Once and Future is my favorite book I’ve read in 2019. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing in one day and really wish the sequel was already out.
Concerning the plot and concept, it reminded me of two of my favorite no longer running TV shows: BBC’s Merlin and Firefly. The world had a bit of a dystopian flare, reminiscent of Hunger Games and Feed.
There were spaceships, unchecked capitalism, sketch government cover ups, and hereos resisting cooperate villains.
Once and Future had just the right balance of goofy, darkness, action, and romance.
And all the characters were queer. One POV character was pan. Another was gay. There was a gender fluid side character with they/them pronouns. Another side character was ace. This book had all the LGBTQIA rep.
The crew was full of personality!
I have zero complaints about the characters, plot, or ending. Even though this was a retelling, I was never quite sure what was going to happen next!
The only flaw I noticed was one I didn’t think of until a few days after I finished reading . The world building, on the science fiction side, lacked detail and explanation. So if you are someone who wants to know how the space travel and the terraforming and whatnot works, then you might have a problem with this aspect of it.
I had no problem ignoring those holes and just taking everything at face value. This was more science fantasy than science fiction anyway. After all, there was magic.
And really, I was in it for the characters and the adventure, not the technical side of the world building, so I’m still giving it five stars.
I received a free copy of Empire of Light from the author, Alex Harrow, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Empire of Light was an action packed read that was challenging to review without giving away, but I think I’ve manage to come up with something spoiler free.
There was no shortage of action in this book. There were gun fights, fist fights, explosions, and even some of the steamy scenes were a little violent (because the mc and his love interests were into that). Sometimes in books, big action sequences can get confusing, but I didn’t have any trouble with these. The blocking was clear and well executed. I never lost track of who was who and where everyone was.
The downside to all the action was that it distracted me from the characters. Despite all the excitement, I was at least third of the way into book before I really became invested in the characters. They were so busy fighting, never coming up for air, that it was hard to see past their snark, outer shells, and shooting skills to see what growth they needed and were experiencing.
Once I was half way through the book, I couldn’t put it down. When Damian had lost so much and had his back against the ropes and was forced to rest a little because of the injuries that kept battering his body, then I finally got to know and like him a little more. Despite the ease with which killed people and a high tolerance for gore, he was a complex character who grew and matured throughout the book.
The rest of the cast was fascinating, but because of all the action, I felt like I didn’t get to spend quite enough time with them. A lot of these fascinating side characters die, so I guess not getting too invested in them was a blessing, otherwise I would’ve gotten grumpy at the book right around when I ended up getting more invested in it.
I was a little concerned with how violent some of them were towards people they cared about. It seemed standard for the Shadows to beat each other up when they got mad at each other and snippets of flashback and backstory showed their leader/mother figure beating them up when they made mistakes. However, their almost pirate-like status seems to give permission to this and make it acceptable to readers. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it as sometimes I write characters like this too. It just makes me think about what kind of violence and abuse readers tolerate in certain kinds of settings.
The plot and setting were not quite what I expected, but they were still good. Harrow had described this as a gay Firefly with magic, but I found Empire of Light had little in common with Firefly. Empire of Light was more dystopian than space western. Still, the plots, assassination attempts, rescue missions, and the romance were well executed and nicely built to the end and I could never quite predict what was going to happen next. I just knew that no one was going to give up, and that there would be plenty more explosions.
The city Empire of Light was set in was fascinating and very much a character in the story, though until a few hints near the end of the book, I was wondering what was in the world beyond this two sided city, where the food came from, and where things were manufactured because the wealthier people in this story did seem to have new things. Because this world was so interesting, I wanted a few clearer hints about the bigger picture of it.
There was a love triangle in this book. I’m not generally a fan of these because they never end well, but I really didn’t mind this one and it was wrapped in a far less painful way than most other love triangles. I actually kind of liked this one.
This may sound like a lot of criticism for a four star review, but in spite the problems I pointed it out, I really did enjoy Empire of Light and suspect the sequel (assuming there is one) will be even better.
I love how Vasya resists the gender roles of her time, how she grows into herself and figures out who she really is. Her persistence, pain, wildness, courage, and dedication are tangible things. I loved struggling and succeeding and navigating a myriad of complicated relationships through her point of view. Morozko was my second favorite character, perhaps made more intriguing by the fact that readers really did not get to see much from his point of view. The others were okay, but every time the narrative shifted to them, I just wanted to get back to Vasya.
I did find myself annoyed at the way the book shifted point of view. This varies from reader to reader, but I prefer to read from one point of view for a whole chapter and get annoyed when scene breaks indicate a switch in point of view. On more than one occasion, I found myself rereading to remind myself which character’s eyes the world was being filtered through.
The world building was fantastic. I was smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing right along with the characters. And it wasn’t boring or overwhelming. Every detail Arden chose to focus on was relevant and added to the tone or mood of the scene. I loved that the magic system and creatures were based off of actual myths, and that some of the characters were named after people who actually existed and fought in a battle the one in the book was based off of.
One downside of historically accurate fiction is that it is often loaded with sexism and misogyny the contemporary world is struggling to shake. Throughout this trilogy, were there was no shortage of sexist men treating woman like inferior beings or objects. However, I was happy that there were less of those in this book and that Vasya had earned the respect of men who previously looked down on her.
As much as I enjoy escaping to worlds without sexism, to worlds where gender isn’t a rigid binary thing people are judged by, I do believe there is plenty of room for those books to co-exist with novels like this that don’t censor the shitty parts of history. Historical fantasy has it’s value too. It makes me appreciate how far society has come.I’ll certainly miss Vasya, Morozko, and their complex, slow burn romance, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Arden writes next.
2018 is just about over, and while it may not have been my most fruitful year for producing new work, it was a fantastic year for publishing. My first novel was published. My short fiction and poetry appeared in nineteen publications
When I want to buy books as gifts for friends and family who love to read, the trickiest part is usually figuring out what books they haven’t actually read yet. Going into a book store, whether it be my local indie or a Barnes and Noble, I always see books from the big names and the same big publishers on the shelves.
If I’m buying a book as a gift, I don’t want to buy something the person already has. I want to get them a unique gift; something I know they haven’t read but might become one of their new favorites.
The best way to do this is to steer clear of the big names that dominate the shelves in bookstores and to turn to the small press’ whose books stores often hesitate to take a chance on or just never discover.
Here are eight great books you might not find on the shelves of your local shop:
The Ardulum series is one of my favorite space operas and would make a great gift for anyone who is a fan of Firefly. Complex, colorful characters, fiber based space-ships, original aliens, and a traveling plant make this book truely unique.
If you know a teen who loves urban fantasy, this hilarious, high stakes romp through a magical version of New York City might be the perfect the gift! It reminded me a little of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Infinity or a goofy, male-narrated cross between Tithe and a pg-13 Deadpool.
Omen Operation is the first of three books in the Isolation Series, which the author describes as a cross between Resident Evil and X-men. If you know someone who likes contemporary science fiction with lots of action, lots of kissing, a wide range of LGBTQ+ representation, and complicated characters, Omen Operation will make a great gift for them.
If you’re searching for a gift for an adult reader who likes magical realism, Kurt Vonnegut, and/or Martin Millar, I recommend Smoke City. Rossen “blurs genre and literary fiction” with reincarnation, road trips, alcoholism, and mysterious smoke ghosts.
Phaethon mixes Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series with Holly Black’s A Modern Faerie Tales series and makes it a standalone book for adults. It’s a perfect gift for fans of urban fantasy who enjoy seeing faeries wreck havoc in the modern world.
When it comes to adult readers who like spies and science fiction, I recommend Seven-Sided Spy, a cold war era novel with a super-soldier and survival plot that appeals to fans of Agents of Shield and Peggy Carter.
Last but not least, I have to plug my own book. Power Surge is great for older teens and young adults, especially those who enjoy dark urban fantasy. Readers of Jim Butcher, Cassandra Clare, and Holly Black will definitely enjoy it!
I’ve lived my entire life with characters and stories in my head. Some were as original as anything can be while others were fan-fictions that never escaped my maze of a mind long enough to be put on paper.
After watching Xena: Warrior Princess, I’d run around the house with music blasting. The living room would fade as I retreated into my head where I reimagined the episode with myself, or a character based off of myself, involved in some major way. If no one interrupted me, I’d plot out the next episode and the next. Each would steer further from the plot, featuring more of me and my made up characters and less Xena and Gabrielle.
TV shows and movies never failed to rev up my imagination, but they were not my only source of stories. Songs, fears, news, and my contorted perception of reality were compost to my imagination’s produce.
For all the stories I dreamed while running and dancing, I wrote sporadically, scribbling ideas in journals and penning poems for school assignments. As much as I loved making stories, the creative part of my brain rarely worked unless my body was moving.
So the characters stayed inside me. To an extent, they grew with me.
Terrifying magical adventures involving waterfalls, brain-altering head injuries, supernatural relatives, and a fair amount of time travel shaped them into distinct people that had less and less in common with me as time went on.
They reproduced like cells.
As the adventures piled up an they grew more and more complex, sometimes, they split into two or three different characters.
Yes, some of them had things in common with me, but none of them were me. I no longer had a version of myself that popped into tv shows and fan fiction. I had a cast of distinct , developed characters trying to claw their way out of my head.
Ari. Amelia. Elle. Erin. Lucy. Michael. Sam.
There are more, but some of their names have faded from memory even if their personalities haven’t.
I started writing. I had to. My brain would’ve exploded. Reality would’ve shattered. Something bad would’ve happened.
At first, writing came in short bursts. Stories would fill a notebook on rainy summer days or cold winter nights. Senior year of high school, I wrote and illustrated the first twenty or so pages of a centaur portal fantasy. Freshmen year of college, I wrote the first act of a screen play. I started a novel. I wrote a short story. Started another novel.
Each time I wrote, the characters that grew up with me appeared in the story along side new faces. My burst of writing grew longer each time they happened.
When I was 26, on a cold October night when I couldn’t sleep, I started the longest writing spurt I’d ever had, meaning it hasn’t ended. In one for or another, I have written every day since then.
Characters and pieces of stories coalesced into novels.
The characters continued to grow through the whole process.
Now, I’m proud to say that the world gets to meet two characters that have lived in my head under one name or another for most of my life.
Erin and Mel (Amelia) debuted in notebook pages. They solidified in a screenplay. Bloomed in a mess of a half of a book I started in college. They slept for decades, through short stories and a paranormal suspense.
They slept but the they never left. Their identities evolved with mine.
Erin’s mental health deteriorated with mine. When I discovered the words and concepts that I could use to finally explain how I felt about my gender, Erin used those words too
I could tell you what Mel or Erin had for breakfast on any given day. I could tell you about their first kisses, their greatest fears, most embarrassing moments, successes and failures. The last mountain they skied. The last trail they hiked
People always ask me how I keep it all in my head, if I had spreadsheets and pages of notes.
When it comes to the Evanstars? I didn’t need those things. I internalized world and most of it’s inhabitants long before I started writing. I have drafts and short stories and micro stories and poems.
I have dreams.
These characters own a piece of me.
They are pieces of me.
Their stories will always live in my soul, but if I have readers willing to read, then I will write and write in this universe as long as I can.
I just hope that when readers meet them on October 1st, they love them as much as I do.
Today I wanted to read something a little longer than a short story, but I didn’t want to commit to a novel because I needed to get some writing done. I had an ARC courtesy of the author, so I could read and review the sequel, Undertow.
I enjoyed the writing in this book, how beautifully emotion was conveyed, and how Ray handled having a trans main character.
I loved that Ray didn’t make the book about the mc’s gender — it was a magic, witchy romance where the lead happened to be trans. The character’s identity was present enough for the reader know he was trans, to see how it shaped his view of the world and relationships, but it didn’t take over the plot. As a non-binary person, this is the kind of representation I seek out, even if it isn’t exactly my identity on the page.
I almost didn’t read this book because it was labeled as having explicit sex and as erotic romance, and lately, I just haven’t felt like reading books with a lot of sex. I’m glad I picked this one up anyway. There were three, maybe four scenes of explicit sex, but they weren’t gratuitous. They were so tied into the characters’ growth and development that they felt necessary and this particular story wouldn’t have been the same without them.
I do have to say, while the elemental magic was pretty awesome, my favorite piece of the magic system was the trees.
Given to the Earth is a continuation of the events in Given to the Earth. I’ll refrain from describing the plot in this review because I’m not sure I can do so without spoilers or copying too much for the blurb.
On the sentence level, the writing was lovely. I never had trouble picturing anything, and felt every time the writer stopped to describe something in detail, it was relevant and layered with meaning. However, that wasn’t enough for me to be drawn in the book like I expected to be.
As much as I loved the cast of the Given Duet, I had a hard time getting into Given to the Earth. I wanted to spend more time with the characters and to find out what happened to them, but the short chapters quickly jumping from one character to the next made it hard for to settle into a rhythm and engage with the story.
I also found I had a hard time keeping track of who was narrating when and found myself flipping back to the beginning of chapters (at least with the first half of the book) to remind myself who was narrating. I always knew when Khosa or Dara was narrating, but there were a few instances where I thought I was reading Vincent but after a couple paragraphs, realized it was Donil when he said Vincent’s name or thought about his sister, Dara.
However, when I was a little over half-way through the book, that problem stopped. I found the rhythm of each characters voice and the rapid fire switching from one narrator to the next became a good thing because I wanted to know how everyone’s narratives fit together and how a string of good and bad decisions were going to play out in the end. I was engaged with the narrative that couldn’t fall asleep and got up to finish the book.
As I got closer to the end, I realized that this book was doing something that I love and hate: showing how dozens of decisions each characters make turn into mistakes because of their timing and a lack of communication, bring the characters so close to what could’ve been a peaceful or happy ending (for most of them) only to have it completely turned over by one thing that they overlooked.
There were a few surprises along the way, mostly, the narrative ended exactly how I knew it would and hoped it wouldn’t. It became too familiar. There were a few moments where I was thinking things like “ok I guess ___ had to ___ in order for ___ and ___ to have a happy ending” but after a good night’s sleep and reflection on how this compared to the book I read before it, I realized it didn’t have to end that way. The author could’ve broken the trope and come up with a more creative ending were more people live happily with each other. I know this is vague, but being any more specific would mean spoilers, which I don’t want to include.
Given to the Earth may not be the best sequel I’ve ever read, but if you read Given to the Sea and enjoyed it, this is still worth reading. It’s well written and well paced once you get into the rhythm of the narrators and their voices. And if you’re okay with teary traditional endings to fantasy novels with almost Arthurian love triangles, them maybe you won’t have the same problem with this that I did.
I received a free electronic copy of Ruin of Stars, the sequel to Mask of Shadows, in exchange for an honest review.
Mask of Shadows was good, but Ruin of Stars is still ten times better.
The plot in Ruin of Stars was complex and nuanced. It didn’t follow a trope like it’s predecessor; it was more completely driven by the characters wants and what got in their way.
Sal’s drive for revenge has aligned with the needs of the queen, so Sal is sent out to kill the rest of the people on their list. In the process, Sal encounters betrayals, loses someone they care about, and discovers something that changes their world. Being any more specific than this will give too much away and ruin the book. Reading through it was like untangling a tight not — difficult at times, but so satisfying when it was done.
As I read, my understanding of my favorite characters grew deeper and more complex. They had me rooting for them, hating them, and crying for them, sometimes all at once.
The prose were well crafted and lyrical, making the feelings and emotions of these characters so clear I could almost feel themself. I always appreciate writers who can do this because it is one of the things I struggle with most when it comes to my own writing.
More detail was giving to the politics of the world in this book than in Mask of Shadows. That helped me understand some of the hatred and the motives for it that motivated several characters, including Sal. Erland culture was definitely explored in more detail, including not so subtle descriptions about appearance and ideology that made me think of the Erland lords as Nazi-inspired.
All the descriptions of being gender fluid and of how it felt when society doesn’t acknowledge that rang true to me. Like Sal, I’m “fluid” and “in-between.” At times, I felt the explanations of Sal’s gender identity and of other characters’ gender identities and sexualities to be a little too heavy handed. At some points, the description of it seemed to overpower other aspects of the story, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I may have been reading thinking “obviously, that is a valid identity,” but I forget that there are probably ten times as many readers who know very little about not really being a man or a woman, but something in between. In my own work, critique partners and beta readers have said I don’t explain it enough, so what seems like too much for me may not be for the readers who need to read and learn from this book.
For once, I was actually surprised by the ending. Just when I thought I knew exactly how it would turn out, something changed, and I think the epilogue was best part. But I won’t spoil it — so pre-order the book, and read it as soon as you can.
Mask of Shadows has been on my TBR list for a while, but it took being on a vacation in a cabin with no internet and inconsistent, minimal phone service for me to finally pick it up and dig in.
Why did I wait so long to read this? I have no clue.
Mask of Shadows has a well-executed gender-fluid character, a fascinating cast excellent world building, and a steady plot.
Most of the non-romance books I’ve read with this much LGBTQ+ rep have been from smaller publishers that specialize in queer fiction, and because they are small, have a limited reach. It was refreshing to read something like this from a somewhat larger publishing house.
The best part about the book are the characters. Sal had a fascinating backstory, and I enjoyed seeing the story’s world developed through the eyes of survivor and their who had their own set of morals — one that was different from mainstream society, but a code of morals nevertheless. I also loved that Sal’s fluid gender identity was what it was and didn’t have any major impact on the plot. The book was about a thief becoming an assassin. Not about being gender fluid. And it was refreshing to see that most of the other characters were so accepting.
Even though I didn’t get to see the world through their eyes, they other characters also had well-developed back stories. I knew just enough about them by the end to understand their motivations, complications, and why they did what they did, but not so much that it distracted from Sal and the plot.
The plot was decent, but not as good as the characters. I’m getting a little tired of reading books where the plots seem like lethal versions of reality TV shows: everyone is competing for ___, only one can get it, and either everyone else, or a lot of the other competitors, die. Hunger Games, Throne of Glass, and Ink and Bone are a few that follow this plot line.
While the tone and characters were very different, the concept of people competing to be a monarch’s assassin was extremely similar to that of Throne of Glass. However, there were some problems I had with Throne of Glass, that I didn’t have with this book. Explaining them would have some potential spoilers, so I’ll refrain. However, if you haven’t read either and only want to read one, Mask of Shadows is definitely the fresher take on the many competing in deadly game for one title trope. It has less cliches and more interesting characters.