Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Category: Reviews Page 1 of 25

The Last Last Binding Book

A Power Unbound by Freya Marske, expected publication 07 November, 2023.

The third book in The Last Binding trilogy brings the conclusion to the trilogy that all the fans have hoped for. I was crestfallen when I did not get approved for an eARC, but did a very happy happy dance when I was approved for the audiobook ARC last week. (Ask Hatchling#2, she watched the embarrassing drama unfold in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi section of a bookshop.)

I admit, I was sceptical about this third book in the series. Would all the unanswered questions from the previous books be answered? Would Jack find his HEA that was slightly hinted at in the second book? Would the last pieces of the Last Contract be found? Well, I am not going to spoil the story, I am going to smile like the Cheshire Cat and say: Ms Marske, you’ve done an excellent job!

The audiobook was so well-narrated, I could immerse myself in the story and find out the answers to the above questions without once correcting the narrator’s pronunciation. Not that I am an expert, but some words tend to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when mispronounced. So, kudos to Josh Dylan and the recording team for making this the first audiobook in a very long time that I enjoyed from the first sentence to the last.

I am curious to see what Freya Marske is writing next. Meanwhile I am going to find out which other books Josh Dylan has narrated, because I might have found a new favourite voice to listen to.

5/5 Harpy Eagles; will definitely continue to recommend this series and can’t wait for my pre-ordered “shelf-trophy” to arrive in November.

Stale Fantasy Office Romance

Assistant to the Villain by Hannah Nicole Maehrer, published 29 August 2023.

BookTok has a lot to answer for. This was so subpar for a supposedly hilarious sunshine-grump-fantasy/romance. It reads like late-middle-grade/YA, but is an adult book. It is full of banter between Mr Villain and Ms Assistant, but hilarious? It has a few quirky secondary characters, including a sentient frog with cue cards, but overall I wish I had spent my time with a different book.

There is no world-building. This might suit the people who followed the original TikTok series, because they know what they are in for, but I expected more information. This could have worked as an Urban Fantasy, yet that would require an explanation of the magic system, too. Or just leave out the magic and sentient animal sidekick and interchange castle with skyscraper, villain with billionaire, king with business rival and this could have been a grumpy-billionaire and ditzy-assistant office romance.

Ms Assistant is the YA heroine archetype: nothing much to look at (wait till she puts on a ‘gown’ and takes out the scrunchie though), only breadwinner in the family, has only one female friend (whose name we learn), has a gorgeous bully as arch-nemesis. Mr Villain is a handsome hunk of evil villain. Why is he an evil villain? Because the story says so, also there are severed heads hanging from the ceiling (bulk order from Villains’R’Us to create some ambience?). The backstory that explains, in part, why Mr Villain is villainous comes too late in the story; a few pages before the cliffhanger ending.

My initial 2/5 Harpy Eagles were too generous. I’m going to change the rating to 1/5 Harpy Eagles.

Ghostbusting in San Francisco

Ebony Gate by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle, published 11 July 2023.

Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle's Ebony Gate is a female John Wick story with dragon magic set in contemporary San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Emiko Soong belongs to one of the eight premier magical families of the world. But Emiko never needed any magic. Because she is the Blade of the Soong Clan. Or was. Until she’s drenched in blood in the middle of a market in China, surrounded by bodies and the scent of blood and human waste as a lethal perfume.

The Butcher of Beijing now lives a quiet life in San Francisco, importing antiques. But when a shinigami, a god of death itself, calls in a family blood debt, Emiko must recover the Ebony Gate that holds back the hungry ghosts of the Yomi underworld. Or forfeit her soul as the anchor.

What's a retired assassin to do but save the City by the Bay from an army of the dead?

This book was advertised to me as John Wick meets Ghostbusters with Asian Mythology. My mind conjured a female badass assassin in a grey jumpsuit fighting marshmallow-shaped ghosts with energy-boosted Samurai swords. This is definitely not what the book is like, but somehow it also is.

Emiko is a badass female MC, who definitely knows how to wield a sword and catch ghosts. Pressed for time she and a motley crew of sidekicks, ranging from cute but lethal foo-pet to martial arts fighters disguised as art collectors, she sets out to recover the Ebony Gate before all hell literally breaks loose.

Since this is the first book in a series, we get world-building that sometimes drags down the story. The action scenes make up for this, in my opinion. Some reviewers remarked that the writing style is repetitive and that it’s obvious the book was written by two authors. Fortunately, I listened to the audiobook and the narrator, Natalie Naudus, did an excellent job. That’s why the repetitive nature of the writing and the slower parts didn’t influence my enjoyment of the story as much as they would have had I read a physical copy of the book.

4/5 Harpy Eagles – 3 for the story and writing, plus 1 for the audiobook narration.

Octopuses and Pandemics

The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller, published 20 April 2023.

There is a terrible pandemic. It might be the zombie apocalypse. Neffy has volunteered to take part in a drug trial to find a vaccine against this weird form of dropsy. Told from her perspective the story follows the first days in the trial’s weird hospital ward, interspersed with letters to “H” that include a lot of octopus factoids. Soon the drug trial starts.

What follows is more 28 Days Later than I Am Legend, plus Lord of the Flies/Big Brother style group dynamics.

There is also a weird, and totally unexplained and absolutely unnecessary, memory device that Neffy uses to relive her memories; why, Claire Fuller, why? Flashbacks or drug (trial) related dreams weren’t an option?

The story ends much later than it made sense to me. This ending was probably supposed to be the optimistic outlook of the rather pessimistic novel, but it felt off to me.

2.5/5 Harpy Eagles

The Death I Gave Him by Em X. Liu

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Death I Gave Him (published 12 September 2023) is a Sci-Fi thriller that leans towards the hard side of Sci-Fi. The prosaic, matter-of-fact style of writing, using chat excerpts, transcripts and third person POV narration, poignantly conveys the story’s topics of depression, fear of death and guilt.

The main romantic relationship is between a man and a genderless AI. This offers an interesting new view on how human-AI romance might work; yet, anyone who expects “a gay Shakespeare retelling” might be disappointed.

I enjoyed reading this novel. The mixed-media format helped me get through some of the slightly denser chapters. It’s definitely a book I’ll recommend to other readers.

4/5 Harpy Eagles

Sorcerer to the Crown

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, published 01 September 2015. The first book in the Sorcerer Royal series.

Set at the times of the Napoleonic Wars/Regency Period in England, magic is slowly disappearing and the Unnatural Philosophers (magicians/old white men) blame their new Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias, the Sorcerer to the Crown, is the son of Caribbean slaves who was adopted by the Wythes and followed in his adopted father’s footsteps when he became the first black Sorcerer Royal. Since anyone who is not a white male is inferior and can’t do magic properly it is because of Zacharias that Fairyland has cut Britain off the magic.

When we get to meet the female main character, Prunella, an orphan living in a school for witches, we see more sexism and racism. Women are inferior and hence high born magical girls have to attend schools for witches to get rid of their magic; servants, by the way, may do magic, since it’s handy around the house. Though Prunella, as the daughter of an Indian woman and an English gentleman, should never even attempt to use magic, she’s inferior not only by her sex, but also her race. You can guess where this is going.

Due to her heritage Prunella has magical abilities in abundance, she only needs to unlock her abilities and learn to control them. With the help of Zacharias and his adoptive mother, Prunella wants to learn magic properly and find a husband in London’s society. Not easy since everyone and their grandmother judge her by her sex and the colour of her skin.

The racism/sexism morale of the story was dealt ham-fistedly, it could have been woven into the story in a subtler way. The world-building had holes, in my opinion. I was looking for explanations as to why women shouldn’t do magic, other than they are the weaker sex; which is why I liked that Prunella stayed strong and insisted on learning. Lastly, the story dragged. This might be due to the writing style which emulates the style of the Regency era, but can’t quite pull it off.

2.5/5 Harpy Eagles

I am confused

The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon, published 27 June 2023, the first book in The Downworld Sequence.

I find this book exceptionally hard to review. I wanted to like it, but I might not have grasped its points and my review might be just as confusing as the book I read.

I like it when an author drops me in at the deep end, as frustrating as that may be, and I learn to navigate within the world that the author has built (like Harrow the Ninth – I was about to give up when the penny dropped). Unfortunately, I couldn’t really make heads nor tails of the world Candon built here. What’s more, the further I dove into the story, the less clear it all became. I wish Candon had invented new words for the unique elements of her world-building, this way she might have had to explain what she is actually talking about; by using ‘regular’ English words like the “Harbor” my mind somehow refused to give the concept of the story’s maybe-villain any other connotation than a place where ships can dock.

Then there is the shift in POVs, which would have been fine had it been indicated in any way. But since neither narrator had a distinct voice I felt even more confused than Sunai, the often confused MC of the story. I had to go back and re-read passages several times just because I had mixed up the narrator of a passage.

The writing was, at times very descriptive, but really good. And I liked the characters and the close relationship that Sunai is developing. Which is what kept me going to the end, because all’s well that ends well. Alas, the ending did not clear up my confusion.

3/5 Harpy Eagles

My Jam and Not My Jam

A Pale Light in the Black by K.B. Wagers, published 03 March 2020.

I thought this book was about a diverse Found Family crew of space cops cruising the solar system, chasing smugglers, getting into scrapes and working as a team to solve a crime against humanity. That would have been “My Jam”.

It’s the year 2435. After being on the brink of extinction, humankind has managed to conquer the solar system. There’s space travel through wormholes and a serum that expands the human lifespan. Without this serum space exploration would not have been possible, nor the re-population of Earth. What was that extinction event that was prevented?

The patent to the serum is held by a corporation. In order to be eligible for the serum, you have to either work for the corporation or enter the military services for 40 years. Indentured servitude? 

Earth, by the way, has one governmental body and seems to have reached world peace. Why is there a need for military services? There is the Navy, which is highly skilled in combat but does space exploration. Then there is the NEOG, Near Earth Orbital Guard. Another group of highly trained people who are the space coast guard, rescuing stranded ships, apprehending smugglers (I nearly wrote pirates, but alas no space pirates). No idea what the Army and the Air Force do in 2435, maybe that’s part of the other two books. Also, I do understand that there is a need for the NEOG, but why are there military services if there is world peace/solar system peace/humankind peace and no aliens that might attack?

To show off the military’s prowess at war there are Boarding Games where the NEOG and the Navy send teams that fight against each other in different single combat and team combat disciplines. It’s televised all over the solar system and the event of the year. Panem et circes – just without the panem – the gladiator teams of the future. It’s interesting, but we never get to see why the individual protagonists want to win. We never find out why it is so important for the team to win. What motivates them, other than boasting rights until the next games?

All the training for the games and the actual games take up so many pages in the book that the real plot seems like the commercial break between the rather lacklustre fight scenes. The much more interesting plot line is that smugglers are bringing knock-off serum into the system. Knock-off lifespan enhancing serum that might actually drastically shorten the lifespan of its users.

I am sure lots of people will like this book/trilogy. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, but I also noted that this book is flawed. It praises combat and the military services (in a world with universal peace), it has a strange religious sub-plot, and I am not at all comfortable with the corporation’s way of dealing out the serum. All in all it was more “Not My Jam” and I am not going to continue reading the series.

2/5 Harpy Eagles

Master of FanFic?

The Masters of Death by Olivie Blake, first published 30 January 2018.

Do not trust the blurb. This book is about a game the gods play when they are bored – not an ineffable game, but an inexplicable game that is so hyped up that when you actually get to the game, you might just be staring at the page and go “huh?!” It’s also about a vampire cat estate agent who is trying to sell a haunted house. There is the ghost of Tom Parker IV, who doesn’t know how and why he was killed. And there is the godson of Death, Fox D’Mora (yes, a very un-German name for a young man having grown up just outside Frankfurt in Germany about two hundred years ago – doesn’t matter which of the two Frankfurts either) and his “the one” a Norse demi-god. There are also a bunch of other immortal beings and their botched up love affairs, including but not restricted to a demon, a reaper, an angel, archangels, and a werewolf.

If you want to read a fanfic that reads like Good Omens, Discworld’s Death series, The Sandman, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, How to Stop Time, and The Library of the Unwritten (and probably a few more) had an ugly baby, go ahead. Maybe you like the angsty characters. Maybe you like endless dialogue where you aren’t certain who is talking. Maybe you like the relationship between Fox and Brandt that is rehashed and examined every time it comes up. Maybe you like being pulled out of a storyline again and again to be confronted with a different POV and another character’s backstory.

2/5 Harpy Eagles – there were a few funny moments

Mesoamerican Zorro retelling

Sun of Blood and Ruin by Mariely Lares, expected publication 28 September 2023.

The cover is stunning, was one of the first thoughts I had about this book. The blurb was promising. The final product wasn’t at all what I had hoped it would be.

The first half of the book was hard to get through and made me put it off several times. The story starts right away, no initial explanations and hence hard to follow for someone who has only had limited contact with indigenous cultures of Mexico (quite frankly, all of the Americas). Yet, some explanations were inserted later on, and here I want to point out the word inserted; the info-dumps felt like they were copied from an encyclopaedia and didn’t gel with the general style of writing.

Throughout the book the more two dimensional characters were difficult to distinguish from each other, which was especially vexing when reading pages of stilted dialogue. It got a little better in the second half of the book, though.

Sun of Blood and Ruin is a gender reversal Zorro retelling with a lot of fantasy elements that will certainly gain fans. Unfortunately, I had the impression the core story was actually the latter part of the second half of the book and the first half was later added to create a novel out of a novella.  

2/5 Harpy Eagles

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