Beyond, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 15, 2021

Summary: Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire’s exploitative and militant leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Korda’s father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protect the people of the Duchy from tyranny.

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and “milking” of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor’s Court.

Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skills buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?

Thoughts: Valdemar’s founding has been something of a mythical thing ever since it was first mentioned in the very first Heralds of Valdemar novel, Arrow’s of the Queen. A Baron from a brutal imperial regime in the east sought to free his people from tyranny, and so took them on a long journey far away, beyond the reach of the Empire, where they settled in what eventually became the Kingdom of Valdemar. One of those situations where one man who cared people but was powerful to change an abusive system, so he left the system and created a new one. A different kind of heroism than the kind you see in fantasy stories where one man takes down an entire corrupt regime, but heroism none the less.

In Beyond, we start on Baron Valdemar’s journey to freedom, shedding light on the myth and making it real and relatable, at least within the confines of the world’s lore.

Now, I’ll grant you, this wasn’t quite the story I was expecting. It’s not that the description of Baron Valdemar’s journey away from the Empire was different than how it was briefly described in a few other novels and short stories, but as is often the case with more recent Valdemar novels, it’s all the stuff in between the story’s bones that make me raise an eyebrow in confusion. It seems lately like Lackey wants to tie everything together in neat packages, to have everything connect to everything else, to the point of creating weirdly complicated setups to explain things that didn’t really need an explanation in the first place.

Case in point, the vrondi. Now, vrondi are little air spirits that were largely introduced in the Last Herald-Mage novels and are a key reason why mages were driven insane if they tried to do magic in Valdemar for so long. They were sort of roped into a plan to have them keep an eye on any mages who weren’t also Herald-Mages, watching them until a Herald-Mage could come check them out. Then the Herald-Mages died off, and for a long time mages in Valdemar were just constantly watched by a growing number of invisible presences. Vrondi are also the reason why Heralds can do what they call Truth Spell, which can detect lies or even force someone to be honest. Okay. All makes sense. Nothing contradictory here.

Except that in Beyond, it’s established that vrondi weren’t just “we exist all over the world” natural spiritual creatures; they came with Baron Valdemar to these new unexplored lands after he freed them from a convoluted Imperial scheme that bound them to living dolls and forced them to become slaves. And while I can understand that they felt indebted to Valdemar for his actions in freeing them, it seems rather cruel to have bound them to the spell that made them watch for mages in the first place. They gave permission then, yes, but it begs the question of whether feeling indebted to someone’s legacy, hundreds of years later, would actually make them so willing to bind themselves to that task. It created a weird moral quandary when reading Beyond, and when this book’s story is added to the whole of Valdemar’s lore, it contained aspects that made me quite uncomfortable.

Which would have been find if it was something designed to make the reader uncomfortable, something done to provoke thought and consideration. Instead it felt more like Lackey didn’t think that journeying into unknown lands and trying to keep people safe from dangers on all sides would be an interesting enough story, and so tried to shoehorn in something for long-time readers to recognize, even when it didn’t need to be there and made later books on the timeline make less sense.

It wasn’t that Beyond was a bad book. It was pretty on par with a lot of Lackey’s recent work. But for me, the series peaked a while ago, I think, and each new foray back into the world leaves me increasingly disappointed. From stories complicated in ways that they don’t need to be, to her new strange habit of trying to make modern references that don’t really make any sense (this time it was characters calling a dog a “doggo” and a “pupper,” and yes, they were mages so old it could be argued this was just slang from another era, but really, it’s just a nod to modern real-world slang… which I guess is still better than commentary on the Quiverfull movement or the Scooby-Doo references…) The characters were interesting, the tyrannical debauchery of the Empire was honestly a fascinating setting, and I was interested in seeing how things would play out, but it didn’t hold my interest the way earlier books in the series have done in the past.

And yet, every time I say that I’m done with the series, a new book comes out and I’m dragged back in, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

If you’re of like mind to me, thinking that the Valdemar series peaked before the books with Mags started, then this is one I can safely say is easy to pass over without missing much. If you’re a fan of Lackey’s more recent entries into Valdemar, then this one will still be right up your alley, since it’s very much indicative of her modern writing. I can’t say it’s one I’d recommend, per se, but as I said, it isn’t bad, and I can still see it appealing to a certain subset of fans.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 24, 2020

Summary: AN UNEXPECTED QUEST. TWO WORLDS AT STAKE. ARE YOU READY?

Days after winning OASIS founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything.

Hidden within Halliday’s vaults, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the OASIS a thousand times more wondrous—and addictive—than even Wade dreamed possible.

With it comes a new riddle, and a new quest—a last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize.

And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who’ll kill millions to get what he wants.

Wade’s life and the future of the OASIS are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

Thoughts: I enjoyed Ready Player One a lot. It wasn’t until later, after reading some other opinions and giving the book a second look that I really started to see some serious problems with the pop culture glorification and the truly terrifying amounts of gatekeeping the characters embodied. I can see why there was gatekeeping, given who the characters were and what they were doing, but geek culture already had a huge problem with that, and Ready Player One seemed to say, “Yeah, okay, but what if making other people feel like they know less actually gets you cool things in the end?!”

Now we come to the sequel, Ready Player Two, and wow, there are just so many more problems! Where the first book was at least fun to read during many scenes, this one was mostly the opposite, I’m sad to say.

Strap in, friends, because this is not going to be a positive review. Nor a short one.

The premise of this novel is that new tech has been found that allows users of the OASIS, that gigantic MMORPG upon which 99% of human interaction and economy relies in Cline’s near-future world, to essentially port their very minds into the game, allowing for total immersion in a way that resembled a directed lucid dream. Only the once-founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, did the same thing at one point, leading to a faulty but autonomous NPC version of himself running around and demanding that since he once scanned the mind of his lifelong crush, Wade and his friends should set out on a quest to bring her to life, so to speak, as an NPC, so that he can have another chance to be with her. To ensure that everyone complies, he locks all of the mind-scanned users within the OASIS and won’t let them log out, holding millions of people hostage and giving the group a 12 hour window in which to solve all of the riddles and quests that will lead to his goal.

In other words, the characters from the previous novel have an even greater quest to accomplish with less time, fewer resources, higher stakes… and of course they manage, because what once took years now must obviously take less than a day because that’s just what the plot calls for.

It felt very much like a problem a lot of sequels have, though usually I see it in TV shows and movies rather than books. It’s not enough to meet and match what the first thing accomplished. There’s this assumption that one has to go even further beyond, to top the previous story or else nobody will be interested. Got to make things bigger, make the consequences or the quest more grand, or else nobody will care because they already saw this story.

The problem comes when you reach too far, and give the audience a higher-stakes plot that must be (and will be) fulfilled within a tighter time limit, despite it not making sense to do so. It could be argued that the characters have so many more resources at their disposal this time around, since they’re all in control of massive wealth and in-game power, but they had a significant amount of that by about the halfway point of the previous novel too, and the omnipotent powers that Wade gained for winning Halliday’s original east egg quest have been stripped from him in Ready Player Two, so you can’t even excuse it through that. The stakes might be higher and so the group might be more motivated, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean they can actually accomplish everything in the given time period.

But the plot demanded it, and so…

Wade, for his part, comes off as initially a pretty terrible person in this book. It’s a case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” since he openly admits that he used his in-game god-powers to bankrupt and destroy the characters of people who so much as said mean things about him and his friends. And in a world where there are no second lives, are no backup accounts, killing a character means that characters starts over again with nothing. Since so much of out-of-game economics are tied to the game… Well, let’s just say it’s like whenever you die in a video game, the bank shows up at your door to repossess your house and all your belongings.

Yes, Wade does change from this mindset thanks to therapy and effort, but then you get to the part where he can stalk any account he chooses, and gives Aech and Shoto the benefit of respect and privacy, but decides he’s still so hung up on Art3mis that he has to keep tabs on her at all times, and oh yeah, this definitely presents him as a character I want to give a shit about for an entire other novel…

Cline’s writing throughout the book was fine, if a bit unbalanced at times. Some scenes rush by relatively quickly, others take for-freaking-ever to resolve, to the point where I legitimately considered skipping past large chunks of the whole “battle 7 versions of Prince” section because it was just a whole lot of running around, gathering items, and listening to Aech talk about how awesome Prince was. The characters themselves… Honestly did not quite feel the same as they were in Ready Player One, occasionally feeling like I was reading a tolerable but not-quite-there fanfic presentation of them. This was especially true in Shoto’s case, as he went from being rather formal in the first book to spouting English-language jokes and slang in this book. Perhaps that could be hand-waved because he was using translation software and it could be argued that’s the fault of the software… but that’s a lot of reading between the lines to do to explain some character degradation.

Though I will admit that the constant pop culture references got stale very very quickly here, and for the record, I didn’t find them stale in Ready Player One. Every character’s obsession with 80s pop culture made sense, given what they were working toward. But in Ready Player Two, the pop culture craze seems to still stay decently in the 80s but also occasionally skipping forward a few decades to reference popular things from later decades. But only up to current day. And sure, it can be argued that Cline doesn’t exactly know what media is going to be popular in 2025 and so can’t reference it, but it gives the peculiar impression that after a certain point, no new media was really made in Wade’s world. It’s all just stuff that was popular in the past, because something something reader nostalgia.

Yes, I’m being caustic here. But if you give me a reason for characters to talk in pop culture references from the 80s all the time, I will believe you and accept it, even when I don’t get the references. Give me no reason that they’re familiar The Matrix, though, and I call bullshit.

Which brings me to a very personal gripe about one reference… Art3mis mentions that putting your whole consciousness into a game is a bad idea, because hasn’t anyone ever seen Sword Art Online? And yeah, SAO does involve that. But you know what other anime involved that, which was before SAO’s time? Freaking .hack! You know, that series that had multiple anime seasons and spin-offs, multiple video games, manga adaptations, novels, and also involved people getting dangerously stuck in an MMO. A series which seems to have been largely forgotten in the wake of SAO’s popularity, to the point where it seems like many people have no idea that the concept of people getting stuck in a video game even existed before Sword Art Online was conceived. SAO is more popular now. But .hack had the Western stage first, and it bothers me a lot to see people continue to overlook it, especially in a novel where characters once argued constantly about how relevant obscure 80s movies were. Things like that made it seem as though Cline was writing not so much what the characters were likely to know, but what the book’s audience was likely to be interested in at the time of the book’s release.

This isn’t me gatekeeping. This isn’t me saying, “If you only know Sword Art Online but don’t know .hack, then you’re not a true fan of a very specific subgenre.” This is me saying that the characters probably had as much reason to know about both, but the author chose to reference only the one that the book’s audience was likely to know, despite throwing out all sorts of references to things the audience probably didn’t know in the previous novel.

But now I want to talk about the book’s serious moral quandary, and for that, I’m going to have to discuss some huge spoilers, so if you still plan on reading this and don’t want to book’s ending to be ruined, then feel free to not read the rest of this review.

Okay, so a thread that runs through the bulk of the novel is that Art3mis does not like this new brain-scan technology and refuses to use it, being the only holdout of the group. It contributes to the huge rift that has formed between her and Wade. She’s of the opinion that it hooks users too much into the game and prevents them from existing in the real world, which is something the group actively took pains to prevent at the end of Ready Player One, ensuring that players absolutely had to log off sometimes and go interact in meatspace. But at the end, when it allows for Og and Kira to be reunited as sentient NPCs even after their physical bodies have both died, she basically pulls a, “Oh Wade, you were right all along, this technology is so wonderful!” as though all of her other objections just don’t matter anymore.

(Plus their relationship just sort of starts up again almost randomly, without any resolution to their problems. They go through danger together, beat a great foe, and then it’s just sort of casually mentioned later that oh, they’re back together now. Readers didn’t even see them discuss getting back together. It just happened off the page and we have to take Wade’s declaration of it as fact, I guess.)

But there’s more. The reason that Kira is in the game as a sentient NPC to begin with is because Halliday ported her mind in there without her consent, an act which many characters are horrified over and think was despicable. But when push comes to shove, they make the decision to turn the minds of every brain-scanned OASIS user into sentient NPCs in a self-contained OASIS simulation without their knowledge or consent, to keep their self-contained OASIS simulation fresh and full of real minds during a long interstellar journey and to keep consenting sentient NPCs company, because getting informed consent would just be too tricky. They take the attitude of, “What people don’t know won’t hurt them,” even though they acknowledge it was a clear violation when someone did that to Kira.

And at that point, I was thankful the book was pretty much over, because the self-righteous hypocrisy made me very angry.

Ready Player Two isn’t a bad book, per se. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s reasonably entertaining. But it has a lot of problems, both moral and technical, and I found it considerably less enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s not one I regret reading, per se, because unless I absolutely hate a story or series, I tend to want to see if through to the end, even if I’m not always having the best time with it. But it is one that I’ll mostly end up remembering for all the issues I had with it, rather than the sort of exciting high-stakes adventure it was meant to be.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, by K S Villoso

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of her kingdom, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves. It nearly tore her nation apart. But her arranged marriage to the son of a rival clan heralds peace.

However, he suddenly disappears before their reign can begin, and the kingdom is fractured beyond repair.

Years later, he sends a mysterious invitation to meet. Talyien journeys across the sea in hopes of reconciling their past. An assassination attempt quickly dashes those dreams. Stranded in a land she doesn’t know, with no idea whom she can trust, Talyien will have to embrace her namesake.

A Wolf of Oren-yaro is not tamed.

Thoughts: Before I get into the meat of this review, I’d like to state that I’ve started taking some new medications to try and help various health issues in my life, and those medications make me a little bit spaced out at times and make it tough to fully gather my thoughts. So if anything in this review doesn’t make sense or makes weird leaps of logic, please take it as a given that it’s because of my meds, or because this book was just that good, or a combination of both.

It’s probably both.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is one of those fantasy novels that seems, right from the outset, so very well planned and plotted and expressed that sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re not reading historical fiction. The world is so finely detailed, the mix of cultures and mentions of different languages and dialects, all of it combine into something that feels incredibly real. As we follow Queen Talyien’s journey to reunite with her runaway husband, layers and layers are peeled back, revealing a rich and complex story coming out from what at first seemed relatively simple.

Well, as simple as politics and “It’s Complicated” relationships are, at any rate.

Talyien is one of those characters who I think it’s easy to both like and dislike, depending on the situation. I can’t help but admire her tenacity, her desire to do what she thinks is right, and her sharp mind, and in many of the situations she found herself in, I agreed with her judgment calls. On the flip side, those traits came with drawbacks that kept her from seeing things she didn’t want to see. Her strong desire to reunite with her husband, partly from love and loyalty and partly due to the political arrangement that came about from their marriage, could seem admirable… if it wasn’t for the fact that she kept overlooking that he really didn’t want the same thing, and that he didn’t view her in the same light she viewed him. Talyien wasn’t what I’d call a trusting person by nature, but she seemed to have difficulty recognizing the machinations of others, the way she was constantly maneuvered into positions that were very much to her disadvantage. While she was committed to doing her best for the kingdom (queendom?) she led, she did have more than a touch of naiveté about her, which was frustrating at times.

So Talyien’s journey throughout The Wolf of Oren-Yaro wasn’t just the physical journey of getting her husband back, or trying to solve the increasingly complex set of circumstances surrounding the reunion (assassins, betrayal, and disappearances abound!), but her journey to see the world in a new light. She’s not the same person at the end of the book as she was in the beginning. She’s seen the lengths people will go to get what they want, she’s seen the reality of life for people she wouldn’t have even noticed in the past, and she learns far more about the what’s going to be expected of her as even her political situation changes. She’s still very much herself at the end, but it’s a self that’s more mature, in some ways, or at least more apt to see the sheer amount of deception around her.

Villoso’s gorgeous writing really brings this Asian-inspired world to life, showing the reader the highs and lows of various locations, the best and the worst of people, and all their varied complexities; nobody is wholly good or wholly bad. With possibly one exception, though I’m not going to spoil that for people who have yet to read this book. Despite having very little ability to concentrate on things lately due to my ongoing health issues, once I started reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I kept being motivated to push past my limits, to read just a little further, even when my eyes didn’t want to focus properly or I realized I’d just spent 5 minutes staring blankly at the same page, because I was that invested in the story. I know I’ve said this about other novels, but it stands true here just as much as there: this is a novel that really draws you in and refuses to let you go. Once you give it even a slight chance to ensnare you, you too will find yourself pushing past your limits, doing the, “Just one more chapter,” thing, until before you know it, you’ve reached the end and there’s nothing else to do but reach for the sequel and continue the epic fantasy adventure.

Long live the Bitch Queen!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Jade War, by Fonda Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Thoughts: Sequel to the absolutely incredible Jade City, Jade War dives back into a world where jade means power and the two ruling/warring families of Kekon are still at each others’ throats against a backdrop of increasing social change. Political alliances are being made and broken, lines shift and change, and progress marches ever onward while people try to maintain a semblance of the lives they know while everything around them seems to grow less familiar by the day. Jade smuggling, underhanded deals, old vendettas, war on the horizon, and cross-cultural clashes are just some of the struggles the Kaul family must deal with in this story where nobody is safe.

And I mean that. Jade City and Jade War are books where you can’t get too attached to any character, because there’s every chance they’ll end up dead at some point. For all that I accepted this in the first book, it was still shocking to me every time it happened, because the characters are so well written and grow so familiar to the reader that it seems impossible for the story to exist without them. And yet. Death is the reality faced when clashing clans war in the streets, when old enemies raise their heads and seek vengeance, and when navigating the treacherous waters of unfamiliar and hostile societies. During a few scenes, I was especially tense, as some of my favourite characters were in danger of meeting the same fate as so many others, and I was on the edge of my figurative seat waiting to see how it all turned out for them.

Jade War wastes no time in asking some brutally hard questions. Can you still be part of a family when you’ve forsworn the thing the family is most concerned with? Is it acceptable to sell something sacred to people who don’t appreciate it the way you do, in order to gain advantage over those who seek to destroy you? Is it honourable to push someone to do something dishonourable? How much bloodshed is acceptable to keep valuable cultural traditions strong, or is it better to sacrifice everything you hold dear in the name of peace? And, in nearly every instance, where does the line get drawn? There are no easy answers here, there never are, but these are the issues that occupy the thoughts of so many characters, from the minor to the major. You get explorations of cultural value, of a culture’s place in the context of a wider world. You see a society where that which what we would deem as a seedy underbelly, a criminal organization to be stamped out, is actually just an accepted part of daily life. One that does a lot of good for the people.

The clans honestly remind me a lot about what I’ve read of yakuza families. Probably other organized crime families too. I remember many years ago reading about how, after a large earthquake in Japan, the yakuza were one of the first on the scene to deliver emergency supplies to those displaced in the disaster. They weren’t bound by the same red tape that the government was, so they could just show up and help people who needed help. Or an interview with a yakuza member talking about how one of his colleagues (probably the wrong word but it’s the best I can think of) ran an orphanage, and sure, that orphanage was a tax haven, but it also was a good place for kids to be when they had nowhere else to go. Handing out blankets and bottles of water after a disaster is exactly what I can imagine Hilo doing. I can see Shae in her office, smiling at the thought that an orphanage is both providing for kids and also making sure the family sneaks by paying less in taxes. Beating the crap out of someone who is harassing the owner of a clan-supported business? Sure, that’s absolutely a thing the Maik brothers would do. These are the sorts of characters you will come to know and love as you read both Jade City and Jade War.

The Green Bone Saga books are filled with grey-and-grey morality, where you might be able to identify who is wrong, but it’s hard to say that anybody’s really right. The best you can say of the characters is that they’re all doing what they think is best, whether that be for their families, their clans, or themselves. And that leads to characters doing morally reprehensible things in the name of what they believe to be right. It’s hard to call the Kaul family “the good guys” when they’ll undermine businesses for their own benefit, or when one of them kills in order to essentially kidnap a baby in order to raise it within the family. There are no good guys, not really. There are people who are worse than others, but I don’t think there’s a single character in these books who hasn’t done something awful in the name of loyalty and duty, nobody who hasn’t stepped over someone else in the pursuit of ambition.

And honestly, I kind of love that. There are plenty of stories out there where the lines are clearly drawn, where you know the right side from the wrong side, where people fight against injustice or evil or oppressive regimes. There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. I love them too. But sometimes I crave a good portrayal of the messy reality of life, where there are no easy answers and no clear examples of good versus bad. The world is full of beauty and brutality, love and honour and violence. It’s complicated and oh so real, and I love it so much. Lee has created such a complete world that every piece of it feels real, every piece fits into the complicated pattern that a fully fleshed out world requires. There’s a stunning amount of world-building in these books, and Lee should feel proud that it all came together so brilliantly, conveyed to the reader in ways that at no point feel forced or trite.

I find myself in a similar situation to when I read and reviewed the first book. Jade War was so astounding, so fantastic that I have a hard time collecting my thoughts into something coherent. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to just hand copies to people and say, “Read this because it’s so freaking good!” To so eloquently portray the clash and blend of technology and magic, modernity and tradition, is no easy feat, but Lee handles it all so well that I ended up finishing Jade War and wanting to pick up Jade City and start the whole journey all over again. My reviews can never do this series justice. The best book are always like this for me. I try to put something together to convey just how much I loved them, and in the end I sit back, unsatisfied, knowing that I couldn’t address half the things I wanted to, and none of them properly express my full thoughts and emotions.

In the end, all I can say is that I wholeheartedly recommend this series. If you enjoyed Jade City then you will adore Jade War. I can’t think of another series like this; it stands proudly as a stellar example of what one might call “gangster fantasy.” I can’t do it full justice; it’s the sort of book you have to experience for yourself in order to see just how truly amazing it is, from beginning to end, in all of its glorious violence and heart. The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master. Do not miss your chance to read these books.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Queen’s Weapons, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 9, 2021

Summary: They are Warlord Princes, men born to serve and protect. They are the Queen’s Weapons, men born to destroy the Queen’s enemies–no matter what face that enemy wears.

Daemonar Yaslana knows how to be bossy yet supportive–traits he shares with his father, the Demon Prince, and his uncle, the High Lord of Hell. Within his generation of the family, he assumes the role of protector, supporting his sister Titian’s artistic efforts and curbing his cousin Jaenelle Saetien’s more adventurous ideas. But when a young Eyrien Queen, someone Titian thought was a friend, inflicts an emotional wound, Daemonar’s counterattack brings him under the tutelage of Witch, the Queen whose continued existence is known only to a select few.

As Daemonar is confronted by troubling changes within and around the family, he sees warnings that a taint in the Blood might be reappearing. Daemonar, along with his father and uncle, must uncover the source of a familiar evil–and Daemon Sadi, the High Lord of Hell, may be forced into making a terrible choice.

Thoughts: It’s not even close to a secret that I adore the Black Jewels novels. I love the characters, I love the world, and I often turn to these books when I’m in need of a comfort re-read. And while I definitely had some issues with the previous novel, The Queen’s Bargain (mostly in that one of the characters kept doing things she absolutely knew very well to not do), I still overall enjoyed it. And I fully expected to enjoy this latest offering in the series, The Queen’s Weapons, just as much.

The Queen’s Weapons is set a good few years after The Queen’s Bargain, with Jaenelle Saetien and Daemonar fast growing up and showing just who they’re going to be as adults. In Daemonar’s case, he’s definitely turning into the model of a Warlord Prince, very much like this father. In Jaenelle Saetien’s case… It’s a lot more complicated, as she quite frankly grows up to be quite the brat, convinced that the only way to come into her own is to rebel against very idea of her namesake, the Witch and Queen that everyone around her knew and loved. This is understandable pretty damn upsetting to Surreal and Daemon, but it only gets worse when signs emerge that the taint, once thought wiped out, has set down in Kaeleer and is starting to grow and corrupt once more.

I admit, when I first read the description of this book many months ago, I had to raise a skeptical eyebrow. In the original trilogy, it was a huge deal when Jaenelle sacrificed herself and her power to wipe out the taint that was threatening the Blood. It was a major event that wiped out most of the Blood across an entire Realm. And here it’s just, “Oh yeah, that thing. Yup, it’s back.” I was a little bit wary of how this would be handled. Not because I thought Bishop couldn’t do such a concept justice, but because I’ve seen authors, over time, wanting to write more in their beloved worlds but lacking a solid idea for a story, and so just bringing back a once-vanquished evil. Even if it made no sense.

But thankfully, it did make sense here. A reason was given for the taint’s reemergence, and that reason stands up to scrutiny. That was quite a relief!

While the Black Jewels series started off with so very much abuse and torture and things that deserve a buttload of trigger warnings, a lot of those things were absent in later books. Their echoes were still felt, of course, because one doesn’t recover from centuries of abuse, for instance, just because they’re now in a happy relationship. Scars are still there, they don’t fade so easily. But in terms of scenes of active abuse and assault? No, they faded from a lot of the text in future books, which likely made said books a bit more approachable for new readers. (Someone could read Cassidy’s duology, The Shadow Queen and Shalador’s Lady, for instance, without having read the core trilogy and without needing so many of those trigger warnings.) It’s sometimes easy to forget that the series started with a corrupt culture filled with violence and rape. And since The Queen’s Weapons deals with the taint coming back, I feel it’s worth pointing out that some of those issues do rear their ugly heads once again, and it’s worth warning people that yes, this book does contain rape, and abuse, and a very unsettling scene in which a kitten is left to die. You might well need to know that before picking it up.

And it’s with that context that we see a depiction of someone who knows very well that such things are wrong, but who has her own agenda and is willing to turn a blind eye to some things, to make excuses, if those things don’t like up with what she wants. Jaenelle Saetien clung to the wrong sort of people, convinced that they weren’t using her and weren’t malicious and weren’t behind any of the increasingly concerning instances of abuse, because she needed something that she was convinced only they could provide. She’s a character study in desperation and willful ignorance.

Much as I hate to say it, I could relate a bit to Jaenelle Saetien’s concerns about living in somebody’s shadow. It’s something I’ve had to confront in my life as well, and that I still struggle with at times, so even when I hated who she was becoming and how she was behaving, when things switched to her viewpoint and we got a look at her thoughts and emotions, I couldn’t help but remember how many times I had felt the same way. It made me reflect on how I could well have ended up the same way, someone who was willing to overlook terrible things in order to be accepted by people who had no expectations of me. There but for the grace of something-or-other, I suppose. I wouldn’t say that Jaenelle Saetien is a bad person, so much as she’s someone who could easily become so, if not handled the right way. She balanced on the edge of a very particular knife, and it took extraordinary events to determine which side of that knife she’d end up on.

I do want to take a moment to mention something in particular here. I don’t know if it was intended this way or not, but the twisted nostalgia for Hayllian items and pieces of Dorothea’s abusive rule struck me as analogous to the way some people have this weird idealized nostalgia for times past, especially when it comes to Nazi propaganda and far-right ideology. A conviction that “the right sort of people” should be in power, that it’s fine to push others down if it comparatively raises up you and yours, you see that mentality expressed a lot in people who won’t call themselves racist, no, but will express that it’s “those people” who are keeping everyone else down. There are people out there who seek out and collect Nazi memorabilia, with an eye to glorifying the Nazi regime and all of its atrocities. Atrocities, of course, against “the wrong people.” I can’t say for sure if this was Bishop’s specific intent here, but it sure read that way to me. And given that Daemon et al are the good guys of the story, the ones we’re supposed to empathize with and agree with, and they’re all vehemently against bringing back the sort of culture that brought torture and death to themselves and those they loved… Yeah, it’s not hard to see which side of the line we’re supposed to stand on.

The Queen’s Weapons addressed many of the smaller issues that I encountered in The Queen’s Bargain, which I was happy to see. Chiefly, the relationship between Surreal and Daemon. I won’t lie here — I have never been a fan of those two together. I can see why they stayed together once Jaenelle Saetien came into the picture, absolutely, but the situation that led to it… Eh, I have strong feelings about it, and I may get around to discussing them someday. Either way, a good deal of the friction in the previous novel stemmed from their relationship, and from both of them trying to be who they weren’t, especially to each other. Especially after Daemon learned of Witch’s continued presence. But the way things worked out in The Queen’s Weapons felt satisfying. It felt like they figured themselves and each other out, and were prepared to move forward with what that knowledge meant. It might not be a happy conclusion, per se, but it was a very satisfying one.

As always with these books, there’s so much that I want to say, much of which can’t be fit into a review because then it would devolve into semi-nonsensical, “Ooh, does this mean that?” and, “So siddown and lemme tell y’all my theories about this scene!” What I can say for certain is that it was wonderful to return, once again, to a world I love and characters I adore, to walk a while in the Shadow Realm and revel in Bishop’s delicious dark fantasy narrative. It was a treat to see the younger characters mature and hold their own in the story. It’s a book I absolutely will reread, and discuss at length with my partner (because we’re both huge geeks for this series). Even moreso than The Queen’s Bargain, The Queen’s Weapons is a worthy addition to the series that holds a beloved place in my life, and I can absolutely recommend it to other fans of the series.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a, by Katłıà

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Author’s Twitter | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 24, 2020

Summary: A vexatious shapeshifter walks among humans. Shadowy beasts skulk at the edges of the woods. A ghostly apparition haunts a lonely stretch of highway. Spirits and legends rise and join together to protect the north.

Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Tı-Yat’a is the debut novel from Dene author Katłıà. Set in Canada’s far north, this layered composite novel traverses space and time, from a community being stalked by a dark presence, a group of teenagers out for a dangerous joyride, to an archeological site on a mysterious island that holds a powerful secret.

Riveting, subtle, and unforgettable, Katłıà gives us a unique perspective into what the world might look like today if Indigenous legends walked amongst us, disguised as humans, and ensures that the spiritual significance and teachings behind the stories of Indigenous legends are respected and honored.

Thoughts: I want to say right now that despite my thorough enjoyment of this book, I am probably one of the least qualified people to comment on certain aspects of it. I am not Indigenous. I do not live in the part of Canada where this book takes place. I can’t speak to any experience regarding the culture, history, or language presented in Land-Water-Sky. That’s not to say the author didn’t portray things respectfully or accurately; it’s just to say that I am not one who can definitively say so.

But I can speak to how wonderful this book is, and how much I enjoyed everything that it offered.

I’m not sure whether to call Land-Water-Sky a collection of short stories that all tie into each other, or one long story that has huge gaps in it from time to time. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers call it a collection of short stories, and I can definitely see the logic to that, but my trouble with categorizing it as such is that each story holds parts of other stories within it; you can’t skip over any of them without encountering something later that just won’t make sense without context. But at the same time, there are so many leaps on the timeline that I can see why some wouldn’t consider it a single contiguous story. For my part, it feels a lot like history itself. You can isolate parts of it and tell the general story of that time, but you can’t just isolate events or people from the context of what came before, what shaped the world and the people who live within it. Even sections of the book that feel like disconnected interludes come back around in the end, proving themselves very relevant to understanding the story as a whole. You can’t really have one part without all the others.

The story starts far back in history, centuries in the past, when fierce and greedy beasts roamed the land, intent on destroying humanity and taking the world for themselves. It would be easy to say that with the aid of the gods, humanity wins and the beasts are destroyed, but that isn’t really the case. The beasts merely lie low, biding their time.  The story takes leaps into the future, or I should say leaps into the present, when we see Deèyeh, an university student studying archaeology, eager to connect with a heritage that was stolen from her. A heritage that carries a greater burden than she could have imagined.

And believe me, I am not doing this book justice with that weak description. But to include all of the interwoven stories would involve so many spoilers, and I don’t want to ruin such a fantastic book for people.

An aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the use of Wıı̀lıı̀deh (a dialect of Tłı̨chǫ) in the early sections. The characters speak their own language, which isn’t translated for the convenience of the reader. Considering that characters later on absolutely do speak English, I thought this was a fantastic contrast, as well as a subtle way of saying to readers, “I’m not going to hold your hand. If you want to understand, you’ll have to try for yourself.” And while I have no idea as to the literal translations of everything said, there was plenty that could be understood through context. Do I think I was mentally pronouncing the words properly? Probably not. Was I able to still learn as I went, get the gist of things, and pick up a few new phrases along the way? Absolutely yes.

The author deftly tackles the issues of colonialism and inter-generational trauma, both of which give scars that can take lifetimes to heal from. If ever. I won’t say there there are analogies drawn between the greedy violent mythological beasts and white colonizers, because frankly, I didn’t see any overt connections. But I won’t pretend that there wasn’t a degree of similarity between the two when it came to the matter of respect for the Indigenous way of life as presented in Land-Water-Sky. Whether it was apathy about helping Indigenous people prove their history on the land, or whether it was about stealing the land from its caretakers, it’s hard to not come to the conclusion that different kinds of opposition can produce the same result. Some things can’t just be ignored or treated as unimportant, without risking even greater damage.

Katłıà writes with all the weight and wonder of a myth come to life. She shows how to ancient interacts with the modern, both in terms of history and culture, and in mythical creatures that walk alongside us, whether we see them or not. There is much to love, and to learn, in Land-Water-Sky. I highly recommend it for those who enjoy myths and legends and their applications in the modern world, and for those who want to do their part in uplifting the voices of Indigenous authors. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2021

Summary: Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds—and to reclaim his own life.

He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he’d rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species—and through it all, stay true to his own principles.

Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.

Thoughts: I’ve really been into novellas lately. I used to note enjoy them so much, finding them less to my taste than a longer, meatier novel, but these days, I see a lot more appeal in them. They have the ability to give a person a complete and engaging story while not requiring a huge time sink, and don’t tend to come with the caveat that there’ll be so much story that you’re going to need to invest in a notebook to keep track of character dynamics and event implications. I appreciate their brevity far more than I ever used to.

That being said, Tower of Mud and Straw is a story that I think was poorly served by being a novella instead of a novel.

Novellas can certain feel like a snapshot of moments within a larger world, and Tower of Mud and Straw definitely fits that bill, but through much of the story, it felt like there was too much going on to be properly supported by the format. The events in the very first line of the summary, “Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters,” we really only see as brief memories and mentions, a moment from huge and potentially fascinating event that happens before this story even begins. Thus, we don’t really get to see how that event influenced Shea, so much as we’re told that it did, and that there were consequences, and one of those consequences was essentially the catalyst for Tower of Mud and Straw. There are the Drakiri, a people who are far more technologically advanced than humans for some unexplained reason, and that technology is dangerous to use but only sometimes, and even by the end of the story, I didn’t feel like I quite had a handle on what the tipping point for danger really was. Shea develops a complicated romantic relationship after a time, another character ends up as his friend or at least in a decent working relationship, and the fact that I can’t quite tell how to describe it is due partly to the fact that so little time was given over to developing how the characters behaved around each other, how their interactions and relationships changed along the way.

There’s a lot crammed in here, and I feel like it could have been done greater service by taking the time to expand it all into a novella. Characters say things and their words are taken as truth without evidence, and sometimes it wasn’t exactly a convenient situation in which to demand said evidence, but there was no reason to just accept anything then either. Part of the conflict of the story involves a Drakiri legend about the Mimic Tower, a sort of hellish building that appears when a building of equal or greater height is constructed, which will bring with it great destruction, and this all ties in to Drakiri identity, and the concept of a demonic Tower of Babel analogue is fascinating enough on its own, and was a driving factor in the story, but again, too much crammed into too little. The end result was that the story felt smothered, trapped, while anything not critical was stripped away to save space. And unfortunately, that included a lot of potential character development and worldbuilding.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here, and Barsukov’s work has a lot of potential. If this had been fleshed out and presented as a full-length novel, the vast majority of my issues with it would likely vanish, as they would at that point not be issues. I have no problem with the story’s premise, with the individual events as they unfolded, with the characters and the roles they played. They were just all done a disservice, I feel, by trying to slim them down and make them fit into a format that couldn’t show them off in their full glory.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)