I have decided to move my blog to different hosting, and, in the process, start over fresh with a brand new domain name (since my following on here is not gigantic, and I like the new one better).
Without further ado, please visit my new blog at thebookwyrm.net (it’s a pun, see?)
All of the existing posts will remain up here until this current domain expires in September, as well as being available on the new site. Any new posts will be posted to the new site only.
For my tiny handful of loyal followers, I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused and hope you will continue to read my book reviews at the new site!
This is a post in my continuing series of reviews of the top 10 2018 SPFBO finalists. Disclaimer, as usual, that I am not affiliated with the contest in any way and my review has no bearing on the final results.
Not sure where to start with this one except that I liked it, a lot. I’m a pretty slow reader when it comes to print/e-book. I hardly ever finish a book in a single day like a lot of my book nerd compatriots seem to manage. But this one I devoured in three days, which, for me, is pretty darned fast (By contrast, Out of Nowhere, which was quite fast paced, took me more than a week).
Ruthless Magic is billed as Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games, which I think is an apt description. It is set in roughly current-day New York City, many years after magic users decided to come out in the open after living in secret for centuries. In order to keep the
muggles dulls from being too suspicious of magic users, they remain under tight control of the North American Confederation of Mages. At age sixteen, those deemed worthy are admitted to the mage college to better learn to control their powers. The rest have their power “dampered,” that is, reduced to a narrow ability to do a single parlor trick. Unfortunately, the mage college appears to be run by Lucius Malfoy, because admission has a lot less to do with how powerful you are and a lot more to do with who your family is. But if you’re not admitted to the college, never fear! You still have one last chance to get in, by declaring for the brutal and strenuous mage’s exam, a nasty Hunger-Games-esque battle royal where teenagers are pushed to their limit and summarily tortured. Success in the exam means glory and respect and mentorship. But failure means having your magical ability removed entirely — if you’re lucky enough to survive.
This book is balanced between two POVs. The first, Finn, is a happy-go-lucky rich boy from a prominent old magic family. Only problem is, he’s really, really terrible at magic. When he’s admitted to the mage college due to his family connections, while his more-talented but
muggle-born new magic friend Hermione Prisha is not, he declares for the exam anyway just to get the chance to see what he’s really worth.
This might have been a poor idea.
The other main POV is Rocío, a Mexican-American teenager living in Brooklyn, who is one of the most talented mages anyone has ever seen. Her family are also magical, but only modestly so, and not enough for any of them to earn a place in magic college. Her parents quietly accepted the Dampering when their turn came, but Rocío’s brother, Javier, decided to take the exam — and never returned. When Rocío, too, is denied entrance to the college despite her prodigious talent, she, too, opts for the exam. Not just to prove herself, but to find out what happened to her brother, and to unmask the corruption that is becoming increasingly evident within the Confederation of Mages.
Now this would normally be the part where I rant about all my little quibbles about the book, except that this time I really didn’t have any. This was a thrilling read from open to close. I loved the characters, loved (to hate) the world building, and felt deeply for everyone who was forced to endure the exam’s brutality. Some people complained about the romance — why are the two characters so focused on their feelings for one another when they are struggling to survive? But personally I thought the romance grew organically and wasn’t insta-love and never got in the way of the main plot. I also liked how Crewe avoided the classic YA love triangle. Finn has a female best friend, but it is established early on that there is nothing romantic between them, and will never be anything romantic between them. Seeing representation of a friendship between a guy and a girl without any annoying romantic tension was a pleasant surprise.
I guess the only minor negative about it was it did feel pretty reminiscent of Hunger Games at times, with some Ender’s Game thrown in for good measure. But there’s nothing really wrong with taking the genre tropes and turning them up to eleven. It felt very similar in tone and themes to Red Rising, which I also enjoyed. Like Red Rising, Ruthless Magic is brazenly unapologetic about how tropey it is, and I honestly respect that a lot.
Continuing my reviews of the top 10 SPFBO 2018 finalists with Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc. Usual disclaimer that I am not affiliated with the contest in any way, and this review has no bearing whatsoever on the final results.
Out of Nowhere is about Sean Danet, a sarcastic tough guy who works as a paramedic in a somewhat seedy Massachusetts town. But Sean has a pretty big secret: one, he’s older than he looks. A lot older. So old that he can’t even remember his childhood, though he does remember such famous figures as Napoleon and Shakespeare. His second secret is that he can heal people supernaturally. He tries to keep both of these things a secret, lest people freak out and he gets run out of town or burnt at the stake. But working on an ambulance, he can heal people just a little, bring them from “probably going to die” to “just merely injured” and thus help people without drawing too much attention to himself. When he heals a guy with an injured ankle, however, the victim definitely takes notice. Soon, Sean finds himself under frequent attack from mysterious European strangers while he races to unravel the conspiracy that threatens everyone he cares about.
I will be brutally honest and say I didn’t have extremely high hopes about this one coming in. I’m not the biggest fan of urban fantasy in general and noir in particular — I do like Dresden Files, but that’s in spite of, not because of, the subgenre. But with this one I was pleasantly surprised.
For one it was nice to see an urban fantasy where the character’s profession is something different than the usual cop or bounty hunter or private eye. Secondly the main character is a Healer archetype which is rare enough in fantasy, but also a Tough Guy Healer who is not a Holier-than-Thou Paladin, which seems even rarer still. Out of Nowhere is a fast-paced page turner, reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code or National Treasure (actually, I pictured the main character’s romantic interest as the woman from National Treasure precisely, but I’ll get back to that later). There were almost no times in the story where I was bored reading it, and I felt thoroughly invested in the characters throughout. The author is, I believe, a paramedic for his day job, so the stuff about the main character’s job as a paramedic felt vividly realistic and believable.
However in some places the book’s greatest strength is also, paradoxically, a weak point. This is entirely a personal preference thing on my part, so your mileage may vary. But while the author being intimately knowledgeable about a subject can lend authenticity and realism to any fantasy work, many authors also have a tendency to get bogged down in minute details that don’t really do anything to advance the plot. I felt that Out of Nowhere suffered from this, slightly, during the early scenes where the protagonist is just going around doing paramedic stuff, it seemed just a little bit too gratuitously like the author was going “Look! I know all about paramedics!” and it was the only place in the book where the plot really dragged. In particular there was one scene where an elderly man’s nurse is trying to convince him to move to a nursing home, and the hero has to convince the nurse that he’s fine where he is. The scene didn’t really advance the main plot seemed to serve no purpose except for to demonstrate how incompetent the nurse was (she never shows up again). Since the nurse is also the only female character not to be described as stunningly attractive, I found this scene especially uncomfortable.
I want to reiterate that this is a very minor gripe, and I would much rather have a bit too much paramedic info-dumping than for an author to just come in and get paramedic knowledge (or any other career knowledge) entirely wrong.
Now to bring up the proverbial elephant in the room, that is, the problematic content other reviewers have brought up. Throughout the course of the book, the main characters exchange a lot of homophobic and racist banter. This is, I think, another facet of the realism of the story, as I can totally believe that lots of paramedics actually talk this way. Would have been nice if it was challenged a bit more, or at least toned down. I don’t think every page-turner urban fantasy needs to turn into a political screed about microaggressions in the paramedic community, but having to read them to such a degree without any confrontation of why it’s problematic is bound to make a lot of people uncomfortable.
The other issue a lot of people bring up is the sexism. There’s no getting around the fact that there is a lot of male gaze in this book. The main character’s love interest has no flaws to speak of, and their relationship was very much insta-love at first sight. It came across as very much wish fulfillment on the author’s part. And honestly, I don’t have a huge problem with this. Let people have their wish fulfillment. If Twilight is allowed to exist, then this should be, too, I suppose.
The problem is that there aren’t any other female characters that the main character doesn’t find hot, except for the one-off nurse who is shown as incompetent. In fact, the main character spends a lot more time than necessary angsting about why he doesn’t want to bang his hot ambulance partner, which was just … weird and uncomfortable.
However while I know that being from “another time” is not an excuse, it is nevertheless unfortunately a noticeable pattern of behavior. It is sadly realistic that someone who’s been alive since before the time of Shakespeare to perhaps have a few outdated social norms. And honesty, I respected the fact that Sean acknowledges some of his sexist impulses, and shows capacity to learn and grow. That’s a lot more flexibility than a lot of the racist uncles and grandmothers around the US. LeClerc, too, has taken the criticism in stride and, rather than becoming defensive, is looking for ways he can do better in the future. This makes me optimistic about future works from this author.
In continuing my quest to read all the top ten SPFBO finalists, next on the list was The Annointed by Keith Ward. Usual disclaimer that I am not associated with the contest in any way and my review has no bearing whatsoever on the final results.
Like the previous finalist I reviewed, Sowing, this book had a lot of things I enjoyed about it, tainted somewhat by some things I really didn’t like. Actually, some of my main complaints about The Annointed are similar to my main complaints about Sowing: that is, gratuitous baby murder, and a so-called “good-guy” who is a just plain awful human being.
This book takes place in a world where people learn their lifespans ahead of time, but can increase their lifespans by ritualistically sacrificing and stealing the life force of someone else. These sacrifices are called proxies, and the act of sacrificing them is called a transfer. The most powerful transfers come from infant proxies who are exactly 99 days old. It is never precisely clarified why 99 days specifically, but perhaps some of the other books set in this world explain it.
The main character of this book is a guy named Xinlas, one of the triplet children of a well-to-do family of dragon breeders. Xinlas was kidnapped and sacrificed on his own 99th day, but miraculously came back to life. Because of this, he believes he is some kind of extra special chosen one. Xinlas is, to put it in the most polite terms possible, an entitled little shit. When we first meet him, he is awaiting his coming of age ceremony where he will learn his predicted lifespan. When he learns that he will live 71 years but maybe, just maybe, the seer who predicted it might have botched the reading, he throws a temper tantrum and leaves on one of his father’s dragons. This is pretty much Xinlas in a nutshell. As the story progresses, we get to see him selfishly flout his parents’ authority multiple times, and he angrily fights tooth and claw against every attempt to make him grow up a bit. When he meets the other main character, Greengrass, he accepts it as a given inevitability that she will fall in love with him, and then resorts to cruelty, insults, and even attempted sexual assault when she doesn’t return his affections. Because of course he does.
I actually am a fan of the trope in fiction where a character starts out as an obnoxious spoiled brat and gradually learns harsh lessons and grows into a decent person. Characters like Malta from Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders and Jezal from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law are some of my favorites in all of fantasy. So I can respect what Ward was trying to do with the character, but unfortunately the execution fell a bit flat. The biggest problem was that Xinlas’s character growth was in no way gradual, and happens all at once near the end. Before that sudden moment of revelation and change, however, the time we spend in Xinlas’s head is not pleasant, and I found him to be a very difficult character to root for.
Fortunately, although Xinlas is ostensibly the main character, he is far from the only POV character, so even if I didn’t enjoy my time with Xinlas, there are plenty of others to choose from. We have Danak, Xinlas’s stepmother, who wishes to end the unethical practice of proxies and transfers. We have Greengrass, the girl from the remote and isolated village of Peacewood who yearns to see the world. We have the people of Greengrass’s village, terrified to confront the outside world for the first time in centuries when the barrier that protects their land starts to fail. We have Xinlas’s triplet siblings, Wrowen and Imbis, who each have their own dreams and hopes for the future. We have Plyonia, the queen, who yearns to raise her children and not see them sacrificed to further her husband’s ambition. And we have Donald Tru– er, I mean, DuQuall, the paranoid manchild of a king, who yearns to cement his rule and his legacy as a more powerful ruler than his father before him.
All of these subplots are quite compelling on their own. Ward creates a world that is vivid and richly imagined, and characters who, for the most part, are compelling and enjoyable to read about.
The biggest weakness of the overall structure of this book is that I felt like it was trying to do too much at once. The main plot centers around the village of Peacewood, named for magical trees of the same name. What’s so special about Peacewood trees? Well, lots of things, but first and foremost is the fact that they float. In this world, nothing else floats on water, not even other types of wood. Dragons exist, making long-distance travel possible, but there’s nothing available that can convey a lot of people at once like a boat could.
Peacewood only grows in this one tiny area, and that area has been cut off from the outside world by a magical barrier for thousands of years. True to their name, the people of Peacewood are a peaceful folk, living in a perfect socialist utopia free of any conflict or poverty or even dishonesty. The barrier is failing, however, and although Greengrass is excited about it, the rest of the people are terrified. They have every right to be, because King Donald-I-Mean-DuQuall has beef with the politicians across the ocean. Unfortunately the limitations in available transportation make an invasion impossible — until he finds out about Peacewood boats. One can see that this is not likely to go well for the citizens of Peacewood. Honestly I expected this story to turn into another derivative of James Cameron’s Avatar, or Pocahontas, or Fern Gully, where Greengrass and Xinlas must team up save Peacewood from the invaders. That … isn’t quite what happens, but more on that later.
The problem is that the Peacewood story, though ostensibly the central plot, too often takes the back seat to the Proxy/Transfer plot line. Danak, stepmother to the main character, is an activist and a religious figure trying to bring an end to the Proxy system. Because of this, she invokes the ire of King Donald-I-Mean-DuQuall and many bad things happen to her and those close to her as a result. However, besides being used to demonstrate that the king is a very bad bad man, this plotline never ties back into the Peacewood plotline in a way that felt particularly satisfying or meaningful. There are also a handful of other subplots that are introduced but never resolved, such as Imbis seeking a baby to murder for her brother, and dragon-worshippers trying to bring an end to dragon ranching.
I was also a bit confused about the nature of spans and what they actually mean. They are clearly not hard and fast predictions, because people die before their span is up all the time, even if they are not used as proxies. Many characters are attacked and murdered in this book, and they never think “A ha, I knew my span was about to run out,” or even, “WTF, I thought I had 20 more years left.” So even if a span means how long you’ll live assuming natural causes, what does that entail? Some people have very short spans, so it can’t just be “how long before you die of old age.” Will you not get fatally ill before your span runs out? Does how you take care of yourself, whether you smoke or drink, how much activity you get, play any role whatsoever?
Anyway, back to the plot, I believe the anti-Proxy activism does tie back into the main plot of the overall series, but in this book, which is meant to be able to be read as a stand-alone, it felt clunky and out of place, and took up a lot of time in the middle so that the Peacewood plot was all shoved in towards the end and resolved, in my opinion, rather hastily in an unsatisfactory way.
The ending was, unfortunately, by far the worst part about this book, and took it from being something I enjoyed with caveats to something that I found truly upsetting. I’m going to attempt a new style of spoiler tag here, but highlight the text for major spoilers.
Xinlas’s father tries to warn the people of Peacewood about DuQuall’s invasion force, but they refuse, claiming they will drive them back with the power of love. What they end up doing is doing some kind of cool in-born magic to join together with their trees and their boats. I had hoped that maybe they
might use some sort of mysterious power to drive back the invasion force, but no luck. Instead, they were just preparing to die, and DuQuall’s forces slaughter them all except for Greengrass, and steal their boats, and head off on an invasion course to the other continent.
Realizing that the boats will sink if the last citizen of Peacewood dies, Greengrass offers to sacrifice her life by volunteering to transfer her life force into Xinlas. Yes, that Xinlas, the dickweed guy who tried to rape her and then kicked her out of the house. Xinlas has had a change of heart at this point and has resolved to try and be a better person, but he has done absolute jack so far to earn forgiveness, and definitely doesn’t deserve to steal the female main character’s life force.
This was the point where I was actually annoyed enough I almost threw the book across the room. I’m glad I didn’t, because that would have likely damaged my Kindle and I can’t afford a new one. However, I had about 2% of the book left at that point, so I forced myself to power through. The horrible ending was mitigated slightly, SLIGHTLY, by what happens next. Unfortunately what also happens next is a good old fashioned deus ex machina.
After the transfer, the boats sink as predicted. DuQuall was on a dragon so he doesn’t die, but he is now stuck in a hostile land without his soldiers to back him up. Not much fun for King Donald. Meanwhile, Xinlas has a vision of some blinking light gods, who have helped him out in the past. They tell him that he can revive Greengrass, if he sacrifices his own life. In his only truly decent act of the whole book, he agrees. But aha! It was a trick! The blinky light gods just wanted to make sure Xinlas was WILLING to die, they didn’t actually plan to kill him. They both survive and live happily ever after! Well except for the fact that Greengrass’s people just got genocided. Oops.
The fate of Greengrass’s people was really disappointing. I get that it is, on some level, the most realistic outcome. I’m having trouble envisioning a way in which the people of Peacewood could have peacefully integrated into the outside world. However, I had hoped Ward would actually try some ideas, rather than having them just give up and accept slaughter, especially since their concerns over life after the barrier collapse were so belabored earlier on.
There were, however, some things I did enjoy about the ending. Xinlas’s character development, though abrupt, was nevertheless heartwarming. And I especially appreciated the fact that Xinlas and Greengrass do not end up together romantically. Xinlas comes to realize that he is not entitled to “Getting the girl,” and that’s okay, and I appreciated that.
I know it sounds like I hated this book, but I didn’t, not really. I think the overall story has a lot of potential with a lot of good ideas, and that Ward is a talented writer. This particular novel just got a bit bogged down in trying to present too many ideas at once, leading to a rushed and ultimately disappointing end.
I have to admit I picked this one up not having high expectations. I’d not really explored much of the Audible Originals program, their program where they let you select one of their exclusive Audible-only audiobooks for free every month. But hey, free is free, and I was intrigued by the cover art. I’m really glad I decided to give this one a listen, though, because it was absolutely delightful. This book only exists as an audiobook, there is no print or e-book version, but narrator Jayne Entwhistle does an excellent job bringing the story to life.
Adventurous Maeve Merritt is constantly getting in trouble at her strict boarding school in Victorian London. She dreams of traveling the world and playing cricket, instead of staying in school pursuing more feminine interests. After hitting the class bully, she is sent to clean up trash, and is surprised as anyone when she discovers a magical genie inside a can of sardines. Such a discovery can’t stay secret for long, however, and soon she has the attention of a local orphan boy, the school’s unfriendly headmistress, and perhaps worst of all, a wealthy and corrupt industrial magnate, who will resort to any means to control the genie for himself. Maeve is in over her head, but one thing she’s never been able to do is abide a bully. Her adventure takes her all across London and to far-off Persia, but in the end it might be her wits, determination, and the love of her friends, not magic, that saves the day.
This story is filled with many of the well-worn middle grade tropes we’ve come to know and love from books like Matilda and the first three Harry Potter books. Despite that, however, it manages to be fresh and interesting, and I loved rooting for Maeve as she finds her way in and out of trouble. Maeve is a refreshingly human character who is allowed to learn and grow and make mistakes. I really enjoyed reading about her relationship with her two best friends, Tommy and Alice, who were both wonderfully human in their own ways. Their interactions and affection for each other shone clearly on the page (or through my headphones, as the case may be).
I appreciate the fact that, while it retains the whimsey of the British boarding school genre, it does little to sugarcoat or romanticize Victorian England. The grim realities of imperialism, work-house conditions, and the plight of the poor in post-Industrial-Revolution Britain are ever-present and never glossed over, but also not belabored. So while I was not left with the impression that Victorian England was a particularly benevolent place, I also didn’t ever feel like I was receiving a lecture instead of enjoying a story.
This book does lean heavily on a character trope I’ve heard a lot of people complain about: that is, the rebellious tomboy who despises feminine pursuits. Most notably, sewing. Maeve complains often about her needle-working class, and the poorly knitted items she’s supposed to give the orphan boys for charity are the butt of many jokes. However I think this book dodges the trap of de-valuing feminine pursuits by also including the character of Alice, who is very feminine, excellent at needle-work, and is as loyal and wonderful a friend as Maeve could ever ask for. The book never gives the impression that sewing and needle-work are useless skills that should be ignored, only that they are not Maeve’s particular area of strength.
One thing that kind of bothered me is something of a spoiler, so I’ll try to keep it in as vague terms as possible. Early on in the book, Maeve lies to one of her friends because she thinks it is necessary. All throughout the rest of the story, this lie eats at Maeve, but she can’t figure out how to break the truth without ruining her friendship. In the end, though, she never has to come clean. The story ends with everything turning out well for the character in question without them ever finding out they were lied to. However I also feel like things are left open enough that there is ripe possibility for a sequel featuring this character as the central protagonist.
Hi everyone! Surprise surprise, I’m still alive. I took some time off from book blogging, but with award season fast approaching, I think it’s time I dusted off this old blog and started doing reviews for all these exciting books and seeing what the fuss is about. My current plan is to read and review each of the 10 finalists for Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Blog Off. Full disclaimer, I am not one of the judges for the contest, and I am not affiliated with the contest in any way. I’m just doing this for fun.
The first of the books I read was Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas. So, without further ado, the review.
This one was actually pretty challenging for me to review objectively, because it had many good things about it, and many things I thought were, unfortunately, less good. To start with the good: I thought this book was incredibly compelling. I finished it all relatively quickly, and at no point during the book was I ever bored, which to be honest, is pretty rare for me, even in books I love. The two main characters felt fleshed out and three dimensional, and they both stood on their own as unique people with wants and desires of their own. While the narrative is unrelenting in putting them through one trial after another, I always found myself rooting for them and wanting them to succeed.
Our heroines live in a walled-off city ruled by the Hulcondans, a ruthless upper class of soldiers. The Hulcondans protect the people of the town from the Itzalin, a race of gray-skinned monsters who also work on the farms as slaves. According to the Hulcondans, the Itzalin would completely overrun the town if given the choice. Whether or not this is true is difficult to say, because we hardly see or hear anything about the Itzalin throughout the entire book. But whatever the case, the Hulcondans claim to protect the common people from the Itzalin, which means they get to do pretty much whatever they want, including, apparently, marrying the local fourteen-year-olds of their choice. Someone in town has been spreading dissent against the Hulcondans in the form of hanging posters in town, and there have been several terrorist attacks where people have died.
Although we have little to go from, I think Grigaliunas did a good job setting up the dystopian nature of the town. There is almost a palpable tension in the air all through the book, making it clear that people are terrified of the Hulcondans, even as they depend on them for protection.
Unfortunately this is where things start to fall apart. Sparse world building would be all right if there were more of a compelling plot, but the truth is this book has hardly any plot at all.
The book has two main characters, Ariliah and Rabreah. Ariliah works in the stables and tries to avoid her abusive mother as much as possible. She dreams of marrying a Hulcondan and advancing her social status, but due to the physical and emotional abuse she’s endured since childhood, she considers herself unworthy of their attentions. Rabreah takes a much dimmer view on the Hulcondans. After being betrayed by one of the highest-ranking Hulcondans in the town, she seeks to join a rebellion against them. However she also loves her sister and will do anything for her, and her would be comrades see this as a liability.
While setting up the two sisters’ needs and wants in a compelling way, the plot unfortunately drops the ball about half way through and fails to really go anywhere. A series of bad things happen to the girls, and it is very heart-wrenching to read about, but I never get the impression that they’ve experienced any growth or agency or progress towards reaching their goals. It feels very much like an entire book of the characters spinning their wheels.
The weakest part of the book by far, however, is the rebellion itself. For being a bunch of feared rebels, they … don’t get up to a lot of rebelling. It’s even heavily implied that whoever’s hanging the posters is doing so outside of rebellion jurisdiction. Indeed, the only people the rebels seem to be working against are their own fellow rebels. The leader of the rebellion is this guy called Sorek. And let me tell you, he is just the worst. Not only is he pretty incompetent at rebelling, but he’s a genuinely horrible person.
Okay, this is the part where I’m going to get into spoiler territory. There will also be swearing. You have been warned. Highlight the text below to read it:
He initiates Rabreah into the rebellion by pretending to be a Hulcondan and kidnapping her and interrogating her. He tortures her, literally cutting her with a literal knife, and threatens sexual assault including groping and a forced kiss. He even pretends to murder Rabreah’s best friend (who is in on this little jest, apparently) in front of her.
Afterwards, he’s all, like, “You’re fine, I was just joshin’ ya.”
NO BITCH SHE IS NOT FINE. She’s probably going to have PTSD from this shit. The worst part is, while Rabreah is justifiably upset at Sorek at first, eventually she comes around to liking him. The narrative strongly hints at a blossoming romance between them, even though he also very openly flirts with her sister, which is just gross.
Right. Anyway. In summary, fuck Sorek sideways with a rusty spork. It is possible that in the second book he will be cast as more of a villain, but unfortunately I really think the narrative is setting him up to be some kind of hero. Either way, the way he is presented in this book makes me unfortunately unlikely to read any sequels.
Edit: My bad, his name was Sorek, not Yorek. Apparently I disliked the character so much I forgot his darn name.
I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. And, in the grand tradition of being the worst book blogger ever, I procrastinated finishing it until, you know, the actual book was already out.
I’m not sure what about this book made it take so long to get through. It’s not a long book by any means. Nor is it a bad book. Certainly, I loved the first book, and eagerly anticipated the sequel. I was thrilled when I was selected to receive an early copy. But something about this book failed to grab me the way the first one did. But more about that later.
Warning: This review contains MAJOR spoilers for the first book, The Armored Saint. If you haven’t read that book and want to, close your browser tab and walk away now
After narrowly defeating a devil with the help of a suit of medieval-steampunk mecha armor, Heloise is hailed as a legendary Palantine Saint. But not everyone in her town is so convinced of her sainthood. Heloise has already lost her home, her hand, and the love of her life. But as she leads her scared and reluctant villagers in uprising against the corrupt Order, she will soon find she is about to lose much more.
Okay so there were a lot of things I did enjoy about this book. The action scenes were realistic and gripping. Cole obviously knows a lot about historical combat, but he conveyed his knowledge in such a way that it didn’t come across as “showing off” or at the expense of tension. I also liked reading more about the setting, the world outside the small village where the characters came from, and cultures other than the Empire. I especially liked reading about the Traveling People and how they interacted with Heloise and her villagers.
However, I felt The Queen of Crows was lacking compared to the first book when it came to character development. I really enjoyed reading about Heloise in the first book, her hopes and her fears, and how she finds her courage. I think my favorite part of the first book was the interactions between Heloise and her best friend and secret crush, Basina. Unfortunately, since Basina dies at the end of The Armored Saint, there’s no chance of that continuing in the sequel. Cole does attempt to introduce a new love interest and an unwanted love triangle, but it was, in my opinion, clumsily done and didn’t add much to the story.
Ultimately however I thought most of the characters were reduced to one or two personality traits. Heloise’s father wants to protect and shelter his daughter. The village tinker wants to worship her as a religious figure. Poch and Sald want to grumble and complain and disparage like a grimdark version of those two old guys in the Muppet Show.
Heloise herself was a bit frustrating to read about this time around, due to her single-minded desire to defy the order against all common sense. This one-sidedness, compared to the first book, made even this short novella slightly tedious to read.
Cole was obviously going for the grimdark moral lesson of, “If you’re not careful you’ll become just like who you’re fighting against.” But it felt very heavy-handed, not so much a theme as a glowing neon sign glaring in the reader’s face.
I think the biggest disappointment with this book, however, is that the metaphorical elephant in the room is never addressed. At the end of The Armored Saint, it is revealed that magic can, in fact, lead to the summoning of devils, and that the Order is at least partially justified in their zealotry. However, despite seeing this firsthand, despite losing her best friend and would-be lover to it, Heloise plows full-steam ahead in her quest to overthrow the Order. It would be okay if they at least acknowledged, “Hey, wow, the Order has a point, but we still hate their methods, so let’s rise up in rebellion anyway.” But nobody does that. The closest we get is when Heloise expresses some apprehension when one of the Travelling People heals her with magic, and the healer says, “Nah, it’s okay, we’re careful.”
In the end, though, it seems Heloise considers the Order to bear the brunt of the blame for Basina’s death, even though it was very much the devil, summoned with magic, which the Order tried to prevent, who is actually at fault. And that is never acknowledged.
I know this review sounds like I hated the book, and I don’t mean for it to sound like that at all. There were, as I said above, many good things about it. However after how gripping and excellent I found the first book to be, this one did come as something of a disappointment.