I doubt I’ll finish anything else this month, so posting early. One DNF, a couple of rants, a couple of disappointments, and a couple of winners.
Product links go to Amazon and are affiliate-coded.
JOHANNES CABAL, THE NECROMANCER by Jonathan Howard: Has a quality I associate with British fiction. (This is certainly not true of all Brit-penned books, but when I get the “this must be British” feeling, it’s been accurate.) Great concept: necromancer traded his soul to the devil, lack of a soul is impeding his research, so he makes another deal with the devil to get his soul back, which involves running a traveling hell carnival and collecting more souls for the devil. Awesome! The delivery, however, was very… subdued? Like it was decided this content was too juicy and needed to be dried to dust in order to make it consumable. It put me in the awkward position of finding the story interesting but being completely unable to care because the book didn’t want me to have an emotional connection. If you like to read about icky things from a detached distance, this might hit the spot, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
ASHFORD’S GHOST by Skyla Dawn Cameron: A novella in the Livi Talbot Tomb Raider-esque series that falls between Books 2 & 3. Events in this story are lightly referenced in Book 3, but I don’t believe this story is essential for reading comprehension. Series order is important with the novels, though, so start with SOLOMON’S SEAL (which I briefly mentioned here, and I also talked about the series in general here) if you’re interested in a disowned heiress/single-mother/magical artifact hunter with a side of hot Korean tiger shifter who quietly smolders and respects boundaries.
DREAMS & SHADOWS by C. Robert Cargill: DNF. I liked SEA OF RUST (sentient robot revolution drama) earlier this year (mentioned here) and was willing to try something different by the author. I’m not even sure how to classify this book. Urban fantasy with serious adult themes (postpartum depression, suicide, attempted infanticide in Chapter 1) but starring kids? This one forces disengagement by forsaking narrative flow. It alternates story chapters with mythology lesson chapters, and I just when I start to get a grip on the story, the book slapped it out of my hand and forced me to read a multi-page footnote that’s not a footnote. I need time to commit, and I was too easily distracted by all the abrupt tone, subject, and character switches. It’s not badly written if you have a better attention span, but I had to quit.
A CONSPIRACY OF WHISPERS by Ada Harper: The cover is gorgeous, I’m a fan of female assassins, and everybody was talking about this book. Unfortunately, I was too distracted by auxiliary stuff to remember much about the story. They spend the first chunk of the book in adversarial roles (that whole “assassin” thing…) and a good chunk of the second half of the book separated by war stuff, so the romance may be skimpier than romance readers would like. However, the romance takes away from time that could have been spent better developing the political intrigue, which may have been deliberately left mysterious to explore in sequels, but I’m of a mind not to read sequels if the book I have doesn’t feel fully fleshed.
As for the auxiliary distraction: A couple of Goodreads reviewers confirm I’m not imagining that the contents of the book seem way less POC than the cover would suggest. I’m well aware it’s impossible to find models who look exactly like the characters in a book, and my concern isn’t failure to get an exact match. My concern is a cover portraying POC on a book that doesn’t seem to have been written with them in mind. The heroine’s skin is described in her photo ID as “sallow” (location 2525) and with “freckles” (location 3044), which suggest light skin to me. Her hair after a bath is described as “twisted over one shoulder like heavy flax waves” (location 1674), and her eyes are green — combined with the light skin, this reads quite white. The hero has “raw twists of hair” (location 389) but then later in the same chapter “tangled chin-length waves” (location 480), one of which would be consistent with black hair and the other not. He describes his sister as “brown,” but it’s later noted her skin is “tan … the same shade as Galen’s.” His skin is also described as “tanned” (location 5375) — as in color added by the sun. ONE tertiary character is described as “dark-skinned” (location 4284), so it’s not a matter of dark skin being so ubiquitous in their society that it’s unnoteworthy. I’m also well aware POC come in a wide range of skin tones (with freckles and varying hair and eye colors, even), but a book in which the majority of the allegedly POC characters are, at most, “tan” seems to be doing something other than acknowledging that range. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the inevitable capitalizing on the “trend” of diversity by the usual non-diverse suspects, and this shows many signs of being an example of just that. (The author, editor, and agent involved do not appear to be POC.)
POC authors continue to be rejected by agents, editors, and readers who “can’t relate” to the POC characters they write — evidently, they’re just not beige enough.
MATING THE HUNTRESS by Talia Hibbert: Only 99 cents if you want a lighthearted virgin werewolf novella to get into the Halloween spirit. I’m not a fan of the fated mate trope, however, and no amount of cupcakes can overcome that.
PHOENIX UNBOUND by Grace Draven: I’ve been craving fantasy romance lately — swords and sorcery NOT in a modern setting. It’s a kidnapping story, but as far as abductions go, this one is fairly benign. He doesn’t beat, molest, or otherwise abuse her, and the home he keeps her from returning to is far from happy. It got off to a promising start with escaping from the evil empire and hiding in a magic-bombed ghost town, but after that, it went off the rails for me and never recovered.
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman: I feel like a lot of horror is written by and for people who’ve never had to be afraid in their lives and think it’s fun to pretend to be scary/scared, which isn’t a style that works for those of us familiar with real terror. This book is at the other end of the spectrum, where fear feels authentic. There’s a good reason the Unseen Monsters remain unseen (the sight of them is what makes people go berserk, so DON’T LOOK), and never relenting on that unknown threat sustains that source of anxiety from beginning to end, with resource fear (how do you replenish your food supply after the collapse of civilization, particularly when effectively blind?), parental fear (how do you teach babies not to LOOK?), and Somebody In This House Can’t Be Trusted fear piled on for good measure. Not a single scene allows you to forget the vulnerability of the survivors, and that, to me, is the essence of good horror. CONTENT WARNINGS: Dogs die, the most common method of human death is suicide, and the protagonist contemplates harming babies.
THE HIKE by Drew Magary: Weird fantasy horror about a guy who gets lost in the woods and is directed by an assortment of odd characters to stay on the path if he wants to live. The foul-mouthed crab made me laugh (“Well, where did you come from?” “Idaho. Where do you think I came from? The fucking sea.”), and Fermona with her death matrix was a treat.
It moved along at a breakneck pace until the final third or so, when the hero got stuck building a castle for YEARS. While it may have been intentional to go from that brisk pace to the tedium of years of backbreaking labor, tedium is never beneficial to the reader. There’s a poignant AHA! at the happy ending, so it was worth persevering, but that stretch in the dessert was a slog.
EMPEROR’S TOMB by Skyla Dawn Cameron: The third Livi Talbot novel. As mentioned previously, it’s necessary to start at the beginning of the series because although the adventures are self-contained, the characters and their relationships evolve, and these are adventures in which the characters and their relationships are crucial. Found family is THE major theme here. The adventure this time is prompted by Livi helping her friend Thomas, who’s being blackmailed, and what starts as a simple artifact theft from a private collection ends up getting them shipwrecked on a magical island guarded by murderous lizard men while seeking an elixir of immortality for the “client” who is now blackmailing Livi.
These books are fun to read and emotionally involving, but I also get excited about the CRAFT. The reasoning behind decisions always makes sense, even when it’s not the right decision. There are longstanding issues planted to sustain the ongoing storyline about the characters (what the hell is West, what was Livi’s father’s deal, where will Livi’s new treasure-hunting conscience lead?) without screaming SEQUEL BAIT!!!!!!!! And there’s a slow, slow, slow burn romance Livi isn’t even sure is a romance (girl, it’s totally a romance) with a guy who will risk his life for her and trusts her competence and isn’t pushy and gross and puts a rock-climbing wall in her house because he knows what
I like she likes.
THE ARMORED SAINT by Myke Cole: Traveling to a neighboring village to do some work, Heloise and her father run into militarized mage-murdering zealots who know damn well they’re not fighting the good fight but get off on killing people without repercussions. Heloise is mildly defiant, her father comes to her defense, and making themselves memorable to these assholes was a huge mistake. Nothing that happens after that is pleasant or positive. A couple of times, I thought, “Oh, this is a nice reprieve from All the Bad Things.” Reader, I was WRONG. Any moments of lightness and hope exist to lull you into a false sense of security so the muscles in your chest are relaxed and unresisting in preparation for ripping your heart out.
I empathized for every character who wasn’t on Team Asshole because Heloise is far from the only one affected by the tragic events in this story, but dammit, I felt BETRAYED by magic, which was a thought-provoking experience. In historical context, “witchcraft” throughout human history has been used as an excuse to dehumanize and slaughter groups of people who were in somebody’s way. “Look at those savages doing that unfamiliar ritual. We don’t know what it’s for, but maybe it will make them stronger and therefore dangerous. We need to kill them before they kill us. Hold still while our priest blesses you so you have a successful massacre.” Knowing this colors my thinking in fiction when the magic is real. Given a choice between mages and what’s usually a government-sanctioned church (with its own bizarre rituals that an outsider might look at and declare WITCHCRAFT), my inclination is to take the side of the less numerous, less well-armed people the hypocrites with the army want to murder. There are inevitably a few bad mages using their powers to do harm, but nowhere near the proportion of assholes that are found in an organization built upon a foundation of genocide, so I’m firmly on the underdog’s side 100% of the time. But in this story, the murderous zealots are bad AND the magic is bad, which leaves the common people to get crushed in between. They don’t have the luxury of choosing sides while under siege from both directions and fighting for their survival.
Cole is a military guy, and what he’s done here is convey the plight of civilians living in a war zone in a way I’ve never read, or at least never noticed. There’s no being philosophical about the big picture when either of the combatants is rampaging through your town, killing your family and friends. Both sides threaten everything you hold dear. Both sides are the enemy, regardless of the lies they tell to justify their assault, and while they’re officially only fighting each other, the little guy in the middle has to fight both Goliaths at the same time. It’s a harsh story told with sensitivity, and I look forward to reading the next book while simultaneously dreading all the awful things that will happen to Heloise and crew.