Genre: Fantasy

Review – The Winter Prince

Posted July 17, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – The Winter Prince

The Winter Prince

by Elizabeth E. Wein

Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 216
Series: The Lion Hunters #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

The story of Medraut - strong, skilled, daring, and never to be king...

Medraut is the eldest son of Artos, high king of Britain; and, but for an accident of birth, would-be heir to the throne. Instead, his younger half-brother, Lleu, is chosen to be prince of Britain. Lleu is fragile, often ill, unskilled in weaponry and statesmanship, and childishly afraid of the dark. Even Lleu's twin sister, Goewin, seems more suited to rule the kingdom.

Medraut cannot bear to be commanded and contradicted by this weakling brother who he feels has usurped his birthright and his father's favor. Torn and bitter, haunted by jealousy, self-doubt, and thwarted ambition, he joins Morgause, the high king's treacherous sister, in a plot to force Artos to forfeit his power and kingdom in exchange for Lleu's life. But this plot soon proves to be much more - a battlefield on which Medraut is forced to decide, for good or evil, where his own allegiance truly lies...

It’s really hard to know what to say about Elizabeth E. Wein’s The Winter Prince, because I’m still muddling through what I think about it — even though I’ve read it before. It’s an Arthurian story, written from the point of view of Medraut, reflecting largely on his relationship with his brother (Arthur’s legitimate son), Lleu, and his relationship with his mother, Morgause. Morgause haunts the story, scarring Medraut’s mind as much as on his body.

In a way, a good quarter of the narrative feels like a fever dream (which makes sense, given that Medraut literally has a fever throughout most of it). The relationship between Lleu and Medraut never entirely makes sense, fraught with jealousy and hurt and anger, weighted by things that shouldn’t be said (and which Lleu says anyway).

It’s beautifully written, and the darkness of Morgause’s hold over Medraut is well done. Nobody here is a particularly good person, with a streak of cruelty deep in them all (some of the things Artos does and says to Medraut are not just). As an examination of that cruelty, it’s powerful.

I don’t know if it quite comes together for me fully, but I remember loving the following books quite a lot, and I’m looking forward to revisiting.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – In Deeper Waters

Posted July 12, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – In Deeper Waters

In Deeper Waters

by F.T. Lukens

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 307
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

A young prince must rely on a mysterious stranger to save him when he is kidnapped during his coming-of-age tour in this swoony adventure that is The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

Prince Tal has long awaited his coming-of-age tour. After spending most of his life cloistered behind palace walls as he learns to keep his forbidden magic secret, he can finally see his family's kingdom for the first time. His first taste of adventure comes just two days into the journey, when their crew discovers a mysterious prisoner on a burning derelict vessel.

Tasked with watching over the prisoner, Tal is surprised to feel an intense connection with the roguish Athlen. So when Athlen leaps overboard and disappears, Tal feels responsible and heartbroken, knowing Athlen could not have survived in the open ocean.

That is, until Tal runs into Athlen days later on dry land, very much alive, and as charming--and secretive--as ever. But before they can pursue anything further, Tal is kidnapped by pirates and held ransom in a plot to reveal his rumored powers and instigate a war. Tal must escape if he hopes to save his family and the kingdom. And Athlen might just be his only hope...

F.T. Lukens’ In Deeper Waters is a fun story in which (spoilers ahead, kind of, but they’re mild and obvious ones) a prince falls in love with a merman, while struggling with his own hidden magic. There’s a bit of a Little Mermaid retelling woven in with Tal’s story, giving Athlen some background and helping round out the denouement.

It’s a quick read and obviously not really aimed at an adult fantasy reader, so it’d be unfair for me to judge it by the same yardstick as I would a book aimed at my usual reading tastes. For me, the romance all felt a bit quick and superficial (though very like my memories of being a teen), and the fast pace made the danger and peril seem pretty low-key (even though it’s life and death for Tal).

I did like Tal’s relationships with his siblings, which felt genuinely warm, but felt the theme of the royal family’s treatment of their people was very lightly treated and could’ve gone further. It’s made clear to Tal that something’s up, but it’s like his one gesture fixes that problem and it slides into the background.

World-building wise, there’s nothing here that isn’t required for the story, giving it a bit of an empty feeling round the edges of the map. Again, that’s probably asking too much of what this book is meant to do. Bottom line is that it was a fun quick read, all the same!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Murder on the Titania & Other Steam-Powered Adventures

Posted July 2, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Murder on the Titania & Other Steam-Powered Adventures

Murder on the Titania & Other Steam-Powered Adventures

by Alex Acks

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 286
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Captain Marta Ramos, the most notorious pirate in the Duchy of Denver, has her hands full between fascinating murder mysteries, the delectable and devious Deliah Nimowitz, Colonel Geoffrey Douglas (the Duke of Denver’s new head of security), a spot of airship engineering and her usual activities: piracy, banditry and burglary. Not to mention the horror of high society tea parties. In contrast, Simms, her second in command, longs only for a quiet life, filled with tasty sausages and fewer explosions. Or does he? Join Captain Ramos, Simms and their crew as they negotiate the perils of air, land and drawing room in a series of fast-paced adventures in a North America that never was.

Murder on the Titania and Other Steam-Powered Adventures includes 4 novellas and a short story about piracy, banditry, burglary, jail-breaking, several brilliant bits of detective work and all manner of otherwise lawless hijinks performed by the valiant Captain Ramos and her crew.

Alex Acks’ Murder on the Titania is a collection of shorts featuring the same two main characters: Captain Marta Ramos and her second-in-command, Simms. They’re pirates and thieves, but Captain Ramos has an interest in murder — solving it, not committing it. The first story is rather oddly from a different third-person limited point of view, and sits a bit oddly with the others where the hero is more clearly Marta, though it doesn’t make for a bad introduction to the world.

It’s a fun enough collection of stories, with a bit of the Sherlock Holmes archetype about Marta Ramos, though Simms doesn’t quite fit into the Watson mould.

The world around the story is kind of sketched in, which was a bit disappointing. There’s clearly some stuff going on there and thoughts that have gone into it, but… we don’t see a lot of it.

Very distracting to have a Duke of Denver, by the way. That’s Lord Wimsey, y’know — and Gerald is an ass, but he’s not that much of an ass. Peter simply wouldn’t allow it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Mirror Mended

Posted June 19, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Mirror Mended

A Mirror Mended

by Alix E. Harrow

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 128
Series: Fractured Fairytales #2
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can't handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White's Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she's desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.

Will Zinnia accept the Queen's poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

A Mirror Mended follows more or less straight on from A Spindle Splintered, and Alix E. Harrow doesn’t give you a lot of background or reminding about the first book — they’re probably best read back-to-back. They don’t follow straight on in time, but they might as well: part of the issue in A Spindle Splintered is that Zinnia hasn’t really thought about what the events of the previous book mean for her. She’s running, still.

I found it all somewhat less, well, charming, without Charm so actively in the mix somehow — her love for Zinnia, her determination to help her, is a really strong part of the appeal. She’s not gone, of course, but for the majority of the story she’s in the background, and Zinnia is trying really hard not to think about her too much.

The romance in this book feels a little too speedy, though I think it could’ve worked for me with a bit more time. I still enjoyed what Harrow did with the meta nature of the story, though, and it’s a fun read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Den of Wolves

Posted June 10, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – Den of Wolves

Den of Wolves

by Juliet Marillier

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 414
Series: Blackthorn & Grim #3
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

Feather bright and feather fine,
None shall harm this child of mine...

Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life.

Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies...

Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone...

Apparently I never posted this review back when I read the book, so here’s a belated one!

Den of Wolves draws the story of Blackthorn and Grim to a close. I waited quite a while to read it, because I didn’t love the direction their relationship was growing in: I adored their bond, but didn’t love that it had to oh-so-typically become a romance. Books with strong bonds between adults that are exclusive and necessary to each member without being romantic are rare enough.

Still, by this point I was ready to accept the direction and enjoy it, and I did: it felt natural for Blackthorn and Grim to find each other and get past their traumas, eventually (much of the book is spent with them apart). I do enjoy that Blackthorn’s feelings about Grim are a good part of the way she manages to rise above her trauma and do the right thing at the right time.

It was also nice to get some answers about Conmael; that was obviously coming, but it could’ve been anticlimatic or weird, and it wasn’t.

The other story of this book features a young girl, Cara, and her relationship with her father… and his decision to send her away while a wild man, a builder, returns to create something called a heartwood house. Blackthorn meets Cara and begins to untangle that mystery with her; I’ll confess that I’d wanted a certain character to be a bit more ambiguous, rather than turning out to be super evil, but mostly other characters around that story had some shades of grey.

It’s a lovely conclusion to the trilogy, but I am glad I waited and let the fact of Grim and Blackthorn’s coming romance settle before I read it, so I didn’t get cranky about it!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Letter to the Luminous Deep

Posted June 4, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Letter to the Luminous Deep

A Letter to the Luminous Deep

by Sylvie Cathrall

Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 368
Series: Luminous Deep #1
Rating: five-stars
Synopsis:

A beautiful discovery outside the window of her underwater home prompts the reclusive E. to begin a correspondence with renowned scholar Henerey Clel. The letters they share are filled with passion, at first for their mutual interests, and then, inevitably, for each other.

Together, they uncover a mystery from the unknown depths, destined to transform the underwater world they both equally fear and love. But by no mere coincidence, a seaquake destroys E.’s home, and she and Henerey vanish.

A year later, E.’s sister Sophy, and Henerey’s brother Vyerin, are left to solve the mystery of their siblings’ disappearances with the letters, sketches and field notes left behind. As they uncover the wondrous love their siblings shared, Sophy and Vyerin learn the key to their disappearance – and what it could mean for life as they know it.

I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I really loved A Letter to the Luminous Deep, which I believe is Sylvie Cathrall’s debut. When I came up for air after finishing it, I was really startled by the number of DNFs, ambivalent reviews, and people who downright hated it. I can understand why, though: it’s written in an entirely epistolary format, which mostly works, and the letters are written with a sort of Regency-level formality and style. That means the execution of the plot takes some serious time, since the letters need to build characters and relationship in order to make the plot feel satisfying.

The frame story behind why these letters have been collected is equally important, in the end, to the story revealed in the letters themselves. There’s basically three threads:

1. Henery and E. form a friendship, discover something mysterious, and investigate it, ultimately leading to their disappearance;
2. E.’s sister Sophy is part of an expedition deep underwater to study wildlife, which encounters something strange as well;
3. Sophy and Vyerin (Henery’s brother) try to piece together their siblings’ archive of letters to understand how their connection formed and what happened to them.

The third thread is fraught with grief and fondness, as Sophy and Vyerin try to figure out what their lives look like without their siblings, try to give comfort to one another, and work through the loss to remember who their siblings were and share something of that. The first and second threads take time to reveal their secrets, and we discover what happened at the same pace as Sophy and Vyerin come to understand it themselves.

It’s a story that rewards some patience, and which may depend on how well the letters hit for you. I had no trouble telling who was writing what letter, though I know other readers did, and I loved E. and her bravery in vulnerability, discussing what is clearly obsessive-compulsive disorder, and possibly also social anxiety or maybe generalised anxiety disorder. I thought that portrayal was well done, as someone who has OCD/GAD, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Cathrall has OCD. (I didn’t find it triggering, for what it’s worth, though the things that get to me are a little different from E.’s triggers.)

I’ve seen people describe this one as cosy, and I think it both is and isn’t. There’s a deep sadness here in knowing from the start that E. and Henery are gone, and in following Vyerin and Sophy’s path to understand why they died.

There are a few points that felt overly awkward to me in the epistolary format, and the one that jumped out was Henery and E.’s first meeting, where we know what happened because they wrote notes to each other on a programme because E.’s brother is putting on some kind of performance that’s too loud for them to hear each other. It’s a reasonably neat way of getting them into the same place but preserving a text record, but what they’ve supposedly written to each other (in full sentences, with punctuation) doesn’t ring true — even lampshaded by the commentary of Sophy, who says her sister would’ve used full sentences to calm herself down.

Still, for the most part it worked well for me, and I felt enchanted. I’m eager to read the next book, and wondering how on earth it can be achieved through the medium of letters.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Warden

Posted May 28, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Review – The Warden

The Warden

by Daniel M. Ford

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 320
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

There was a plan.

She had the money, the connections, even the brains. It was simple: become one of the only female necromancers, pass as many certifications as she could, get a post near the capital, then… profit. The funny thing about plans is that they are seldom under your control.

Now Aelis, a daughter of a noble house and a trained Magister of the Lyceum, finds herself in the far-removed village of Lone Pine. Mending fences and delivering baby goats, serving people who want nothing to do with her. But, not all is well in Lone Pine, and as the villagers Aelis is reluctantly getting to know start to behave strangely, Aelis begins to suspect that there is far greater need for a warden of her talents than she previously thought.

Old magics are restless, and an insignificant village on the furthest boarded of the kingdom might hold secrets far beyond what anyone expected. Aelis might be the only person standing between one of the greatest evils ever known and the rest of the free world.

I had a really good time with Daniel M. Ford’s The Warden. The components are fairly familiar: cocky new graduate is dispatched to a place she believes is below her station and capabilities, becomes part of the community there, and quickly discovers that there are dangers aplenty that require her skills. Aelis looks down a little on the community, and stands upon her dignity, but in part that’s what she’s been taught to do — and she makes up for it with hard graft, never failing in her duty to put her skills and her life on the line for the people she must, as Warden, protect. She’s impatient at times, but ultimately she does her best by her responsibilities, and that wins you a lot.

I did find that one aspect of the plot — Aelis kind of dropping a subject that was actually really important — wasn’t well handled and didn’t really make sense. It’s explained later, but I felt somewhat blindsided by the explanation; I think it needed a little more foreshadowing.

Stylistically, I could have done with a bit less of Aelis talking to herself, and the flashbacks didn’t always feel smooth; it was obviously being used to fill in the world, character and background info needed, but sometimes felt a touch clunky. Aelis’ relationship with Maurenia could have done with some fleshing out, too, but I really feel like I’m nitpicking here. I had fun, I loved Tun and Aelis’ scenes with him, and I think the types and bounds of magic that Aelis can wield (and which exist in general) are interesting. Obviously we have much to learn about the history of the world, and Aelis has a heck of a job left to do.

I’m definitely eager to read Necrobane. I’m even going to try and break my usual mould and read it right away!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe

Posted May 23, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Review – Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe

Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe

by Emma Törzs

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Not all books should be opened.

In this thrilling fantasy debut, meet the family tasked with guarding a trove of magical but deadly books, and the shadowy organisation that will do anything to get them back.

Joanna Kalotay lives alone in the woods of Vermont, the sole protector of a collection of rare books; books that will allow someone to walk through walls or turn water into wine. Books of magic.

Her estranged older sister Esther moves between countries and jobs, constantly changing, never staying anywhere longer than a year, desperate to avoid the deadly magic that killed her mother. Currently working on a research base in Antarctica, she has found love and perhaps a sort of happiness.

But when she finds spots of blood on the mirrors in the research base, she knows someone is coming for her, and that Joanna and her collection are in danger.

If they are to survive, she and Joanna must unravel the secrets their parents kept hidden from them - secrets that span centuries and continents, and could cost them their lives...

It took me a while to read Emma Törzs’ Ink, Blood, Sister, Scribe, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. Enchanted books, magic, sisterly love — on paper it’s all pretty compelling. I was definitely intrigued by the magic of the books, and by Nicholas’ abilities, but I think in the end it just felt a bit slow. It feels like it takes forever to assemble the main cast, and some of the big reveals were wholly unsurprising by the time they came. Maybe a bit more pace would’ve made them feel a bit more momentous.

It doesn’t help that Nicholas and Johanna are fairly static characters, to whom things just happen — and even Esther, who at least goes places and does things, didn’t really leave me with a sense of urgency about what was happening. Not that everything has to have a sense of urgency, but the slowness kind of detracts from the deadly peril.

It felt a bit like “compulsory heterosexuality” when Johanna and Collins started up a romance, as well. The book didn’t need that.

That said, there are things that felt really well done: Nicholas’ complicated feelings about his uncle, for example; Johanna’s love/anger all in one, directed at Esther (and at Cecily); Esther’s relationship with Pearl…

All in all, I’m not sorry I spent the time on it, but it didn’t live up to my hopes, either.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Spindle Splintered

Posted May 16, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – A Spindle Splintered

A Spindle Splintered

by Alix E. Harrow

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 119
Series: Fractured Fairytales #1
Rating: four-stars
Synopsis:

It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no-one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered is a delightfully meta take on Sleeping Beauty, inspired by the Spider-verse. Which makes it sound kind of gimmicky, perhaps, but it (mostly) isn’t — it’s created out of love for the story, for all the ways humans have told the story of Sleeping Beauty, and what a modern take can look like.

Being a novella, it doesn’t go super deeply into world-building or anything: the point is obviously the play with the tropes, the pure fun of summoning a space princess with a blaster gun to save a Sleeping Beauty from her fate. And it works: I tore through it, and loved Zinnia’s relationships with Charm and with her parents, and with Charm falling head over heels for Primrose.

In some ways, I liked Zinnia’s feelings toward her own narrative, the fact that she knows she’s going to die, and sometimes I wanted to tell her to just give it a rest. Which would be unfair with a real person, of course, but it isn’t always super fun to read about in fiction.

Overall, though, very enjoyable, and I’m keen to read the second novella soon too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – If Found, Return to Hell

Posted May 9, 2024 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Review – If Found, Return to Hell

If Found, Return to Hell

by Em X. Liu

Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 162
Rating: three-stars
Synopsis:

Being an intern at One Wizard sounds magical on the page, but in practice mostly means getting yelled at by senior mages and angry clients who've been turned into platypuses alike. So when Journeyman Wen receives a frantic call from a young man who's awoken to a talisman on his bedroom wall and no memory of how it got there, they jump at the chance to escape call center duty and actually help someone for once.

But the case ends up being more complicated than Wen could ever have anticipated. Their client has been possessed by a demon prince from Hell, and he's not interested in leaving...

I love playing around with point of view, and Em X. Liu makes an interesting choice: the book is narrated in second person, which I feel like a lot of people will bounce right off. I love playing with it myself, and I think it was pretty well done here.

I loved Shine and Wang Ran, their negotiation of their situation, the way they quickly decided to make the best of it. You end up with certain expectations from the opening, from other stories like it, and then there’s Wang Ran, and really he’s just a kid. The way all that plays out — and Wang Ran and Shine’s relationship with the character addressed by the narrative — is all really fun.

Things did seem to happen really suddenly, though, and I wasn’t so sure about that part. On the one hand, it is a novella, but… I don’t know, the bond between Shine, Wang Ran and the main character feels a little undercooked for me. I wanted to believe in it, I just didn’t quite. I don’t know what more I’d have liked that wouldn’t feel like filler, but still, I wasn’t quite 100% there in time.

On a side note, I feel like I was oddly better prepared for some of this through becoming such a fan of The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System.

Rating: 3/5

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