Review of “Witchmark” (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk

Polk, C.L. Witchmark. New York: Tor.com/Tom Doherty and Associates, 2018.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1250162687 | 318 pages | Historical Fantasy

5 stars

Witchmark came highly recommended by a book club friend or two as a romance-adjacent fantasy with an m/m romance, and some recent conversation on Twitter in response to some hostile reviews for the forthcoming sequel regarding the shift in protagonist (despite said book not even finished and available to reviewers yet) inspired me to pick up the book even sooner than I originally planned.

This book had such an engaging plot, and was so fast-paced. I also liked that, while it’s not the most complicated fantasy in terms of worldbuilding and magic, it feels both easy to comprehend due to the historical influences and also well-drawn enough to be distinct at the same time.

Miles and Tristan are both fabulous characters, and especially Miles, given that he’s the protagonist and narrator. I loved the exploration of his conflicts as far as his family is concerned. And their romance…there are some pretty cute moments between them, and it balances out the darker atmosphere of the mystery plot and the world war.

This book was utterly enjoyable, and I will definitely be reading the sequel. I would recommend this to fans of great historically-inspired fantasy.

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Review of “Isle of Blood and Stone” (Tower of Winds #1) by Makiia Lucier

Lucier: Makiia. Isle of Blood and Stone. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0544968478 | 390 pages | YA Fantasy

4.5 stars

I randomly heard about Isle of Blood and Stone mentioned on BookTube, and it’s been on my radar ever since, and once I heard it was a nominee for the YALSA Top Ten, I was even more interested. And upon finishing it, I definitely feel it’s worth the hype. I love that it’s a YA fantasy with a somewhat original concept and a rich, historically inspired setting, and while it does have subtle romance, it doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in just for the sake of it.

While there were quite a few characters, and it did take a little bit to get to know them, I ended up really becoming invested in them through the adventures they went on and the revelations uncovered along the way.

The character bonds are what stand out. The aforementioned friendship/possible romance between Elias and Mercedes is beautiful, and I love how she’s often the one saving him! It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship highlighted in YA once in a while, since it seems like the most notable ones are somewhat toxic.

This is definitely a great example of a YA fantasy done right, and would love to see more in the same vein. And I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good fantasy novel, regardless of whether they like YA or not.

Review of “Red Seas Under Red Skies” (Gentlemen Bastards #2) by Scott Lynch

Lynch, Scott. Red Seas Under Red Skies. New York: Bantam, 2007.

Hardcover | $23.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0553804683 | 558 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Red Seas Under Red Skies is a great second entry in the Gentlemen Bastards series, once again standing out for its terrific character and relationship development. If the book has any flaws, the plot didn’t feel as engaging or as high-stakes as the first one. But it is still more or less solid and enjoyable. And I admire Scott Lynch for trying to take his characters and world in a bit of a different direction, while keeping them recognizable to the reader.

Locke and Jean remain a fabulous pair to follow, focusing on the ins and outs of their friendship, from the more light-hearted banter to the more heartwarming “friendship” moments, like an interaction that perfectly encapsulates the meaning of a true friend that has become like family.

It was also refreshing to see the introduction of some strong, but well-drawn female characters in Ezri and Zamira, and I was even more floored when I did a bit of digging into this book (mostly just perusing reviews on Goodreads to see others’ opinions) and found a link to a post with Scott Lynch’s fabulous response to “fans” regarding “political correctness” by the inclusion of these characters. Even independent of the post itself, it’s great to see him including women in prominent roles, especially in a pirate setting, as that not only felt a little lacking in the last book, but women pirates are an element of pirate lore that has long fascinated me.

I once again think it’s a great book that fantasy fans will enjoy, even if it isn’t your standard high-magic, large world story. If you love great character depth and relationships, it’s definitely worth giving these books a try.

Review of “The Lies of Locke Lamora” (Gentlemen Bastards #1) by Scott Lynch

Lynch, Scott. The Lies of Locke Lamora. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

Hardcover | $23.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0553804676 | 499 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

I read The Lies of Locke Lamora after receiving recommendations for it from the same BookTubers who recommended Brandon Sanderson. In spite of it being pitched as being rather different in terms of scope, I was intrigued. And for the most part, while I did feel like it felt a little slow at first, and even disconcerting with the frequent flashbacks, I ended up really enjoying it.

One of the best things about the book is the focus on the characters and the friendships that develops between this group of thieves, but especially Locke and Jean. And Locke as a character is really fun to read about, and really epitomizes the balance between a gentleman with his heart in the right place and a bastard of a thief.

And while this book does veer into somewhat darker territory than I often prefer, and it definitely had some intense moments, I think it was executed well, especially with a good balance of the bleak moments with some great moments of humor that had me laughing out loud.

This is a delightfully original fantasy book, and one that I recommend to fantasy fans, especially those who are looking for stories with morally gray characters.

Review of “Girls of Paper and Fire” by Natasha Ngan

Ngan, Natasha. Girls of Paper and Fire. New York: Jimmy Patterson/Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0316561365 | 385 pages | YA Fantasy

3 stars

Girls of Paper and Fire received a lot of buzz since its release, but unfortunately this is one of those books I put off for no real reason. Now, with the Asian Readathon going on in May on YouTube and Twitter, I decided to pick this one up to fulfill one of the challenges, especially since I love finding the rare f/f romance, especially if it’s also historical or fantasy.

In regards of fulfilling what it was pitched as — a feminist story where the concubines fight back against an oppressive Demon-King — I feel like it did pretty well. You won’t find a lot of intricacy to the magic system, but I don’t think it needs it. One of the major pluses for me regarding the world was marveling in Ngan’s influences and how they shaped the world in different ways.

The story feels reasonably fast-paced, making it a quick, if rather intense read, and I very much appreciate the trigger warning at the beginning, but even so, I found myself a little taken aback by the scenes of sexual abuse. But Ngan handles it delicately in a way that isn’t too dark, at least in my opinion. I have heard from at least one other reviewer that the book felt a little intense for their taste.

My one gripe is with the way the romance developed, with a culminating moment that struck me as unbelievable in the midst of trauma. For the most part, I thought I would enjoy it, especially given the way the chemistry was developed for majority of the book. But when the moment finally comes where the Demon King assaults Lei, it’s brief but clearly traumatic, yet almost immediately she’s getting hot and heavy with Wren, and it’s Wren who expresses her lack of interest in continuing, while Lei presses her to continue. It seemed so off-putting and contradictory to the message Ngan was trying to convey.

This book as a whole was good, but unfortunately, the one moment did sour my opinion on a key story element for me. Nonetheless, I feel like this book is an important addition to the conversation around sexual assault, not to mention the steadily growing pool of diverse fantasy. I recommend this to other fans of diverse YA fantasy.

Review of “Lady Smoke” (Ash Princess #2) by Laura Sebastian

Sebastian, Laura. Lady Smoke. New York: Delacorte Press, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524767105 | 496 pages | YA Fantasy

4.5 stars

Lady Smoke is somewhat better than its predecessor. While some of the flaws of the first book are still evident, mainly the somewhat forced love triangle, I feel like Laura Sebastian improves on the story by giving the story more depth overall. For example, while I would never make the mistake of calling this an overly political book in the sense some adult fantasy tends to be, I like that these elements are touched on, especially as Theodosia is considering an arranged marriage for the sake of helping her people and her cause.

As a result, while she does clearly still have feelings for both Soren and Blaise, and I still found the love triangle somewhat forced and awkward, I did like that it shattered the stereotype of YA love triangles, and focuses instead on Theodosia doing what she thinks is right for her cause, instead of brooding over which boy she likes better.

I also like that Sebastian is not afraid of shifting expectations regarding who the major threat is. The prior book and the beginning of this one suggests that it’s leading up to a confrontation with the Kaiser, in standard fantasy fashion. And while Sebastian embraces some other tropes in this series, particularly the lost heir fighting to reclaim her crown, I like that she worked to subvert our expectations regarding who the ultimate villain is.

This was a great sequel, and now I can’t wait to see what’s in store for book three. And I would recommend this series to other YA fantasy fans.

Review of “The Bands of Mourning” (Mistborn #6, The Alloy Era/Wax and Wayne #3) by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. The Bands of Mourning. New York: Tor, 2016.

Hardcover | $27.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0765378576 | 446 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

The Bands of Mourning once again leaves me a bit conflicted regarding this era of Mistborn. Like with my recent read of Elantris, in spite of any shortcomings, I found the writing consistently engaging, to the point where I actually binge read it from early afternoon into the evening, but the flaws with some other aspects still felt a little lacking.

That’s not to say there aren’t other good consistent elements, and some improvements from the last two books. I still adore Wayne and his quirkiness, and it’s a shame that he’s so well-developed, only to essentially be playing second fiddle.

One of the things I also enjoyed was seeing greater development to Steris’s character, and I like that the development does feel natural in the sense of stripping away the layers of the stiff, somewhat bland character we were initially introduced to and seeing some of her awkwardness, which is balanced perfectly by her loyalty to those she’s close to.

And while there were some connections to Era One established in the prior two books, I think it was great to kind of see the way characters like Vin and Elend have entered the mythos of Scadrial hundreds of years later, especially as this is something that the characters talk about more openly in this one.

I do still feel like Waxilium isn’t that well fleshed-out, still adhering very much to very specific Western stereotypes for his character, which, even without really being exposed to that genre, still feels a bit much three books in.

On the whole, this is still a fun adventure in the world of Mistborn, albeit flawed, and I hope that, given the way Sanderson has worked to develop Steris this time around, he will make some effort to give some greater originality and depth to Waxilium in the final book. However, I do continue to recommend era two to fans of Sanderson who are looking for a fun Western-esque fantasy adventure.

Review of “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. Elantris. New York: Tor, 2005.

Mass Market Paperback | $7.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0765350374 | 638 pages | Fantasy

3.5 stars

Full disclosure: I had no intention of reading Elantris virtually right after finishing Oathbringer. I did plan to read it relatively soon, but that fell through when the book I intended to read did not hold my attention and I decided I may as well go back to Elantris, since I had put it off for a long time, due in part to warnings about the difference in Sanderson’s style and the fact that it isn’t quite up to par with his other work.

And it isn’t, but I don’t hold it against him, as it is his first (published) book, and debuts can be hit-or-miss, especially when you go back to them after having read the author’s more recent work. That said, one of the things that remains consistent is his approachable writing style that almost overrides the shortcomings, or at least made them easier to deal with. And it was also interesting to have the action start pretty much right away, and while it does mean there are some laggy moments here and there, it remains engaging, particularly in the second half.

However, I did find the characters took a bit of time to become engaged with. Hrathen was the one who stood out right away, because of the way he adds a complex, somewhat twisted religious aspect in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen as the focal point in epic fantasy.

It took a bit longer to get into the arcs for both Sarene and Raoden, as they felt a bit more bland. However, they did grow on me, and they at least were involved in some pretty cool things, like Sarene working to bring down a corrupt monarchy and Raoden working to discover the secret of Elantris’ fall.

This is overall a decent book, and one I think can be built on to explore more of the world, and since he plans to (eventually) release a sequel to this one, I’m curious as to where it can go from here. That said, I think any reluctant Sanderson fan should try this and see what they think for themselves.

Review of “Oathbringer” (The Stormlight Archive #3) by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. Oathbringer. New York: Tor, 2017.

Hardcover | $34.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0765326379 | 1242 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Oathbringer‘s premise excited me quite a bit, given that Dalinar is this book’s focal point, and there was a lot hinted about his past, and this is where it all comes to the forefront. And I think it’s fabulous how his background is written, especially given that it shows how dynamic his character is, given that a lot of the problems he dealt with happened in his past.

There were a couple things that did keep me from enjoying it quite as much as the prior books. One of them was the POV changes for the final battle, something I’ve noticed others also didn’t like. While I’ve managed to kind of work with some of the POV changes in the prior books and even earlier in this one, especially with the more minor characters, as their relevance quickly demonstrated itself, it was quite jarring to jump from head to head in that moment.

I also feel like the romantic element was not well developed, and I hope that at least part of it was intentional with it being addressed in the next book. While I’m not always the biggest fan of a love triangle, I expected there to be more payoff than Kaladin saying that he didn’t really love Shallan by the end of this book. And while I do feel the relationship development thus far for Shallan and Adolin was compelling, I was shocked that they were married already by the end of this one, given that it’s increasingly obvious that they both have personal issues, especially Shallan with the increased hints of mental illness.

However, Sanderson continues to develop the world in such a compelling way, especially in this book as we get more insight into the past of not just Dalinar but of some of the major events that have influenced the present storyline. I also recommend anyone who loves an epic fantasy with depth pick this one up.

Review of “Shadows of Self” (Mistborn #5, The Alloy Era/Wax and Wayne #2) by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. Shadows of Self. New York: Tor, 2015.

Hardcover | $27.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0765378552 | 383 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Shadows of Self continues the fun that was introduced in its predecessor, The Alloy of Law to great effect. While I still believe this series definitely pales in comparison to some of Sanderson’s other work, it doesn’t have to be another great epic masterpiece, especially considering he already is working on that with the Stormlight Archive. And one of the things I continue to love about this era is the continued development of the world and how it feels organic to what you would expect it would feel like to take the world of Scadrial and advance it several hundred years, allowing the magic to evolve as the technology does, in a way that still feels faithful to the original series, but has enough new concepts to keep things interesting.

I would say that the character development is still the weakest part of the series thus far, with some overcompensation to establish the importance of characters like Marasi, whose role wasn’t fully fleshed out in the prior book, and Wax not really having a ton of character growth. But Wayne remains the most endearing character, with a balance of his quirky charm and the exploration of his dark past. I can only hope that, with the next book and going forward to the book in progress, that there is more improvement in making all the main characters feel as rounded and developed as the characters of the original trilogy.

On the whole, I enjoyed this one, although as with the prior book, more for the fun of further exploring the world than anything else. I will repeat what I said in my last review that I do recommend this to some of the Sanderson fans who may be a little reluctant to try it.