What The Hell Did I Just Read: Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth

I know I’m in the minority with my not very positive opinion about Gideon the Ninth and Tamsyn Muir’s writing style and if it had just been me, Harrow the Ninth would have existed happily without me ever picking it up. However! My fellow Hugo award nominators have spoken and as I am quite fond of them and trust their opinion, I did pick it up. And now, although it was not an easy read at all, I am kind of happy with the fact that I did. I am now pretty excited for next book, even. Huge thanks to the Tor.com Gideon the Ninth re-read which caught me up on everything I had forgotten in the most hilarious way.

harrow the ninthHARROW THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #2
My rating: 7.25/10

Opening line: Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving no distraction from the great rocking thump—thump—thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull. There was nothing to see—the shutters were down—but you could feel the terrible vibration, hear the groan of chitin on metal, the cataclysmic rending of steel by fungous claw.

She answered the Emperor’s call.
She arrived with her arts, her wits, and her only friend.
In victory, her world has turned to ash.

After rocking the cosmos with her deathly debut, Tamsyn Muir continues the story of the penumbral Ninth House in Harrow the Ninth, a mind-twisting puzzle box of mystery, murder, magic, and mayhem. Nothing is as it seems in the halls of the Emperor, and the fate of the galaxy rests on one woman’s shoulders.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor’s Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?

Harrowhark Nonageismus is a Lyctor now. Well, a baby Lyctor who still has a lot to learn. She and Ianthe Tridentarius accompany the Emperor to the Mithraeum where they shall be initiated into Lyctorhood, learn what that’s all about, and also meet their teachers Mercymorn and Augustine, veteran Lyctors with a history. The first thing that will strike anyone picking up this book as that it’s narrated in second person, the second thing is a suspicious absence of Gideon’s name. Seriously, Gideon sacrificed herself to save Harrow and also helped her turn into a Lyctor in the first place but the narration seems to have forgotten that ever happened…

Harrow the Ninth has a huge advantage compared to its predecessor in that it gets its hooks into you right away. From the beginning, you know something is very wrong, you just don’t know why. The more you read, the more you realize that Harrow’s mind may not be in the healthiest of states, that her memories might not be trustworthy, that the story is told in second person and you don’t know who‘s telling it. But whoever they may be, this narrator could also have an agenda of their own and we have no way of knowing whether what they tell us is true…
Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that, apparently, the Emperor is about to be assassinated, given how some chapter titles have the helpful title “x months before the Emperor’s murder”. And thirdly, Harrow left herself some letters, each to be opened only under very specific circumstances (some of which are delightfully weird, others are plain impossible) and, trust me, you want to find out what’s in those letters! Plus, there are flashback chapters which take us back to the events at Canaan House, except… let’s just say they’re not how we remember. So you see, lots of riddles to solve, mysteries to unravel, and clues to discover.

But much like its predecessor, this book takes a long time to get going. Or rather, it spends too much time on repeating things that may not tbe all that important, and drags out the revelations too long. When three quarters of your book leave you pretty much clueless as to how any of the things happpening are possible or how other things can make sense, or whether what you’re reading is even the truth, that can get frustrating. While I was reading the book, I wasn’t ever really bored, but now that I’ve finished it, I absolutely believe that it would have worked just as well if it had been 150 pages shorter.
But since Harrow had a much smaller cast than Gideon and actually gave them, you know, a personality, I didn’t struggle as much this time around. I like being left in the dark, as long as I’m also being given clues that could make me figure out what it all means. Or as long as there are characters I enjoy following and whose relationships I’m invested in.

Tamsyn Muir is really not that good describing settings or training montages – or maybe she just doesn’t want to. She chooses obscure language over pragmatic words to tell her story. I swear, if had had to read the word “nacreous” one more time, I would have exploded. THINK OF A DIFFERENT WAY TO DESCRIBE PEOPLE’S CLOTHING! And for fucks sake, when you have the urge to say “affrighted” just go with “afraid” or “frightened” – it’s much less pretentious and actually fits into the rest of the narrative.
Given that we don’t get much information about the actual surroundings people are in, I didn’t give that much of a crap about how nacreous the clothes people were wearing when they got affrighted, anyway. We’re told they’re on a spaceship and a space station, but other than the fact that some doors are automatic, there are electric lights, and there’s something called plex (like plexi glass), we really don’t know what anything looks like. Okay, fine, not every book needs to have an immersive setting. I’m much more of a character reader anyway and if you say “space ship” I’ll just make something up in my mind.

Now the characters were actually much, much better than in Gideon, mostly because there aren’t 20 personality-less ones of them but rather only a small group of people who each get to be distinct. I can’t say I liked any of them as people but at least they were all interesting. And I developed a strange fondness for some of them. Like I enjoyed reading about them but I would stay far away from them in real life. Whether it’s Ianthe, Harrow’s fellow baby Lyctor who goes through training with her, or their mentors Augustine and Mercymorn, both less than thrilled at their job of teaching the new ones the ropes. Or the Emperor himself, who appears strangely passive, sometimes like a confused old man, sometimes like a wise father-figure, sometimes like a helpless idiot… Like I say, not exactly likable but definitely interesting! And of course Harrow, our dear befuddled heroine who throws up when she touches her sword, who remembers things all wrong, who struggles to fully become a Lyctor and also has to try and survive someone trying to kill her… She grew on me. I find her and the entire Ninth House as weird as ever and I don’t think that part of the world building makes much sense, but I was definitely rooting for Harrow.

Can we all agree that Tommy Arnold’s cover art is amazeballs?

What kept me reading (and wanting to pick up the book again every day) was the mystery. Or I should rather say, mysteries, plural. First of all, my most pressing question: What the hell happened with Gideon, is she living inside Harrow somehow, is she really dead dead, can they communicate, and what about her mysterious birth/past, I want to know all the things?!? Secodly, the flashback chapters we read about the events that transpired in Gideon the Ninth are very different from what actually happened, mostly in that Harrow remembers going to Canaan House not with Gideon as her cavalier but with Ortus. Yes, the Ortus who died at the very beginning of Gideon the Ninth. So either the entire first book in this series is a lie or Harrow’s brain is seriously fried. But either way, I wanted to find out what was going on and how things could possibly fit together. Tangentially, I also wondered what the hell Lyctors do all day, and apparently, one part of that is “make soup”. 🙂 Tamsyn Muir had her claws in me but she also took on the great responsibility of delivering a satisfying ending/twist/resolution to the very myserious goings-on in this book. The build-up piled up more and more so the ending really needed to be mind-blowing!

Now about those twists and revelations and solutions. There were several super cool moments in this book, some involving intriguing uses of necromancy, others to do with epic battles, but the coolest were definitely the many (!) revelations at the end. As slow as the first three quarters of the book are, everything happens at once in that last quarter. I had to re-read a lot of lines to see whether I was still following because not only are huge things revealed, life-changing, world-shattering things, but of course they are revealed in such a way as to be maximally confusing and impossible to understand immediately. But self-congratulatory use of fancy vocabulary aside, the gist of it was pretty damn awesome! I honestly didn’t think Muir could make up for the complete and utter confusion she created but a lot of things fall into place and just… make sense!

Mind you, the very ending makes sure you’re out of your depth again. It’s not only a big cliffhanger that leaves you hanging pretty much mid-scene, it also adds a new mystery to the story that has spawned people on the internet coming up with crazy theories. Yes, I am guilty of staying up way too late to read up on some of those theories and I am invested! The thing is, reading this book felt like work as much as it was fun, but it did offer lots of clever twists and turns, it had characters that I suddenly could root and care for or at least characters I could love to hate. It made me feel things and guess things (my guesses were all way off, btw) and got me screaming “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON” every other chapter. If Muir’s writing style were different, this owuld have been a five-star-read!
As deliberate as it may be, I just don’t jibe with her showy verbose prose. To me it always felt like the author is just trying to show off her skills using a thesaurus, but the fancy words she used didn’t build any atmosphere, they actually clashed with much of the rest of the prose, and they also didn’t fit a particular character’s style of talking. So keep your “affrighteds” and your “necrous” and just tell me what happens next, please. I’m serious, I want to know. Alecto the Ninth is on my wishlist now and if you’ve read my review of Gideon the Ninth, you know that that’s a huge accomplishment for this book.

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Damn confusing but also very good!

Post-Apocalyptic Pollyanna: Catherynne M. Valente – The Past is Red

I was lucky enough to get an eARC of this new novella so I’ve been sitting on these feelings for months. I am so happy to finally be able to scream into the world just how brilliant and clever and heartbreaking a novella Cat Valente has written. It comes out tomorrow and you should all read it!
Thank you to Tordoctom and Netgalley for the ARC. It made my spring infinitely better.

the past is redTHE PAST IS RED
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 160 pages
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.

Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.

The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

The attentive Cat Valente reader will notice that this novella’s title goes really well with a short story of hers called “The Future is Blue” and if you liked that story, you will be happy to know that this book is actually a sequel to it. The novella’s first part is a reprint of said short story, but part two is all new and continues the story of Tetley Abednego, the most hated girl in Garbagetown.

As with many of Valente’s books, I don’t quite know where to begin my gushing. There will definitely be gushing because although she has been my favorite author for a number of years now, she still proves that she can get better with every book, no matter how short. I had hoped for a big chunky novel from her this year, but if we get two great novellas instead (the second one that’s coming out is called Comfort Me With Apples and sounds super creepy), I’ll be more than happy.

Tetley Abednego lives in Garbagetown, a heap of garbage approximately the size of Texas, that floats around on the Pacific. Tetley was born as the elder of twins in Candle Hole. Her house is made of wax, her early childhood is defined by the smells of the scented candles that make up her neighborhood. But Garbagetown has a lot more to offer, if you have an open heart and Tetley’s surprisingly sunny disposition. To her, it’s the best place in the world. Granted, that’s not too difficult to achieve when the rest of the world is… well, ocean. You see, many years ago, humanity from before – appropriately called Fuckwits – majorly fucked up the planet and now everything’s dead and submerged and all that’s left is Garbagetown and maybe a few Misery Boats.

There are some things you just can’t ever get back. Years. Gannet birds. Hubands. Antarctica.

Tetley grows up in Garbagetown and we get to witness the most formative of her experiences, like catching her name (I absolutely adored that piece of world building!), kissing a boy for the first time, discovering that even in Gargabetown, there’s still something like classism, and of course, the Thing that leads to her becoming the most hated girl in Garbagetown. It’s the reason she wakes up every day to a new slur smeared on her door, to people beating her up, it’s the reason she has to just take it and even thank her violator. The short story just on its own is already brilliant. Filled with clever world building and deep insights into human nature, it draws you in with this mystery, jumping back and forth between times, and on the sly delivering some highly quotable lines – as Valente always does.

The second part, The Past is Red, continues Tetley’s story and uses the same flashback/flashforward style as did the short story. And while it’s always clear and obvious what time setting we are currently in, this storytelling device is so well employed that it provides a few good twists along the way. Valente builds up certain expectations, or at the very least suspicions about Tetley’s past – like her mentioning she was married but isn’t anymore, or her talking to someone called Big Red, or the fact that she now lives on a boat – but the blanks filled in by the reader aren’t necessarily the whole truth. Discovering what really happened was such incredible fun and made me go “Oh thaaaaaat’s why” a few times. There was gasping and grabbing of the head. There were moments that left me open-mouthed and even more moments when I told my boyfriend “This is so gooood”.

Apart from the amazing world building, which is all the more impressive considering it’s achieved in a matter of about 50 pages, I have to talk more about Tetley as a character. She’s not stupid, not at all, but she has a naive sort of love for Garbagetown and everything about her way of life. Her parents don’t really love her – all their love goes to her twin brother with whom she shares a close bond – but Tetley doesn’t let that bother her too much. She adores her home, she loves her society, although she still sees its inequalities. She is the kind of person who is simply happy with what she has. No envy, no greed, just a pure, unadulterated joy for life. And if you think living on a heap of garbage is terrible (as did I), I promise Tetley will change your mind! She will make you love Pill Hill and Electric City, Toyland and her native Candle Hole. She will make you just as excited about discovering an old tape as she will make you care about her Oscar the Grouch backpack. It’s a strange world, Garbagetown, but after reading this book, I’m kind of taken with it.

Because there are several really great twists in this story, I won’t say anything about the plot. But I promise that, unlike some Valente novels, there is a plot. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, it is vastly readable, even funny at times, and always clever. For people who haven’t read the short story, even the end of that is a knife stuck in your chest and I believe everyone should have the pleasure of being stabbed in the heart (metaphorically speaking) by Cat Valente at least once in their lives. The second, much longer, part of the book offers some more twists, none of which I saw coming (yay!) and all of which hit me deep in the guts. Like all the best stories, this one sneaks up on you. It makes you love the characters without even noticing, and then it reveals things that change everything. Afterwards, just leaves you there, not quite knowing what to do with yourself. I’m not making this sound pleasant, but that’s actually my favorite kind of reading experience. The one where you can’t stop reading but you don’t want the book to end. And once you’re finished, you feel deflated and alone, like you just lost your best friend.

In a book set on a post-apocalyptic, post climate change Earth, mentions of how gloriously humanity messed things up are to be expected. But Valente doesn’t go the obvious route here, either. She never outright says what exactly happened – we all know how things will get that far, how our way of life can and probably will escalate. We just keep doing what we’re doing now and we’ll go down in Gargabetown history as the Fuckwits who broke the world…

Seems like someone should have thought of a rule that goes Do Not Fuck Your Only Planet to Death Under Any Circumstances. Seems like that should have been Rule Number One.

I wish I could tell you more about all the other amazing characters like Goodnight Moon, Mister, or King Xanax, but I want to give as little about this book away as possible. Let me just say that, despite my extremely high expectations, Valente managed to surpass anything I hoped to get from The Past is Red. It is a book that should be depressing but is utterly, utterly filled with hope. Its protagonist goes from cheerful Pollyanna to a much more mature adult who just can’t shake that hope habit of hers. She lets us in on a world that, although strange to us, is normal to the people who live in it, and she shows us that you don’t need much to achieve happiness.

Laslty, let me gush about that cover by John Hendrix. It is not only eye-catching and just plain gorgeous, it’s actually filled with a lot of detail that’s important in the book. I can’t wait to hold the paper copy in my hands!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfect!

Reading Goals and Challenges: Mid-Year Check In 2021

Hello, dear reader friends! Since it’s already mid-July (how did that happen?!), I thought it would be a good idea to check in on my reading goals and challenges. My gut feeling is telling me I have fallen behind on some of them and I may need a course correction, but cold numbers speak louder than fancy words. So here’s where I stand on my reading goals, how I am going to adapt during the second half of 2021 and which challenges I may be dropping or loosening up a bit.

Goodreads Reading Goal

I’m doing quite well on this one, at currently 7 books ahead of schedule. Just like last year, reading novelettes, novellas, and graphic novels for the Hugo Awards has pushed me ahead and there’s still some of those left for me to read. So I should have a buffer for a hypothetical reading slump or some big books that take me ages to finish.

I’m not gonna lie, if I could read 150 books per year I would be ecstatic but 100 is a fine goal that I will be happy to achieve. Considering some of the chonkers I’ve read (hello, Stormlight Archive re-read), I’m even a little proud.

Beat the Backlist Challenge

This is the only offical reading challenge I’m participating in this year but I’m not taking it super seriously. Mostly I just read whatever I would anyway and see if the book happens to fit one of the prompts. It does push me to pick up older books, however, and for that I already consider the challenge a win.

  • Prompts fulfilled: 18/52
  • Bingo: almost, but not yet

Reading the Hugo Awards

This is a two-part challenge, actually, because on the one hand, I want to read past Hugo Award winners and finalists, but on the other, more pressing, hand, I need to read this year’s finalists in order to rank them on my ballot. As this is the first year with a lot of time to catch up on the nominated works(WorldCon being in December instead of August for Covid reasons), my plans have become more ambitious. Meaning I want to read more complete categories than I usually would be able to. Here’s my current status:

  • Best Novel: 4/6
  • Best Novella: 6/6
  • Best Novelette: 5/6
  • Best Short Story: 6/6
  • Best Graphic Novel: 4/6
  • Lodestar: 6/6
  • Astounding: 2/6
  • Best Series:
    • Daevabad: 2/3
    • Murderbot: 5/6
    • Interdependency: 1/3
    • Lady Astronaut: 1/3
    • Poppy War: 1/3
    • October Daye: 3/14

Technically, I still need to read 3 books to be fully caught up on Best Novel because I’ve only read the first in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series and the third volume is nominated for Best Novel. But the series as a whole being a Best Series finalist means that I’ll be able to finish two categories in one go.

I have no plans of finishing the entire Toby Daye series but a couple more volumes can definitely be done.
I’m actually caught up on the nominated Murderbot books but by now there’s another novella out which I want to read. Because Murderbot.

And I’m not sure I should really do it but I’m debating a Poppy War re-read before I finish the rest of the trilogy. I have forgotten so many details and I know the series will destroy me anyway, so why not make it a full trilogy of emotional destruction?

The second part of this challenge is to read a few past Hugo winners or finalists. I had a handful picked out at the beginning of the year but I haven’t done too well so far. I hope I can do two more this year.

Past Hugo winners/finalists read: 1

I just bought the Graphic Audio adaptation of C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station and I’m very much looking forward to that. My second Hugo winner will either bei Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog or A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller.

Read More Black Authors

I am quite, quite behind on this one and I blame Brandon Sanderson. No, not like that, the poor guy didn’t do anything. It’s just that my Stormlight Archive re-read (or rather: re-listen) has taken up a lot of time that would have otherwise gone to other audiobooks. I’m not saying all of those books would necessarily have been written by Black authors but I have a few favorite Black writers who tend to get incredible audiobook narrators, so chances are I would have listened to at least a couple of them instead of the incredibly long Stormlight Archive. Either way, this is why we’re checking in on our goals, so we can still adjust and reach our goals by the end of the year.

Books by Black authors read: 6/20

The Hugo Award finalists are also not helping a lot because this year, there aren’t many Black authors on the ballot (at least not ones whose books I haven’t read yet) and a large percentage of my yearly reading is for the Hugo Awards.

I am currently reading the new Rivers Solomon book (so amazing!) and I can’t wait to get into P. Djèlí Clark’s Master of Jinn but I want to do better in general during the second half of the year. In addition to these 6 books by Black authors, I have read another 10 by non-Black Authors of Color, so my reading is at least somewhat diverse. But still, lots of room for improvement.

New Releases

I’m doing okay on this one. There are still plenty of novels that came out this year (or are still coming out) that I want to read before nominating for next year’s Hugos, but I have already discovered some favorites as well as some others I can safely ignore for my ballot.

2021 releases read: 10/??

Favorites: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente, The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, All the Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter. Unsurprisingly, these are all authors who have previously written books that ended up being favorites. I wouldn’t mind a new favorite author discovery now and again. Just sayin’.

Five Star Predictions ★★★★★

Again, I’m doing alright. Not only have I read almost all the books on this list, I also guessed pretty decently. Sure, one of my predictions ended up getting 1.5 stars only so… that was a miss. But the others ranged from very good to excellent.

Alechia Dow – The Sound of StarsRead1.5 stars
Everina Maxwell – Winter’s OrbitRead3.5 stars
Vonda N. McIntyre – DreamsnakeRead4.5 stars
Catherynne M. Valente – The Past is RedRead5 stars
Hannah Whitten – For the WolfNot Read
Fonda Lee – Jade LegacyNot Read

The books actually got better in the order that I read them. I’m wondering now why I put For the Wolf on that list instead of The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid but hey, I hope they both end up being five star books. Jade Legacy will of course blow my socks off, I have no doubt about it.

I guess things could be worse. I am pretty disappointed that my Black author reading challenge is going rather poorly but while it’s not an excuse, the Hugo Awards and my Stormlight Archive re-listen at least serve as a sort of explanation for it. The year is far from over though and I have a ridiculous amount of exciting books by Black authors on my TBR. I will just have to get to them sooner rather than later.

How are you doing on your reading goals? Do you even set yourself goals? Are you participating in any challenges (and can you recommend any)?

When The Wild Hunt Rides Things Get Tricky: Seanan McGuire – An Artificial Night

While I had expected this to be a Best Series finalists in the Hugo Awards again this year, I wanted to continue the series anyway. But the nomination gave me the necessary push to maybe start reading a bit sooner, because the more instalments I can read before the voting period is over, the better I can judge the Toby Daye books against their competition. And the competition is fierce!

artificial-nightAN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2010
eBook: 352 pages
Series: October Daye #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: One thing I’ve learned in my time working as a private investigator-slash-knight errant for the fae community of the San Francisco Bay Area: if something looks like it’s going to be simple, it probably won’t be.

Changeling knight in the court of the Duke of Shadowed Hills, October “Toby” Daye has survived numerous challenges that would destroy fae and mortal alike. Now Toby must take on a nightmarish new assignment.

Someone is stealing both fae and mortal children—and all signs point to Blind Michael. When the young son of Toby’s closest friends is snatched from their Northern California home, Toby has no choice but to track the villains down, even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael’s realm—home of the legendary Wild Hunt—and no road may be taken more than once. If she cannot escape with all the children before the candle that guides and protects her burns away, Toby herself will fall prey to Blind Michael’s inescapable power.

And it doesn’t bode well for the success of her mission that her own personal Fetch, May Daye—the harbinger of Toby’s own death—has suddenly turned up on her doorstep…

This may only be the third book in a pretty long series (14 volumes at the time I’m writing this) but after reading the first two, I felt confident enough to go into this one blindly. I didn’t read the synopsis, I didn’t check out any reviews, I simply trusted that Seanan McGuire would deliver the same or at least a very similar type of story that I had enjoyed previously. Except with new threats, of course. And maybe a start of that romance I’m hoping for?

Toby is faced with a new kind of problem, namely that kids go missing. And not just Fae kids, either, at least one human girl as well. So, in order to get back her best friends’ children, some Cait Sidhe that Tybald is missing, and Quentin’s human girlfriend, Toby sets out to first investigate and then plan a rescue mission. Which is easier said then done when the kidnapper is none other than Blind Michael who wants to use the children for his Wild Hunt!
Entering Blind Michael’s land is hard, but getting back is even harder. Toby wouldn’t be Toby, however, if she didn’t dive in headfirst anyway and do her very best to save those children and maybe, just possibly, not die herself in the process. Which would be easier to believe in if she hadn’t just received a visit from a very portentous person…

This is my first time reading through the October Daye series and as I’m only three books in, I can’t say too much about the series as a whole. But I do like its episodic nature with a dash of overarching story. Except this time, that story didn’t really advance and it’s more of a monster-of-the-week kind of instalment. Which is also fine because said monster happens to be terrifying! I really enjoyed exploring this new side of Faerie, one that is decidedly not lovely, but quite dark and with more than one horror aspect to it. There are certain scenes that are pure nightmare fuel if you think about them too long, which led to another exciting adventure with Toby as our reluctant hero jumping headfirst into danger for the greater good.

The thing is, this adventure is kind of over at the halfway point of the book. I’m trying not to spoil anything here but let’s just say the quest part of the story is done. Well okay, there are some loose ends. Sort of. But the second half of the book felt mostly like a re-hashing of what had happened before, only slightly altered, and therefore didn’t hold my interest quite as much. The plot as a whole didn’t feel as thought out as in the previous two books.

Another small gripe I have is the characters. Am I the only one who doesn’t particularly like Connor and gets annoyed when he’s there? That’s not the gripe, that’s just an aside. My problem is that this is book 3 of a series. We have met most of the side characters already. I appreciate McGuire giving us gentle reminders of who everyone is and how they relate to each other (seriously, that’s worth gold when you let some time pass between books) but I don’t like that she’s trying to evoke the same emotions she did in previous volumes with the exact same words. The Luidaeg is super powerful, we know that. We also know that, although she could have killed Toby already, she didn’t because she seems to like her and who’s to tell a Firstborn what to do? So pretending like Toby asking the Luidaeg for something is this grand dangerous endeavour just doesn’t work. We know she’s not in real danger because, unlikely as it may be, the two have become friends and the Luidaeg cares for Toby. So the attempt at a doom and gloom atmosphere when visiting the Luidaeg just feel flat.

Unfortunately, I had similar feelings about Tybalt, a big favorite of mine. I do so hope he doesn’t turn out to be an asshole or dies in the next book or something (I honestly don’t know, please no spoilers). Mysterious and brooding and helping Toby out while pretending he’s not really helping her out but only acting in his own self-interest, he’s the kind of fictional dude I can root for. Except this time, he didn’t get to shine despite appearing several times. Where there used to be tension and atmosphere in the first books, everything had kind of sizzled out at this point.
I did love the new character of May and the way her relationship with Toby and the others developed over the course of this novel.

While reading this, I constantly had the feeling like this book was rushed. Not so much because the plot happened to fast, but because it didn’t feel like McGuire put the same love and care into this particular volume like she did with the previous ones. Once you’ve finished the book, there’s actually not that much plot. There are a lot of characters but many of them were shallower versions of their previous selves. So it was a very so-so read for me, with exciting parts, characters I liked, but also with plot lines that I didn’t care for or that felt contrived, with characters I liked from earlier novels but didn’t much care for this time.

So far, this was my least favorite Toby Daye book because of its plot and character issues and the fact that, in the second half, I kept rolling my eyes at Toby’s hero complex. That woman keeps trying to kill herself in creative ways. Sure, it’s usually to save others, so you can’t even be mad at her, but damn it, Toby, have a shred of self-preservation!

Also, the Shakespeare quote titles are so pretentious, I can’t get over it. Whenever the title drops in the actual book, I can feel how badly the author and/or publisher wanted to make it fit. Sometimes that works better than others but the connection between urban fantasy stories about a Changeling and Shakespeare’s plays isn’t something I can see. Every title drop just feels like McGuire wants to let her readers know that she has read Shakespeare and we should all be impressed because random lines from his plays pop up at random moments in her books with no emotional impact or deeper meaning whatsoever. As much as I love Shakespeare, I am not impressed and I think the forced quote titles do the series a disservice. But hey, there are worse things to complain about. In the end, I only found this book okay but it will not stop me reading the rest of the series.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Really Good But Missing an Ending: Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun

This is the second book by Rebecca Roanhorse that I’ve read and although I enjoyed it more than the first (Trail of Lightning), I got the same feeling I did then. That Roanhorse is about 10 years too late for her ideas to feel fresh or new, but that she’s a great writer nontheless. And one that’s getting better over time.

black-sunBLACK SUN
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: Saga Press, 2020
eBook: 464 pages
Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Today he would become a god.

The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Black Sun is an epic fantasy novel just like they used to be, except it is inspired by South and Middle American cultures and religions. We follow three main POV characters plus one side character who occasionally gets his own chapters. First is Naranpa, the Sun Priest residing in the city of Tova where the four clans of the Sky Made live. Through Naranpa’s eyes, we learn a little bit of how their religion works, the different types of priests there are (one of them is literally assassin priests and I find that so cool), and why Naranpa is an unusual choice for a Sun Priest. Because in addition to the clans living on top the mesas that make up Tova, there are the Earth Born. Essentially, they are the poor people, living further down the cliffs, in the darkness.
Our second viewpoint character is the Teek woman Xiala who clearly likes to get drunk and sleep with beautiful women. This time, her partying got her into prison (not the first time, it turns out) and the only way to get out of trouble is to take on a crazy job sailing a ship across the open sea during a season when no sensible sailor would do that. But the prize is too good to pass up and so Xiala and her crew agree to take a man to Tova. For money and cacao and a ship of her own.
That man happens to be the third POV character and he is called Serapio. We actually first meet him as a young boy when his mother does something pretty terrifying to him because he has a great destiny. What exactly that destiny is becomes clear fairly early in the novel but I don’t want to give it away here. Serapio is blind and quite strange and he makes the crew more than a little uneasy…

As a fan of epic fantasy, I liked this book a lot but I must admit the story is mostly setup. With the exception of Serapio’s tale, the plot may advance but doesn’t really lead anywhere. We’re introduced to a rich world filled with many different kinds of people who speak different langauges (something I always appreciate in SFF books) and who have different cultural sensibilities. We also learn there’s quite a bit of magic in this world although not everyone seems to believe it to the same degree. Xiala’s people, the Teek, are said to be lucky sailors. Xiala can use her Song to quiet the sea or to control the waves a little bit. But she is also met with prejudice and suspicion.
The city of Tova has a lot to offer in terms of politics and religion so I was a little disappointed that we didn’t learn as much about that as expected. Every aspect of life in Tova that we learn about was intriguing and made me want to know more. Whether for pacing reasons or to reduce the word count, Roanhorse only gives us glimpses here and there, just enough to keep me hooked but never enough to fully satisfy my need to understand this world. Whether it’s the priesthood and their jobs, the way the city is setup, the dynamics between the Sky Made clans, or especially how the Earth Born fit into the whole system – I want to know more, more, more! On the one hand, this will ensure that I pick up the next volume, on the other, it’s dissatisfying when you’re only ever fed little tidbits of information.

I had the stranges time reading this book. Maybe some of you have read books that made you feel the same. It would go like this: I would pick up the book, read a few chapters, enjoy them so much that I wouldn’t want to stop. Eventually, of course, I did stop because life and such, and then I would… not want to pick it up again. I continued reading other books in the meantime, all the while not needing to know what happened next in Black Sun. The next time I did pick it up, the same thing would happen. I kept asking myself what my problem was. Why did I not feel the urge to continue when I put the book down? It was really great, after all! Well, I don’t have a clear answer, only a theory. And the theory is that while I enjoyed reading about these characters and this world, the story went along its merry way and didn’t offer much that was new or unexpected. I do so love to be surprised or shocked or delighted with a clever turn in the plot. And because so many people had praised the book so highly, I had expected more than “just” a very good but somewhat generic epic fantasy with a cool setting.

The biggest problem with this story is that it kind of spoils itself. Or, to put it differently, it raises certain expectations for the plot and then simply delivers on them. The first chapters tell you exactly what will happen (in one case it’s a flash forward, so there are no doubts) and then those things… happen. No surprises, no twists, not a story beat that couldn’t have been predicted from early on. Because Roanhorse’s writing is immersive and her characters compelling, that didn’t make the book any less fun. Only less of a standout in the genre. In the acknowledgements, Roanhorse writes that she was sick and tired of the endless quasi-European settings in Epic Fantasy and thus wanted to write something more diverse that shows how ancient peoples weren’t “primitive” at all but rich in culture, science, and religion. I’d say she succeded in that but I disagree with her assessment that Epic Fantasy is still mostly European-inspired. In the last decade, we have been blessed with so many diverse stories and interesting settings! SFF publishing has gone to many different places all over the world (not that there isn’t always room for more exploration) and Black Sun is simply joining what is already a vast selection of newer diverse epic fantasies. So I don’t consider it groudnbreaking – it would have been ten years ago! – but I do think it is a very good book.

My second gripe with the book, even though it’s a lesser one because I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It feels very much like the first part of a bigger story and can not stand on its own. Serapio’s story is the only one that offers a proper arc, with some flashbacks, a capital-D Destiny, and a conclusion of a sort. Naranpa’s and Xiala’s stories simply stop smack dab in the middle with things having been set up but no satisfying ending, not even much advancement of plot, in sight. Again, I don’t mind that so much because (a) I am used to reading longer series and waiting (sometimes for years) for the next volume and (b) I am going to pick up the next part when it comes out either way. Despite my weird not-wanting-to-pick-the-book-back-up thing, I finished it with mostly positive feelings. There could have been a bit more world building, a bit more story for Xiala and Naranpa, more time spent on flashbacks or characters’ back stories, but I feel confident that I will get all of that in the next book.
If you feel like the comfort of good old epic fantasy but you want a more diverse cast and a non-European setting, pick this up.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

The State of SFF – July 2021

Holy moly, this year is halfway over! I am back from a proper holiday and I almost can’t believe it. We went to Barcelona (on a plane and everything!), saw a lot of this beautiful city, went to the beach, ate tons of delicious food, and of course I got a lot of reading done.

Quickie News

  • Pride Month may be over but I’ve discovered The Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Database and want to share this resource with you. It helps you find LGBTQIA+ SFF books, you can search by identity, relationship, genre and age group, or you can just browse and see if something interests you. I found it quite helpful because often I just don’t know that a book I have on my TBR has LGBTQIA+ representation in it and this database really helps.
  • The Hugo Voter Packet is here and it’s pretty damn great! I was very happily surprised that some companies offered codes for the games nominated in the new Best Game category (I’ve since been playing Spiritfarer A LOT). While some publishers only offered excerpts of the nominated work (which is fine), others delivered entire series. Either way, there is huge amount of stuff to read, watch, or play. I am super impressed and have already started to work on the pile of material.
  • If you’re one of the people who loved Graceling by Kristin Cashore, you’re getting two treats this year. The fourth instalment of the series, Winterkeep, came out earlier in the year, and in November, we’re getting a Graphic Novel version of the first book, adapted by Gareth Hinds. I am excited to see this underrated YA series come to life again through a different medium.
  • I will be eternally jealous of anyone who can participate in this pre-order campaign, but if you’re in the US and you’ve pre-ordered The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente (and you really should!), then you can get a shiny enamel pin naming you 8th Best Daffodil. It will make perfect sense once you’ve read the book, trust me. I’ll just sit here in little excluded Europe, pin-less but still looking forward to my paper copy of the book.

The Nebula Awards have been announced

The livestream happened at 2am in my time zone, so I am super proud that I managed to watch it the next morning without getting spoiled. There was much excitement and consequent squeeing in my house, I can tell you that. You can still watch the ceremony on Youtube.

Congratulations to all the winners!

As always, there are some categories I care about more than others and I am super stoked about the winners. First and foremost, my favorite novella of last year (and possibly ever) Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark won for Best Novella. The Andre Norton award for YA/MG fiction didn’t go to my top choice Raybearer but instead to my second favorite A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by the inimitable T. Kingfisher. Her speech was just as lovely and hilarious as her books are. Lastly, the Best Novel Nebula went to Network Effect by Martha Wells. While the competition was stiff, who can be mad at Murderbot taking home an award? That’s right, nobody!

There is considerable overlap between the Nebula finalists and the Hugo finalists and so I am even more excited to catch up on the novels, novelettes, and short stories I haven’t read yet.

And so have the Locus Awards

Man, awards season is great and this year! I’m particularly happy and a little proud that I’ve read almost all the winners before they were announced!

Best Novel (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, respectively):

  • Martha Wells – Network Effect
  • N. K. Jemisin – The City We Became
  • Silvia Moreno Garcia – Mexican Gothic

YA Novel went to A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher, First Novel to Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. I would have preferred to see Micaiah Johnson or Andrea Stewart win this one, but things could be worse.
Best Novella went to the amazeballs Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, Best Novelette to “The Pill” by Meg Elison (I just read that for the Hugo Awards), and Best Short Story to “Little Free Library” by Naomi Kritzer which I also found really cute.

I am very happy about the works that have won. Congratulations to all the winners as well as the other finalists. It was an excellent year for SFF.

Poll: NPR’s Top Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels of the Last Decade

If you love lists, like me, you may be aware of NPR’s Top 100 Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novels List from the year 2011. Well, they’re doing another one and to make things better (and not be reminded that, yes, The Lord of the Rings is still everyone’s favorite of all time) choices are limited to books published in the last 10 years. I have already voted, I am super excited for the results, and I hope you’ll all go vote for your favorites a well.

Because I really need another list of books to read…

Exciting July Publications

July feels a bit quieter to me. There are novellas by Becky Chambers and Cat Valente coming up, a stuning-looking debut, and new fairy tale retellings. But while I’m interested in all these books, my excitement levels aren’t as high as last month. Which is probably good because my TBR is making me nervous as it is.


Now that Becky Chambers is done with the Wayfarers, she is treating us to a new novella series – with robots! Having a tea monk and a robot become friends is already enough to convince me but I’m sure there’ll be a lot more to it than that.

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter?


I’m always up for a good fairy tale retelling! While I still haven’t read the Elizabeth Lim book on my TBR, I do look forward to this Six Swans version a lot. And not just because the cover is gorgeous. Although it is. Really, really gorgeous.

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Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted, but it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

Raikama has dark magic of her own, and she banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes, and warning Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and, on her journey, uncovers a conspiracy to overtake the throne—a conspiracy more twisted and deceitful, more cunning and complex, than even Raikama’s betrayal. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to contain—no matter what it costs her.


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I stumbled across this book on Tachyon Publication’s homepage and I just couldn’t scroll past that cover without checking it out. This looks and sounds like so much fun. A space adventure for Middle Grade kids feels like the perfect summer read, even if it has parasites in it. 🙂

Can an anxious eleven-year-old find her chill and save her family from creepy aliens? Only if she’s the most awesome, super-brave astronaut since Spaceman Spiff! So take a deep breath, grab your sidekick, and blast off with Jillian to Parasite Planet.

Eleven-year-old Jillian hates surprises. Even fun ones make her feel all panicky inside. But, she’s always dreamed of joining her space-explorer parents on a mission. It’s Take Your Kid to Work Day, and Jillian finally has her chance to visit an alien world!

The journey to Planet 80 UMa c is supposed to be just a fun camping trip. But then the local wildlife starts acting really dangerous. Only the onboard computer SABRINA sorta knows what’s happening—at least when it’s not goofing off or telling bad jokes.

Looks like it’s Jillian vs Parasite Planet—and Jillian is determined to win!


I am a little unsure whether I will like this book. After a civil war, slavery is somehow back… I do like the idea of a race, of people banding together to find out their own history, but I’m not quite sure what the speculative aspects of this book are going to be.

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The Freedom Race, Lucinda Roy’s explosive first foray into speculative fiction, is a poignant blend of subjugation, resistance, and hope.

In the aftermath of a cataclysmic civil war known as the Sequel, ideological divisions among the states have hardened. In the Homestead Territories, an alliance of plantation-inspired holdings, Black labor is imported from the Cradle, and Biracial “Muleseeds” are bred.

Raised in captivity on Planting 437, kitchen-seed Jellybean “Ji-ji” Lottermule knows there is only one way for her to escape. She must enter the annual Freedom Race as a runner.

Ji-ji and her friends must exhume a survival story rooted in the collective memory of a kidnapped people and conjure the voices of the dead to light their way home.


This is my favorite book of the year so far and its only flaw is that it could have been a big chunky novel but only wanted to be a novella. It’s post climate change but somehow in a funny and hopeful way. Protagonist Tetley Abednego is the easiest to love, what with her eternal hopefulness, her way of looking at life positively, no matter how many curveballs it throws her. And there are some great twists. Just pick it up and if you like shiny covers, get yourself a hard copy because the cover and its small details are just stunning and actually relevant to the story.

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Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.

The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.

Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.

But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.


Is it mean if I say I don’t expect to like this book? The author comparisons make alarm bells ring in my head and the synopsis sounds thin at best. So why am I listing it here? Well, it’s a Red Riding Hood reimagining and I can’t resist fairy tale retellings. Plus, I really like when my prejudices are shattered and I hope Rachel Vincent can do that.


This high stakes, pacey reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood is perfect for fans of Stephanie Garber and Megan Spooner.

For as long as sixteen-year-old Adele can remember the village of Oakvale has been surrounding by the dark woods—a forest filled with terrible monsters that light cannot penetrate. Like every person who grows up in Oakvale she has been told to steer clear of the woods unless absolutely necessary.

But unlike her neighbors in Oakvale, Adele has a very good reason for going into the woods. Adele is one of a long line of guardians, women who are able to change into wolves and who are tasked with the job of protecting their village while never letting any of the villagers know of their existence.

But when following her calling means abandoning the person she loves, the future she imagined for herself, and her values she must decide how far she is willing to go to keep her neighbors safe.


Here’s one of my most highly anticipated novels of the year, and yes, the cover is to blame at least in part. But if you tell me it’s “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles”, I’ll buy it even with a bad cover. I mean it just sounds super exciting. Girl pretending to be a a boy, high stakes, constant danger of being found out… yeah, I think I’ll love this one.

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Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.

To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything

“I refuse to be nothing…”

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.


I read the first few chapters of Craig’s Hous eof Salt and Sorrows and found it a bit too YA tropey for my taste, but I may give it another try. And I may also try this new book of hers which sounds pretty intriguing and gives me Goblin Market vibes.

Ellerie Downing lives in the quiet town of Amity Falls in the Blackspire Mountain range–five narrow peaks stretching into the sky like a grasping hand, bordered by a nearly impenetrable forest from which the early townsfolk fought off the devils in the woods. To this day, visitors are few and rare. But when a supply party goes missing, some worry that the monsters that once stalked the region have returned.

As fall turns to winter, more strange activities plague the town. They point to a tribe of devilish and mystical creatures who promise to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand and impossible, for just a small favor. But their true intentions are much more sinister, and Ellerie finds herself in a race against time before all of Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves go up in flames.


Ah, reading plans work out much better for me when I don’t make a strict TBR. I made myself a list of all my LGBTQIA+ books on my Kobo (that list turned out to be quite long) and then just picked books by mood. I was also granted another Cat Valente ARC so life is good.

Tags and such:

I did the Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag and it was, indeed, filled with me freaking out about the amount of books I still want to read this year. My review for The Witness For the Dead by Katherine Addison finally went up and I’m a bit surprised that I read and reviewed the few eARCs I requested this year in such a timely fashion. Go me!

What I read:

  • Nino Cipri – FINNA
    very disappointing – cool idea, bad execution – characters are flat (they have one trait only) – world-hopping was too short – no emotional impact at all – not interested in the sequel
  • T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
    fun and funny – surprising uses of bread dough – fantastic protagonist – pretty exciting story with high stakes
  • T. J. Klune – The House in the Cerulean Sea
    EXACTLY like everyone said – a book like a warm blanket – a feel-good, heartwarming tale of found family – made me laugh and cry
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Comfort Me With Apples (review coming in October)
    wonderfully eerie – Steford Wives vibe – great twist – atmospheric – read in one sitting
  • Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find
    so good – mystery upon mystery – two sisters searching for each other – climate change – emotional and dramatic – beautiful understated romance
  • John Scalzi – The Collapsing Empire
    reads like a movie – super fun – interesting ideas – okay characers – can’t wait to read the next instalment
  • Kieron Gillon, Dan Mora – Once & Future Vol 1: The King is Undead
    fun idea – King Arthur zombies – hilarious grandma character – pacing issues (Gillon has those a lot) – great art

Currently reading:

  • Brandon Sanderson – Oathbringer
  • Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun
  • Seanan McGuire – An Artificial Night

My Stormlight Archive re-read is going well, although I do have to say Oathbringer is my least favorite this time. The world building, extensive as it is, could be done better than just have a character say “Oh there are old documents about this and that” and then “this and that” is supposed to always kind of have been known. I am also just not as engaged this time around whereas the first two books were just as exciting on a re-read as they were the first time I read them. All that said, I still have so much fun re-reading the series and I can’t wait to finally get started on Rhythm of War.
Black Sun is great, except there’s something missing. It has a cool setting, interesting characters, and a story that promises to become pretty epic, but it all feels a bit predictable. I enjoy reading it when I pick it up and I don’t want to put it back down. But once I do, I have no urge to continue… I’m almost done with it so we’ll see what my final thoughts will be.
Aaaaaand October Daye #3 is fun. I was worried at first because it re-hashed a lot of ideas from the first two books (and certain things just lose their shock value after the first time) but it picked up speed and is now very entertaining. Not my favorite so far but in general, I like the series, and it’s great to know there’s a lot more Toby Daye when I’m in the mood for her.

Until next month: Stay safe, stay kind, and keep reading. 🙂

Addictive Bubblegum Space Opera: John Scalzi – The Collapsing Empire

The Best Series Hugo be praised or I would probably never have picked up this John Scalzi trilogy and that would have been a damn shame. As of now, I am still totally undecided how I will rank the Best Series finalists this year but wherever The Interdependency ends up, I’m glad Hugo nominators made me read it because this was so much fun, you guys!

collapsing empireTHE COLLAPSING EMPIRE
by John Scalzi

Published: Tor, 2017
eBook: 336 pages
Series: The Interdependency #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: The mutineers would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the collapse of the Flow.

Does the biggest threat lie within?

In the far future, humanity has left Earth to create a glorious empire. Now this interstellar network of worlds faces disaster – but can three individuals save their people?

The empire”s outposts are utterly dependent on each other for resources, a safeguard against war, and a way its rulers can exert control. This relies on extra-dimensional pathways between the stars, connecting worlds. But ‘The Flow’ is changing course, which could plunge every colony into fatal isolation.

A scientist will risk his life to inform the empire’s ruler. A scion of a Merchant House stumbles upon conspirators seeking power. And the new Empress of the Interdependency must battle lies, rebellion and treason. Yet as they work to save a civilization on the brink of collapse, others have very different plans . . .

The Collapsing Empire is an exciting space opera from John Scalzi

I sometimes feel like voracious SFF readers are trained to expect certain things by now. Whether it’s the super slow burn political intrigue, the long set up for epic things to come later in a series, the unresolved tensions that are kept unresolved for volume upon volume – I am definitely guilty of having certain expectations. When those expectations are shattered, it can go either way. In the case of John Scalzi’s Interdependency, it worked brilliantly. Because although this is the first book in a trilogy, it starts at the end. With a bang.

The Interdependecy is a group of systems connected by the Flow, a wrinkle in space/time that lets ships travel faster between places than would otherwise be possible without FTL travel. It still takes several months from the central world Hub to the planet End (literally at the End of the Flow streams), but hey, trade between these places is possible and thriving. The planets, space stations, etc. connected by the Flow are all interdependent (ha!) which makes the central premise of this book a big problem. That premise is the very probable collapse of the empire and all that that entails. Entry and exit points to and from the Flow are getting whacky and the emperox – quasi-leader of the Interdependency – is dying with only his unprepared bastard daughter as heir because the original heir got himself killed in an accident. So to sum up: Things are pretty much fucked!

We see this drama unravel through several viewpoint characters, one of which curses a lot. I mean, a lot! Kiva Lagos doesn’t let a sentence escape her mouth if it doesn’t contain the word “fuck” at least once so if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, beware. I found it hilarious, especially as we get to know her better. The cursing just goes with her no-bullshit attitude. She’s coldblooded, profit-hungry, and a little ruthless, but her heart’s in the right spot. I guess. It may only be a small heart, but it’s there and I kind of grew to like her over the course of this novel.
Much more sympathetic and easier to like is Cardelia, soon-to-be emperox and totally overwhelmed with it all. She’s mostly just a vessel to give us readers more information about the Interdependency, how everything works, how political factions interact and how ridiculous life in a palace can be. Either way, I liked her and I appreciated learning certain truths about the world alongside her.
Marce Claremont lives on End – the only planet where people can live on the surface, even though there’s not much there to get excited about. End is having one of its uprisings against the current Duke (there’s one or two rebellions every decade) but Marce, his sister, and their father are there for a different reason. Ostensibly, Lord Claremont controls taxes for the Empire or something, but in reality, he is a scientist with a mission. And if he’s right, his findings need to be taken to Hub immediately. The empire and humanity’s future is at stake!

There’s also the Space-Lannisters of this tale, the Nohamapetan family, which is one of the monopoly-holding families who make up the nobility of the Interdependency. What wealth they have is apparently not enough because they are scheming for more money and more power. They’re almost caricatures of villains, so they’re easy to hate until one of them shows signs of being human after all. Not big signs, mind you, but at least they’re not completely one-dimensional. Although it gets a little over the top at times, there’s something to be said for a villain you can just love to hate. Ghreni Nohamapetan is an adviser to the Duke on End, his sister Nadashe was supposed to marry the heir to the emperox (the one who died), so now their brother Amit is making advances on the entirely uninterested Cardenia.

That said, don’t except too much depth when it comes to the characters. Scalzi doesn’t spend much time making his characters multi-faceted or deep, but he does write a damn good story based on intriguing science-fictional ideas. The Flow was enough to get me hooked, the imminent collapse of this galactic empire sealed the deal for me. Add to that the political machinations, intrigues and trade agreements, uprisings and assassination attempts, and you’ve got a book that’s really hard to put down. I read it very quickly because I simply had to know what happnened next and if the assholes would get what they deserved. I also really, really enjoy reading about intelligent characters and The Collapsing Empire has several rather clever ones. It’s just such a delightful feeling when a bad guy thinks they won only to find out that they got outsmarted by the good guys. Cue my evil laugh! 🙂

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think I would like this book. I am, after all, a character-focused reader and all my favorite books have either phenomenal characters, beautiful language, or a combination of both. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy plot-driven narratives once in a while, especially when they have things to say about humanity. The language may not be pretty – as in using shiny polysyllabic words simply because they sound good – but it is super engaging. The chracters may only have one or two traits each but they’re easy to root for and fun to follow. And the story is just really good! Will I be thinking about Kiva Lagos or Marce Claremont in a year? Probably not. Do I want to pick up the next book with them inside? Hell yeah!

I was also pleasantly surprised by how satisfying the ending was. Don’t get me wrong, this is clearly the setup novel for a bigger story but enough plot lines were resolved to make me close the book happily. It doesn’t feel like you’re just left hanging there, mid-sentence (even though that would’t be bad as the trilogy is finished and you can jump right into the next volume), but rather gives you a story with beginning, middle and end. It just so happens that this story is set in a world that I want to explore some more because now the real problems are about to start!

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Let’s Freak Out Together! The Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag 2021

June is almost over which means HALF of this year has gone by and that’s kind of crazy?! I mean, people say this every year, but I think we can all agree that 2020 and 2021 have been far from normal, so realizing we have lived through almost 1.5 years of pandemic just sounds ridiculous. Trying to look on the bright side, the numerous lockdowns, working from home, social distancing and isolation have opened up a lot of reading time for many of us, me included. I am doing okay as far as reading goals go, although work has been absolutely insane these past months and I’m glad it’s now looking like things will quiet down a bit.

So, on to the Mid-Year Freak Out Tag in which you shall see quite a few repeat offenders, one of which is (unsurprisingly) by my favoritest of authors. It’s not my fault she’s brilliant…

Best Book You Read So Far in 2021

Easily The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente (review goes up on July 19th), although I have some other favorites like All The Murmuring Bones by Angela Slatter, a gothic fairy tale-esque novel about a woman breaking free from her family and finding her own place in a decidedly magical world, or The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He, a post climate change YA novel about two sisters trying to find and save each other in a hostile world. And, the only non-2021 title, The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune, which stole my heart so fast I didn’t even know what was happening.

Interestingly, all of these are ocean-themed. In one, there’s nothing left but oceans plus an island of floating garbage, in the second, the ocean is what keeps the protagonist sisters apart, in the third, it’s where the mermaids live who have made a bargain with the protagonist’s family and in the last one, the island setting is in the sea… I always find it funny when I look back on my reading and realize that I’ve been reading on a theme without noticing. 🙂

Best Sequel Read in 2021

Two new releases and three older ones is a good mix, I think. The Discworld novel is not technically a sequel, although it is book 13 in the series. But as it’s not part of either of the sub-series and stands perfectly well on its own, I kind of smuggled it onto this list, simply because I adored it and wanted to mention it here.
Both Arkady Martine’s followup to the amazeballs A Memory Called Empire and Addison’s companion/sequel to the beloved The Goblin Emperor weren’t quite as good as their predecessors, but that doesn’t mean much. They are still both very good novels that gave me more of what I loved in the first book.

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet But Want To

Like every year: So many!

  • P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn
  • C. L. Clark – The Unbroken
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Into the Heartless Woods
  • Ava Reid – The Wolf and the Woodsman
  • Tasha Suri – The Jasmine Throne
  • Nghi Vo – The Chosen and the Beautiful
  • Helene Wecker – The Hidden Palace
  • Maggie Stiefvater – Mister Impossible
  • Nicole Kornher-Stace – Firebreak
  • Martha Wells – Fugitive Telemetry
  • Naomi Kritzer – Chaos on CatNet
  • M. A. Carrick – The Mask of Mirrors
  • Rivers Solomon – Sorrowland

And then some, but these are the ones that feel the most urgent. Yes, I have a problem.

Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

  • Jordan Ifueko – Redemptor
  • Catherynne M. Valente – The Past is Red (already read this – it’s perfect!)
  • Catherynne M. Valente – Comfort Me With Apples (already read this – super creepy!)
  • T. J. Klune – Under the Whispering Door
  • Fonda Lee – Jade Legacy
  • Linden A. Lewis – The Second Rebel
  • Ryka Aoki – Light From Uncommon Stars
  • Becky Chambers – A Psalm for the Wild-Built
  • Shelley Parker-Chan – She Who Became the Sun
  • Brandon Sanderson – Cytonic
  • Andrea Stewart – The Bone Shard Emperor
  • Zoraida Córdova – The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina

The Green Bone Saga is coming to an end and I am HYPED! The same goes for Jordan Ifueko’s duology which started with Raybearer (more on that below). We see continuations of Linden A. Lewis’ First Sister series, the Bone Shard universe by Andrea Stewart, as well as Sanderson’s Skyward series, all of which I enjoy a lot. Becky Chambers is starting a new series of novellas, involving a robot and a tea monk (I mean, how could I not want this?), and T. J. Klune offers what is hopefully another heartwarming story like Cerulean Sea. Ryka Aoki and Zoraida Córdova‘s books are on my radar because either I keep hearing about them (Aoki) or the cover is striking (Córcova). Plus, I’ve read Córdova before and like what she does with culture and fantasy.

I’ve already read both of Cat Valente’s upcoming novellas and they are EXCELLENT, although very different in subject and tone. The Past is Red is a post climate-change novel that’s both heartbreaking and hopeful and so, so clever. Comfort Me With Apples is wonderfully eerie but I recommend going into it as blank as possible. The less you know, the more fun you’ll have. There are lots of moments that will make you scratch your head and wonder what the hell is going on. In the best of ways.

Biggest Disappointment

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and FINNA by Nino Cipri.

This is always such a sad question to answer because obviously, nobody sets out to read a book in order to dislike it. Disappointments can take many forms and have many sources. Was the book overhyped and simply didn’t live up to the expectations? Was the synopsis misleading? Is the plot/style/character development lacking? Is it none of the above and the book simply didn’t fit my current reading mood? It could be any or all of those things but no matter the reason, I would much rather have liked these books. I’m glad, however, that it was only these three.

Did everyone read a different FINNA than I did? The idea sounds sooooo great and really quite funny (a wormhole opens up in fictional IKEA and two unhappy and recently broken up employees have to go in to save a lost grandma) but the world-hopping didn’t work in novella format because things get too hectic and there’s no time for proper world building. The characters were one-dimensional (a gender identity isn’t a person, it’s just one part of a human being!) and the writing wasn’t very engaging. As this is nominated for several awards, I expected a lot more.

In the case of Persephone Station it wasn’t expectations or hype, I just didn’t think the book was very good. It lacks focus and it doesn’t ever manage to make its characters truly come to life. Props for representation but there was so little else there that I can’t even remember much of anything. A hundred SF ideas were shoved into it without ever executing any one of them properly, so it ended up as a big old mess.

Now The Dark is Rising is interesting because not only has it won lots of awards, it’s considered a classic of both children’s literature and fantasy and I Just. Don’t. See. Why. You literally don’t know what’s going on most of the time because the protagonist is a passive bag of meat who’s being shoved around by some immortal magical beings who also don’t tell him shit, except when it’s too late and then he still doesn’t do anything active but just waits around for the next magical being to save his ass and hand him some magical artifact. And it’s all got to do with King Arthur, apparently. I have great respect for any child who stuck with this because I don’t think child-me would have had the patience.

Biggest Surprise

John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire was a book I expected to not enjoy very much. I have nothing against Space Opera and nothing against Scalzi as a person, but I haven’t warmed to his writing very much. The few reviews I’ve seen hinted at this being rather shallow, an action movie kind of book. And while it was definitely as exciting as an action movie, I found much more to like in it than that. Yes, the characters are a little bland but in light of what else the novel has to offer, I was okay with that. Whatever the reasons for it, I didn’t want to put the book down, ever, and immediately after finishing it, I loaded the sequel onto my e-reader.

Favorite New Author

I’m glad I can list several new (potential) favorites here:

I have read one book each by these authors and they all resonated with me and made me want more. So now I have one or more other books by these authors on my TBR which will determine whether I’ve truly found new favorites or just authors who wrote one book I really liked. I have my suspicions, though, that I will end up loving the second book by all of them as much as I did the first.

New Favorite Character

Tetley Abednego from The Past is Red. She’s a ray of sunshine in a world of grey, she’s smart and loving and eternally hopeful. She makes me want to find whatever happiness I can in this messed-up place that is our world. I also want to be best friends with her and together win 8th Best Daffodil at some contest. 🙂

A Book That Made You Cry

Small Gods because Terry Pratchett writes characters that are so human you feel like you know them. And then he sends them out on adventures that sometimes go well, sometimes not so much, but there’s always a feeling of truth to the Discworld. Brutha was an amazing protagonist who has a secure spot in my heart.
Quite different but similarly endearing is Linus Baker in T. J. Klune’s House in the Cerulean Sea, a book that exceeded my expectations but gave me exactly what I had hoped for. Warm feelings, a sense of belonging, a lovely found family, and some ugly-cry moments.

A Book That Makes You Happy

The House in the Cerulean Sea obviously. I can’t think of a more wholesome, happiness-inducing book that I’ve read recently. Yes, it also made me cry. It’s just that kind of book. A close second is A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking which is by T. Kingfisher, so it’s got her particular sense of humor that I love. It’s also clever and heartwarming and just so much fun.

Favorite Book-to-Movie Adaptation You’ve Seen This Year

I’m not aware of anything other than Shadow and Bone but, yes, I did watch and enjoy its first season. After some initial pacing problems and storyline-combining, timeline-ignoring shenanigans, I actually liked it a lot. The actors are great, it’s visually beautiful, and nothing was ruined so far. That doesn’t sound like high praise but the show does a lot of things right. I was surprised at how much I cared about the Nina and Matthias story because, although I liked that bit in the Six of Crows duology, it was never my favorite. Alina and Mal’s relationship is shown beautifully through their letters and flashbacks, the Darkling is just as hot as he should be (and I’m just as uninterested as I was when I read the books), and it all seems to be coming together.

Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought This Year

So none of these books are actually here yet because they’re all pre-orders. But I am so excited about the special editions of Raybearer and Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko. I am apparently the only person who doesn’t like the UK covers and while I love the character illustration on the US covers, I am not a fan of the bright colors and all that glitter. But I adore Raybearer and absolutely needed a paper copy! So I grabbed these two beauties with stunning ombre sprayed edges. They’ll be arriving sometime in August or September, I think.

I’ve only had the eARC of The Past is Red to stare at, but that cover is not only gorgeous but also so full of little details that you don’t see the first time you look. It gets even cooler when you’ve read the book and discover that those details have meaning and aren’t just there because they look cool (although they do that, too). I can’t wait to hold the paper copy in my hands and just stare at it for a while.

Honorable mention to The Ones We’re Meant to Find (see first question).

What Books Do You Need to Read By the End of the Year

HAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA why is this question even here? My TBR pile looks like an entire mountain range at this point, but okay, priorities can be set and certain books want to be read more urgently than others. Excluding all the books I’m reading for this year’s Hugo Awards and the new releases I’ve already mentioned above, here are my top need-to-read books for the rest of the year:

  • Andrzej Sapkowski – The Time of Contempt
  • Tamora Pierce – The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  • Connie Willis – To Say Nothing of the Dog
  • Iain Banks – Consider Phlebas
  • Brandon Sanderson – Rhythm of War
  • Walter M. Miller – A Canticle for Leibowitz
  • Holly Black – Tithe
  • Laini Taylor – Night of Cake and Puppets
  • Lauren Beukes – Afterland
  • Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen

Reading Goal/Challenges Status

  • Goodreads goal: 52/100
  • Beat the Backlist: 17/53 (2 books to go for a Bingo)
  • Black Authors: 6/20
  • New Releases: 10/??

There you have it. I’d say the first half of 2021 was pretty successful, reading-wise. With only a few disappointments but many very good books and several new favorites I really can’t complain. As usual, the Hugo Awards prove to be super rewarding, not only because it’s fun to participate in the community and to vote in the actual awards, but also because reading the finalists shows me new aspects of SFF and leads me down literary roads I would otherwise not have taken.

For someone who wouldn’t have picked up an Urban Fantasy series (because the ones I tried didn’t grab me that much), I am now slowly but steadily catching up on the October Daye series and enjoying it. I also never thought I’d pick up this particular John Scalzi trilogy but, even as I type this, I can’t wait to get started on the next book and find out what happens next!

Now let’s hope the second half of 2021 brings us back to some resemblance of normal and, of course, lots and lots of great books. 😉

YA Cli-Fi Done Right: Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find

I was always going to read Joan He’s enxt book after the amazing Descendant of the Crane, even though this is a total departure from that book in content. I’m glad it has such a stunning cover because I believe that made lots of other people aware of this book as well and the more people get to enjoy this fantastic book, the better for everyone. Can you tell that I’m about to be all fangirly and gushy? Because I am.

ones were meant to findTHE ONES WE’RE MEANT TO FIND
by Joan He

Published: Roaring Brook Press, 2021
eBook: 384 pages
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I wake on my feet, wind tangled in my hair.

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay, and it’s up to Cee to cross the ocean and find her.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara lives in an eco-city built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But nevertheless, she decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

I’m going to nominate this book for a Lodestar (the YA not-a -Hugo-Award) next year because it not only tells a great science-fictional story but also shows what YA literature can be. That it is so much more than love triangles, dystopian societies with random factions or tales of political rebellions led by teenagers. Not that I don’t like that kind of story, I do. But there is a lot more to explore than the same old themes that keep coming back. Joan He is an author who dares go there, who puts her characters through terrible ordeals that don’t necessarily have to do with physical obstacles, but rather with ethical or moral decisions. The Ones We’re Meant to Find was everything I had hoped for and so much more. Let me warn you, though: When you pick this up, expect to stay up late for the “just one more chapter” routine. Probably until you’ve finished the book.

We first meet Cee stranded on an island with no idea how she got there or even who she really is. She does know some things, however. She has a sister named Kay and she desperately needs to get back to her, so Cee’s island life consists of collecting scraps for building a boat to take her out to sea. Her dreams (or are they memories? Visions?) show her a city in the sky, her beloved sister, and a world in color, as opposed to her greyscale island existence. But occasionally, very very occasionally, flashes of memory come back to Cee and she’s hoping to unravel the secrets of her past and find the way back to her sister.

Kasey does indeed live in a city in the sky but life hasn’t been the same since her sister Celia disappeared several months ago. Kasey isn’t exactly what you’d call an emotional person and that very fact makes her feel guilty, different from the others. She loves her sister, so why doesn’t she cry when it’s a near certainty that Celia is dead? Why didn’t she cry when their mother died years ago, for that matter? Kasey’s only really passionate about science and while she knows the odds are ridiculous, she keeps looking for her sister, for any sign of life, or at least for closure. In the process, she discovers some secrets of her own. Things Celia kept hidden, people she knew, and memories she lived.

This is one of those twisty books that’s super difficult to talk about without spoiling, so I shall tread carefully. I loved many, many things about it, starting with the most obvious: the mystery of Celia’s disappearance, life on the island, and what exactly happened in the girls’ past. In addition to a missing sister, Kasey has another secret, one that “took science away from her” and it’s a good while before that bit is revealed. But there are enough intriguing questions right from the start to glue anyone to the pages and make them ignore reasonable bed times. There are hints everywhere but Joan He did a fine job holding just enough back to keep her readers guessing.

Unravelling slowly, the world building was one of the coolest I’ve ever read. I’m not a big cli-fi reader (yet) but I found the ideas presented here very interesting. People – well, some people – have retreated to floating cities in the sky where they are not only somewhat protected from the Earth’s terrifying climate (tsunamis galore, earthquakes, poisonous air and water, you name it) but where they are also taking measures to not make things worse. That involves spending a considerable amount of time in virtual spaces, lying in a tank. There are many more details to discover, like who gets to live in a floating city in the first place, how people are ranked (because of course they are) and what the implications of such a system are. Technology is much advanced from our standpoint and society functions differently, all of which are aspects that you discover kind of on the side while following an exciting story. There’s also the problem of much of humanity still living outside such cities and the climate getting worse and worse…

illustration by Eduardo Vargas

Although this book is gripping from the very first page, there are clear kick-off points for both Cee and Kasey’s stories and they each involve the appearance of a boy. Now don’t go thinking you’ll get half a sci-fi book and half a romance. That’s not how Joan He rolls and if you’ve read Descendant of the Crane you’ll know. But whether there are romantic feelings involved or not, meeting someone and maybe kind of befriending them opens entire new worlds to them. For Kasey, it’s a boy named Actinium (or so he says, his personal data is clearly hacked and fake) who can help her find out more about Celia’s past and why she went missing in the first place. He also appears to be just as driven by logic and perceived as cold as Kasey herself is.
Meanwhile, Cee’s lonely existence (well, except for the little robot) is interrupted by a nameless boy who has even less of a clue how he got to the island than her. On the one hand, that makes them kindred spirits, on the other… let’s just say it’s not entirely clear what his deal is.

Very similarly to her debut novel, I loved, loved, loved the characters and the immensely tough decisions they have to make and the way they grow over the course of the story. Joan He effortlessly shows us who her characters are and makes us feel for them, even when they do stupid things or make decisions we wouldn’t agree with. It’s like a masterclass in writing three-dimensional multi-layered characters without ever telling us outright what kind of people they are. After reading this book, I feel like I know them and could tell you how they’d act in a given situation. And although I definitely don’t agree with them on certain things, I wanted them to achieve their hopes and dreams. I wanted the sisters to find each other, I wanted them both happy, I wanted them to magically find a way to save the world. But things aren’t that simple, even on a fictional Earth, and the shocking revelations keep on coming.

The ending was as perfect as it could have been for a story like this. I suppose I’d call it dramatic and emotional and that will get across what it’s like without giving you any hint as to whether things end well or badly or something in between. The Ones We’re Meant to Find cements my opinion of Joan He, namely that she is an author to follow closely, especially if you like YA but would like it to go in new and fresh directions. This book will be haunting me for a while yet. In a good way.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Murder, Intrigue, and Honesty: Katherine Addison – The Witness for the Dead

I still remember when I read The Goblin Emperor – also as an e-ARC – and thought I would never make it through this book of strange, polysyllabic names and courtly manners. After a couple of chapters, however, I was not only deep into that world and quite familiar with the crazy names, but I was absolutely in love with the story, the protagonist Maia, and the setting. So much so that I immediately pre-ordered a hardback copy for my shelf. It turned out to be among my favorite books of the year and, despite some unfortunate events, a real feelgood novel. So returning to this world felt like the perfect thing to do during a pandemic.
Thank you Tor for providing an e-ARC of this novel and letting me enjoy it a bit sooner. 🙂

witness for the deadTHE WITNESS FOR THE DEAD
by Katherine Addison

Published: Tor, June 22nd 2021
eBook: 240 pages
Series: The Goblin Emperor #2 (can be read as a standalone!)
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: In the jumbled darkness of the catacombs beneath the city of Amalo, there was a shrine to Ulis in his aspect as god of the moon.

Katherine Addison returns to the glittering world she created for her beloved novel, The Goblin Emperor, in this stand-alone sequel.

When the young half-goblin emperor Maia sought to learn who had set the bombs that killed his father and half-brothers, he turned to an obscure resident of his father’s Court, a Prelate of Ulis and a Witness for the Dead. Thara Celehar found the truth, though it did him no good to discover it. He lost his place as a retainer of his cousin the former Empress, and made far too many enemies among the many factions vying for power in the new Court. The favor of the Emperor is a dangerous coin.

Now Celehar lives in the city of Amalo, far from the Court though not exactly in exile. He has not escaped from politics, but his position gives him the ability to serve the common people of the city, which is his preference. He lives modestly, but his decency and fundamental honestly will not permit him to live quietly. As a Witness for the Dead, he can, sometimes, speak to the recently dead: see the last thing they saw, know the last thought they had, experience the last thing they felt. It is his duty use that ability to resolve disputes, to ascertain the intent of the dead, to find the killers of the murdered.

Now Celehar’s skills lead him out of the quiet and into a morass of treachery, murder, and injustice. No matter his own background with the imperial house, Celehar will stand with the commoners, and possibly find a light in the darkness.

When young goblin emperor Maia stole fantasy readers’ hearts by simply being a good guy in a corrupt world, everyone pretty much agreed that we wanted more from this world. Well, it took a while but Katherine Addison has obliged and delivered a sort of companion novel that can easily be read as a standalone. Given how little detail I remembered from The Goblin Emperor, it might as well have been one and my reading pleasure was in no way diminished.

Far from the Untheileineise court, we follow a character we’ve met before. Thara Celehar, Witness for the Dead, currently living in not-quite-exile in Amalo, doing his job and trying to live a peaceful life. But of course, as a Witness for the Dead, he is confronted with some very unpleasant cases. As unpleasant as they may be for him, however, as exciting they are for us readers. And with that comes the greatest distinction between The Goblin Emperor and its companion/sequel The Witness for the Dead. Because where the former was all about character and world building and didn’t have too much plot, this book is quite plot-driven, without sacrificing too much world building and character development.

Celehar is dealing with several cases of dead people, at least one of whom was murdered. An unidentified body was fished out of the river and Celehar’s job as a Witness for the Dead is not just to perform the necessary rites for a funeral, but in this case also to find out who the dead person is, who murdered her, and why. It’s essentially a proper murder mystery with Celehar as the kind-hearted, soft-spoken detective. Then there’s the case of a dead patriarch’s will – or rather, wills, as there are two and parts of the family claim that their version is the correct one. Add to that a recently-married woman who has died but whose grave isn’t known to her family. Let’s just say there’s enough for Celehar to do, even without the added political problems and his memories of the past.

There is an astounding number of things to love in this book, considering its low page count. But since Katherine Addison doesn’t waste any time setting up her world or explaining what any of the specific terms thrown around mean, there is more time for a number of mysterious murders, ghoul hunting, enjoying tea in tea houses, and opera. Celehar’s investigation leads him to the opera quite often as well as to other parts of Amalo. I can’t say that, after reading this book, I have a map of the city in my mind, but I have a feeling for the city and, to me, that is much better. There are trams and artists’ quarters, there are the richer areas and the poorer ones, there are gambling houses and tea houses, and it all just feels like a proper place.

I don’t know if it was a mistake to not re-read The Goblin Emperor before starting this book. Because Celehar isn’t introduced in all that much detail. All the necessary information is there – his calling as a Witness for the Dead, something dark in his past that haunts both him and his reputation – but his personality isn’t established right away. It does become clearer the more you read, and that’s what makes the book not only a chronolical sequel but also a spiritual follow-up to The Goblin Emperor. Because Celehar, much like Maia, is in essence a good person. He is honest to a fault, he thinks of others before himself, and he sacrifices his own well-being for a good cause in a heartbeat.

Without spoiling any of the mysteries or their solution, all I can tell you is that they are well done and all of them are resolved in a satisfying (if not always happy) way. Don’t worry when Celehar goes on his ghoul-hunting side quest that the main plot will be forgotten. I found the choice to break the plot in two like that a bit strange but as all plot strings are picked back up afterward, things worked out well in the end.

What makes this book such a pleasure to read is the goodness of its protagonist juxtaposed to the curruption of the wider world. Altough it took me a while to feel for Celehar the way I did for Maia – mainly wanting to hug him and shake him and somehow make everything work out well for him – I did fall in love with the character more and more.

What’s important to know ahead of time is that this isn’t The Goblin Emperor 2. The themes of morality, belonging, and justice are still at the center of the story but instead of a fish out of water type protagonist, we get someone who is highly competent in his job and knows how politics work in this world. Celehar’s character development is also not the center of the story, but rather happens almost sneakily. In fact, while reading, I didn’t feel like I knew Celehar all that well, but since I’ve finished the book, I keep thinking about it and about all the little details that show just how skilled a writer Katherine Addison is.

I believe you can pick this book up whether you’ve read The Goblin Emperor or not. If you like a faster pace, then it may even be a good idea to read Witness first. It still has those quiet moments where characters say more through a gesture than they could with 1000 words, there is still a protagonist who not only has a cool yet creepy skill but is also a Good Person, and there are intricate politics, naming conventions, crazy titles and near unpronouncable names. Most importantly, it is a brilliant fantasy novel that – despite all the murder – leaves you with a serene smile on your face. Whether Katherine Addison’s next book is also set in this world or not, I will be grabbing it as soon as it comes out.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good