Book Review: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

Title: Amulet of Samarkand

Author: Jonathan Stroud

Series: Bartimaeus #1

Genre: Middle Grade +

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Nathaniel is a boy magician-in-training, sold to the government by his birth parents at the age of five and sent to live as an apprentice to a master. Powerful magicians rule Britain, and its empire, and Nathaniel is told his is the “ultimate sacrifice” for a “noble destiny.” If leaving his parents and erasing his past life isn’t tough enough, Nathaniel’s master, Arthur Underwood, is a cold, condescending, and cruel middle-ranking magician in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The boy’s only saving grace is the master’s wife, Martha Underwood, who shows him genuine affection that he rewards with fierce devotion. Nathaniel gets along tolerably well over the years in the Underwood household until the summer before his eleventh birthday. Everything changes when he is publicly humiliated by the ruthless magician Simon Lovelace and betrayed by his cowardly master who does not defend him. Nathaniel vows revenge. In a Faustian fever, he devours magical texts and hones his magic skills, all the while trying to appear subservient to his master. When he musters the strength to summon the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus to avenge Lovelace by stealing the powerful Amulet of Samarkand, the boy magician plunges into a situation more dangerous and deadly than anything he could ever imagine. -Goodreads

The Review:

Hands-down this is my favorite middle-grade read since Mull’s Fablehaven series almost two decades ago!

I wish I’d taken the time to write this review right after finishing the book, but at the time I’d been so fired up about the series I dropped everything to pick up the rest of it immediately. The experience was so much fun and reminded me of how I felt as a kid discovering Harry Potter for the first time. While this may not land on quite the same scale (what can?), it’s still an nostalgia-evoking book with enough sophistication to make it accessible for adults.

The footnotes were everything.

I’ve heard people complaining of footnotes in other series, so I was a bit intimidated to start this one, but I can’t imagine the story being as good without them. A lot of the subtle adult humor takes place in the footnotes and they really allow the author to have fun with his characters and give us more depth than we would’ve gotten otherwise.

And speaking of the characters, they were completely delightful, even if not always likable. And the demons – omgsh the demons. They start out as these wildly interesting (and dangerous) enigmas that give you even more reason to keep reading. I also loved learning about summoning demons and watching one of the main characters struggle to get it right. The combination of the magic, world-buildings, and mystery plot made for one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read in ages. And that’s across ALL genres, not just middle-grade books.

Overall if you’re on the cusp of graduating from YA and Middle Grade stories (as I find myself a the ripe age of 37), this one will draw you completely back in and remind you why you keep up the hunt for the good ones. I can’t believe I let this sit unread on my shelves for so many years!

Recommendations: I loved this book so much, I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to capture the magic of reading as a kid again. It has enough adult elements to make it an ideal crossover series. Make sure to do a physical read, however – the footnotes are everything! The audio version includes the footnotes as part of the main narrative, but they blend in too well, taking away half the fun of the series.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Title: Jade War

Author: Fonda Lee

Series: Green Bone Saga #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years. Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals. Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon. -Goodreads

The Review:

Jade War was an enjoyable continuation to the Green Bone Saga even though it didn’t have a ton of plot-advancement.

My favorite component to the series so far is when smart characters use their experience and wits to build allies and get ahead in the political game. That happened more in the first book. In fact, most of the things I liked happened more in the first book. Jade War struck me as just maintaining status-quo. There were a couple of events, but nothing that really moved the main arc of the story forward. There’d be one page of good action, followed by thirty or so of explanations and chatter. I’ve loved other books with this format, but something about the in-between scenes here just weren’t singing to me.

Then when finally something DID happen – a gut-punching event in its own right, I found implausibilities in it left and right that had me questioning its necessity and consistency of character. It totally drew me out of the story and left me generally interested to continue but not eager.

Believe you me, I wish I was liking this series as much as the majority. It’s no fun to be the odd man out and get all of the “gasp – blasphemy!!” comments. I’m still hopeful things can turn around though. I didn’t really start hearing across-the-board praise for Green Bone until people finished the final book in the series (Jade Legacy), so I’m hoping that one will provide all of the elements I’ve been missing so far. Fingers crossed.

Recommendations: read this slightly magical low-fantasy series if you’re interested, regardless of what I think, because statistically-speaking you’ll probably love it. ;P

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


80% DNF Q&A: The Warrior by Stephen Aryan

Title: The Warrior

Author: Stephen Aryan

Series: Quest for Heroes #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 1/5 stars

The Overview: The story of Kell Kressia continues in Book II of the gripping fantasy duology. Kell, two time saviour of the Five Kingdoms, is now the King of Algany. He has fame, power, respect, and has never been more miserable… Bound, by duty and responsibility, Kell is King only in name. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he leaves affairs of state to his wife, Sigrid. When his old friend, Willow, turns up asking him to go on a journey to her homeland he can’t wait to leave. The Malice, a malevolent poison that alters everything it infects, runs rampant across Willow’s homeland. Desperate to find a cure her cousin, Ravvi, is willing to try a dark ritual which could damn her people forever. Journeying to a distant land, Kell and his companions must stop Ravvi before it’s too late. While Kell is away Reverend Mother Britak’s plans come to a head. Queen Sigrid must find a way to protect her family and her nation, but against such a ruthless opponent, something has to give… -Goodreads

The Q&A:

This is a reviewing feature was borrowed with permission from Nikki @ There Were Books Involved. :)

Did you really give The Warrior a chance?

Oh yes. More than I should have, really. I made it 80% of the way through before deciding to throw in the towel.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre before?

As Fantasy is my favorite genre, I’d say yes. This wasn’t a case of not liking the type of story, but rather issues with the execution. Here are some great titles I thought comparable to the series: 

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

I enjoyed the first book in the duology (The Coward) enough to buy myself a copy of this book. I was reasonably sure I’d like it and was actually predicting it would be better than the first book. At the very least I expected it to deliver what was promised on the back of the book (we’ll get into that shortly).

What ultimately made you stop reading?

I got fed up. The whole premise of the story was that the fantastically enigmatic non-human main character called Willow needed help with something in her home country. I signed up for the experience of getting to see her culture and all of the cool world-building that entailed.

The trouble is, even as far in as 80%, there were practically NO insights into her people. We reached a town, but there were no descriptors of this town even just as a town, let alone how it differed from anything you’d find in human society. We also didn’t get any additional depth to Willow’s character more than just seeing a little more emotion from her. It was a massive disappointment.

Most of the book was about the two main characters discussing Willow’s problem, reiterating Willow’s problem, then traveling and camping while, you guessed it, talking about Willow’s problem. This would’ve been okay had there been other plot points and world-building nuggets to draw me along, but as it was it felt like a complete waste of pages.

Well, saying there weren’t other plot points is a bit inaccurate, which leads me to my “misleading book summary” gripe: there was a random character included in the story (Odde was his name) who as far as I read had the only compelling conflicts… of the supernatural variety. O_o say what? I tell you, it was so bizarre. There’s this random new character with a problem that didn’t fit into the structure of the world at all and yet he ended up with the most plot-progression and page count. I didn’t want a book about Odde. I wanted a book about Willow.

When it hit the 80% mark and became clear my desires for the story weren’t going to be realized, I set it down in disappointment. Folks, I made it 80 percent into a quick fantasy read and decided it wasn’t worth my time to see where it ended.

Was there anything you liked about The Warrior?

I liked the basic flow of the writing. It’s very accessible and one of the main reasons I enjoyed the first book. While that remained the same, everything else dropped in quality.

Would you read anything else by this author?

Ooooh this is harsh, but I took his other works off my TBR after my experience with this. I may try future books from him, but no longer have any interest in his backlist.

So you DNF’d the book – would you still recommend it?

Despite how much I really didn’t like The Warrior, I’d still endorse The Coward as a fun, lighthearted fantasy read. I know a few people who liked The Warrior, but I just can’t get past the disappointment enough to feel comfortable endorsing it.

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: The Coward by Stephen Aryan

Title: The Coward

Author: Stephen Aryan

Series: Quest for Heroes #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Kell Kressia is a legend, a celebrity, a hero. Aged just seventeen he set out on an epic quest with a band of grizzled fighters to slay the Ice Lich and save the world, but only he returned victorious. The Lich was dead, the ice receded and the Five Kingdoms were safe. Ten years have passed Kell lives a quiet farmer’s life, while stories about his heroism are told in every tavern across the length and breadth of the land. But now a new terror has arisen in the north. Beyond the frozen circle, north of the Frostrunner clans, something has taken up residence in the Lich’s abandoned castle. And the ice is beginning to creep south once more. For the second time, Kell is called upon to take up his famous sword, Slayer, and battle the forces of darkness. But he has a terrible secret that nobody knows. He’s not a hero – he was just lucky. Everyone puts their faith in Kell the Legend, but he’s a coward who has no intention of risking his life for anyone… -Goodreads

The Review:

This was a massively enjoyable light fantasy read.

I forget that not everything I pick up has to be complex. Sometimes a straightforward companion-gathering adventure fantasy is just what the doctor ordered. I immediately latched on to Aryan’s writing style – there’s some sort of x-factor to it that just oozed “readability” off the pages. It’s rare I can comment on the writing style itself being such a fun element to a book and the accessibility of it would make it much easier to recommend to casual fantasy readers. I also like how he plunked the reader into a timeline AFTER some major things had gone down so we could get right into dealing with the aftermath. It was creative.

My favorite thing about the story was the subtle exploration of what a “coward” is and what truly constitutes as bravery. It gave me something meaningful to latch onto while reading. And while I don’t think the story ultimately landed at a profound finale, I still feel like I got enough out of it to warrant the effort.

The characters were great profiles. I particularly enjoyed Willow – a nonhuman protagonist who remains an enigma. Deciding to read on was based in no small part on my desire to learn more about her and her culture. I liked everyone else as well, but she’s the one I’ll be remembering long after I finish the series.

Recommendations: pick this up for a light and fun fantasy with great pacing and good bits of creativity.

Other books you might like:

Kings I’d the would

by Niki Hawkes


Novella Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Elder Race

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Series: N/A

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way. But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it). But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon… -Goodreads

The Review:

While a decent novella, this wasn’t my favorite work from Tchaikovsky by a long shot.

The main appeal was discovering what’s inside the structure on the cover and how it’s significant to the people of this world. That aspect was satisfying and actually a lot more reminiscent of his other works than I was expecting.

The best part of the story were the characters. The author played around with cultural communication barriers that added variety depending on which POV we were in. I liked that it wasn’t a blanket “technology will solve all of our problems” situation and certain discrepancies in language still existed. There were also a couple of… alternately composed humans (aquatic) that I wish had gotten more of a highlight. That’s the thing about Tchaikovsky’s works: he’s so creative that he just casually throws in ideas that could warrant entire books within themselves. He did the same thing in Children of Time. It’s so much fun to read, but occasionally you find yourself craving some elaboration on the minor stuff.

There was a technology that allowed the user to compartmentalize emotional reactions, where they could still tell they were having them, but didn’t have to feel them directly. This came at a cost, though, as you’d have to face the emotions eventually to avoid a mental breakdown. I loved this aspect and thought the way it was written into the story was brilliant. The “voice” of the character actively changed in the text depending on whether or not this technology was being used. And I thought it a clever way to give the character depth.

Even with great elements, what didn’t work for me was the pacing. A novella shouldn’t feel like it’s dragging with such a low page count. But I felt the good character moments and the plot reveals we’re just a little too staggered. All working towards and ending that was good, but not quite worth the lengthily build-up. I probably would’ve rated it a lot higher had it been a bit more concise. I think the culprit was a little too much introspection and reiteration of events. There were two POVs and we got internal accounts of everything from both sides. While seeing two such different viewpoints of the same situations was kind of the point of the book, I don’t think it needed to be time equally spent.

Recommendations: Elder Race is an interesting short story from an author shaping up to be a personal favorite, but if you’re new to his sci-fi works, this isn’t the best place to start (go with Children of Time… emphatically).

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Malice by John Gwynne

Title: Malice

Author: John Gwynne

Series: Faithful and the Fallen #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The world is broken…. Corban wants nothing more than to be a warrior under King Brenin’s rule – to protect and serve. But that day will come all too soon. And the price he pays will be in blood. Evnis has sacrificed – too much it seems. But what he wants – the power to rule – will soon be in his grasp. And nothing will stop him once he has started on his path. Veradis is the newest member of the warband for the High Prince, Nathair. He is one of the most skilled swordsman to come out of his homeland, yet he is always under the shadow of his older brother. Nathair has ideas – and a lot of plans. Many of them don’t involve his father, the High King Aquilus. Nor does he agree with his father’s idea to summon his fellow kings to council. The Banished Lands has a violent past where armies of men and giants clashed in battle, but now giants are seen, the stones weep blood, and giant wyrms are stirring. Those who can still read the signs see a threat far greater than the ancient wars. For if the Black Sun gains ascendancy, mankind’s hopes and dreams will fall to dust…and it can never be made whole again. Malice is a dark epic fantasy tale of blind greed, ambition, and betrayal. -Amazon

The Review:

I loved every single thing about this book.

It strikes me that I need to be careful what I say I don’t like in books. Because before diving in I would’ve told you I don’t have patience for books with a classic fantasy feel. That I’m “so over” familiar tropes like a-boy-with-his-sword and the-chosen-one. But everything about Malice was executed on such a high level that despite the inclusion of all familiar elements it’s still one of my favorite reads in ages. Everything about it was superb.

The writing style is sophisticated, bringing a classic tale into the modern era of storytelling. Gwynne has this masterful way of pacing things within each chapter, where even though the overall plot is ticking by very slowly, characters experience significant change per chapter in a way that makes you feel like the story is flying. It’s totally engaging and never feels like a single page is wasted.

Other than the adept writing style, my favorite thing about the book were the characters. So many great profiles. Usually when an author tackles so many, they run the risk of watering down each persona, but that wasn’t the case here. You’re following more than a dozen POVs (I didn’t actually count, but it feels close to that), all of which are rich characters. And I tell you, there was only one minor one I didn’t enjoy reading about. Those are great stats.

I also loved how high-stakes the story was. Other authors will try to sell you that their worlds are perilous!! But no one actually dies. In Gwynne’s worlds, things are every bit as brutal as promised, and that put me constantly on the edge of my seat, wondering who was going to make it and who wasn’t. Talk about an engaging read! It set a brilliant atmosphere, delivered on all the promises, and had me completely hooked from start to finish.

I will say the book took a lot more concentration than I thought it would. With so many people to follow, and being a perfectionist to boot, I wanted to make sure I knew who he was talking about with every reference. It took me forever to read, but was well worth the effort. I’ve discovered that if I lose track of characters to any degree when reading a book, I become less and less engaged and a snowball effect of dissatisfaction happens. Luckily that didn’t happen here.

Recommendations: Pick up this series for a classic fantasy story written in a modern, sophisticated writing style. There aren’t too many fantasy fans I would hesitate to recommend this to – it’s superb! With all of the characters to keep track of, it might be prudent to skip the audio on this one.

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by Niki Hawkes