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Book Review: Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley

Title: Empire’s Ruin

Author: Brian Staveley

Series: Ashes of the Unhewn Throne #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5stars

The Overview: The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used. In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates. But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir. What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ever finish an amazing series feeling like there should be more? Know the pure elation at discovering there actually will be more?! That’s how I felt when learning Staveley was continuing in the Annurian Empire.

I left the Unhewn Throne Trilogy happy that I’d read it but found myself ever so slightly dissatisfied with how a few things played out. Empire’s Ruin, continuing the same timeline albeit through different POVs, alleviated all of the uneasy feelings I’d had. I was worried about diving in without a reread, but the story stands solidly enough on its own that I only needed to remember a couple of characters (I recalled two of the three), and major climactic events. Other than that, it jumped right in to a new set of exotic adventures!

The fun world-building is the first thing I highlight when talking about Staveley’s works. His setting is a deadly jungle reminiscent of the Amazon filled with jaguars, snakes, alligators, and pretty much every other man-eating threat the author could think of. He does an amazing job at immersing you in the setting and having the environment play an active role in the story.

The Emperor’s Blade, the first book of the Unhewn Throne, still claims a spot in my very conservative list of all-time favorites. It had the perfect balance of characters, setting, and world-building, but stood out to me for its training sequences. I love when characters learn skills in books, and was wondering if I’d enjoy this continuation as much without that element. As it turns out, the author must share my appreciation for those components because he included more in Empire’s Ruin! Not quite to the same degree, but it did satisfy my craving.

Comparatively, the only thing that kept my rating from solid five star was that the story progression between the three POVs was not very well distributed, especially in the back half of the book. Granted, he focused most of his efforts on the most interesting thread, which was stellar, but did not advance the plots for the other two quickly enough for my satisfaction. I usually don’t notice pacing issues in multiple POV fantasy novels like this (other than in Feast of Crows… don’t get me started), but it struck me that several sittings later and the characters two of the plots were still sitting around arguing about the same things instead of actually doing the things. Had Gwenna’s POV been removed completely I think I would’ve been saying I liked the story but he could’ve done so much more with it. Especially the arena stuff (yes, there’s an arena… the idea was initially so compelling, but not much happened with it). I’m hoping we’ll get more in the next book so it doesn’t feel like those were just filler sections.

Recommendations: overall, Empire’s Ruin was an awesome continuation after the Unhewn Throne Trilogy, but make sure to read that one first unless you don’t care about major spoilers (I don’t know how people can be okay with spoilers, but it’s more common than I realized… freaks. ;P). This is an excellent fantasy adventure series perfect for those who like a lot of action, cool settings, and multiple POV stories.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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DNF Q&A: The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Title: The Curse of Chalion

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold

Series: World of the Five Gods #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: DNF

The Overview: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule. It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death. -Goodreads

The Review:

When trying to make a decision on whether or not to read something, it can often be much more helpful to look at the low star ratings than the high ones. To that end I’m going to be including more DNF reviews in my lineup. I have a Q&A format here that I adapted from Nikki at http://www.therewerebooksinvolved.com (with permission), and I think it’s a great way to discuss the book constructively. Here goes:

Did you really give Curse of Chalion a chance?

I went in pretty open-minded and even liked the first chapter or so, but once I started becoming dissatisfied, it became a practice of actively looking for reasons to justify calling a DNF. This is perhaps not fair to the book, but had it been anything other than a pick for a book club I run, I’d have just set it down as soon as it became clear I wasn’t digging it. I think I made it about 35%.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre?

Yes! Slow-burn, politically-driven fantasy novels rank among my favorites:

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

My expectations were hopeful but not too terribly high. I remembered the author’s Sharing Knife (I only read the first one) as a relationship-heavy book with very relaxed and flowy writing. I expected much the same here, but was hoping the romance wouldn’t be quite so prominent (it wasn’t, but it still absorbed too much of the narration for my tastes). I’d also heard so many great things about her scifi Vorkosigan series that I was hoping she was consistently good all around.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

Ultimately, it came down to the childlike, irrational decisions made by the characters. For a novel that was supposed to be ALL about the characters and the politics, the characters came across every surface-level and their actions basic. The politics were equally simple. She lost my faith in her ability to give me something of substance early on and I didn’t find anything to convince me otherwise as I kept reading. None of the happenings in how these characters behaved was realistic to me, and in comparison to dozens of other fantasy novels with similar elements, this one came across very juvenile.

Is there anything you liked about the Curse of Chalion?

The character profiles at the beginning were fun, but they never evolved past just being just profiles. The first chapter was great. The writing was fluid. That’s about it.

Would you read anything else by the author?

I’m still holding out for Vorkosigan, but my enthusiasm has waned considerably. I’m definitely now at peace with not continuing with any of her fantasy works.

So you DNFed the book. Would you still recommend it?

That strongly depends on how well I can gage what someone wants out of a fantasy novel. If it’s a relaxing, easy read, this one might fit the bill. My personal tastes crave books with a lot of depth and dynamics these days, but I remember back when an easy-flowing fantasy book was just what the doctor ordered. So yes, to the right audience. Particularly those who enjoy romance novels but want something a little more robust. This author is a great hybrid of the two genres.

by Niki Hawkes

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Tackling the TBR [72]: August 2021

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:

August 2021 TBR Tackler Shelf:

So many amazing titles this month! I doubt I’ll have a chance to get through them all with how busy things have been, but if I manage even half of them I’ll be happy. My most anticipated release of the year in Ryan’s Pariah will claim the highest priority. Most of these are darker fantasy novels so I added a lighthearted middle grade novel by Elizabeth Haydon to give myself a break from all the bleakness. 

Things are really rolling. I’ve been working on my new Booktube channel which I’ve been wanting to start for YEARS. I started slow with a few posts at the beginning of the year, but now I’m finding it a very satisfying creative outlet and am committed to keeping it going. I’ll have a more official post about it later in the week, but suffice to say it’s a cool new adventure for me. 

Last month I finished all but one of my TTTBR lineup, which is amazing. Here’s hopping I carry on strong in August (getting this post up on time seems a great first start, lol).


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes

 

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Book Review: Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Sharp Ends

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #7

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!!!

The Overview: Violence explodes, treachery abounds, and the words are as deadly as the weapons in this rogue’s gallery of side-shows, back-stories, and sharp endings from the world of the First Law. The Union army may be full of bastards, but there’s only one who thinks he can save the day single-handed when the Gurkish come calling: the incomparable Colonel Sand dan Glokta. Curnden Craw and his dozen are out to recover a mysterious item from beyond the Crinna. Only one small problem: no one seems to know what the item is. Shevedieh, the self-styled best thief in Styria, lurches from disaster to catastrophe alongside her best friend and greatest enemy, Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp. And after years of bloodshed, the idealistic chieftain Bethod is desperate to bring peace to the North. There’s only one obstacle left — his own lunatic champion, the most feared man in the North: the Bloody-Nine. -Goodreads

The Review:

This was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever read!

It’s a short story compilation for the First Law world, and for starters, I usually don’t have patience for short stories unless they’re for series I’m loving (this qualifies). And even then I usually prefer to read them in tandem with the series so I don’t forget details.

The book was hysterical. I laughed too many times to keep count and even felt compelled to share certain passages with other people (my mom is reading it now even though she’s only read the Blade Itself lol). That feeling of reading something I’ve loved and now need to share with others is the compulsion that caused me to start my book blog 10 years ago and there are only a small number of titles that have evoked this reaction. Sharp Ends is now among those all-time favorites. I ordered a hardcover.

I am completely rubbish at remembering character names in series these days. I read so many it’s just not worth the effort to me to retain those details beyond how long it takes me to devour a book. The problem comes when trying to revisit series after a long break or even just when discussing it with others. It’s a trade off… my brain is full. But it struck me as profound while reading this book that I was able to recall almost every single one of Abercrombie’s side characters with vivid clarity, which made the stories just as vibrant as if they’d been included in the series. It’s amazing to me because this author is clearly good enough to bypass my shitty memory and give me the rare experience of feeling truly immeshed in a series. Granted, I read these books fairly back to back compared to most, but even so, I’ve been known to forget names the instance the book gets finished (or even while I’m freaking reading it, so I have to backtrack). It’s just another piece of evidence that Abercrombie belongs on my favorites lists.

Sharp Ends is listed as book 7 even though it bounces around the timeline a lot. There are some series prequel scenes, some alternate viewpoints for memorable scenes throughout the series, an alternating set of stories following the same two characters (my personal favorite of the bunch), and there are a few that take place after the last time we’ve seen some of these characters. It definitely should be read as the 7th installment to avoid spoilers. One of the highlights in the audio format was an interview with Joe Abercrombie and audio narrator Steven Pacey. It was a total delight, and I busted a gut listening to it. The only story I didn’t care for was the satire (the writings from the bloke Costca hired to overinflate his exploits). It was fun, but I usually don’t have patience for the style. But I’ll admit to always wondering what he was writing throughout the story…

Recommendations: clearly, this is an Obsessive Bookseller favorite and I’d highly recommend it if you’ve read the first 6 books in the series. I found it wildly entertaining.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Daisy’s Run by Scott Baron

Title: Daisy’s Run

Author: Scott Baron

Series: Clockwork Chimera #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Rule #1: Don’t blow up and die. Rule #2: Always follow Rule #1 if at all possible. Life in deep space could be a drag sometimes, but Daisy supposed things could have been worse. She was still alive, after all, which was always a plus in her book. Now if only she could figure out who, or what, was endangering her return home, things would be just peachy. It had been one hell of a way to start the day––being rudely snapped from a deep cryo-sleep, and in the middle of a ship-wide crisis to boot––but Daisy was pleased to note that the ship had not decompressed, the crew hadn’t been blasted into space, and, most importantly, they hadn’t simply blown up. At least not yet. But being stuck on a damaged ship in the inky depths of space as it limped toward Earth was not exactly the relaxing trip home she’d imagined. With the powerful AI supercomputer guiding the craft beginning to show some disconcerting quirks of its own, and its unsettling cyborg assistant nosing into her affairs, Daisy’s unease was rapidly growing, as was her bigotry toward artificially intelligent beings. Add to the mix a crew of mechanically-enhanced humans, any one of whom she suspected might not be what they seemed, and Daisy found herself with a growing sense of dread tickling the periphery of her mind. Something was very much not right––she could feel it in her bones. The tricky part now was going to be figuring out what the threat was, before it could manifest from a mere sinking feeling in her gut into a potentially deadly reality.  –Goodreads

The Review:

This was almost a DNF.

I put the book down around the 45% mark, and it was only a random set of circumstances that had me picking it back up again about a week later. And what good fortune that I did, because only a few minutes into the revisit, the plot suddenly turned on its head and went from a basic scifi space story to an interestingly original take.

The book had a lot of good setup, but IMO it took way too long to get to the section where the author starting inputting his original ideas. I mean, I lost patience with it long before it hit that point but kept pushing through before finally giving up on it. Sure, the prose had a good flow and the dialogue was witty and fast-paced, but it wasn’t showing me anything I hadn’t seen a million times before… until the midway point. Then it offered a bunch of interesting twists, nice world building, and a good variety of settings. Ultimately, I’m glad the reading gods intervened and kept me reading.

Aside from it being what I thought was a highly predictable read initially, one of the reasons I felt okay putting it down was that I didn’t like the main character as much as I could have. Her dialogue was incredibly unrelatable, sounding more like a male character than female, especially in regards to the sex scenes. It seemed like it was more a conjuring of how some men wish women sounded rather than an organic depiction of a woman with more masculine speech, if that makes sense. Women don’t usually high five each other and use phrases like “I just got laid.” It conflicted with my paradigm. And it made the character seem forced.

There’s a specific tool many storytellers use in books and films to perpetuate plot that I just cannot stand: a misunderstanding between two characters that could be cleared up with a two minute conversation, but is dragged out because the main character is just too distraught ::high drama!!:: to hear anything else on the matter. It drives me crazy. It’s easier to pull off in books because you can only have one character speaking at a time, but it’s not realistic. How hard is it to talk over someone? This book used that tool not only once, but a couple of times to perpetuate the conflict. I realize this is a very personal peeve, so if that trope doesn’t bother you at all (and you can make it to the halfway point), the rest of the components are all there for a good story.

Series status: I probably won’t be continuing the series at this time, although I can see why it has gained some favor with other readers on Goodreads.

Recommendations: this scifi took a long while to get to the selling point of the novel. The great unique spin on things was perhaps a big enough payoff to warrant the wait, so if you pick it up, give it at least until the halfway mark before making the call.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes