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Book Review: Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

Title: Turning Darkness Into Light

Author: Marie Brennan

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

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

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

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

The Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

Title: City of Lies

Author: Sam Hawke

Series: Poison Wars #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he’s a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising…and angry. -Goodreads

The Review:

IMO, when you have a series labeled “Poison Wars,” it should contain characters dropping off left and right from poisonings (not just occasionally). It should have practicing master of poisons for the main character (meaning I wanted to be immersed in his experiences with it). It should provide a significant number of fun facts about different poisons, how they affect people, and how to counter them (more than just in the chapter introductions – include it in the story!).

This book had none of these things to any significant degree.

Every single expectation I had was dashed. Of course there was some inclusion of actual poisoning, but it was very much not the focus of the novel, and that’s the source of my biggest annoyance.

The thing is, I get that publishers play up certain elements of stories to market them effectively, and sometimes it doesn’t necessarily represent the text as well as it could. But my issues with this book go deeper than that. The actual plot didn’t stand very strong on its own even without the poison element. It lacked substance and depth, and didn’t leave me with much of anything to take away from it. Had it been a robust high fantasy, I may have been able to overlook the false advertising, but unfortunately for me it failed on all accounts.

The characters were disappointing to me as well. They had interesting profiles, and I would label them fun characters, but they lacked depth. Their dialogue was very simplistic, and both it and the plot made me feel like I was reading a YA novel. They lacked a complexity of motive and intrigue that would’ve made the story outstanding.

Overall, it’s clear this book misfired at every turn for me. It was a struggle to finish. I won’t be continuing the series.

Recommendations: City of Lies is perhaps much better suited for YA audiences than high fantasy. It’s very simplistic, straightforward, and, most notably, has a distinct shortage of gritty poisoning components. My opinion is definitely suffering from pre-read expectations, but even so, if I had a vote I’d say pass on this one.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

Title: League of Dragons

Author: Naomi Novik

Series: Temeraire #9

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: The deadly campaign in Russia has cost both Napoleon and those allied against him. Napoleon has been denied his victory…but at a terrible price. Lawrence and the dragon Temeraire pursue the fleeing French army back west, but are demoralized when Napoleon makes it back to Paris unscathed. Worse, they soon learn that the French have stolen Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg. Now, it is do or die, as our heroes not only need to save Temeraire’s offspring but also to stop Napoleon for good! -Goodreads

The Review:

Whelp, I finally finished this series. I can’t say League of Dragons knocked my socks off, but that’s pretty much par for the course for most of the series. The conclusion had a lot of fun story components, but ultimately it lacked any sort of momentum.

I think I was expecting more of a climactic ending. Anything, really, to make me FEEL something… but League of Dragons was just as casual in its events as most of the books before it. Things got going towards the last 25% of the book, but it didn’t carry out. Just my imaginings on what I thought could happen were more eventful, and I’m generally not very creative when it comes to plot design.

Saying I didn’t feel anything at the series ending isn’t precisely true. I felt a bit sad that I wouldn’t get anymore time with Temeraire and the other dragons. They’re really where the magic of the series lies, and I’ll miss the fun they brought. If you could par everything down to just the bits involving them, you’d have pure gold. They exude personality and animation, with this humorous, sometimes frustrating practicality that only Novik’s dragons embody. I love that their rationale and thinking is so different than ours. It makes them authentic. And delightful. They saved some of the slower books entirely for me and they’re the only reason I don’t feel remorse at spending so much time with this series. They’re also why I’m continuing to recommend at least the first three books.

I look at this series with affection, despite its flaws, but it definitely isn’t perfect. As I’ve mentioned, it’s missing a sustainable plot beyond the first three books, but it also suffers from lack of character depth. We very seldom get more than a surface-level emotion or reaction from the characters. Novik is usually more focused on what’s happening than what it feels like to go through it. The descriptors help us know the characters are feeling things, but beyond the first trilogy I never felt anything but arm’s-distance as a reader.

Recommendations: overall, despite a few flaws, I think the series is worth reading. I only felt a deep connection to the first book, and found rest to be fun, light reads with not much depth. So if you’re going to read fantasy fluff (beyond the first three books, which I believe was only initially intended to be a trilogy but got picked up for more because of its popularity), choose this one because, you know, dragons!!

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Reckoning of Fallen Gods by R.A. Salvatore

Reckoning of the Fallen by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Reckoning of Fallen Gods

Author: R.A. Salvatore

Series: The Coven #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: The winds of change are blowing upon Fireach Speur. Aoelyn risked her life to save the trader Talmadge and it cost her everything that is dear to her, but Talmadge survived and can’t forget the amazing woman that killed a god.

Little do they realize, war is coming to the mountain. Far to west, a fallen empire stirs. One that sees a solar eclipse as a call to war. Their empire once dominated the known world and they want it back. -Goodreads

The Review:

Child of a Mad God was one of the best books I read last year, so this sequel was very high up on my 2019 priority list.

Reckoning of Fallen Gods almost suffered from middle-book syndrome, but the writing is so good that the slight lack of focus didn’t make it feel like an unnecessary drudge. The pacing was on par with the first book – which was slow af but each moment had a lot of depth, so it was never boring. However, because the story in this one spent time with more POV characters, the slow unfolding of events was a lot more noticeable. The more frequent character switches kept it from building the same momentum.

Specifically, there was a lot less time spent with Aoleyn and Talmadge (which I missed) and their story arcs basically just maintained status quo, which in turn kept my emotional investment pretty even-keel. There was also fewer grimdark gut-punch scenes, which the masochistic reader in me missed a little. As much as I didn’t like those visceral scenes in the first book, at least they constantly evoked something. And there was a lot more focus on the broader “bad guys” component which made the story less intimate. None of this was particularly detrimental, but it definitely had a different feel.

Overall, I’m by no means disappointed in what I read here, but it’s clear this book was more to shape the next chapter than it was a fulfilling read within itself. It’s still one of the better reads I’ve had this year (a fantastic ending really saved the experience for me – I want to know what happens next!!). It’s more well written than earlier Corona works (this author has grown leaps and bounds since the 90s) and it’s darker and grittier than the Drizzt novels. As a huge fan of Salvatore, I can’t wait to see what he churns out next.

Recommendations: this story is perfect for dark fantasy fans who don’t mind a character-driven, slow-paced plot. The first book especially has a lot of truly compelling moments, and I can tell that Reckoning of Fallen Gods is an important installment in what I think is going to be a killer series overall. You can pick it up without having read anything in the Corona universe, but he definitely has a bit of crossover references that might be bigger spoilers if you care. I’m normally a completionist, but I’m enjoying this so much more than the DemonWars that I don’t mind already knowing big picture stuff if I ever get back to reading the earlier works.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham

Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

Title: The Spider’s War

Author: Daniel Abraham

Series: Dagger and the Coin #5

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Lord Regent Geder Palliako’s great war has spilled across the world, nation after nation falling before the ancient priesthood and weapon of dragons. But even as conquest follows conquest, the final victory retreats before him like a mirage. Schism and revolt begin to erode the foundations of the empire, and the great conquest threatens to collapse into a permanent war of all against all. In Carse, with armies on all borders, Cithrin bel Sarcour, Marcus Wester, and Clara Kalliam are faced with the impossible task of bringing a lasting peace to the world. Their tools: traitors high in the imperial army, the last survivor of the dragon empire, and a financial scheme that is either a revolution or the greatest fraud in the history of the world. -Goodreads

The Review:

Spider’s war was an unconventional series-ender, and I’m still not totally sure how I feel about it. On one hand, the atypical resolution was satisfying because it was so far outside the norm. Many of the series I’ve been reading lately have ended with formulaic story arcs, so Spider’s War felt refreshing by contrast. On the other hand, I think it still could’ve ended with a bit more fanfare… the story kind of petered out, missing any sort of momentum. My favorite series tend to be the ones with that amazing snowball careen towards the end where the energy is poignantly felt. This one rolled steadily out the way it rolled in – plodding and consistent. Which I suppose isn’t a bad thing, it just didn’t leave me with a lot of takeaway (which is in stark contrast to how other works by this author have left me – I’m still reeling from those!!).

I think in part it lacked the external momentum because the majority of the focus was on character dynamics and individual story arcs. This is actually my favorite part of Abraham’s writings because he always manages to make me feel connected to the characters – even the villains. The human connection is very much the driving force behind the plot, and that’s why the series is still very much worth reading….

But even so, there were some missed opportunities.

The end of book three introduced a couple of new incredible dynamics to the series that never got expanded on to my satisfaction. In fact, they were almost afterthoughts within the story and added no real value to the final destination. What an opportunity wasted!!! This also could be part of the reason I felt the lack of momentum because my imagination of where it could go was incredible.

Without going into too much detail, I also had trouble with some character inconsistency in this final book. While I love the fact that the series drew me in enough to even care about inconsistencies (I’ve been really apathetic lately with that… meaning I’ve also had nothing to contribute to buddy read discussions lol), a lot of my dissatisfaction stems from not liking where the characters ended up. Some were perfection, some not so much.

Overall, I’m glad to have read this series, and I’ve come away with a stronger than usual love for the characters. I think, however, I’m going to have a difficult time remembering how the series ended a few years from now.

Series status: COMPLETE!

Recommendations: the Dagger & Coin is not your typical fantasy series. It’s highly character-driven and focuses more on the small moments between people than any grand external conflicts. I would probably only suggest it to seasoned fantasy readers who need a break from the formulaic, cookie-cutter series out there. On the whole, it’s worth the read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham

Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

Title: Tyrant’s Law

Author: Daniel Abraham

Series: Dagger and the Coin #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: The great war cannot be stopped. The tyrant Geder Palliako had led his nation to war, but every victory has called forth another conflict. Now the greater war spreads out before him, and he is bent on bringing peace. No matter how many people he has to kill to do it. Cithrin bel Sarcour, rogue banker of the Medean Bank, has returned to the fold. Her apprenticeship has placed her in the path of war, but the greater dangers are the ones in her past and in her soul. Widowed and disgraced at the heart of the Empire, Clara Kalliam has become a loyal traitor, defending her nation against itself. And in the shadows of the world, Captain Marcus Wester tracks an ancient secret that will change the war in ways not even he can forsee. -Goodreads

The Review:

I enjoyed this book quite a bit despite the fact that not much happened. Well, that’s not strictly true… there were a lot of moving parts within the characters – internal revelations and forming convictions. There was just less focus on the external mechanisms (until maybe the last 10%). I can’t put my finger on exactly why Abraham’s exploration of character absorbs me so completely, but he has once again managed to capture my attention.

The characters really are the selling points of this series, and almost all of them have these fascinating inner stories and poignant motives for all they do. It’s amazing that even the “villain” inspires a deep compassion from me – these aren’t characters I’ll likely forget soon. Clara is especially interesting for the choices she’s making, and I can tell you she’s 100% my main motive for continuing the series. I just can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.

Compared to Expanse and Long Price Quartet, I admit I initially found the Dagger and the Coin series a bit slow. It took all the appropriate steps to immerse in character, but something about the external conflicts had me a bit bored. That is…. until the surprise at the end of this book… NOW I’m fully engaged, but it took a while to get here.

Series status: I plan to continue with the final two books as soon as possible. It’s finally starting to show some momentum and I’m eager to hop on for the ride.

Recommendations: this is one of those dry, character-driven fantasies that will appeal to GoT fans for its multiple POV delivery (albeit much less gritty). I personally would endorse Abraham’s Long Price Quartet series first, but these books are still solid entertainment.

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by Niki Hawkes