The Witness for the Dead, by Katherine Addison

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Publication date – June 22, 2021

Summary: When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honesty will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Celehar’s skills now lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

Thoughts: Side-story to The Goblin Emperor, The Witness for the Dead centres around one of the previous novel’s secondary characters: Thara Celehar, a prelate of Ulis and Witness for the Dead, meaning he can experience the last moments of a person’s death if he touches their body. Celehar would rather be out of the spotlight than in it, which is why he makes for such an interesting protagonist in this short companion novel to The Goblin Emperor. Don’t get me wrong, protagonists who throw themselves headlong into adventure are fun and all, but it’s always interesting to me when a book centres on someone who would rather just be left alone.

Life, however, doesn’t want to leave Celehar alone. Poor bastard.

Taking place shortly after The Goblin Emperor, Celehar now lives in Amalo, still following his calling. This involves a variety of duties, including investigating murder. So when Arveneӓn Shelsin, an ambitious opera singer, is found dead, and Celehar confirms that she was indeed murdered, the race is on to not only find the murderer, but to uncover why they killed in the first place.

Celehar’s reluctance to engage with a lot of the world is, as I mentioned, an interesting move. It’s not something that could work for everyone, but Addison manages a good balance between showing Celehar’s introversion and actually putting him in positions where he can do some good in the world. Celehar is very relatable for me in that way. Except that I don’t have any abilities or callings that would make the world a better place, the way he does. It’s admirable, though, that even though Celehar would rather be left to his own devices, he doesn’t shirk the responsibilities that come with his calling. He might not be happy about things, but he’ll do what he feels drawn to do. More characters like this, please!

Addison’s detail-oriented writing style makes for an excellent murder mystery, that’s for damn sure. While The Goblin Emperor did have some mystery to it, at its heart it was about Maia settling into his new and unexpected role and the emperor, and all that entailed. The Witness for the Dead shifts the tone and setting away from political intrigue and a fish-out-of-water/coming-of-age story, and into a situation where a man must solve a murder in order to lay the victim’s spirit to rest and give them a proper funeral. Such a simple thing in theory, but it becomes so much more complicated when Celehar must risk offending some very powerful people, and sort through layers of potential motivation for the kill, in his mission to bring about justice for Arveneӓn.

Honestly, I think Addison has a knack for writing a good solid mystery, and I’m here for it. Her world-building is brilliant, rich and realistic, and it’s a wonderful setting for any number of mysteries. I’ve found in recent years that I have a bit of a soft spot for fantasy mysteries, so it’s no real surprise that I enjoyed The Witness for the Dead as much as I did. If you have similar weakness for fantasy mysteries, or you just enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, then I highly recommend giving this novella a go. It’s not very long, but it packs a punch, and is a wonderful companion and spin-off to the main book. Celehar is a character I absolutely love reading about, and will be quiet happy to do so more in the future.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard

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Publication date – February 9, 2021

SummaryFire burns bright and has a long memory….

Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh was sent away as a hostage to the powerful faraway country of Ephteria as a child. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court, haunted not only by memories of her first romance, but by worrying magical echoes of a fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace.

Thanh’s new role as a diplomat places her once again in the path of her first love, the powerful and magnetic Eldris of Ephteria, who knows exactly what she wants: romance from Thanh and much more from Thanh’s home. Eldris won’t take no for an answer, on either front. But the fire that burned down one palace is tempting Thanh with the possibility of making her own dangerous decisions.

Can Thanh find the freedom to shape her country’s fate–and her own?

Review: I love de Bodard’s writing a lot. It feels very… I know this may sound weird, but very elemental. In my mind, her writing feels like the heat of fire and the depths of the ocean, something that is very much its own thing. Nothing else is really like it. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me… The joy of trying to explain books when you’re neurodivergent and experience a lot of things through emotion and sensation, I guess!

Anyway, Fireheart Tiger is the story of Thanh, Imperial princess who finds herself caught between desire and duty, obligation and the self, and figuring out whether old flames are worth hanging onto or letting go.

Double meaning very much intended.

There’s a lot of evocative world-building in such a short novella. De Bodard has never really coddled readers when it comes to picking up cultural nuances in her writing, and I really like that. Some of the worldbuilding is absolutely secondary-world fantasy, but it gets a lot of inspiration from Vietnamese culture and mythology. I have a soft spot for fantasy with non-Western influence, frankly.

Thanh’s emotional abuse comes through so strongly in this. She’s under so much pressure from people she should, by all rights, be able to turn to for comfort and support, but instead she meets duty and obligation and outright shame. As someone who’s struggled with a similar sort of pressure leading to abysmally low self-esteem for most of their life… Thanh’s story was relatable in many ways. Can’t say I ended up with an adorable sapphic romance in the end, but still. Fireheart Tiger is, in many ways, the story of Thanh rising up, finding her feet and finding enough strength in herself to stand firm against those coercive pressures, of finding support in unexpected places, and having the opportunity to learn that she has the right to become who she wants to be. It resonated hard with me. Writing this review, I kind of just want to go back and read it all over again.

Really, I’d love to see more stories set in this world. It feels very much full of promise, full of stories, and Fireheart Tiger is a snapshot in a larger tale. There doesn’t need to be more, but it feels as though there easily could be, if de Bodard wanted.

Really enjoyed my time with this one, and I highly recommend it to fans of queer romance and non-Western fantasy!

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Beyond, by Mercedes Lackey

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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.)

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.)

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.)

Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 12, 2021

Summary: Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to Be Sure before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines–a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Thoughts: Barring the first story in the series, all of the other Wayward Children novellas have been about already-established characters, and I say, “barring the first story,” because that’s the one that, well, established all the characters. While nearly all of the books could be read as standalones, they are so much richer when you have the foundation under your feet, and I can see why some may have been intimidated to just pick up and random book, knowing they might be missing some vital context.

So it was nice to see a story that really could be read as a 100% standalone, without characters from other stories making appearances, at least so far as I could tell. Regan’s story is one that could be picked up by somebody who’s heard good things about the Wayward Children series but who perhaps can’t get their hands on Every Heart a Doorway, but who still wants a glimpse into the kind of rich and compelling narrative these novellas hold without feeling lost or like they’re missing something.

Regan’s character is one that I think many people can empathize with to one degree or another. While in her mundane life, she tried hard to fit in, tried hard to fit into the boxes that other people dictated she should fit into in order to be ‘normal,’ even when doing so was a painful experience that cost her dearly. Only Regan didn’t quite fit into that box as well as she wanted, after receiving some news from her parents that on a biochemical level, she wasn’t quite like the other girls she knew. A moment of betrayal in telling the person she thought was her best friend, the one she’d worked so hard to please and be liked by, and Regan’s life began to spiral in directions that ultimately led her through a mysterious door and into the Hooflands, where she meets centaurs and unicorns and all manner of fantastical beings, all with hoofed feet. It’s there that Regan not only finds herself and finds acceptance, but also where she, as the world’s designated newly-arrived human, she discovers that she has a grand destiny to fulfill.

Honestly, I could spend years reading about the Hooflands and be quite happy to do so. The world that McGuire sets up in complex and real, with distinct cultures and geography and mythology and prejudice, and it feels deeper and more fleshed-out than some worlds I’ve read about in full-blown novels, where the author has so much more time to establish things for a reader. If next year I find that McGuire has sold a trilogy of novels set in the Hooflands, I will pre-order them all, I swear. There’s just something about the place that I love, and I feel like there are so very many stories that could be told there, all of them ones I’d want to read about. This isn’t my favourite otherworld that has featured in a Wayward Children novella, but it’s pretty damn close!

That being said, there was a moment of internal inconsistency that I wanted to mention, and I’ll preface this by saying that I read an ARC (advance review copy) and what I’m about to say might end up being erased from the final publication, but it stood out to be so much that I wanted to tackle it in this review. Shortly after Regan stumbles into the Hooflands and meets Pansy the centaur, Pansy utters a little colloquialism, “hay and horseshoes.” Which seems fitting, and was kind of the equivalent of our, “sunshine and rainbows.” You know, all the good things, everything being happy. But later on the same page, Regan mentions horses, and Pansy has no idea what a horse is. Now maybe this was just a case of someone not reflecting on etymology, because that happens all the time in real life, but it seemed very weird to me that someone would know what horseshoes were but not horses.

I can’t even give this one my usual handwave of assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking a language that isn’t English and everything I read is essentially translated for my benefit, because Regan is certainly speaking English, and Pansy is perfectly understood and seems to speak the same language, so it ended up being one of those weird internal inconsistency issues that kept nagging at me. Especially since Regan later mentions horses to another character, who doesn’t seem confused as to what a horse is at all. Or if she is, she doesn’t say anything about it.

But that one issue aside, the rest of the story was so very damn good that I was riveted from beginning to end. I loved seeing Regan’s progression as a character, I loved seeing more of the Hooflands and the people who lived there, and I loved the way the story took a turn in the end that made it feel very much like a great myth was being told, with Regan making unlikely allies who help her on her journey to fulfill her destiny. It was a fantastic read, and Across the Green Grass Fields quickly rose to become my second-favourite story in the entire series. And given how much I’ve enjoyed all the other books, that really says something!

Long story short, if you enjoyed the other Wayward Children books, you’ll love this one just as much. And if you haven’t read any of the other books yet but can’t find the first one or are intimidated to start at the beginning of a multi-book series (which is understandable; I often feel like if I start at the beginning, I ought to see it through to the end, and I don’t always have the time or ability to commit to that), then Across the Green Grass Fields is an excellent taste of what you’re in for if you decide to tackle the rest of the series. It’s a proper standalone that’s equal parts thought-provoking and exciting, giving readers a new and unique story while still feeding the craving for more books in the multiverse that is the Wayward Children series. I can’t recommend this one enough; it was brilliant, and I utterly loved it!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: Quentin Coldwater has been cast out of Fillory, the secret magical land of his childhood dreams. With nothing left to lose he returns to where his story began, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. But he can’t hide from his past, and it’s not long before it comes looking for him.

Along with Plum, a brilliant young undergraduate with a dark secret of her own, Quentin sets out on a crooked path through a magical demimonde of gray magic and desperate characters. But all roads lead back to Fillory, and his new life takes him to old haunts, like Antarctica, and to buried secrets and old friends he thought were lost forever. He uncovers the key to a sorcery masterwork, a spell that could create magical utopia, a new Fillory—but casting it will set in motion a chain of events that will bring Earth and Fillory crashing together. To save them he will have to risk sacrificing everything.

The Magician’s Land is an intricate thriller, a fantastical epic, and an epic of love and redemption that brings the Magicians trilogy to a magnificent conclusion, confirming it as one of the great achievements in modern fantasy. It’s the story of a boy becoming a man, an apprentice becoming a master, and a broken land finally becoming whole.

Thoughts: Quentin joins a group of thieves with the aim of recovering a mysterious magical doodad. The gods still aim to take magic back for themselves, keep it away from humans. Plum, a newly-introduced character, is part of the Chatwin family, famous for their involvement in the Fillory novels. And Fillory?

Fillory is dying.

As with the previous Magicians novels, the greatest strength of storytelling can also be a bit of a weakness, depending on how you look at it. It’s very true-to-life in that people come and go, not everyone in the story ends up important or relevant or around for very long, and sometimes things happen that we don’t really get much follow-up to, because the events in question lead to other things that take priority. This is pretty much how real life works. We all have about a hundred dangling plot threads in our own history, things that would make the readers of our lives say, “Hang out, but what about this thing? What happens with that?” If you’re not prepared for that from the outset, you’re probably going to end up rather disappointed by the end.

With that said… Yeah, sometimes it ends up pretty disappointing, however true to life it may be. A significant chunk of The Magician’s Land is given to Quentin’s work with the group of thieves attempting to steal a magical artifact, only to have it stolen out from under their noses by a double-crosser. That entire section seems to serve mostly as a way of showing how Quentin and Plum work decently together and how they have their own agenda, but except for a couple of lines near the end, it just kind of goes nowhere. So much work given over to setting up a heist, only to be foiled at the last minute, and then the whole sequence get shelved until the book is almost over, when someone explains that oh yeah, that was all about this other thing from the previous book, which is in itself a dangling plot thread because it’s part of another character’s story and we don’t really get to see any more of that either.

So, depending on how you look at it, Grossman’s writing is either incredibly frustrating, or incredibly realistic. Your mileage may vary.

What I did very much like about The Magician’s Land is that we get to see a lot more about Fillory itself. Not so much that a lot of the book was set there, but we see more of how the Chatwin kids interacted with it, what it was about Martin that made him turn so twisted and destructive, and about the nature of the gods and creation, the cyclical nature of its existence. Which is a lot of philosophy to cram into a novel, however long it may be, but this too is also par for the course in this series, and the chance to do a bit of a deep dive into the lore was definitely welcome. Especially when it revealed just how flawed absolutely everybody was, gods and mortals alike.

It’s hard to say that this was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, per se, since I’m not sure the word “satisfying” really applies. It was, however, an appropriate ending. There are other connected stories to tell, I don’t doubt (there always are), but this story, this particular chapter in the book that is Fillory and its multiverse connection to Quentin, is over. There was sadness and loss and bittersweet reunions and I’m not sure anybody ended up where they thought they would when it all first started, but it’s as complete a story as I think can or should be told, and it was a bit of a wild ride following along with the various characters and their own personal aspects of the tale. There were bits that were impossible for me to have predicted, there were bits I was glad to finally see the conclusion to, and while this series wasn’t always easy to read (far too much emotion wrapped up in what was happening to make it a comfortable story at times), I’m glad I took the time to finally see it through from beginning to end.

If philosophical fantasy is something you enjoy, then definitely give this series a go. It’s got a lot to it, far more than I initially expected, and from what I understand of the show (I have yet to actually watch it, honestly), a lot of things about the story differ, so you can’t just read or watch one and assume you know the other. It’s not a series I can recommend to everyone, because there is so much grief and loss as various points and I know that it would be very hard reading for some, but if that’s something you’re prepared for and can handle, then I think it’s worth it to at least give this series a try. I enjoyed the first book most of all, with everything being so new and fantastical to the characters, but this final book, with everyone having grown up and learned more about the world (or rather, worlds) had an appeal too, giving adult readers characters who are a bit world-wearing and Done With This Shit but also still willing to keep pushing forward toward their goals, making mistakes and making up for those mistakes, with a very definite sense of credibility and reality to all of it. I’m not sure there’s another series out there quite like this, and I believe it will stand firmly on its own for a long time to come.

Shalador’s Lady, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 2, 2010

Summary: For years the Shalador people suffered the cruelties of the corrupt Queens who ruled them, forbidding their traditions, punishing those who dared show defiance, and forcing many more into hiding. And even though the refugees have found sanctuary in Dena Nehele, they have never been able to call it home.

Now that Dena Nehele has been cleansed of tainted Blood, the Rose-Jeweled Queen, Lady Cassidy, makes it her duty to restore the land and prove her ability to rule. She knows that undertaking this task will require all her heat and courage as she summons the untested power within her, a power capable of consuming her if she cannot control it.

And eve if Lady Cassidy survives her trial by fire, other dangers await. For the Black Widows see within their tangled webs vision of something coming that will change the land – and Lady Cassidy – forever.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady sounds very much like it ought to be a romance novel, like “Shalador” is some noble knight trying to woo a beautiful woman. Rather, Shalador is a significant section of the Territory of Dena Nehele, the Territory that Cassidy is ruling over for a trial period of 1 year, trying to bring the land back from the brink of destruction after so much tragedy and bloodshed. The Shalador reserves have borne more than their fair share of the troubles, and Cassidy has it in her mind to set that to rights.

Which isn’t helped at all by Theran’s continued insistence on getting in Cassidy’s way and preventing her from doing the very thing he wanted a Queen to do in the first place.

Cassidy’s road is hard enough, but then comes Kermilla, a very pretty young Queen who essentially stole Cassidy’s previous court and caused a lot of trauma and self-doubt in Cassidy. Theran takes a shine to Kermilla, wanting her to be Queen of Dena Nehele once Cassidy’s contract expires, though he is pretty much the only person who likes this idea. Everyone else, including the other members of Cassidy’s court, are against it, seeing it as the final act that would shatter the possibility of everything they hope to build for their land and people.

Much like in The Shadow Queen, Shalador’s Lady deals heavily with the subject of trauma. Cassidy’s previous experience with Kermilla and members of her old court were seriously demoralizing, and that’s putting it mildly. Cassidy has panic attacks about Kermilla’s presence, and when Theran declares his support for her, Cassidy becomes quickly convinced that her new court will leave her the same way her old court did, proving once again to her that she’s substandard and weak and unworthy. She knows that Kermilla isn’t the sort of Queen who can do what Dena Nehele needs, but her opinion won’t count for much if she’s abandoned once again. Her contract may only be for a single year, but if she’s wanted, if people accept her, she can stay and continue to rule… if she can hold onto her court and prevent them from siding with Kermilla instead.

Kermilla is one of those characters you either love to hate, or just simply hate. She’s not cruel, not the sort of person to delight in hurting others, but she doesn’t think twice about the consequences of getting what she wants, and is very certain that she deserves whatever she wants, and that combination results in her hurting others regardless of how little joy she takes in it. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, and very sure that being unattractive makes a person unsuitable to rule. Given that Cassidy isn’t exactly a classic beauty, this attitude is what caused so many problems and is at the root of much of Cassidy’s traumas.

(Which makes it extra cringey that the cover art for these novels, however beautiful, portrays Cassidy as she isn’t. Her appearance is a huge sore spot for her, and her previous court’s desire for somebody beautiful rather than somebody competent caused pain and problems. Having her appear as the exact sort of person she’s convinced could keep a court together on looks alone does a disservice to her as a character, and downplays the degree of trauma she experienced because she’s not someone who can just step into a room and dazzle all assembled.)

One of the things I adore about this book in particular is the demonstration of just how much simple kindness can mean to someone who has seen so little of it in their lives. That sounds terribly obvious, but sometimes in life we take for granted that someone just is the way others want it to be, even when that isn’t the case. Cassidy declares the music of Shalador’s people can be openly played in public, and that sounds like a simple enough thing to give permission for, but for a people who have had their culture crushed and killed over the generations, what seems like an inconsequential kindness to Cassidy has huge ramifications for the people who no longer need to guard their secrets so closely anymore, no longer need to live in fear of telling the wrong stories or singing the wrong songs.

This duology is such a comfort read for me, and I often turn to it when I’m going through a difficult time. Not just because Bishop’s writing flows so smoothly, not just because the world is so fascinating to me, but because Cassidy’s story is one of rising above the past, of overcoming traumas with the aid of loyal friends, and of the amount of change that can be found at the hands of even the least powerful when they’re willing to work hard and work together. As I mentioned in my review of The Shadow Queen, it’s really interesting to take a break from the ridiculously powerful characters and focus in on someone who’s a bit more representative of the degree of power your average Blood would have, to have a story that isn’t written about the strongest most badass in all the land but instead someone who achieves much by using what they have effectively. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that sort of story both comforting and hopeful, because it reminds me that I can do something similar. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t rule a country, but I can use what I have to affect positive change, and being reminded of that can be good when times get hard.

Fans of very dark fantasy might not find the same enjoyment in this duology as they did in the core Black Jewels trilogy, as the Cassidy duology is far more hopeful and far less violent in many ways, but for those who have taken the series into their hearts, there’s much entertainment to be found in both of these novels. Those who pick these books up first might actually be quite shocked by what they find in the series’ previous novels. The world is very much the same, still the same Realms populated by the same Blood, but the tone is quite different. Not better or worse, but different enough that it’s worth mentioning. Still, I very much think these books are worth reading, and the bittersweet triumph at the end of Shalador’s Lady is worth every second you spend buried in the pages.