“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.


“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.


“The Waking Fire” by Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan has been on my wishlist for a long time, so I was excited to receive a copy of The Waking Fire from Ace recently. I’ve been reading a lot of books about dragons recently (Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood, which I still need to review), so I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this one just yet, but I succumbed to the back cover blurb.

We follow three protagonists – Lizanne, a covert agent for the Ironship company, Hilemore, a naval officer serving on a cutting-edge new ship, and Clay, a petty criminal recruited by Lizanne’s company for a dangerous expedition. Drake blood, which grants “Blood-blessed” humans special powers, has been dwindling in potency rapidly. To avoid a disastrous economic collapse, the Ironship company is organizing an expedition into the interior of the colonized Arradisian continent to find a fabled new variety of drake. This new White drake isn’t just a simple animal, though, and waking it up proves to be dangerous.

There’s a lot going on this book, all three protagonists have pretty different stories, and I don’t think my summary covered it all.  Clay is on a standard fantasy quest, Lizanne’s plot is all about espionage and war , and Hilemore seems like he’s straight out of a more traditional military fantasy. All three of them tie together to tell a larger story about a rational and ordered world that’s suddenly going crazy. The world really pulled me in, there’s a bunch of corporations pursuing profit, a simple but versatile magic system, an ambitious empire, cunning pirates, fearsome warriors, and lots of cool dragons. The action scenes were particularly well-done, I could almost see the movie in my head, and I usually just glaze over those kinds of scenes in books.

I did have a couple of issues with the book, mainly with the characters. Sometimes I felt like they just did stuff, and I didn’t have any insight into why they were making the decisions they did. It was never bad enough to take me out of the story, but unlike more character driven books, I can’t really describe the characters’ personalities, just their actions. The book also wasn’t as tight as it could have been – Hilemore’s story didn’t tie into Lizanne and Clay’s until the last minute, and I’m still not sure what the significance of his experiences is to the larger story. I also hope the initial premise of drake blood losing potency will be explored in future books, it ended up being overshadowed by larger events.

I feel like I’ve read a lot of the great fantasy authors writing today, so I’m always excited to discover someone new, and Anthony Ryan seems like he could definitely be one of them. I’m glad I only have a little over a month until The Legion of Flame comes out, and I’ve also ordered Blood Song, the first book of the author’s previous trilogy, to help me wait.


The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan (The Draconis Memoria, #1)
Ace Books, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Sins of Empire” by Brian McClellan

Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy is one of my favorite new fantasy series’, and I’ve been looking forward to the new trilogy set in the same world ever since Brian talked about it in my interview with him a couple of years ago. And now it’s finally out, and I’ve read it, and I thought it was even better than the first trilogy!

The new country of Fatrasta is ruled with an iron fist by the Lady Chancellor Lindet. Her secret police, the Blackhats, are almost everywhere, and where intimidation and arrests won’t work, there are mercenary companies. The famed powder mage Vlora leads one of these companies, and is suddenly called back from the frontier to deal with an insurgency within the capital city of Landfall. Of course, the insurgency isn’t as simple as it seems, and the long isolated Dynize Empire appears to be stirring again. It’s up to Vlora, her Blackhat liaison Michel Bravis, and disgraced Fatrastan war hero Ben Styke to figure out what exactly is going on and what it means for Fatrasta.

Sins of Empire is the start of a new standalone trilogy, and you can definitely read it without reading the Powder Mage trilogy – it’s set on an entirely different continent and only shares a few characters. That being said, I have read the Powder Mage books, so I’m going to be referencing them in this review (without spoilers.)

I love the flintlock fantasy subgenre in general, and the world of these books in particular. The gunpowder based magic system is one of the coolest ideas that recent fantasy has produced – I’m not sure why I love it so much, but it probably has something to do with why I also love Westerns and cheesy action movies. Anyway, there are guns, there are printing presses and penny dreadfuls, there’s exploration of colonialism without making anyone the bad guy. The world seems like it’s vibrant and changing quickly, and it really jumps off the page.

The characters are memorable – I already mentioned that there’s no cardboard cut out good guys and bad guys, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is morally ambiguous. There are antagonists, but you understand what makes them what they are. Vlora is an unusually compelling protagonist, she’s a veteran soldier in a committed relationship, she’s already pretty badass, but she’s also flawed and she knows it. Michel Bravis is a weaselly guy, but you’d expect that from a professional informant. Characters like him usually end up being sidekicks or useful friends for the protagonist to have, so he makes a fascinating viewpoint character too. Ben Styke is the most conventional protagonist, but he’s also well done, and I always looked forward to his segments too. Readers of the original trilogy will see some unexpected but welcome familiar faces (I totally called one of the characters the first time they appeared, which is probably useless information in a review, but I’m proud of myself and had to share it.)

The pacing is probably the weakest point of the book, but I’d only call it weak if I was trying really hard to find something negative to say. For the first half of the book, I had no idea what was going on or what the ultimate plot of the book was going to be, but once things started falling into place, the revelations kept coming. My only major complaint is that I want to find out what happens next, and I don’t know when the next book is coming out.


Sins of Empire by Brian McClellan (Gods of Blood and Powder, #1)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Green Rider” by Kristen Britain

Karigan G’ladheon has just been suspended from her school for getting into a fight with an influential noble’s son. As she’s making her way home, she runs into a dying messenger who asks her to deliver his message to the king. She agrees, but what she thinks will be a simple journey turns into something much bigger when she is chased by agents of a mysterious power and encounters magic that she thought was long dead.

If I had one word to describe Green Rider, it would be “mediocre”. It is a pretty standard fantasy novel – we have the reluctant hero with latent magical powers, a long journey where the hero is chased by a representative of a long-dead evil, an intelligent mount, etc. In concept it’s probably most similar to Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. I usually don’t have a problem with fantasy clichés (see my review of The Shadow of What Was Lost for example), but I don’t think this book ever rose beyond its clichés.  Karigan was an extremely bland protagonist, even after reading the entire book, I couldn’t tell you anything about her personality. Other characters seemed to just do whatever the plot required of them.

I don’t think I will be continuing with other books in this series.


Green Rider by Kristen Britain (Green Rider, #1)
DAW Books, 1998 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Discount Armageddon” by Seanan McGuire

Discount Armageddon is the first book of the InCryptid urban fantasy series by Seanan McGuire. We follow Verity Price, a member of a family that has dedicated their lives to protecting the cryptid (monster) community (which also includes hunting the cryptids that become a threat to humans.) Verity has moved to New York City to try and decide between her two burgeoning careers – ballroom dance and cryptozoology, but her life becomes more complicated when a member of the Covenant (a rival society that takes a more hardline attitude towards cryptids) arrives in town, and then cryptids start disappearing mysteriously.

Urban fantasy is not my favorite genre – perhaps because cities and sexy clothes/hairdos and nightclubs and so on don’t really appeal to me, even as wish fulfillment. I did enjoy Jacqueline Carey’s Agent of Hel series, but that was more small-town fantasy than urban fantasy. But I’ve heard great things about Seanan McGuire, so I wanted to give this series a go.

As far as urban fantasy goes, Discount Armageddon was pretty good. Verity is a fun protagonist, she’s your typical sexy badass girl who carries a lot of weapons and knows how to use them while looking fabulous all the time (although she does get covered in blood and sewer-juice fairly often.) The central adventure was okay, although I felt like it was a little anticlimactic because the villains were all faceless and we didn’t get to know their motivations very well.

I really didn’t understand Verity’s relationship with her love interest, Dominic, who is supposed to be this cultish killer, but instead ends up being hot, interested in her, and willing to sacrifice all his beliefs that he’s grown up with pretty much instantly. Also, I found the character of Sarah somewhat inconsistent, she’s constantly described as an awkward mathematician, but nothing she said seemed that awkward or nerdy or mathematical to me (other than the one reference to Babylon 5, which I appreciated.) I mean, I know urban fantasy is supposed to be dumb fun, so maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Speaking of reading too much into things, I had so many questions about the world that were not satisfactorily answered. Why are certain animals classified as cryptids but others are just normal animals? – sapience doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it. How do cryptids keep themselves secret if there are so many different species of them? Why doesn’t the Covenant have a permanent presence in the U.S.? Why is this book called Discount Armageddon, other than it being a cool name? And so on…

It’s a good thing that I have questions because it means that I’m into the series enough to think about it. I’ll probably read the next book in the series fairly soon.


Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire (InCryptid, #1)
DAW Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


Abandoned: “Crossroads of Canopy” by Thoraiya Dyer

I’ve never reviewed a book I didn’t finish, but I figured I should start doing it because it’s still useful information for readers. So here’s the first one – Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer.

Crossroads of Canopy is set in Canopy, a treetop city divided into thirteen niches, each the home of a god. Souls enter the body of its inhabitants at birth, and anyone could end up being the reincarnation of a god. In order to escape her parents plan to sell her into slavery, Unar, a young girl from a destitute family, volunteers to serve at the Garden of Audblayin, the goddess of growth and fertility. She has high hopes for her future, but as they are repeatedly dashed, she is forced to venture outside Canopy to seek glory.

I really thought I would like this book – it has a unique fantasy world and a female protagonist coming of age, and it took me a while (and reading another review) to figure out why I didn’t. Unar is unlikeable – she’s selfish, ambitious, and impetuous, but she’s played straight as the hero. Her constant sexual fantasizing about someone who is literally incapable of returning her desires skeeved me out too. I didn’t care about any of the other characters either, and so I didn’t care what happened to them. I stopped reading about halfway through, and there was still no larger plot established, it just seemed like The Adventures of Unar Seeking Fame.

Maybe Unar gets better in the second half of the book, and maybe she learns more about herself and becomes a better person – I’m not sure. I did skip ahead and read a little bit of the end, and it seemed like she did learn something. I was already disinvested and frustrated by that point, though.

I feel bad writing this review – Crossroads of Canopy is definitely not badly written or executed.  I’ve disliked a few other recent books that many other people have loved (A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, Updraft and Cloudbound by Fran Wilde), and this book reminded me of those, although I’m still struggling to articulate what they all have in common. If you liked one of those books, maybe you’ll like this one more than me.


Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer (Titan's Forest, #1)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


Reread: “Theft of Swords” by Michael J. Sullivan

My recent reads of Age of Myth and the three Riyria Chronicles have put me in a very Royce-and-Hadrian mood, so I figured I would go back to where it all began and reread the Riyria Revelations series. These books were the first one published about the world of Elan, although they’re the latest by internal chronology. I got the whole series from Orbit in 2015 and really enjoyed them, but I raced through them too quickly to review them properly.

The Riyria Revelations was originally self-published as six novels. When Orbit bought the rights, they released the books in three volumes, each containing two books. Theft of Swords is the first of these, combining the first two books The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha.

Royce, a cynical ex-assassin, and Hadrian, an idealistic master swordsman, call themselves Riyria. Riyria specializes in solving impossible problems for mostly rich people – stealing a lady’s private diary from a locked tower for her lover to save face, that sort of thing.

In The Crown Conspiracy, when they’re offered a huge amount of money for stealing a sword, they break their usual roles to take the job. Of course, it’s too good to be true and they end up being framed for the murder of the king. But this is Riyria, and the conspirators who framed them get far more than they bargained for. The Crown Conspiracy is a pretty standard fantasy story, it feels standalone, and probably would be if it didn’t introduce so many characters that are important later. There’s a spoiled prince, an independent princess, kidnappings, treachery, a mysterious wizard, and so on. The crisis is averted by the end, and Royce and Hadrian think nothing more of it.

Avempartha picks up a couple of years later, and (in case the title of the book didn’t make this obvious) once again involves Royce and Hadrian being hired to steal a sword. This time they’re hired by a poor peasant girl, Thrace, to retrieve the only weapon that can kill a magical creature plaguing her village from an impregnable elven fortress. To add to the mystery, Thrace was told how to find them by the mysterious wizard in the first book that Royce and Hadrian haven’t heard from in years. This book starts exploring the central mystery of the Riyria Revelations a lot more, and there’s more magic, evil plans, and so on, but not everything is resolved by the end. It’s still mostly a satisfying standalone story, but there are threads left dangling. Characters from the first book – Arista, Mauvin, and Fanen, among others return, and they’re welcome.

A few other thoughts:

  • I remember Arista being much more annoying from my previous read. Maybe it’s in the next couple of books? She’s still mostly in her comfort zone so far, and I don’t remember what happens next exactly, but I don’t think it’s good for her.
  • Royce is a lot nicer than he is in the Riyria Chronicles, which is nice to see. He doesn’t even seem to be totally serious about killing people anymore.
  • Hilfred is a far more poignant character after reading The Rose and the Thorn.
  • Thrace’s story arc is probably my favorite (from what I remember), I’m looking forward to reading that.

If you haven’t already read this series and you’re a fan of cozy fantasy with some great twists, I recommend you pick it up!


Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan (The Riyria Revelations, #1)
Orbit Books, 2011 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The Crown Tower” by Michael J. Sullivan

Reading Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan made me want to go back (to the future!) and read some more Riyria. I’ve read the entirety of the Riyria Revelations series, but I hadn’t read any of the standalone Riyria Chronicles yet – starting with this book, The Crown Tower. I don’t have any of the Riyria Revelations books reviewed because I raced through them so fast, so I’m forcing myself to go slower with this series.

The Crown Tower is the origin story of Riyria – it tells the story of how Royce and Hadrian first met and their first adventure together – robbing the Patriarch of the Nyphron church. Gwen is also a viewpoint character, and the book covers how she met Royce and Hadrian as well. I don’t remember the minor details of the Riyria Revelations books enough to comment on how much of this story is referenced in them (if at all), but some of the major plot points are definitely foreshadowed.

I enjoyed this book. More Royce and Hadrian is never a bad thing, and it was interesting meeting them when they aren’t quite the people I was used to. There isn’t really much of an antagonist – the conflict is just Royce and Hadrian’s intense dislike of each other. There are people after them, but it’s not personal.

I was a little disappointed at how little control Royce and Hadrian had over their meeting – they are literally forced together by Arcadius. Gwen displays a little more initiative, but she is also bound by prophecy. I would have been much less sympathetic to how everything happened if I hadn’t read the Riyria Revelations series, so I would definitely recommend reading that series first, starting with Theft of Swords.

Now that I’ve reviewed this, I can go ahead and read The Rose and the Thorn!


The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan (The Riyria Chronicles, #1)
Orbit Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.