Borrow it x 2 – Black Moon (Zodiac #3) & Frostblood (Frostblood Saga #1)

I’m back!

Work has settled down a ton which means the urge to read has started coming back. On top of that, I have several books on my Kindle that I’m genuinely looking forward to reading. I’m not going to commit how often I’m going to post, but when I do, I will be posting on Mondays just for sake of some kind of consistency.

That said, I’m going to start with two solid YA sci-fi/fantasy titles:

 

Black Moon is the third book of the Zodiac series, and Frost Blood is the first book in an upcoming new series. If you know how much I’ve loved the Zodiac series in the past, then you’d be shocked to find out that I actually kind of liked Frost Blood more.

I know right? Seriously?

Here’s the thing. I love the Zodiac series because in addition to some very deep world building, an intriguing plot, and a very strong heroine, Russell managed to (mostly) avoid the cliches of the genre. In Black Moon however, it’s like she’s making up for lost time. It feels like Rho spends the first half of the book mooning over the two legs of the love triangle and attending a freaking royal ball, complete with “what to wear” montage. It’s just like WHY damn it? It just felt so unnecessary! The book did finish strong, and I’ll certainly read the final book, but this was totally a stumble for me.

On the other hand, Frost Blood doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is: a piece of YA fantasy that doesn’t push any boundaries. Our heroine is as fiery as her magic. The love interest has a tragic backstory and a twist regarding his true identity. There is a prophecy. There is an evil king. It’s all tied up in in a fairly neat bow of some solid world building. It’s not fresh, but it’s fun and someone who loves the genre will find this a fun book to cozy up to.

Now, I’d still go ahead and recommend both books to someone browsing the YA section, but both also feel a little bit forgettable. Not a great way to start my year, but not a bad one either!

Verdict: Borrow Both

Available: Black Moon is out now, Frostblood bows January 10th.

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Hexed (The Iron Druid Chronicles #2) – Kevin Hearne

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Summary:

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, doesn’t care much for witches. Still, he’s about to make nice with the local coven by signing a mutually beneficial nonaggression treaty—when suddenly the witch population in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, quadruples overnight. And the new girls are not just bad, they’re badasses with a dark history on the German side of World War II.

With a fallen angel feasting on local high school students, a horde of Bacchants blowing in from Vegas with their special brand of deadly decadence, and a dangerously sexy Celtic goddess of fire vying for his attention, Atticus is having trouble scheduling the witch hunt. But aided by his magical sword, his neighbor’s rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and his vampire attorney, Atticus is ready to sweep the town and show the witchy women they picked the wrong Druid to hex.

Review:

In some ways, Hexed feels like it ought to be a continuation of Hounded, like it is finishing the set-up work that the first book started. Why? It now feels like the players of this world are fully in place: we know that the Morrighan and Brighid will likely spar over the course of the series. We now know which witches will be at his side, and which witches he’ll be sparring with sporadically over the course of the series, and so on.

Why? The first third of the book feels like filler.

We get some fun character interactions, and Hearne is setting up some characters that will become important later in the series, but it’s so insignificant to the plot that none of this story is mentioned in the synopsis at all. Worse still, you could take this all out and have the story basically work as is with very few, very marginal changes. Not helping matters is that this book barely clocks 200 pages without it, it basically NEEDS to be in here to justify calling it a novel. To me, that is the very definition of filler.

But once I got past that, I enjoyed the book. I like the world that Hearne is creating and Atticus is a very likable figure. The world is unique enough and the humor of the first book is still there and if you’re looking for a more action-centric series, this will certainly fit the bill.

I think at this point I expected to be more sold on the series than I am. Will I pick up Hammered at some point? Probably. Do I feel in any rush to do so? Not really.

That said, I completely get why this series is as popular as it is though, and I do think that if you liked the first book you should give this second one a chance.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: Now

Night Watch (Watch #1) – Sergei Lukyanenko

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Summary:

Others. They walk among us. Observing.

Set in contemporary Moscow, where shape shifters, vampires, and street-sorcerers linger in the shadows, Night Watch is the first book of the hyper-imaginative fantasy pentalogy from best-selling Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

This epic saga chronicles the eternal war of the “Others,” an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who must swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. The agents of the Dark – the Night Watch – oversee nocturnal activity, while the agents of the Light keep watch over the day. For a thousand years both sides have maintained a precarious balance of power, but an ancient prophecy has decreed that a supreme Other will one day emerge, threatening to tip the scales. Now, that day has arrived. When a mid-level Night Watch agent named Anton stumbles upon a cursed young woman – an uninitiated Other with magnificent potential – both sides prepare for a battle that could lay waste to the entire city, possible the world. With language that throbs like darkly humorous hard-rock lyrics about blood and power, freedom and responsibility, Night Watch is a chilling, cutting-edge thriller, a pulse-pounding ride of fusion fiction that will leave you breathless for the next installment.

Review:

This is one of those books where the things that make it interesting also make it frustrating.

It is a refreshing change to read a story about a man who is not the hero and can never be the hero. It is also depressing when you are constantly being reminded that he is nothing but a pawn, knows it, hates it, and yet mostly accepts it because he sees little alternative.

There’s just something inherently depressing about this world; so much so that it makes it hard to keep a vested interest in the characters.

The book is not aided by a translation that, while assuredly faithful to the original as it can be, reads as very stilted as if the translator doesn’t understand that the meter and rhythms of the original language are only a hindrance here. There was nothing gained by refusing to soften the harshness of the style, is all.

Finally, the fact that this is not one story, but three shorts means that this feels like a loose collection of shorts that feel disconnected and only makes it that much harder to really ever gain any empathy for anyone.

This is one of those books you almost read out of academic interest because it feels so far removed from American urban fantasy. I’m not sad that I read it, but I also know I have no interest of looking at any of the other books in the series.

Verdict: Borrow it. This is very much a Your Mileage May Vary kind of book that’s hard to recommend at full price.

Available: Now

 

Age of Myth (The Legends of the First Empire #1) – Michael Sullivan

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Summary:

What does it mean if the gods can be killed? The first novel in an epic new fantasy series for readers of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, and Scott Lynch.

Michael J. Sullivan’s trailblazing career began with the breakout success of his Riyria series: full-bodied, spellbinding fantasy adventures whose imaginative scope and sympathetic characters won a devoted readership. Now, Sullivan’s stunning hardcover debut, Age of Myth, inaugurates an original five-book series, and one of fantasy’s finest next-generation storytellers continues to break new ground.

Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between men and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now, only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer, Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom, and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over; the time of rebellion has begun.

Review:

Something about this book just doesn’t quite sit well with me, and it left me uneasy as I read this entire piece. Finally, I decided it was this: the juxtaposition of the vaguely Bronze-age Rhune versus the pure high fantasy Fhrey is an uneasy one, and the egotism in which the Fhrey see the Rhune (aka the humans) a mere rodens that are incapable of thought makes the latter seem almost like cartoonish. I get it: racism often lends itself to superiority complexes, but this takes it to near extreme levels. It doesn’t help that some characters somehow can speak the Fhrey tongue, but when in speaking with the Fhrey, that language comes off as broken enough to make Ralph Wiggum seem smart. I get that they wouldn’t fully understand it, but in combination with how the Fhrey see the Rhune, it just adds that extra layer of discomfort.

On the other hand, if there is one thing I thought Sullivan did quite well was the portrayal of gender politics in the book. Persephone is constantly in danger throughout this book, and in large part it was because she is a smart woman who commanded respect – unlike the man who took over after her husband died. Those tensions played off quite believably and honestly, it is her struggle that made the book worth reading. Although the Art was quite an interesting magic system, the disconnect between the two stories was so jarring, and the antagonists so cliched that they just didn’t feel like they belonged in this book.

Finally, in an author’s note at the start of the book, Sullivan mentions this book is set 3000 years before the events of the Riyria Chronicles. And honestly, I have to wonder why he would even bring it up. Yes, there is very much a tangential connection that will eventually come into play with the First Empire, but right now the two worlds are so completely and utterly disconnected that there may as well be no connection. Furthermore, this world feels so different from the ones in the other books (even beyond the obvious advancement in time) that it’s hard to see how the worlds are even connected. It might be one of those things that takes the five full books to bring to light, but for now at least, it leaves you going “these are connected, really?”

All told, I’m a bit torn on it, but if you like traditional fantasy at all, you might still want to give it a look. While problematic, it is interesting and I found myself engaged as I was reading it in a way I haven’t been for a lot of books lately. For that alone, I’d say it’s worth a look.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available: June 28

 

 

Succubus Blues (Georgina Kincaid #1)

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Summary:

When it comes to jobs in hell, being a succubus seems pretty glamorous. A girl can be anything she wants, the wardrobe is killer, and mortal men will do anything just for a touch. Granted, they often pay with their souls, but why get technical?

But Seattle succubus Georgina Kincaid’s life is far less exotic. At least there’s her day job at a local bookstore–free books; all the white chocolate mochas she can drink; and easy access to bestselling, sexy writer, Seth Mortensen, aka He Whom She Would Give Anything to Touch but Can’t.

But dreaming about Seth will have to wait. Something wicked is at work in Seattle’s demon underground. And for once, all of her hot charms and drop-dead one-liners won’t help because Georgina’s about to discover there are some creatures out there that both heaven and hell want to deny.

After Vampire Academy left me cold (sorry, Rose/Dimitri still kinda wigs me out) and after the major problems I had with Age of  X (and especially The Immortal Crown), I was a bit weary of picking this one up. Luckily, and perhaps because it is one of her older series, I didn’t have any of the issues I had with the other books.

Georgina is a very likable. She’s just the right amount of jaded that it doesn’t feel like it’s trendy or edgy, just naturally world-weary and the backstory of how she became a succubus has just the right note of tragedy. Her reasons for not dating seem genuine, and I think most bookworms can easily relate to the way that she’s in absolute love with Seth Mortensen’s books. I also like that she’s got no connection to police work, detective work or bartending which is always a bonus (okay, I’ll admit book store form of retail is almost a trope in of itself, but it doesn’t bother me as much here).

Really, all told this is quite a fun, basic, urban fantasy novel. My only real gripe is I picked out the bad guy from the moment they met. I was questioning whether you were supposed to, but considering a review for the last book in the series mentioned clue-by-fours, I’m going to go ahead and say that yes, yes you were. Thankfully, it didn’t ruin the fun by having it spoiled, and yet I don’t know that it was strictly necessary either.

As an aside: though there are one or two sex scenes, this book is pretty bloodless as far as violence goes. If you want a cleaner series, this is a good place to look.

All told, I’m not upset I broke my no additional UF series rule. I’ll give the next one a look and see where it goes from there.

Plus, as of 3/23, the book is on sale for $1.99 for Kindle. Hard to beat it at that price!

Verdict: Buy it  if still on sale or if you’re a big UF fan. Otherwise, borrow it. It may be a bit too traditional for some to hold your interest.

Available: Now.

 

JRPG Review: Digimon Story: Cybersleuth

And it’s time for another JRPG review! I’ve been a Pokemon fan for ages, and have owned Nintendo’s latest portable to be able to play the latest game off and on, but inevitably always sell off said handheld because there just weren’t enough other games I wanted to play. So when I got the itch to pick up a new game, I got the next best thing: a Digimon game. For those of you who don’t know, Digimon is Pokemon’s younger and less kid-friendly knock-off franchise that has nonetheless managed to hit its 15th anniversary. Not bad for a knock-off, eh?

Anyway, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was released in 2015 as a PS4 and PS Vita title and released here in the US in February 2016. Is it worth a pick-up? Let’s take a look.

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Graphics: Funnily enough, the anime-inspired game looks like an anime. Cel-shaded people and Digimon traverse a static CGI-painted world. The “cyber” elements of the game are depicted in very Tron-esque neon blues and it all looks quite nice. That said, there are some graphical glitches to be found. My character often clipped with the larger Digimon models making it seem like the pair had merged into some kind of unholy beast, and my guest would often disappear on elevator rides to where I started to question whether or not they were supposed to – even though logic dictates they shouldn’t. It’s not game breaking, but considering that we’re not pushing any graphical limits here, it’s disappointing to see and you’d hope for more polish. Overall, it does work and it looks nice, just don’t expect to be wowed.

Sound: Unlike the graphics, the sound work leaves something to be desired. Music is there, but outside of loops like the dungeon theme that you hear so many times that you can’t not get them stuck in your head, it’s forgettable. The game is only voiced in Japanese as is presented with English subtitles. This is both good and bad, as battles tend to have intro’s and outros that are probably the same one or two phrases repeated over and over and over again. At least you can’t understand them? Bye the by, the protagonist is unvoiced, probably a cost saving measure but nonetheless annoying as even most Digimon have voices. There’s no character customization beyond gender, would it have been so hard to have two reads done?

While we’re here, I do want to bring up the messy translations Sometimes it’s as little as having another character call your female avatar as “he” instead of “she” but other times I’m wondering if some of the issues are caused by a team who speak English competently, but not natively. For example, there’s a scene where the old detective is saying that a certain investigation is going slow. The implication being that he wants to go slow, so he can do it right. The other character nods sagely and replies, “haste makes waste.” While that idiom technically works, the context they’re using it in doesn’t quite make sense. Furthermore, many of the characters seem to go from smart to navie/stupid in a conversation and back again and again I have to wonder if it isn’t the translation making iffy writing somehow worse. The combination does detract from the story and I found myself smiling and nodding along with the protagonist at parts because the explanations were so convoluted that I just didn’t care and you may tune out too.

Story: Since I brought it up, I’ll just say that the story is servicable. It sets up the world nicely, but ultimately winds up being a fairly standard affair of Bad Company Doing Bad Things and it being up to you to figure out what. There are some touching moments, but really the more enjoyable stories come in the form of the side-quests which evoke everything from a bit of J-Horror to Digimon being addicted to boxing and taking selfies to just wanting to put their CD out for the world to hear. It’s the side-stories that kept me going, and they often have the best humor that isn’t impeded by the translations since the stories are shorter and simpler.

Gameplay: For better or for worse, this game feels like it was designed for the Vita and ported to the PS4, and not the other way around. I say this because the game uses a “case” system to move things along. Most of the side cases and even many of the main story cases can be completed in 20-30 minutes or less, making it perfect bite-size gaming. On the downside, the game feels incredibly linear. You can’t go explore unless the game tells you to explore. You have some freedom in the order you pick up cases (and the side cases are purely optional) and there are a few things you can mess around with on the side, like both “offline” and online battle arenas and the like, but this game is still 90% linear as many cases and tasks are only opened up to you after others are completed. I personally don’t mind, but your mileage my vary. I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that the “investigation” side-quests (obtained by sending the ‘mon on your Digifarm out searching for them) are EXTREMELY repetitive (Go to place X, run around until you find the shiny, return, repeat) and really the only reason to do them are you occasionally get some good rewards out of them.

As far as the battle system goes, this takes your basic Pokemon-esque rock-paper-scissor mechanics and both simplifies it and makes it more complex. On the face of it its simpler, because there are only four main types – data, virus, vaccine and free. where it gets more complex is that each one of those four types is then divided into elemental attributes like fire, water, plant and so on. Ideally, when you send out your Digimon you’re going to be looking at both type and attribute, as they do stack. That 2.0 damage a virus can do to a data Pokemon can become 3.0 if you add the right elements into the mix. But that’s ideally. Realistically, as long as you’re leveling properly and upgrading your Digimon when you’re able, you can often pay less mind to that secondary level of mixing, unless you’re in a boss fight or you just want to speed things up and get the fight done a bit sooner. Additionally, your health and SP points all replenish upon level up and between that and there are plenty of terminals that let you access the Digilab where you can heal up for an inconsequential amount of Yen, so you shouldn’t have to do too much health management, unless again, inside certain tougher boss battles. Overall, Pokemon fans should find this game easy to pick up and it’s definitely accessible for casual fans as well. It’s an easier game overall.

Finally, I do like how the game builds in mechanics for you to increase/decrease random encounters at your discretion and that said mechanic is available practically right away and is the only thing that makes the search quests bearable as the monsters in a given dungeon stay the same even as you level. I also like that how it wears off when you leave floors of a given dungeon so you can’t accidentally keep it turned on in areas where you really should be participating in those random encounters to ensure you stay appropriately leveled. If a game is going to use this kind of mechanic, this ability should come with it.

Verdict: Buy it on Sale. This an unapologetic old-school JRPG and fans of the genre/Pokemon fans should find something to like her. The general lack of polish, however, makes it hard to fully recommend, let alone recommend to newbies unless you’re looking for a relatively easy way to dip your toes in the waters. Western RPG fans who expect deeper story and character customization should steer clear.

Available: Now

Borrow it: Spider’s Bite (Elemental Assassain #1)

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Summary:

They call me the Spider. I’m the most feared assassin in the South — when I’m not busy at the Pork Pit cooking up the best barbecue in Ashland. As a Stone elemental, I can hear everything from the whispers of the gravel beneath my feet to the vibrations of the soaring Appalachian Mountains above me. My Ice magic also comes in handy for making the occasional knife. But I don’t use my powers on the job unless I absolutely have to. Call it professional pride.

Now that a ruthless Air elemental has double-crossed me and killed my handler, I’m out for revenge. And I’ll exterminate anyone who gets in my way — good or bad. I may look hot, but I’m still one of the bad guys. Which is why I’m in trouble, since irresistibly rugged Detective Donovan Caine has agreed to help me. The last thing this coldhearted killer needs when I’m battling a magic more powerful than my own is a sexy distraction… especially when Donovan wants me dead just as much as the enemy.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s funny how having to write a review really makes you look at how you see a book. You can be reading along, going “this is kinda fun,” and then the second you have to verbalize your thoughts on the book you reliaze that you don’t really have much of anything to say.

And Spider’s Bite is one of those books for me.

On the face of it, there’s nothing bad about this book. The world building is solid (if not terribly unique), the plot moves along at a brisk pace and is interesting enough to make you want to keep reading, and there are some nice interactions between Gin and the people she surrounds herself with. So why am I left feeling kind of underwhelmed by it all?

After a lot of thinking, I think it comes down to Gin herself, and for two reasons: one, she talks a huge game about how she’s the best in the South. Does she feel that remarkable? Do anything so remarkable that you buy into her claims? Not really. Oh, there’s a person or two who hint that she doesn’t use her power to her full potential, but that’s about it. She’s a fairly generic Kick-Ass Woman that’s not uncommon to the genre.

The second reason, and the bigger issue for me, is that I don’t feel that there’s any moral complexity or ambiguity to the character. For all that she’s an assassin, Estep goes out of her way to say it’s okay to like her because she’s a Good Guy! She doesn’t kill innocents, kids, for pets, and she occasionally does pro-bono hits on pedophile rapists. She has hobbies, she cooks! See? Good Guy!

I found myself thinking about Alex Verus as I wound up reading the first book. If you haven’t read that series (and if you haven’t, shame on you), it’s about a character who spent his formative years of magical training being taught by bad guys, mostly unwillingly. Ten years after he escaped and did his best to stay out of both parts of magical society, the good guys still ldon’t trust him and the bad guys still treat him as if he’s one of them, and not unreasonably so. Unlike Gin, he’s not prone to violence (he’ll be the first one to say that he sucks at fighting and spends a lot of time running). But if you provoke him enough, if you just don’t leave him any other choices, he will go there. And you will probably end up dead, even if you are only 16 or 17. And he doesn’t feel bad that he did it, he was more pissed that they wouldn’t just leave him alone like he asked them too. He’s a character that’s trying to do the right thing, but doesn’t mind getting messy if his life (or the lives of his friends) depends on it, and characters react accordingly. He does get called out for his body count, he does get the side-eye from those he knows, he does lose friendships or have those friendships severely tested by his actions.

Gin?

Nope. No one has a problem with Gin. Everyone likes Gin! Even the detective who knows that Gin killed his partner (not knowing the why) still decides to get in her pants when she offers, because she’s sexy and charismatic! Now, the plot does unfold over a few days, so it’s not like there’s a ton of time for Gin to get introspective, but it feels when Gin talks about quitting it’s more so because her fallen mentor doesn’t want her to stay in the life, rather than her really ever having any qualms about what she’s doing or have ever realizing what an emotional toll a job like this is taking on her. It ultimately makes her feel a bit robotic to me.

At the end of the day, the book has over 22,000 reviews on GoodReads and holds a respectable 3.88 rating. Combine that with the fact that Estep just released book number 14 and it’s clear there’s a sizable fanbase for this series. While the character doesn’t quite work for me, maybe she’ll work for you.

Overall, I enjoyed the book enough to keep reading and wouldn’t dismiss the notion of giving the second book a look. That said, I have several other urban fantasy series on my plate so it won’t be a priority.

Verdict: Borrow it

Available Now