The Second Death, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 29, 2016

Summary: For Diago Alvarez, that’s the choice before him. For unless he wants to see his son Rafael die, he must do the unthinkable: Help the Nazis receive the plans to the ultimate weapon.

And while Diago grows more comfortable not only with his heritage, but also with his place among Guillermo’s Los Nefilim, he is still unsure if he truly belongs amongst them.

In a frantic race to save the future of humanity, Diago is forced to rely on his daimonic nature to deceive an angel. In doing so, he discovers the birth of a modern god—one that will bring about a new world order from which no one can escape.

Review: Frohock has entertained us previously with her other two novellas in the Los Nefilim series, stories of immortal beings standing between angels and daimons, of Diago and Miquel and their relationship in 1930s Spain, and the events that surround and complicate their already complicated lives. Now the third installment of the series, The Second Death, picks up really only hours after the previous novella finished, throwing readers immediately back into the action and not giving the characters even a chance to catch their breath.

You’ve really got to feel sorry for Diago here, with his life seeming to get worse rather than better after having pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim. Now both he and his son are kidnapped, Rafael held hostage to ensure that Diago complies with Engel’s commands to acquire a weapon that reputedly could put an end to all wars. Seeing members of Los Nefilim go rogue convinces Diago that this time he’s really on his own, that he alone must foil Engel’s plans and escape with Rafael, before the balance of divine power shifts entirely.

Action and intrigue and the names of the game here, and the pulse-pounding pace barely lets up for a second. Happily, Frohock starts off the whole thing by giving a bit of a recap on what happened previously in the series, so as short as they are (only a little over 100 pages per novella), readers don’t have to go back and do a reread to ensure they know where everyone stands. Very beneficial in a story that’s as complex and full of twists as this one, and far better than having characters awkwardly do recaps along the way.

Though to be honest, I’m not opposed to rereading such a wonderful series at any point, and the story is one that has stuck firmly in my mind since I read the first one so many months ago.

One thing that stands out to me every time is the way the power and magic works through song. The descriptions are beautiful, breathtaking, and so easy to picture and feel. Maybe this is in part because I’m somewhat musically inclined myself and I find it very easy to envision the colours of notes and the way sounds can play powerfully off each other, but mostly I think it’s a testament to Frohock’s clarity of writing. Reading her work, I rarely find an unclear scene or fuzzy descriptions. It’s so easy to get lost in such vivid writing.

I can’t be sure, but I certainly hope that the series will continue in the future. A few plot threads have been left dangling, in particular the whole situation with Moloch and Alvaro and the whole “new god” issue. I’m definitely interested in seeing how that develops and plays out. In addition, there’s also the power play going on between Principalities, divine guardians (of a sort) of different countries, which is part of what led Engel to make his move and for Garcia to be so willing to between Guillermo and follow Engel in the first place. Knowing the time and place of the story makes it easy to see parallels to the lead-up of the second World War, but adding the angels and demons and the like makes it all the more interesting, provides a different perspective and additional layers to the whole tumultuous situation, and I, for one, want to see it all play out.

Long story short, if historical dark fantasy is your thing, if you enjoy plays and twists on Judeo-Christian mythology, if you want a wonderfully complex story that demands little but delivers much, then the Los Nefilim series is one you should definitely seek out. It’s hard for me to pick my favourite, because they all have appealed to me on various levels, and I’ve enjoyed them all equally and highly. The Second Death deals more with the forgiveness than the previous two, and justice versus vengeance, neither of which come across as heavy-handed or peachy, but even if you find yourself disagreeing with the conclusions that characters arrive at, there’s no end to the dark entertainment in the pages. Most definitely recommended to fans of dark fantasy!

(Received for review.)

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.

No matter the cost.

Review: Seanan McGuire is a name you can’t really avoid when it comes to urban fantasy. And yet, I don’t think I’d actually read anything of hers until now. I knew the name, but not the works, and after having read and adored Every Heart a Doorway, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not making the time to do so sooner.

What we have is the story of Nancy, and let me take a moment to just right in with the praise because Nancy is one of the few asexual characters I have ever found in fiction. There have been a few, but often when present, authors fall back on explaining a character’s asexuality away as a result of trauma or that it was traded away for something (usually a religious something). McGuire is quick to mention that there’s a difference between celibacy and asexuality, that someone who’s asexual can absolutely have romantic feelings for someone, and in only a few short lines, scattered here and there throughout the novella, eradicate many of the assumptions that people often have about ace individuals. So many thanks to McGuire for improving visibility and representation for people like myself.

Anyway, this is Nancy’s story. And Nancy now finds herself at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, after having disappeared for a time into a different world, and when her parents have no idea how to bring back the person she used to be. But Eleanor’s establishment isn’t just a rehab place for emotionally unstable teens, as Nancy suspects. It’s actually for people just like her, people who has crossed over into other worlds and have been changed for the experience. Bit by bit Nancy learns that she’s not alone in her experiences, that everyone at Eleanor’s has traveled elsewhere at some point in their lives, and that there are countless worlds, all different but all, in their way, quantifiable. Although Nancy can’t return to the world that gave her such comfort for a time, it seems her life might be starting to look up.

That is, until the murders begin.

The story that follows has Nancy and her newfound companions attempting to catch the culprit and figure out why they’re killing off teens at the house. McGuire does a great job of building suspense and laying out the mystery piece by piece, leaving the reader narrowing down the list of suspects as events unfold. It wasn’t so much a case of “Is it this person? No? How about that person?” so much as it was, “It could be these people. Okay, now I know it can’t be that one… Or that one…” And so on. It’s not always a comfortable story. The characters are not your typical teens, even by urban fantasy standards. There are gruesome circumstances, frank talk of death and dismemberment, and sometimes you end up liking characters even as they frustrate and repulse you. But it’s still a fantastic story with a fantastic cast (one of whom is a well-presented trans guy, and yes, there is some antagonism from some of the other students over it all, because people are people and that means they can be ignorant sometimes), and I loved sinking into it all.

On a personal level, this story resonated with me in a far deeper way than I expected it to. Each of the characters who had gone to different worlds found that the new world suited them on a soul-deep level, that however much they had to change and learn new behaviours, there was something right about it, even when it was difficult. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never had that kind of experience myself. It was a long-ago dream, but in it I went somewhere else, somewhere out of time, where I didn’t have to worry about mundane problems, where I had an endless amount of books to read and video games to play, where I could stay always, and the proviso is that I had to stay silent. People there had an hour a day to interact, to talk quietly with each other, but for the most part, we stuck to ourselves, passing endless time in silence, happy because that was what suited us. I told my friends about that dream, how it felt so comfortable for me, almost ideal, and it worried them rather than intrigued them, because, well, most healthy people don’t dream about leaving everything behind and being silent forever. And I guess I can see that. But to me, it was still comfort. A place to go to in my mind that was still and peaceful and had no worries with it, and it was mine.

That was years ago. I still think of it, and I still remember the peace that came along with what I eventually just called the Silence.

And then along comes Seanan McGuire, writing about a bunch of people who found worlds that fit them as well as the Silence fit me, and so you might be able to understand why reading this hit me so hard.

Anyway…

The ending of Every Heart a Doorway is a bittersweet one, one that I didn’t know if McGuire would do. On one hand, Nancy desperately wants to return to the Halls of the Dead, though she’s told it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever be able to do so. Few people return to their worlds. On the other hand, you do see her form bonds with people in this world, bonds that she would have to give up if ever she did return. So no decision is without its drawbacks, and without giving away too much of what happens at the very end, I have to say that I think the author handled it well. As I said, it was bittersweet, full of calm-but-deep emotion, and as satisfying as it could get.

This is a novella for the misfits, the people who don’t belong, the people who hope that there’s a place for them out there, even if it’s a strange and fantastical place that nobody else understands. It’s a story for the curious and the brave, for those who enjoy urban fantasy and magical realism but who are looking for a different flavour in their reading. It’s short and wonderful, it’s an adventure in both clarity and obscurity, and I know that I’ll be rereading this one again in the future. In all, an amazing introduction to McGuire’s writing!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

Review: Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings made waves when it was released, and with good reason. And even before that, he caught my attention with the occasional short story I read in other anthologies. So when I heard that a collection of those short stories and more was being released, I knew it was going to be something I’d have to get my hands on.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Only 2 of the stories were ones I’d read before (Mono no Aware, and The Paper Menagerie), so all the rest were new to me, and all of them were freaking brilliant. Even rereading the two I’d previously read didn’t feel in the slightest bit stale, which is a sign of a great story. Seriously, I would reread this entire anthology again, not just a couple of stories from it!

Most of the stories have a connection to East Asian culture, mostly Chinese but with a bit of Japanese thrown in now and again, and so it’s impossible to come away from this collection without having a greater appreciation for the world beyond the West, and the history that goes along with it. Liu dips not only speculative futurefic here, but also looks back into history and mythology, making for an impressive variety of stories. All the Flavours turned out to be one of my favourites in the entire collection, which surprised me, since at first I thought i was going to be either one of the ones I’d already read, or else The Perfect Match for its not-at-all-veiled criticism of modern online interconnectivity. But All the Flavours dealt with history, mythology, and touched on uncomfortable racism that isn’t entirely of the past. It’s probably the longest offering in the book, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

This is one of those rare times when I can safely rate a collection 5 stars instead of the usual 4 that these things usually end up. All of the stories here are top-notch, the content wonderful and fantastic and speculative. The stories are thought-provoking, inspiring, and they spark curiosity (to which end Liu has also kindly provided info about articles and books that inspired some of the more sci-fi stories). For all this review has ended up being short (there’s only so much praise I can heap upon a thing without essentially ruining the plot of multiple stories), what it amounts to is that this collection is absolutely worth reading, and your SFF collection will be poorer without it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Again, we have another book that I deem worthy of having me crawl out of the woodwork for!

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Review: Over time I’ve come to understand that one sign of a great book is its ability to make you stop reading and ponder the implications of what you just read. To speculate and theorize in a way that’s too deep to do while still continuing to read on. Planetfall quickly became that kind of book for me, one where I needed to step back and start pondering the symbolism and implications of half of what was going on. I sank into that perfect brainspace that tells me yes, this book is one that provokes some interesting thoughts, and it’s definitely a keeper.

Planetfall starts out fairly innocuously, with the interesting idea of a smallish community on a non-Earth planet. The story is told in first-person viewpoint with Renata Ghali as the narrator, an engineer who lends her skills to the colony at the base of God’s city, where Lee Suh-Mi is said to be communing with God for the purpose of advancing the colony and doing God’s work The colonists left earth years ago, under Suh-Mi’s guidance, to find God and learn about humanity’s place in the universe. The colony runs fairly smoothly, at least on the surface.

Then a young man arrives, claiming to be Suh-Mi’s grandson, and his very presence threatens to unravel everything that the colonists have built.

On its surface, it seems like a fairly standard exploration of early human colonization of another planet, told from the perspective of a private person who was there when it all began. But it quickly becomes more than that. Newman starts the reader off partway through the story, telling necessary backstory in the form of seamless and brief flashbacks, revealing details piece by piece. I know that many people aren’t that fond of flashback storytelling, and I myself am rather torn on the matter (so often it can come across like a series of memory-infodumps, which gets irritating), but I find that Newman handled it well, making them relatively brief and with actual relevance to what was occurring in the plot. Ren having brief memories prompted by objects or places is perfectly natural, it happens to all of us, and so it wasn’t at all obtrusive, nor did it take me out of the story as a whole.

I love how very broken Ren is, and how slowly it all becomes clear to the reader. Little hints get dropped so subtly that by the time the big reveal hits, you’re left remembering all those small mentions that previous cropped up, putting all the pieces together until your heart just aches for her. Or at least mine did. Quite possibly because I can relate a bit to what she was going through, or at least some of the thought process behind it. Tension ran high once Ren’s secret is out in the open, too, and the colonists decide to force issues in unhealthy ways that leave her feeling trapped and threatened, and I felt my own anxiety surge when reading that particular scene. She was an interesting character even before that, of course, but the way her mental health comes into play added to my ability to relate to her, and I think it was all handled extremely well. Mental illness is a hard card to play in fiction, but Newman did it justice, I think.

One of the things that left me with an utter “Whoa!” moment was the parallel between this story and the Garden of Eden myth. To me this whole book was a twist on a creation myth, a sci-fi origin story. When you look into the flashbacks and realize that the journey from Earth and the discovery of a new planet with God’s city all started with a woman who ate a strange plant and then began to understand things far beyond what she’d understood before, the similarities become clear. However, that isn’t to say that Earth is meant to be Eden; part of the reason the initial colonists left with Suh-Mi was because the planet was devastated by overcrowding and pollution, and where they ended up had none of that. But when you see a story about how someone is influenced by forces they can’t understand, which leads them to gaining unprecedented knowledge and wisdom and leaving their home to search for God? Yeah, it’s pretty easy to draw the comparisons.

And I loved that! I love plays on myths, especially ones that draw from Judeo-Christian myths, because so many people see them as sacrosanct and unchangeable and yet they’re so familiar to Western culture that they’re often instantly recognizable when somebody does take that chance and play around with them. Newman tackled this all brilliantly, adding a wonderful new touch to an old story.

Long story short, Planetfall is definitely worthy of the high praise it has been receiving. It’s a compelling story of what people will do to maintain order, to keep up the status quo. It tackles mental illness, creation myths, and the questions of how much “for your own good” is actually still good. It’s more than just an early colonization story; it’s an exploration of humanity and its relation to the divine, to science, and to itself. It tells you that sometimes there are no explanations even when there are answers, and that there are times to leave well enough alone and time to delve deeper to gain a better understanding. Beautiful prose joins with fascinating subject matter, resulting in a profound book that has made its mark. Highly recommended for fans of social sci-fi, Planetfall does not disappoint.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Labyrinth of Flame, by Courtney Schafer

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Author’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2015

Summary: Dev’s never been a man afraid of a challenge. Not only has he kept his vow to his dead mentor, rescuing a child in the face of impossible odds, but he’s freed his mage friend Kiran from both the sadistic master who seeks to enslave him and the foreign Council that wants to kill him.

But Kiran’s master Ruslan is planning a brutal revenge, one that will raze an entire country to blood and ashes. Kiran is the key to stopping Ruslan; yet Kiran is dying by inches, victim of the Alathian Council’s attempt to chain him. Worse yet, Dev and Kiran have drawn the attention of demons from the darkest of ancient legends. Demons whose power Dev knows is all too real, and that he has every reason to fear.

A fear that grows, as he and Kiran struggle to outmaneuver Ruslan and uncover the secrets locked in Kiran’s forgotten childhood. For the demons are playing their own deadly game – and the price of survival may be too terrible to bear.

Review: If you’ve followed my reviews or see me around on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably heard me rave about the two previous books in the Shattered Sigil series, The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City. I adored them. So very much. They inspired dozens of conversations with friends, speculation about how the series would end, and yes, plenty of discussions about shipping certain characters, too (you know the ones I’m talking about). It got me excited in the way few other series have managed to do in recent years, and I had amazingly high hopes for The Labyrinth of Flame.

And despite how high my hopes were, Schafer still managed to surpass them.

The book starts shortly after where The Tainted City left off, with Dev and Kiran making their way to Prosul Akheba, trying to keep a low profile so that neither Ruslan nor demons find them. Kiran is still missing the memories burned away by Ruslan, is reliant on a dwindling supply of a drug, and must face the fact that some part of him is undeniably connected to the demons that dog their footsteps. As if dodging Ruslan and demons wasn’t enough, there’s a tribe of Shaikar-worshippers chasing them, and the solution to all of their problems might be buried in memories Kiran didn’t even suspect he held.

It’s a layered plot of chaos and desperation, and pretty much as of about 1/3 of the way through, the pace doesn’t let up for a second. “One more chapter” syndrome hits hard. There are new reveals and new dangers around every turn, the plot gets even more full of twists and complications, and yet it never once feels like things are over the top, or like the author is trying to one-up anything previously done. The story all flows naturally, it all makes sense, and it isn’t filled with big impressive events just for the sake of big impressive events. It’s beautifully done, and I enjoyed just how much I was on the edge of my seat for most of the reading.

It is, however, really difficult to talk about the plot of the book because so much happens, so many things change, that it’s tough to give context without also giving spoilers. I could talk about how Kiran develops his confidence and his power, or how Dev might finally have learned to stop living in a convoluted web of deceit caused by making too many promises to too many people, but to say more than that would risk spoiling some major plot twists, or else remaining pointlessly vague. I often find that some of the best books are the hardest to review; they’re better read than read about.

There are definitely things that I can talk about without introducing too many spoilers. I love, for instance, how Melly got a decent-sized role in The Labyrinth of Flame, where in previous books she got a couple of scenes and largely existed as Dev’s motivation. Here, she finds strength and plays an active part of the story, not content to be a tag-along or to be shunted to the side because of her age. I love the parallels between Kiran and Ruslan, and how they both take the “I’m doing this for your own good” path even as they approach from opposite ends. I love seeing how Ruslan and Lizaveta are more than just generic villains; they always were, even in previous books, but you get to see more of their past here and more of how they think and what influences them, and it’s a wonderful piece of insight into how twisted by grief and power a person can become.

I love the way the book challenges cultural norms all over the place, but particularly I like how it does this with romance and relationships. A presentation of people who don’t typically follow a pattern of only choosing one partner at a time but instead are rather polyamourous (and more fluid in their associated sexuality, at least sometimes, and depending on the person) is wonderful to see in fiction, not because I believe that’s the only proper way to have a healthy relationship, but because it breaks molds and shows that there are more ways to have a healthy relationship than just monogamy. I love to see this stuff explored, and I love that Schafer explored it with respect and compassion.

The same thing can be said for sexuality, in that there’s a surprisingly amount of positive bisexual representation in this book. It’s not something you see that often, to be truthful; usually characters that break sexual molds are almost always gay, and bisexuality doesn’t get brought up that often. But here you not only have a main character who’s perfectly okay with romance and sex with either gender, but multiple main characters who feel that way. And it’s presented as absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. No surprise, no comments of, “I didn’t know you felt that way,” no revelation, nothing. Just acceptance of that’s how some people are, and that’s how some characters themselves are, and what’s so weird about that?

Which brings me to the book’s ending, and I have to say this: the ending of The Labyrinth of Flame is quite possibly the most satisfying ending to a series I’ve ever read. It ties up everything wonderfully, leaves room for the future, and left me with flailing around like an idiot over what happens to the people I ship. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any possible better way for this book and this series to have ended. It closed on a high note, filled with hope and optimism even for difficult tasks ahead, and I’m going to be honest with you all — I actually just went and reread the last chapter again while writing this, because I love the ending that much. It left me with the first book hangover I’ve ever experienced, and despite having just reread the first two books in the series in preparation for reading this one, all I wanted to do when it was over was pick up The Whitefire Crossing and start over, so that I didn’t have to leave the world and characters behind.

Fantasy just doesn’t get much better than this!

You are my anchor stone; abandoning you would mean ripping out the best part of myself.

Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Incarnations, by Susan Barker

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

Thoughts: Wang Jun is a taxi driver in Beijing. His life is relatively normal. Married. 1 kid. Okay job that pays the bills. Secret homosexual lust for a guy he met in a psych ward.

And a mysterious person sending him detailed and vivid letters about their past lives together.

Barker tells a brilliant and non-linear tale about Wang and his mysterious soulmate. The story is woven together in 3 parts: Wang’s present with his wife and kid, driving his taxi for a living and trying to make sense of the feelings he has for an old acquaintance; Wang’s childhood and early adulthood in an abusive and strained family situation; and the letters from Wang’s supposed soulmate, the person who has followed him from one life to the next, always meeting and developing some sort of relationship as they go along. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you which branch of the story I liked best, because they were all wonderfully compelling and full of amazing imagery and beautiful writing.

The letters themselves all tell different stories from different periods of China’s history, from over 1000 years ago right up to Wang’s present life. While the writer of the letters remembers all these past lives, Wang does not, and nor do the previous lives being written about. They’re not the same people in the same situations, just in different spots throughout history. Each past life is unique, each person an individual with their own urges, goals, faults, and so on. Each time these two end up drawn together for various reasons. Often there’s a sexual attraction, but not always. And a soulmate isn’t presented as a great romantic love, the way we often use the term. Instead, it’s somebody whose soul is joined with someone else’s, following them through lives, being a part of their life always. Sometimes it may be sexual. Sometimes not.

I kind of love this way of approaching soulmates, since the whole “love that lasts lifetimes” thing is wonderfully romantic, but it’s done so often that I get tired of seeing it. I often have a similar reaction to that presentation as I do to insta-love. It’s fine if two characters fall in love and get together, but having it be destiny or something they can’t help because of some past-life thing actually takes a lot of the interest out of it for me. There’s no drive for the characters to improve their relationship, or work at anything, because they’ll always mesh perfectly and there’ll never be anything to come between them. As I said, wonderfully romantic, but I’m tired of that. So it was a great thing to see the soulmate connection played out a bit differently. There is love, there is attraction, but those two things can have multiple layers, multiple presentations, and they don’t overcome everything.

As for the identity of the letter-writer, it’s an utter mystery until very near the end, as every good mystery should be. I spent most of the book trying to put together patterns from what was presented in the past lives, but every time I thought of who it might be, I’d also quickly be able to think of a very good reason why it also couldn’t possibly be that person. So the book really keeps you guessing.

But aside from the historical aspects of the book, Wang’s present-day life makes a strong story all on its own. It’s the kind of story that would easily stand alone as a piece of literary fiction. A man in a fairly average life has a secret forbidden romance that he wants kept hidden from his family, which arose due to trauma and a tremendously messed up set of situations in his childhood. Indeed, I’m sure plenty of book have been written with that idea as their framework. In this way, The Incarnations reminded me of Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Each part is a standalone story, utterly contemporary and on their own, still a good story. But it’s in the combination, the blending that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts.

Brilliant and evocative, The Incarnations is part historical fiction, part contemporary fiction, bound together with silver threads of fantasy. It’s a genre-bending masterpiece that I will most assuredly read again, and I highly recommend it to those fans of literary SFF or genre-crossing stories who are looking for something a little further from the beaten path.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Fifth Season, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Thoughts: Since reading the Inheritance trilogy, I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s writing, and I lusted after this book for well over a year. So when it finally made its way into my hands, I had extremely high hopes for it. I spent that time happily sheltered from any spoiler more detailed than the release date, so I went into it blind, knowing only that it was written by an author whose work I love.

I can’t even begin to say how even my legendary expectations were blown out of the water.

The story starts with Essun, a woman whose husband has murdered their young son and kidnapped their daughter, because he found out that Essun and her children were orogenes, those hated and dangerous manipulators of the earth. Essun sets out on a quest to kill her husband and recover her daughter, but a powerful seismic event has just happened, starting an unprecedented Season and changing the fate of humanity. Told alongside Essun’s story are the stories of Syenite, a young orogene on a mission with the most powerful orogene alive, and Damaya, an orogene just starting her training at the Fulcrum. Over time we see how these stories converge, but it’s not in the way many readers might first expect.

What to say about the world of The Fifth Season? The planet, or at least the known inhabited land, is one large continent called the Stillness. Nobody has much inclination to seek potential land elsewhere, because seismic activity is common and devastating, and tsunamis are a very real and not uncommon danger for people living in coastal communities, let alone those at sea. Humanity has survived disaster after disaster, civilizations crumbling and new ones arising, and the Sanze empire has been in power for most of recorded history. It is, on its surface, a fascinating and unique fantasy world.

But scratch below the surface and you see that it’s more complicated than that. It isn’t said outright, but there are strong hints dropped that it’s not a secondary world so much as this world, and that the whole story is post-apocalyptic fantasy. (Highlight to read spoilers) Long ago, humanity managed to destroy the moon, and with it went all we know about its effects on seismic activity. Tidal patterns changed. Earthquakes and volcanoes became more common. The degree to which this happens may be a bit of artistic license, but it all fits so very well that it’s hard to question too much of the hypothetical science while reading The Fifth Season.

There are so many wonderful and subtle things I loved about this book. It’s worth pointing out that treatment of gender and sexuality were two of the things that resonated strongly with me. Transgender people are encountered, and nobody makes a big deal of it. Someone presents as a woman, and whether or not they have a penis, you treat them like a woman. End of story. Alabaster prefers to sleep with men, Innon is happy to sleep with men or women. Things that this society still treats as odd and worthy of stares are treated as just part of people, no more odd than being cisgender or heterosexual. You can almost here the, “Yeah, what of it?” being asked every time it crops up in text, because the subtlety is so blatant that it’s practically challenging the reader to make a big deal of something that shouldn’t be, if they dare.

Of all three stories being told, I think I found Syenite’s and Damaya’s sections the most interesting. It wasn’t that Essun’s chapters were boring or poorly written, but from the perspective of personal taste, I found them less appealing than the others. Syenite’s chapters had quite a bit of action to them, which helped, and I’ve always had a draw to stories of kids encountering unique school-like settings like Damaya did. Essun’s story of vengeance in a world being slowly destroyed was compelling, and it being told in from the second-person viewpoint made many of the emotional scenes hit powerfully hard, and maybe that was part of why I liked the other sections more, too. Some things aren’t exactly enjoyable to read, given their subject matter, even when the skill that crafted the scene is first-rate and deserves to be read and appreciated.

The Fifth Season is Jemisin at her finest, and is a stellar novel not to be missed by fantasy fans. It hits hard, an earthquake to the soul; it wrings you out and puts you back together again. Powerful prose, amazing world- and culture-building, high emotional investment, all put together by a master of the writer’s art. This is a legend in the making!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Dark Ascension, by M L Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: After a lifetime of avoiding his family, Fort has discovered that working for them isn’t half bad—even if his mother, Madeline, is a terrifying, murderous vampire. His newfound career has given him a purpose and a paycheck and has even helped him get his partner, foxy kitsune Suzume, to agree to be his girlfriend. All in all, things are looking up.

Only, just as Fort is getting comfortable managing a supernatural empire that stretches from New Jersey to Ontario, Madeline’s health starts failing, throwing Fort into the middle of an uncomfortable and dangerous battle for succession. His older sister, Prudence, is determined to take over the territory. But Fort isn’t the only one wary of her sociopathic tendencies, and allies, old and new, are turning to him to keep Prudence from gaining power.

Now, as Fort fights against his impending transition into vampire adulthood, he must also battle to keep Prudence from destroying their mother’s kingdom—before she takes him down with it…

Thoughts: It didn’t take too long for the Generation V series to cement itself as my favourite urban fantasy series. I can’t get enough of it, and there’s so much here that appeals to me. Interesting characters, great geeky humour, a wonderfully unique take on different mythologies and supernatural creatures. It stands out from other series, and it’s got a lot of very loyal fans, and I count myself among them. And even though I’ve been stupidly slow at actually reading and reviewing them (I seem to have gotten into the habit of reading one right before the following book is scheduled to be released…), I love them to death, and I couldn’t keep up my old habits of bad timing. I had a review copy, and I needed to dive back into this world.

Was I disappointed by Dark Ascension? Not in the slightest.

Unlike the other novels in the series, the central plot is more of a coming-of-age story than a supernatural mystery to be solved. Previously Fort ended up mixed up in a situation that needed dealing with, or actively investigating some odd happenstance, but here, most of what he’s dealing with are the ways his life has changed and continues to change. Fort ends up taking care of far more of his family’s affairs than he ever expected, and with his modern liberal way of thinking, he butts heads with both Chivalry and Prudence on certain issues. Which isn’t surprising, if you’ve read the other 3 books in the series. But a tragedy forces them all to cooperate on a whole new level, and Fort’s transition to full vampirism speeds up, and things will never be the same for him.

While I loved this opportunity to see more of Fort’s transition and to see him really come into his own, those who maybe got used to the series being a bit more action-oriented with a stronger mystery to deal with may be a bit disappointed in the way this novel doesn’t really present those things. There is action, and some of the usual high-stakes fight scenes (especially at the end), but the closest thing to a mystery is really the matter of how Fort will handle the supernatural politics that he’s forced to juggle. It’s a story of little stories, of growing up, of taking a stand and doing what you believe is right, no matter the consequences. It’s a story of figuring out yourself, and the people around you.

And it’s an odd tactic for the fourth book in a series, but it really works! Fort’s transformation comes alongside some truly heartbreaking scenes, scenes that actually had me shedding some tears halfway through the book, and there’s this sense that maturity often goes hand-in-hand with grief and loss. This is probably the most mature of all the Generation V novels for that reason; you see Fort experience things that can hit hard to anyone who’s ever endured the death of a loved on, to those who have had to make the hard choice between the status quo and a potential improvement. Things that are human to the core, a part of everyone’s life, and to incorporate them so well into the struggles of a man who’s wrestling with the unseen supernatural world, tangled alliances and twists on myth, is something that’s often attempted and rarely done well. Fort’s spent most of his life trying to keep the mundane and the supernatural aspects of his life utterly separate from each other, but those walls have crumbled. But some things are universal, and I love the way Brennan managed to blend the two elements so well.

Of course, there’s more to Dark Ascension than just a dark heavy maturity. If that’s all there was, I wouldn’t have liked it nearly so much. As always, the banter between Suzume and Fort is pure genius! I love the way those two carry on, the way their dialogue plays out, whether the situation is tense and emotional or lighthearted and fun. I love the geeky references and odd subculture references that Brennan throws in, very few of which I don’t get, and this makes it so very easy for me to connect to the characters because — at least in the case of Fort — I think how he thinks a lot of the time. His internal monologue contains lines that I would think and say, and I love being able to say that about a character in a modern-day setting, because that’s so rare for me!

(Side note – Since Babymetal was mentioned, I wondered if Megistune was Suzume’s favourite song. It’s a better song that What Does the Fox Say, after all. :p)

What it comes down to is this: the status quo of both the in-book world and the books themselves was established, and Dark Ascension breaks it and takes things in a couple of unexpected directions. It’s got so many beloved aspects that the series has become known for, as well as some new insights that take things to a different level. It’s a great book, a worthy addition to the series, and from the ending, the ride isn’t over yet!

And I want to be right here when it starts up again!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Tainted Blood, by M L Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 4, 2014

Summary: In the third Generation V novel, Fortitude Scott proves that working with family can be deadly…

Former film student Fortitude Scott is finally gainfully employed. Unfortunately, said employment happens to be with a group of sociopathic vampires—his family. And as much as Fort is loath to get too deep into the family business, when his brother, Chivalry, is temporarily unable to run the territory, it’s up to Fort to keep things under control.

So when the leader of a powerful faction of shifters turns up murdered, Fort finds himself tracking down a killer while navigating dangerous rivalries, longtime grudges, and hidden agendas. Even with the help of his foxy kitsune sidekick, Suzume, he’ll need to pull out all the stops to hunt for the paranormal assassin.

But as he calls on fairies, witches, and ghouls for help, he discovers that the problem is much bigger than a single dead werebear. The supernatural community is preparing for a massive shift in power within the Scott family leadership—and Fort has landed right in the middle of the gathering storm…

Thoughts: With the fourth book soon to hit the shelves, I thought it was past time I catch up on the Generation V novels, so I decided to sit down with a copy of Tainted Blood and see what Fort and Suzume were up to.

Chivalry is in mourning, Madeline’s health is flagging, and Prudence is, well, less than prudent. So Fort is the one assigned to investigate when one of the local werebears is murdered. The Ad-hene may be suspects, but then again, there’s also evidence saying they had nothing to do with it. But if they didn’t, then who? Succession is in question, and the pressure’s on Fort and Suzume (but mostly Fort) to find the real culprit before too much damage is done.

While some people are obviously disappointed that the inexperienced Fort is the one leading the investigation, others are happy to see the youngest Scott take a larger role in the affairs of the family and territory. Various supernatural creatures are less than happy with the arrangements between them and the Scotts, and they see Fort as a way to make some changes. Appeal to the youngest and most liberal to try to get deals they know full well that nobody else in the family would give them. And Fort is all for this, seeing it as a fine line between following his family’s wishes and making the world a better place for all who have to live in it. This is setting the stage for a coup, I’m sure of it, and though lines don’t exactly get drawn in Tainted Blood, things are definitely coming to a head, and I’m curious to see what comes of all this political posturing in the end.

I think I will forever love the back-and-forth dialogue between Suzume and Fort. Honestly, those two are a big part of the reason I love this series as much as I do. Suzume is a wonderful prankster. The running gag in Tainted Blood with her pasting googly eyes to everything had me grinning a lot. And Fort, well, he remains one of my favourite characters across just about every urban fantasy you can name, because despite him being the youngest child in an ancient vampire family, he’s wonderfully realistic, and it’s so easy to relate to him. He struggles with not only the implications of his emerging vampiric nature, but also the mundanities of everyday life; juggling work with other responsibilities, making sure he doesn’t accidentally eat his roommate’s food, the fact that his car has been falling apart around him for years and he doesn’t want to take the easy way out and accept his family’s money to get a new one. He’s independent in a way that doesn’t go over the line into obnoxious, his humour and light geekiness makes him very appealing, and I just generally love to read about the guy.

I like the way Tainted Blood goes deeper into Fort’s family situation, too. As I mentioned previously, Chivalry’s in mourning, which means he’s also refusing to feed on blood until he remarries. This is a big part of why Fort is still engaged in his family’s political affairs, but more than that, it gives us another insight into Chivalry’s character. We see him caring for Bhumika in the previous two books, but here, he’s actively seeking a new wife, deliberately picking one he knows full well he’ll end up killing in the end, but caring for them no less. Madeline is slowly growing weaker, less capable of keeping her family stable, and given that Prudence is the eldest, it’s no surprise that she’s next in line to take the role as head of the family once Madeline can no longer hold the reins. But for all Prudence’s cruelty and coldness, this book did a lot to, well, humanize her. You get to see a side of her that clearly cares about Fort and wants him to thrive, even as their personalities clash. It was a side of her that really didn’t get a chance to be seen in previous novels, and I thought it was a fascinating glimpse into her character.

Each Generation V novel is a fantastic addition to the series, revealing more and more of a nuanced and complex urban fantasy world. Fort’s a great character to follow along with, since he’s mature enough to be a fully developed character, but still inexperienced and ignorant of much when it comes to supernatural politics. The reader gets to learn at the same time Fort does, without awkward infodumps that are only really there for the reader’s sake. Brennan deftly sidestepped that. With a wonderfully unique take on the vampire mythos and a brilliant cast of characters, this series is revitalizing a genre that was — for me, at least — getting stale. If you haven’t yet jumped into this series, you’re missing out on something truly incredible!