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Book Review: Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan

Title: Sins of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Gods of Blood and Powder #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: The young nation of Fatrasta is a turbulent place – a frontier destination for criminals, fortune-hunters, brave settlers, and sorcerers seeking relics of the past. Only the iron will of the lady chancellor and her secret police holds the capital city of Landfall together against the unrest of a suppressed population and the machinations of powerful empires. The insurrection that threatens Landfall must be purged with wile and force, a task which falls on the shoulders of a spy named Michel Bravis, convicted war hero Ben Styke, and Lady Vlora Flint, a mercenary general with a past as turbulent as Landfall’s present. As loyalties are tested, revealed, and destroyed, a grim specter as old as time has been unearthed in this wild land, and the people of Landfall will soon discover that rebellion is the least of their worries. -Goodreads

The Review:

So damn good! McClellan is now definitely among my conservative list of favorite authors, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for me next!

Just like the entirety of the Powder Mage Trilogy, Sins of Empire absorbed me completely from start to finish. It’s a slow-burn story that built beautifully to a snowball ending that had me on the edge of my seat!

External conflicts aside, the true beauty of this author is his ability to develop characters. They feel like real people, which might be the magic X-factor that pushes books over the edge into “phenomenal” for me. These characters have so much depth, and he doesn’t even bother telling you outright some of their quirks and tendencies, but chooses instead to reveal them casually so you can make your own assumptions. It’s brilliant. But what’s even more impressive to me, and what makes these stories so damn good, is how these amazing characters relate to one another. The bonds between them are magic. And because of that, every single scene has meaning and relatability. Of all the novels I’ve read, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it done better. Add to that situational humor that delights me to no end, and we have a winner.

After finishing the book, I checked out a bunch of other reviews and was surprised to discover how many people don’t like Vlora (not as a side character, not as a main character, not in a house, not with a mouse). I guess I can understand to a degree their objections, because she’s a little more understated (not underdeveloped, imo) than the other characters in the series. But… that’s kind of what I liked most about her. She has this calm, unfaltering conviction that I loved seeing played out in different situations. I like that she’s had to put personal needs and wants aside to maintain her high-ranking position, but she still has a few soft spots that come out during more vulnerable moments (which I personally found the most endearing). And I love that her success is often based on the good relationships she builds with others. So, zero objections here on that front – I’m excited to see where her story goes next.

Recommendations: It is truly few and far between that a book can hook me as wonderfully as this one did, and I’m grateful it’s only the first book of a continuation trilogy. I don’t hand out 5 starts very often anymore these days (perhaps 2 or 3 per year), so take this as an endorsement of a series I really stand behind as a solid recommendation. Start with Promise of Blood (which incidentally got one of my precious 5-stars last year). Amazing characters, great story, good magic system, brilliant writing… all the things! :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Title: Clean Sweep

Authors: Ilona Andrews

Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy (kinda)

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina. And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night….Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ilona Andrews are my feel-good authors.

It’s pretty much a guarantee at this point that I’m going to enjoy everything they produce. And they’re only getting better with time. Innkeeper happens to be my last unexplored series from them, and I plan to savor it.

Clean Sweep was delightful. One of the funniest I’ve read from them, it’s biggest selling point was how much fun they clearly had with it. The world building is wildly random compared to other books in the genre (low fantasy setting and feel, urban fantasy beings, and a slight science fiction influence) but somehow it worked. There’s a lot of unexplored territory that bodes well for an interesting expansion in future books… I can’t wait. :)

The characters were also 100% Ilona Andrews trademarks, meaning they were strong-willed, capable, cheeky, and a complete pleasure to read. Dina might be one of my favorites because she’s a little more understated and I like the depth of the backstory driving her actions. The male lead fits the carbon copy, but he’s just different enough that I didn’t mind it.

For such a quick read, the book did have a few small pacing issues. Everything was engaging and interesting, but I think there were too many info-drop scenes. It is a slightly more complicated world and setting than usual, but hopefully it will go more smoothly in the next novel. My rating also reflects comparisons to other books they’ve written, some of which have completely knocked my socks off! Clean Sweep was just a solid, entertaining story by comparison.

Recommendations: these authors (it’s a duo writing under one name) are among my favorites for a reason – they always produce fun, creative, and exciting stories. Clean sweep was an excellent start to this ongoing series, and I’d recommend it as a good starter if you haven’t tried an IA yet. I’m going to start calling Ilona Andrews my “instant mood-boosters.” :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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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