“The Witchwood Crown” by Tad Williams

I was really looking forward to The Witchwood Crown after I got back into the world of Osten Ard earlier this year with Tad Williams’ excellent short novel The Heart of What Was Lost. It’s properly doorstop-sized and it follows a bunch of characters from the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy!

It’s been about thirty years since the events of the previous books and Osten Ard, ruled by High King and Queen Simon and Miriamele,  has been enjoying peace and stability. Things have been growing steadily worse as the terrible war of the Storm King begins to fade from memory – several kingdoms are facing internal political strife, contact with the Sithi has been lost, and Utuk’ku, the dark queen of the Norns, has woken and once again plots the destruction of humanity.

We follow several protagonists across Osten Ard as events come to a head: Osten Ard’s monarchs (and our old friends) Simon and Miriamele, their grandchildren Prince Morgan and Princess Lillia, other people from the Hayholt including the chancellor Lord Pasevalles, court members (and also old friends) Tiamak and Count Eolair, Norn engineer Viyeki (who we last met in The Heart of What Was Lost), his human concubine Tzoja and half-human daughter Nezeru, a couple of characters from the grasslands of Thrithings, a servant of the Duchess of Nabban, a mysterious Norn-hunter named Jarnulf… I might be forgetting some. This is an epic story affecting the whole world and it’s told through people living through events in a bunch of different places, and only the readers know the whole story of how they may all be connected.

I expected to plow through this book and stay up all night reading it but it was actually slow going. For the first few hundred pages of the book, it didn’t seem like anything was happening, I felt like I was reading a slice of life story, except not as interesting because it was actually about twenty different slice of life stories and we didn’t stick with any viewpoint for enough time for me to develop a real investment in the characters. The last third of the book is much better paced; things start to change rapidly, we get answers to burning questions, and we start to see all those disparate threads come together.

Another thing that disappointed me was how the characters from the first trilogy had aged and how that impacted the plot. Simon and Miri are old and grief-stricken from the loss of their son a few years prior to the events of the book, they seem almost unforgivably gullible to have not noticed all the trouble brewing around them – not a good quality for monarchs. Their grandson and heir Prince Morgan is utterly insufferable, he’s spoiled and petulant, and Simon and Miri don’t seem to know how to deal with him at all – everything they do is obviously going to fail, and I don’t know how they don’t realize that. I’m not saying this is bad writing, in fact it’s probably realistic that Simon and Miri aren’t going to be good at politicking or dealing with people that don’t have the inherent drive to be good (like Morgan), but it’s not very much fun to read about our old heroes being incompetent.

Other than those two (admittedly major) gripes, I thought The Witchwood Crown was a pretty good book. It’s certainly more nuanced the the original trilogy. I’m especially glad that the Norns are being given some definition and not just treated as faceless villains; between Tzoja, Nezeru, and Viyeki, we get a variety of perspectives into their culture and motivations. The prose is good, of course. And by the end of the book, I was intrigued by most of the plotlines enough to eagerly await the next book.  I hope it has better pacing and more competent characters, though.


The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams (The Last King of Osten Ard, #1)
DAW Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Legion of Flame” by Anthony Ryan

I loved The Waking Fire, the first book of this series – it sent me into an Anthony Ryan binge and I read his previous series as well (review coming eventually). I was glad that I’d read it so close to the release date of the next book so I didn’t have to wait too long to find out what happens next.

The Legion of Flame picks up pretty much where The Waking Fire left off and continues to follow Lizanne, Clay, and Hilemore. Lizanne is back home and is immediately sent on a spy/peace mission to the Corvantine Empire. Clay and Hilemore are still in Arradasia and are voyaging to the South Pole in an attempt to figure out how to save the world from the increasingly more likely dragon apocalypse. We also have some new PoV characters that provide more insight into the White dragon’s plans, I won’t say more about them to avoid spoilers.

I always find it hard to review sequels since (usually) pretty much everything about the first book applies to the sequel as well and I wouldn’t be reading the book at all if I hadn’t liked the first book. The Legion of Flame definitely expands the world, we see Mandinor and more of the Corvantine Empire (we do still have some insight into what’s happening in Arradasia though the new viewpoints). We learn more about dragons, their origins, and the history of the world, which I thought was pretty cool. I had some guesses about that and I was glad to see them vindicated.

My favorite plotline in the book was probably Lizanne’s, her mission has a very Escape from New York vibe to it and it’s fun to see her badassery grow. Clay and Hilemore get the more interesting worldbuilding though, and I liked that each of the viewpoints told a different kind of story. There are also some in-universe newspaper articles, etc. at various points, and I always enjoy those.

Overall, I thought The Legion of Flame was a solid sequel. However it does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m impatiently waiting for book 3.


The Legion of Flame by Anthony Ryan (The Draconis Memoria, #2)
Ace Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence

This review of Red Sister is long overdue, I read it way back in April but never got around to reviewing it since I was already backlogged on reviews. Luckily, it’s one of the best books that I read this year and I still remember it very well.

Red Sister follows Nona Grey, a young girl accused of a heinous crime and sent away from her home. She ends up at the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where children with the right heritage are taught to be deadly killers and powerful mages. She finds more than just a place to live, she is truly challenged for the first time, she uncovers parts of her personality she never knew had and makes friends closer than family. But Nona’s considerable talents and violent past put her in the middle of long-simmering power struggles within the church and the empire, and she makes quite a few enemies as well.

This book is one of my favorite sub-genres of fantasy, the coming of age and training of the main character. Most of Red Sister is set entirely in the convent, which seems likes it could get boring fast but ends up being utterly riveting. Nona is a great protagonist –  she can be pretty intense at times which makes her both scary and vulnerable, she’s got an interesting backstory, and she reacts like a real person to the things that happen around her (unlike many fantasy characters). It is a pleasure to watch her slowly transform from a mistrustful and hurt young girl to the confident and formidable person that she is at the end.

The most unique thing about this book is the way it depicts female friendships. I can think of a bunch of different books that have great male friendships (Riyria’s Royce and Hadrian, the Gentemen Bastards’ Locke and Jean, to name a couple) but I really can’t think of many books that draw attention to women who are friends. Red Sister doesn’t just focus on them, it makes them the core of the book – Nona’s friendships drive her to grow, provide a source of tension (without melodrama), and make for some pretty heartwarming moments. Yes, there’s a lot of intrigue and action, but none of it would matter if we didn’t care about these relationships so much.

I also really liked the world that this book was set in. It reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth books – it’s a world that’s slowly dying, and the people living in it now that have access to technology but any understanding of how it all works has been lost for generations.  So far, the state of the world hasn’t made much of an impact on Nona’s life, but I assume it will become more relevant in the next two books.

I can’t wait for the next book, Grey Sister, to come out! At least I haven’t read most of Mark Lawrence’s other work, so I have something to tide me over.


Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestor, #1)
Ace Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis

I’ve been binge reading the Dresden Files for the last month, and whenever I read a long series that I get really into, I almost invariably dislike the next book I read because it can’t compare to the bond I’ve built with the characters I’ve spent so much time with recently. The Guns Above is one of those few books that put the “almost” in the previous sentence, because despite the odds, I really liked it.

Josette Dupre has just become the first female airship captain in the history of the Garnian military, promoted for her distinction in battle by direct order of the king. This doesn’t sit too well with the the general in charge of the ongoing war and her new command ends up being an untested and probably dangerous airship. To make matters worse, she is ordered to take the general’s nephew, Lord Bernat, along as an observer on her mission to and she knows that his job is to report her behavior unfavorably no matter what she does.

This book reminded me a lot of the Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler – they have a similar technology level (minus the airships), and both are about women who are soldiers above everything else. The airships and how they work are described in loving detail, and it helps make the world feel lived-in. The plot is fairly basic, but it feels exciting because there’s a lot of action that’s very well done and uses the airships in ways unique to their design.

I am often skeptical of steampunk books because I’ve read a few of them that are great about describing the technology and world, but don’t do a great job with the characters. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that characterization was one of this book’s biggest strengths. All the characters seem like normal people, admirable in some ways, deeply annoying in others, and very relatable overall. Bernat is an insufferable jerk and never really ceases being one, but the author somehow manages to make him lovable somehow. Josette is witty, courageous, and determined to a fault, but the flip side of that is that her single-mindedness makes her pretty scary and/or mean on occasion. And even though she is relentless in the air, she’s still vulnerable when facing people with the power to take away what she loves. Both Josette and Bernat are both viewpoint characters, which is fun because for most of the book, they’re never more than a few feet from each other and so we’re getting wildly different perspectives on the same events in real time.

The Guns Above is the first of a series, but you wouldn’t know that from the ending, it tells a complete story without any cliffhangers. And it’s a debut novel, which I wouldn’t have guessed from how polished it is. I’ll definitely be reading further books in the series.


The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis (Signal Airship, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is not my usual genre, but one of my reading goals this year was to diversify my reading by reading at least ten fiction books that were not science fiction or fantasy When I saw it on the LibraryThing Early Reviewers list, I requested it because I’m interested in the Indian diaspora and I figured it would help get closer to my non-genre fiction goal (I’m doing terribly, including this one, I’ve read two so far this year).

Contrary to the title, this book is not erotica (although it does contain some). Nikki, a young British woman from a Punjabi family, works part-time as a bartender (to the consternation of her family) while she figures out what she wants to do with her life. To earn some extra money, she signs up to teach creative writing at the local Sikh community center. Due to a miscommunication, her students (mostly widows who are not expected have a social life) show up expecting to learn basic English skills. The class seems like it is heading into disaster but when Nikki’s students accidentally find a book of erotica that she bought as a joke, the ice is broken and the class transforms into a space where her students feel comfortable expressing ideas normally deemed taboo.

I didn’t know anything about the Sikh community of Southall, and the author does a good job of setting the atmosphere and making it feel like a whole world unto itself that I was interested in learning more about. The book alternates between the point of view of Nikki, who is modern/easy to relate to and Kulwinder (the woman who hired her), who is more traditional.  This helps readers understand Nikki’s students better as well since we have an outside perspective about the same events that Nikki is reacting to.

I didn’t find Nikki to be a compelling protagonist, I couldn’t get a sense of who she was as a person. She doesn’t have a lot of agency, most of the book is just her reacting to events happening around her. Even the evolution of her class is pretty much entirely driven by her students, I didn’t see what she contributed to it. I’m also not a big fan of romantic subplots unless they’re done very well, and the one in this book was fairly generic, and it had a bunch of drama around my least favorite trope – people refusing to talk to other people. Actually, the rest of the drama around Nikki’s students wasn’t very interesting, either, mainly because the characters didn’t draw me in enough to care what their secrets were. However, Kulwinder’s story and growth arc brought the book up a notch, it’s a little melodramatic but she’s a more unique character and that helps.

The book is interspersed with examples of erotica produced by Nikki’s class, which also helps liven the book up a bit and provides some humor. Overall, I thought this was a pretty decent book, although I didn’t love it.


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
William Morrow, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North

Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope become an unexpected favorite of mine and I’ve been looking forward to reading more by her. It seems like she writes about people with extraordinary abilities living in the modern world (under her Claire North pen name, anyway, I haven’t read her other work), and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August also follows that pattern.

Harry August is what’s known as a kalachakra or an ouroboran – whenever he dies, he ends up being reborn as the exact same person in the exact same time, and he repeats his life over and over again. As the name of the book implies, we follow Harry through his first fifteen lives. It’s written like a memoir, it’s in first person, and tends to jump around all over the place, just like a person telling a story.

One of the things I loved about both The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this book is the way that the person’s abilities are explored. I’ve read/watched many, many books and movies about people with unique abilities, and almost no one is portrayed as using them in a realistic way, and the psychological implications of the powers are rarely explored, too. Other than these Claire North books, the only other portrayal that makes sense to me is Steven Gould’s Jumper series. The Cronus Club and the kind of amenities they provide for their members, and most of the the ways that Harry spends his lives make total sense – I could see myself doing that, too.

Even though Harry August is special, the book is not really about that, it’s a fairly simple story with a fantastic backdrop. I don’t want to say more about the overall plot because the slow reveal is part of what makes the book great. The first half of the book seems to be Harry just recollecting random snippets of his lives, but it all falls into place in the second half. That made for a focused and tight story, which I did enjoy but part of me also wished the whole book was Harry just talking about his various lives without much of a point because that was so interesting too.

I’m excited that I have two more Claire North novels to go – Touch and The End of the Day. And after that, maybe I’ll start reading her Catherine Webb and Kate Griffin books!


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Redhook, 2014 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Summer Dragon” by Todd Lockwood

Todd Lockwood is one of my favorite fantasy/science-fiction illustrators, and I especially love the covers that he did for the Memoirs of Lady Trent series (which are all about dragons – see here and here for cover images!) When I found out that he was writing a new fantasy series featuring dragons, I was pretty excited to read it.

Growing up on a dragon aerie, Maia has long looked forward to having a dragon of her own, and this might be the year. She’s old enough to start training a dragon, and there are more dragons qits than are needed to fill the usual government quota – even if they are at war. The routine yearly visit from the Dragonry to pick up their qits gets complicated when Maia sees the Summer Dragon, a symbol of an ancient faith suppressed by the empire. And to make things worse, the empire’s enemies are targeting aeries, so Maia’s home has suddenly become a dangerous place to be.

It took me a while to get into this book (as with most books written from a first-person perspective), but I ended up liking it quite a bit. Maia is a terrific protagonist, she’s smart, stubborn, and brave. Her stubbornness drives much of the story, and sometimes it makes her a little bit insufferable, but that’s okay because most people are. We see all the other characters from her perspective so they’re not as developed as her, but they’re still fairly nuanced. Some characters seem like standard archetypes at first but end up surprising you later.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding, there are layers of history that all interact with each other in a realistic way, and that makes the world feel lived in, rather than just being there to support the story. There’s a lot of political intrigue, which I love in fantasy, and I thought it was well done here. The plot is mostly predictable, but there are a couple of interesting turns that I didn’t see coming. One of the things I appreciated was that even though the book featured a teenage protagonist growing up in an isolated area of the world, Maia didn’t actually have to leave home or go on a long journey to find adventure, she did it while having her home and family nearby. Oh, and of course I have to mention the illustrations, there are several of them and they’re by the author, so they’re fantastic.

I’m looking forward to reading further books in the series. I hope the next book comes out soon!


The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood (The Evertide, #1)
DAW Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Assassin’s Fate” by Robin Hobb

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the previous books in the Realm of the Elderlings series.


Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books are one of my favorite fantasy series’ ever, and the ones featuring Fitz even more so. Assassin’s Fate is the ninth book featuring Fitz (and the sixteenth book overall), so I already knew what it was going to be like and that I would love it.

Assassin’s Fate picks up where Fool’s Quest left off – Fitz and the Fool are in Kelsingra on their way to Clerres (the home of the White Prophets and their Servants), seeking revenge for Bee’s abduction and presumed death. Bee is also on her way to Clerres, dragged along against her will by the Servant Dwalia. This has been the longest journey in the books so far, but the events of this book makes it all worth it. We’ve been seeing the corruption of Clerres and its effect on the Fool for many, many books now, and the conclusion of that arc is deeply fulfilling.

I’ve been worried about where Fitz would end up in this book, I intuited that it would be the end of his story (although I was desperately hoping I’d be wrong) because of the title of the book as well as some of Bee’s dreams from previous books. I don’t want to the spoil the book so I’m not going to confirm or deny my suspicions, but I will say that the ending is more than satisfactory, and that this is one of the rare books that I’ll admit made me cry (and it’s not just me, the Assassin’s Fate discussion on the Robin Hobb subreddit was full of people saying they cried).

I’m not sure what Hobb is writing next, but I hope it’s another book in this world. I’ll happily read whatever she writes though.


Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb (The Fitz and the Fool, #3)
Del Rey, 2017 | Buy the book


“City of Miracles” by Robert Jackson Bennett

I enjoyed the first two Divine Cities books (see my reviews of City of Stairs and City of Blades) so I was looking forward to see how City of Miracles wrapped up the story.

This series changes protagonists in every installment, and this one is narrated by ex-spy and ex-royalty Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who was a secondary character in both the previous books. After the events of City of Blades, Sigrud has been working menial jobs and trying to stay hidden, waiting for Shara to find him somehow and give him a new assignment. When Shara is suddenly assassinated, he gains a purpose at last – finding Shara’s killer – but following that trail tumbles him into a covert war against a angry young god.

Just like the earlier two books, this one tells a self-contained story. It also wraps up the overarching plot arc of the six original Divinities in a satisfying manner. I wasn’t even sure what the overarching plot arc was, since the books seem designed to be standalones, but it was obvious by the end of the book and a lot of things from earlier made sense in retrospect.

I didn’t find Sigrud to be a particularly compelling character in the last two books so I was dreading his point of view a little bit. I should have trusted the author, though, because Sigrud from the inside is quite different from observing him through other characters’ eyes. We get to see what goes through his head when other characters only see him being silent and emotionless, and he’s much more sympathetic than I originally gave him credit for. I was similarly skeptical about the idea of Shara being dead (especially offscreen!), but the author handled that very well, too.

One of the things I love most about these books is the world – the Divinities and the way they manifest are unique and weird and wonderful. City of Miracles expands our understanding of the world and the mechanics of how the divine powers work even more, which was great. And the setting itself is interesting – a post-colonial era where everything has recently industrialized, and new engineering projects are far more likely to be brought up than magic, even though magic is more obviously present.

I feel like my enjoyment of these books kind of snuck up on me, but now I think of the series as one of the most innovative and original fantasy I’ve read. If you haven’t read this series already, I recommend starting with City of Stairs for the full impact.


City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities, #3)
Broadway Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

I don’t usually read much nonfiction, but I was interested in Evicted because a few of the people I follow on LibraryThing wrote rave reviews of it on their threads. When it popped up on LibraryThing Early Reviewers, I requested it, and I was surprised to actually end up winning a copy. Also, in the time between reading it and writing a review, apparently it has won the Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction this year.

Evicted follows eight families and their landlords in Milwaukee as they go through the eviction process. The families and the reasons they end up evicted are quite different, but we get a clear picture of their lives and how they ended up where they are. We feel their anxiety and hopelessness, and it’s very hard not to sympathize with them, even when they make impulsive decisions that seem like they’re going to make things worse.

I would say that this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, perhaps all time. Most non-fiction books annoy me because they seem to have an idea that they’re pushing and pull in only the relevant facts, but Desmond presents events as they happen without too much commentary (he actually lived in two different low-income neighbourhoods for a year and most of the conversations recounted in the book are transcribed verbatim from audio recordings.) By focusing on the lives of both tenants and landlords, the book paints a balanced picture without moral judgment.

Desmond doesn’t just tell us individual stories, he also connects it to larger patterns and weaves in general research based on surveying over a thousand poor families. He makes a convincing case that evictions disrupt people’s lives extensively, making it much harder for them to escape poverty. He also shows how existing fair housing laws don’t always work as designed – for instance, landlords can evict tenants for causing a “nuisance”, which means calling the police too often. This means that in practice, women suffering domestic abuse often risk eviction by seeking help.

The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on solutions – there is a single chapter advocating a potential solution, but the main purpose is just to highlight the problem. I’m not sure what the answers are either,  but I think more people need to read this book so we can have a conversation about it. I’m also looking for recommendations for similar books (in style and tone), so please comment if you know of any!


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.