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


Book Review: Taltos by Steven Brust

Title: Taltos

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos (#1 chronologically / #4 traditionally)

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Journey to the land of the dead. All expenses paid!

Not my idea of an ideal vacation, but this was work. After all, even an assassin has to earn a living.

The trouble is, everyone knows that a living human cannot walk the Paths of the Dead, and return, alive, to the land of men.

But being an Easterner is not exactly like being human, by Dragaeran standards anyway. Thus, the rule doesn’t apply to me… I hope. -Goodreads

The Review:

Intro: Vlad Taltos is a lot of fun. One of the most unique series I’ve ever read, it’s a great mix of high fantasy elements with an accessible urban fantasy writing style. Each book also has a fairly well-contained mystery, so it kind of reads like a detective novel. Overall, it’s a great hodge-podge of ideas that somehow all work together. The author claims you can read them in any order. I personally can’t stand that lack of organization, so a few of us over at Fantasy Buddy Reads are going the chronological route…

…and Taltos (technically book #4) is first in the lineup.

Ten years ago I read the first three (according to the publisher) Vlad Taltos novels and loved my experience with them. Taltos started out with a bang! Reminding me why I enjoyed the books so much. It had a lot of flashbacks, which were deftly woven into the story to enhance what was going on in the present-day sections. I loved reading about how Vlad came to be the quirky businessman he is. However that strong pacing and careful weaving started to fade near the middle of the book.

At one point in the story, I had to check in with my fellow buddy readers because I no longer knew what the heck the characters were trying to accomplish in the present-day sections. There were a lot of scenes where the author wasn’t clear in his description on what had happened, and the ambiguity made a few of us backtrack thinking we’d missed something. Nope. It was just vague.

As the story neared the end, the flashbacks were a constant interruption to the story (we’re talking every couple of pages) which effectively killed any momentum it had, eventually making me apathetic to the entire thing. I finished it. Barely. But had I not enjoyed the first half so much and had I not read and liked a few others in the series, I might have called it quits there. Yikes.

Series status: we’re moving on to Dragon (chronologically book #2) next, and I’m hoping it’s better.

Recommendations: while I’d almost always recommend the most organized route of reading (i.e. chronologically), I’d say the way the publishers have arranged it (with Jhereg as book #1) is a much stronger introduction to this series. With that route, I remember feeling a bit lost at the many people and events referenced that clearly had more solid backstories somewhere, but at them moment I think that’s preferable to the poor execution of the second half of Taltos. We’ll see if that opinion changes as we continue.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Neverwinter by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Neverwinter

Author: R.A. Salvatore

Series: Neverwinter #2, Legend of Drizzt #21

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: SPOILERS: with the last of his trusted companions having fallen, Drizzt is alone–and free–for the first time in almost a hundred years. Guilt mingles with relief, leaving Drizzt uniquely vulnerable to the persuasions of his newest companion–Dahlia, a darkly alluring elf and the only other member of their party to survive the cataclysm at Mount Hotenow. But traveling with Dahlia is challenging in more ways than one. As the two companions seek revenge on the one responsible for leveling Neverwinter–and nearly Luskan as well–Drizzt finds his usual moral certainty swept away by her unconventional views. Forced to see the dark deeds that the common man may be driven to by circumstance, Drizzt begins to find himself on the wrong side of the law in an effort to protect those the law has failed. Making new enemies, as his old enemies acquire deadly allies, Drizzt and Dahlia quickly find themselves embroiled in battle–a state he’s coming to enjoy a little too much. -Goodreads

The Review:

It feels good to be back with Drizzt.

I set the series aside almost five years ago. Coming off a major high from the brilliance that was The Ghost King, I found myself struggling to get into Gauntlgrym. It was a decent Drizzt novel, but I don’t think I was ready to embark on a new chapter in Drizzt’s world quite yet. So I tabled it, knowing I’d get back to it eventually. What I hadn’t expected was how prolific Salvatore would continue to be in this series – I find myself now at least ten books behind the latest publication. So between series FOMO and a stellar review I read for the most recent release, I found myself eager to dive back in. Even more so since recently reading Child of a Mad God and marveling at how beautifully that was written. It was time.

But I have to admit it was a struggle at first.

I’ve waited all this time to get back with Drizzt and was disappointed that the first third of Neverwinter only had a couple of short scenes with him. It was more focused on villain POVs which, even though Salvatore does them well, I often lose patience with. These types of ongoing stories have a tendency to follow the pattern of: meet a villain, fight the villain, kill the villain, then meet a bigger/badder villain, fight and kill it, etc. So when reading endless passages about bad guys, I can’t help but feel uninvested. After all, their fates might already be sealed to perish at the end of a scimitar… every now and then I get surprised, but for the time being, those sections were a struggle to get through.

Somewhere around the middle, things started picking up. There were a couple more of those amazing introspective Drizzt interludes (my favorite component of this whole saga), and the focus shifted more to what he and his companions were doing. It frankly saved a potential DNF.

And then, Salvatore dropped a bomb. And, sir, you now have my full attention.

Yes! This is what I needed. To be surprised. To remember why I loved these novels in the first place. And now I end Neverwinter with a spring in my step – ready to pick up the next book sooner than later.

Overall, this book had a couple of great moments, but it was definitely not the strongest I’ve read from the author. There’s a lot of setup for what looks to be the next era in Drizzt’s life, which takes some time to develop.

Recommendations: Drizzt might seem an intimidating series to start, but it’s unique in that each progressive set of 3 and 4 novels are really self-contained and satisfying, so you can stop at any given point if you feel you’ve had enough and still have that sense of reading a completed story. I’d recommend starting with the Dark Elf Trilogy – one of my favorites and one of the few I’ve reread more than once (a strong endorsement, as I’m not a rereader – I’ve too many amazing titles to get to!).

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Project Malazan: The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson

Title: The Wurms of Blearmouth

Author: Steven Erikson

Series: Bachelain & Korbal Broach #5

Malazan Ultimate Reading Order: #5

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Tyranny comes in many guises, and tyrants thrive in palaces and one-room hovels, in back alleys and playgrounds. Tyrants abound on the verges of civilization, where disorder frays the rule of civil conduct and propriety surrenders to brutal imposition. Millions are made to kneel and yet more millions die horrible deaths in a welter of suffering and misery. But leave all that behind and plunge into escapist fantasy of the most irrelevant kind, and in the ragged wake of the tale told in Lees of Laughter’s End, those most civil adventurers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their suitably phlegmatic manservant, Emancipor Reese, make gentle landing upon a peaceful beach, beneath a quaint village at the foot of a majestic castle. There they make acquaintance with the soft-hearted and generous folk of Spendrugle, which lies at the mouth of the Blear River and falls under the benign rule of the Lord of Wurms in his lovely keep. Make welcome, then, to Spendrugle’s memorable residents, including the man who should have stayed dead, the woman whose prayers should never have been answered, the tax collector everyone ignores, the ex-husband town militiaman who never married, the beachcomber who lives in his own beard, the now singular lizard cat who used to be plural, and the girl who likes to pee in your lap. And of course, hovering over all, the denizen of the castle keep, Lord–Ah, but there lies this tale. -Goodreads

The Review:

Wurms of Blearmouth was the weirdest of the three Bachelain and Korbal Broach novellas I’ve read towards my Malazan Ultimate Reading Project, which is saying something because Lees at Laughter’s End was a doozy.

Weird as it may have been, the dense writing, bird’s-eye format, and multiple POVs resembled the main Malazan series the most, so in a way the familiarity made it feel more integrated into the series than novellas 1&3 even though the story was most certainly a tangent. There were a couple of story elements that jumped the shark a bit (going outside what had been established as possible thus far in the series), which made me roll my eyes a few times. I have a hard time with ridiculous elements in books, especially in a series as hard-core as Malazan. This one came close to making me want to put it down, but ultimately pulled me back in with other gritty, interesting elements. There are some things that happen here that have already added substance to the background of Memories of Ice (the next book in the Malazan URO), so overall I’m glad I stuck with it.

But would I recommend it with a kindle price at $11.99 USD for just a short story? Perhaps not strongly unless you’re a completionist like me.

Recommendations: this short story goes a few steps further to solidify the backstory of these side characters within the Malazan world. Because it’s pricey and a bit wild, it’s not as recommendable as Blood Follows (a must-read), so if you’re only planning to read a couple of companion works, stick with that one.

Other books you might like:

Blacktongue child mad god shadow lost mirror empire

by Niki Hawkes


Tackling the TBR [75]: November 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:

November 2021 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Yep, I’m back to setting up a TBR I can’t possibly get through in a month… and I’m quite excited about it. Reading is fun again since I switched up my habits and am now focusing on only one book at a time. Memories of Ice the the only carry-over from last month. And by-far my highest priority this month is Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey – it’s the Expanse Finale!!! 

Booktube Tackling the TBR video:

Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes



Project Malazan: The Lees of Laughter’s End by Steven Erikson

Title: The Lees of Laughter’s End

Author: Steven Erikson

Series: Bachelain & Korbal Broach #3

Malazan Ultimate Reading Order: #4

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: In the wake of their blissful sojourn in the city of Lamentable Moll, the intrepid sorcerors Bauchelain and Korbal Broach — along with their newly hired manservant, Emancipor Reese — have set out on the wide open seas aboard the sturdy Suncurl. Alas, there’s more baggage in the hold than meets the beady eyes of Suncurl’s hapless crew, and once on the cursed sea-lane known as Laughter’s End — the Red Road in which flows the blood of an Elder God — unseemly terrors are prodded awake, to the understated dismay of all. It is said that it is not the destination that counts, but the journey itself. Such a noble, worthy sentiment. Aye, it is the journey that counts, especially when what counts is horror, murder, mischance and mayhem. For Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and Emancipor Reese, it is of course just one more night on the high seas, on a journey without end — and that counts for a lot. -Goodreads

The Review:

Having just read and loved the introduction to Balchelain and Korbal Broach in Blood Follows, Erikson had me hooked and I was eager to continue. This installment took a little of the enthusiasm out of my sails, but I still enjoyed it.

The setting for Lees at Laughter’s End was my favorite element of the novella. Or rather, the atmosphere the author created using a combination of interesting setting, great characters, spooky magickings, and a splash of dark humor. The thing I’m starting to appreciate most from Erikson is his ability to create a totally immersive experience.

What struck me was how curious I still was about the characters at this point. They’re still enigmas and I was absolutely fascinated with some of the things they did in this story. They’re truly unlike any characters I’ve read before, and the combination and execution are downright dazzling.

…but the story was also weird.

I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy this novella quite as much as Blood Follows because it danced on the edge of ridiculous a few times (which is not to my personal taste). It never quite went over the edge, but it was close. The unexpected happenings, while far-fetched, did add a good bit of suspense to the novel (because when anything is possible, no one is safe). And so I can appreciate it for what it was even though it got just a tad wild for me.

Recommendations: this novella would be perfect for Malazan fans who love the fantasy/horror sub-genre. I haven’t read Lovecraft (too creepy), but this reminded me of some elements I’ve heard are prominent in his Cthulhu works. As a completionist, I’d say read all the things. But if you’re trying to determine which to leave out, Blood Follows was a stronger Bachelain/Korbal Broach snippet. That pains me to say though – you should just read all the things too – why make hard decisions?

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes