reviews

The Shadow Courtesan by Willow Woods is a dark fantasy romance novel that follows the story of a twelve-year old girl named Reina as she is violently abducted from her home and raised to adulthood as a slave in the vampire city of Tenebrae. At the age of seventeen, she is purchased by kinder type of vampire and eventually created anew as a vampire herself. After a century as a vampire, she returns to the place of her imprisonment to exact revenge on the creature responsible for the destruction of her home and her life in a story I can only describe as Beauty & the Beast meets an Anne Rice novel I’ve never read.

Apologies, everyone. I’m a little out of my wheelhouse on this one.

Diving into the Shadow Courtesan, I was a little put off in the same way as with my first SPFBO read. When a story begins with violence against women or girls, I get a little uncomfortable. I’m no stranger to dark fantasy and grimdark, but there’s something about hitting the ground with it that unsettles me. This is especially true when the resolution to this comes so late coupled with a romance featuring a problematic power dynamic. 

Personal hang-ups aside, I actually enjoyed this book far more than I expected. It took me a few chapters to accept the story for what it was and follow it along, and to my surprise I became invested in the characters. 

And if that isn’t what you want from someone new to the genre, I don’t know what to tell you.

The writing is crisp and straightforward, giving insight into Willow’s world without beating the reader over the head with worldbuilding. There were a few spelling/grammatical errors, but no more than you would find in a traditionally published book.

All in all, if you are a fan of vampire romance novels, I would recommend you check it out. I mean, if I enjoyed it, I’m sure you will.

 

The Goddess of Nothing at All (Unwritten Runes #1) by Cat Rector - SPFBO Book Review
01, Sep

The Goddess of Nothing at All is told from the perspective of Sigyn, a goddess from Norse mythology who is a wife of Loki and a lesser known figure among those histories. In the vein of Madeline Miller or Pat Barker, Cat Rector tells the story of Sigyn and her relationship with Loki from the female perspective and tries to demonstrate that written history is not always accurate.

Blazing Coffins (The Monster Twins, #1) by Jowsey Jones - SPFBO8 Book Review
18, Aug

Blazing Coffins is a self-aware, irreverent caper full of magical creatures (or, monstrosities) set around a central core of family and belonging.

Queen of the Warrior Bees (Natural Forces #1) by Jean Gill
15, Aug

My third SPFBO review, which I actually read a couple of weeks ago but was waylaid by stupid exams and the like. I’d never heard of author Jean Gill before, despite her having written many books, and Queen of the Warrior Bees was a 2020 Kindle Book Awards finalist. Which I’ve also never heard of. This, of course, is more a reflection on me than the book or author, so on that note, let’s set forth.

This has a really interesting premise. Humankind, out of fear of allergies and other risks of nature, has shut itself up in a sterile city created by magic, known as The Citadel. Everything is controlled to the max, few are allowed outside and the city is run by a number of magicians. Think a Puritan 1984 meets The Book of Koli and you kind of get the idea. Mielitta is our erstwhile hero, a foundling who never feels like she belongs in the Citadel. When she sneaks out into the forbidden forest one evening, she is attacked by a swarm of bees and in true comic book style, she starts to develop bee-like powers. Said bees adopt her as their queen, teaching her that nature is not the terrible force the mages of the Citadel say it is. 

There’s a lot going on here, with many themes at play. The main one is the divide between humanity and nature and the huge lengths the mages go through (nature vs nurture?), but there is also an attempt at establishing a patriarchy, although from reading the entire book it sounds like it's already well-established. In addition, we have a Fifth Column that wants to return the people of the Citadel to nature, but it's somewhat glossed over. As it’s a young adult book (I believe), there are some melodramatic relationships too. One of the interesting dichotomies is the comparison between the life of bees and the society in which Mielitta grows up. The book is very well written - you can tell Jean Gill is a well-established author - and the story flows smoothly. If I had one gripe it’s the formerly mentioned melodrama. I know it’s par for the course for YA, but it does irk me a little when reading it. That aside, it’s an interesting tale and well worth a read.  

 

A Touch of Light (The Ashes of Avarin #1) by Thiago Abdalla - SPFBO8 Book Review
28, Jul

A deeply satisfying high-epic fantasy that engrosses the reader in its pages and will have you hatching theories long into the night as Thiago Abdalla pulls no punches with his debut: A Touch of Light.

Heavy (The Weight of it All Book 1) by JJ Thorn
17, Jul

This is my second book from my SPFBO8 batch and I must be honest, my initial impressions were not great. For starters, I received a PDF copy with no cover to view and some of the formatting was askew, particularly in situations where it seemed like the author used the enter key at the end of the line instead of allowing their chosen writing tool to do the job for them. I thought it might be a Kindle app thing, but it did the same on my Paperwhite. Not the end of the world. Maybe it was my expectation that the authors send their sales version to be judged, but I could be wrong. Then I started reading it. After about 30 pages or so, nothing had really happened and I was thinking strongly of stopping at the 20% cutoff mark. This…never…happened…

Okay, let’s start over. What’s the book about? It’s a LitRPG (not my favourite genre) with a YA vibe (see last parentheses). It’s about a teenage boy, Terrence, who on his 16th birthday is sent to test for an affinity. For those unfamiliar with LitRPG (or RPGs), this is a special skill a player has such as sword-fighting or magic which defines your character. Terrence, who had recently lost a lot of weight, was surprised (as was the local cleric) to find out his affinity was Heavy. Terrence, while trying out his affinity, discovers that his level one skill allows him to find out the weight of things. He is, in essence, a human weighing scale. How is this useful and where does the story go from here?

Well, affinity school, of course. Before we get there, we see a little bit of action when Terrence and his uncle go monster hunting and Terrence discovers a practical use for his ability. The school segment is like every school story ever written. Terrence meets a friend whose merchant father disowned him for having an inferior affinity and he also meets some girls who surprisingly are all hot. The instructors are relatively interesting and naturally, there are the rich kids who frown on those with lesser means. Like Terrence. This makes it all sound quite dull, but it’s not. Not entirely.

There’s a side plot with a King who refuses to accept his son and heir has no affinity - a big no-no. Tom, a dungeon explorer gets involved, trying to hunt down a sphere that can grant any affinity to anyone. Here we get to see some action and learn more about affinities and the dungeon missions. This is where the LitRPG aspect part of the book really shines. It’s sad that it’s only about maybe 20% of the book as it definitely adds more fun.

To sum up, after the early struggles, the book does develop a life of its own, despite nothing major happening throughout. I powered through the last 80% and ended up reading it in a couple of days. Part of my enjoyment was having an affinity (pun intended) with Terence, but also waiting for something big to happen, but it never really turned it up a notch, except when Tom was on board, and even that was restrained. I did like the book after the early struggles. Terrence in particular was very likeable, and savvy, and his struggles to ignore idiots are very much a reality for overweight people. If I had some other advice for the author, I would suggest an edit that removed the “strong language.” Most of it reads like a book for maybe 10-15 year-olds. The language isn’t going to cut it with many parents and I think youth/teen would be a better market for this story, and probably better for the author’s pocket. 

 

9 Levels of Hell: Volume 1 by E.C. Static - SPFBO8 Book Review
13, Jul

9 Levels of Hell: Volume 1 is a LitRPG, serial-cum-novel that presents a modern take on Dante’s Inferno for the gamer generation. In E.C. Static’s envisioning Death is bored and has decided to create a game - like, a video game - to make the newly dead play through in the hope they can save a loved one from eternal damnation. 

A Company of Adventurers (Tales of Kjeldale Book 1) Rune S Nielsen
05, Jul

I've read and reviewed quite a few SPFBO titles in my time, but this is my first year as a “judge, so colour me excited. I’ve six titles to read, only one of whom was written by an author I’m familiar with. I like to discover new authors, so I jumped in with A Company of Adventurers, more because it was the first in the folder of files than any prior interest in the story. So, enough with me, what’s up with the first book?

A Company of Adventurers is a standard epic fantasy, almost a LitRPG, with a group of disparate people off to save the world. We start with Talon, one of the finest of the titular adventurers, who has retired and fallen on hard times. Leaving his wife and young son at home, he heads off to seek a bounty that could solve all his financial problems. After a run-in with a rival gang, he meets a strange sorcerer who agrees to come on the quest. Fun story - I’m leaving the plot reveal here, as the story starts knocking out twists and turns that will keep you on your toes. 

Okay, so let's get down to the important bit. I liked this a lot. Instead of a farm boy saving the world, this was a bunch of very disparate rivals going on a quest, each with their own motivations. Some are coerced, some are seeking family members and there’s even a somewhat clumsy love triangle just for fun. More importantly, early on you realise that no one is safe. The attrition rate for relatively fleshed-out characters is rather high, which keeps us on our toes. The plot tends to bounce around a bit, which may annoy some people, but I found it refreshing. It's almost like a bunch of unrelated stories are running side by side before falling into place near the end. 

The wordbuilding, while not especially unique, is more of a twist on the norm. The adventurers, instead of being the heroes, are considered to be a blight and very much to blame for the woes of Kjeldale, including the much-promised orc invasion. Apart from orcs, the other creatures we come across are quite different to the norm, while the magic system brings a nice twist. 

As I said, I liked this a lot, but it was a bit rough around the edges. It wasn’t in any way bad enough to make me through my Kindle into a fire (a Kindle Fire?) but in a competition like SPFBO one should have ironed these wrinkles out. 

To sum up, if you’re looking for something fresh and exciting, A Company of Adventurers is probably not for you. If you’re looking for something fun with a plethora of interesting and snarky characters, then add this to your TBR pronto.

 

The Courts of Fate and Fear by Elizabeth Trafalgar - SPFBO 8 book review
19, Jun

*I was assigned this book for phase 1 of SPFBO 8*

The Courts of Fate and Fear has a lot to commend. Two neighboring countries, Sertra and Lithya, are facing high tension and mounting war. Sertra has a long history of magic users part of the royal family who can envision - that is, see into the future and plot the course of the country. Adelyn is a princess of Sertra, and she has no magic. Zilch. Nada. This, according to her father, makes her absolutely useless. She is mocked incessantly, forced to attend “training” sessions where every tactic known to man is tried, to try to bring out her envisioning. When it fails, she is sent into the Wilds - a forest bordering both Lithya and Sertra that is known for its bandits and monsters. She is to seek the Seer, to ask for help to bring out her magic.

But really, it’s a death sentence. She’s only sent with her handmaiden and a small escort of newly trained guards. Adelyn knows it, but still, she has no choice but to go along with it. It’s been ingrained into her to obey her father at all costs, and to “do what is best for Sertra”, even if that includes her basically being exiled and expected to die. 

Through a series of events, she finds herself alone and on the run. She seeks refuge in what she thinks is an abandoned mansion. However, she finds that it is NOT abandoned, and meets four friends - Rohn, Ven, Asa, and Ell. Come to find out, they are Lithyan royalty, and she is escorted/forced into the Lithyan capitol. 

Here, she finds the acceptance and kindness that she never experienced in her homeland. Although she is the princess of the enemy, the royal family extends grace and friendship. Adelyn is completely shocked - the kindness is completely foreign to her. Over the course of several months, she comes to love them. And she has come to realize that her own family is indeed the problem, not Lithya. 

The plot itself is pretty straightforward - outcast princess with no magic, meets enemy family, falls in love with the prince (there are two pretty graphic sex scenes which I was surprised to find in a YA book). The characters were downright lovable, especially Asa and Ven. The romance was a little hard to believe - it seemed to happen quite quickly. Rohn goes from being courteous to Adelyn, then we are suddenly told he can’t keep his eyes off her. There isn’t much chemistry between them, due to the suddenness of it. 

I wasn’t sure what to feel about the Lithyans being so kind to Adelyn. At first, it pulls at your heartstrings that she finally finds acceptance and kindness. But the fact that they gave her free reign of the palace, teach her to fight, and accept her into the family is a bit odd. The reason given is that the Lithyan royal family’s magical ability is to sense emotion, and they sense nothing nefarious in Adelyn. Still, it felt to be a bit too much of a stretch. 

The magic system isn’t explained all that well. Towards the middle/end of the book it gets fleshed out a bit more, but even then, I was a little confused about how it worked exactly, given that sometimes it was explained as spells, sometimes you had to use words, sometimes you used hand motions, other times you had a string or thread that you sensed. 

The worldbuilding was a bit dry as well. I didn’t get a good sense of anything, really, except the palaces and the Wilds. And when war does finally come, there were some things that just worked too well. All of the sudden, the Sertran palace is overtaken and boom, that ends the war. It didn’t make much sense. What about all the other towns and cities? Wouldn’t they have garrisons of soldiers, generals, supplies? Why would they just give up because the capitol city was taken? Why would the nobles go from loyalty to one king, and switch allegiance with the snap of a finger? Wouldn’t they have their own supplies, soldiers, wealth, influence? There is mention of the Sertran prince and the other princess, but only briefly. Wouldn’t the Sertrans fall behind one of them, and not a foreign king? 

While there were many things that left me scratching my head, there were still good elements to this book. The writing was well done - although it could have used one more editing pass (there were missing words scattered throughout, or tense changes). There were characters you could root for, with engaging personalities. The idea that the main character could actually be on the wrong side and not even know it was interesting. 

All in all, I feel this was a good book, generally, but could have used a lot more worldbuilding and some plot tweaks. For a YA story, though, I’m sure it will land well with some people looking for a quick, fun read with romance.

A Matter of Dragons (Dragons of the Iron Mountain #1) by Meredith Hart - SPFBO 8 book review
14, Jun

*This book was assigned to me for phase 1 of SPFBO 8*

A Matter of Dragons was a fun, sexy romp, with engaging characters. What it lacked in storyline it made up for with pace, good writing, and a build up to a (somewhat) predictable ending. 

It follows the story of Rayne - a female trying to survive in a male-dominated society. She was taken in as an orphan by the king's household in Valgros, a kingdom that has stamped out all magic and cut itself off from the rest of the world. The king has convinced his citizens that those who have magic are evil and uncultured ruffians, while those in his domain are straight-laced and must help the rest of the world rid itself of magic users. It had the distinct feel of a colonialist society - this idea of the "white" savior who will bring order and instill a genteel way of life, certainly not taking into account whether other cultures want this or not. Although it's not packaged as "white savior", the similarities were obvious. It made me want to wring the king's neck. Rayne has been brainwashed to believe this narrative, and she and a friend of hers are sent to Cairncliff, a town outside Valgros's domain, to kill a dragon that is supposedly rampaging the town, and to spread the word of the king's good graces and superior way of life.  

Then there is Doshir, a shapeshifting dragon who has escaped to Cairncliff to avoid the politicking and rigid rules of dragon society. His mother interrupts his slightly boring life as a shopkeeper to inform him that Mad Scarlet, another dragon, has come to Cairncliff seeking her stolen daughter. Doshir doesn't want to get involved. But of course, as stories go, the poor man is sucked into it by the scruff of his neck. When Rayne and Doshir meet, there are of course sparks and smoldering looks. Rayne wants to use him to learn more about this magical society, and dragons in particular, and it doesn't hurt that he's smoking hot. Little does she know who Doshir really is. Doshir, on the other hand, is captivated by Rayne and invites her out for wine. A good 30% of the beginning of the story focuses on their relationship and eventual - ahem ahem ahem - consummation of the relationship. 

Then everything goes wrong. Everything Rayne thought to be true about Doshir, her mission, and her worldview goes up in flames. There is a big reveal that, unfortunately, could be seen coming from a mile away. However, although it was predictable, this story was engaging. The writing was fluid, with a good mixture of exposition and dialogue, with very few grammatical errors. It was a quick read, so I feel that some worldbuilding was sacrificed, and the vast majority of the story takes place in Cairncliff, so you don't get a very good sense of the world as a whole. 

All in all, it was enjoyable, and I will probably continue reading the series. Kudos to the author, since I'm generally not a fan of shapeshifting stories, but this one had me hooked. If you're looking for a quick, fun, steamy tale, this one is for you. 

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