ARC review: The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean

I received an audio ARC of the Book Eaters, but I didn’t have much time to listen to audiobooks the last two weeks, as I was with family most of the time. So I started this audio a while back now and very slowly. But as the story picked up (and I was back home) I just couldn’t stop listening and actually read most of it over 2-3 days!

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Book Review: Soulstar, by C. L. Polk

This is the last novel in the Kingston Cycle, and I had to wait a little bit for the audiobook to become available, but it was worth the wait. You can see my reviews of Witchmark and Stormsong as well. There will be possible spoilers for the first two books at least, in the review below.

Do the three covers together make a bisexual flag? You bet!

The Synopsis

With Soulstar, C. L. Polk concludes her riveting Kingston Cycle, a whirlwind of magic, politics, romance, and intrigue that began with the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark. Assassinations, deadly storms, and long-lost love haunt the pages of this thrilling final volume.

For years, Robin Thorpe has kept her head down, staying among her people in the Riverside neighborhood and hiding the magic that would have her imprisoned by the state. But when Grace Hensley comes knocking on Clan Thorpe’s door, Robin’s days of hiding are at an end. As freed witches flood the streets of Kingston, scrambling to reintegrate with a kingdom that destroyed their lives, Robin begins to plot a course that will ensure a freer, juster Aeland. At the same time, she has to face her long-bottled feelings for the childhood love that vanished into an asylum twenty years ago.

Can Robin find happiness among the rising tides of revolution? Can Kingston survive the blizzards that threaten, the desperate monarchy, and the birth throes of democracy? Find out as the Kingston Cycle comes to an end.

The Review

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: forced institutionalization, forced pregnancy, physical abuse and neglect, executions, police brutality, tear gas, abusive family (non exhaustive list, it’s been a while).

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Book review: The Wife in the Attic, by Rose Lerner

I’d had this book recommended to me a few times as a great historical sapphic romance. I had been keeping an eye on it, and by total chance I won the author’s Halloween giveaway. Given a choice of ebook or audio, I of course took the audiobook – and binged it over one weekend! So thank you Rose Lerner for the amazing audiobook! I read it very quickly in November but sadly got behind on writing the review…

The Story

Goldengrove’s towers and twisted chimneys rose at the very edge of the peaceful Weald, a stone’s throw from the poisonous marshes and merciless waters of Rye Bay. Young Tabby Palethorp had been running wild there, ever since her mother grew too ill to leave her room.

I was the perfect choice to give Tabby a good English education: thoroughly respectable and far too plain to tempt her lonely father, Sir Kit, to indiscretion.

I knew better than to trust my new employer with the truth about my past. But knowing better couldn’t stop me from yearning for impossible things: to be Tabby’s mother, Sir Kit’s companion, Goldengrove’s new mistress.

All that belonged to poor Lady Palethorp. Most of all, I burned to finally catch a glimpse of her.

Surely she could tell me who had viciously defaced the exquisite guitar in the music room, why all the doors in the house were locked after dark, and whose footsteps I heard in the night…

The Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Small reviews: Lodestar Award for Best YA

Part 3 of the hugo series, after novellas and short stories: the Lodestar’s not technically a Hugo but the ballot is the same.

As an aside, I’ve decided I’m not going to review the Novels because I’ve not read about half of them. Harrow the Ninth requires me to reread Gideon because I forgot the important details, and Relentless Moon is a book 3 where I read only book 1. I don’t particularly like Susanna Clarke, and I found Black Sun actually underwhelming. That’s it, that’s the review. I’m currently reading The City We Became, and enjoying it, as I enjoyed Network Effect a few months back. I’ll probably vote but I don’t really have clear enough Opinions on most of these to give you the rundown like I did for the others.

So, the Lodestar. The best of fantasy YA for this year.

They’re all so good! They’re basically all 5 stars or very close to it.

Let me go through them in the order that I read them:

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Review: Alice Payne duology, by Kate Heartfield

Now this is one of those books that I’d heard good things about back at Dublin2019, and never got around to it. I did love another Heartfield short story, in a Shakespeare anthology some years ago, and I also own her novel, Armed in her Fashion (still on my TBR) so I had an idea that I’d enjoy it, but never got around to it. I found the audiobooks on Scribd back in late August, and listened to the two of them in a row.

The story

A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time.

It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse.

It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal.

It’s 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better!

But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new.

Little did they know, but they’ve all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.

The Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s a fun adventure series, maybe a bit short for the scale of what it’s trying to do. I especially felt like it was missing something in-between the two novellas.

The audiobooks were great, I quite enjoyed the narrator, and at the same time I felt like I’d have needed a paper copy to be able to leaf back through it and piece things together more easily. Time travel usually wrecks my brain and it turns out when you can’t double check what just happened to help you keep track, it’s even harder. But the narration was well worth it.

What can I say, I also enjoyed the characters, all three main one – Prudence, Alice, and Jane. The dynamics between Alice and Jane are… strange at times, at the limit of toxic, and I’m not sure if that was intentional or not. I found it a lot more enjoyable in the second book, where they’re more respectful of each other, and both have a lot more agency/ Jane can be a lot more active and so feels less frustrated by it. With the usual disclaimer that as a white woman I’m not the best placed to judge this aspect, I did find that the choice of two Black women as the leads, especially in times like the late 1780s, and in places like England and America, gave more depth to the story and was well handled.

And highway women robbing rapey and abusive men to get back at them? sign me the eff up!

I did have some… plot related issues with the time travel, like I think at times it did not fully respect the own conventions/rules that were set (e.g. characters remembering things they would have normally forgotten, that kind of thing) and I feel that maybe a longer format would’ve been easier to manage. But as much as I like scifi shenanigans, I still read mostly for the characters, and I was not disappointed in that respect.

The Links

Barnes & Noble | Waterstones | Portal Bookshop | or listen to it on Scribd (affiliate link)

Review: Persephone Station, by Stina Leicht

I saw this book on a list of 2021 queer releases and I immediately knew I had to read it. It took me some time, but I finally got to it, in audio format. I’m still not sure what to make of it, though, so the review got a bit away from me. Some spoilers ahead.

I am, once again, in love with the cover. Although I still don’t know which character this is for sure… (art by Tomer Hanuka)

The Story

Hugo award-nominated author Stina Leicht has created a take on space opera for fans of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop in this high-stakes adventure.

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds, becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drink at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who seek to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

The mildly spoilery Review

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I am of two minds about this book because I rather liked it, but I feel like it could’ve been even better if it weren’t for some missed opportunities.

Partially, I think I was a bit confused by it at times because the narrator did not really differentiate between voices, except for Suki’s posh RP accent which was quite distinctive. There was a lot of back and forth dialogue that was just “she said”, “Angel said,” “Enid said,” and it was quite hard to follow who exactly said what without these clear distinctions that you often hear in audiobooks. So I did enjoy it, but with moments of “wait what?”

And there was also a lot of fighting… Friends, I lose focus at the battle scenes in movies, and it looks like I do the same in audiobook format. It was just pretty hard to keep track of who was doing what where… and the battle scene was a good chunk of the book.

That being said, I did enjoy the whole concept of the story, and I really liked the characters. The whole idea is that this pacifist species native to the planet (it’s not a spoiler, you learn it literally in the first chapter) has some hidden talents that corporates want, and our friends go to help them make a stand. You do learn very quickly also that they have some great healing abilities, and they could do a lot for humanity. Just, you know, maybe not sell their knowledge to evil capitalist bosses.

Another thing I really liked is what I’d like to call the Aliette de Bodard syndrome – there were practically no men in this story. There were nonbinary characters, Rosie being a prominent one but not the only one. There were a few background characters, like one of the fighters’ boyfriend, who’s named but barely says anything. It’s just refreshing to have books where women and nonbinary people are both the good guys (sic), the bad guys, and the in-betweens. With different sexualities and genders and family models represented too.

So overall it left a good impression on me. BUT and that’s where we get to the missed opportunities part. The author makes use of different point of views, but then seems to drop that towards the end. Whereas I feel like a few chapters, and especially the big revelation at the end, could’ve benefited from being told from another perspective – notably Kennedy’s. Kennedy is… an AI? of sorts? though only she knows that. And parts of the plot revolve around her finding?? another AI? It’s not clear what she expects to find. We do know she may have to destroy it when she finds it, even though she really doesn’t want to. So to me, it made no sense that we saw all this through Angel’s perspective – when Angel really had no idea what was going on. It’d have had more depth and emotion from Kennedy’s perspective at least in part.

And that’s my main complaint overall I think. I don’t know that much about these characters, I’m not made to care enough. Some get wildly injured and I felt nothing about that. So, it’s a good adventure book, but it’s not a book where I could get really attached to anyone in a meaningful way. And when [spoiler] dies, I really was pretty indifferent. I did, however, feel like this was another missed opportunity. Angel’s people are dying. They’ve actually died a few times, and have been revivified, and are all living with chronic illnesses as a result. They’re put in the path of a species who, it so happens, has healing and life-prolonging capabilities. Which they all know. And yet it’s never broached, there’s not even a discussion of “no we don’t want that” or “after all that happened we’re hesitant to help another human” etc. The possibility is thoroughly ignored and it was quite glaring to me.

I think my main issue with this book may be that I saw it from a plot and plotholes/missed opportunities perspective rather than as a story to enjoy. And I’d put this in part on my inability to get attached to the characters, and in part due to the audio narrator who made me feel quite detached from the story too. Maybe this is a rare one where reading it in paper might improve your experience.

Overall good fun, but not up to my expectations, and probably not a book I’ll find myself thinking about too much long term.

The Links

Barnes & Noble | Waterstones | or listen to it on Scribd (affiliate link)

Review: A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow

I had the audiobook for A Song Below Water on hold for months with the library, and then the physical book… and it only arrived last week or so (they had a copy but libraries were closed for the whole of winter, and I guess I wasn’t the only one who wanted it!) So to say this was highly anticipated for me is a bit of an understatement.

I forgot to take a real picture before I brought it back to the library!

The Story

Tavia is already at odds with the world, forced to keep her siren identity under wraps in a society that wants to keep her kind under lock and key. Nevermind she’s also stuck in Portland, Oregon, a city with only a handful of black folk and even fewer of those with magical powers. At least she has her bestie Effie by her side as they tackle high school drama, family secrets, and unrequited crushes.

But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation; the girls’ favorite Internet fashion icon reveals she’s also a siren, and the news rips through their community. Tensions escalate when Effie starts being haunted by demons from her past, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice during a police stop. No secret seems safe anymore—soon Portland won’t be either.

The (spoilery) Review

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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Review: The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, by Zen Cho

I feel like I’m reading half a dozen books at once at the moment (probably because I am!) and I needed a break, so 2 days ago I went and put on this quick audiobook, to give me a sense of accomplishment at finishing something. I had tried it before but I was sick at the time and just uh, fell asleep on it. (Which isn’t a sign of it being bad, I just… do that, with audiobooks.) This time though it kept me awake instead, and I read it all in one evening!

I need a high quality poster of this cover art, it’s so neat! – Cover art by Sija Hong

The Story

Zen Cho returns with a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history.

A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.

The Review (with some spoilers)

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune

I started this book during my holidays a week or so ago, and I wasn’t really sold on it at first, but then I found myself reading (listening to) it til 1-2am to get more of it. It did take me a while to get around to reviewing it because I’m of two minds about it in a way.

The Story

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

The Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I heard so much good about this book, and both the title and the cover really intrigued me, but I gotta admit I did not read the synopsis at all and I did not know at all what to expect. I found the beginning quite hard to get into, Linus is basically a cog in a very Kafkaesque, administrative machine that oversees magical youth, and he keeps telling us that he loves children and that’s why he does what he does, but it sounds like he’s pretty happy not to know what happens to them after his cases, and I could not like him like that.

The Antichrist bit had a little bit of a Good Omens feel to it, and in a way Linus and Arthur are a bit like Aziraphale and Crowley in their weird friendly/antagonistic relationship and overseer role, but that’s about where the comparison stops. But what really drew me in were the kids. They were funny, and cute, and yes, murdery too, and you could see that there was so much more to them than what the administration wanted to hear.

Even then, I found Linus hard to get to like, because he was scared of the kids for a good long while, and like, straight up fainting at the mention of Luci… which felt quite ridiculous to me. But by the end of it I was invested, especially in what he would do and whether he would help these kids, and I do think he as a character is a good egg who just needed a nudge (or a shove) to see things properly. And he does stand up to bullies, which did it a lot of credit in my eye.

By the second half I was really invested, and by the last few hours of the audiobook I was riveted and I pretty much made myself finish it in one evening, even if it meant going to bed very late. So in this sense it was very much a good book, but I’m still meh about the beginning even in retrospect. It made sense for the story Klune was telling, and it was definitely a criticism of that kind of administration, but I can see that and still not fully enjoy it. It does work well in contrast with the island and the orphanage’s own way of caring for the children, though.

Overall a good read, worth sticking through the beginning to get to the more interesting bits!

The Links

Barnes & Noble | Waterstones | or listen to it on Scribd*

*this is an affiliate link, I may receive a free month if you sign up, at no extra cost to you

Review: Stormsong, by C.L. Polk

I reviewed the first book in the Kingston Cycle the other day, but I feel like the second in the series deserves its own review, as the mood is entirely different, and yet it’s also really enjoyable.

The Story

After spinning an enthralling world in Witchmark, praised as a “can’t-miss debut” by Booklist, and as “thoroughly charming and deftly paced” by the New York Times, C. L. Polk continues the story in Stormsong. Magical cabals, otherworldly avengers, and impossible love affairs conspire to create a book that refuses to be put down.

Dame Grace Hensley helped her brother Miles undo the atrocity that stained her nation, but now she has to deal with the consequences. With the power out in the dead of winter and an uncontrollable sequence of winter storms on the horizon, Aeland faces disaster. Grace has the vision to guide her parents to safety, but a hostile queen and a ring of rogue mages stand in the way of her plans. There’s revolution in the air, and any spark could light the powder. What’s worse, upstart photojournalist Avia Jessup draws ever closer to secrets that could topple the nation, and closer to Grace’s heart.

Can Aeland be saved without bloodshed? Or will Kingston die in flames, and Grace along with it?

The Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

If Witchmark was mainly a fantasy murder mystery/romance, this second tome is more like political intrigue/romance. With a side of murder mystery, too. I quite like novels that have some political intrigue, or rather I love to hate all the despicable politicians, so this worked really well for me.

I was not expecting the point of view character to change between books, so I was unsettled at first. Miles was a likeable character from the start, but Grace… She takes some warming up to. She’s a much more complicated character, morally speaking, and she can be Wrong sometimes. I found that I actually enjoyed that a lot more, because she was really struggling with how to do the right thing, which was not always obvious to her, while in the first novel it was very clear to Miles what The Right Thing was. So, sometimes I really wanted to slap some sense into her, and yet she was not despicable. Her logic was flawed, and she could be offensive, but my favourite part about this book was seeing her realise her upbringing left her to believe some things that were entirely false, and that the people she respects are perhaps not worthy of it. I found myself liking this a lot more than I do most straightforward good characters.

It also helps that the novel is narrated by Moira Quirk, who also read Gideon the Ninth. I find that I really enjoy her voice, and the way she brings out the humour in a book.

I also was more interested in the romance in this one. Grace’s interest in Avia, the very journalist who might ruin her career if she’s not careful, was a lot more entertaining, and also played a great part in Grace’s realizations around morality.

There were a lot of moving parts in this one, but they all come together in a way that makes a lot of sense. You can see that CL Polk has this all plotted perfectly, even if it means the ending is just a Happy For Now. I’m only sad that we won’t be following Grace in the last book, because it switches narrators again and follows Robin, apparently. And like I said in my Witchmark review, I love Robin! I’m excited to read from her point of view and it makes sense for where the story is going. But I’d have loved to see Grace’s relationship with Avia blossom even more, and especially to see them work through whatever will no doubt be thrown at them very shortly. When your main complaint is “I want more of this” though, you know the book’s a good one!

The Links

Barnes & Noble | Waterstones | Or listen to it on Scribd (affiliate link)