Book Review: Mask of Shadows

Mask of ShadowsMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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Book Review: Ardulum Third Don

Ardulum: Third DonArdulum: Third Don by J.S. Fields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review coming soon4.5 Stars
Ardulum Third Don was the perfect ending to the trilogy. I can’t comment too much on why without spoiling it, so I’ll just that it came full circle and took Neek aka Atalant in a direction she never expected her life would go.

While the characters are entertaining with fulfilling arcs, my favorite part of this series is the science and how it intersects with a touch of the unknown — of something greater and more spiritual that is just beyond the reach of hard science. I love the idea of spaceships made out of cellulose, of highly intelligent fungi capable of taking down a fleet of spaceships and the sheer biodiversity of the beings in this galaxy.

The vastness of it was very well developed, though I will admit that I had a hard time orienting myself when I returned to book three. I read the first two books back to back, and then I had to wait several months for the third installment. This series is one best binge read.

There is so much to keep track of in the galaxy, but readers are gradually introduced to it in the first two books. I didn’t get lost in those at all. However, having forgot some of those details, trying to remember them, or having to look them up in the back of the book, did pull me out of the story. This is my fault as a reader though, not necessarily a flaw of the story.

The real reason I gave this 4.5 instead of 5 stars was because Captain K’s relationship with the Mmnnuggl was confusing. I did have a hard time following his relationship to them and their thoughts of him. I kept thinking there was an inconsistency but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

Otherwise, once I got back into the flow of the world, I was quite pleased with the overall experience, and very happy to see non-binary characters having adventures in space. There was a great balance of seriousness and humor, a touch of romance that didn’t overpower the plot, plenty of ethical questions to stimulate my mind, suspense, space battles, a great plot and characters I want to spend more time with.

This is a fantastic series. If you are starting from book 1, give yourself time to read the whole trilogy straight through.

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Book Review: Seven-Sided Spy

Seven-Sided SpySeven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Seven-Sided Spy from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review and was pleasantly surprised to find it’s science fiction element was a more prominent part of the story than I initially expected.

When I read the cover copy about once attractive spies deformed and on the run from the KGB, I thought normal scarring, not superhuman abilities and blue skin. The later is much more exciting, at least in my mind.

Yes, it has speculative elements, but Seven Sided Spy is also firmly grounded in reality and history. The slang, cars and clothing really ground me in the time period. The deep character development grounds me in humanity.

I loved how the characters’ past, present and future were all woven through the novel, but felt that at one point, having characters tell each other stories as a way to do that was used a little too much. It worked, though, because a lot of the “present” narrative was the characters stuck in the woods, trying to figure out when or if it would ever be safe to leave.

I honestly was not sure how this was going to end. I had a clear idea of how I wanted it to end, but my ideal ending would not have been the best for the stories true hero, so when I got to the end, the one I didn’t quite expect, it left me a little sad. It almost made me cry. However, it was also happy for at least for one characters. And it worked. I’m just a baby when it comes to endings.

While I am sure there are comparable novels like this one out there, I have not read once recently enough to make comparison. However, if you have ever wanted something like a darker, more grounded, queer Agent Carter, or if you just like spy novels with deep characters and a slight speculative element, then read Seven-Sided Spy.

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Book Review: Smoke City

Smoke CitySmoke City by Keith Rosson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. And I’ll admit, after the first couple chapters, I didn’t think I’d be giving it five stars, but I read on, and was won over the by the characters, subtle magic and tightly woven plots.

The end to this book left me feeling pretty good — in fact, this one was one the rare occasions where the book ended almost exactly how I hoped it would. Something that started our grimy and depressing had a surprisingly happy ending.

But enough about the ending.

It took me a little while to engage with this. The protagonists were two middle aged men who were more or less a wreck, way more of a wreck than I am now, but as I read and thought about how they were the kind of wreck I could be if I wasn’t careful, I found common ground with the characters.

Meanwhile, the gritty, grimy realism was being seasoned with the paranormal. I was intrigued by the smokes and specters and the snippets of Marvin’s past lives. There were lots of threads in this novel, but they were also tightly knit together.

It’s a hard novel to describe ( if you want a better idea of the premise, read the back cover copy that comes with book). However, if I had to compare it to other books, I’d say it’s a strange blend of Breakfast of Champions, Cloud Atlas and American Gods.

It may have a slow build, but Smoke City is worth it in the end.

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Book Review: The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower (The Winternight Trilogy #2)The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A slow start, an epic middle and a bittersweet end describe The Girl in the Tower.

When I read the first book in the Winternight Trilogy last year, I hadn’t realized it was a series, but enjoyed it enough to request a copy when I realized there was a book 2, and it was on NetGalley.

The opening was loaded with gorgeous prose and historical detail, but it was a long time before I got to read a chapter from the hero’s (Vasya’s) point of view. However, once she showed up in the book, she swept me away like wind from a wild winter storm and hardly let me put the book down an end that almost made me cry.

While the historic setting was detailed and well researched, it was also incredibly frustrating. I wanted to punch almost every male in the story at one point or another for being misogynistic jerks. The difference is the way Vasya was treated when people thought she was a boy versus new she was a girl really captured the sexism of the time period. However, since this book was also laden with magic and folklore, I kept waiting and hoping for that historically accurate sexism to be subverted.

I liked that Vasya put on her pants in the wild woods long before she re-entered human society. It made her character and identity feel more genuine. However, my problem with female characters that “cross-dress” or “pretend” to be boys when live in a society like this makes wonder if they do that because their culture’s view of women is oppressive, or if it is simply because of who they are. If Vasya lived today, would she still want to play the role of a man? Or would she be content a woman?

I’m always looking for books with human characters that subvert gender binaries, but historical fiction can blur or even invalidate that because it is so hard to tell how much of the character’s desire to cross-dress is internal and how much is external.

Either way, I still love how wild and determined Vasya is, curse her when she makes bad decisions, and root for her to in. I can’t see how she can find peace and be alive in the world she lives in, but now that I know it is a trilogy, I am okay with the way things ended in this book, but I do not expect any kind of happy ending where she survives the end of the trilogy.

If you are looking for a darker fairytale or historic fantasy, then you will enjoy this, but don’t pick it up if you want a disney-worthy happily ever after.

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Book Review – Ardulum: Second Don

Ardulum: Second DonArdulum: Second Don by J.S. Fields

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second book was just as good as the first, and I am very thankful I was able to get a free digital ARC.

The characters were constantly growing and being pushed to evolve. They were all flawed in ways that made me want to root for them. The obstacles thrown at them were believable enough to accept but big enough to pose a significant challenged.

The romance subplot is is picking up a bit, though it is still going at an incredibly slow, frustrating pace. This really puts the slow in slow burn. However, the romance really is a subplot, and there is so much more to this book.

The main plot was faster than the romance. I was reading on my kindle. One minute I was at 54%. The next time I looked at my progress, I was 77%, 95% and then I was done. It flew by, and I really wish book 3 was already out. The little teaser at the end of this made me want to read it now!

I may have already said this in the first review, but I loved how different pronouns were used for different species who had members that were neither male nor female, but while the idea of a true third gender was awesome, it wasn’t with the humans.

I have no complaints about this book. I had been reading more fantasy than science fiction, but the authors and editors at NineStar press, with books like the Ardulum series, Dalí, and Trans Liberty Riot Brigade, are reminding me how powerful science fiction can be when it involves complex characters and issues.

Ardulum was entertaining. It kept me on the edge of my seat trying to figure out what was going to happen next, and got me through a bad day, but it also made me think. It made me think about gender and sexuality, about human rights, religion, faith, diversity and where technology and advancement can build society up and break it down. Second Don was a little darker than First Don, but it wasn’t bleak and hopeless. Yes, it exposed some nasty flaws, but also offered hope that they might begin to heal in Third Don.

I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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Book Review: Phaethon

PhaethonPhaethon by Rachel Sharp

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From Holly Black to Jim Butcher, I read a lot of books that involve Faeries of one kind or another. Still, this one felt fresh. It had the folklore grounding of a Holly Black novel, but a tone and humor more likely to appeal to Butcher fan’s.

The characters were cute and believable – people I could picture myself being friends with.

The plot was fast paced, and for the most part, I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the ride.

As far as flaws go, sometimes things seemed a little too easy. I laughed a little when one of the characters said humans were fixing Earth, but reminded myself that the political climate may have been more…optimistic…when this book began.

The rest of the story was fun and well thought out, so I can forgive those flaws.

If you like a good blend of science and fantasy, then you will enjoy Phaethon.

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A Review of Wings Unseen

Wings UnseenWings Unseen by Rebecca Gomez Farrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an early copy from NetGalley for a fair, honest, review.

Wings Unseen got off to a slow start with a first chapter that almost made me put the book down. However, I am glad I kept reading. I loved watching how a character that repulsed me on the first page transformed into someone I was rooting for, and she was just one of many fascinating characters.

Characters were one of many things I liked about this book.

The juxtaposition of two opposite realms was a fascinating way to explore gender roles, the relationship between the people and the government, and what people can come to accept as normal.

The world was exquisitely developed and describe with language that was beautiful and readable.

Once I got past the first quarter of the book, the pace picked up and suspense made me want to keep reading. The romance subplot was not what I expected, and near the middle of the book, when combined with the pacing the way the writer alternated between pov’s, made me want to cry, yell, or throw the book across the room.

Even though I wanted the characters to take different paths, but the end, the author convinced me they had made the right choice, and the emotions I experienced mid book were probably just a smidgen of what the characters would feel were this real.

Overall, it was worth read, and I would reccomend it to anyone who likes epic fantasy and has patience for a book that burns slowly.

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Professional Reader

Don’t Judge this By Its 1st Chapter: A Review of How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freakin’ Days

How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freakin' DaysHow I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freakin’ Days by Megan O’Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you enjoyed Chronicles of Nick by Sherrilyn Kenyon, you will probably enjoy How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freakin’ Days as they both feature a snarky, sort of whiny, self-aware narrator who wants to be like Deadpool but isn’t quite as cool.

At the beginning, I was not a fan of this book, or Bryant, its narrator/main character. My first impression was that he was a racist dick because made a comment about “old black ladies” watching out for him. That opening chapter really made me think the book drew unnecessary attention to race, and made me want to punch Bryant in the face.

But Bryant grew on me. He made me laugh. I loved the idea of the magic cell phone, and the world was well built. That first chapter was really the only one that had a racist vibe. There were some lines that were a bit too corny, even for this character, but in the end, the plot and the world drew me in. Bryant did grow and change throughout book, and he learned something in the end, which more than I can say for the characters in Valerian.

Speaking of the end, it wrapped up the main storyline, but left plenty room for a sequel, which I would probably read. However, I never read the second book in the Chronicles of Nick, so maybe I will be content to leave Bryant with one book. Books, like all arts, are subjective, and Bryant’s voice just wasn’t one I connected with. That doesn’t mean it was bad — just not my cup of tea.

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P.S. I received a free copy of this through NetGalley.

Book Review: The Dying Game

The Dying GameThe Dying Game by Asa Åvdic

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

This one is going to be hard to review without spoilers, but I’ll do the best I can.

I received an ARC of The Dying Game through the First to Read program. I initially chose it because I thought it might eventually be a good comp for one of my novels. It was thriller set in the near future and it had a female protagonist trying to get over something bad. That part of the concept seemed neat. The whole set up with people disappearing from a secluded house filled with secret passages was cliche.

Overall, the book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. I get part of the thriller genre is to keep people guessing, but some of the details the author choose to leave out were downright distracting. For example, I never quite figured out the main character actually did at her job. I was constantly thinking about this instead of the story, and as a result, found myself constantly getting pulled out of the story. While the author skimped on details that seemed important, there were large swaths of back story that was just told, and more info dumps than I could count.

I kept thinking that all this was going to be relevant when I got to the end. Some of it was — but the end would have been far more surprising had the backstory been woven through in a more subtle way. Because of the info dumps and long, told, segments of flashbacks, the end was pretty much exactly what I was expecting, though, I admit, there were a few times in the middle where I thought I was wrong, and found myself hoping in vain for a more optimistic ending.

I also felt most of the characters were unnessarily sexist and binary. After reading two books with intersex and genderfluid leads, this felt like a slap in the face. I can see a female writer making the men seem a bit misogynistic to make a point, but there could have been at least one female character who wasn’t a stereotype of one kind or another…

Despite the many flaws of the The Dying Game, I did keep reading until the end, even though I considered giving up a couple times. The prose were pretty — there was good literary scenary that made it a little less painful. I also wanted to know if I was right about where the plot was going, and really hate to leave a novel unfinished (House of Leaves is still siting on my book case, mocking me. It doesn’t need a friend.) So I kept reading, and got to the ending I really wished I had been wrong about.

I my head, this book is 2.5 stars, but Goodreads and Amazon don’t give that option, so I’m rounding up when I review on those sites.

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