Provided for Review: The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston

Never stake more than you can afford to lose.

When failed magician turned cardsharp Valen Quinol is given the chance to play in the Forbearance Game—the invitation-only tournament where players gamble with secrets—he can’t resist. Or refuse, for that matter, according to the petty gangster sponsoring his seat at the table. Valen beats the man he was sent to play, and wins the most valuable secret ever staked in the history of the tournament.

Now Valen and his motley crew are being hunted by thieves, gangsters, spies and wizards, all with their own reasons for wanting what’s in that envelope. It’s a game of nations where Valen doesn’t know all the rules or who all the players are, and can’t see all the moves. But he does know if the secret falls into the wrong hands, it could plunge the whole world into war…

This book was provided for review by the author and the kind folks at The Write Reads. Thank you!

“Words had power. Words could kill. And secret words all the more.”

The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston is a fictional fantasy story of con men and cards, of gamblers and games, and the lengths some are willing to go to win.

The world that Livingston has created for The Knave of Secrets is a complex one. There are numerous cultures featured, not all of them friendly but all with one thing in common – the love of gambling and games. The same can be said for the characters, they too are complex with their love of gambling the main thing in common.

The main character Valen Quinol isn’t a young man but is described as one of middle age. A rarity in that most books of this kind feature a younger character often just starting out on their journey. Valen is well on his journey, having traveled it along with his wife and friends for some years already.

All of the characters are interesting in their own right and thankfully none of them are perfect. Mistakes are made and learned from. Fights and disagreements happen over plans. Even when things seem to go smoothly they don’t. Because of this, the characters are easy to relate to. Who doesn’t have arguments with their friends? Who doesn’t disagree sometimes with the ones they love most? It doesn’t mean we love them any less.

The only real quibble I have with The Knave of Secrets is the lack of “show don’t tell” in the storytelling. This is especially true during the many scenes featuring one game or another. In these instances, Livingston tells us what happens in the game but doesn’t really show us the action. While these scenes are intended to move the story along, sadly they fall flat while they attempt to do so.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Alex Livingston’s The Knave of Secrets. While the book is meant to be a standalone, I would very much enjoy seeing more tales from this world he has created. I recommend this book to my readers and I would remind them of an adage that every gambler knows:

The House Always Wins.

Provided for Review: Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

This book was provided for review by NetGalley and the author. Thank you!

Trigger Warnings: Physical and emotional abuse, alcohol addiction, mentions of rape, threats of rape, torture, murder, gore, misogyny.

I originally decided to read Iron Widow because of one blurb I saw on Netgalley:

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

Now while I don’t quite agree with the categorization of Iron Widow being a YA book, I do agree with everything else. Iron Widow IS a strangely wonderful blend of ideas both new and old. The characters are taken from Chinese history as well as Chinese literature and they are given a spin that will allow even those who aren’t familiar with their original stories to connect with them.

Set in the nation of Huaxia, Iron Widow is a futuristic reimagining of Medieval China. It is a nation that is constantly under attack by alien robots known as Hunduns. The only way to defeat the Hunduns is through the use of Chrysalises, giant mecha made from the spirit metal of defeated Hunduns. It takes two people to pilot a Chrysalis; male pilots who are regarded as heroes and female co-pilots who are more often than not forgotten.

Wu Zetian volunteers to become a co-pilot so that she may take revenge for her older sister’s death. It is her main driving force even though she knows she will likely die achieving it. When Wu is able to achieve her revenge, that small taste of power spurs her on. Her abilities make her an asset even as she is considered a threat.

In reading Iron Widow, I not only thought of Pacific Rim but I also found myself thinking of the classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. For those who are not familiar, Evangelion featured EVAs which were also biomechanical mechas created to battle similar type creatures. They too feature a human pilot – though the EVAs have one pilot while the Chrysalises have two. The pilots in both are young and must also follow the orders of those above them.

Zhao’s writing in Iron Widow is in my opinion quite well done. The action scenes are well-paced and are nicely interspersed with the more character-building scenes. Scenes that feature Wu’s “down-time” do not detract from the overall story but instead, add to the creation of a character that the reader can connect to. We cheer for Wu as she struggles and succeeds.

The only thing I did not like – and which I hope Zhao will expand upon in the second book – is the whole backstory of the Hunduns and the Chrysalises. We are given a tantalizing tease at the end of the first book and I am hoping that we learn more in the second.

I enjoyed reading Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. I am very glad I was allowed an early peek through Netgalley and I am eagerly looking forward to the second book in the series.

Provided for Review: The Ventifact Colossus (The Heroes of Spira #1) by Dorian Hart

A tale of epic fantasy begins…

Banished to an otherworldly prison for centuries, the monstrous Emperor Naradawk is about to break free and wreak havoc upon the world of Spira. The archmage Abernathy can no longer keep the monster at bay and has summoned a collection of would-be heroes to help set things right.

Surely he made a mistake. These can’t be the right people.

Dranko is priest-turned-pickpocket, expelled from his church for his antics. Kibilhathur is a painfully shy craftsman who speaks to stones. Aravia is a wizard’s apprentice whose intellect is eclipsed only by her arrogance. Ernest is a terrified baker’s son. Morningstar is a priestess forbidden from daylight. Tor is a young nobleman with attention issues. Ysabel is an elderly farm woman. Grey Wolf is a hard-bitten mercenary.

None of them are qualified to save the world, but they’ll have to do. Even Abernathy himself seems uncertain as to why he chose them.

This book was provided for review by the author and the kind folks at The Write Reads. Thank you!

As a long-time fan of the fantasy genre, I am always on the lookout for new authors and the universes they create. I enjoy meeting new characters and traveling to new lands and I really enjoy seeing the kinds of tropes the author uses. Because while there are some who look down on using tropes of any kind, I personally believe that they can be used effectively.

Plus, there are some that when they are used well, they are a treat.

The main trope that Hart uses for The Ventifact Colossus is the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits. And considering the people who make up the chosen team, it is so very true. They could not be more different and yet they will have to learn to at least tolerate one another. Especially if they are going to stop the evil Emperor.

There were a great many things I enjoyed in reading The Ventifact Colossus. For instance, how the team does not initially get along. Many times in a book (or movie or TV show) when a random group of characters is brought together for some reason they almost immediately begin to cooperate and work together with one another. The opposite is true here, these eight individuals quibble and fight almost from the moment they meet one another. This continues through the book even as they begin to rely on one another. They still argue and disagree and have their differences.

The world of Spira that Hart has created for the series is just as fun as the characters that inhabit it. We the reader are taken to a decent number of locations, each one unique. There are more places hinted at in dreams and visions and considering this is the first book of the series I am quite sure we will be visiting many of them.

The overall writing for The Ventifact Colossus was very enjoyable. Hart has an easy and entertaining writing style, making it easy to lose yourself in the story. There is plenty of action as well as humor, even in some of the more serious moments. It is because of these little moments along with the group of characters that makes the story a real page turner.

I really enjoyed reading The Ventifact Colossus and would definitely recommend it to my readers. Fans of fun easy reads will like it, as will readers of fantasy. While it is certainly possible to read all of the book in a day, I recommend the reader take it a bit slower. Revel in the world Hart has created and become friends with the characters. And then go read the rest of the series, I know I will.

Provided for Review: Strange Deaths of the Last Romantic by Moses Yuriyvich Mikheyev

“The first time I committed suicide I was ten years old.

There have been many more suicides since.”

Adam is cursed. He cannot die.

But one man’s burden is another man’s blessing, and there are people who are out to harness Adam’s special talents.

However, Adam soon discovers that immortality comes at a cost; every time he dies, he loses a little bit of himself. So when Adam meets Lilyanne—his reason for living—he’s forced to choose between life and love.

This book was provided for review by NetGalley. Thank you!

Trigger Warnings: Suicide, glorification of suicide, death of a parent, murder, child abuse, references to drug use, animal death

Adam cannot die.

Whenever he tries, he wakes up in a new place with only the memory of his name. Any other memories are fleeting and usually lost when he dies again. Adam believes himself alone and unique but he is not. There are more like him and there are those who want to be like him. And they will stop at nothing to accomplish their goals.

My many thanks to NetGalley for approving my request for this book. I generally do not regret my decisions to request an ARC but I deeply regret this one.

I will be honest dear reader, Strange Deaths of the Last Romantic is not a good book. There were times that as I was reading it I was amazed it had even made it to publication. There is fanfiction on A03, fanfiction.net, or even WattPad that is better written and with characters infinitely more likeable.

The basic plot surrounding Strange Deaths… is, I admit, an intriguing one. The opening scene is quite strong and really draws you in but just as quickly descends in to ridiculousness. The plot holes are numerous and many of them could have easily been fixed with some kind of real editing work. Problems and conflicts are solved with little more than a waved hand and are often never mentioned again.

The writing for Strange Deaths is something I could go on about at length simply because it is so bad. Clunky prose and stilted conversations abound. The manner in which Adam describes Lilyanne (or any female character honestly) reminds me very much of the examples from Reddit’s ‘menwritingwomen’ board highlighting what NOT to do. At times I wondered if Mikheyev actually pulled ideas from there.

Unfortunately, the characters that populate Strange Deaths aren’t much better. Adam (or Aristotle) comes to romanticize his suicides. He spends paragraphs admiring the gun he carries and even admits to finding killing himself addicting. His viewpoints on women – along with every other male character – are quite misogynistic. The few female characters falling in to either the “goddess” or “whore” trope with no in-between. The women are very one dimensional and almost every one practically falls all over Adam soon after meeting him.

As I said above, Strange Deaths is not a good book. Clunky and awkward writing, plot holes the size of the Titanic, strange and abrupt shifts in narrator, and deeply unlikeable characters make this an eye rolling read. It is not often that I advise my readers to stay away and NOT read a particular book. This is one of the few times I make an exception. Head on over to fanfiction.net or A03, I know without a doubt you will find something better there.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

memoryofwater

Global warming has changed the surface of the globe and its politics. Wars are now fought over water and China is a ruling state. It rules over the majority of what was known as Europe, including the old Scandinavian Union where Noria Kaitio lives.

Noria is following in her father’s footsteps; learning to become a tea master with all the responsibility it entails. Tea masters are keepers of old ways and of great secrets – the greatest being the source of hidden water that once served the whole village.

Secrets, however, almost never stay that way for long.

Memory of Water was a very interesting read. So often we do not realize how vital something is until that thing is taken away, in this instance water. It is the stuff life and is kept under strict control.

Like the water that is so precious in Noria’s world, it is mimicked in Itäranta’s writing style. Words and emotions ebb and flow; sometimes running smoothly and other times crashing down abruptly. Noria is in a constant battle with herself and with the government she has come to fear.

Memory of Water is a quick and somewhat satisfying read. The ending is not quite happy and open ended enough for the reader to consider what likely happens next. Set in an interesting world, I would enjoy seeing it revisited sometime in the future in a possible sequel.

The Mechanical: Book 1 of the Alchemy Wars by Ian Tregillis

Every so often an invention comes along that changes the world. It revolutionizes it’s particular field and nothing is quite the same afterward. One example – and one that is important to the story – is the pendulum clock. Invented in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens, is was a breakthrough in timekeeping, allowing accuracy unheard of in its day.

The Mechanical takes place in a world where the pendulum clock wasn’t Huygens only great invention. Along side the clocks, he also created a clockwork man called a Clakker. Imbued with a mixture of alchemy and science, these mechanical men and women are considered the perfect tool. They are able to fill any role – soldier or servant. They are tireless and obedient and they allow the Dutch to become a world power. Yet what the Dutch do not know – or perhaps deny knowing – is that the Clakkers are thinking and feeling beings and that they desire their freedom.

Our story takes place in 1926, but it is a very different age. The Dutch have built a grand world on the backs of their metal men conquering much of the known world. The French have been defeated and now live in exile in what know as Nova Scotia, Canada. Though the French have a better understanding of chemicals, scientific discovery and spies among the Dutch, and even with a shaky cease-fire between the two powers, the French know it is only a matter of time before they fall to the Clakkers. However the French believe they have found a way to not only defeat the French but to free the Clakkers.

There are three separate narratives creating this story, each showing a different view of this world. At first they seem separate and only as the book goes on do we see how entwined they truly are. I won’t go too much in to it though because to say too much will spoil the plot. And believe me dear reader, discovering how everything fits together is half the enjoyment of this book.

What also makes this book enjoyable is how it makes you think. Not only does it make you question how we define what means to be a human but also what it means to truly be free. It also asks that question ‘what is a soul?’ – it is something that can be measured or even manufactured? Questions that have been asked for millenia are posed again but without being preachy or sad but inquisitive.

To sum up, this book is EXCELLENT. With fabulous writing set in a fascinating well-built world, characters that are interesting and diverse and a truly original plot, this is a very good read. I am definitely looking forward to the second (and third? and more?) book in this series.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The life of an orphan is harsh, and sometimes quite short, on the island city of Camorr.

Locke Lamora, however, is determined to defy the odds. Gifted with a quick wit and talent for thieving, Locke escapes a life of slavery and its subsequent death to find himself in the employ of a blind priest named Chains – a man who is neither blind nor a priest.

Chains is a con artist of incredible talent – a talent he passes down to his “family” of orphans. Under his tutelage they are the Gentlemen Bastards and in time Locke becomes their leader. He becomes the Thorn of Camorr, more myth than man; fooling everyone from the most wealthy nobles to the criminal underworld’s most feared.

Soon though, Locke learns of a new player in the criminal game – a man calling himself The Gray King. Powerful and ruthless, The Gray King seems determined to rule Camorr’s criminal underworld and isn’t above using Locke as a pawn to do it.

I found The Lies of Locke Lamora an incredibly entertaining read. Certainly not for the squeamish or faint of heart, it brings to mind epic fantasies such as Game of Thrones or tales of revenge like The Godfather.

Richly detailed in both characters and world, Lynch has penned an enthralling tale. The characters themselves are very realistic and it is easy to cheer (and cry) with them as the story goes on.

If I have one complaint, it would be how Lynch didn’t quite successfully juggle the two main plot lines. He spent a great deal of time building up the con game plot line that Locke and his Gentlemen Bastards were play only to leave it dangling to concentrate on the Gray King thread. The con game is left almost forgotten, only to be brought back at the end of the book for a kind of resolution.

Aside from that one tiny quibble, I rather enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora. It seems to be the first in a series and it one I shall definitely be looking in to. Readers who enjoy a good fantasy with a healthy dollop of violence are likely to enjoy this one too.

Provided for Review: We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen

Jamie woke up in an empty apartment with no memory and only a few clues to his identity, but with the ability to read and erase other people’s memories—a power he uses to hold up banks to buy coffee, cat food and books.

Zoe is also searching for her past, and using her abilities of speed and strength…to deliver fast food. And she’ll occasionally put on a cool suit and beat up bad guys, if she feels like it.

When the archrivals meet in a memory-loss support group, they realize the only way to reveal their hidden pasts might be through each other. As they uncover an ongoing threat, suddenly much more is at stake than their fragile friendship. With countless people at risk, Zoe and Jamie will have to recognize that sometimes being a hero starts with trusting someone else—and yourself. 

Many thanks to MIRA/Harlequin Publishing and NetGalley for providing this book for review.

With great power comes great responsibility…sometimes.

Jamie is your typical 20-something single guy. He enjoys reading, good coffee, and doting on his beloved cat, Normal. What makes Jamie unique is the fact that he has no memory of his life before two years ago. And that he has the ability to read minds and manipulate memories.

Zoe is your typical 20-something single girl. She likes cheesy horror flicks and works delivering fast food. She too has no memory of her life before two years ago and in exchange has super speed and super strength. Plus, she can fly.

Jamie is The Mind Robber and Zoe is Throwing Star. Each is a villian or a vigilante, depending on who you ask.

We Could Be Heroes is a cute and quirky look at what can happen when ordinary people one day wake up with extraordinary powers. The paths they decide to take and the consequences of their decisions. The feelings and thoughts that arise when one believes they are alone in the world; and the hope that comes when one learns they are not alone.

The world of We Could Be Heroes is based on the modern day world. While the city of San Delgado is fictional, it could easily be any major metropolitan area. This is nice since it allows the reader to come up with their own ideas about the city and it’s surrounding areas.

Both Zoe and Jamie are well written characters. The progression of their friendship I think was handled very well. There is very little trust between them in the beginning, especially when they each realize who the other person is. Throwing Star and The Mind Robber are arch-rivals after all. Yet when they realize they are more alike then they think, and when they start to work together to try and piece together who they each were, do we see the trust deepen and their friendship really blossom.

And their friendship remains just that – a friendship. All too often in books with a male and a female lead they end up in a romantic relationship. This does not happen in We Could Be Heroes. Over the course of the book, Jamie and Zoe become good friends and remain that way.

Due to the way the story ends, We Could Be Heroes could be either a stand alone novel or the beginning of a new series. It is heavily implied that what happened to Zoe and Jamie happened to others, so where are those people? What are their stories? Who did they become?

As a fan of superheroes in almost any genre, I can say with confidence that We Could Be Heroes should be added to the literary roster. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to my readers – regardless of whether they prefer Marvel or DC. It is a fun and entertaining read.

Oddjobs (Oddjobs #1) by Heide Goody

It’s the end of the world as we know it, but someone still needs to do the paperwork.

Incomprehensible horrors from beyond are going to devour our world but that’s no excuse to get all emotional about it. Morag Murray works for the secret government organisation responsible for making sure the apocalypse goes as smoothly and as quietly as possible.

In her first week on the job, Morag has to hunt down a man-eating starfish, solve a supernatural murder and, if she’s got time, prevent her own inevitable death.

The first book in a new comedy series by the creators of ‘Clovenhoof’, Oddjobs is a sideswipe at the world of work and a fantastical adventure featuring amphibian wannabe gangstas, mad old cat ladies, ancient gods, apocalyptic scrabble, fish porn, telepathic curry and, possibly, the end of the world before the weekend.

The world as we know it may be ending but someone still needs to make sure the proper paperwork has been done.

Oddjobs is the first book in the series of the same name by Heide Goody and Iain Grant. It is a very British take on the Men in Black trope that has spawned several movies, books, and graphic novels. The main difference being while in Men in Black they were trying to stop the apocalypse, in Oddjobs they’re trying to make sure the process goes smoothly. If it’s going to happen anyway, why not make it as easy as possible? And maybe even bring in a few dollars with a line of incredibly cute and cuddly plushes?

As I said above, Oddjobs is a very British book. Peppered throughout are references to persons, places, and events that the average UK reader would recognize but other readers might not. On a handful of occasions I found myself having to look up things referenced simply to try and keep up with the storyline. Not that this is a bad thing per se, but it might throw off the average reader.

Oddjobs is a fast paced book and in some places quite funny. The cast of characters are an eclectic lot, each one bringing their own strengths to the team. While some background is given on each character, it is my hope that we learn more about every one with each subsequent novel.

I really enjoyed reading Oddjobs. As a fan of British sci-fi I found it to be an entertaining mix of seriousness and satire. Readers who are fans of this genre and like classics like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf are sure to like this one as well. Average readers might find the British-isms a bit confusing at time but I urge them to give this a try as well.

Channel Blue by Jay Martel

channelblue

This review was originally posted January 2015

Turn on the TV at practically any time of day or night on any channel and you have a good chance of seeing some kind of Reality Program. The programs run the gamut from the serious to the insane and cover any number of subjects. People tune in to them in droves and the people who appear on them become stars overnight. But what if the Earth itself was its own reality program? What if the day to day happenings of the people here, no matter how mundane, provide entertainment to extraterrestrial beings?

That is the question posed in Channel Blue.

At one time Earth was Galaxy Entertainment’s highest ranking show. The viewers couldn’t get enough of the backwards little people. But like most audiences, they are fickle and what was once the biggest thing is now at the bottom of the heap. This is what has happened to Earth, aka Channel Blue. With its ratings quickly going down the tube they plan to draw in the viewers once more with an amazing finale. In just three weeks, the TV show will go out with a bang, and unfortunately so will Earth.

One man however can save our planet from it’s final curtain call, but Perry Bunt’s hardly the hero type.

If that last line sounds a tad cliched, that’s probably because it is. Earth is on the brink of destruction and out of the billions of people on the planet the only one who can save us is some nobody. He is your token white man, non-descript and bland. Like most in the anti-hero trope, Perry starts the book with a “I don’t want to do this” approach which evolves in to a “I guess I have to do this” approach which becomes a “I want to do this!” approach. He continues to try and do the right thing which only gets him in to trouble and usually ends with some kind of physical beating for Perry. As the story carries on this becomes tiring, not only for Perry, but for the reader them self.

With Perry in this mad adventure is Amanda Mundo. Hailing from the planet Eden, but looking exactly like any human, she is one of the many many producers of Channel Blue. At first she’s interested in Perry because he’s an ex-script writer and she needs ideas to keep Channel Blue running. The disappointing thing is that eventually she too succumbs to the trope most female characters are subjected to – that of the love interest. Of course she falls in love with Perry and of course they end up together with a happy ending, the story left open-ended for the possibility of a sequel. In it’s predictability it’s almost disappointing.

Now I’m not saying that Channel Blue is a complete disappointment. There are some rather amusing moments and the book itself does present a sort of critique on our society. It is absurd in its own way but hardly “in the tradition of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut” as one reviewer said it. Adams and Douglas set a precedent when it comes to sci-fi and while Martel does make a good endeavor, he simply cannot match the greats.