“Paradox Bound” by Peter Clines

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately because I’ve been really busy at work. I hadn’t read anything by Peter Clines before, but when Paradox Bound showed up in the mail one day billed as an “outrageously fun time-travel adventure”, it seemed like the perfect book to get me out of my slump.

Eli Teague lives in the small, dead-end town of Sanders in Maine. He has an uneventful life working as the IT manager for the local bank and he’s fairly content except for one thing – he keeps thinking about Harry, the mysterious stranger he met twice years and years ago. When Harry shows up in Sanders a third time, he wants answers. But that conversation doesn’t go anything like he planned and he finds himself pulled into a whole new world beyond his wildest imaginations – a hidden society of time travelers, faceless (and murderous) men, and the truth behind the American Dream.

This book lived up to its “outrageously fun” marketing; it’s fast paced, it has an interesting world, and the characters are entertaining. I enjoyed the mechanics of how time travel works. Magic systems that are based on deriving power from the identity of objects or places are fascinating (one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, does this a lot) and pretty much everything magical in this book fits that description. Most fantasy books I read derive their inspiration from ancient or medieval cultures and myths so it was refreshing to see America’s own mythos come to life, complete with folk heroes like John Henry.

I would love to see a movie version of this book, it reads like a sci-fi action movie (one of my favorite genres). I kept imagining how scenes from it would look like, which is pretty rare for me. I’m not sure how to explain why a book felt like a movie – I think part of it was that its structure. It tells a simple story with only a few characters, but it’s tight and cohesive and almost everything you learn becomes relevant later in the book. The characters aren’t too complicated but Eli has a solid and satisfying arc.

I’ll definitely be checking out more of Peter Clines’ work. I’ll also be posting an interview with Peter Clines and giving away two copies of Paradox Bound soon, so keep your eyes out. I’ll link it here once that post is up.


Paradox Bound by Peter Clines
Crown, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve been looking forward to the release of The Stone Sky ever since I read the previous books in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, (both of which have now won the Best Novel Hugo!) earlier this year. I devoured it as soon as I received it and it’s just as good as I thought it would be.

I don’t want to say too much about the story, it’s the third book of the series so pretty much everything is a spoiler. The Stone Sky does add a new viewpoint and it’s probably the most fascinating one so far. We explore the history of the world and how exactly it ended up being the way it is. We see things from the perspectives of Essun and her daughter Nassun, of course, they are the heart of the book.

The end of The Obelisk Gate had mother and daughter on a collision course (somewhat literally) and I wasn’t sure how the book would wrap up the story in a satisfying way because both characters were equally sympathetic, they’d both been through more than their fair share of horrible things. The conclusion was completely satisfying though, now that I’ve read it, I can’t imagine how else it would have ended.

Like the previous books, this book is sometimes agonizing to read, Much of fantasy focuses on the best things about people (honorable, idealistic, heroic, etc.) but this book does the opposite. It shows people at their worst, but not unrealistically so (I wouldn’t call it “grimdark”), and some of things that Essun and Nassun do and have done to them is quite unpleasant to read about. But there are still uplifting moments, and that’s even more hopeful than always seeing people as good because you see humans do good things even when everything around them is terrible.

N.K. Jemisin’s next project is apparently a contemporary Lovecraftian fantasy series set in New York, and I can’t wait for that to come out.


The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth, #3)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


Book series review: Raven’s Shadow by Anthony Ryan

I’ve been meaning to read Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow series for a long time but kept putting it off because so many people said the second and third books didn’t live up to the promise of the first one. After reading The Waking Fire (the first book of his new series), I wanted more so I decided to finally make the plunge.

The first book, Blood Song, follows Vaelin Al Sorna from his initiation into the religious/militaristic Sixth Order at the age of ten through his meteoric rise to become the most famous (or infamous, depending on who you’re talking to) warrior in the known world. I have a bias towards fantasy books about school/training/coming of age and this is a great example of that sub-genre, similar to Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. Vaelin is a terrific protagonist, he’s a natural leader but works hard for what he gets, he never seems like a Mary Sue character despite the accolades he receives. The plot is fine but it is dwarfed by the great characterization and emotional arc.

The next two books, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire are a total change of pace, the story shifts to being about the events happening across the entire world and we get a bunch of new viewpoint characters. Vaelin is still among them, but he’s done most of his growing in the first book so his viewpoints are more boring – his role is now just being the wise mentor figure and/or fearsome enemy to everyone else in the story.

I’m conflicted about how I feel about this changed structure, it makes sense that the author wanted to tell a broader story about saving the world, but that makes the book seem more generic because the wonderful character arc of a single viewpoint character is what made it stand out in the first place. The new viewpoint characters are fine but they suffer in comparison to Vaelin because we can’t spend as much time with them – Vaelin got a whole book to himself – and so they seem much less fleshed out.

The way the story wrapped up in Queen of Fire definitely had problems, significant characters from previous books were dropped with no resolution of their fates, the main plot with the war felt more and more improbable and much too easily resolved, and overall, it just didn’t offer enough satisfaction. Knowing that this was the conclusion that was being set up made me like the previous books less. I think the series is worth reading for Blood Song, though.


Blood Song by Anthony Ryan (Raven's Shadow, #1)
Ace Books, 2013 | Buy the book


Book series review: The Dresden Files (1-15) by Jim Butcher

I’ve owned the first eight Dresden Files books for a couple of years now and I kept meaning to read them and never getting around to it. I did read the first book, Storm Front, a few years ago but didn’t love it enough to continue (I didn’t dislike it either, I just kept getting distracted by other books). I also haven’t been compelled by most urban fantasy that I’ve read so I figured the genre just wasn’t for me. One of my colleagues at work is a huge fan of the series, though, and talking about it with him nudged me into finally reading those eight books on my shelf… and then buying the next seven, and the anthology of Dresden stories, and all the Dresden graphic novels.

The Dresden Files is a series of novels featuring Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in Chicago. He’s basically a private investigator but he can do things that ordinary people can’t do. The world of the books is superficially identical to our own, but there is a thriving community of magic users and/or non-humans under the surface (faeries, werewolves, vampires, ghouls, gods, dragons, and so on, pretty standard for its genre). Of course all the cases that Dresden gets ends up involving magic in some way, and many of them come from his work as a consultant for the Chicago police department.

I stand by my original assessment of the first book – Storm Front is decent but it definitely feels like a debut novel. In comparison to the later books, Dresden’s character seems a little rough, like the author was trying out a couple of different personalities for him but hadn’t figured out who exactly he was yet. It’s a stereotypical pulpy police procedural – guy with special powers partnered with a spunky female cop solving a series of murders involving (among other things) gore and wild orgies. But I was prepared for that since I’d read it before and people on the internet said the series really hit its stride a couple of books in, so I kept reading.

The second book, Fool Moon was better than the first but didn’t quite have me drawn in yet (all the different types of werewolves showing up in a single story seemed contrived, among other issues). I don’t think I was eager to read more until the end of the third book, so far the series had just seemed like a run-of-the-mill procedural, but Grave Peril didn’t have Karrin Murphy (the female cop) in it much at all, showing that it wasn’t going to keep following the same format. And the ending showed that the series wasn’t afraid to take risks and change things up. I felt like I was actually getting to know the characters and that they were realistic and would grow over the books.

After that I was pretty much hooked. One of the things I didn’t like about previous urban fantasy that I’ve read was that they seemed to take more inspiration from mystery novels than fantasy. I love Agatha Christie, for example, but Miss Marple or Poirot don’t change very much over the course of their stories, the fun of the books is in the solving of the crime. My favorite genres are epic fantasy and science fiction and a large part of why I love them is that they build interesting worlds and have characters that often have to come of age or rise to the occasion; their emotional growth is an integral part of the story. The Dresden Files has the best of both worlds, it does have investigative elements, but Harry and all the supporting characters all change in response to the events around them and not always in good ways.

Harry is not a perfect character, he’s got serious flaws and he’s aware of some of them. He’s not an anti-hero but he doesn’t always do the right thing (there often isn’t even a right thing) and the books don’t sugarcoat that. The people around him seem just as real, I can’t think of a single character who hasn’t made a serious mistake. Even characters that seemed stereotypical when they were first introduced (e.g. the tough female cop, the perfect Christian knight, the organized crime boss) are completely altered now.

I’ve mentioned that the series isn’t afraid to change things up, but it takes it to a (good) extreme in the twelfth book, aptly titled Changes. It turns Harry’s life upside down and the books after it breathe new life into the series while still being familiar enough to be cozy. And it’s not just the characters that change, the world gets more dangerous over the course of the books (and not just because Harry learns more and becomes a stronger wizard), it’s clearly building up to a larger conflict. This makes sense given what the author has said about the series – there are going to be around 20 standalone “single case” books and then a “big apocalyptic trilogy” at the end.

The only downside to these books is that the series is probably not going to be finished for at least a decade or more, I’m glad I got into it after 15 of the books were already out. But it’s not like there’s a shortage of books to read while waiting.


Storm Front by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, #1)
Roc, 2000 | Buy the book


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“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 free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.