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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.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review Addendum: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington

The Shadow of What was Lost by James Islington

Title: The Shadow of What Was Lost

Author: James Islington

Series: Licanius Trilogy #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: As a student of the Gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war fought—and lost—before he was born. Despised by most beyond the school walls, he and those around him are all but prisoners as they attempt to learn control of the Gift. Worse, as Davian struggles with his lessons, he knows that there is further to fall if he cannot pass his final tests. But when Davian discovers he has the ability to wield the forbidden power of the Augurs, he sets into motion a chain of events that will change everything. To the north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to stir. And to the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s wakes up in the forest, covered in blood and with no memory of who he is… -Goodreads

The (Updated) Review:

Responsible for one of my favorite reading experiences in 2017, I originally reviewed the first two books for a newspaper. I addressed the series as a whole and didn’t have the word count to really delve into specifics of each book. I also averaged my ratings of the two into a 4.5. Not a bad rating, but it didn’t accurately reflect my experience with each book. After finishing my reread in preparation to finish the series, now seems like a great time to update my review.

I loved The Shadow of What was Lost my first time through, but somehow it was even better the second time. I think I mentioned an issue with repetitive word choice near the end to justify the docking of .5 stars, but whatever pedantic mindset made me focus on that must have vanished because I didn’t notice it this time around (and I was looking). I completely loved every single moment. So much so that my re-evaluation places it with a solid 5 stars and a spot on my very conservative all-time favorites shelf.

The book does an amazing job providing that nostalgic classic fantasy/adventure feel. Between the likable nature of all the characters, the lightheartedness of the beginning chapters, and that exciting first spark leading to adventure, it reminded me of the likes of Brooks, Eddings, and Jordan. But it only got better from there as Islington used some cool concepts and concise writing to modernize the story. I love classic fantasy, but find its simplicity something I have to be in a specific mood for. Islington managed to provide the best of new and old. Combine all of that with with a quality Michael Kramer audio production, and we have a winner.

I loved the pacing, the characters, the adventure, the carefully parceled-out information, the twists, the world-building, all of it. The only thing that made it difficult on the first go-round was the similarity of many of the names. It made it difficult and slightly stressful to keep track of everyone. But this time I just kind of sat back and trusted that it would all come together, and that helped a lot. I’m sure these issues would’ve been nil had I been reading the physical copy, but for obvious reasons (Michael Kramer), I sacrificed some clarity for the experience.

Recommendations: this is a phenomenal start to a series that only gained momentum on the reread. I’d hand it to fantasy readers who love that classic fantasy feel, but crave something more complex. I’m reserving final recommendations until I read the last book, but consider The Shadow of What Was Lost an official Obsessive Bookseller favorite!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Title: Mirror Empire

Author: Kameron Hurley

Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself. In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress. Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish. -Goodreads

The Review:

Mirror Empire is one of the most unconventional books I’ve read because of its almost ruthless execution of ideas. Hurley doesn’t take time to explain anything, throwing you straight into the fire on the first page. It reminded me a lot of my experience with Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon. The world-building was rich and vibrant and the plot was so thick, it required a ton of concentration. Even now, after finishing my careful read of Mirror Empire, I still can’t be totally certain I’ve kept everything straight. And that lack of basic accessibility is what makes it difficult to recommend. But in my opinion, it’s worth the effort.

Hurley surprised me in a couple places at her bold plot decisions (a few of which are still lingering with me). She’s not afraid to be unconventional in every sense of the word, and that break-the-mold attitude is probably why I’m so drawn to her storytelling. The thing is, I have seen a lot of the elements she included in Mirror Empire before and have even criticized a few authors lately for trying them. The difference seems to be in execution. For example, the erratic decision-making some of the characters exhibited would’ve driven me crazy had it not been written so deftly. It just goes to show. If you can write superbly, you really can get away with a lot. Hurley gained my trust early, and strengthened it as the book went.

Let’s talk about the world-building for a minute. It was easily my favorite element, but that’s usually the case with me. I absolutely loved all the unique flora and fauna (which played an active role in the story), the different cultures and mannerisms, the magic system, and the general concept of the story (alternate realities… my fingers are crossed it doesn’t get too convoluted). Reading this truly transported me to an alien world and dazzled me while I was there. I may not have a full grasp on what the plot is doing, but the cool atmosphere is definitely going to keep me coming back for more. I’d also like to mention the radical way Hurley played with gender roles. It put into a poignant perspective all of the abuse women suffer in fantasy (and real life) that I usually kind of just glaze over as “typical” in my mind. Reading about atrocities done to men in these manners was a bit of a shock because my pre-conditioned brain wasn’t prepared for it. I’m sure this element will be a point of controversy for some readers, but for me it provided an insightful food for thought on some deeply ingrained biases. To be clear, abuse in any form is unacceptable, and I don’t particular enjoy reading about it, but I do think it’s good to shake up the status-quo every now and then to challenge those biases. 

Another thing I’d like to mention is Hurley’s character construction. These people are really flawed (aka, somewhat normal, lol), which creates an awesome story of duality where you’re not quite sure who to root for. The further I got into the story, the more unlikable some characters became (and vice versa) and it perpetuated my interest in them because I don’t have it all figured out at this point. That’s actually another reason this book might be hard to recommend – the characters aren’t accessible at all. The book gives you a pit-in-your-gut feeling while you’re trying to figure them out – what’s their motive?! What are they going to do next?! Add to that a few fascinating enigma characters, and we have a cast guaranteed to keep you on your toes.

Recommendations: this book hit the spot for me with it’s great world-building, unconventional writing style, and interesting (flawed) characters. It’s hard to recommend because it’s rather dense and inaccessible. If you’re looking for a light read, this won’t be your jam. However if you’re looking to really immerse yourself in a unique new world(s) and don’t mind books that require a bit more concentration, give this one a go! I’m reserving final recommendations until I finish the series, but so far it’s a strong start!

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by Niki Hawkes

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Mini Review: Blood of Empire by Brian McClellan

Blood of Empire by Brian McClellan

Title: Blood of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Gods of Blood and Powder #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The Dynize have unlocked the Landfall Godstone, and Michel Bravis is tasked with returning to Greenfire Depths to do whatever he can to prevent them from using its power; from sewing dissension among the enemy ranks to rallying the Palo population. Ben Styke’s invasion of Dynize is curtailed when a storm scatters his fleet. Coming ashore with just twenty lancers, he is forced to rely on brains rather than brawn – gaining new allies in a strange land on the cusp of its own internal violence. Bereft of her sorcery and physically and emotionally broken, Lady Vlora Flint now marches on Landfall at the head of an Adran army seeking vengeance against those who have conspired against her. While allied politicians seek to undo her from within, she faces insurmountable odds and Dynize’s greatest general. -Goodreads

The Mini Review:

You know those fantasy authors who are so good, you can relax into their writing and just enjoy? That’s McClellan. I’ve been a book reviewer for almost a decade, and it’s difficult sometimes to turn off my critical eye. But every once in a while, a series comes along where I can just sit back and appreciate the journey without all the constant evaluation. These are the kinds of stories that give me fire as a reviewer – the ones that end up on my favorites lists to be recommended for years. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t love about this continuation trilogy. The quality of every element was so on-point, but by far my favorite component was the characters and the amazing relationships cultivated between them. I go into much greater detail in other reviews for this series, so I’ll save you the repetition, but suffice to say it’s superb. Evaluating all the books I’ve read from him so far, I think Promise of Blood is still my favorite, but only because it was the funniest. The ending of Blood of Empire was great, and I hope it’s not the last we see from this world. He has a new unrelated series starting next year, and I plan to be first in line for it!

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Book Review: Kingdom of Liars by

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

Title: Kingdom of Liars

Author: Nick Martell

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary of Kings #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Michael is branded a traitor as a child because of the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son, by his father David Kingman. Ten years later on Michael lives a hardscrabble life, with his sister Gwen, performing crimes with his friends against minor royals in a weak attempt at striking back at the world that rejects him and his family. In a world where memory is the coin that pays for magic, Michael knows something is there in the hot white emptiness of his mind. So when the opportunity arrives to get folded back into court, via the most politically dangerous member of the kingdom’s royal council, Michael takes it, desperate to find a way back to his past. He discovers a royal family that is spiraling into a self-serving dictatorship as gun-wielding rebels clash against magically trained militia. What the truth holds is a set of shocking revelations that will completely change the Hollows, if Michael and his friends and family can survive long enough to see it. -Goodreads

The Review:

Kingdom of Liars had some good ideas and a wicked cool atmosphere, but the story itself lacked a bit of logical structure and flow.

The atmosphere created, with a shattered moon that periodically rained down on the city, combined well with both the contrasting lifestyles of the different casts of people and the general air of magic and mayhem. It was superb! Easily my favorite element of the story. Even during parts I wasn’t totally sure I was onboard with, I kept reading to see what the world building and society would reveal next. I can say I’ve never read anything quite like this book, and that’s a mark in its favor.

It also included an interesting magic system, but almost as an afterthought. The excerpt and title lead you to believe the characters would face a constant battle between practicing magic and losing memory, but unfortunately all of it happened on the periphery. There wasn’t even a really clear description of how it worked, save a few passing conversations, so it’s definitely the component most primed for expansion in the sequel.

But overall, if I could describe Kingdom of Liars in one word, it would be: contrived.

The second would be disjointed. Most of the reviews I’ve seen state the beginning is slow, but the second half really picks up, making the whole book worthwhile. I can see why they claim this – all of the fun “reveals” take place in the second half… but my personal experience was the opposite. I loved the atmosphere and the concept right out of the gate (and the KILLER prequel), but the longer the story went, the more I became dissatisfied with the trajectory. The plot was all over the place, jumping from event to event without a really solid through-line. I tend to prefer more structure in storytelling; a more natural-feeling flow of events. Because of the first chapter, I knew it was working towards a clear objective, but there were several conversations and tangents that felt unnecessary and didn’t seem to fit within the framework. It was very forced. And because it was forced, it made the main character make so many odd decisions that he came off erratic and impulsive. His wild decisions always defied logic!!! And yet somehow they always worked out… because they were constructed to… and that’s the problem. He never felt like a real person, he felt like a vehicle to advance plot.

Even so, the story did have a bunch of good payoffs, and I did enjoy the writing behind it. Despite my objections to the story construction, the basic writing and conveying of ideas was great, reminding me of the conversational approach Sebastien de Castell uses in his stories (minus the over-the-top flippancy). I’d love to see what this author can do off the cuff, because in this case the plot seemed so tortured and overworked that I didn’t spend as much time enjoying the writing as I would have liked.

Recommendations: Kingdom of Liars, despite having a unique atmosphere and a cool concept, was a bit too contrived for my tastes. If you don’t mind adopting a more “just go with it” attitude, it’ll definitely offer you a memorable story. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like it…

I’d like to thank Gallery Books and Nick Martell for the chance to read an early copy of Kingdom of Liars!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Song of the Risen God by R.A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Song of the Risen God

Author: R.A. Slavatore

Series: The Coven #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: War has come to Fireach Speur. The once forgotten Xoconai empire has declared war upon the humans west of the mountains, and their first target are the people of Loch Beag. Lead by the peerless general, Tzatzini, all that stands in the way of the God Emperor’s grasp of power is Aoelyn, Talmadge, and their few remaining allies.

But not all hope is lost. Far away from Fireach Speuer, an ancient tomb is uncovered by Brother Thaddeus of the Abellican Church. Within it is the power to stop the onslaught of coming empire and, possibly, reshape the very world itself. –Goodreads

The Review:

I’m finally paying for not reading all the backlist Corona titles. As a result, Song of the Risen God was my least favorite of the trilogy by a landslide.

There wasn’t anything technically wrong with the book, but it didn’t work for me on a few accounts. The beauty of this series so far has been in the slow-burn, intimate development of two or three main characters. The pacing is part of the brilliance because it draws you in and makes you feel every pain and victory with a carefully-constructed poignancy. It was the most in-depth I’ve ever read from Salvatore and speaks to his evolution as a writer. Songs of a Risen God felt like a regression. The plot broadened, which is ideal for the final book in the series, but so did the number of POVs. It bounced around so much, we didn’t get a chance to reimmurse into any of the characters, and as a result, it felt very superficial. I did not care for the inclusion of the enemy’s POVs. It felt too much like an old Drizzt novel (just call them “orcs” and it’s the same formula) and it took away any suspense that comes from the reader not knowing how the enemy thinks and operates. To compound that, the enemy came off almost child-like in their development despite the fact that they were still committing horrendous atrocities.

Another issue I had was the inclusion of so many characters and places from past Corona novels. As a fresh reader, none of these characters had any substance or meaning for me. I think the nostalgia-factor was supposed to make up for their almost casual inclusion of the story, but I found them somewhat unnecessary (although I probably would’ve delighted in seeing some familiar faces had I been current with all the works). But for my personal experience, it resulted in page after endless page of the characters explaining to each other why they’re relevant and rehashing old novels. Then you add the current characters explaining to the old ones countless times about what they’ve been doing over the last two books, and I wanted to slam my head into a wall. It was tedious. And by the time everything culminated to the final chapters and some really cool shit happened, I was so worn out that it didn’t affect me the way it should have.

Overall, what a disappointment. But the good news is that my reading experience and expectations are probably different than most of those inclined to pick up this series, so maybe the masses will have more luck with it. I stand by my recommendations of the first two books, which are textbook in character depth, pacing, and overall writing quality. I just wish it had ended with a bang!

Recommendation: long-time Corona fans wont want to miss this finale, but series-skippers like me might struggle with how different it is from the first two books.

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by Niki Hawkes