The Book Dragon's Horde

SPFBO Review: The Annointed by Keith Ward

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.

People who might like this book

  • People who enjoy lots of interconnected storylines and multiple POVs
  • Anyone who likes stories with dragons in them
  • People who enjoy the catharsis that comes from reading about villains who closely  resemble real life politicians

People who might want to avoid this one

  • People who don’t like seeing children and babies getting murdered
  • People who don’t want to read about genocide
  • People who prefer more tightly-woven stories with fewer POVs

R/Fantasy 2019 Bingo Squares

  • Self-Published
  • Twins, hard-mode (actually triplets, but word of Bingo Goddess says it should count, albeit reluctantly)

Bingo Review (Middle Grade): Wishes and Wellingtons by Julie Berry

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.

People who might like this book:

  • Fans of British-style middle grades like Matilda and Harry Potter
  • Those who enjoy lighthearted whimsy
  • People who like stories where magic causes more problems than it fixes

People who might want to avoid this one:

  • Those who prefer more serious, adult-oriented fiction
  • Folks who are tired of admittedly tropey tomboy protagonists
  • Mean jerks who hate fun (kidding, kidding)
  • Anyone who cannot or prefers not to listen to their books in audiobook format or maybe even just doesn’t want to use Audible specifically — unfortunately, this one doesn’t exist in any other formats, which can be limiting.

2019 r/fantasy bingo squares:

  • Middle grade (very likely hard-mode unless you read it in the few months it was out before Bingo and just loved it so much you want to listen to it again)
  • Audiobook (not hard mode unfortunately)

SPFBO Finalist Review: Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas

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.

People who might like this book:

  • Fans of the young adult dystopia genre
  • People who like seeing characters put in increasingly perilous situations
  • People who like character-driven fiction with protagonists they can root for

People who should avoid this book:

  • People who want to avoid depictions of rape or sexual assault
  • People who prefer fast-paced action

Reddit Fantasy 2019 Bingo Squares

  • I think self-published is the only one. One could make the argument for small scale slice of life, because nothing particularly large-scale actually happens in this one. But the Bingo goddess might smite you for that one, because it’s obviously leading up to a rebellion plot that will not be small-scale. If the rebels ever get off their butts. *ahem*

 

Review: Queen of Crows by Myke Cole

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

Plot

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.

Thoughts

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.

Overall Rating

3/5

Who Will Like This Book

  • Fans of realistic siege warfare and epic battles
  • People who like moral ambiguity and difficult decisions
  • People who really liked the first book and want to know what happens

Who May Not Like This Book

  • People who enjoy lighter, non-grimdark fantasy
  • People who prefer slower-burn, character-driven fantasy
  • People who prefer longer books

Reddit Fantasy 2018 Bingo Squares

  • Reviewed on r/fantasy (it is now!)
  • Published in 2018
  • LBGTQ database

Review: Liesmith by Alis Franklin

I’ve been in something of a reading slump lately, my poor, poor neglected review blog. After DNFing more books than I care to admit, I finally picked Liesmith up on a whim, and completely devoured it.

Plot

Awkward gamer nerd Sigmund Sussman is not particularly happy at his boring IT job, and spends his days fantasizing about developing (and playing) video games with his two best friends. It comes as much as a surprise to him as anyone, when his much-cooler-seeming coworker begins to show romantic interest in him. But Sigmund’s excitement about his budding romance is cut short when he discovers that his new boyfriend is much, much more than he seems.

Thoughts

First off, this book has a great many elements that I absolutely love. Awkward nerd boys. Queer romance. Norse gods. Pretty much it felt like this book was written for me. I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end.

That said, I felt this book was maybe trying to do too much with the limited space it was given. It was trying to be Romance and Horror and Urban Fantasy and Epic Mythic Saga all at the same time, and in doing so a lot of the elements fell flat, or weren’t given the attention they deserved.

I also found the ending to be confusing at best. I often found myself flipping back through my kindle, like, “So wait, So-in-so is actually the re-incarnation of this other person, but they’re not REALLY the same person, and there’s two souls living in the same body? What?” The final battle had the bizarre, semi-coherent acid trip feeling that used to be so popular with anime in the early-to-mid 2000s.

This book really shines with the character. Both Sigmund and Lain grow and develop as people, and it was wonderful to watch their relationship develop. The fantastical elements were intriguing and fun to read, I just wish they’d been given a bit more of the attention and explanation they deserved.

Overall Rating

4/5

Reddit Fantasy Bingo Squares

  • Novel featuring a god as a character (hard mode!)
  • Novel with fewer than 2500 Goodreads ratings
  • LBGTQ Database (hard mode as of me checking just now)
  • May count for the Takes Place in One City square, but there is one scene where they go camping on the outskirts of town

Morgan Reviews Romance: An End to Summer by Diana Rose Wilson

I should open this with the disclaimer that I do not normally review romance. I love sci-fi and fantasy novels with romance in them. Sometimes, I’ll read Romance-with-a-capital-R, under the covers, where no one can see. But it’s not something I usually mark as read on Goodreads, much less write a full review.

At this point I must ask myself if I am biased against romance as a genre. A lot of the romance I have read has fallen solidly in the category of badly-written-but-hot. But is that really any reason to dismiss it?

I stumbled upon this book on the “read now” section on Netgalley, and the description seemed so specifically my  sort of thing, I really had to grab it. And in fact, I found it both hot and well-written. But since I did indeed get it for free off Netgalley, I am obligated to write a review. And therefore, I’m obligated to admit to the world I read it.

I could, perhaps, cry ignorant, that I thought it was just “normal” fantasy. But alas, here is the cover. I knew what I was getting into.

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Unfortunately I am thoroughly inexperienced in reviewing this genre. I shall do the best I can, but understand that I’m reviewing it as a fantasy novel first, and a romance novel second.

This novel involves graphic depictions of sex between two men, in great and loving detail. Someone better-versed than me in erotica can tell you how good those depictions are. I enjoyed them well enough.  But I’m  here to tell you about the rest of the novel.

Plot

This is a portal fantasy featuring Alexander, a nerdy teenage boy living on Earth in a family with unusual magical powers. He feels alienated from his family because he is smaller and wimpier than his brothers and cousins. He comes of age at a time when his family is distracted by other family drama. Furthermore, his magical animal form is considered weaker than the rest of the family’s. He is in equal parts bullied and ignored, and feeling altogether hard done by at the time our story begins.

When his cousins’ bullying goes too far, Alexander is injured and almost dies.  Instead, he travels between worlds to a fantasy realm. There, he crosses a great migration with some magic horses, makes friends and rivals amidst a magic tribe, and eventually falls in love with a sexy war general, who’s got a cool long fantasy name, but is mostly referred to as Ben.

Thoughts

Personally, I liked this book a lot, but I also thought there was a lot going on, perhaps too much to fit comfortably into one book.

This reads, on the surface, a lot like many escapist portal fantasies. Awkward nerdy gay boy travels to alternate dimension where he is suddenly neither awkward nor nerdy, and also wins the love of the hottest guy ever.

But what I liked about this book was, every good thing that happens to Alexander, he has to earn. He fights and trains and struggles to earn his place in the new world. I appreciated reading about his character growth.

A major part of the book involves the telepathic magic horses,  who bond to their riders. It’s easy to draw the parallel between this book and Last Herald Mage by Mercedes Lackey. I joke that this is the second gayest book about dudes and their magic telepathic horses I’ve read this year. But this book, luckily, is nowhere near so melodramatic.

Alexander strides the line awfully narrowly between being an overpowered Gary Stu and being a compelling character. I personally find him compelling, but it’s awfully close.

Here Be Spoilers

Now I spoil what happens  at the end, so if you haven’t read the book and would like to, please scroll on.

At the end of the book, in the last 25% or so, Alexander is “reset” to Earth, and, after  decades passing in the magical world, is also reset to  15 years old. This could have been compelling, but it didn’t work for me in several ways.

First of all, the thing that was least okay about the romance was the age difference. Already it was very much striding the line at creepy. Then, Alex gets reset to 15,  and although some ten years pass before they are reunited, Ben has been aging all this time  as well. Now the age difference is even more. I felt this was gratuitous and very much not necessary.

Second, in the last quarter of the book, many plot threads are introduced and then simply abandoned. It is implied that the bullying cousins from the first section of the book have a much more sinister agenda than merely juvenile taunts. In a short span of time they  seem to not only murder the  main character’s sister (!) but also intend to cull magic from the human bloodline entirely.

However, none of this is revisited again, as soon as Alexander is reunited with his much-older boyfriend.

I’m also a bit confused about  the nature of the magical world Alexander visited and Ben hails from. It is treated as a Narnia-esque alternate world, yet also a form of afterlife. When Alexander’s sister dies near the end of the book, it’s stated that she goes to the magical world, and is in a lesbian relationship with a major female character from earlier in the book. If this is the case, what happens to people who die in THAT world? If people travel between worlds and die  in one or the other, what happens to them? I just wish it were explained more.

Overall Rating

3.5/5

Some overall good gay erotica, but as “porn with a plot” goes, the plot was intriguing enough to make me demand more.

Review: The Days of Tao by Wesley Chu

This is a novella starring the son of the main protagonists from Chu’s Tao trilogy. If you haven’t read that trilogy, you probably won’t get as much enjoyment out of this story, but it does still function well-enough as a standalone.

Plot

Since the earliest days of our evolution, humanity has been guided and sometimes controlled by a race of alien brain parasites. After millions of years, it only makes sense that the aliens would begin to differ in their ideas of the direction humanity should go. Now, in the not-too-distant future, the alien secret is out in the open, and the war between the factions is about to come to a head.

Cameron Tan, son of the faction leaders, host to the alien Tao, and Ordinary College Student, just wants to enjoy his summer studying abroad in Greece. But when a Greek operative reports that the war is about to reach his homeland, it suddenly becomes crucial to smuggle himself, and the information he carries, across the border.

The only person available to help him do it? You guessed it. Our boy. But all Cameron wants to do is protect the people he cares about. Can he do that, without endangering his mission?

Thoughts

First I should state that the first book in this series, The Lives of Tao, is probably in my top 10 favorite books of all time. Although not without flaws, I also found myself screaming with delight the whole way through. Which, since I was listening to the audiobook in public, earned me some odd looks.

Though there was no public screaming this time, this novella was nevertheless a solid addition to the series.

The novella length worked well for this piece because there is very little “fluff”. Chu tended to pad the earlier entries in the series with a lot of mustache-twirling villain POVs, which didn’t work for me. This one has none of that. Like Tao the Alien, we stay in Cameron’s head the whole time.

Cameron is a likable character, and I thoroughly enjoyed being in his point-of-view. He has been trained from childhood to be an agent, and all the adults and aliens in his life agree that he’s one of the most talented alien hosts they’ve seen in a long time. Very easily this could have made him boring, but he is not. He is a well-realized and flawed character who often makes all the wrong decisions for all the right reasons.

This book wastes no time and cuts right to the chase. Cameron and his friends tumble from one crisis to another, and the pacing and tension are both excellent. While I would describe the Tao books as “fun” overall, this book doesn’t skimp on the gravity of the situation, either. There are some truly emotional, gut-punching scenes.

The only issue is I wish some of the loose ends had been tied up a little more. I won’t go into more for risk of spoilers, but we are introduced to at least one mystery that never gets any kind of resolution. But, I suppose that’s life. Sometimes things don’t get wrapped up in a neat little bow.

Also, this book needed more Roen. Hooray for Roen! Roen forever! We love Roen!

*ahem*

I may be biased.

Overall Rating

4.5/5

Fast-paced fun for the whole family, as long as the whole family doesn’t mind tons of violence