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Book Review: Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Title: Mirror Empire

Author: Kameron Hurley

Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself. In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress. Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish. -Goodreads

The Review:

Mirror Empire is one of the most unconventional books I’ve read because of its almost ruthless execution of ideas. Hurley doesn’t take time to explain anything, throwing you straight into the fire on the first page. It reminded me a lot of my experience with Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon. The world-building was rich and vibrant and the plot was so thick, it required a ton of concentration. Even now, after finishing my careful read of Mirror Empire, I still can’t be totally certain I’ve kept everything straight. And that lack of basic accessibility is what makes it difficult to recommend. But in my opinion, it’s worth the effort.

Hurley surprised me in a couple places at her bold plot decisions (a few of which are still lingering with me). She’s not afraid to be unconventional in every sense of the word, and that break-the-mold attitude is probably why I’m so drawn to her storytelling. The thing is, I have seen a lot of the elements she included in Mirror Empire before and have even criticized a few authors lately for trying them. The difference seems to be in execution. For example, the erratic decision-making some of the characters exhibited would’ve driven me crazy had it not been written so deftly. It just goes to show. If you can write superbly, you really can get away with a lot. Hurley gained my trust early, and strengthened it as the book went.

Let’s talk about the world-building for a minute. It was easily my favorite element, but that’s usually the case with me. I absolutely loved all the unique flora and fauna (which played an active role in the story), the different cultures and mannerisms, the magic system, and the general concept of the story (alternate realities… my fingers are crossed it doesn’t get too convoluted). Reading this truly transported me to an alien world and dazzled me while I was there. I may not have a full grasp on what the plot is doing, but the cool atmosphere is definitely going to keep me coming back for more. I’d also like to mention the radical way Hurley played with gender roles. It put into a poignant perspective all of the abuse women suffer in fantasy (and real life) that I usually kind of just glaze over as “typical” in my mind. Reading about atrocities done to men in these manners was a bit of a shock because my pre-conditioned brain wasn’t prepared for it. I’m sure this element will be a point of controversy for some readers, but for me it provided an insightful food for thought on some deeply ingrained biases. To be clear, abuse in any form is unacceptable, and I don’t particular enjoy reading about it, but I do think it’s good to shake up the status-quo every now and then to challenge those biases. 

Another thing I’d like to mention is Hurley’s character construction. These people are really flawed (aka, somewhat normal, lol), which creates an awesome story of duality where you’re not quite sure who to root for. The further I got into the story, the more unlikable some characters became (and vice versa) and it perpetuated my interest in them because I don’t have it all figured out at this point. That’s actually another reason this book might be hard to recommend – the characters aren’t accessible at all. The book gives you a pit-in-your-gut feeling while you’re trying to figure them out – what’s their motive?! What are they going to do next?! Add to that a few fascinating enigma characters, and we have a cast guaranteed to keep you on your toes.

Recommendations: this book hit the spot for me with it’s great world-building, unconventional writing style, and interesting (flawed) characters. It’s hard to recommend because it’s rather dense and inaccessible. If you’re looking for a light read, this won’t be your jam. However if you’re looking to really immerse yourself in a unique new world(s) and don’t mind books that require a bit more concentration, give this one a go! I’m reserving final recommendations until I finish the series, but so far it’s a strong start!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Novella Review: Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews

Title: Sweep with Me

Author: Ilona Andrews

Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #4.5

Genre: Fantasy. Er, kind of. Scifi?

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: [Goodreads just has a stock-overview for the whole series. This one is about facilitating a meeting at the Inn between a cool magical being and a corrupt business man… among other things] Thank you for joining us at Gertrude Hunt, the nicest Bed and Breakfast in Red Deer, Texas, during the Treaty Stay. As you know, we are honor-bound to accept all guests during this oldest of innkeeper holidays and we are expecting a dangerous guest. Or several. But have no fear. Your safety and comfort is our first priority. The inn and your hosts, Dina Demille and Sean Evans, will defend you at all costs. [But we hope we don’t have to.] Every winter, Innkeepers look forward to celebrating their own special holiday, which commemorates the ancient treaty that united the very first Inns and established the rules that protect them, their intergalactic guests, and the very unaware/oblivious people of [planet] Earth. By tradition, the Innkeepers welcomed three guests: a warrior, a sage, and a pilgrim, but during the holiday, Innkeepers must open their doors to anyone who seeks lodging. Anyone. All Dina hopes is that the guests and conduct themselves in a polite manner. But what’s a holiday without at least one disaster? -Goodreads

The Review:

Now we’re back on track! I really missed Dina and the Inn in the last installment (which was a great read, but it was more a spin-off than a true continuation) so I’m glad to see her back with flair. I really loved the conflict in Sweep with Me and the interesting characters who visited the Inn (the inclusion of so many non-human entities is what makes this series so fun). It hits the spot perfectly for that light-hearted palate cleanser between heavier reads, and sadly finishing this one puts me completely up to date with IA reads (::shrieks:: what am I going to do?!!?). This series has been excellent to recommend to people looking for something light, and it stretches nicely to fill a lot of spec-fic genres (it reads like an urban fantasy, the magic feels very fantasy, yet the concept and world-building is all modern scifi… I love it when books break molds). I can’t wait for the next one. :) Emerald Blaze (the newest Hidden Legacy book coming out August 2020) will have to hold me over!

P.S. I love the cook. He reminds me of Huido in Julie Czerneda’s Trade Pact Universe / Clan Chronicles.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

Title: The Cruel Stars

Author: John Birmingham

Series: The Cruel Stars #1

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: The galaxy was once terrorized by the Sturm, a group of “species purists” intent on destroying any human with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. Fashioning themselves as the one true “Human Republic,” the Sturm cut a bloody swath across the stars, killing billions before finally being defeated and driven into the far reaches of Dark Space. Centuries of peace bred complacency. Everyone believed the Sturm had died out in the Dark. They were wrong. The enemy has returned and, with a brutal and decisive attack, knocks out almost all of humanity’s defenses. Now on the brink of annihilation, humankind’s only hope is a few brave souls who survived the initial attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy, thrust into uncertain command of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship. Booker3, a soldier of Earth, sentenced to die for treason, whose time on death row is cut short when the Sturm attack his prison compound. Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation, forced to flee when her home planet is overrun and her entire family executed. Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw band who must call on all of her criminal skills to resist the invasion. And, finally, Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm hundreds of years ago, who hopes to rout his old foes once and for all—or die trying. These five flawed, reluctant heroes must band together to prevail against a relentless enemy and near-impossible odds. For if they fail, the future itself is doomed. -Goodreads

The Review:

Although wildly entertaining, The Cruel Stars didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

It started out with a bunch of POV introductions, one at a time, that took up a good 20% of the page count. The language was a bit thick at first, and there were a few info-dump scenes where the entire conversation served no purpose but to tell the reader stuff about the character. Needless to say, it took a moment to get going.

But get going it did, and I found myself interested in most of the characters. The concept is that these slightly remarkable individuals will have to come together to save the galaxy from an elitist threat. So the culminations of events that eventually converged them together kept my interest really well. There was also a good balance between slow character development moments and action scenes (after the first 20%). When the inciting moment finally hit, I was hooked.

Up until the last few chapters, I had the book at a 4-star rating. But the way the events unfolded left me wanting. For starters, the “remarkableness” of the individuals involved didn’t play a huge role in the final conflict. What’s more, all of the interesting dynamics that had been building the whole book were reduced down to a surprisingly simple outcome. It was too simple for my tastes, taking the expansive feel of the story and reducing it down to a minuscule gunfight within a few mile radius. At least, that’s how it felt.

I loved the concept of the enemy – a group of human “purists” who are out to destroy any who have been genetically or cybernetically altered. But Birmingham didn’t really explore that much in this first book. There was a single sentence in passing that speculated on whether or not the alterations were destroying what makes people “human” at their core (implying it could eventually cause them to destroy themselves) that my mind ran with. It gave the hated enemy a really interesting ground to stand on because, theoretically, they could have an outside perspective of corruption that those ingrained in the system can’t see (or they could just be evil fanaticists… it’s hard to tell). But it got me asking questions: What does the “enemy” know that the POVs don’t?! Is there more depth here? But the problem is that none of this was explored in the text, it’s just my own conjecture.

I love profanity in books. Seriously. A well-placed f-bomb can completely elevate a scene, and I especially love when it’s used for comedic effect. But for it to work, it has to be incorporated with a certain amount of consciousness. Swearing is it’s own art form, and and based on its use in Cruel Stars, Birmingham was essentially fingerprinting with mud. The placement was random and in such great volume that it only served to make the characters sound crass and uncreative. Even its placement within each sentence made the language clunky and awkward.

So for some pacing issues, an over-simplified climax, an under-realized concept, and the chaotic use of profanity, I came away from the book disappointed in enough key elements that I probably won’t be continuing the series, but also still kind of glad I’d read it.

Recommendations: the book advertises that it’s similar to both the Expanse and Battlestar Galactica, but I thought it channeled Serenity more than anything else (if we must compare. Although it did have some similarities to the BG tangent Pegasus, but the comparison is thin). I probably wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve already read a bunch of other titles in the genre and just want some mindless action with a little humor mixed in. I was a lot more critical in this review than I usually am, but at least the book provoked something from me. And despite my objections, it was still enjoyable to read. Do with that what you will haha.

Other books you might like (…better):

by Niki Hawkes

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Mini Review: Blood of Empire by Brian McClellan

Blood of Empire by Brian McClellan

Title: Blood of Empire

Author: Brian McClellan

Series: Gods of Blood and Powder #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The Dynize have unlocked the Landfall Godstone, and Michel Bravis is tasked with returning to Greenfire Depths to do whatever he can to prevent them from using its power; from sewing dissension among the enemy ranks to rallying the Palo population. Ben Styke’s invasion of Dynize is curtailed when a storm scatters his fleet. Coming ashore with just twenty lancers, he is forced to rely on brains rather than brawn – gaining new allies in a strange land on the cusp of its own internal violence. Bereft of her sorcery and physically and emotionally broken, Lady Vlora Flint now marches on Landfall at the head of an Adran army seeking vengeance against those who have conspired against her. While allied politicians seek to undo her from within, she faces insurmountable odds and Dynize’s greatest general. -Goodreads

The Mini Review:

You know those fantasy authors who are so good, you can relax into their writing and just enjoy? That’s McClellan. I’ve been a book reviewer for almost a decade, and it’s difficult sometimes to turn off my critical eye. But every once in a while, a series comes along where I can just sit back and appreciate the journey without all the constant evaluation. These are the kinds of stories that give me fire as a reviewer – the ones that end up on my favorites lists to be recommended for years. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t love about this continuation trilogy. The quality of every element was so on-point, but by far my favorite component was the characters and the amazing relationships cultivated between them. I go into much greater detail in other reviews for this series, so I’ll save you the repetition, but suffice to say it’s superb. Evaluating all the books I’ve read from him so far, I think Promise of Blood is still my favorite, but only because it was the funniest. The ending of Blood of Empire was great, and I hope it’s not the last we see from this world. He has a new unrelated series starting next year, and I plan to be first in line for it!

Other books you might like:

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Book Review: Kingdom of Liars by

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

Title: Kingdom of Liars

Author: Nick Martell

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary of Kings #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Michael is branded a traitor as a child because of the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son, by his father David Kingman. Ten years later on Michael lives a hardscrabble life, with his sister Gwen, performing crimes with his friends against minor royals in a weak attempt at striking back at the world that rejects him and his family. In a world where memory is the coin that pays for magic, Michael knows something is there in the hot white emptiness of his mind. So when the opportunity arrives to get folded back into court, via the most politically dangerous member of the kingdom’s royal council, Michael takes it, desperate to find a way back to his past. He discovers a royal family that is spiraling into a self-serving dictatorship as gun-wielding rebels clash against magically trained militia. What the truth holds is a set of shocking revelations that will completely change the Hollows, if Michael and his friends and family can survive long enough to see it. -Goodreads

The Review:

Kingdom of Liars had some good ideas and a wicked cool atmosphere, but the story itself lacked a bit of logical structure and flow.

The atmosphere created, with a shattered moon that periodically rained down on the city, combined well with both the contrasting lifestyles of the different casts of people and the general air of magic and mayhem. It was superb! Easily my favorite element of the story. Even during parts I wasn’t totally sure I was onboard with, I kept reading to see what the world building and society would reveal next. I can say I’ve never read anything quite like this book, and that’s a mark in its favor.

It also included an interesting magic system, but almost as an afterthought. The excerpt and title lead you to believe the characters would face a constant battle between practicing magic and losing memory, but unfortunately all of it happened on the periphery. There wasn’t even a really clear description of how it worked, save a few passing conversations, so it’s definitely the component most primed for expansion in the sequel.

But overall, if I could describe Kingdom of Liars in one word, it would be: contrived.

The second would be disjointed. Most of the reviews I’ve seen state the beginning is slow, but the second half really picks up, making the whole book worthwhile. I can see why they claim this – all of the fun “reveals” take place in the second half… but my personal experience was the opposite. I loved the atmosphere and the concept right out of the gate (and the KILLER prequel), but the longer the story went, the more I became dissatisfied with the trajectory. The plot was all over the place, jumping from event to event without a really solid through-line. I tend to prefer more structure in storytelling; a more natural-feeling flow of events. Because of the first chapter, I knew it was working towards a clear objective, but there were several conversations and tangents that felt unnecessary and didn’t seem to fit within the framework. It was very forced. And because it was forced, it made the main character make so many odd decisions that he came off erratic and impulsive. His wild decisions always defied logic!!! And yet somehow they always worked out… because they were constructed to… and that’s the problem. He never felt like a real person, he felt like a vehicle to advance plot.

Even so, the story did have a bunch of good payoffs, and I did enjoy the writing behind it. Despite my objections to the story construction, the basic writing and conveying of ideas was great, reminding me of the conversational approach Sebastien de Castell uses in his stories (minus the over-the-top flippancy). I’d love to see what this author can do off the cuff, because in this case the plot seemed so tortured and overworked that I didn’t spend as much time enjoying the writing as I would have liked.

Recommendations: Kingdom of Liars, despite having a unique atmosphere and a cool concept, was a bit too contrived for my tastes. If you don’t mind adopting a more “just go with it” attitude, it’ll definitely offer you a memorable story. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like it…

I’d like to thank Gallery Books and Nick Martell for the chance to read an early copy of Kingdom of Liars!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Tackling the TBR [57]: May 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:

May 2020 TBR Tackler Shelf:

Physical Copies:

Audiobooks:

Reading has been so much fun lately. :) I get the occasional dud here and there, but for the most part, everything I’ve been picking up has been golden! I’m finally in back into a good reading routine, which prioritizes sitting down with a physical book a couple times a day. I’m also signing up for ARCs and getting more involved with Buddy Reads in my favorite Goodreads group. This is awesome – I feel like my old self again ^_^. American Demon is my last current ARC, so once I finish that I’ll finally be diving into Deadhouse Gates (which I started about a year ago…). The Cruel Stars is a review obligation as well, but I’m almost positive it’s going to be one I’ll enjoy. 


Have a great month in reading!

by Niki Hawkes