Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

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Squirrel Cat to the Rescue

One of the first books I picked up this year is Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell, the fifth installment in his Spellslinger series. It’s been some time since I read book four – June 2019, to be exact.

This series is a perfect pick if you are tired of all the “chosen one” narratives out there. While the main character Kellen is from a powerful mage family, he only ever managed to master a single spell and on top of that is cursed with mysterious markings on his face. These are called Shadowblack, and the search for a cure is one of the driving forces throughout the series. Another big part is the relationship Kellen develops with a cursing and rowdy squirrel cat, Reichis. While threatening to basically eat everyone’s eyeballs, this familiar – no, sorry business partner – is probably the main reason Kellen is still alive in book five.

Other than the previous books, the pacing was quite slow for about two thirds of the book, which made the ending feel really rushed in contrast. The general idea of having a fairly incompetent main character is still fun, but starts to lead to a very generic and repetitive plot. It is getting harder and harder to believe that Kellen has managed to survive this long against powerful enemies with only a single spell and a murderous squirrel cat. Sadly, this is the weakest instalment in the series so far and felt more like a novella between two primary works. I hope this is justified by being the buildup to a grand finale. I want to finish the series with the last book, Crownbreaker, at some point in the next couple of months to see if it pays off.

Pirates on a Sea of Grass

The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson, published 19 January 2021, is the first book in a new environmental fantasy series.

Imagine yourself on a ship in the middle of a sea of miles deep prairie grass, pirates, a war over water between two floating cities. These are the ideas I had, when I read the blurb and saw the cover of the book.

Alas, that’s not what I got. Instead of a fantasy adventure, I got a Bildungsroman with a heavy climate change moral tale that could have been so much better with a bit of pruning from an experienced editor.

Kindred, the main character, is a hearth keeper on a harvesting vessel crossing the Forever Sea harvesting grasses and wildflowers used for food, medicine, or magic. She has to take care of the magical fire burning bones harvested from captains that keeps the ship afloat and propels it forwards. When she receives a missive from her grandmother – a larger than life figure which the reader is reminded of over and over – Kindred wants to follow her grandmother into the depths below the prairie grass that makes up the Forever Sea. Something must still be down there, something other than monsters.

For years there has been a war over the water stores between Arcadia, an island city which basically enslaved nature, and the Once-City, a floating ship like city travelling endlessly along the edges of the Forever Sea which “lived with the world,” acting in tune with nature. The ship Kindred had signed onto has to flee Arcadia, the crew is badly injured in a fight and has to seek the Once-City for help. Unsurprisingly, neither city is the refuge it seems to be.

What didn’t work for me:

  • Miles deep grass and wildflowers? I would really liked to have seen an explanation of how this is supposed to work. Even knowing I’m reading a fantasy novel it was very hard to ignore this. Plants need light to grow. It is very hard to imagine plants growing miles in length to reach the light. Not to mention that these plants need water that makes its way miles up within tiny capillaries?
  • Water shortage. These above mentioned plants get their water from the ground. So why not dive down into the depth of the grass ocean and find the ground water? Yes, there are terrible monsters down there, but obviously they can be fought. In an ocean of grass you don’t have to worry about not having enough oxygen for your dive.
  • The framing story. It certainly has a purpose other than adding to the page count of the book.
  • The pacing. Even in the middle of a fight we get ruminations about Kindred’s past. In another already slow spot of the story we get descriptions of each individual blade of grass as the light is reflected off it.

Some of the ideas of this book where really good. But, I would have liked a faster pacing and less repetition, also of the moral tale.

Demons and Exorcists

Prosper’s Demon is a quirky short story/novella by KJ Parker, published 28 January 2020. We decided to read this story by a new-to-us author as a Buddyread to while away the time until our next buddy-book arrived.

The main character and unreliable narrator, a demon hunter/exorcist, takes us on a wild ride when he is facing off one of the 109 demons in his jurisdiction. A cunning tale which starts with a gripping first paragraph (s.b.), and will keep you on the edge of your seat, chuckling here and there, with it’s many twists and turns and double and triple crossings.

I woke to find her lying next to me, quite dead, with her throat torn out. The pillow was shiny and sodden with blood, like low-lying pasture after a week of heavy rain. The taste in my mouth was familiar, revolting, and unmistakable. I spat into my cupped hand: bright red. Oh, for crying out loud, I thought. Here we go again.

KJ Parker, Prosper’s Demon

If you are like the three of us, you’ll definitely want to dive into a whole book by this author afterwards. We have already decided to squeeze in Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City sometime this year.

Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny is the second short story collection I’ve read in the The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Not the second in general though – that would be Season of Storms, which I have somehow managed to skip. No need to worry though, I already ordered it.

At first, it was hard for me to get back into the world, and to build a connection with the characters. Well, considering I skipped a book it kind of makes sense. But after the first two stories, I was completely engaged and the book became a page turner. The recurring presence of mainly Yennefer, Dandelion and Ciri connected the stories much better than in The Last Wish, the first story collection set in the universe. While scenes with Ciri are quite emotional (for the reader, for Geralt not so much), scenes with Yennefer give food for thoughts on morale and determination. And every scene with Dandelion is basically a lot of fun. It felt like the focus for this installment shifted from monster-slaying to character development and it worked out really well.

Since the books were originally written in Polish, I decided to pick up the German translations and can highly recommend them. Erik Simon did a really good job. I’m now eagerly awaiting Season of Storms to finish the short stories. After that, it will be interesting to see if the novels also work that well for me.

Bone Shard Spoiler

We started this Buddyread of the The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart in late December. All of us were really hyped for this book, and all of us were really underwhelmed by what we actually got. The book is marketed as an adult epic fantasy, which is simply the wrong stamp to put on it. We picked it up based on a twitter recommendation by a much loved author of us, and somehow we expected something glorious in the veins of Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, or V.E. Schwab. Well, those expectations were disappointed for sure.

The magic system is incredibly mellow. So mellow, in fact, that it even breaks the few rules it sets itself. There are necromantic constructs defined by rules engraved into tiny boneshards that are contained within these constructs. The engraving idea is stolen straight out of Foundryside by the way. The constructs, the only barrier between the Island Empire and an ancient evil, can, of course, be outsmarted by anyone with half a brain. We nearly sprained our eyes while rolling them at that blunder.

The worldbuilding is full of holes, too. There are a ton of why’s, and they are not addressed at all. If you can swallow it all down, it might work for you. But what the fuck is Witstone? Not explained at all – personally, I figure it will be revealed in book II, but you get NO info whatsoever about this absolutely essential thing running the empire.

The above aside, it could all make an action-packed fantasy page-turner, except for two things: The multiple character PoV narration breaks up the action. Some of the characters feel forced, maybe they were added at a later editing point of the book. The thing that ruined my enjoyment though were the incredibly foreseeable plot twists. Seriously, not one “twist” was in any way something to gasp about. The biggest twist is literally spoiled in the title of the book. I always wonder if we read a different book from everyone else, because anyone who uses about 25% of their brain capacity would have seen everything that happened coming.

So… yeah. Disappointing. If you want a book where you don’t have to think, this could be for you, but for us it was the wrong decision. Can’t understand the hype at all.

Burning Roses Review

Our December Buddyread was Burning Roses by S.L. Huang and it once again confirmed my theory that you can never go wrong with a Tor novella.

If you are into fantasy retellings, this one delivers quite a lot of them in such a short form. Our main characters are Rosa and Hou Yi, both middle-aged and based on Red Riding Hood and the Archer. They embark on a quest, and on their way face themes of motherhood, belonging and redemption. I won’t tell you more about the plot, because that would spoil a big part of the book. I enjoyed seeing more experienced characters in this story, both of them with a fully fleshed out backstory. Amidst the flood of YA fantasy books, this felt like a breath of fresh air. Their life stories are told as adapted versions of well-known Brother Grimm tales and will please everyone ready for a fairy tale.

After getting a glimpse of Huang’s writing, Zero Sum Game has risen higher on the never ending TBR list.


TheRightHonourableHarpyEagle’s main reason why I found it hard to get into this book was that my grandmother’s name was Rosa. My mind kept inserting a picture of my grandmother, in her usual attire (a hooverette over a thin wollen pullover and a long pleated skirt, sensible brown leather shoes, and her hair in a tight bun), whenever the name Rosa came up. Hilarious when in combination with a gun in a fight scene, yet annoying. It has never bother me before, seeing the name of a family member in a book. Very strange. Add to that my usual struggles with fairy tale retellings. It’s definitely a problem of “it’s me”; it’s just not my cup of tea.

Fantasy reading list – Just in time for Christmas

We were not able to discuss the most recent “best-fantasy”-lists over a cup of tea, due to social distancing, but did discuss the concept and agree that we don’t like lists of “best whatever”. We do like lists in general, though. So instead of a “best fantasy books of all-time/2020/whatever”, we offer you a long list of fantasy books or series that touched us, shaped us, or were just damn awesome. And because a simple “Title – Author” list is not enough, we share some thoughts with you WHY we think those books are worth reading.

We know that a lot of you are of a similar mind and don’t care for lists where the first 10 entries are LotR, ASOIAF and Harry Potter. So we decided our list should be ordered by the number of ratings on Goodreads, going up. The least known books (at least in the GR bubble) are first, so give them a try. Just in time for Christmas, wish for them, gift them, or just buy yourself a copy, because you deserve some new books!

The Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: This is the first book in Haig’s Christmas series. Yes, this book is for children, but it will warm your heart, too. It’s an inventive tale about how Father Christmas came to be Father Christmas and how the whole North Pole and Christmas Elves story started. The book is great, the audiobook, read by Stephen Fry, is even better.

Castle in the Stars (GN) by Alex Alice

TheRightHonourableHarpyEagle: In an alternate past, in 1869, the race for space is under full force. In this series of steampunk Graphic Novels Aether is the mystical substance that makes spaceships fly. First to space, then the moon, and even Mars is a possible destination. The mix of aquarell paintings and comic style is very appealing and is what makes this story epic to me.

Seven Kennings by Kevin Hearne

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Multiple stories woven into one main storyline. The exceptional thing is that there are actual normal persons in these stories! Like, a mother. Or a merchants daughter. People, not an overly powerful farm boy turned chosen one or something.

Once & Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Everyone of us loved this book. TheRightHonorablyHarpyEagle wrote a review here, and since it was also a buddyread book, TheMarquessMagpie and TheLadyDuckOfDoom also share their opinions below hers.

Hell’s Library by A.J. Hackwith

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: The world-building is fabulous. Just the idea of a library in Hell, where all the unwritten books stay, need to be repaired over time, become restless, their characters becoming corporeal and wandering the aisles of shelves. Perfect. Add the different realms, based on different religions/pantheons.
Full review here.

The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee

TheMarquessMagpie: It reads like The Godfather in an Asian inspired fantasy setting. It’s badass, magical and full of political intrigue. What else do you need?
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: What the Marquess said. This was in one of the very first book-subscriptions I had a while back, and it did not disappoint. It is really unique.

Irin Chronicles by Elizabeth Hunter

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: This UF series probably falls into the category of paranormal romance. I liked it based on the world-building. There is a war between the fallen angels. Some want to destroy God’s creation, others want to protect it at all cost. Ava has been hearing voices in her head as long as she can remember, they speak in unknown to her languages, but enable her to see people’s intentions. Malachi is an Irin Scribe, one of the fallen angels who want to protect humanity by using magic inscribed to their skin. He has to protect Ava from the Grigory, the other faction of fallen angels. Through their budding relationship Ava finds some answers to her lifelong questions. More questions are answered in the other books of the trilogy.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances by Ruth Emmie Lang

TheRightHonourableHarpyEagle: This story is about the orphaned boy Weylyn Grey, who is special in a very special way. It’s about his live with a pack of wolves, with Mary, with a horned pig named Merlin, and all the people whose lives Weylyn touched and changed. The epistolary style of this book helped tell the story from the POV of the people who met Weylyn. Every narrator added their unique voice to the story that is Weylyn’s life.

Felix Castor Series by Mike Carey

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: Another UF series set in London. Felix Castor is an exorcist. He’s friends to a zombie and a succubus. And his tool of trade is a tin whistle. He takes on a seemingly easy job at a museum, and finds himself the target of a manhunt.

Piranesi by Susanne Clarke

This was one of our magical Buddyreads, which all of us enjoyed very much. Read our full review here.

S./ Ship of Theseus by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams

TheMarquessMagpie: This is not just a book, it is a multilayered masterpiece. Ship of Theseus is actually the book-within-the-book and it is read and analyzed by two university students sharing their thoughts in the margins. Like, actually in the margins. And on postcards, napkins and other little tidbits scattered as physical objects throughout the book. It is a very unique experience. If you want to dive deeper, there are even some unsolved mysteries in the book that you could solve yourself.

The Founders Series by Robert Jackson Bennet

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Heists, A fantastic magic system and a sentient object combined by with superb storytelling. Need I say more? Maybe not, but theses books are so damn good, I’ll just write some more words so it has more space on the page.

The Great Library Series by Rachel Caine

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: A world in which printed books are so rare they are smuggled and sold on the black market. The son of England’s most infamous book smuggler doesn’t want to join the family business, instead he wants to join the Great Library of Alexandria. The Library that didn’t burn down. The Library that holds all the knowledge of the world and by that controls it. A YA series made up of a mix of dystopian SFF, alternate history and UF.

The Band Series by Nicholas Eames

TheMarquessMagpie: Such a fun romp! It’s like you are reading a book about the wildest roleplaying campaign you and the whackiest of your friends can imagine.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Let’s reunite an old, famous rock band — uhm, band of mercenaries in a fantasy world. Send them on a mission even though their best years are long past. It was wild, funny, and plays with fantasy roleplaying clichés. So let’s get the Band back together!

Watchmaker of Filigree Street series by Natasha Pulley

TheRightHonourableHarpyEagle: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is set in Victorian England and Japan of the late 19th century. This story has vibes of Sherlock Holmes without being a detective story. Young telegraph clerk Thaniel Steepleton has synesthesia. When the pocket watch that he found in his rooms six months ago saves his life, he goes in search of the watchmaker. He finds Keita Mori, a lonely immigrant from Japan with a Lincolnshire accent. Mori is a clairvoyant, which explains the time travel aspects of some parts of the story. Add the sceptic physicist Grace Carrow, who unwittingly interferes in some of Mori and Thaniel’s attempts at changing future events.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street was followed by The Bedlam Stacks, a book set in a time before the Watchmaker and loosely connected to it, we see a young Keita Mori. Book three of the series is The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, which is about Mori and Thaniel’s adventures in Japan, set a few years after the Watchmaker takes place. The fourth book in the series The Kingdoms will be out in May 2021.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I had some trouble with the ending of this book, but otherwise a good read. I really liked the last instalment of this series, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, much better.

Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennet

TheMarquessMagpie: No need to look further, if you are in need of stellar world building and captivating characters. This series focuses on a different main character and takes place in a unique city with every book. Really just cleverly done, I need to read more books written by him.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: TheMarquessMagpie and I read the books in another buddyread, and they are just incredibly done. It catches you with the unique worldbuilding, but captivates with the characters.

Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: There are not many novels out there who focus on a mother and her child – diving in a unique steampunk world deep into their relationship.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

TheMarquessMagpie: This book is so messed up. But, you know, in the good way. At least if you like dark, twisty and bloody madness.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: This was a mad ride I was not ready for when I read it. I think it was a Buddyread on the Litsy social network. Looking back, I certainly enjoyed it, but at first, I had serious doubts.

The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan

TheMarquessMagpie: The Powder Mage books have a really unique magic system based on – you may have guessed it – gunpowder. Which comes in really handy if you overthrow a king and face a war, while gods start walking the earth.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Gunpowder fantasy is a rare genre, but this one works and I could not put it down when I started it. There are so many things happening! I still have to read the last book of the Trilogy, though.

Wayward Children by Seanan McGuire

TheMarquessMagpie: Ever felt like you where in the wrong place? Well, who hasn’t? And what if there was a door to a place that is just right for you? Who wouldn’t gladly walk through it? These books are about what happens to those who where found by their doors and entered them, and what happens after they leave again. Heartwarming every time.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: These novellas are heartbreaking, heartwarming, and a joy to read.

Rivers of London Series by Ben Aaronovitch

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: Did you know that the Metropolitan Police London has a special branch? Magician police officers? Well, Peter Grant didn’t know either, until one day he becomes the new head magician’s apprentice. And it’s nothing like Harry Potter.
TheMarquessMagpie: These books are just so much fun. I don’t often read urban fantasy, but enjoyed this series immensely. There’s some catching up to do on the latest titles.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I have a panicking fear of drugs, and the books feature a heroin addicted family member – I can’t. I’d have to throw up if I tried, so I only read book 1. That one wasn’t bad, though.

Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Steampunk Urban Fantasy Romance with lots of banter. The banter is fantastic, and the characters are actually adults. If you want a little bit of fantasy romance, read this.
TheMarquessMapie: I’m slowly making my way through the series, and they are fun to pick up from time to time even if you are not much of a romance reader.

Dragonlance Chronicles by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: The Dragonlance Chronicles were my first conscious dip into the fantasy genre. I loved the stories and I might secretly compare every fantasy novel I read to those stories. The Dragonlance is based on Dungeons&Dragons and due to that was also my first intro into RPGs. It’s still worth a read, trust me.

The Hollows by Kim Harrison

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: When I was 12, everyone at school was reading Twilight. So I read it, my mum read it, we didn’t like it, but mum got into urban fantasy. She discovered this and it soon found the way into my hands. Funny, full of action, friendship and just a tiny bit of sex. In my opinion, a lot less than the cover indicates.

Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: Bartimaeus is the most sarcastic demon sidekick I’ve ever met; or was Nathanael the sidekick to Bartimaeus? I really enjoyed the trilogy and have successfully infected my son with the sarcasm bug.
TheMarquessMagpie: One of my childhood favourites. It taught me that fantasy can be enjoyably funny and that a good sidekick might just make a story at least 75% better.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Bartimaeus will always be my childhood hero and one of the books I read countless times. I usually manage to read a book for a second time only after 10 years, when my memory has holes as large enough that I forgot most of the story.

Nicholas Flamel Series by Michael Scott

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: You might remember Nicholas Flamel, the famous alchemist who managed to make the Philosopher’s Stone, mentioned in the first Harry Potter book.Well, although this is an Urban Fantasy story about Flamel, it is much more a YA fantasy story about twins helping Flamel, finding their fate, saving the world in between. You know, the usual stuff and then somehow reinvented in an interesting way. An excellent start to a series that includes a lot of historical figures, e.g. Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Machiavelli.

Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: The trilogy was recommended to me by my lovely co-Sceptres, TheMarquessMagpie and TheLadyDuckOfDoom. The world-building is excellent. And although I see the brilliance in the series, I wasn’t entirely sold on it. See my review.
TheMarquessMagpie: The whole trilogy is extremely impressive. I tried recommending it to friends often enough, but always just ended up squealing “it is just SO CLEVER AND BRILLIANT”. That’s really all I can say. Go read it.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: There is a reason N. K. Jemisin has won so many awards for this trilogy, and the reason is the sheer imagination, depth and brilliantness that these books have.

Shades of Magic Series by V.E. Schwab

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: This series -and let it be noted that I pre-ordered the first book, but I don’t remember where I heard about it- I’ve read several times already; recommended it to friends; introduced my kids to. Different versions of my favourite city? A coat with more than two sides and lots of secret pockets – inspired by the Marquis de Carabas’s coat from Gaiman’s Neverwhere? Dark/blood magic? A strong female character who’s no damsel-in-distress? I was sold! The only thing that is still missing from my shelves is the collector’s edition. ETA: Nope, not even the Collector’s Edition is missing now.
TheMarquessMagpie: Yes to more than one magical London, yes to complex characters, yes to a badass female lead character. I reread this series during the madness that is the year 2020, and it was extremely comforting.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I really liked the books, but perhaps not as much as the two birds above. BUT I absolutely recommend them, I have gifted them multiple times, and now that I am thinking about it – its definitely time for a reread!

Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb

TheMarquessMagpie: There are so many animals you tie your heart to, that I would almost consider it emotional manipulation. Just kidding. Robin Hobb has a really detailed style of writing, and if that’s your jam you are rewarded with an epic and mostly character-driven delight of fantasy books.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I had so much emotion reading this series. There is so much character development and I grew so attached to the characters I am afraid of reading the last trilogy. Also, YA writers should maybe study this series as a good example

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

TheMarquessMagpie: We all know the story of Achilles, but this book adds so much to it. It grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. You will enjoy the well-known parts of the story, but Miller’s new take on it is what you will love. Her second book Circe is equally great.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I learned Latin and ancient Greek at school (and I liked it). We even read parts of the Odyssey in the original language. So, knowing a lot of the stories of the classical world, and it just doubled the fun I had when I read Song of Achilles.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Harry Dresden has bad luck and is covered up to his nose in shit. For 17 books now. If you need fast paced action you devour within a day and have no problem with a main character who’s brain stops when he sees a women (I don’t mind. He sometimes is just an idiot), look no further.


Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: If there is the word “bone” in the title, I am nearly always sold. The blurb was talking about angels and demons, a girl trading teeth, walking through doors into different realms. Add the UK cover (a door, a handprint), the story being set (partly) in Prague, the heroine having an artistic streak and wearing blue hair. Yes, it’s also a romance, but it’s done well.

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: All of Discworld, but Wyrd Sisters was my first Pratchett – read MacBeth parallel to it in school and kept remembering the funnier version all the time.
TheMarquessMagpie: Reading Discworld novels always calms me down. I started reading them in order of publishing, and while I basically love all of them, the City Watch books may be my favourites.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: Whenever I start my “just read the Discworld novels” monologue, which will be often considering the BCC Watch Trailer, I say start with Mort. I don’t know why, though. Might just be my inner goth… Who am I kidding, I wear black all day, everyday.

Six of Crows Duology by Leigh Bardugo

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: A crew of outcasts. An impossible heist. A revenge plan that has been in the making for years. A fantasy world that is fleshed out nicely. Heroes to root for. Chapters that end in cliffhangers. Multiple POV narration. Only pet peeve: I still have trouble imagining them as teenagers, they feel 10 years older to me.
TheMarquessMagpie: I think TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle covered everything. Fast-paced fun with teenagers that seem a little too clever and experienced for their age, but you will enjoy their story so much that it doesn’t really matter.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I love heist stories, and this is no exception. Bardugo’s Grisha Universe really begins to shine here. I was not a fan of the first trilogy, but Six of Crows is much better.

Cosmere Universe by Brandon Sanderson

TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I am a huge Sanderson fan – I love his worldbuilding and his twists of normal fantasy tropes. Mistborn starts many years after the world turned dark because one of the bad guys won. The magic system uses metal in a unique way.
Sandersons Cosmere Universe spans multiple book series, but Mistborn is a fantastic way to start. There are some hints at the bigger picture, but it does not hinder you from enjoying this particular story.

Neil Gaiman

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: Imagine yourself falling through the cracks of the big city and landing in a London Below that is familiar, and yet so much different. I recommend the BBC Audioplay with James McAvoy in the leading role.
TheMarquessMagpie: After reading this, who does not long to wander the Floating Market of London Below? It is extremely hard to pick a favourite Gaiman book, but I think in the end this one would win.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: I was late to the Gaiman-club. Really late. I think my first book was American Gods, which I read about 5 years ago. I have since read a lot more of Gaiman’s books, and I recommend them to everyone who seeks magical, sometimes twisted tales.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: We have Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s geniuses combined here; just like the two MCs, an angel and a demon working together to protect humanity from the Apocalypse, which will take place Saturday next. Add a whole cast of quirky secondary characters,… What are you waiting for?
TheMarquessMagpie: Read it, read it, read it. How could you say no to this cooperation?
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: We have Neil Gaiman, we have Terry Pratchett, and we will still recommend you Good Omens separately. That’s how good it is. If you haven’t, go read it. If you have, is it not time for a re-read?

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

TheRightHonorableHarpyEagle: To write something about this book is not easy, it’s just so good. There are so many layers to this story, it will keep you captivated from start to finish. And at the end of book two, you’ll be begging for book three just like everyone else.
TheMarquessMagpie: There is just so much I like about it, I don’t even know where to start. What always impressend me the most, is that Rothfuss keeps you captivated throughout these doorstoppers without needing a lot of action. If someone can make you care for student debts that easily, it says something about the great writing style.
TheLadyDuckOfDoom: It has been some years since I read this, but the Name of the Wind has such beautiful prose. Just give Mr. Rothfuss a break, book 3 will take as long as it needs.


School of Monsters

Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, published 29 September 2020, had been on my radar for quite a while. After reading a few reviews, though, I was and wasn’t certain that I wanted to read the book.

What?! You don’t make sense, you might think right now. Well, I sometimes don’t. I’ll try to do my best to explain.

First off, as seems to be my general disclaimer these days, I haven’t read any previous work by Novik. Her book Uprooted was in my big box of surprises from Otherland, but I haven’t made time for it yet. Also, I’m very likely to reveal a few things about the story of Deadly Education – aka SPOILERS AHEAD!

Before diving into a book, I often read some reviews. (Bad habit? Spoils the fun?) I read a few of the glowing ones, which all gush about how clever the world-building is, how they love the main character, how ingenious the magic system and the Scholomance are, and how the readers can’t wait for the sequel. Things that normally put me off. Would have here too, if it wasn’t for the criticism.

After the rave comes the criticism; I move on to the reviews that are often long, detailed, and make me want to read the book to find out whether all the criticism is deserved, or make me not want to read the book at all.

In this case, it was one particular review that had an issue with Novik’s use of different languages and the portrayal of the speakers of these languages that made me want to read the book.

Was that particular reviewer correct? Yes, in part they were correct. Novik’s MC El often refers to other students by the language they speak or the enclave they come from. We have Arabic speaking kids, “the only Mandarin speaker”, kids from the Dubai enclave, kids from the New York enclave etc. Contrary to the reviewer who saw this as a flaw in Novik’s writing, I think this is part of El’s personality. She’s snarky. She’s been hurt before. She keeps a large moat and thick castle walls around herself for her own protection. Yes, she knows she should form alliances with other students, as this would ensure her survival. But it’s hard for her to overcome her inhibitions and open herself to others. Also, due to her magical affinity, which tends towards the ‘kill as many lifeforms as possible’, she cannot show off her magic without risking the lives of the people around her. Hence everyone thinks her either a maleficer or magically inept. That she has survived nearly three years of the Scholomance, a school that you either graduate from or literally die trying should tell her classmates enough about her abilities, but they don’t care.

Another reviewer commented that El’s being dirty would show how stereotypical Novik saw people of Indian heritage.

Well, El is of mixed heritage. Her mother is described as “an English rose” and her father was Indian. Her parents met at the Scholomance and her mother graduated three months pregnant, her father died trying to protect his beloved and their unborn child. Somewhere in the early chapters El remembers her childhood and another child comparing her skin colour to “weak tea”. There were a few more examples of people being racist towards El in the book. Still, the issue was, that El describes herself as dirty. Which is by no means a reflection of people with Desi background. It’s an honest observation based on El’s circumstances. If you don’t have any friends, or any alliances at the school, you can’t go and take a shower whenever you feel like it. You need someone to watch your back while you are in the shower. Otherwise the mals (short for maleficaria: the monsters) will creep up on you while you are at your most vulnerable. [They want to eat teenagers with magic to get the mana that lives in those teenagers. Teenagers are the more yummy snack, compared to aged magicians. Teenagers have more mana.]

Yet another reviewer had an issue with the “lockleeches”.

El explains that long hair is impractical. As a non-enclave student without friends or allies at the Scholomance you can’t shower regularly. You might not have brought a brush or a comb with you on your induction – the process of getting into school, which has very strict weight restrictions for luggage [worse than on-board luggage regulations for flights these days]. Without any grooming tools, your hair might mat together. This makes it easier for a certain type of leech to lay eggs in those “clumps of hair”. The hatched leeches then somehow end up in your brain and … don’t ask. Unfortunately, all that info-dump about the lockleeches came after El’s stream of consciousness narration mentioned that dreadlocks are the worst idea of hairstyle for a student at the Scholomance. Which, as you might guess, some people read as ‘people with dreadlocks have vermin infestations’. I did not understand it this way, but understand how this might have been misunderstood. Naomi Novik wrote an apology about this particular scene.

You’ve made to this part. Thank you! I feel honoured.

Here are my issues with the book.

  • To me El is a very unlikable character. She’s snarky, sarcastic, grouchy, and boasting about her abilities. Albeit, the latter only in her head. The former are all due to her life’s experiences. [I get a tick on my fictional Trope-Bingo chart.] Still, she knows she has to form alliances; better yet, friendships. On the pro side, El is insightful, intelligent and reflective. BUT, why then is she in no way curious about the prophecy her father’s grandmother made about her, or where her affinities for dark magic come from. The prophecy names El as the destroyer of all enclaves. Which caused her pacifistic paternal family to consider killing 5 year old El only hours after they first met her. Her dark powers have attracted mana-hungry mals even before El hit puberty. Is this unusual? Does El want to know?
  • To be able to form alliances, El must show her cards. When the perfect moment of showing off her power comes, she’s saved by the White Knight of the Scholomance, Orion Lake; son of a high-ranking official of the New York enclave (I still don’t have any idea what an enclave is, I’ll get to that in a bit). Villain? Love-Interest? Both? [Tick for handsome, privileged, white guy, who saves the damsel-not-in-distress and who seems to be the villain of the story.]
  • El, by the way, thinks of herself as the ugly duckling. And, as mentioned above, she’s often dirty and probably giving off a bit of BO. [Tick for ugly duckling.]
  • Although El thinks everyone has prejudices against her, she herself is not without that kind of flaw. She sorts people into nice little cliques, just like at highschool, only that here it’s sorting people by the languages they speak. It grated by halfway point. I’m repeating myself, she has to form an alliance and doesn’t even make an effort of getting to know her classmates. Only when she needs something form the other students does she start associating with them.
  • One more about El. Of course, at about the half-point of the story, El decides to save the younger students in the school by killing an unkillable mal all on her own, without any witnesses; and without killing any living being around. Quite the feat! And so predictable from the start.
  • Okay, world-building. The Scholomance is somewhere on Earth, but in a nook that is very close to the void. That’s where the monsters, excuse me mals, come from. That’s where enclave kids can draw dark mana from for spells, too? It is not quite clear. We are being told what the school looks like. But although the information dump is lightened by El’s snarky voice, it’s still information dump and with lots and lots of blanks to fill in yourself to boot. For example, I have absolutely no idea how the rooms look like, but I know that the school is a tiered structure with levels built on top of each other. In my mind it looks like a very depresssing concrete structure – actually, a bit like US prisons are depicted in films and series. (Apparently there is a map in the printed edition, but I listened to the audiobook, so no map.) I wish there had been a bit more fleshing out of the schools interior.
  • The magic system is equally explained and not explained. I’m not quite sure where the affinity for magic comes from, what enclaves are, and honestly tuned out of the explanations several times.
  • The Scholomance was built by powerful enclaves to protect their children from mals. Mals want mana and teenaged kids have the best to offer. Why do the mals want the mana? What do they do with it? Is mana like calories for humans?
  • By the way, I think having a different mal for each chapter is supposed to be a feature, not a bug. But it gives the story a bit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe.
  • And why are there no adults at the Scholomance? Can we please get an explanation for that?

Whoops! That got longer than I had planned. And I could add.

To cut this very long story short: The book ends with that trope-y scene where all the kids who were most unlikely to form an alliance, or friendships even, are hanging out together when a dire warning makes its way to the main character, leaving the audience begging for the sequel.

Well, I’m not begging. The story seemed to be missing a lot of things. It might be, because we look at the Scholomance through El’s eyes, who has been disenchanted since before she left her mother’s yurt in Wales. I wasn’t enamoured by the lauded writing either. There were passages that I had to go over a few times to really understand them, and that’s definitely not because English is not my mother tongue.

I will probably read the sequel, just to see what Novik created out of all the criticism and in which direction this story is going; but the sequel will not end up on top of my TBR.

Final words on the narration: the narrator, Anisha Dadia, does an excellent job. She makes El’s snark come to live nicely.

Worst book I’ve read this year award…

… goes, unfortunately, to The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. For me. This is my opinion, and everyone else might have a different view on this. In this review, I will attempt to list the points that made the book such a bad read to me. [TheRightHonourableEagle has edited this post and added a few thoughts. These are not indicated individually, because they do not differ from TheLadyDuckOfDoom’s. They were added for shock-value. ;o)]

The book starts with an underdog character getting into a military school for the rich – nothing new here. The start was solid, but nothing special. Nothing wrong so far, just some tropes I got tired of: The rich bully making the life of the main character hell, the weird teacher, the tall and brooding hero a few years older.

The problems start with part 2 of the book. Rin, the main character, doesn’t really act according to her character. For the rest of this book, she acts like a petulant child, rather than the young, though trained, soldier she’s supposed to be. So, for the sake of the story, that can be annoying, but is manageable.

Still, the whole story feels forced. There is a sudden friendship/maybe romance between Rin and her former bully. That guy tried to kill her. Multiple times. For Rin, a person driven by emotions, this does not seem likely.

The whole part of the story, where Rin, her comrades, and the rest of the army are under siege feels rather unrealistic; and let’s not talk about the thing with the salt.

Then begins the story of torture and rape. Picturesque and gory to the bone, an ex-classmate of Rin, who also bullied her, is re-introduced for one scene only: Fallen far into a husk, she retells all the scenes of her and the other women’s rape, including how a baby was ripped out of a pregnant women with the bare hands of an officer. And, guess what, all this ex-classmate was good for was to tell about how she was raped. She was not a character at all, just a tool to show the cruelty of what the enemy soldiers did. In addition, the pages of torture and rape we are talking about are not just inspired by the Nanjing Massacre, no, the text reads almost the same as the Wikipedia article. Even if we are reading a work of fiction heavily inspired by history, this is a fantasy novel. I expect the author to at least try to write an individual version, citing resources in a reference at the end of the story, to tell people that this passage was inspired by an event that really happened. This feels like a copy of the article written just for shock value.

And now that your mouth hangs open, your tongue is dry in shock of what enemy forces can do to civilians, you turn the page and find Rin ogling the older brooding guy. It’s a scene mainly focusing on opium addiction, but, although Rin is reminded of something familiar by the smell in the room, what she immediately notices is that His Broodyness has no shirt on. At least the scene stays sombre, he is smoking opium and there is no sexual tension, but I/we really stumbled over the no-shirt thingy.

Opium brings me to the next point that is highly problematic for me. Drugs are somewhat lauded in this book, but I don’t know if the writer has knowledge about how addiction works. There is a former heroin addict who never gave up on drugs, just goes from heavy drug addict to smoking opium once a month. Heavily addicted people become a husk of themselves pretty soon, and heroin is a drug that causes bodily addiction, so going so long without a hit just does not work without repercussions. Furthermore, Rin herself, who has never been on drugs before, is administered shot of heroin to the vein in her neck and falls into a hallucinating trance right away. It’s highly unbelievable that you just get into a trance this way, communing with the gods. [We are not willing to test this theory, though!]

By the way, Rin is the child of a drug-dealing family and did deliveries for them. She has seen addiction in all stages, so I guess it is only natural to just start smoking opium heavily. What could possibly go wrong? It’s for educational purposes. Or was it for the sake of the whole nation? [sarcasm]

On top, in the history of this fictional world, the Empire made an entire people addicted to opium. AN ENTIRE PEOPLE! Because, of course, everyone there is the same, that’s how humans work right? Because if everyone of them is in constant pain and mentally imbalanced, everyone will turn to drugs. Which leads to the overall problems of the book.

The book is incredibly dehumanizing in some cases. Every enemy soldier a monster, and one can feel hate seeping through the pages. This goes so far that soldiers of the Empire wonder how these enemy forces might look like and whether they actually want to see the face of their enemies.

A whole people is addicted to a drug, a whole people does this, does that. Prejudice much? A tiny paragraph at the end that tells us “Yes, they are people, too” just is not enough for me.

Fantasy and science fiction are, in my opinion, genres to explore beyond borders, borders of countries, peoples, stars and also beyond the borders of hate. I could not find this in this book. I really tried, and this book utterly failed in this regard.

We, the Sceptres, have been wondering whether we read a different book from every other reader who raved about this book. The story went from 3-star trope-y Young Adult downhill to a 0.5-star drug glorifying gore-fest. We won’t bother reading the other two books in the trilogy.

Burning Roses – Buddyread Reveal

The Sceptre Buddyread selected from the trusted booksellers at Otherland is S.L. Huang’s Burning Roses, published 29 September 2020.

To me, this came as a total surprise. Not only had I been looking at lists of books published at the end of November or in early December, but I hadn’t heard the name of the author before. My bad, definitely. My fellow Sceptres reminded me of other books by Ms Huang, like Zero Sum Game, which I have, obviously, missed out on, too.

So, we’ll be diving into a story where a middle-aged Little Red Riding Hood and middle-aged Archer go on a quest together. Sounds perfect for the time before Christmas. The book has about 150 pages, so we’ll probably fly through it in no time. We’re starting with Part 1 next Monday, December 7th that is. If you’d like to join the buddyread, leave a comment. You’ve already read the book? Great, tell us about it in the comments, spoiler free please.

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