Review: Vita Nostra

VitaNostra_HC.jpgTitle: Vita Nostra (November 13, 2018)
Authors: Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
Translator: Julia Meitov Hersey
Pages: 416


Vita Nostra follows the plight of Sasha Samokhina, a Russian teenager who is enrolled at a mysterious college where she undergoes major transformations as she navigates social politics, her unique nature, and a bizarre cadre of peculiar professors.

When I read Harry Potter for the first time, I dreamt about how wondrous and wonderful it would be if a place like Hogwarts existed. The school featured in Vita Nostra elicited the opposite feeling and I hope I never come across such a twisted place. It seemed as though a storm cloud drifted over my head every time I opened this book and it felt like I was reading with gray tinted glasses. The dread and foreboding are palpable.

Have you ever had the nightmare where you show up to a final exam and you forgot to study? Or you forgot you had an exam in the first place and you miss it altogether? This book is like that nightmare on acid. It touches on many anxieties that I had packed away and left in high school. It’s odd and unnerving and it really dug itself into my brain in ways that books don’t normally do.

The plot is evasive by design and we know as little about what’s going on as Sasha does at the start. Sasha eventually finds clarity, but things felt just as murky to me. This was a frustrating read, but there’s something to be said about an author being able to evoke an emotional reaction for a reader. I may not have enjoyed Vita Nostra, but I certainly respect its uniqueness and the tone it sets and maintains throughout.

★★★ out of 5

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

Review: Unholy Land

Unholy-Land-Lavie-Tidhar.jpgTitle: Unholy Land (October 16, 2018)
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Pages: 288

Unholy Land is a stunning achievement. It is packed to the brim with engaging ideas and features a captivating story that I could not stop puzzling over. It will certainly find itself in my Top 10 of 2018 when the year comes to a close.

In the early 20th century, a group of expeditioners traveled to the border of Uganda to inspect a piece of land that was under consideration as a potential site for a Jewish homeland. This site had no holy significance, which made it a difficult sell to “Holy Landers” who considered settling in then-Ottoman Palestine to be a more appropriate choice. Unholy Land explores an alternate history where Jewish settlement in Africa had occurred, as well as the otherworldly borders that came to surround such a place.

I can’t say more about the plot without taking away from what I found to be a marvelous reading experience. There is such an ethereal and intoxicating quality to the story and Tidhar’s writing that I found myself floating through the chapters, not always sure what was happening, or whose perspective we were seeing, but knowing that I wanted to keep reading. The intersecting story threads twisted my brain into a pretzel and I loved it.

Having never read any other work by author Lavie Tidhar, I was blown away by his command of language — every sight, smell, and feeling of a scene is accounted for and communicated in vivid detail. On prose alone, I would have enjoyed this book, but pairing such good writing with such a conceptually intriguing story made for truly enjoyable reading. I look forward to exploring Tidhar’s other works and I hope he continues to write beautiful and thought-provoking speculative fiction.

★★★★½  out of 5

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

Review: Afterwar

9780316558242.jpgTitle: Afterwar (2018)
Author: Lilith Saintcrow
Pages: 416


Afterwar is an uncompromising story about a motley crew of raiders who hunt down war criminals after the Second Civil War. The title is a misnomer — nothing comes after war because war never truly ends. Lilith Saintcrow’s novel explores the scars of war that live on long after a ceasefire has taken place.

There are purposeful parallels to present-day America scattered all throughout this book. Supporters of the ruling political party are dubbed “Firsters” who put “America First,” walls are being built to keep out “immies” (immigrants), and the country is run by a megalomaniac with small hands who bombs his hometown of New York City because the residents there hate him. It’s so on the nose that it became a bit of a distraction when each of these parallels appeared.

Unfortunately, I never fully engaged with the story being told, but I appreciated Saintcrow’s prose and the dark future that she presents, regardless of how upsetting (and possible) it all seems.

★★★ out of 5

Review: Only Human

9780399180118Title: Only Human (2018)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Pages: 336
Series: The Themis Files #3 (Series Tracker)


Having loved the first two books of the Themis Files trilogy, I was expecting a similarly excellent third entry. Unfortunately, Only Human strays from what made the first two books so great and left me disappointed by a much weaker conclusion to the story.

I had been hooked by the shadowy government agents and alien tech mysteries that filled the pages of the first two volumes, but most of that has been left by the wayside and this book deals mostly with the aftermath of previous events.

Although I struggled to stay invested in the overall story, I did continue to enjoy author Sylvain Neuvel’s sharp wit and breezy writing style that he’s honed over the course of the three books. I look forward to seeing what he works on next, as he clearly has a big imagination and a distinct voice.

★★★ out of 5

Review: Aching God

DaVQZiHW0AALaj8Title: Aching God (2018)
Author: Mike Shel
Pages: 598
Series: Iconoclasts #1 (Series Tracker)


Aching God appeared on my radar after seeing several glowing reviews on the r/fantasy subreddit. Now, I don’t always connect with books that r/fantasy fawns over, but this was certainly not the case with Aching God, which is a thoroughly engrossing debut novel that I enjoyed immensely.

The book follows Auric Manteo, a retired mercenary, of sorts, who leads an expedition to return a cursed gem to the haunted temple from whence it came. It’s a straightforward story, but told in expert fashion. The writing is superb, which is not always a given in self-published fare. When a character referred to something as an “ensorcelled receptacle,” I knew that this was the right book for me. I expected a fairly simplistic dungeon quest tale, but it’s really so much more than that. Author Mike Shel has built out the world of Hanifax in rich detail and explores a great deal of the map with compelling encounters and fully-formed characters.

This is for anyone who enjoys dark fantasy and a well-told story. It’s certainly one of my favorite books of 2018 and I will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series, as Aching God builds a very solid foundation from which to jump off from. It feels like sword and sorcery Indiana Jones — and I’m very here for that.

★★★★¼ out of 5

Review: Foundryside

Foundryside_FINAL.jpgTitle: Foundryside (2018)
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Pages: 496
Series: The Founders Trilogy #1 (Series Tracker)

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


Fresh off his brilliant Divine Cities trilogy, author Robert Jackson Bennett is back with Foundryside, the first book in The Founders trilogy. If this first installment is any indication, readers are in for another great fantasy series.

Set between the massive walls of four merchant house cities, Foundryside follows Sancia Grado, a street urchin whose unique relationship with scriving, the magic that fuels Tevanne’s industry, causes all sorts of issues…but also opportunities.

This book has pieces of everything I want in a fantasy novel — an intriguing magic system, rich worldbuilding, interesting characters, humor, and heart. Those pieces coalesce into something really interesting and make for an enjoyable reading experience. Bennett has done an impressive job building the framework of this world, from the physical structure of Tevanne, to the types of characters that inhabit it, as well as the magic system that makes unexpected things possible.

That said, the explanations and complexities of the magic system were sometimes confusing to me and took time away from developing the cast of characters that will need to be further fleshed out before I’m fully committed to their plights.

Luckily, Foundryside is swiftly paced, has great action, and features loads of sharp, snappy dialogue. It’s a fun ride that I won’t be getting off any time soon. I’m very much looking forward to the next book, even though the wait will be longer than usual since this book doesn’t technically come out for another 112 days!

★★★★ out of 5

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: 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: 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