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

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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

Review: Quietus

35464401Title: Quietus (2018)
Author: Tristan Palmgren
Pages: 512

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


With the assistance of a Carthusian monk, anthropologists from distant planes of the multiverse study the spread of the Black Death on Earth to better understand the plague that is ravaging their home civilization.

Ah yes, the ol’ Carthusian monk meets transdimensional anthropologist story that we’ve all read a thousand times before. But seriously, this is a bold swing from a fresh new voice in speculative fiction. Author Tristan Palmgren deserves major points for creativity, even though this historical fiction/science fiction mashup wasn’t totally my cup of tea.

I very much enjoyed the characterization of the monk Niccoluccio Caracciola, who, aside from having a great name, was my favorite character to follow. He functions as a reader proxy, who experiences the infiltration of the anthropologists and gets swept up into a massive conspiracy while tackling his own internal conflict that evolves over the course of the novel. Niccoluccio’s perspective grounds the narrative in some semblance of reality before the story careens away into a somewhat convoluted direction.

Quietus functions most effectively when it’s focused on its historical fiction beats and stumbles as it delves deeper into inaccessible science fiction elements. This, combined with slow pacing, and a story that feels 150 pages too long, leads to a lower rating than I wanted to give. Author Palmgren has a knack for original storytelling, but the blending of two disparate genres didn’t quite work for me.

★★★ out of 5

Review: The Armored Saint

armoredsaint_rev.jpgTitle: The Armored Saint (2018)
Author: Myke Cole
Pages: 192
Series: The Sacred Throne #1 (Series Tracker)

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

Upon witnessing the horrors wrought by the Order, the oppressive ruling authority, village girl Heloise begins to fight back in any way that she can. Author Myke Cole pivots from his usual military fantasy genre to deliver a solid first installment in a new epic fantasy trilogy.

I was impressed with how swiftly Cole orients the reader into a brand new world, a very important factor for a book of this size. I was immediately aware of the customs, religions, societal hierarchies, and just how high the stakes are.

My biggest issue was with the characterization of Heloise, the main character. She has a heart of gold but displays some incredibly poor decision making abilities. Most of the action in this novel is the direct result of Heloise acting recklessly. Hopefully this flaw gives her plenty of room to develop into the hero that she seems destined to become.

Overall, The Armored Saint is a fun, quick read that packs a lot in without feeling overstuffed. I plan to continue with this trilogy and see how it all plays out!

★★★½ out of 5

Review: The Blinding Knife

Weeks - Blinding Knife.jpgTitle: The Blinding Knife (2012)
Author: Brent Weeks
Pages: 671
Series: Lightbringer #2 (Series Tracker)

The Blinding Knife is certainly better than the first entry in the Lightbringer series — there’s less exposition, stronger pacing, and many of the flaws/edges that bugged me in the first book were smoothed over. Unfortunately, these improvements were not enough to make me fall in love with the series. For me, the storylines oscillated between “can’t stop reading” and “disinterested to the point of skimming,” with the latter mode being more prevalent as the book went on. I wanted to read all four books before this year’s release of the final book, but I think this is where I will leave the series. I can see why people enjoy it, but it’s just not for me.

★★★½ out of 5

Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing

81R7TYYgSvLTitle: The Only Harmless Great Thing (2018)
Author: Brooke Bolander
Pages: 96

The Only Harmless Great Thing tells a heartbreaking tale of victimization, injustice, and the bonds shared by all living things. Based loosely on true events, author Brooke Bolander uses killer prose to weave a dark alternate history that demands to be read in one sitting.

This was a novella that I appreciated more than I enjoyed. It features heavy themes and an interwoven narrative that is sometimes difficult to decipher. I suspect that rereading this thin tome would reveal even more layers of meaning than may have been apparent on my first read-through.

★★★½ out of 5

Review: Semiosis

Semiosis.jpgTitle: Semiosis (2018)
Author: Sue Burke
Pages: 338

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

Upon arriving on Pax, a faraway Earth-like planet, human colonists seek to build a peaceful society despite territorial native plants and harsh conditions. The story is told over 100+ years and across several generations of settlers.

I immediately drew parallels between Semiosis and aspects of other recent works of science fiction — the multi-generational narrative of Children of Time, the planet colonizing and community building of Planetfall, and the alien communication angle of Arrival to name a few. As the story moves forward, though, this book forges its own path and becomes wholly original.

Author Sue Burke brings flora to life (both literally and figuratively) in such a skillful way that I was shocked to find that she is not a botanist-turned-novelist. Infusing plants with sentiency and agency adds an eerie quality to this book that was difficult to shake.

Structurally, the beginning sections were much more interesting to me as the time jumps moved us quickly from generation to generation, but things felt stagnant in the final few sections as the focus shifts to one pivotal event instead of years and years of progress. I see the value in altering the plot progression and story beats to keep things fresh, but things slowed down and got stuck focusing on some minutiae that was less appealing to me.

Nevertheless, Semiosis is solid debut novel that nicely executes a high-concept format. It’s disquieting, clever, and a change of pace from what I’m used to reading. I would be intrigued to see what sort of future Sue Burke could cultivate for future generations of the Pax commonwealth should a sequel bear fruit.

★★★¾ out of 5