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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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Tackling the TBR [81]: May 2022

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:

May 2022 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Last month I read quite a few off of my list, but it was a haphazard experience. I find myself venturing into May with no fewer than SEVEN books in progress. That’s way too many. But it’s not unexpected given my usual reading pattern. All that doubling-up I did in March, where I set aside several WIPs to attend to time-sensitive obligations, resulted in me feeling really behind in reading and not able to pick up what I wanted. The problem compounded as I had too many going at once and was rarely rewarded by being able to mark one as “Read” on Goodreads (I live for that payoff). Then I get into a slump and resentful that I haven’t been able to pick up anything new because I’m so buried so I throw everything I’m reading out the window and pick up something totally random (Body Finder, this time around – a YA lovestory/mystery) and end up getting a bit of a second wind from that rogue read.

I AM NOT CONSTRAINED BY MY TBR!

Or, at least that’s how it feels for a couple of weeks, where I give myself permission to start whatever I feel like starting and the rest of the WIPs will be tended to when I have a chance. Maybe it’s the next stage of acceptance? Either way, I approach reading with a bit more peace, but I still hate the situation I’m in. But aside from risking reading burnout by forcing myself to read more in a day than I actually want to, I resign myself to the long-haul.

Right now I’m in the long-haul stage. I recognize that it’s going to take me about two or three months to dig myself out of this reading hole, but I’m getting systematic about it. Most of the books are on my kindle, so I made a game of reading one chapter from each book at a time in rotation. I’ve been doing it for six hours and have been having fun. The next stage will be me getting impatient that I haven’t finished anything in several weeks, so I’ll start speed reading, DNFing, and abandoning for later until I end up with just one or two at a time. By this point I will have been not enjoying my reading experience for at least four months and will vow with every fiber of my being to never let outside obligations get me into this situation again.

But also… there’s an ARC I didn’t think I’d get approved for that just became available. So, maybe I’ll just read that, then get back to my reading restoration plan.

In all seriousness, this is quite the problem for me. I went through several of these reading slump cycles before finally figuring out what caused them all. After spending four months at the beginning of last year digging myself out of this exact same situation, I figured I’d finally learned how to avoid it. And maybe, just maybe, I could have the impatient-free reading life I’ve always hoped for. But my choices have not reflected my newfound values in this, as I continue to ignore what I need for myself in favor of book clubs, getting greedy with ARCS, and agreeing to Buddy Reads (note: it’s not THAT I’m agreeing to these things, it’s WHEN. Like, don’t sign up unless you find yourself between reads and it sounds fun). Perhaps a combination of facing these consequences for the next several months (again) and applying what I just learned from the book “Essentialism,” I’ll learn how to say “No, thank you” to requests and treat reading as a sacred, personal experience. I feel like I’m getting there. I just have to dig through this mountain of books I’ve placed in front of myself first. Wish me luck.


Have a great month in reading!

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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Tackling the TBR [80]: April 2022

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:

April 2022 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Whoops – it’s almost halfway through April and I haven’t posted my TBR! With all the content I’m working on these days, I don’t have a system in place to remind me to upload this post. Most of the time I rely on random cues to let me know it’s getting close to the beginning of a new month and go from there. This month my cue came late haha.

I find myself in a massive reading slump. Compounded obligations from last month and a few looming this month have sucked all the reading enjoyment out of my life. Fortunately, I took most of my hostility out on Shorefall by RJB (which I’ve listed on my TBR but have already finished for the month), that review will be out in just over a week. And went rogue and picked up a random YA, The Body Finder. I threw everything else aside and took four days to read that, and now I’m feeling a little more normal.

I’m allowing myself to read what I feel like reading as much as I can this month, but of all the books on my lineup, I’m hoping to make a concerted effort to get to the final Age of Madness book by Abercrombie. Nothing helps a slump like spending time with Glokta. I’m also excited to get around to the new Kim Harrison, as well as Collapsing Empire by Scalzi.


Have a great month in reading!

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