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Audiobook Review: The Original by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: The Original

Authors: Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In the near future, humans choose life – for a price. Injectable nanite technology is the lifeblood that flows through every individual wishing to experience the world through the lens of their own theme. While death from mortal wounds is still possible, life is made easier in a socially liberated society where automation and income equality allow passion pursuits to flourish over traditional work. Renewal stations are provided to every law-abiding citizen for weekly check-ins, which issue life-sustaining repairs in exchange for personal privacy. But what becomes of those who check out, of those who dare to resist immortality and risk being edited under the gaze of an identity-extracting government surveillance system? [The description was about as long as the book, so I only copied the first third of it] -Goodreads

The Review:

I was hooked from the very first sentence.

The story had a cool concept: a reborn clone of a murderer who’s sole purpose is to hunt and kill her “original.” It had a futuristic setting where a new “nanite” technology actively alters reality, tapping into your preferences and makes changes on everything you experience based on both conscious and unconscious data. I found it fascinating. It was easy to imagine how tech like that could make people lose touch with reality – highlighting the novelty of the tactile elements in a digitally-run world. The authors did a great job infusing this concept through every fiber of the story with fantastic use of sensory input description. It was total immersion. I found it especially poignant when dealing with the murder scene, as the description evoked a lot of uncomfortable and visceral feelings. All of this seamless infusion would make a great case study on world building for budding writers.

Julia Whelan was an awesome narrator. She was relatable and earnest in a way that really helped sell the story. Her POV was so perplexed… how could she possibly have committed a crime? The confusion and angst in her performance was palatable, making me think right from the start that there must be another explanation to what happened. She makes you feel the history and love between the main character and the victim. It spurred a lot of great questions and immediately hooked me for the rest of the story. I needed to find out what really happened. It was essential.

Recommendations: Overall, this was a fantastic audio production that will keep you on your toes. I especially recommend it if you’ve enjoyed some of Sanderson’s other mind-bending short stories like Snapshot and Legion. I haven’t read anything by Kowel yet, but after this, The Calculating Stars has definitely been bumped up my priority list.

I’d like to thank RB Media, Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, and NetGalley for the chance to listen to and review an early copy of The Original.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Title: Eragon

Author: Christopher Paolini

Series: Inheritance Cycle #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: One boy…One dragon… A world of adventure. When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon soon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders? The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands. -Goodreads

The Review:

I first picked up Eragon when I was 19 – two years after the book came out in 2003. I was reading it in anticipation for the second novel, which was one of my first ARCs as a bookseller. At the time, I’d been reading adult fantasy for a few years, but was by no means well-versed in the genre. Eragon satisfied all my basic expectations for a book of its type, and I was enamored with the fact that it was written by a teen (something I’d probably cringe away from now). I remember finding it inspiring – if he could do it, then I could too. I had a bit of trouble with pacing somewhere in the middle, but after cresting that hill I enjoyed it thoroughly until the end. My archaic, handwritten review at the time claimed, “Anyone who likes fantasy should read this. It would make a very entertaining movie one day (I should’ve specified: if done well, lol).”

Fast forward almost 10 years to 2014, I snagged an audio copy for a reread with the intention of making it beyond the second book to finish the series (…which I still haven’t done). Ten years of avid fantasy reading and a plethora of writing experiences under my belt, and I’ll admit all the things about Eragon that captured me when I was young just didn’t hold up to my aged scrutiny. The writing was clunky and, while massively impressive considering the author’s age, it was clear there were a lot of things that needed work (especially in the opening chapters). I also noted the story itself wasn’t all that original, and could name half a dozen dragon books I thought did the concept a bit better. However, I could still appreciate the appeal it had to me as a teen. It’s an inviting story for a younger audience, and great for easing them into the genre. Excitement for books like this is what drove my own reading ambitions, so I seldom discount them.

Series status: I have yet to finish the series, despite several copies in various formats at my disposal and plenty of opportunity. I finally had to admit the story just doesn’t sing to me like it did when I was younger. I really wish the wait between books hadn’t been so long because I think I’d have continued in earnest had they been published earlier.

Recommendations: Eragon provides a fun way to get the younger crowd engaged in the fantasy genre, but it probably won’t hold up to scrutiny to the more seasoned fantasy readers. Or writers. Even so, it’s now what I would consider a classic in the genre for how many kids it entertained (myself included), so I’d still mark it a good recommend.

Other (dragon) books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Tackling the TBR [61]: September 2020

tackling the TBR

It’s once again time for my favorite feature: Tackling the TBR! There’s nothing I love more than picking out which books to read next, and this slightly organized method of reading has really amped my enjoyment to the next level. Bring on the mantras!

Read the best books first.
&
Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying.

However you put together your TBR for the next month, the goal is to reduce the amount of obligation in reading and increase the fun.


Here’s a look at how the system works:

1. Identify the titles that take top priority in your TBR.
2. Combine them all in your own Tackling the TBR post.
3. Throughout the month pick from that pile as the mood strikes you.

Here’s what mine looks like:

September 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

I had a wake-up call.

And I blame my Goodreads Challenge tracker. I realized all of my reading goals were completely unrealistic based on how many books I’ve read so far this year. Because I don’t think I’m going to miraculously incorporate a ton of extra reading time between now and the end of the year, it’s pretty clear that I’ll only have a chance to get through about 20 more titles. This was hard for me to absorb. After all, I have a ton of series I want to finish, and a bunch more I want to start. Not to mention all the new releases I want to dig into. But those ambitions just aren’t going to happen based on my current reading pace. 

This calls for some organizing.

I started with a template – a new note on my phone month headers and five slots to fill with titles below each month. My review obligations with Audiofile Magazine took one slot a month. That left me with four more spaces to fill. That’s not a lot of books ::sobs:: so I really had to get a clear idea what my highest priorities were. Only the elite survived the cut, and based on that list this post is my much more realistic lineup of titles for September.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is my AudioFile obligation, and Colonyside is my ARC (omg soooo excited!), and all the others are books I most want to read at the moment. I’m glad for a nice mix of genres here, and am especially glad I saved a spot for a new series. I think with such basic ambitions and such good titles, I might actually increase my reading pace enough to add a few extras, but those only get added once I’ve finished my lineup. I experimented with this system in August (after my TTT post was already live, unfortunately) and it worked tremendously, so I’m optimistic for it going forward. It also coincides with my newfound focus of digital minimalism, which I’m sure will play a factor in my reading pace as well. Things are lookin good! ^_^


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Gods and Ends by Devon Monk

Gods and Ends by Devon Monk

Title: Gods and Ends

Author: Devon Monk

Series: Ordinary Magic #3

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: Keep your gods close and your monsters closer… Police Chief Delaney Reed thinks she knows all of Ordinary, Oregon’s secrets. Gods on vacation, lovelorn ghosts, friendly neighborhood monsters? Check. But some secrets run deeper than even she knows. To take down an ancient vampire hell-bent on revenge, she will have to make the hardest decision of her life: give up the book of dark magic that can destroy them all, or surrender her mortal soul. As she weighs her options, Delaney discovers she can no longer tell the difference between allies keeping secrets and enemies telling the truth. Questioning loyalties and running out of time, Delaney must choose sides before a kidnapping turns into murder, before rival crochet and knit gangs start a war, and before the full moon rises to signal the beginning of Ordinary’s end. -Goodreads

The Review:

Huh.

What happened to that thoughtful, calculating main character who’s been around since the introductory novella? I mean, she’s always kind of done things her own way (to a fault), but she’s never been what I would call reckless. It’s part of why I liked her so much – enough flaws to feel realistic, but adept enough to be fun to read about. I really don’t care how much attention the author drew to her bad decision making in this book through other characters, I’m afraid it didn’t compensate for how unrealistic the whole thing came across based on the character profile established up to that point.

And don’t even get me started on the demon.

Ugh. His introduction felt clunky. And a very compelling through-line of the series involving Delany’s father (which could’ve gone somewhere meaningful) was reduced down to a single chapter of wtf is happening to this series? I thought the “mysteriously deceased father” plot point was strong enough to warrant an entire investigation novel within itself and I would’ve been much more satisfied had a lead-up like that culminated to ::enter the demon, stage left::, but as it stands, it was a clear throwaway. 

I’m feeling uncharacteristically ranty, if you can’t tell, but I can say with certainty that none of the elements that made me rate the first two books so highly were represented in this book. I think the conflict with the vampires should’ve been resolved completely in the last installment. There are just too many other potential plot ideas already in place for that expansion to be necessary. At this point the series is morphing into something completely different than its beginning premises. It’s a series about vacationing gods in a quirky town… why is the main focus now about only werewolves, vampires, and demons? There are just too many ideas compacted into one story, almost as if two different series are being forced together. And as of this book she has essentially removed everything that made the plot stand out from the crowd for me.

And let’s say for a minute I didn’t mind the change in direction – I still had a problem with the execution. There were so many premonitions, warnings, and prophecy-like conveyances that it basically outlined the entire book. It left nothing to be discovered and made me feel like I was wasting energy reading when I already knew how things were going to wrap up. Lets just say, by the end of the book I was grateful most of the foreshadowed conflicts had been resolved because it meant a cleaner slate for the next installment.

Series status: I’ll be reading the novella compilation and the next book in the series because I’ve already purchased them (and I still have hope and a great couple of examples what the story could be), but this book almost knocked me off the wagon well enough that it had better slow down and let me clamber back in if I’m to read beyond that.

Recommendations: after the first two books I was professing this series as a fun little new excursion from the more serious urban fantasies out there, but now I have to pull back a bit for re-evaluation. We’ll see how the next book goes – stay tuned…

Other books you might like (based on the first two books, not the new direction taken by this one):

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews

Emerald Blaze by Ilona Andrews

Title: Emerald Blaze

Author: Ilona Andrews

Series: Hidden Legacy #5

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: As Prime magic users, Catalina Baylor and her sisters have extraordinary powers—powers their ruthless grandmother would love to control. Catalina can earn her family some protection working as deputy to the Warden of Texas, overseeing breaches of magic law in the state, but that has risks as well. When House Baylor is under attack and monsters haunt her every step, Catalina is forced to rely on handsome, dangerous Alessandro Sagredo, the Prime who crushed her heart. The nightmare that Alessandro has fought since childhood has come roaring back to life, but now Catalina is under threat. Not even his lifelong quest for revenge will stop him from keeping her safe, even if every battle could be his last. Because Catalina won’t rest until she stops the use of the illicit, power-granting serum that’s tearing their world apart. -Goodreads

The Review:

I loved this book! Complex plot, amazing characters, tons of action… one of the best they’ve done so far. And that’s sayin’ something!

If you’ve been following my reviews for any length of time, you’ll no doubt have noticed I’m a Ilona Andrews fangirl. Snatching the top spot as my favorite urban fantasy writers, these two continue to dazzle me at every turn. And they’re only getting stronger.

The concept for the magic system in this world is rad. It has origins in basic superhero development, where there are those among us who are just born with special abilities, but its presentation is highly original. And a lot of that can be attributed to the structure of the society and the many house politics included in the world building. I love that after five books in the series there are still things I’m learning about the different magical abilities. The concept is so expansive that they can afford to spread it out over multiple books, creating a lot of interesting moments within each one.

My favorite thing about Emerald Blaze specifically was all the moving parts. Far from a lazy plot, there’s a murder mystery to solve and magical shenanigans afoot. Between all of that, Catalina also had to deal with a certain handsome Italian who keeps insisting on complicating her life. The book really immersed in house politics. It also provided a strong sense of which conflicts are going to make up the finale of the series, and I can’t wait. 

There were so many specific scenes within this book that struck me to my core, I briefly considered doing a spoiler review just so I could geek out about all of them. Suffice to say, there were plenty of moments that will surely make all my fellow IA fans swoon as much as I did for this fantastic story.

Speaking of swooning – the marketing and covers would have you believe that the romance is the main draw to this series, but that is so not the case. I really enjoy the romantic component – the authors are amazing at providing slow-burn love story that grows organically through the series (truly, the only type I like reading about). But as good as they are at that, all of the other elements are so strong (especially in Emerald Blaze) that romance is almost secondary. It would be a totally kickass series without the romance, but its inclusion definitely gives the books better character motivations and a more rounded feel (i.e. it’s the total package).

I love Catalina. She’s vulnerable and compassionate and sincere, but she also has this fierce, almost frightening desire to keep those she loves safe. Much more so than her sister Nevada, this girl is willing to do whatever it takes and she has the cold, calculated ability to see it through. She’s patient and shrewd, yet the reader still gets to see how charmingly human she is by contrast. Uncertain of herself most of the time, she’s somehow able to put all of that aside to get the job done. Most of the heroines I read about (especially in this genre) also have many of these attributes. The difference with Catalina is that the authors makes you feel alongside her and really come to a visceral understanding of what she’s going through. I’m always one or two levels more deeply connected to Catalina, and that’s something I don’t experience often.

Recommendations: highly recommended! Don’t let the covers fool you – Hidden Legacy is one of the most robust, entertaining urban fantasy series I’ve ever read. Kate Daniels starts out a little slow then gains momentum. Hidden Legacy sweeps you up for a wild ride right from the start and only gets better from there. There’s a reason these authors are at the top of my UF list. I can’t recommend them enough!

I want to thank Harpercollins Publishers, Ilona Andrews, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Emerald Blaze – you made my year! :D

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda

Mirage by Julie E. Czerneda

Title: Mirage

Author: Julie E. Czerneda

Series: Web Shifter’s Library #2

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Relationships get complicated when you don’t know who—or what—you really are. Esen must find a way to rescue a hapless group of chimeras, beings who are a new and unique blend of species she knows, when she can’t become one herself. When Evan Gooseberry tries to help, he is shattered to learn he himself isn’t entirely Human and begins to suspect his new friend Esen isn’t what she seems. Complicating matters, a mysterious contagion has killed the crew of the ship that brought the chimeras—and Evan—to Botharis. Everyone’s been quarantined inside the All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture, including over a hundred disgruntled alien scholars. The risks climb as Skalet and Lionel continue their quest to solve the disappearance of Paul’s mother’s ship, the Sidereal Pathfinder, only to find themselves caught in a tangle of loyalties as Skalet is betrayed by her own Kraal affiliates, who infiltrate the Library. All of which would be quite enough for one Web-being’s day, but Paul Ragem hopes to rekindle the romance of his first love. A shame Esen hasn’t told him who’s hiding in their greenhouse. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m a mega Czerneda fan, and Beholder’s Eye (the first Esen novel) has long been a go-to scifi recommend. It was my first Czerneda… heck, it was one of my first sci-fi’s, and I’m sure that plays a role in how thoroughly I’m enjoying this revisit, even 15 years later. Since that first read, I’ve read all of the sci-fi trilogy sets she has on the market, and one thing has become abundantly clear: Czerneda is having more fun than ever.

Her writing always had a good bit of situational humor (my favorite kind), but this latest trilogy really amps up that component, making the books an absolute riot. The tone actually fits in nicely with the latest generation of sci-fi that boasts a lighter, feel-good atmosphere (hi Becky Chambers), so she’s on trend, and recommending her just got even easier.

Good humor aside, she includes some of my favorite creature creations (aliens) across the genre, which is still true now that I’ve read a LOT more sci-fi authors. With a background in biology, Czerneda’s aliens are always well thought out and expertly executed. The fun element comes into play here as well – the ways the aliens interact with the main characters is always great for some laughs.

She also has good characters. I like that Esen isn’t written from a human-minded POV. She’s a Web-Being with thought patterns and tendencies different than our own. Thank goodness we have Paul (human) to keep Esen grounded. ;P Czerneda also has excellent perspective immersion… which can sometimes be so well done that it sacrifices clarity for creativity. All of her books include these signature interlude chapters that take away all context and throw you into the depths of an alien perspective. They’re quite ambiguous and I often find myself retreading them to figure out what’s going on (not that reading them over helps much). Even when seriously studying them for the chance to become a beta reader for another Czerneda project, I struggled with these passages (which is probably why I just missed out on the opportunity). These passages also exhibit a clipped, to the point writing style that makes an appearance to a lesser degree in the rest of her works. Her writing is very stylized, and she often seems more interested in the cadence and mood of the delivery than she is in proper sentence structures (a liberty I don’t mind in the least as it makes the books feel more conversational). In recent books, that unique style has gotten more refined, to the point where the pacing of the scenes rockets (not to be confused with the pacing of plot-advancement, which is ironically a bit slow). It makes for an engaging read, just don’t blink or you’ll miss something.

Overall, this was a good bit of blue blob fun, and I can’t wait to see what Czerneda has in store next.

Recommendations: don’t start here! Go back and begin with Beholder’s Eye or even a different great series starting with Survival. Both hold sacred space on my bookshelves.

I’d like to thank DAW Publishing, Julie E. Czerneda, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Mirage!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes