Grac's Never-ending TBR Pile of Doom

Grac's Never-ending TBR Pile of Doom

Mostly science fiction and fantasy, though the odd non-fiction book will crop up now and then...

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
The Poppy War - R.F. Kuang
The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

As soon as I saw the blurb for The Poppy War, I was sure I was going to want to read it - it's a great time to be a fantasy reader, as there's so much out there now which is not just farmboy-is-secretly-a-prince set in a faux-medieval European setting. Read plenty of those in my time!

 

Anyway, The Poppy War starts off feeling quite familiar as we're introduced to the character of Rin and the situation she finds herself in at the start of the book - a war orphan taken in by opium traders, Rin is about to be sold off into marriage unless she can find a way out. In this case, her way out is to pass the country-wide examination and get herself a coveted place in one of the empire's military schools. If she manages this (which, of course, she does otherwise it'd be a very different book!) then Rin can decide her own fate in the longer term. 

 

So far, so good. The next third or so of the book follows a pretty well-worn track, especially where moving into a fantasy academic setting is concerned: the outsider maybe makes one or two friends, but also at least one enemy whose vindictiveness will come back to bite her later on. Where The Poppy War diverges from this pattern is with the introduction of a strong theme of shamanism alongside the military training, even if it's heavily frowned upon by the majority of the people Rin comes across. This ability allows someone to channel the power of a deity, at the risk of their own sanity, and if there's one thing Rin wants, it's power. 

 

The whole setting of The Poppy War is more faux-China than faux-medieval Europe and this is made clear when the neighbouring islands (Mugen) mount an invasion. Rin finds herself shipped off to join the other misfits and hone her abilities in defence of a port city, only to discover that their involvement there has not prevented a terrible slaughter taking place in the capital. It's around this time that my willingness to give The Poppy War 5 stars and my accompanying desire to re-read it in the future took a bit of a knock. Things get a bit grisly and, to my mind at least, unnecessarily so - it's too easy to go for graphic rather than thinking about how to use your writing to imply things that are even more horrific, since your reader's minds will make all sorts of connections. 

 

Since this is the first book of a trilogy, it will come as no surprise that Rin finishes the book by making a choice and taking a terrible revenge on the people of Mugen, who are responsible not just for the recent slaughter but apparently also for the genocide of Rin's people. She may be starting to realise just what she's let herself in for, but maybe not, so I guess the next volume will tell us which way she's going to go? The Dragon Republic is due out next year. 

Review
3 Stars
The Lord of Stariel - AJ Lancaster
The Lord of Stariel - Jen Lancaster

This is another one of the books I've picked up on Netgalley because the blurb sounds interesting, though it's taken a while for me to actually finish (real life intruding!) and then review it. 

 

The basic premise of The Lord of Stariel is that it's the first of a series, set in a pseudo-Victorian world where our protagonist, Hetta, has left the family estate and established herself as an illusionist in the theatre. This means she's using magic to support the performances, which is shocking both from her being of the nobility and working for a living and also because she's a woman. When we first meet her, she's returning to the family home after the death of her father because of a ritual which chooses the next Lord. 

 

There's so much foreshadowing going on, and not subtly either, that it's no surprise at all when the ritual chooses Hetta rather than her older brother or younger cousin, the latter having been the expected heir. Hetta is forced to give up her plans to return to her life elsewhere, only to make a number of discoveries about her family and people she cares about. Saying much more would lead to massive spoilers so the fact this is book 1 of 4 will probably tell you that things are going to be complicated long-term.

 

The main problem I had with this book, other than the unsubtle way Hetta spends a good chunk of the first part going 'oh, but this ritual is just a formality for someone else to be chosen and I'm fine with that' (which of course lets you know that she's going to be chosen and then have issues with any problems that subsequently arise) was the tendency of the writer to info-dump. There's a whole chapter which is pretty much two characters talking and one of them giving his back-story to fleshing out a sudden piece of world-building, which I have to confess I skimmed. They are, alas, not alone in having a number of 'as you know, Bob...' style conversations! This is, however, the writer's first novel so maybe this is an area in which they can improve....

 

I wasn't massively impressed with the romance sub-plots going on either, but then I'm not an easy sell where this kind of thing is concerned - I thought Wyn, Hetta's main love interest, wasn't particularly three-dimensional other than being a competent person who she used to have a crush on. 

 

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review
4 Stars
In the Vanisher's Palace
In the Vanisher's Palace - Aliette de Bodard

I've read quite a lot by Aliette de Bodard, so I was very pleased to get approved for a pre-release copy of this by Netgalley. Well, it was pre-release when I got it, even if it's taken me forever to get around to actually reading it and then even longer to review it! That shouldn't be taken as a comment on the quality of the story, just on sudden craziness in my life and inability to settle down and actually read stuff. 

 

Anyway, on to the story. The basic premise of In the Vanisher's Palace is that it's set on a world where aliens had ravaged everything and the characters we come across now are literally living in the ruins of what has been left behind. One of our main characters (Yên) is the daughter of the local healer, who is dealing with all sorts of odd illnesses caused by mutating viruses, and they live in a community where being useful is the key to survival. Yên herself is a scholar and not particularly good at anything else, so when attempts to heal the daughter of one of the community's leaders fail to be effective and more stringent measures are needed, she gets traded away to the dragon Vu Côn in exchange for a more effective treatment.

 

Vu Côn is one of the last dragons living and takes Yên to her palace, the abandoned ship of one of their former alien conquerors (the Vanishers), a place that literally does not obey the rules of physics. Rather than being killed in a bloody and violent manner, as Yên is expecting (and as was her potential fate in the outside world for the crime of not being useful to the community), she's given the job of tutor to Vu Côn's teenage children and also find herself unexpectedly attracted to said dragon. 

 

Anyway, no secret has been made of the fact that this is a Beauty and the Beast re-telling in any of the publicity for In the Vanisher's Palace, so you can probably figure out roughly how it all works out. Finer details would spoil the story, so I just urge you to check it out if you like stuff that's inspired (as much of de Bodard's work is) by her Vietnamese heritage. To be honest, as is often the case with novellas, I get frustrated by the fact that they just don't on for as long as I would like and this is also the case here - there's enough world-building for a novel at least and it's constrained down to support the fairy-tale storyline instead. That's probably why I didn't give 5 stars in the end. 

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
5 Stars
The Bird King - G. Willow Wilson
The Bird King - G. Willow Wilson

I'd really enjoyed this author's previous book, Alif the Unseen, so was delighted to see she was back to writing novel-length work again, though I have to say I've also been loving her work with Ms Marvel... All of which meant I was more than delighted when my Netgalley request for an ARC of The Bird King was accepted and happily settled down this week to reading it. 

 

The basic premise of The Bird King is that it's set in the time when the Moors were losing their grip on Spain, initially taking place in the court of the emperor in Granada. Our main character, Fatima, is one of the emperor's concubines - she was born within the palace's confines and has never known the outside world, her best friend being Hassan the cartographer who she visits illicitly. Hassan has a special gift, in that he is able to use the maps he makes to connect places together and Fatima uses this to obtain a little insight into the world outside the one she knows. 

 

When the would-be Spanish monarchy come calling, with the Inquisition in tow, Hassan's life is threatened and Fatima decides that the best thing to do is for both of them to run away. Aided by a djinn that they discover has been living in the palace, they decide to head for the island occupied by the eponymous king of the birds, the subject of a story they had both grown up with. Neither Fatima or Hassan are particularly equipped for such a journey, in more ways than one, but they head out anyway since they have very few other options that don't involve Hassan being burnt alive for sorcery. 

 

This is such a beautifully-written book, striking just the right balance between getting the details precise and making a drama of how much research must have been required. Fatima, in particular, is a great character and stands out from the page - she doesn't always make the right decision but you believe the ones she does make. Hassan and the other characters are strong too, including the main antagonist and that's not always something writers manage to do well. Moustache-twirling evil is much easier than banal belief that you're doing the right thing and everyone else ought to fall in line. 

 

Anyway, in short: I hope The Bird King is the first of many more novels from this author and I can't wait to get my hands on a paper copy when it goes on sale next year. 

 

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
3 Stars
A Dance of Water and Air - Antonia Aquilante
A Dance of Water and Air - Antonia Aquilante

At times, I feel like I write so many reviews which ought to contain the words 'I really wanted to like this book, but...' and A Dance of Water and Air is just another one of those reviews. For starters, the title itself feels awkward as the elements are just the wrong way round for it to seem natural. That is the least of this book's problems from my perspective. 

 

The basic premise of the book is that we have two neighbouring kingdoms in a universe where people have elemental magic but tend towards having an affinity for one over the rest. You can tell it's a fantasy book because Affinity gets a capital A every time it appears. Said kingdoms are threatened by another neighbour and a plan is hatched to marry the eldest son of one kingdom (Edmund) to the queen of the other, with Edmund getting shipped off there a few months before the wedding so he can get to know his prospective bride.

 

Since she pretty much ignores him once he arrives, Edmund inconveniently falls for the queen's brother (Arden) and also eventually gets accused of an attempt on the queen's life. This forces Arden to make a choice and he chooses to rescue his putative boyfriend, who's been thrown into a dungeon. After fleeing back to Edmund's kingdom and the queen reluctantly agreeing the two of them can marry, Edmund and Arden are discussing the threat from their neighbours and then the book just stops - I think it's meant to be a cliffhanger (maybe?) but instead it left me wondering if there was a problem with the file. 

 

I liked the overall world-building but sadly the characters didn't manage to be as interesting, being generally pretty two-dimensional. There's also a surprise 'oh, by the way I have breasts' moment for one of the characters that I really didn't see coming. Likewise, I found the convenience of the pairing off of Arden and Edmund's respective secretaries just a bit too much like high school and double dating to take seriously. But then all of them were very much working on 'oh, he's so handsome that I must fall in love with him' levels so I guess it's not a massive surprise.

 

I received this book from Netgalley on condition of giving an honest review. 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3.5 Stars
Godblind - Anna Stephens
Godblind - Anna Stephens

This is one of those books where I'm glad there's the ability (on Booklikes, at least!) to give half-stars, as there were quite a few things I liked about Godblind but also some things that didn't quite work for me. Fortunately, I got my copy from the local library so I'm not left feeling like I spent my money on something that I probably won't read again and am also only reading more in this series if I can get them from the same source...

 

The basic premise of Godblind is that there's two lots of gods, one light and one dark, the latter and their followers having been driven out a while back and desperate to return and crush everyone. The book starts with an attempted rape, the subject of which turns the tables on her attacker and then flees into the snow, only to be rescued by a man who is tormented by visions from both sets of gods, but mostly the dark ones. Their followers are working both overtly and covertly, undermining the current rulers and plotting to replace them with those who will restore the 'right' way of doing things, shedding as much blood as necessary along the way.

 

I fell off the grimdark wagon a while back, though I had enjoyed some series that were part of its early incarnation - too much blood and mayhem for the sake of it, too much 'but people are nasty therefore we must go into gory details in our fiction' for my liking. For me, Godblind skirts the edge of going too far - there's one particular torture scene that left me wincing and if there had been more occurrences like that in this volume, I probably would have passed on the rest of the book and series. 

 

The other thing I didn't like about the book was that it felt quite choppy and I struggled to keep track at times of who was who. It's all written from various different people's points of view, and some of the segments (I can hardly call them chapters, at the lengths involved) are quite brief, which left the story feeling a little disjointed. I think this was partly why I didn't really 'click' with most of the characters as I felt jolted out of their experience just as I was getting to grips with them - this was particularly true for Rillirin, who is set up to be one of the main characters of the series. 

 

On the other hand, there's good work done in terms of thinking about and setting up the world-building - I was particularly engaged with the palace intrigues as people's true motivations are revealed and plots spark or fizzle out. Hopefully the characters who I cared about won't get killed off and whenever my local library gets the sequel (Darksoul) I may well pick it up for the princely sum of 47p, which is our current hold fee. 

 

Review
3 Stars
Stealing Life - Antony Johnston
Stealing Life - Antony Johnston

I most recently came across Antony Johnston as the author of the graphic novel that was made into the movie Atomic Blonde and he's also the writer of another graphic novel series (The Fuse) where I've enjoyed what I've read so far. As a result, I had fairly high hopes of Stealing Life but sadly it didn't quite live up to them. 

 

It's a fairly unchallenging heist story, set in a world where magic and technology butt heads. Our protagonist makes a living as a thief but recently got in a mob boss's bad books for not killing a security guard and is currently scurrying around to make as much money as possible to pay said mob boss off. That's part of the reason why he (Nicco) takes on a job he might otherwise have turned down, working for a wizard to steal a magic amulet from the leader of a neighbouring nation. Naturally, things are not quite what they seem and Nicco finds himself up to his neck in plot and counter-plot, eventually helping thwart a revolution. 

 

One thing I thought was noticeable is that all but one of the named female characters in Nicco's world are sex workers. There's no judgement attached to that, at least, but for me it shows a degree of lack of imagination. There's also less attention given to the world-building than I might have liked, leaving me struggling to separate out the countries involved in the author's world. 

 

All in all, it was enjoyable enough but makes me wonder where the same depth of characterisation I've seen in the graphic novels this writer is producing disappeared to - it could have been so much better.  

 

 

I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley on the condition of giving an honest review. 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
5 Stars
The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams
The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams

This is the second book in the author's Winnowing Flame series, following on from The Ninth Rain (which I absolutely loved) and it keeps the tension and action ticking over nicely even as all sorts of bombshells are dropped on our protagonists. 

 

It's really difficult to talk about what happens in this book without spoiling the first one, so I won't go into massive details about it. It pretty much carries on straight from the end of the previous book - we know now that Hestillion was effectively aiding the enemy even though she didn't realise it, and in The Bitter Twins she spends the entire time as their captive. The war-beast pod she stole has hatched and she is effectively torn between her need to keep that creature safe and the realisation that she has betrayed her people completely. 

 

Meanwhile, back in what is left of Ebora, our other protagonists are trying to find allies against their common enemy and fight its incursions with limited resources. Tor and Noon go off on what looks like being a wild goose chase, in search of information that might help the war-beasts remember their connection to their previous lives, and discover some long-held secrets about the Eborans. Theirs is the main story, with what Bern and Aldasair get up to in the meantime proving to be more of a B plot.

 

Another excellent book, can't wait to see how this series finishes off. The final book (The Poison Song) is due out May next year!

Review
4 Stars
The Green Man's Heir - Juliet E. McKenna
The Green Man's Heir - Juliet E. McKenna

Anyone who's read my reviews for a while will know that I'm not a massive fan of first person but this book was recommended to me and it was on sale, so I went for it anyway. I'd also got bored with urban fantasy, which isn't quite a label for this story (since it's set in the countryside) but there isn't a rural fantasy tag so we'll make do...

 

The Green Man's Heir is set in the present day, except that the creatures of British folklore are real and some people can see them, usually if they have a touch of what the author calls 'the wildwood blood' in their ancestry somewhere. In the case of Daniel, our protagonist, it's in the previous generation with his mother being a dryad, which comes with its own hazards in terms of women pretty much throwing themselves at him and a lack of background that makes moving around attractive.

 

The latter proves a problem when Daniel stumbles into a crime scene in the woods near where he's currently living, woods also inhabited by a dryad who thinks he should get involved in stopping what's responsible for this and a previous murder. Being somewhat itinerant and in the wrong place at the wrong time, Daniel finds himself dragged into the murder investigation whether he wants it or not, with all the repercussions for his privacy of the social media age. 

 

That situation proves to be the first of two supernatural issues Daniel faces in The Green Man's Heir, as the dryad in question has come from somewhere else and Daniel is keen to meet others like him. That search leads him to another situation, meeting someone who is like him in many ways (since she can see the creatures he can) but without, I'm glad to say, taking a lazy route into instalove in the way so many authors would have been unable to resist. Through shared adversity, Daniel and Eleanor become friends and he's clearly hopeful it will turn into more, but a relationship at this point would have been too obvious. 

 

All of this is set in a part of the world I'm very familiar with, though I'm not completely convinced with how easily Daniel seems able to get hold of takeaway food at odd hours of the day or night - the kind of places in question aren't still necessarily so cosmopolitan! Anyway, it kept me turning the pages and if there's a sequel, I will definitely pick it up, so who can ask for more?

Review
4 Stars
Foundryside - Robert Jackson Bennett
Foundryside - Robert Jackson Bennett

Since I really enjoyed this author's previous series (The Divine Cities, which starts with City of Stairs), I was keen to get hold of Foundryside even though the thought of starting another trilogy really didn't appeal. 

 

This book is set in a different world from the previous series, one where all of the action takes place in an area dominated by four great merchant houses - there's a clear demarcation between the areas they control and where the rest of the population scrape a living, with the mechanisms they employ (a kind of writing called scriving that works like computer code for reality) keeping everyone in their place. It's in this very ordered world that we initially meet two of our protagonists - a thief (Sancia) who is hyper-sensitive to everything and a son of one of the merchant houses (Gregor) who's returned from war with a different perspective on how things ought to be. 

 

Sancia is hired to steal something and that something turns out to be an artefact created by the people who first invented scriving. Except they went one better and started messing with reality, using items just like the one Sancia now has in her possession. When one of the merchant houses is looking to stockpile these artefacts and start to mess with the system, corrupt as it is, Sancia and Gregor reluctantly join forces to steal those artefacts, with the help of a few other folks they pick up along the way. Yes, it's a heist movie! 

 

As they discover along the way, the enemy is not necessarily who it seems to be and both Sancia and Gregor are going to get unpleasant surprises about who they are and what they have lived through. They're not the only one with unpleasant experiences, as two people literally explode at one point and another implodes, so while I wouldn't necessarily categorise this book as 'grimdark' there are probably going to be people it won't work for as a result. 

 

I've happily given Foundryside 4 stars because I enjoyed it, look forward to seeing what happens as a result of the decisions made here and expect I'll re-read it when the next book comes out. It still didn't quite blow my socks off and that was partly because of the flatness of some of the supporting characters. Sancia and, to a lesser extent, Gregor are pretty convincing - though I'd have liked more from Gregor's point of view following a pretty big reveal towards the end - but the other characters are a bit less real to me. Still, assuming they all survive the trilogy, there's still time to sort that out...

 

I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review
3 Stars
Eidolon - E.S. Yu
Eidolon - E.S. Yu

Eidolon is one of those books which really ought to have worked for me but, in the end, came up short - this was mostly because it felt as though the author was trying to do way too many things. As the plot went along, new elements got thrown into the mix every so often until it was all a little bit unwieldy and also pretty much unresolvable by the end of the book. I really liked the cover, though, I have to say!

 

The book is set in the near-future, where brain and body augments are pretty much commonplace, and where a moustache-twirlingly villainous CEO sends an augmented assassin after a journalist who's been sticking his nose into the company business a little too much. The assassin in question has all the latest technology but is still unable to do what he's being paid for and ends up eventually on the run in the company of said journalist after the CEO sends yet more killers on their trail. So far, so good, even if the assassin (Vax) is woefully crap at his job in the first place, in order to progress the plot. 

 

The plot thickens when Vax discovers that he is the spitting image of his target's dead boyfriend and he, conveniently, can't remember anything about his past either. Now I love a good amnesia plot and there's plenty here for me to get my teeth into, except that this is only one of the things that's getting explored here. Neither main character completely convinced me and there's just too much effort put into making sure there's some kind of happy ending to be completely convincing.

 

Likewise, while it's also revealed at the end that one of our main characters is asexual, that just drops out of nowhere with pretty much no foreshadowing at all. As a result, it feels a bit like 'well, here's an excuse for no sex' whereas I really don't think that was the author's intention. So, all in all Eidolon kept me turning the pages but never completely convinced me that it couldn't have done with a little more editing in terms of pruning out a number of the themes that kind of strangled the overall story. 

 

I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
4 Stars
Certain Dark Things - Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Certain Dark Things: A Novel - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I'd been wanting to read Certain Dark Things since I first heard about it, so when it went on sale recently on Kindle I snapped up a copy and wasn't disappointed. I'm not really a massive lover of vampire stories but the premise of this, set in a present-day Mexico City in a world where various kinds of vampires are known, intrigued me enough to get me reading and the quality of the story-telling did the rest...Another positive is the fact that this is a stand-alone story in a world of trilogies and series!

 

Anyway, on to the story itself - it's told from the perspective of a number of different people and this is often a place where books fall down for me. Domingo is a teenage boy who works as a garbage collector in Mexico City, just about getting by after a childhood spent running errands for a local drug dealer. His path crosses that of Atl, who looks like a teenage girl but is actually the last survivor of a clan of vampires which can trace their lineage back to the Aztecs. Atl is on the run from the (different kind of) vampires who killed her family and is doing a bit of a crap job of hiding given that there aren't supposed to be any vampires in the city and she also has a massive genetically-engineered dog by her side. 

 

On the other side of things are Nick, spoilt younger son of the clan hunting Atl - his kind of vampire can enslave humans with their blood, while Atl's kind have other abilities. Completing our roster of point of view characters is Ana, a detective in the local police whose abilities are scorned by her bosses even though she comes from 'vampire territory' outside the city and has more idea what to do if faced with one of them.

 

The writer drip-feeds enough information about the world-building into the storyline along the way that it feels organic rather than forced. This is, in short, also a world that makes sense; close enough to our own to feel familiar but also with convincing explanations for the things that are different. It shouldn't probably come as any surprise that it's a bit gory in parts, given that it's about vampires, but it didn't feel gratuitous. I'm not sure Certain Dark Things is something I'll want to read again but it definitely makes me want to check out more of this author's work! 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
0 Stars
Rosewater - Tade Thompson
Rosewater - Tade Thompson

It feels almost miserly only giving Rosewater 3 stars but, while there was a lot I really liked about it, the fact that it's a) the first book of a trilogy and so doesn't really have an ending of its own, and b) that it jumps about between time periods and didn't quite work for me as a coherent narrative meant I ended up knocking at least one star off for just those two things. 

 

There's also a lot to like about the book as a whole, particularly that the author manages to take a protagonist (Kaaro) who is pretty unlikeable and make you care about what happens to him. Because, make no bones about it, there's a lot not to like about Kaaro as we work our way through his history and the surrounding world-building of the book. For much of the storyline, he's pretty immature and makes at least one decision (though he seems to have some insight as he gets older about this) with his penis rather than any other part of his body. Secondly, as someone who works for a shadowy secret agency and also has mental powers whose source we discover as the storyline moves along, he's actively involved in interrogations. 

 

Rosewater is set in a near-present day world where there has been alien contact on a number of occasions, the most recent being in Nigeria where something has fallen from the sky and built a dome that occasionally opens. When it opens, people are healed but not always in a way which is positive for them and also the recent dead are brought back to life, but as zombies. There's been previous contact with the same aliens and there's mention of London being devastated by a landing in Hyde Park and the US having chosen to shut itself off from the rest of the world as a result, but these are background details.

 

Kaaro discovers, as the book goes on, that not only do his powers actually come from a previous alien landing but that everyone else he knows with similar abilities is dying. He is, effectively, the last man standing for no apparent reason, like it or not. In fact, the entire world is changing as the alien influence begins to take over and human cells are literally replaced by alien ones in a larger and larger amount of people. The sequels are about resisting that change, with The Rosewater Insurrection being due out next year. Not sure if I'll read it, unless I can either get it from the library or free for review, as while I enjoyed reading Rosewater and it certainly kept me turning the pages, it didn't 100% work for me for the reasons mentioned at the start of this review. 

  

 

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden
The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden

I don't pre-order a lot of books but for The Girl in the Tower, I was prepared to make an exception - I'd first read (and very much enjoyed) the previous book in the trilogy, The Bear and the Nightingale, last November and was keen to see if the author could manage to follow up such a great debut. I'm pleased to say that this book is, in my opinion, as good as its predecessor and it sets up the final volume of the series well. Fortunately that's due out in January next year and I hope the publishers keep to that timetable, as I'm keen to see how everything works out!

 

The Girl in the Tower follows pretty much immediately on from the events in the previous book, with Vasya taking her horse and heading off to travel the world after the untimely death of her father. The priest Konstantin, who has to carry a significant amount of blame for helping set in motion matters in relation to Vasya, has gone back to Moscow telling tales of witches. Vasya's older sister is there, a virtual prisoner as she awaits the birth of her third child in the claustrophobic terem, and Olga is horrified to hear what has happened in her much-missed home. 

 

Just as their brother Sasha is advocating for military action to protect the local villagers from bandits who are torching their homes and stealing some of their girl children, Vasya turns up with three of those children in tow. She has, of course, rescued them from the bandits and, dressed as a boy, puts Sasha in the position of having to lie to protect her reputation - after all, what virtuous woman would wear breeches and ride about the countryside unchaperoned? 

 

Eventually, however, everything unravels and the truth comes out. Not just the truth about Vasya being a girl but also what connects her to the Winter King and also some tantalising hints about Vasya's own heritage, as the main antagonist in The Girl in the Tower proves to have a link to Vasya's mother. Once again, it's a richly-described world inhabited by the creatures of Russian mythology and, for me at least, a real page-turner. It's going to be very interesting to see how the final book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, turns out and I'm hoping for a positive ending for more than one character I've come to know along the way...

Review
2 Stars
Unholy Land - Lavie Tidhar
Unholy Land - Lavie Tidhar

Not really sure where to begin with my review for Unholy Land, which I picked up as an uncorrected proof on Netgalley - as a result, knowing little about the book and also missing the fact it was labelled as 'literary fiction' (a category which really does very little for me), I wondered if the things that didn't quite mesh together right at the beginning were just errors on the part of the author, only to discover later they were probably stylistic choices. 

 

Anyway, on to the plot. Initially, Unholy Land is alternate history - in this case, a history where instead of settling in Israel, Jews fleeing from Europe settled an area of central Africa and made for themselves a land called Palestina. For anyone who knows something of the current situation in the Middle East, there's something a little ironic about the fact that, as a result, the Jewish community in this scenario call themselves Palestinians. Anyway, our main character is a writer of pulp detective stories called Lior who is returning to Palestina after living in Germany, having recently suffered a terrible loss. 

 

However, as we discover throughout the book, there is more going on here than initially meets the eye and Lior himself begins to have trouble sorting out his own memories from what everyone else seems to think has happened. Landing in Palestina, where the inhabitants are busy building a massive wall to secure their ownership of the land, Lior finds himself involved in the murder of an old friend and that's just the beginning of the difficulties he faces.The spaces between the different realities are wearing thin. 

 

This isn't the easiest novel to read and half the time I'm pretty sure I had little idea exactly what was going on, not helped by the number of points of view that get used along the way. I was also a little thrown by how autobiographical it is - having read some of the author's comments before the story itself, I could see where his experience was cropping up as Lior's, though it's quite possible given the nature of the story that this was again a deliberate choice. It's just a little too much work to keep track of what's going on and I'm left feeling glad that I picked this up where and how I did, as it's not something I'll want to read again. 

 

 

I received this book as an uncorrected proof from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Review
3 Stars
Jade City - Fonda Lee
Jade City  - Fonda Lee

Lately my experience with books that other people love seems to be not the greatest - I continue to search for books that will knock my socks off and make me want to come back to them, only to be denied. I know it's probably more about me than it is about the books themselves, but still...

 

Anyway, Jade City looked like a reasonable candidate for sock removing purposes, but for one reason or another failed to quite do the business. It looked like a reasonable candidate, having picked up a Nebula nomination along the way, however the solid and clever world-building proved just a little too mentally chewy for my liking. 

 

The basic premise of Jade City is that it's set in the country of Kekon, which has just come out of a period of war where the jade-enhanced guerrillas who are now involved in two powerful gangs kicked out their foreign overlords. In this scenario, the possession of jade gives some people various powers and drives others crazy, with yet another group being immune to its effects either way. Ownership of this particular kind of jade, only produced in Kekon, means power and there's an added twist in the tale in that a drug has now been produced allowing those who otherwise wouldn't have been able to use jade to do so, including foreigners. 

 

The main element of the story focusses on a particular family whose previous generations had been freedom fighters and who are now a powerful gang running part of the city. Lan is the gang's Pillar, in charge but still in the shadow of his formerly-powerful grandfather, while his brother Hilo is the Horn, a more hot-headed enforcer of his brother's decisions (and often his own). This is all shaping up to be a bit of a sausage fest with the main female characters being the head of the rival gang, Hilo's girlfriend and then a third member of the family, their sister Shae. Years earlier, Shae had set aside her jade and run off elsewhere with a foreigner, only to return years later, full of foreign ideas and education but initially determined not to get involved with either her family or the use of jade again. 

 

There's also a sub-plot involving a young thug who desperately wants jade for himself, despite the fact it will likely drive him crazy, as his paths cross with the family and he's eventually semi-responsible for the death of one of them. I hadn't realised till partway through that this is also the first book of a series and clearly this individual is going to continue to be a pain in everyone's arse in at least the next volume if not longer. 

 

It's clear that the writer has put a lot of work into the world-building for Jade City but for me, at least, there's a fine line between knowing your world and needing to tell the reader a bit too much about it. On more than one occasion, I found myself skimming past explanations of stuff that could have been more deftly handled than with a couple of paragraphs of info-dumping and that definitely affected how I rated this book. 

 

So, once again, I find myself understanding why other people might have loved this book but saying the literary equivalent of: it's not you, it's me. 

 

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.