Review: Falling Free

Falling-Free-coverTitle: Falling Free (1987)
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Pages: 320
Series: Vorkosigan Saga #1 Chronological; #4 Publication (Series Tracker)

After starting Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion series, I’m now dipping my toe into her Vorkosigan Saga. Falling Free is the first book in the series when reading in internal-chronological order.

Even though it was written thirty years ago, it still holds up and doesn’t show its age. I was never hooked by the story, but it moves quickly enough and I was consistently amused by the idea of genetically engineered humans with four arms floating around a space station. This is one of the lower rated entries of the series, and the next book is fairly short, so I think I will see how I like that one before making a decision about whether to commit to the rest of the series.

★★½ out of 5

Advertisements

Review: The Poppy War

x500.jpgTitle: The Poppy War (May 1, 2018)
Author: R.F. Kuang
Pages: 544
Series: The Poppy War #1 (Series Tracker)

My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


Wow, this was a gem of a debut novel. I have never read a book that evolves so thoroughly from beginning to end. What starts as a traditional fantasy school story quickly devolves into a very grim tale of war and subjugation. I had read author R.F. Kuang’s warning that this book was incredibly violent and “not a YA fantasy school story,” but that is so hard to believe when reading the delightful first third of the book. …and then reality sets in about midway through — this is bloody, brutal, and unrelentingly dark fantasy.

I loved the way Kuang builds the world and lore of the Nikara Empire. There is enough similarity to the real world to ground the story and setting in something relatable before imbuing it with the fantastical. In terms of writing, Kuang’s prose is sharp, concise, and makes for easy reading. This is a longer book, but moves at a fast pace, as the story never overstays its welcome in one location, changes up side characters frequently, and drastically upends the overall tone as the book goes on.

Character-wise, Rin is a fascinating protagonist, she’s smart, driven, but has a complex relationship with authority, patience, and control. This conflict drives her bumpy ascension from peasant girl to star pupil to war combatant. Rin is sometimes frustrating and difficult to root for, but the presence of an intriguing cast of side characters gives Rin the room to make mistakes and indulge her worst impulses. She doesn’t always have to be the moral center of the story, which is not always the case for fantasy protagonists.

Early on, Rin states, “War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.” and that turns into a prescient thesis statement for the book, as Kuang explores the complex morality of war and its combatants. Subsequent books in this trilogy are sure to further engage with this idea and I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here. Overall, Kuang has crafted a complex and absorbing debut novel that is unsettling and enthralling in equal measure.

★★★★½ out of 5

Review: The Curse of Chalion

the-curse-of-chalionTitle: The Curse of Chalion (2000)
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Pages: 512
Series: World of the Five Gods #1 (Series Tracker)

The Curse of Chalion is beautifully written high fantasy novel with court intrigue, an interesting religious structure, and a varied cast of likable characters. The story follows a former castillar named Cazaril who attempts to put his life back together after being wronged by a rival. Cazaril is incredibly easy to root for and his story arc is very satisfying.

This book has done a nice job of filling the Robin Hobb-less void in my life and I look forward to reading the other novels and novellas set in this world.

★★★★ out of 5

Review: Blackfish City

BlackfishCity_BiblioTitle: Blackfish City (2018)
Author: Sam J. Miller
Pages: 336

My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


Blackfish City is an imaginative and richly rendered novel about a floating city and its diverse inhabitants. I was immediately intrigued by the setting, which author Sam J. Miller builds from the ground (or seafloor) up by illustrating the physical makeup of the city, how people navigate its socioeconomically segregated divisions, and even down to invented sports that have flourished in the metal beam laden metropolis.

The chapters rotate between the POVs of five-ish characters who are all distinct and compelling in their own ways. Once the character storylines converge, though, their unique narratives are abandoned in service of the main storyline that feels significantly less captivating than what came before it. I had been invested in the individual stories, but tying them so tidily together does a disservice to the unique threads that had been crafted in the first part of the novel.

Overall, this is a well-written novel, with a cool setting, and while it hooked me in the earlygoing it never quite reeled me in.

★★★¼ out of 5

Review: The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World US.jpgTitle: The Eye of the World (1990)
Author: Robert Jordan
Pages: 814
Series: The Wheel of Time #1 (Series Tracker)

Last year I tackled Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings series in its entirety — this year (and probably into next year) I’m hoping to conquer The Wheel of Time. I’ve been following the new Tor.com readalong to supplement the experience, so we’ll see how it goes.

I can understand why this is such a popular series. There is a Tolkien-esque level of epic storytelling and worldbuilding that made for a familiar and pleasant reading experience.  There are countless parallels to The Lord of the Rings that continuously hit you over the head, so I hope Jordan branches out and sets his own course in future books.

My major issue with this first installment was the pacing. This book moves slooowwwly. Every incremental movement of the adventurers across the map feels earned and as laborious as it must have been for the characters. This is not always the case in quest novels, so I respected that element, but was still frustrated with how it hindered the swiftness of the narrative. I look forward to seeing where the overall story leads, but this first book felt too hung up on the nitty gritty details.

★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Before Mars

BeforeMarsTitle: Before Mars (2018)
Author: Emma Newman
Pages: 320
Series: Planetfall #3 (Series Tracker)

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


Upon landing on Mars, geologist/artist Anna Kubrin is immediately suspicious of her surroundings after spotting a series of ominous clues scattered in and around her Martian research facility. She’s unable to ascertain whether she is actually in danger or if it is all a paranoid delusion. Either way, she’s at risk, but nothing will keep her from uncovering the truth.

This was a wonderfully captivating read that I really enjoyed. Author Emma Newman has a masterful way of imbuing her protagonists with vulnerability and emotional depth. It is clear, based on her dedication and acknowledgements, that Newman’s own personal experiences greatly shaped and informed how she painted Anna in this novel, which adds a refreshing layer of authenticity to the narrative. The first half of the novel focuses heavily on Anna and the life she left behind on Earth. At times, the story is bogged down by her internal monologue and crippling self-doubt, but this serves to establish the character and makes way for a strong second half filled with the story beats and action that I knew was waiting to be unveiled.

Although less haunting than Planetfall (2015) and featuring a less complex crime story than After Atlas (2016), Before Mars is a compelling mystery box novel and a worthy addition to the Planetfall universe. With three books released and another on the way, Newman is crafting a superb series of interconnected works, with each subsequent book sprouting a new narrative thread while building upon the stories of the previous books. These books have been excellent and each new one I devour further solidifies their must-read status for me. I hope the story continues well beyond the next installment that is due next year.

★★★★ out of 5

Review: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Gods MonstersTitle: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach (2018)
Author: Kelly Robson
Pages: 176

This is a compelling little story that drops you into a future where ecological disasters have ravaged the Earth and time travel is now a possibility. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on in the first several chapters, but things are made more clear as time passes. The interplay between the chapter epigraphs and the main narrative was a really great feature that I enjoyed puzzling out.

As a setting, ancient Mesopotamia provides a fertile ground (wink wink) for time travel exploration, but the time spent there feels fleeting and underdeveloped. Similarly, the constraints of the novella format made it difficult to get a full grasp on the characters and their relationships. These are minor qualms, though, as I felt like this was a solid novella that certainly warrants a sequel.

★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Master Assassins

36342914Title: Master Assassins (2018)
Author: Robert V.S. Redick
Pages: 458
Series: The Fire Sacraments #1 (Series Tracker)

My thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.


Master Assassins came highly recommended from several sources I trust in the community. I heard words like “masterpiece” and “six stars out of five” thrown around, but unfortunately I did not connect with this one on the same level as others. I breezed above the surface of the narrative, never truly getting sucked into the current. There are nuggets of interesting storytelling happening here, but I found the pacing to be uneven, the story too drawn out, and a bevy of unremarkable side characters that I struggled to care about.  

I’m glad people are enjoying and heaping praise on this book, because Robert V.S. Redick clearly has some serious writing chops, but this series just isn’t for me.

★★¾ out of 5

Review: Arm of the Sphinx

Bancroft_ArmoftheSphinx-TPTitle: Arm of the Sphinx (2018; first published 2014)
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Pages: 380
Series: The Books of Babel #2 (Series Tracker)

In my reading life, I want to get sucked into stories, invested in characters, enraptured by action, and delighted by prose. If only one or two of those boxes can be checked by any given book, I’m perfectly satisfied. Josiah Bancroft’s books check a fifth box — all of the above. Every page of Arm of the Sphinx is a delectable treat, with countless delightful passages, characters, and a story that gets more intriguing as mysteries build and questions are answered.

The Tower of Babel and its surrounding airspace feels pulled from a fairy tale. Bancroft has created a fantastical setting that remains beguiling and limitless in terms of storytelling possibilities. I’m enjoying learning more about the Tower and the direction that the story seems to be going in that regard.

This book expands upon the backstories of each character, doles out meaningful motivations, and pairs the characters up in fun and refreshing ways. The story hits a few lulls leading up to the sections involving the Sphinx, but things pick up again and finish with a satisfying flourish.

Like Senlin Ascends before it, Arm of the Sphinx is inventive, clever, and imbued with a sense of virtuousness and humanity. Bancroft is weaving together a wonderful series that has all the makings of a modern fantasy classic. I cannot wait to get my hands on The Hod King later this year.

★★★★½ out of 5