Stacking the Shelves #4

I’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, absolutely devouring books at a crazy rate. Then I ran into a bit of a problem: I ran out of stuff I wanted to read that weren’t ARCs. Oh, I still have a decent number of books on my to-read list, but they just haven’t been calling me. So I decided to both slow down a little bit both for that reason and to avoid burnout. I also went on an excursion today to Illiad Bookshop to see what goodies I could dig up. I’ll share my spoils below, but I’ll just say that if you’re in the in the LA Area/SFV you owe it yourself to go check that place out: it’s the only used bookstore that I’ve been to that was both a) clean, spacious and well lit and b) had a fantastic selection of science-fiction/fantasy, which if oft neglected in these kinds of stores. I’ll definitely be checking it out again.

Anyway, as a result, I decided it made for a perfect time to do another Stacking the Shelves post. Some of these eARCs I’ve had on my Kindle for a while, but they somehow just didn’t make it in to the last post. With that said, let’s get started.

The Books I’ve Bought

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$22 including tax, and 3 of the four are like-new condition. Deal of the day!

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Kushiel’s Avatar (Kindle) and Kushiel’s Scion (Hardback) – Me finishing Phedre’s trilogy was only a matter of when, not if. I’d probably have waited on picking up Kushiel’s Scion (first of Imreal’s trilogy) except that when you find a new hardback for the same price as the Kindle edition, it just makes the hardback hard to pass up!

Mage’s Blood – This is one of those books that I kept picking up at the bookstore, then putting down, or looking at it on Amazon, but not hitting the click button. When I found the hardback at the bookstore (again for cheaper than what the Kindle version would go for), I decided it was finally time to just go for it.

The Golden Key – An absolute favorite when I read it back in like 1999 or 2000. The premise – using painting as a way to manipulate time and reality – remains one of the most clever conceits I’ve ever read and I picked it up because I want to re-read and see if it holds up as well as I think it will.

Banewreaker – I love the alternate Europe that Carey created in her Kushiel series, but wanted to see how she otherwise fared. Since then she’s dabbled in some other genres: some urban fantasy, some paranormal fantasy, and then this series which seems to stay within the realm of epic fantasy. Maybe one day I’ll get around to one of her other worlds.

Finished Copies Received from Publisher for Review

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William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace – yes, this is exactly what it sounds like it is: a retelling of Episode 1 in iambic pentameter. I’m currently reading it, so you’ll probably see a review sometime this week.

E-ARCs Received from Publisher for Review

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The Choosing- Dystopian YA! One day I will find one that isn’t a complete rip off of The Hunger Games or Divergent

Desert Rising – Epic fantasy where priests bond with large cats. Count me in.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik moves beyond dragons a fairy-tale like world. Consider me curious.

The Waterborne Blade – Epic YA fantasy. I have some hopes for this one. I like stories about women coming into their own, so long as there’s a believable basis for it.

Ice Kissed – Paranormal YA fantasy. Something I haven’t seen much of, so I’m willing to give it a shot.

So how about you? Pick up anything new? Lemme know in comments below 🙂

Born to Exile (Tales of the Minstrel Alaric #1) – Phyllis Eisenstein

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Summary:

Alaric, a young minstrel with a talent for magic, roamed the lands in search of his fortune. And in Castle Royale, it seemed he’d found both his fortune and his true love, the beautiful Princess Solinde. But could a penniless orphan hope to claim such a royal treasure? And in a land where witches were burned and the court magician looked on Alaric with suspicion, did he dare remain for long?

For Alaric had a magical power which, in the blink of an eye, could transport him any place his mind could recall, a power that revealed itself at the first hint of danger. And for Alaric, Castle Royale held more danger than he could imagine…

Review:

This is kind of an odd duck to review. Written back in 1978, the vast majority of this book barely even feels like fantasy: it feels much like a tale that a minstrel like himself would have told around a fire in whatever part of medieval Europe he happened to be in: a story of a youth of 15 follows his hormones and falls in “love” with the Princess Solinde (a love that, like fair Juliet would have likely all but fizzled if they were to spend true time together), beds her and is forced to flee when caught. From there he wanders, stays at an ill filled with people of bad intentions, wanders and finds the family he never knew he had. At that point the story really does get quite interesting, but sadly, it more or less ends the second that it really begins to feel like a true bit of fantasy in a cliffhanger that one sense will never be resolved.

And why would I say that given that there is in fact a second book?

Because in fact (and something I forgot in the intervening months since I bought this book) this isn’t a duology. Both books are instead collections of short stories. I can’t speak to the second, but if it’s like the first, said short stories were then cobbled together into something resembling a novel. In a way, the books weaknesses begin to make much more sense: the simplistic plot, the episodic nature of the tale and that cliffhanger of an ending that will probably never see resolution. I wish this had been put together more traditionally, because the family that was born into was both creepy and yet an amazing concept that demands to be more richly explored.

All in all, I don’t know that I can recommend it. While an easy read, it’s unquestionably unsatisfying since the short stories were never really fleshed out properly, the way they should have been. Add on top of that that the book is out of print and unavailable digitally – larger libraries may have it in their collection, but these are old enough that it’s no guarantee that smaller systems would – that having to hit up the used book market (or things like Amazon sellers) is a must. While the books are pretty readily available in that space, I honestly don’t know it worth that it’s worth more than $5.

If you’re curious about the author, I’d probably check out the Rogues anthology where she revisits the character. It’s a contemporary piece of fantasy and so much the richer for it. You’ll probably find more enjoyment there than you will here, not to mention all the other fantastic shorts collected within.

Verdict: Skip It

Available: Now

Kushiel’s Chosen (Kushiel’s Legacy #2) – Jacqueline Carey

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Mighty Kushiel, of rod and weal
Late of the brazen portals
With blood-tipp’d dart a wound unhealed
Pricks the eyen of chosen mortals

The land of Terre d’Ange is a place of unsurpassed beauty and grace. The inhabiting race rose from the seed of angels and men, and they live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt.

Phèdre nĂł Delaunay was sold into indentured servitude as a child. Her bond was purchased by a nobleman, the first to recognize that she is one pricked by Kushiel’s Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. He trained Phèdre in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber–and, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze.

When she stumbled upon a plot that threatened the very foundations of her homeland, she gave up almost everything she held dear to save it. She survived, and lived to have others tell her story, and if they embellished the tale with fabric of mythical splendor, they weren’t far off the mark.

The hands of the gods weigh heavily upon Phèdre’s brow, and they are not finished with her. While the young queen who sits upon the throne is well loved by the people, there are those who believe another should wear the crown…and those who escaped the wrath of the mighty are not yet done with their schemes for power and revenge

Review:

No, you’re not seeing things. Yes, I did just review the first book in this series less than a week ago (okay, 5 days ago to be precise). It is a testament to how much I loved the first book that I felt the desire to dive straight in to the second, which is fitting, as indeed this book picks up where the previous left off.

Since I did do such a recent review of Kushiel’s Dart left off, instead of repeating why I so adored that book, I thought I’d touch on some of the things that I missed before.

First off, we have Melisandre our antagonist. As I mentioned the dire lack of strong female protagonist lead epic fantasy, so too are we lacking for strong female antagonists. Melisandre does what she does out of a lust for power and because she  sees Phèdre as a worthy opponent. Not once does a lover scorned ever enter the picture – though I will say there is a rather twisted kind of love between the two players that is all kinds of wrong and yet remains seductive. It is definitely a strength.

Also, I love the travelogue-esque aspect of these tales. The places Phèdre visits this time around are decidedly more interesting than Skaldia, but that same level of care and craft in terms of its peoples and its beliefs and all feel distinct. Carey loves her world without question.

I also love that through it all, Phèdre never loses her faith. It would be so easy for her to become jaded and it is a wonder that she does not. I myself am not religious, but I appreciate those who are and I can understand respect how she in her faith she finds the strength to go one.

I do have two minor quibbles, however. The first is, is that even with only two books it feels like there is a formula setting in: Phèdre slowly gets drawn into an intrigue, and at the half-way mark events spiral out of control and send her on an adventure. It’s not bad, but at the same point in time it probably is just as well that her story is a trilogy or else I think it might grow stale, especially since there are only so many times one can escape certain death (while not being a fighter herself) without losing some plausibility.

The second is that Joscelin gets to be ridiculously annoying. You understand why he struggles so but that does not change that relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin turns borderline melodrama. When fate conspires to separate them for large chunk of the book, I do think it is for the better of the book, and thankfully it is settled by the end of this book.

All in all, the series remains excellent and an easy recommendation.Fantasy would truly be well served to have more characters like her.

Finally, for those worried about such things, there is decidedly less emphasis on sex in this than in the first (though it of course does remain an undercurrent).

Verdict: Buy It

Available Now

Dark Alchemy – Laura Bickle

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Summary:

Geologist Petra Dee arrives in Wyoming looking for clues to her father’s disappearance years before. What she finds instead is Temperance, a dying Western town with a gold rush past and a meth-infested present. But under the town’s dust and quiet, an old power is shifting. When bodies start turning up – desiccated and twisted skeletons that Petra can’t scientifically explain – her investigations land her in the middle of a covert war between the town’s most powerful interests. Petra’s father wasn’t the only one searching for the alchemical secrets of Temperance, and those still looking are now ready to kill. Armed with nothing but shaky alliances, a pair of antique guns, and a relic she doesn’t understand, the only thing Petra knows for sure is that she and her coyote sidekick are going to have to move fast, or die next.

Review:

This is kind of a strange one.

Is contemporary western fantasy a thing? If it is, it’s kind of fascinating that it exists because it’s certainly a hodgepodge of disparate styles. You have the lush landscapes and desolation of true traditional westerns, the meth problems that are ravaging rural communities today, and then this imperfect alchemy that seems to only be capable of creating these creatures that are in a state of suspended animation: neither living nor dead, and for the most part, only able to follow commands and do little else.

It’s just odd

The pieces fit, but barely. If this were a jigsaw puzzle, the alchemy would be that piece that you can’t quite get to lay flat, even though you are 100% certain that no other piece can go into that space. That said, I suppose there’s no real reason why this shouldn’t work. Ultimately though, I can’t shake the feeling that if this isn’t one of those books where maybe keeping it a question whether the alchemy was true or just a bunch of crazies messing with chemicals might have served the book better.

As far as characters go, Petra is likable enough, though decidedly underdeveloped. To whit, about the only thing we learn about Petra that isn’t in the summary is the fact that she feels guilty over an accident on an oil rig that caused her to head to Wyoming in the first place. And since she’s looking for a fresh start, why not look for her father to boot. There just isn’t anything else to her. I almost feel like Sig, the coyote/spirit guide that adopted her, has more personality. It’s not that you don’t want her to succeed, it’s just that it’s hard to get vested in her. The ending of this book clearly sets up a sequel but the book just isn’t compelling enough to make you want to come back.

Books in the Harper/Voyager Impulse line tend to be a bit more experimental in nature than what often shows up in their main lines. While this means that the titles can be more hit and miss, the $2.99 price point is such that it can be worth taking a risk on, when you might not do the same for a full-priced title. If you’re a reader that isn’t as character-focused as I am, and the setting calls to you, it’s absolutely worth taking a shot because it’s an enjoyable enough little read. That said, if you want something more traditional, if you do like more character development or you just think this sounds too odd for your tastes, go ahead and skip it. It’s a niche title, and that’s okay.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: March 24th

Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel’s Legacy #1) by @JCareyAuthor

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Summary:

The land of Terre d’Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good….and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phèdre nĂł Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission….and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel’s dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one.

Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair….and beyond.

Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear. Set in a world of cunning poets, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and a truly Machiavellian villainess, this is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. Not since Dune has there been an epic on the scale of Kushiel’s Dart, a massive tale about the violent death of an old age, and the birth of a new.

Review:

One of the first reviews you’ll see of this book on Goodreads makes much ado about the relative young age of those entering Naamah’s service (14, though most don’t seem to start actually serving until 15 or 16), and how some of the BDSM is a bit extreme for her taste and so on. As I got into this novel I was going to write this big impassioned defense of the world of which this book is set. There’s the fact that Naamah is not unlike Aphrodite: her priests and priestesses are courtesans, and to sleep with one is an act of worship. There’s the fact that consent is everywhere in this book, and that consent being taken away around the midpoint plays an important role. There’s a fact that none of the sexy is tawdry or exploitative. It is crystal clear when one patrol has crossed the line, and what constitutes that line and when Phèdre will allow her patron to tip toe up to it is very much a part of her coming to grips with what it means to bear Kushiel’s Dart and so forth.

But then I realized than I decided that if I did so, that it kind of misses the point.

For as much as sex and sexuality run as themes through this story, it is not a story about sex.

It is epic fantasy.

It is feminist, sex-positive epic fantasy told from a perspective that we just never see: the female outsider. Phèdre is no warrior. For all that she has been taught, she is no scholar nor trained diplomat. She is a courtesan, taught by her bond-holder (yes, she’s an indentured servant, but like so many before her has earned her freedom before the half-way mark of this book) to pay attention and to listen. She gathers information and passes it along to let him do with it as he pleases.

Until she can no longer be the outsider.

Until her bond-holder has been betrayed and killed and she has become an unwilling participant because it’s that or die. She survives because she is smart. She survives because she can use her knowledge of men (and one woman, actually) to do what must be done. There are a few occasions in this book where she uses her body to get what is needed. Male companions of hers question her decisions, but in a refreshing change from the norm, she does not feel guilt. She is a servant of Naamah. She has Kushiel’s Dart. They are part and parcel of who she is and if that is what it takes to to further their dire situation than so be it.

This is about a girl becoming a woman. It is a book about discovering what it means to serve your god – chosen freely (Naamah) or by her very nature (Kushiel) – and that is a discussion that isn’t limited to Phèdre, but also to her companion Joscelin – a guard in the service of Cassiel who in their quest to survive must break vows he swore never to break.

I actually really like the religion and world building here too. It’s a curious mix of the polytheism of the Greeks mixed with a bit of Christianity (Blessed Elua had 12 companions is all I’m saying) and the Yeshuites are clearly the Hebrews. The world is clearly European-based: Phèdre people feel like the French. We get mentions (in other names) of the Romans, the Spanish, the Celts, and the Vikings. It just shows that you these old constructs have plenty of life in them when enough care is paid to them.

And finally, I have to give Carey props because though this book is long (the paperback version is about 930 pages long, the Kindle version just over 1000) it doesn’t feel it nor outstay its welcome. So often I feel like books of these length (see Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles) need a trim, but this one doesn’t. The first half and the second half are distinct enough that they could have been cut into two books, but I’m glad they didn’t, because you need both halves to get that truly rewarding experience.

One consistent plea in fantasy is for more female-centric and female-written books. This book and this series are just that. Don’t let the basic concept behind the book turn you off, because you’ll be missing out on something truly special.

Verdict: Buy It

Available Now

An Ember in the Ashes – Sabaa Tahir

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Summary:

Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It’s a story that’s literally burning to be told.

LAIA is a Scholar living under the iron-fisted rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire’s greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from rebel Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution.

ELIAS is the academy’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he’s ordered to participate in a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor.

When Laia and Elias’s paths cross at the academy, they find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself.

Review:

If I had to pick a word to describe this book, it would be “generic.”

I was put off when I read about the militaristic Martial empire (really, can you GET much lazier?) and the crushed Scholar empire (how does a group of scholars grow large enough to become an empire anyway?).

It didn’t get much better when tropes kicked in: the plucky young girl whose family was killed by the bad guys vowing to save the only brother she has left and the guy from the evil empire who is actually good. He is good more or less because if he wasn’t, then he couldn’t fall for our heroine, another staple of the genre. Heck, we even got a ridiculously fatal scheme to pick a new emperor that makes no sense, because why pick an emperor based on his or her skill on the battlefield when you can have the young adults kill each other off instead!

There just isn’t anything new here.

Ultimately, it’s not the worse thing that could happen: the author knows the beats that are expected of her and she tells them well. She mixes things up a bit by having the guy have two possible love interests and the romance is never at the forefront of the story, which is both appropriate and a nice departure from the norms of the genre she’s writing in.

All in all, it’s solid title that fans of the genre should enjoy and I’d recommend it over a lot of what is out there. It’s one of those titles that isn’t striving to reinvent the wheel and if you understand that going in, you can have fun with it. If you want something different though, I’d recommend that you keep looking.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: April 28th

A Dance in Blood Velvet (Blood Wine #2) – Freda Warrington

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Summary:

For the love of her vampire suitor, Karl, Charlotte has forsaken her human life. Now her only contact with people is when she hunts them down to feed. Her thirst for blood repulses her but its fulfilment brings ecstasy.

The one light in the shadows is the passion that burns between her and Karl. A love that it seems will last for eternity – until Karl’s former lover, the seductively beautiful Katerina, is rescued from the Crystal Ring. For nearly fifty years she has lain, as dead, in the icy depths of the Weisskalt. Now she wants to reclaim her life… and Karl.

In despair, Charlotte turns to the prima ballerina Violette Lenoir, an ice maiden who only thaws when she dances. Charlotte is fascinated as she has been by no other human, longing to bring joy to the dancer. But her obsession opens the floodgates to a far darker threat than the vampires could ever have imagined. For Violette is more than human and if she succumbs to the vampire’s kiss it could unleash a new terror.

Review:

There’s a line towards the very end of the 1994 film version of Interview with the Vampire. At the tail end of the movie, Lestat drops in on Daniel (literally) who is listening to Louis’ tape as he drives out of San Francisco. Lestat looks at Daniel and says “Louis, Louis, still whining, Louis.”

That’s kind of how I felt about Charlotte in this book. And Karl. And to an extent the new girl on the block, Violette. Gah. It manages to be both annoying and dull to read.

So much of this book is Charlotte being upset at Karl’s defense and seeming infatuation with Katerina, or Karl being upset and confused that Charlotte and Katerina don’t get along, or the pair both longing for the other. It’s so bad that even the other characters eventually find ways to try and get them together because no one can stand it anymore. And problem is, it’s all so dull.

The story does exist for a purpose: to push Charlotte into the arms of the ballerina Violette, but even then, that isn’t interesting. There isn’t a reason for Charlotte to be captivated by her. She’s pretty. She’s aloof. She hates men because her father was abusive. She doesn’t have much depth beyond that.

Alongside that story is one about humans who are into mysticism and somehow can tap into the Crystal Ring and gain some control over the vampires and it’s all to set up a story about bringing about Lilith, mother of the vampires back and meh. It should be interesting and somehow isn’t. If I had to pinpoint it on something, I’d have to say that one of the previous book’s strengths – that gothic flair – just doesn’t work here. That book really was about Charlotte and Karl and it worked as they slid into obsession. Now though, it’s just too slowly paced to keep my interest.

Clearly, the series has its fans else a new book wouldn’t be coming out in October.  I think those more into the gothic sub-genre will enjoy this more than I would, and for them I’d say go ahead and check it out. The rest of us though…

Verdict: Skip It

Available: Now