the battlefield and into the realm of the supernatural—a realm with the power to ignite a meteoric rise, reshape the known world, and change the lives of everyone in its path. -Goodreads

The Review:

Thousand Names was an unusual military fantasy, but I quite liked it.

First off, it’s clear that magic is going to be an integral part to the overall mechanisms of the series and the conflicts within, but it’s presence in this first book was next to nil. If you pick this up, go in expecting a bonafide flintlock military story set in a fantasy world, and NOT expecting battles with mages flinging spells left and right (as I’d been).

I especially enjoyed the beginning where this army’s leaders were trying to shape a ragtag group into something reputable. That was my favorite aspect of the story, and unfortunately it was dropped a bit soon in favor of focusing on the characters and their wide array of strange conflicts. I enjoyed the transition to the characters and the journey with them, but missed that initial selling point throughout the rest of the novel. This gradual transition of story (which happened at a couple of junctures throughout the book) is part of the reason why I called it “unusual.” Nothing quite panned out as expected, but it was written well, so in this case it still managed to create a satisfying story.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the military aspect of this book. My knee-jerk reaction was that the battle scenes were meh, just okay. They didn’t have a lot of human connection during, but rather seemed an endless barrage of logistics descriptions. This unit moved here, this person got shot, etc. and what was missing for me were honed-in perspectives to really make me feel something for what was happening. I think part of my disconnection was because I had just finished Abercrombie’s Age of Madness trilogy, which is riddled with some of the best battle scenes I’ve ever read. By comparison, these lacked the same spark. However, had I read them further apart, I may have enjoyed this more. The feedback I’ve gotten since first discussing my experience with this book is that most people generally liked the battles and thought them done well. I will say at least that they were quite easy to visualize, but the level of detail required for that could be both a good and a bad thing… my jury is still out.

It’s an oddly character-driven novel, and for the most part I enjoyed my experience with them. They weren’t quite as in-depth or introspective as I’d wanted, but are still the types of profiles I think I’m going to have fun rooting for while reading the rest of the series.

Overall, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this and look forward to continuing on in the series.

Recommendations: pick Thousand Names up aware that this first book is more “military” than “fantasy” and enjoy Wexler’s unconventional approach to the genre. I can see why it’s hailed as a staple flintlock fantasy.

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