This is your humble correspondent poking my head out from under a mountain of ARCs. As much as I enjoy writing in-depth reviews, time’s a goon and occasionally I must restrain myself to something shorter. In an effort to unbury myself while still offering my thoughts and recommendations, here is my roundup of mini-reviews for November 2023.
Review: The Traitors We Are by Michael Roberti
Blurb: In a world where writing disappears when the author dies, 22-year-old Cael Oberlan watches the last gasping breaths of his best friend. He pulls a scrap of paper out of his pocket as his friend’s signature fades. Cael only wants vengeance for his friend and to create a reality where he no longer has to bow before any man. However, the nagging suspicion that his father, who started this war, hasn’t given him the whole story about his role in this conflict threatens to unravel everything he ever thought he knew about himself and the people he is fighting to free.
As nephew of the King, 24-year-old Emil Trestinsen should be a hero. He should already hear his name echoing in celebration in the streets of the capital. In a young life already full of disappointment, a lack of recognition for ridding the kingdom of “Ruinous” Lorcen Oberlan may prove to be the final push he needs to seize his destiny. He will prove his worth to his family and his nation. He will end this rebellion and take his rightful place as the next governor of the rebels.
When 18-year-old Merily Oberlan receives letters from the frontlines, and the top one is blank, she is devastated to realize one of her loved ones has died in battle. She is determined to help bring an end to this bloody war and be strong for her people, a cultural and religious minority in the kingdom of Harfal.
What started as a simple rebellion transforms into a complicated web of lies, betrayal, and difficult decisions no one should have to make. It is a race against time and death as handwriting continues to disappear, erasing the contracts and historical records necessary for peaceful negotiations.
Review: Michael Roberti bases The Traitors We Are on a very intriguing premise: what if writing disappears when the author dies? Roberti explores the implications of this idea in a world reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
Although there is plenty of political intrigue in The Traitors We Are, Roberti excels when he focuses on personal relationships. I enjoyed all three of the lead protagonists, especially the delightful Merily, who was by far my favorite.
Roberti maintains a fast pace throughout The Traitors We Are. While the beginning of the book felt a little disorienting, I was fully engaged by about the 25% mark and particularly enjoyed the latter part of the novel.
The Traitors We Are is a stunning debut novel and recommended for fans of character-driven epic fantasy with plenty of gray morality.
Review: Kraken Rider Z by David Estes and Dyrk Ashton
Blurb: If there’s one thing dragons fear, it’s a kraken.
Even lowly hull-scrubber Zee Tarrow knows that. Like everyone on the island kingdom of Tosh, he grew up frightened by fables and horrible tales of the great beasts of the deep. It seems an odd thing to impress upon the children of the realm, because—luckily for the dragons and their riders—no one has seen a kraken in a thousand years.
Then again, Tosh’s lifeblood is the sea. Royal Dragon Knights guard the king’s ships from the constant threat of pirates, hostile empires, and the monstrous horrors that dwell beneath the waves. It makes sense that the people would fear krakens, even after generations of Knights graduate and take flight from the ramparts of Triumf’s Citadel, the country’s most elite—and therefore also exclusive—military academy. A school that Zee, who has barely ever had more than two copper pennies to rub together, should have no chance of getting into.
Thing is…Zee has a secret. He’s not only seen a kraken…
He saved its life.
When that truth gets out, will Zee be hunted by the Dragon Knights he has always envied and admired, or will he become the first Kraken Rider in history?
From the minds of David Estes and Dyrk Ashton, authors of Fatemarked and The Paternus Trilogy, comes a series perfect for fans of Iron Prince, Mage Errant, and Ascendant. Kraken Rider Z is an action-packed fantasy series with lots of heart, and the kind of unbreakable bond between man and beast that hasn’t existed for centuries. Start your adventure today!
Review: Kraken Rider Z is a young adult fantasy that reminds me of The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. Both star young boys who begin as assistant pig-keepers but grow into unlikely heroes.
Kraken Rider Z is a lengthy read, but it flies by quickly with David Estes and Dyrk Ashton’s delightful prose. This is a progression fantasy, where Zee and his kraken increase in power by leveling up over time. Brandon Sanderson fans will especially enjoy the hard magic system.
All in all, Kraken Rider Z offers a truly entertaining experience, especially for a young adult audience.
Review: Blood Reunion by JCM Berne
Blurb: People are dying, their corpses left savaged and drained of blood. The obvious culprit: vampires. But vampires shouldn’t be able to sneak around Wistful undetected or shadowstep freely inside her body. Soon the station herself becomes oddly uncooperative, leaving Rohan and Wei Li bewildered and all her inhabitants in danger.
Finding and defeating the killer will require a deep dive into the ancient history of Wistful and of the il’Drach people. Into the connections between the Ursans, the wormholes, and the races that preceded them. Into the dark past of a tormented space station that yearns only for death.
Rohan will be forced to fight, and maybe even to kill. He’ll have to face those who bear grudges from his past, the Empire he once served, and his own reluctance to again become the warrior he sometimes needs to be.
Review: Blood Reunion is the third entry in JCM Berne’s Hybrid Helix series. The novel again centers on the hybrid Rohan, who has inherited superpowers from his father’s (alien) side of the family.
Whereas the previous book in the series, Return of the Griffin, brought Rohan to Earth and explored the relationship with his mother, in Blood Reunion Rohan is back in space and dealing with daddy issues.
In Blood Reunion, JCM Berne strikes just the right balance among character development, worldbuilding, and raw action. Berne’s writing is witty without becoming a self-parody, and his pacing is spot on.
The Hybrid Helix series is definitely recommended for fans of space opera. It’s superhero saga with heart, and it will also make you laugh while telling a great story. Check it out!
Review: Fleeting Word by Andrew D. Meredith
Blurb: War ends. Secrets hide. Faith beckons.
Nethendel Unteel is comfortable in his life at the father monastery of Pariantur. But when the long-raging Protectorate Wars suddenly end, and life threatens to return to normal, Nethendel learns of a woman the dark gods wish to bind to their schemes. He must decide what to do with the secrets he uncovers.
Fleeting Word is a Kallattian Legacy novella, and acts as both the Prelude to the Kallattian Saga and Postlude to the Protectorate Wars by Andrew D. Meredith.
Review: Andrew D. Meredith’s writing is like a loaf of fresh-baked bread, filling my home with a sense of comfort and nostalgia. There is a gentle restraint to Meredith’s prose in his new novella, Fleeting Word, which is a prequel of sorts to his main series, The Kallattian Saga.
Readers will find plenty of Paladins and Paladames in Fleeting Word. This novella is also a great example of Meredith’s thoughtful, introspective dialogue which evokes a Proustian beauty. This is also a gentle love story which left me with a tear in my eye by the last page.
Review: Mothtown by Caroline Hardaker
Blurb: David is growing up in a world where something is very badly wrong but everyone is protecting David from knowing what it is. People are going missing, bodies are showing up with wings, or bones in nests if you believe the rumours from the kids at school. David doesn’t really know because his parents turn off the news whenever he might get a handle on what is happening around him and his older sister just doesn’t seem interested in sharing.
Most importantly for David the centre of his world – his grandfather – is gone. His parents say he is dead but why is his grandfather’s backpack and jumper missing from the house? Alongside this we have a man abandoned in a hostile landscape and trying out run nature itself to get back home with some information.
Review: A stunning masterpiece of speculative fiction, Mothtown refuses to be confined to any conventional label like fantasy, science fiction, or horror. This is a work of art, both lyrical and unsettling. It also tells an amazing story that crushed me to tears by the end. I feel like I can’t say any more without spoiling something. Be sure to add Mothtown to your TBR.
Review: A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
Blurb: Centuries before, robots of Panga gained self-awareness, laid down their tools, wandered, en masse into the wilderness, never to be seen again. They faded into myth and urban legend.
Now the life of the tea monk who tells this story is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered. But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how. They will need to ask it a lot. Chambers’ series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?
Review: A Pslam for the Wild-Built is a short novel about an unexpected friendship that forms between a tea monk and a robot. The monk is experiencing a mini-existential crisis, feeling discontent with life.
The book consists of ruminations on the nature and purpose of life between the monk and the robot. This is beautifully written cozy sci-fi/fantasy that will leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, which largely makes up for its lack of a plot.
Review: A Green and Ancient Light by Frederic S. Durbin
Blurb: A gorgeous fantasy in the spirit of Pan’s Labyrinth and John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.
Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
Review: Reading A Green and Ancient Light feels like watching Pan’s Labyrinth but with all the darkest scenes removed. The setup for A Green and Ancient Light is essentially the same: a child narrates a fairytale-like story with mythical creatures against the backdrop of a World War II-type setting.
Frederic S. Durbin captures the same sense of childlike awe as in Pan’s Labyrinth, but with the darkness knob turned down several levels. The story starts and finishes very strong, but the middle part of the book left me craving the much weirder, darker world of Guillermo del Toro.
Review: Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs
Blurb: In this spellbinding debut novel, two estranged half-sisters tasked with guarding their family’s library of magical books must work together to unravel a deadly secret at the heart of their collection—a tale of familial loyalty and betrayal, and the pursuit of magic and power.
For generations, the Kalotay family has guarded a collection of ancient and rare books. Books that let a person walk through walls or manipulate the elements—books of magic that half-sisters Joanna and Esther have been raised to revere and protect.
All magic comes with a price, though, and for years the sisters have been separated. Esther has fled to a remote base in Antarctica to escape the fate that killed her own mother, and Joanna’s isolated herself in their family home in Vermont, devoting her life to the study of these cherished volumes. But after their father dies suddenly while reading a book Joanna has never seen before, the sisters must reunite to preserve their family legacy. In the process, they’ll uncover a world of magic far bigger and more dangerous than they ever imagined, and all the secrets their parents kept hidden; secrets that span centuries, continents, and even other libraries…
Review: Ink Blood Sister Scribe has an intriguing premise: two half sisters guarding their family’s library of magical books. Unfortunately, this interesting premise is marred by cringey dialogue and an amateurish narrative style that prevented me from developing any emotional connections with the characters.
Ink Blood Sister Scribe is clearly intended as a book for adults, but its writing style is like a poor imitation of a YA book, or like fantasy for readers who aren’t actually into fantasy. Ink Blood Sister Scribe was selected as a Good Morning America Book Club pick, and I think that sums it up perfectly: it’s a low fantasy for the GMA crowd. My advice is to pass on this if you are a fantasy fan.
Review: Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Blurb: NATURE IS CALLING—but they shouldn’t have answered.
Travel journalist and mountaineer Nick Grevers awakes from a coma to find that his climbing buddy, Augustin, is missing and presumed dead. Nick’s own injuries are as extensive as they are horrifying. His face wrapped in bandages and unable to speak, Nick claims amnesia—but he remembers everything.
He remembers how he and Augustin were mysteriously drawn to the Maudit, a remote and scarcely documented peak in the Swiss Alps.
He remembers how the slopes of Maudit were eerily quiet, and how, when they entered its valley, they got the ominous sense that they were not alone.
He remembers: something was waiting for them…
But it isn’t just the memory of the accident that haunts Nick. Something has awakened inside of him, something that endangers the lives of everyone around him…
It’s one thing to lose your life. It’s another to lose your soul.
FROM THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLING SENSATION THOMAS OLDE HEUVELT comes a thrilling descent into madness and obsession as one man confronts nature—and something even more ancient and evil answers back.
Review: There’s a great story hiding somewhere in Echo, but, wow, it’s hard to find.
The novel starts off brilliantly with one of the most well-written, chill-inducing prologues that I’ve read in any horror book. It’s genuinely terrifying.
Unfortunately, Echo is all downhill after that. Thomas Olde Heuvelt constructs Echo in an unnecessarily convoluted style that only gets in the way of reading/enjoying this book. The writing style in the main part of the book is obnoxious to say the least. Olde Heuvelt purposely misspells words and employs an overly informal approach to narration. And what is this ridiculous obsession with pecs?
As I mentioned, I’m pretty sure there is a good story in here somewhere. But Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s writing gets in the way of finding it.
Review: The Knight of the Moon by Gregory Kontaxis
Blurb: John, the Long Arm, leads a life as a bounty hunter at the Three Heads. His name has spread far and wide across the north while plenty of gold weighs down his pockets. Just when everything seems to be going well for him, a group of soldiers order him to take on a new mission.
This time, his task is to track down a very dangerous man—a knight who rejected his oaths, turning his back on Gaeldeath and its ruler.
Will John choose the way of honour and devotion or will be succumb to his unquenchable thirst for wealth?
As part of The Dance of Light series, The Knight of the Moon is a novella which takes place seventeen years preceding the events of The Return of the Knights.
Review: Gregory Kontaxis embraces the grimdark heart of his Dance of Light series in this prequel novella, The Knight of the Moon.
The bounty hunter, John, is a brutally fun protagonist with a nuanced gray morality that was missing from the lead characters of The Return of the Knights. In case there is any doubt this is a grimdark novella, The Knight of the Moon also features the Dripping Bucket, Michael R. Fletcher’s interdimensional grimdark tavern.
I enjoyed the character-driven focus of The Knight of the Moon, especially John’s evolving relationship with the female lead, the aptly named Nemesis.
The author’s writing is tighter and flows more naturally than in The Return of the Knights. I hope Kontaxis will continue in this style in the subsequent books of the series.
The Knight of the Moon is the perfect introduction to The Dance of Light series. Check it out at the author’s website.