reviews
Burn Red Skies by Kerstin Espinosa Rosero - Book Review
06, Jan

Burn Red Skies follows a host of characters on an adventure that spans a realm teeming with political intrigue and elemental magic. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and in general the characters, but there were a few issues that kept me from complete immersion in the story. Despite these issues, Burn Red Skies is an epic fantasy whose pages are filled with war, secrets, and ultimately dragons—the sort of story which will appeal to many readers.

I love overpowered characters. It’s a preference Booknest’s founder Petros and I both share. And let me tell you, Domaren the Godknight is…just that…overpowered. I know, I know with a super chill name like God knight you would think the guy would be a real pushover…but no. He is a powerhouse. He and his other Godknights use their power, gifted to them by the Creators, to quell rebellions, squash tyrants, and to try to guide foolish mortals while following the Creators’ orders. Unfortunately, pretty early in the narrative, this connection between Godknight and Creator is severed.

So, what does a Godknight do without their God?

This book is jam packed with powerful magics, monsters, colorful characters, and epic battles. Despite the immense power wielded by the main character, there is a weighty feeling of responsibility which feels like a character in and of itself. While I didn’t find myself fearing for Domaren, I was always keenly aware of the mortality of those he protects. His concerns became my concerns, and if that isn’t a wonderful way to relate to Superman, I don’t know what is.

Jeramy Goble does an incredible job making his readers feel the Godknights’ responsibilities and the internal struggle of conscience versus calling. In the end, it doesn’t matter who your boss is, what matters is who you have sworn to protect.

In what I expected to be a book about paladins swinging big ass swords and fighting dragons, Eulogy for the Dawn turned out to be a book about paladins swinging big ass swords and fighting dragons and so much more. Eulogy for the Dawn is a story with as much heart as it has magic, swords, and battles. Fun, intelligent, and heartfelt. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

And that Felix Ortiz/Shawn T. King cover art is spectacular (big shock). It’s my favorite combination going right now. They’re the best.

This is another book I would love to have a physical copy of. I’m not certain I can afford a big old hardcover edition right now, but in the future I’m thinking I’ll grab one. You should do so too! At the very least, grab a digital copy and settle in. Eulogy for the Dawn is fast paced and compelling. My favorite from this competition so far, and my semi-finalist pick.

The Look of a King by Tom Dumbrell was the most surprising read for my small part of this year’s SPFBO. At 272, it is one of the shorter entries Booknest has reviewed and yet it didn’t feel too short at all. Instead, this truly felt like a book that used the amount of words necessary to tell its story, and I deeply appreciate it. In a market where it seems quantity is oftentimes more valued than quality, I admit even I turn my nose up on occasion to books under 300 pages. It’s a failing, I’m aware. In any case, The Look of a King laid any of my apprehensions to rest within the first few chapters as I found the story and characters almost immediately interesting.

The story primarily revolves around two young men with very different lives: Cyrus, a young storyteller who feels confined by his mundane provincial life, and Augustus, a snooty princeling struggling to live up to the kingdom’s expectations. Our inciting incidents take place when the king is assassinated and Cyrus is driven from his home by soldiers. These ensuing chaos sets the course for the rest of the story.

Dumbrell’s prose is lean while never feeling stilted, which fits the magicless medival fantasy world. Our two POV characters are compelling and the shorter chapters gave the story a tremendous sense of forward momentum. This turned out to be a good thing as I read the entirety of it in a few sittings without killing an entire day. I would have been interested in a number of the side characters enough to actually read chapters from their POV. I don’t think it would have been at all necessary so I appreciate the lack of filler, but Dumbrell certainly has the writing chops (I hate that word) for a grander epic fantasy story.

In conclusion, I would gladly recommend The Look of a King to anyone who enjoys shorter works of fantasy or would like a break from the doorstops that dominate the genre. This is a self-published book I would be proud to have resting on my shelf.

Haven (The Fae Queen's Court) by Ceril N Domace - Book Review
06, Oct

Haven has an intriguing premise. Essentially, all mythological creatures are actually evolved forms of Fae. The Fae are believed to be long gone from the world, but some of them still live amongst humans, retaining a humanoid form until they evolve, unpredictably, into a new creature.

Into this, the protagonist, Owen is thrown with his wife and children. His wife’s sudden illness sees him rushing her to hospital, only to be involved in a fatal car crash. She dies, already partially transformed into a griffin. Owen’s shock at her loss and discovering she was Fae is further complicated when his kids are kidnapped in a home invasion, leading him on a quest to the heart of the Fae kingdom.

Sadly, that’s as far as I was able to get with this story. For me, the writing needs more development. I believe this is the author’s first book, and these are always tricky. The idea and the world are interesting, but the execution needs work. Unfortunately, I found the editor in me regularly wanting to make notes and give feedback, rather than being able to just read and enjoy the story.

Cursed (Cursed #1) by Brent Miller Book Review
05, Oct

CURSED by Brent Miller is a lycanthrope story that focuses not on the physical act of becoming a monster but the psychological toll. Brent Miller weaves an impressive story about the coloration between teen angst and becoming a murderous beast. I really enjoyed MTV's TEEN WOLF, at least the early seasons, that dealt with similar themes. More seriously, I enjoyed GINGER SNAPS, that also dealt with the transformation of one's teenage years (albeit from a female perspective).

Greed by Viljami J (Book Review) - Book Review
05, Oct

I have tried a couple of times to read Greed by Viljami J. I made it twenty percent on this most recent attempt, but I am finally giving up and calling this a DNF. The story seems to revolve around Ethan and Gabriel, two lifelong friends and unlikeable criminals, who within the opening pages of the story attempt to rob an old man, determine they’re going to plunder the wealth of Mount Valhalla, and meet a pair of siblings (a tough sister and her effeminate but not gay – the author lets us know – brother). The four determine to travel together because...sure...and they make it to a town where there are prostitutes, which is cool because Gabriel is, “no stranger to non-platonic relationships with women.”

I finished the chapter before I tapped out. Ethan calls his friend/brother “G” and the sister character says “y’all” a few times. Tonally, the story is all over the place. It tells and never shows. The narrator head hops to tell us what everyone is thinking and feeling. The characters are unlikable. The writing lacks any depth. For me, this read more like an outline than a polished manuscript. I would humbly recommend a developmental editor. 

Daughter of Flood and Fury (Tidecaller Chronicles Book 1) by Levi Jacobs
03, Oct

The city of Serei is dominated by two religious factions. The male seers are gifted with ‘watersight’, a telepathic ability that works through connection to water. The female theracants, derogatorily called witches, work blood magic, allowing them to literally control people whose blood they have ingested. 

Altheia is an oddity - a female seer. She is also the daughter of the previous Chosen, leader of the seers - which is the only reason she was admitted to the temple for training in the first place. But her father is dead - murdered, she suspects, by a faction of Traditionalists within the temple who were opposed to her father’s modernising ways.

When the new Chosen, Nerimes, attempts to have her executed, Altheia escapes the temple into the streets of Serei, where she must abandon her moral training and learn to live as a thief alongside her newfound friend Gaxna, herself a runaway from the Theracants. But she remains driven to uncover the truth behind her father’s death, and to find revenge.

The story is told in first person present tense, which itself gives an air of immediacy and pace to the story, but even allowing for this, it moves forward at speed. We begin with Altheia in the midst of combat and this sets the tone for the whole book. There is urgency and tension in almost every scene, driving the story on.

The writing is excellent, the worldbuilding rich and some descriptive passages truly immersive. On one occasion I was moved to stop and reread two paragraphs just to appreciate how well they set a scene. This is a book that drives the plot forward without sacrificing the world in which it is set. The magic Jacobs has created is both interesting and, to me, fresh.

And the scope of that world is wide. What seems like it will be a tight, personal story quickly expands to a grander scale, up to international politics and, literally, a potential apocalypse. The story, however, does not end here. The author explains there are at least 8 more books to come, so while there is a satisfying story arc completed within its pages, it is very much the first book of an ongoing series, with scope for exploring the much wider world hinted at within.

There are also a lot of interesting themes and issues to consider from the story. The most obvious is about gender and the binary infliction of gender roles within a traditional (religious) framework. Altheia does not fit into either camp completely and could easily be read as an allegorical, maybe even literal, nonbinary character, her very existence a challenge to the strict binary culture of Serei.

The story also involves a race called the Selim Deul, who are renowned inventors, and their sudden growth into global politics and trade can easily be seen as an analogue for the explosion of technology and how it affects a society, especially one still so dominated by religion. In fact, there are hints throughout the book about a potential lost race of more technologically advanced people, whose now incomprehensible works have been left behind. This, along with the historical references to worldwide flooding could be read as a cautionary tale for our own time.

So overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I did have one niggle, though. It’s impossible to completely describe without being a spoiler, but there is a piece of wordplay within the book that, almost immediately, I spotted as a major clue to the identity of a secret antagonist. In fact, it was more than a clue, it was a giveaway. And it stretched my incredulity a little as I considered why on Earth they would leave this huge clue as to their identity.

Now, this is another book I would say is firmly YA, with some standard YA tropes, and maybe this kind of clue was intended to be something that readers would spot and find some satisfaction in, but it leapt off the page at me and pulled me out of the story.

However, it was, in the end, a small thing that didn’t really take away from the quality of the book overall, except to remove one element of tension and mystery for me, personally.

I enjoyed this a lot, and found myself drawn back to reading it as often as possible. It’s an extremely well-written book that flies by and leaves you wanting more.

Rise of the Tobian Princess (Sword of Cho Nisi Book 1) by D.L. Gardner - Book Review
19, Sep

I’m afraid I struggled with this one. While the characters are interesting enough and there is some nice worldbuilding - especially in the skoura (winged demon monsters) and mountain giants who materialise from fog - I found this first book in the Sword of Cho Nisi series very difficult to get into.

The premise is not unfamiliar: Erika, the youngest daughter of King Tobias is a fiery redhead who is more interested in fighting than courting. On a mission with her elder brother Barin, she accidentally kills the king of Cho Nisi - an allied island state. Determined to make things right, she sets off, against her father’s orders, for Cho Nisi, initially intent on making herself a prisoner but, somehow, then convincing herself it would be better to conquer the island for her father.

On the island, however, she encounters the hitherto unknown son of the dead king, the newly crowned King Arell. First impressions are not ideal, but then… well… things happen. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but the overall arc is whether these two kingdoms, divided by the death of Cho Nisi’s king, can work together to fend off the impending attacks of legendary evil wizard Skotadi and his aforementioned monsters.

There are also a number of love-related tropes to be had - all things that the right audience will enjoy - and I would probably say it fits in the YA genre.

In terms of the story itself, there were some niggles. Erika’s killing of Cho Nisi’s king is the inciting incident for the tale, and yet it comes across as quite implausible. In short, while tracking a skoura overhead, she fires into a bush where she believed it to have dived, only to accidentally hit the king, who she did not know had arrived at the site. Now, I’m not against coincidence - most stories hang on some kind of coincidence - but I struggled to suspend my disbelief from the first chapter and that rather set the tone. Thereafter, there is a lot of agonising over how to explain it and whether it should be kept secret and so on - but the obvious answer always seems to be staring the reader in the face, while the characters remain oblivious: it was an accident in battle, just tell them the truth.

Other issues around the story involved characters seeming to swing wildly back and forth over their intentions and acting in ways which sometimes seemed so contrary as to be confusing. Sometimes it felt like character actions were being driven by the plot, as opposed to really making sense for their situation.

And there were unfortunately other problems that also got in the way.

While my own thoughts on some of the writing needing an editor are entirely subjective, a proofreader was undoubtedly missed. It would be harsh to say the book was ‘littered’ with errors, but there were enough in every chapter to pull me out of the story repeatedly. Typos, missing words, grammatical errors, changing from past tense to present (sometimes within a sentence) and missing paragraph breaks had me rereading sentences to work out what they were intended to say or, in some cases, to figure out who was speaking. All of this prevented me from being able to just immerse myself in the story and the characters.

The sad thing of it is, I genuinely think there’s an interesting story in here with some likeable, engaging characters and imaginative worldbuilding but the (subjective) need for a strong editor and (objective) proofreader made it impossible to really enjoy, for me.

A Cat's Guide to Bonding with Dragons (Dragoncat Book 1) by Chris Behrsin - Book Review
25, Aug

I went into A Cat’s Guide to Bonding with Dragons knowing nothing of the story. Judging by the title alone and the cover art, I expected a lighthearted romp with Terry Pratchett vibes where a cat becomes a dragon rider, and that is essentially what I received. The premise is fairly simple: an Earth cat is transported to a secondary fantasy world by an evil warlock. The evil warlock is a terrible pet owner (because duh) and uses our protagonist feline Ben to kill the demonic rats he inadvertently summons. When Ben finally escapes, he finds his way to a dragon academy where an obstinate dragon Salanraja decides to bond him. What ensues is a pretty standard fantasy adventure but with an anthropomorphic cat in place of the farm boy, which does provide enough of a change of pace to make this a unique experience.

Although there is an attempt at that Discworld humor, it didn’t resonate with me in a way I had hoped. It’s by no means bad or cringeworthy, and it is most certainly lighthearted. It just wasn’t laugh out loud funny. But considering that I was reading The Trouble with Peace concurrently, it provided a nice amount of levity.

 

At the end of the day, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys lighthearted fantasy, and for me it was a nice palette cleanser, which is exactly what I want when I reach for something Pratchett-esque. So, check it out, I think you’ll enjoy it.

 

Also, on a side note, I blame Rick & Morty for making me imagine Matthew Broderick as Ben's voice.

Empire’s Daughter (Empire's Legacy Book 1) by Marian L Thorpe
13, Aug

I like a book that has something to say. That makes you think. One of the joys of fantasy stories is that they can take issues that are real and relevant and put them in a new context, giving the reader space to consider them outside their usual cultural environment, free from individual bias.

There is A LOT going on beneath the skin of Empire’s Daughter, and the more I think back on it, the more I find.

The story is set in ‘The Empire’ a country living under an extreme agreement called Partition, whereby all men serve in the military until retirement age, and all women live a peaceful, agrarian life in their villages, farming, fishing, smithing and raising children. Only during Festival, several times a year, do men come to the women’s villages for ‘liaisons’ intended to produce children. At 7, every boy is claimed by their father and taken away to be trained as a soldier. This agreement was reached several hundred years previously through an assembly designed to resolve the conflicting desires for peaceful or military life, which were apparently split along lines of sex.

The implications of this for the society of the Empire are fascinating. For a start, bisexuality is largely the norm, at least in the women’s villages. We don’t really see whether this is also true in the army, with the exception of meeting one soldier who is expressly gay.

Our main character is Lena, a 17-year-old fisherwoman who works a boat with her cousin and partner Maya. Their life is largely parochial. Lena has never left the village. She knows little of the outside world, beyond what she learns from visiting soldiers during Festival.

So, when a soldier, who was born in the village, arrives unexpectedly with news that the women are to be asked to train to fight, in order to protect their village, and the country, from a coming invasion, it proves a catalyst for huge conflict and change.

The village overwhelmingly votes to agree to the request, but at a cost. Several women dissent, one going so far as to accept expulsion rather than fight: Maya. Grieving for her departed lover, Lena is left to train for the coming invasion and adjust to her new reality. The first half of the book deals primarily with this, while the second follows the aftermath of the invasion and what it means for both Lena and the Empire. And it is a fascinating read.

Thorpe’s writing is by turns lean and beautiful. She tells the story efficiently, but also stops now and again to let us smell the flowers, painting their aromas vividly. I stopped numerous times to admire particularly lovely sentences. The worldbuilding is deep and extensive. You can feel how much research has gone into these ways of life, and thought to the implications of her society’s lifestyle.

At first, I felt the book was moving a bit too slowly, but I eventually realised that wasn’t it at all. What it does is earn the seismic changes that are coming. There is no instalove here, or epiphanic moments where a character suddenly changes. Lena’s evolution through the story is measured and so feels real. Her emotional development moves in increments, as it should, making her all the more real and relatable.

And then there are those underlying themes I mentioned. Where to begin? Off the top of my head, we cover things like: How does childhood trauma shape a personality? Can a divided country be brought back together, once split? Is individual freedom an acceptable sacrifice for collective safety? What happens when a country adheres slavishly to a tenet agreed hundreds of years ago? When does tradition become dogma? What effect can climate change have on a society? How does the degradation of education influence culture? What happens when we forget our own history, and how do we trust those who record it to do so impartially? Can a society functionally include those who refuse to accept democratic choices?

And there’s more. All questions as relevant today, here and now, as they are in Thorpe’s novel. So, while Empire’s Daughter is a deeply personal tale of Lena’s evolution, as she sees more of her world and grows with each new experience, it is also a tale of a country’s evolution, and a lens through which to consider our own present.

But.

There is an inevitable question.

Is it fantasy?

I hate that I’m having to ask this question after enjoying the book so thoroughly, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore it.

There is no magic. No supernatural creatures. The flora and fauna of the Empire are our own. There is nothing otherworldly or ‘fantastic’ in this story. So, what sets it apart?

Geography, largely. The country of the Empire is entirely fictitious. Thorpe relates having spent a great deal of time in England and Scotland researching the landscapes, and this certainly bears true for the hostile northerners beyond the wall who have red hair and use words like ‘lassies’. The world and the story are full of classic genre tropes, and I’m sure will be enjoyed by fantasy readers. There are swords and battles, assassins bearing knives in the dark and long journeys punctuated by inns.

I found myself, in considering this, wondering whether something like The Last Kingdom is fantasy. Or is it just alternative history? Is alternative history intrinsically fantasy? Does alternative geography plus alternative history add up to fantasy?

I read that this book was rejected from two other competitions, one because it wasn’t a fantasy book and one because the competition did not accept fantasy. That seems entirely believable to me, because I think it probably sits in a no man’s land, where some will consider it fantasy and some will not.

I realised in hindsight that I had actually been wary of reading this book, because of the cover. It didn’t work for me and, with some thought, I realised that’s because it reminds me more of an academic history book than a fantasy book - and I wonder how many others might have had the same experience. I’m delighted to have been wrong about my own enjoyment, but again wonder if perhaps this is a book that doesn’t quite know exactly where it fits in a genre.

And maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried about pigeonholing a book’s genre any more than we should about defining its characters’ sexuality. Indie publishing allows writers to mash up genres and subvert expectations, and that is certainly a good thing. But for the purposes of SPFBO, is it fantasy? I don’t know, is the answer.

What I do know is that it is an immersive, intelligent and resonant book that I recommend highly.

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