Empress of all Seasons (4*)

Book: Empress of all Seasons by Emiko Jean

empressI picked this up as part of my ongoing effort to read things set in at least a background of non Western cultures, especially ones written by PoC. When I read the blurb for this one I was pretty captivated. Japanese mythology is something I do not know nearly as much about as I would like (see previous rants about the lack of decent mythology books for so many cultures) so I was definitely interested to read something inspired by it written by someone of Japanese decent.

It also has a very beautiful cover, which never hurts to attract me (I am a magpie that way). Seriously, look at that, it’s gorgeous.

But anyway, the book is the story of Mari, who is part of a group called the Yokai, who are considered to be monsters and are not looked well on by most people in the Empire. She has trained for a long time to take part in the competition to win the Prince’s hand and become Empress. Taro is the Prince of the Empire and struggles with his position as it stops him from following his own passions and hates that he must be a prize. Akira is an unusual man in that he is half-Yonkai and half-human. All three of them have a part to play and their decisions may change their Empire.

Well first of all I loved the idea of women competing for the Prince so they can become the next Empress, it’s such a fascinating reversal of the usual tropes of women being a prize for men and it’s very well executed as a premise.

The worldbuilding was also well done, I felt like I could see the society and the people within it very well. The characters also felt quite real for the most part, a little light in some places, but generally well done and that includes some of the secondary characters.

Pacing wise it does get a little weird in places and speeds up towards the end in a way I would have preferred to be a bit more drawn out. Still, the way things wrap up mostly fits with the characters and their behaviour through the novel up to that point and I generally found the conclusion satisfying and leaving me wanting perhaps a bit more of it.

The book does deal with some deeper issues regarding both the enslavement of people and discrimination and dehumanisation and does it well. I also appreciate female friendships playing a strong element in the story, too often those can get sidelined in favour of connections with the men in a female character’s life but that isn’t done here.

My biggest complaints were perhaps that some things felt a little shallower than I would have liked. It’s hard to explain what I mean without examples and I don’t want to do that in the spoiler free part so more on that below.

Overall it was good though, I would guess it’s pitched at a YA audience but there is enough to enjoy for adults too.

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Lord of Secrets (3.5*)

Book – Lord of Secrets by Brenna Teintze

Lord of SecretsBrief disclaimer, I received an ARC of this from Jo Fletcher books in exchange for an honest review. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I love giving new books a go so I requested one and was really pleased when I received it.

I am going to try a new format for this review and if I like it I may use it going forward. I have found that writing up my full and spoilery opinion on TV shows and films has been much easier and more fun to write, so I am going to split my reviews in two going forward. The start will be a spoiler free brief description of the plot and some thoughts, then I will go into a more detailed plot summary and spoiler review for those who have either read the book or don’t mind spoilers.

The second part will be as clearly marked as I can make it so those who don’t want the spoiler review can skip it until they have read the book for themselves.

No Spoiler Review

The story follows a man called Corcoran Grey, a mage who isn’t part of the guild that all mages are supposed to follow. He meets up with Brix, a slave woman on the run from the priesthood and together they team up as he needs her knowledge to break into a temple in order to try and help his Grandfather, who has been arrested by the mages. Things don’t quite go according to plan of course and now they must deal with conflicting loyalties, necromancy and whole lot of powerful people hunting them.

Firstly I have to say that the magic system in this story is absolutely fantastic as a premise. Basically magic is poisonous to the user so most mages try and push that poison into other people so it doesn’t hurt them. All spells need to be written on something, or someone so some mages tattoo spells onto their skin, others use members of a race who seem to be immune to the poison and mark their spells on them instead.

Honestly it was such a refreshing idea and I really enjoyed learning how it works and what impact it had on the world. There were a couple of areas which felt a little convenient or inconsistent, but overall I rank it highly.

In regards to the story, the fact that the main character had a long-term knee injury which causes him pain and difficulties almost made me cry. As someone who has severe cartiledge damage in both her knees and often has to deal with pain and mobility issues, getting to see something of that in the hero of a fantasy book meant a great deal to me.

I also loved that the female character had her own goals and motivations that were completely separate from the main character, that can be pretty rare so it was good to see. I do wish that there were more female characters in the book though, I can’t see any real reason why so many of them were male and that was a frustrating detail to me.

The main character is also complicated, not dealing well with his emotions or trusting others and as such felt quite real to me in many ways. I also liked that he wasn’t the usual sort of hero you get, not able to just solve problems with physical strength and needed to be careful with magic as well due to the whole poison issue.

Overall I did enjoy it though not as much as I would have liked, I had some issues with how the story developed that I won’t go into in this section as that would contain spoilers.

The next section contains spoilers so should be hidden below.

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David Mogo: Godhunter – 4*

Book – David Mogo: Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

godhunterBrief disclaimer, this is the first book I have received since signing up to Netgalley so I read an advanced reader copy for free in exchange for this review. I had been wanting to read the book since I first heard about it (also look at that cover, it is absolutely gorgeous). It’s described as Godpunk, which isn’t a term I have heard before, but sounded fascinating.

The review is pretty spoiler free as I know it isn’t out yet and I don’t want to ruin anything for those who want to get it and read it themselves.

The story follows the titular character, who lives in Lago, Nigeria and works as a freelance Godhunter. Something called the Orisha war caused the appearance of thousands of gods in Lagos, forcing many people to relocate to other parts of the city. Into this turmoil steps David, a demigod who uses his abilities to deal with troublesome gods. He’s set to find and capture a couple of very powerful deities for a local wizard and that one event will spark a chain that will cause upheaval to his life and make him confront his own origins.

It’s a very well-written book. I have never been to Lagos, but the author conjures a sense of the place very well and it didn’t surprise me to learn that he is from there. It’s wonderful to see a non-Western setting for an urban fantasy and I got very pulled into the world that he creates.

The main character is physically powerful in many ways, but that doesn’t always work in his favour and his inability to properly rely on others around him often causes him problems. He definitely goes on a distinct journey from the start of the book to the end and Suyi does make you care for where he is going and what is going to happen to him.

There is a decent supporting cast to the book, though it’s written in first-person perspective which does mean that they do not come across as strongly as I might have liked. I have nothing against first person narratives (my WiP uses this in fact) but combined with the introspection and occasionally rather self-involved nature of the main character, it does result in the secondary characters not standing out as much as I might have wanted.

I did appreciate that there are a number of female supporting characters and generally they are treated well, they have their own agency and in places David is the one who is often swept along by events and struggling to get control back, which I actually quite appreciated.

As a note, this is a book in three distinct parts and you may, like me, get to the end of part one and wonder where on earth the book is going to manage to go from there. Do not worry and keep going is my advice, it’s one part of a larger story and it does all come together quite nicely in the end.

My biggest criticism of the book (and to be honest I don’t have many) is that I would have liked to see more quieter moments between the characters to cement their relationships. It is not utterly lacking in them, there are several poignant parts which help, but the story is very action driven so sometimes the pauses can feel a little too short. To be honest, that has been a common criticism of mine of late and I think it’s just because I love a more in-depth character than perhaps is typical so what is normal for others feels a little lacking to me.

One of my other loves in the book was the use of what I would guess is a hybrid local language. It is understandable enough and adds a flavour that I feel was really great. I must admit that I do find that sort of detail just makes the book come more alive with the environment it is set in without putting you off by being incomprehensible. It also tells you about the characters who use it and, for me, helped to solidify the relationship between David and his foster father.

The book features plenty of action, deals with themes of being trapped between two worlds and not being sure of who you are or what your place in the world is as a result. If you love urban fantasy, then this is a refreshing take on the sub-genre and definitely worth a look. I will definitely be getting myself a physical copy with its oh so pretty cover when I can.

The City of Brass – 4*

Book: The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty.

This is a fascinating book based in middle eastern mythology I think, sadly it’s an area of mythology I don’t know much about so I can’t speak with any certainty on the matter. It’s a source of perpetual annoyance to me that I can get hundreds of books on Celtic, Norse, Greek or Roman mythology and very few on any other area of the world.

But anyway, enough of my personal gripes (though if anyone has any good recommendations for books on Myths and Legends by all means contact me!) This book follows a young woman called Nahri who grew up alone on the streets of Cairo and now makes a living as a conwoman, though she has some strange powers she does not really understand.

Her life is changed when she accidentally does magic and attracts the attention of a creature that seems to want to cause her harm and other that insists on taking her to the City of Brass, a place where all the Djinn/Daeva live.

It’s incredibly well written and carries you along with it into a strange world populated by powerful, yet somehow very human beings (who would loathe being referred to as being so). There are politics between factions in the city that are done very well and the relationships in general are excellent. One of the other things I love is how the book plays with the concepts of what is moral, what one faction thinks is good, another thinks is evil and you learn all the various motivations for them which makes it much harder to believe that any of them are entirely correct.

The only complaint I have about the book is that the ending is a bit too sudden. The rest of the book takes its time unfolding and it felt a bit to me that everything then happened all at once at the end and that was a shame because it meant that some of the elements felt more forced than they should have been.

It’s a pretty minor point though as the book is utterly gorgeous and had me on tenderhooks as to what was going to happen. I am currently greatly disappointed in myself for reading things only in paperback (I find kindles awkward and my joints won’t let me hold up most hardbacks without pain) as now I have to wait until the paperback is out and that is frankly going to be an agonising wait.

City of Ghosts – 4*

Book: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

I have been pretty excited to get hold of and read this book since I heard of it. I know that the author has now moved to Edinburgh and it is a place that is very close to my heart. I grew up in Fife, the county to the north of Edinburgh and we visited a fair few times when I was growing up. When I went to University I went to Edinburgh and I fell in very deep love with the city. Even though I have been living in England for the past eight years now, I still miss it and whenever I go back to visit it always feels like I am coming home.

There’s not many of the sort of books I tend to read that are set in Edinburgh, which I have always though was a shame given it’s long history and very gothic architecture. So a ghost story set in Edinburgh? Yes, sign me up please, the city has a wealth of ghost stories to draw from and I was really curious to see how the book would read.

The book is the story of Cassidy, or Cass, a young woman with ghost hunting parents who can actually see them herself and whose best friend is a ghost called Jacob. Her parents get their own TV show investigating the most haunted cities in the world and their first stop is Edinburgh where Cass stumbles across a really scary ghost who could threaten everything as well as meets another young woman with the same abilities that she has.

One of the things I really loved about this book is how well it gets the atmosphere of Edinburgh right. It helped that I know the city so well I was walking the places with the main character and it made me really happy. The other fantastic thing is that the main character had never been to the city before so I got to see my city from the perspective of someone totally new to it and it made me think of it a little differently.

It’s a YA book and pretty short on length, in fact that is about the only thing I can hold against it. The story moves along at a pretty fast clip and I suppose I would have preferred the ending to be a bit more drawn out and perhaps a little scarier, but then of course would that fit the main market it’s being aimed at so I can see why the author made the choice that they did.

Still, the characters are very clear and the ghost stories within it are suitably creepy. There’s plenty of information in the book that comes straight from Edinburgh’s history and ghost stories, which I absolutely adored. The Mackenzie poltergeist in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard is well known and has his own ghost tour (Edinburgh has many ghost tours). So all of the weird and creepy places in the book are real and you can go there.

As someone who loves both Edinburgh and ghost stories I admit that it would have to have been pretty bad for me to hate it, but I had every faith that the author would deliver on the potential of this idea and to me she very much did not disappoint. I am looking forward to seeing what other places future books might explore. I hope that she manages to bring them to life the way she has done to Edinburgh.

House of Shattered Wings – 3.5*

Book: House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

I picked up an uncorrected proof of this book at one of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club meetings after having heard good things about her writing, so I was pretty excited to read it and see for myself what her writing is like.

The setting for this book is utterly gorgeous and really unusual. It’s set in a version of our world (in Paris) where Fallen Angels live in social (and physical structures) called Houses. There was a war some years ago that left many things in tatters and one House struggles on the edge of destruction.

According to the back of the book there are three main characters, a newly fallen Angel, a human alchemist and a man from Asia who has strange powers. In reality the book is told from three main perspectives, but one of them isn’t that Fallen Angel, it’s the leader of the House they are all associated with, which was a bit confusing (not also likely not the author’s doing).

Both the Alchemist, a woman called Madeleine, and the man, called Phillipe, are very interesting and flawed people who I really enjoyed getting to know their past and what they were likely to do in response to what is going on. The other supposed main character is called Isabelle and sadly she was the weak link for me, incredibly dull and not fully explored so when towards the end she becomes more important I struggled to particularly care about anything that happened to her, which definitely detracted from the story.

The politics of the interactions with the Houses are excellently done and the antagonists are cruel and nasty without being ridiculous caricatures and that was well done. The story itself interweaves a strange sort of murder mystery and a curse on the House with flashback visions of the past very well.

There were some elements of the book I struggled to get on with. Phillipe seems occasionally rather inconsistent in his morality, which doesn’t quite strike the tone of believable (though of course people are entirely capable of hypocrisy). There are some threads that I am hoping are more explored in the later books as they were left dangling in a very untidy fashion, though without a clear tug to being explained in the future and that was a little frustrating.

None of that has put me off wanting to explore the setting further though so I am hoping that when I pick up and read further the books will improve on what is a decent starting point and fantastic setting.

The Copper Promise – 3.5*

Book: The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

This book has been hard to get round to reviewing because I really did enjoy it and I definitely want to read more of the series, but there were elements of it that threw me and the most confusing thing is that I am not sure I can think of a better way they could have been done so I don’t know exactly why it didn’t quite entirely come together for me.

But anyway, brief overview of the book is that two friends, Wydrin: A woman who is excellent with knives and Sebastian: an ex-Knight, are off into a dungeon that used to belong to very powerful Mages along with a nobleman called Frith. The two friends are in search of a friend of theirs who already went into the dungeon and didn’t come out, the other is paying them to get him into the place as there is something in there that he wants.

The book doesn’t actually stay as long in the dungeon as you might expect, in fact the number of directions the book takes can be dizzying at times. I am an avid roleplayer and at times it felt like a party of PCs who refuse to follow the GMs instructions and keep haring off on their own in different directions, which can be disconcerting at times. But every split up and reunification makes perfect sense in light of what is going on so the most I can say is that it doesn’t fit what you might expect from most fantasy books.

There is quite a lot of emotion in the book and it definitely packs a good punch at a couple of points. I think I would have liked more slow bits at times and less frantic action (though again, given the plot the frantic pace makes sense). The characters make you very fond of them and their very human flaws are wonderful to see.

I will definitely be picking up the rest of the series at some point and I am also bearing in mind that this is Jen’s debut novel and I know she has recently won a British Fantasy Award so I think overall there is great potential here for her later books to be even better.

So worth a look if you don’t mind imperfect gems and I am sure her later series is definitely worth a read (and I shall certainly be doing so at some point!)

Note that I gave this book 4* on Goodreads because I feel that it’s much better to round scores up rather than down. 3 would be doing it a disservice.

Empire of Sand – 5*

Books: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

I have been wanting to read this book since I found out about it at FantasyCon and was lucky enough to meet the author and chat to her a bit. Sadly I missed out on picking up one of the five advanced copies they had on sale, but was lucky enough to get one at SFXCon on the 10th, so a few days before it’s actual release on the 15th.

I’ve been reading quite a few debut novels lately and I am very much enjoying this as you get to see such promise in them and they are often a breath of fresh air, something new and different to read, and Empire of Sand definitely meets that promise. One of the reasons I was so keen to read it was because I found out it was based on the Mughal Empire of India.

Now in case you start thinking that you can’t possibly relate to a story from a culture not your own, this story is a very human tale of love, loss, family, despair and hope and there is plenty for you to relate to, even if the culture it is based on is not your own. It’s not my culture but I absolutely adored this books.

The language does an excellent job of making you envision the world, I had a really good idea of what everything looked like in my head as the story swept me along with it. I loved the characters too, especially the fact that they get quite a lot of development time and the motivations felt very real, even those of the antagonist.

One of the things I loved was that the book does get quite dark in places, there is some nasty violence particularly towards women (though no sexual assault) and in places it also deals with forms of slavery and lack of free will. Despite this, the book never loses its sense of hope and the characters never entirely lose their agency either. None of the violence feels gratuitous or done just for effect either, it has a point in the story and also real consequences for the characters.

I read a lot of books with female protagonists and one of the reasons I loved Mehr in this book is that she is not a fighter, she doesn’t kickass through everyone who tries to hurt her, but she doesn’t need to do so to be strong. Her courage in getting through dark times, in trying to protect her family and those she loves is wonderful to behold and her own journey of realising what she is capable of and her place in the world is fantastic.

Well I have gushed quite a lot so far on the book so did I think there were any issues with it? To be honest I have only one minor niggle. There is a bit early on in the book where the main character details that men get to remove their marriage sigil at a certain point, though it’s clear she doesn’t know when and then later on she gasps when someone removes his when he hasn’t earned it. There is an explanation then of how she found that out, but it still felt jarring as where she learned it is skipped and so that scene didn’t quite work for me.

But seriously, I can’t really think of anything else bad to say about the book, it’s better than many books I have read that were someone’s third or fourth books, let alone being their first.

Having read the brief blurb about the second book in this series you can be guaranteed I will be awaiting the next instalment with baited breath.

Under the Pendulum Sun – 5*

Book: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

I first heard about this book last year at Nine Worlds, but I only made a note of it in the margins of my panel notes (like a fool) and then got distracted by life and forgot to track it down later.

Thankfully I then heard about it again at Nine Worlds this year and then it was for sale at FantasyCon when the author was around so I managed to finally pick up a copy and get it signed (just before she won an award for it too!)

When talking about the book the author described it as “come for the faeries, stay for the theology) which is a pretty apt description of how things work. The book is told from the point of view of Catherine Helstone, the sister of a missionary who has been sent to spread the word of God in Faerie and she follows him there to help with that task.

The book is written in the style of a Gothic novel, with all the haunting imagery, strange occurrences and mystery that this generally evokes. It’s beautifully crafted, not just the use of words but the establishment of the different characters and the slow unveiling of the plot until you are finally brought to a crashing conclusion that you do not quite want to believe.

It makes you root for things you would never expect to be rooting for, has twists and turns that can be seen ahead if you manage to stop being swept up in the story, but even then I don’t think if you do work out what is happening that it will actually ruin anything for you (though I shall have to wait and see how a second reading plays out).

There’s so much I could say, but I am very cautious about putting anything that could be spoilery into this review because I honestly do not want to ruin the experience for anyone else who reads it.

I will say that the book deals with themes of sin, belief, the nature of souls, religion and a great deal more and it does get incredibly philosophical at times. If you are expecting a fun light-hearted romp with fairies then this is not the book for you,  but if the gothic novel style appeals then this will be right up your street.

The main character is very well written, I found her journey to be very relatable, the story of a woman restricted and restrained by the time period she is a part of and trying to make what she can of herself as a result. The complex relationship with her brother is excellent depicted and the depths of it unravel in a very intriguing way, as well as how she relates to the other people/Fae in the house.

The setting of the book is also mostly around this crazy rambling mansion called Gethsemane, which is incredibly fitting for the gothic style and brings it’s own mystery as to where the house came from and why it looks the way it does. Even the otherworldly nature of the land, with it’s pendulum sun and moon made of a fish chasing a lantern, give you an excellent picture in your mind of how this strange land might look and how it might feel to those not from there.

One of the other things I loved were the quotations at the beginning of every chapter. I grew up reading books like Watership Down and I have always retained a love for these sort of thematic inserts that tell you something of what might be about to happen, without saying so directly. The ones in this book are a mix of real historical pieces of writing, or altered ones to fit with the Fae theme more. Either way I found they added a depth to the work that put it on a whole new level.

The fact that this book is the author’s debut work blows me away and I can only hope that there will be many more in the future!

Tooth and Claw – 4*

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

I bought this book because someone described it to me as Pride and Prejudice with dragons and since I love both of those things it sounded exceptionally appealing.

Going into this book you need to have more suspension of disbelief than usual when dealing with fantasy elements, largely because the visual of massive dragons (the sizes described in the book of some of them are really large) dancing, wearing hats and going to church is incredibly strange and somewhat hard to picture.

Bearing that in mind this is a very enjoyable book that creates a very interesting society that bears at least a superficial resemblance to the world of Jane Austen. I would say that it is deficient in one aspect that to me is very important in regards to Jane Austen’s work, there isn’t much satire of society contained within the book, which is a shame but I guess that wasn’t the story the author wished to tell.

The story follows the lives of several dragons from the same family dealing with the aftermath of the death of their father. We get to see the perspectives of several characters and they are done well, with each having clear personalities and desires that are separate from each other.

The society these characters are in is quite sexist though I would have liked a bit more of a delve into some of the issues the author touches on. There are hints of domestic abuse and a somewhat more detailed look at the notion of “purity” and it’s grip on the view of women in that society. There are clear allegories here and some definite links to real world issues but I guess I felt that the presentation was a little too hands off in places where I would have liked to see more impact and personal response.

Even then I did thoroughly enjoy the book which kept a mostly Austen feel for the whole length of it and it was certainly a unique and unusual concept for a story and that was incredibly refreshing.