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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

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Book Review: Song of the Risen God by R.A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Song of the Risen God

Author: R.A. Slavatore

Series: The Coven #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: War has come to Fireach Speur. The once forgotten Xoconai empire has declared war upon the humans west of the mountains, and their first target are the people of Loch Beag. Lead by the peerless general, Tzatzini, all that stands in the way of the God Emperor’s grasp of power is Aoelyn, Talmadge, and their few remaining allies.

But not all hope is lost. Far away from Fireach Speuer, an ancient tomb is uncovered by Brother Thaddeus of the Abellican Church. Within it is the power to stop the onslaught of coming empire and, possibly, reshape the very world itself. –Goodreads

The Review:

I’m finally paying for not reading all the backlist Corona titles. As a result, Song of the Risen God was my least favorite of the trilogy by a landslide.

There wasn’t anything technically wrong with the book, but it didn’t work for me on a few accounts. The beauty of this series so far has been in the slow-burn, intimate development of two or three main characters. The pacing is part of the brilliance because it draws you in and makes you feel every pain and victory with a carefully-constructed poignancy. It was the most in-depth I’ve ever read from Salvatore and speaks to his evolution as a writer. Songs of a Risen God felt like a regression. The plot broadened, which is ideal for the final book in the series, but so did the number of POVs. It bounced around so much, we didn’t get a chance to reimmurse into any of the characters, and as a result, it felt very superficial. I did not care for the inclusion of the enemy’s POVs. It felt too much like an old Drizzt novel (just call them “orcs” and it’s the same formula) and it took away any suspense that comes from the reader not knowing how the enemy thinks and operates. To compound that, the enemy came off almost child-like in their development despite the fact that they were still committing horrendous atrocities.

Another issue I had was the inclusion of so many characters and places from past Corona novels. As a fresh reader, none of these characters had any substance or meaning for me. I think the nostalgia-factor was supposed to make up for their almost casual inclusion of the story, but I found them somewhat unnecessary (although I probably would’ve delighted in seeing some familiar faces had I been current with all the works). But for my personal experience, it resulted in page after endless page of the characters explaining to each other why they’re relevant and rehashing old novels. Then you add the current characters explaining to the old ones countless times about what they’ve been doing over the last two books, and I wanted to slam my head into a wall. It was tedious. And by the time everything culminated to the final chapters and some really cool shit happened, I was so worn out that it didn’t affect me the way it should have.

Overall, what a disappointment. But the good news is that my reading experience and expectations are probably different than most of those inclined to pick up this series, so maybe the masses will have more luck with it. I stand by my recommendations of the first two books, which are textbook in character depth, pacing, and overall writing quality. I just wish it had ended with a bang!

Recommendation: long-time Corona fans wont want to miss this finale, but series-skippers like me might struggle with how different it is from the first two books.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

Title: Sweep of the Blade

Author: Ilona Andrews

Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #4

Genre: Fantasy… kinda

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Maud Demille was a daughter of Innkeepers. She knew that a simple life wasn’t in the cards, but she never anticipated what Fate would throw at her. Once a wife to a powerful vampire knight, Maud and her daughter, Helen, had been exiled for the sins of her husband to the desolate planet of Karhari. Karhari killed her husband, and Maud had spent a year and a half avenging his debts. But now all the debts are paid. Rescued by her sister Dina, Maud had swore off all things vampire. Except she met Arland, the Marshal of House Krahr. One thing led to another and he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined. Try as she might, she can’t just walk away from Arland. It doesn’t help that being human is a lot harder for Maud than being a vampire. To sort it all out, she accepts his invitation to visit his home planet. House Krahr is a powerful vampire House, and Maud knows that a woman who turned down the proposal from its most beloved son wouldn’t get a warm reception. But Maud Demille never shied from a fight and House Krahr may soon discover that there is more to this human woman than they ever thought possible. -Goodreads

The Review:

I hate to say it, but this is my least favorite Ilona Andrews book so far… although even a bad IA book is still worthy of 3 stars.

It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The whole framework of the Innkeeper novels is built around Dina, her Inn, and the overall goal of finding her parents. This was a HUGE tangent from that, focusing on the sister (Maud) in a continuation of things that happened in the third Innkeeper book. It doesn’t take place on Earth and it’s plot is 100% removed from any momentum the series has built so far. I wouldn’t consider it a waste of pages, because it’s still and Ilona Andrews work and everything they do is enjoyable to read, but as far as series satisfaction is concerned, I’m annoyed. This should’ve been a spin-off (or a novella) instead of a continuation. Maybe if there had been even a thread of the original plotline present, I would’ve been satisfied, but no such luck.

All that said, it wasn’t a BAD book. It included fun characters, an exploration of a vampire home world (filled with vampire politics, scheming, and warfare), and most notably, continued a romance between two characters. I liked reading about all of theses things… it’s just not what I signed up for. Compound that with the fact the first 20% was a complete recapping of things I already knew from the book before it (just in more detail), and I’m still annoyed. It soothes the blow a little bit to consider that the chapters are first published as a free online serial, then compiled later into book format, so my rant may not be that justified… but still. 

Recommendations: I’m not saying skip it, but I’m saying I knew exactly what I wanted from a book 4 in a series, and this was not it. Even so, these authors dazzle me so often, even a book I didn’t care for from them gets 3 stars, so that’s still an endorsement for the quality of all things IA. I’m sure this will play into future novels, but suffice to say it wasn’t my favorite.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes