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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

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Book Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Title: In the Shadow of Lightning

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Glass Immortals #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

Release Date: June 21, 2022

The Overview: Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out. Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it. -Goodreads

The Review:

In the Shadow of Lightning is one of the most unconventional fantasy books I’ve read in a while.

There are a lot of weird components that probably shouldn’t work, but somehow McClellan managed to weave them all together in a (mostly) seamless manner. Truth be told, it’s a bit more bizarre than I usually prefer. I’m not sure I would’ve given the benefit of the doubt had it been from any other author. But seeing as both Powder Mage trilogies are among my all-time favorites, I went in with a huge level of trust that McClellan would be able to deliver. Thank goodness he did, in flying colors (or glass shards, as the case may be).

My favorite thing about the book was the magic system. Magic-forged glass of varying colors, each type offering a different benefit to the user. It went into some good details on how the glass was created and used, which were among the best parts of the story for me – I love reading about people who are exceptional in their field of work. I also really enjoyed seeing the magic used in the many hand-to-hand combat scenes. Really cool.

The only element that didn’t quite land for me was the mystery. Have y’all ever read those Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys mash-up novels where the plot and mystery are much more exciting than either ND or HB on their own… but they’re still kids books and you can totally see the formula for the mystery where the breadcrumbs are all in a neat little row for them to follow? That’s how the mystery in this book came across to me. I gave it the benefit of the doubt from the beginning to see how it would develop and unfortunately had everything figured out hundreds of pages before I think I was supposed to. Oh well.

Lackluster mystery aside, at least I enjoyed the characters enough to go through the motions with them. There were several POVs, and all of them added a different flavor to the story. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, as they all contributed in a meaningful way towards the bottom-line and I liked them all. One of my favorite things about McClellan’s writing in the PM trilogies was how he was able to create such deep connections between characters. It’s one of the best examples of amazing character work that I’ve ever read, and a huge part of why he’s one of my top authors. I saw a bit of that brilliance peek through here and there in this story, but not to the degree I was expecting. I’m hoping for a bit more in the second book, as I will definitely be reading on. No spoilers, obviously, but he dropped a bomb (figuratively) in the epilogue that had me going… “wth did I just read?!” So now I really need to get my hands on the next one.

Recommendations: this is an incredibly creative and original fantasy that has the power to jolt (pun) anyone out of a reading rut. Truthfully, I don’t think I would’ve been quite so accepting of the wild ideas if the author hadn’t already established my trust in the Powder Mage trilogies. So proceed with caution if this is your first McClellan. While wildly entertaining, it didn’t strike the same chord with me as other works have. At least not yet… the series is young.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

Title: Shadow of the Gods

Author: John Gwynne

Series: Bloodsworn Saga #1

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: After the gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrið. Now a new world is rising, where power-hungry jarls feud and monsters stalk the woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out. Now, as whispers of war echo across the mountains and fjords, fate follows in the footsteps of three people: a huntress on a dangerous quest, a noblewoman who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who seeks vengeance among the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn. All three will shape the fate of the world as it once more falls under the shadow of the gods . . . –Goodreads

The Review:

Even though Shadow of the Gods came highly praised, I went in really apprehensive. To start with, I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a Norse-inspired indigenous story even if it did promise a little magic. I’m also skeptical anytime something gets as much hype as this book has. But color me surprised:

The book was every bit as good as people say it is.

It’s a slow burn, but one that had me engaged from the beginning. Gwynne is such a thoughtful writer. He has all of these cool story ideas (many things I’ve never seen done well before) but instead of hitting you over the head with endless explanations, he lets you experience them naturally, revealing information in careful increments every few chapters that continually nurtured my investment in the story throughout the entire thing. It was brilliantly done. And I can’t wait to see where all of those careful reveals will take me in the next book.

The story bounced pretty evenly between three POVs. Two I liked right out of the gate, the other one took me until halfway through the book before I was fully invested. These were great characters to follow. Perhaps on the extreme ends of human behavior based on the harsh circumstances of the book, but more or less relatable in their earnest humanity. I especially loved the female characters and more and more appreciate Gwynne for how he writes them. Being a strong female in a fantasy series is not something that has to be highlighted as remarkable or unusual in this series. They’re just unapologetically badass and I loved it. It’s awesome to see intelligent characters who can think through situations, but are still flawed and prone to mistakes. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Gwynne managed well.

The world-building in this book was unlike anything I’ve read before. It was so subtle, almost on the periphery of the story, yet at the same time completely integral to the plot. Even though I didn’t learn as much as I wanted to in this first book, I can see how solid the baseline is for everything – Gwynne has my complete trust to deliver on all these cool ideas in future books.

The only thing I have to note is the pacing. I remember thinking around the halfway point that it’s a good thing I’m heavily invested in the characters and the plot because things are sooo slow right now. Then on the flip side, because the story bounces between the three POVs, when things started careening at the end, it was an oddly disjointed feeling to bounce between stories climaxing at different rates (there’s a joke in there somewhere), so the momentum of the book as a whole was a bit off for me. But that’s a minor complaint for sure.

Recommendations: this is an awesome slow-burn, character-driven fantasy. I loved everything from the flowing writing to the careful plot construction to the great characters to the subtle yet powerful world-building (it’s a square of appreciation). The book worked for my on every account. It seems like those I’ve seen struggle with it had issues with the slow pacing which means they probably weren’t invested in the characters. So if you can find a connection early, you’ll probably love the book as much as I did.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: Shorefall

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Series: Foundryside #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Having narrowly saved the metropolis of Tevanne from destruction, Sancia Grado and her allies have turned to their next task: sowing the seeds of a full-on magical-industrial revolution. If they succeed, the secrets behind scriving—the art of imbuing everyday objects with sentience—will be accessible to all of Tevanne’s citizens, much to the displeasure of the robber-barons who’ve hoarded this knowledge for themselves. But one of Sancia’s enemies has embarked on a desperate gambit, an attempt to resurrect a figure straight out of legend—an immortal being known as a heirophant. Long ago, the heirophant was an ordinary man, but he’s used scriving to transform himself into something closer to a god. Once awakened, he’ll stop at nothing to remake the world in his horrifying image. And if Sancia can’t stop this ancient power from returning? Well, the only way to fight a god…is with another god. -Goodreads

The Review:

After dishing out some of my highest praise for Foundryside, I’m disappointed to say I didn’t like Shorefall nearly as much as I thought I would.

Which is surprising considering 100% of the feedback I got after talking about Foundryside was that “Shorefall is even better!” So what has me the grumpy outlier in a sea of praise for this second book? Possibly inflated expectations. Probably an issue with the story components. And definitely a problem with pacing.

The book starts out with mach-10 level of intense action and drama (which, compared to the relative slower development in of the first book is probably why a lot of people liked this one better) and maintained that same level straight through the first 75% of the book, only to be broken up occasionally for some evil monologing. For me the lack of variety meant no opportunity to reconnect with the characters. No slower moments to appreciate the cool inventions of this world. And no time to give my brain a rest between all of the excitement. It felt like one of those fantasy battle scenes where after a while nothing seems exciting because it’s all exciting so it flat-lines and you start tuning things out until a change of pace startles you back in… and like I said, it took about 75% of the book before that happened for me.

In this case, I can’t tell whether the feeling of continuous fast pacing was due entirely to the text. While I felt the unconventional audiobook narrator was a good match for the first book, I noticed in this one that her non-stop edge of panic and intensity for almost the entire novel was hard to listen to. I’m planning a physical read of the final book, so we’ll see if that makes a significant difference. It’s always unpleasant when you feel like someone is yelling/nagging at you for 10 hours straight.

But alas, once I started getting irritated with the pacing and the narration, it was difficult not to nitpick other elements of the story that just were not working for me. There were a lot.

1. I didn’t like the villain. In the first book he was this creepy enigma that I wasn’t even sure would get a significant role in the second book (it felt like finale sort of buildup), but as soon as the mystery was stripped away I found my interest in him waning. I’ve never been a fan of including villain POVs in books unless you’re willing to do a deep character exploration with the perspective. Otherwise they usually come across superficial and cheesy. No exception here. What’s more, the more opportunities they have to explain their grand plans of evil to the main character where nothing actually happens to said character only serves to take away from the suspense of the story. I think there was a good foundation here for mysterious evil workings on the periphery of the story that would’ve worked well, and I for one would’ve enjoyed it better had all the evil plans not been laid bare at every turn. As it was it was kind of stupid.

2. I didn’t like the “whys” behind the plot. I wasn’t on board with WHY these characters had to be the ones to handle the big bad threat and why they seemed completely isolated in handling it. Compound that with some (I feel) stupid decisions, unnecessary risks, and exceptionally far-fetched plans that only work because the story needs them too, and I’m just meh. Even worse, characters who acknowledge they’re taking a calculated risk, then spend 20 pages whining about it in endless dialogue when they’re betrayed… I’m telling you, it was all I could do to get through this book at 2x my regular reading speed. “Just get it over with” is not a mentality you want to have while reading a book you were excited about.

3. I don’t like where the story is going. All the mystery is gone. All the suspense is gone. I don’t have energy for the angst. And I think this is the reading gods punishing me for requesting an ARC of Locklands before having read the second book. I know better than that. I even wrote a guide, then promptly ignored my own rule.

I’m starting to recognize a few of my personal reading biases. Foremost of which is, once a book isn’t working for me, my critical mind sees that as permission to go hogwild in tearing apart every aspect of the story. So I’m always, always, a lot more harsh on things that probably weren’t as bad as I’m making them out to be. If I step back from the emotion of my review for a moment and look at the book again, it’s fine. Perhaps not my cup of tea, but I can see why a lot of people really enjoyed it. Therefore, my rating is coming in at a 2.5/5 stars. Meaning I can recognize that the book was better than “just okay,” but I personally didn’t like it. If I couldn’t see any merit, it would’ve gotten 2 stars or less. That’s probably more info than most of you needed.

Things I liked: Orso is funny as shit. The magic system is still a blast to read about. The physical book is pretty.

Recommendations: I did a complete 180 from the first book here, but I seem to be in the minority from most people who actually liked Shorefall even more than Foundryside. If I came across my own review, I’d still give the book a go lol.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Trouble with Peace

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: Age of Madness #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Conspiracy. Betrayal. Rebellion.
Peace is just another kind of battlefield… Savine dan Glokta, once Adua’s most powerful investor, finds her judgement, fortune and reputation in tatters. But she still has all her ambitions, and no scruple will be permitted to stand in her way. For heroes like Leo dan Brock and Stour Nightfall, only happy with swords drawn, peace is an ordeal to end as soon as possible. But grievances must be nursed, power seized and allies gathered first, while Rikke must master the power of the Long Eye . . . before it kills her. The Breakers still lurk in the shadows, plotting to free the common man from his shackles, while noblemen bicker for their own advantage. Orso struggles to find a safe path through the maze of knives that is politics, only for his enemies, and his debts, to multiply. The old ways are swept aside, and the old leaders with them, but those who would seize the reins of power will find no alliance, no friendship, and no peace, lasts forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

Reviewing middle books in series, especially ones where the entire collection is released, can be a bit tricky.

Sure, in this case it’s another opportunity to gush about an author I’ve been absolutely loving (I’ll take as many of those as I can get), but without the novelty of the first book and the finality of the last, it can be hard to figure out what to talk about.

Unless I repeat what I’ve said about the series and author so far. In which case, I’ll have you here all day.

Part of the struggle is that there weren’t a lot of plot advancement points in this book. A couple of doozies landed for sure, but overall it was still a satisfying middle book in a series. I can’t wait to see what Abercrombie has in store for the finale (I’ve talked about Abercrombie so much lately that my phone has the auto-populate for it ready with just a “Ab”). The book did, however, re-establish how much I’m enjoying reading about these deeply flawed characters. Some of them I love/hate even more than before (they’re not cooperating with what I want them to do and it’s maddening!), and one in particular is shaping up to be another favorite of the series. I’m drawn to the funny ones. :)

The book also solidified how much I appreciate Abercrombie’s writing. His style is so distinct, so creative, and there are a few signature scenes in here that left me in awe at the specific ways he conveys the story. It’s brilliant.

Recommendations: if you love character-driven, slow-burn fantasy novels where the author doesn’t pull any punches, this is a great pick for you. Many people have asked me how this latest trilogy compares to the rest of the works: It’s more reminiscent of this first trilogy, with a faster plot progression and a much stronger writing voice. I personally loved the stand-alones, but for those wanting to get back to basics, this latest trilogy is perfect.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes