Cuphead Carnival Chaos: A Gollywompin’ Good Time

When you see Cuphead Carnival Chaos on shelves, be they virtual or digital, you may ask yourself: who is this book for? Fair question. There are two answers. One is obvious, and the other is semi-obvious. The obvious answer: Cuphead Carnival Chaos is for fans of Cuphead. The semi-obvious answer is that this book is for kids. I know nothing about kids, other than having virtually identical hobbies to most elementary-level young-ins. Carnival Chaos won’t reinvigorate your love of prose, nor will it take your breath away with nuanced characters. You know what it will do, though? Make you exhale through your nose in that pseudo-laugh we all do when nobody else is around to laugh with us. 

So if you’re a kid (or you have one) who could use a fun little book, pick this one up. If you’re a Cuphead fan looking to dive deeper into the lore, then you probably look like this:

Anyway, to the book. Ron Bates does a wallopin’ good job at capturing the essence of the Inkwell Isles in Carnival Chaos. You’re on an adult fantasy/sci-fi review website, so if you’re reading this review I’ll just assume you fall into that Cuphead fan bucket I mentioned earlier. Here’s the skinny, fellow Cuphead fanatic: this book evokes the 1930s cartoony feel of the Cuphead universe. It’s silly, it’s funny, it’s wacky. But it’s also–as I warned you–for kids. Cuphead Carnival Chaos expands on Cuphead’s world in tame ways. For example, Cuphead apparently goes to grade school (didn’t he make a deal with the Devil at a CASINO in the video game?!), loves baseball, and can’t resist the allure of an obviously villainous carnival that just happens to show up on the day of Elder Kettle’s surprise birthday party. 

Carnival Chaos’ paper-thin plot is just fine, to be honest. Cuphead and his pal (actually his brother, but you can be friends with your brother, I think my sister considers me a friend… anyway) Mugman are tasked with buying Elder Kettle a gift, but the temptations of the titular carnival whisk them away into a world of treachery, thievery, and classic carney scams. The story serves more as a vehicle through which we experience the Inkwell Isles and their many wonders than it does as a worthwhile narrative, and that’s okay in a book marketed to kids and that nerd pictured above. 

When you pick up Carnival Chaos, you’ll be treated to such verbal morsels as “humdinger” and “gollywompers.” Bates plays around with language in a way completely befitting Cuphead’s signature style. My eyes awooo-gah-ed out of their sockets a few times to appreciate the linguistic inventions on the page. The imagery packs a punch, too. I remember one segment vividly, in which Cuphead is a nickel short when he’s paying for an item. He reaches into his pocket and his hand, walking like a person using the index and middle fingers as legs, traipses through “pocket world,” a literal universe made of lint in his pocket. The hand asks one of pocket world’s citizens for a coin. The linty denizens oblige, and I can only assume Cuphead is their god and is swindling them and/or dropping huge metal discs onto the poor saps. But damn if that visual isn’t striking as heckaroo. 

I have one gripe with Carnival Chaos, and it has nothing to do with the writing, story, or characters. My edition of the novel skipped from page 220 to 253. From there, it continued through to the end, then resumed on page 221 after the author bio. Unless this is some late-90s choose your own adventure BS (trust me, it’s not), it’s just a blatant misprint. I sat, shook, staring blankly at the page and wondering what I had missed for about five minutes before I realized the error. And I’m a 28-year-old man. Maybe sharp-minded youth will notice the issue faster, but buyer beware. 

Carnival Chaos, like its video game source material, is fun and wacky. As a kids’ book, it’s nowhere near as gut-wrenchingly difficult as the game is, but it does offer a bright story that showcases author Ron Bates’ respect for the Cuphead universe. He had “too much fun” writing the book, according to his bio appearing smack-dab in the middle of the story, and it shows even beyond the misprint. 

Rating: Cuphead Carnival Chaos – 8.0/10

The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex

Anthropocene Rag – It Is What You Make Of It

50905290._sx318_sy475_I am always on the lookout for stories about America, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I find the myths about the United States, its formation, and expansion fascinating especially when they so often cover up many complicated and horrific histories. Its simplicity is enchanting to me and constantly begs deconstruction to find what the true “heart” of the American Story is. This is heightened during an election season, where talk of “what America is and should be” hangs heavy in the air. Add the third layer of COVID-19, and a lot of these questions and stories get brought into an even sharper focus when compared to the facts and histories. What the hell does that have to do with the book I am reviewing? Well Anthropocene Rag, by Alexander Irvine, is a clever, fun, engaging, and weird little book about a post-apocalyptic America that mostly succeeds in deconstructing how “we” talk about the story of America.

The book follows six main characters as they are visited by a construct named Prospector Ed, who gives them a golden ticket to enter the fabled Monument City. Each of the characters must travel to the Rocky Mountains across an America that is teeming with nano machines. A lot of the populace was killed and integrated into the machineries during an event called the Boom (the Boom is also used to refer to the machines collectively). The machines are everywhere, and depending on where you live, humans may or may not have a good relationship with the unpredictable Boom. In San Francisco, there is a relative harmony, as the machines inhabit human bodies. Other places are not so lucky, and people could be dismantled in seconds without even realizing it. But the Boom is doing something weird as all across the land, they are re-enacting the stories and folklore that make up the American Mythos.

Irvine’s writing is the first thing that truly hooked me about Anthropocene Rag. It feels like you’re sitting around a campfire with him as he recounts a past event. The characters come alive through his voice, making them feel both human and larger than life. The author also manages to make you as the reader complicit in the story through this stylization, asking you questions and sometimes making you feel as if you could stop it all at any moment. But you don’t, you want to know how it ends, you need to know how it ends. Fortunately, Irvine does not seem to judge you for this complicity, almost in some ways acknowledging that he too is at fault. It’s an incredibly engaging way to tell a story, and it calls attention to the story of America as well. Fortunately, Irvine succeeds in keeping the tone jovial, even as he is trying to get you to gaze into the abyss.

Irvine’s writing also helps the atmosphere within Anthropocene Rag. There is not a lot of plot, so Irvine relies very heavily on intimating feeling to great effect. The different regions that the characters begin their journey in, along with where they travel through, feel like you expect them to. I’m having a hard time explaining it, but Irvine nails the cultural osmosis of the different corners of America. Florida and New York City, feel like off versions of what we know of them today, as if something changed about them, but the bones are still there. There is a familiarity to them, as if Irvine wanted to reveal the core parts of them in a more thematic fashion. It was extremely haunting, and if that was Irvine’s goal, he succeeded. However, there is a slight tendency for some areas to feel “stereotypical” due to the fast nature of the book, but I also find it easy to overlook considering it is a lot more about the “feeling,” but I think some of it handily waved off in the deeper themes.

Among the myriad of themes, the one that obviously sticks out the most is “what is America?” It saturates every paragraph trying to fill the void between your eyes and the page. Irvine deftly explores this idea by using the campfire storytelling method I described above. Irvine gives no background to the disaster, just providing a name, the Boom, and the mystery around it. America as a concept barely exists within the text as the past is erased, forgotten. The only entities to remember it are the Boom themselves as they recreate and re-enact myths like Paul Bunyan and classic Mark Twain stories. Characters don’t know anything but their present lives and where they are headed. It feels as if Irvine is trying to mirror the creation of America by wiping away the past to create a new history, a new future, a new America. It feels especially clear when you compare it to the way conversations pass over the systematic extermination of Native Americans, “manifest destiny” and “American Exceptionalism.” Irvine does it right in front of the reader using stories you know, stories you feel something about. While you’re complicit he’s doing it without you, almost as if he’s taunting you. It’s eerie and beautiful and hits all the right notes for me.

There is so much more I’d love to dive into with this story, but we would be here forever. I had a good time with the characters, their little conversations as they traveled the wilds. I loved how Irvine was able to make the land feel so big and so very small and insignificant at the same time. I didn’t particularly enjoy one of the reveals, but I don’t think it hurt the story. I don’t think the book is for everyone though, as it is a little weird, and exists more in the realm of metaphor than the concrete. Some of the journeys may also fall a little flat if you aren’t steeped in American Folklore. However, I highly recommend it if you’re feeling adventurous and willing to consider the idea of “America” in these trying times.

Rating: Anthropocene Rag 8.5/10
-Alex

The Puzzler’s War – A Satisfying Next Step

51i5x8gwmal._sx324_bo1204203200_I am not a prolific post-apocalypse reader, but I have read enough of them to realize there is a cyclical nature to their stories. Many trilogies within the genre follow the following format: book one shows you a ruined world and explores the question of “what happened?” Book two provides a window into the past and explores “why the end times happened.” Book three provides you with the full context of what is going on, moves you to the present, and explores “is what happened good or bad?” I have been through this cycle around five times now, and even though each story I read has its own quirks and originalities, it is hard to keep getting excited about these same themes. Thus, it should speak to the quality and execution of Eyal Kless’ The Puzzler’s War that it falls neatly into this trilogy set up that I mention, but has kept my attention glued to the story.

The Puzzler’s War is the second book in The Tarakan Chronicles, a story about a post-apocalyptic world struggling for survival. The plot revolves around mysterious mutants called Puzzlers that have the ability to unlock hidden caches of pre-apocalypse tech by solving riddles in dangerous conditions. I reviewed and enjoyed the first book (The Lost Puzzler) and you can find my thoughts and summary of book one in the link. Book two picks up right at the end of book one and follows the aforementioned PA pattern: this book is about why the end times happened and what the world used to look like before. The narration is once again split into two different timelines: the present, where our main cast tries to save/heal the world, and the past, where we learn more about the background and mystery of what is actually going on. While the “present” POVs are the same cast from book one, in the past we leap back to the start of the apocalypse and follow the story of one of the antagonists that caused the end of the world.

The book is great. The characters continue to be interesting and productive; they feel as though they have the agency to actually change the status quo of the world. One specific character, Vincha, felt like she could use a little more work. She pretty much only had one dimension, and that dimension was annoying and critical to the plot so it is brought up a lot. The worldbuilding is phenomenal and greatly helped alleviate my disinterest in reading another similar post-apocalyptic story. While the plot isn’t exactly the first of its kind, the world-building is dripping with love and imagination. Kless’ Earth feels like this strange ephemeral place that is both familiar and deeply alien at the same time. Occasionally, you can feel like you are reading a fantasy story that is pulled completely from imagination. Other times, you can see the world we live in under the surface and feel like you are reading about the place you live now.

This wonderful world-building is enhanced by the additional insight the “past POV” in the narrative provides. In the reader’s mind, Kless’ Earth slowly changes from this scary, magical, and foreign place to the planet we know – but ravaged by human folly and hubris. In the meantime, the “present POV” in The Puzzler’s War does a wonderful job keeping you invested in the story and provides a palpable sense of urgency as the cast needs to make choices around the future of the planet. All of this blends together to make a novel that is easy to pick-up, greatly improves the story that its predecessor told, and sets the stage for the next book.

The Puzzler’s War is an excellent follow up to The Lost Puzzler and broadcasts clear signs that this series will have a fantastic ending. Kless’ imaginative and evocative worldbuilding does wonders to refresh some tired tropes and classic genre stories. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction, I think it is safe to say that The Tarakan Chronicles will likely press a lot of the right buttons. Kless’ mysteries and descriptions will keep you up late into the night, wondering about what could be behind the next puzzle-locked door.

Rating: The Puzzler’s War – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Prestige: Showstopper

My journey with The Prestige fittingly began with a bit of magic trickery. “Oh, if you like the movie you have to read the book.” The bookseller explained. He went on, “One hundred percent worth it.” Then, with a flourish of legerdemain and misdirection, the book miraculously appeared in my bag while my fifteen dollars in cash (a budget set by my wife to limit my purchase to one book) materialized in the cash register. And so Christopher Priest’s novel of feuding stage magicians, famously developed for the silver screen in 2006, landed on my to-read pile. 

Normally I would disregard a book’s adaptation to any other media in my review. But like the lives of magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, the film and the book versions of The Prestige remain inextricably intertwined. To keep things spoiler-free, here’s my warning: if you’ve seen the movie prior to picking up the novel, you will start ahead of the game. You’ll be privy to many, but crucially not all, of the secrets within. 

Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier each have a great-great-grandchild exploring the mysteries of their descendants. This delicately frames the narrative in a semi-modern day (the book was first published in 1995) mystery. These short segments bookend the crux of the novel: two large sections that outline each of the dueling magician’s lives in his own words. Alfred Borden sets the stage with beautiful descriptions of magic and how it’s performed. He tells of his feud with Rupert Angier and the many years over which it occurs. His story sways beautifully between personal growth and regression, and he drops details that form the outside borders of a puzzle. The first pieces are there, but there’s much left to fill in. 

After an interlude from the two descendants, Rupert Angier tells his side of the story through his diary. It covers 20 years of his life and often skips huge chunks of time, but the burden of completing the puzzle falls on his narrative. In this, author Christopher Priest delivers. 

I’ve stayed deliberately tight-lipped about the details of the plot for good reason: it’s juicy and immensely entertaining. Watching this story unfold reflects the wonder of a magic show. Laden with misdirection and twists, The Prestige reads as one fantastic illusion. Borden and Angier tell their respective sides of the tale with brash egos befitting career stage performers, and the first-person approach lends a certain weight of plausibility to their outlandish recountings. Priest’s deep characters and elegant prose go a long, long way in making this book a mystery worth unfurling.

The downside to Priest’s narrative approach is the pacing. Borden and Angier feel incredibly real throughout the novel, thanks to Priest’s prosaic heavy lifting. The downside? Reading through two entire lives told autobiographically feels slow. In a book where details are essential to the story, it’s easily forgivable. But it’s also worth noting that, even at 360 pages, it’s a slow read. What I’m really trying to say here is this: if you start The Prestige, you’re signing up for a slow burn. You have to be content to let the details simmer as you trek through the pages. If you can manage that, you’re in for a great payoff. 

And that’s where the book really shines. The ending, though crafted with similar reveals to the movie, takes things one step further. The final 30 pages offer a veritable treasure trove for prefer-the-book purists. There’s merit in the entire story, but the finale alone makes the journey worthwhile. Combining elements of horror and mystery, it packs a real mystical punch. The end of this novel-length magic trick is the exclamation mark on a beautifully written, sometimes rambling, entirely entertaining sentence. 

Rating: The Prestige – 8.5/10

Throne Of The Five Winds – A Brick Of Intrigue

51p1u2rziylThe Throne of the Five Winds, by S.C. Emmett, is a huge, meaty, historical fantasy/fiction that really likes to go into detail. It is a political drama, written like a historical textbook (so many footnotes) that anyone looking for a light fun read will bounce off of like they’ve run into a brick wall. Yet, for those who like their dramas complex and their politics convoluted but extensively planned out on the back end, this tome has a lot to offer. As the first book in The Hostage of Empire series, The Throne of the Five Winds is a book that will reward those with the patience to push through its glacial pacing and upset those who didn’t realize they were signing up to read something that occasionally reads like a census analysis.

Let’s start with the bad for once: this book is difficult, and sometimes straight-up unpleasant, to read. In particular, the first 100 pages read like the world’s dryest translator notes from an obscure language. You are thrown into complicated and confusing political intrigue from page one, and it is going to take a while before you even have a basic understanding of what is happening and who is doing it to whom. That being said, if you put the work in – and that is a big “if” – the book will reward you handsomely in the long run with beautifully written prose, strong characters, and political drama to rival anything to be found in the most popular fantasy series in the genre.

Our story revolves around a Khir princess hostage, given to the emperor’s firstborn son in marriage to smooth over and cement the end of a war between the empire and Khir. The main POV in the story is from a lady-in-waiting to the princess, but there are a ton of POVs scattered throughout the narrative. The court the princess is sent to is a hellscape of political espionage. The emperor is a weak-willed man whose selfish inattention to the effect his power has on those around him has built a tinderbox in the court. With two queens, two royal concubines, six princes, and a number of favored generals and magisters, the court is a free-for-all of backstabbings, subtle maneuvering, and not so subtle attacks.

The princess and her maiden are the heart of the story and have a beautiful and intricate relationship. They both feel very real, and as the eyepiece by which you are introduced to the courts, they make very likable characters you will find yourself emotionally invested in. The supporting cast of royals and important court fixtures are also fantastic. Emmett does an amazing job giving you these tiny snippets into every key player’s mind so that the conflict begins to feel very personal to the reader. I definitely had favorite characters I found myself rooting for and as the book progresses you only find yourself invested more and more in the happenings at court.

In the end, I don’t know if I can recommend The Throne of the Five Winds with a clear conscience. Although it is a heavy character/relationship-focused story with excellent political intrigue, the book has one of the slowest starts I have experienced in years and it is a little light on substantive plot. Then again, while the book wasn’t the most enjoyable it was definitely a work of impressive literary skill and many people will like it just for all its tiny details and interesting characters. You will have to decide for yourself if The Throne of the Five Winds calls to your inner reader.

Rating: The Throne of the Five Winds – 6.5/10
-Andrew

Fortuna – It Favors the Bold, Also the Bad (But in a Good Way)

41gnfzpyv8l._sx331_bo1204203200_I know it’s not exactly the best way to get excited about a book, but I was immediately attracted to Fortuna, by Kristyn Merbeth, when the eighties synthwave cover was revealed. When Orbit threw in a blurb likening the work to that of Becky Chambers, I was done for. No need to complete the chokehold with a synopsis about a family of space smugglers, but it was there anyway. Fortuna is a great book with a rollicking character-focused story that succeeds in emotional depth but reaches a little too far when it comes to large-scale destruction.

Fortuna is a nice mix of action and character driven narrative. It follows the Kaiser family, a small group of smugglers raised and managed by Auriga Kaiser, the biological mother of the crew. The main characters are Corvus, the eldest brother, and Scorpia, the second oldest. Upon hearing that Corvus is returning to the Fortuna(the name of the ship) after finishing his third year of service within the Titan planetary military, Scorpia hatches her latest plan to make her mother proud so she can take the captain’s reigns and continue the Kaiser legacy. However, Scorpia is not as competent as her confidence suggests, and the system itself has other plans that muddy the Kaiser’s ability to maintain their smuggling business. Amidst the family drama, resources become tight and rumors of war circulate as the planets begin to become more isolationist.

I want to start off by highlighting Merbeth’s exceptional writing ability. The chapters alternate between Corvus and Scorpia, both sides written in a first-person perspective. I normally have issues with first person, because I generally do not like how things are described from that perspective, but Merbeth really knocked it out of the park here. Not only do the two characters feel distinct as people, but it comes through in how they describe the people around them, or the environments they are in. Scorpia comes off as a confident, whip-smart, smooth operator who acknowledges she might drink too much and often looks at people in a buddy-buddy way. Often her descriptions feel as if they are pulled out of hat. Corvus, on the other hand, is reserved, disciplined and all too aware of himself. He constantly feels distanced from those around him, regardless of how close they are. His distance is often self imposed, exemplified by the directness with which he speaks to himself and those around him. It was very distinct and kept me pulled along through the whole ride.

In a similar vein, the characters are fairly deep even though some are built on recognizable foundations. Fortuna shines because of its characters and their relationships with each other. The Kaiser family feels alive, and they have a deep history with each other. They have been through a lot and it shows. Corvus’ return feels monumental, even though it’s subdued and carries a lot of baggage. Merbeth does an excellent job of revealing the experiences and motivations of characters in such a way that their interactions feel natural and uncontrived. I think a lot of people might feel beaten over the head with Scorpia’s flaws, but I think Merbeth nailed it. Scorpia is inconsistent, juvenile, and brash but wants to do what is best for her family and will go to whatever length she feels is necessary to keep them safe and happy. Her alcoholism runs deep, and it takes her a while to deal with it, while the rest around her see it day in and day out. Her flaws, as deep and heartbreaking as they were, were made endearing by her better qualities. Merbeth straddled the line of unbearable and loveable with Scorpia, and it made the book more engaging.

While the intense character drama drove the narrative, I felt that the plot was a little inconsistent. I enjoyed the smuggling and the politics between the different worlds. I also enjoyed that the smugglers were the connections in some sense between the worlds as they all slowly began to close their borders. My biggest issue with the plot was its sense of scale. The amount of destruction that occurs alongside the family drama felt unreal and made some of the arguments the Kaisers had a little garish and cartoonish. Pair that with the fact that a lot of it happened off-screen (for reasons that are apparent within the story that I want to avoid spoilers) also diminished the attachment. Merbeth did a good job in terms of set up and in explaining why the different members of the family would be affected by the events in the way that they were, but the events just felt too big. The planets, while fairly fleshed out, did not have a sense of scale. With the family drama in the forefront, it was hard to appreciate the threat, and just how much of an effect it had, and how the Kaisers were involved. I enjoyed the story and plotting of events in general, but I felt that some of the consequences were too big for a small family of smugglers.

In the end, I had a blast with Fortuna. It was a good ride with a lot of heart, and heavy family drama that felt well built within a well-realized world. The characters were likeable in the long run and felt distinct despite their rough beginnings. The book had its inconsistencies, but like its characters, the better qualities shone all the brighter because of it. I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series. If you are looking for a small-scale drama among the stars with heavy consequences, then Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth is for you.

Rating: Fortuna – 8.0/10
-Alex

Ormeshadow – A Little Slice Of Life

712zdrcfehlPriya Sharma’s Ormeshadow overflows with dark family secrets, generations of lore, and tragedy. Sharma has a knack for pitting characters against one another with beautifully selected words. Ormeshadow reads like a wood-carving: Sharma removes all the excess material and presents a pristine, sharp product that feels at once succinct and sprawling.

Gideon Belman’s life completely changes when his father, John, ushers the family to Ormeshadow farm on the heels of his failure as a scholar in Bath. The land rests near the Orme–a sleeping dragon, as legend puts it, upon whose back the land has grown. John regales young Gideon with tales of the dragon and his family’s inextricable ties to it. John’s wife, Clare, tolerates the stories. Ormeshadow is tended by John’s brother Thomas, a rugged farmhand supported by his wife Maud, his boys Peter and Samuel, and his daughter Charity. The reunion dredges up years of resentment and hatred, and Gideon is thrust against his wishes into a life that seems intent on dragging him into madness and cruelty.

A true novella, Ormeshadow reads at a brisk pace, following Gideon’s life after the move and skipping years of time. Sharma’s chapters are snapshots in time, and the blanks she leaves can be easily filled in by imaginative readers. It’s almost like a series of vignettes, each serving a simple purpose: to tell us how Gideon has coped with the innumerable tragedies that befall him in Ormeshadow. The short length serves to better the book by quickly leading the reader to new, darker territory with every turn of the page.

The plot itself could be described as predictable (and probably has been described that way by some). However, when a predictable plot point was finally revealed, I felt spurred on by it, rather than hindered. Sharma’s characters are so believable that I became ravenous for more detail. To experience the characters dealing with their struggles is the heart of the story. Moments of realization and heartbreak abound, but they’re overshadowed by the subtler character moments that follow. Peppered throughout the book are the stories of the Orme and how it came to be. These stories lend mystical context to the modern-day goings-on in the tale, and they’re the cherry on top of the Sharma’s prosaic cake.

All that said, if you read Ormeshadow for any reason, let it be the prose. Sharma writes with a lyricism and brevity reminiscent of McCarthy’s The Road. She says what must be said, and she does it with remarkable verbal grace. Simple, accessible, and beautiful descriptions lie on every page, and it’s a wonder to behold.

Stories of the Orme and legends of the Belman family give Ormeshadow a distinct mystical bent, as I mentioned above. These, presumably, are the reason for the novella’s “Dark Fantasy” genre-billing. I bring this up because, unless you sensationally interpret the story’s final moments, Ormeshadow is more of a dark realism story. It’s replete with family drama, plenty of lore, and a dash of mystery, but the fantasy elements are minimal. This doesn’t detract from the book’s quality at all. Instead, it’s a fair warning to readers seeking a grim fantasy tale. This novella may not satisfy that particular craving, but it is worth your time.

Priya Sharma’s novella bursts with character and flawless prose. She weaves a tale of family intrigue, dark pasts, and overcoming adversity. For such a quick read, Ormeshadow packs a hell of a punch.

Rating: Ormeshadow – 8.0/10
-Cole

Nevernight – Getting My Masters In Murderology

28779776Magic school lovers rejoice, we have another book review to feed your ever consuming hunger. Today’s entry is Nevernight, by Jay Kristoff, and is a new take on the assassin school variant of magical learning establishments. An intense deadly curriculum, mysterious and lovable teachers with interesting lessons, and a school so dripping with lore and coolness that it leaps into your imagination with detail – the setting of this book is everything you want in a magical school story. But, do the characters and plot hold up? Read on and see in our review of the first book in The Nevernight Chronicle.

Our protagonist is Mia Corvere, and the narrative is very focused on her. Mia is the daughter of a noble who led a failed revolution against the powers of Godsgrave, and she is on a quest for vengeance. When her father’s coup went south, it ended with his head on a pike and his family thrown into prison to rot. Mia, just a young girl at the time, narrowly escapes this fate and ends up on the street trying to survive. After surreptitiously being pseudo-adopted by an ex-Blade (assassin) of The Red Church (assassin school), Mia begins by training for the application process to The Church. Her goal is to attend The Red Church in order to learn the requisite skills to avenge her family by murdering the people she holds responsible for their fall. So, in short, it’s a good ol’ fashioned vengeance quest.

I was trying to slow roll my praise for this book as long as possible, which turns out to be two paragraphs – but I can not keep up the charade any longer. Pretty much everything about it is excellent. The plot and pacing of the book are fantastic. It is divided into roughly three sections – applying to The Red Church, studying at The Red Church, and life after The Red Church. Each section has is own style and themes, all of which are both distinct and tie nicely into one another. The pacing is also lightning fast, without ever feeling like we are rushing through any section. As the book is about learning subterfuge, there are also a few twists that are delicious. The narrative has this nice balance between powerful worldbuilding/lore, a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, and an action-adventure. The book is also genuinely funny and uses a nice mix of humor that should appeal to every kind of reader. If you end up reading it after this, make sure to read the footnotes as they are often laugh-out-loud funny. Finally, Mia is an unreliable narrator, with chunks of her memory and story clearly hidden from page one. Over the course of the book, this vault of secrets is slowly unlocked and disseminated in a very well-measured pace.

Speaking of Mia, the characters are phenomenal but uneven. There are about 15 supporting characters, and Mia herself. A few of them are fairly forgettable or inconsistent, but the majority of them are fantastic. The teachers have personalities that are both distinct and magnetic. Mia’s classmates are from all sorts of walks of life that give the cast a diverse set of personalities and flavors to work with while simultaneously having very powerful chemistry. Many of the characters are complex and make interesting and meaningful choices that fit their identities. Additionally, Mia herself is a very interesting character. She has a nice balance of both likable and unlikable qualities that evolve with clear and satisfying growth over the course of the book. The protagonist on the last page is almost unrecognizable from the start of the book, and yet the change felt completely organic. Much of this change is created through Mia’s exploration of the world around her, and what a world it is.

The worldbuilding is both the strongest part of the book and the only place I had notable criticisms. To start off, I should mention that the book is called “Nevernight” because the world has three suns that only collectively set once or twice a year. It’s a cool element that is delightfully worked into the lore and culture of the world that I greatly enjoyed. The world as a whole feels rich, complex, and imaginative – but the real joy is in Mia’s hometown, the city of Godsgrave, and The Red Church. Godsgrave is a giant metropolis built into the bones of a decaying titan. It has a fairly stereotypical fantasy world layout with the usual market, slums, and noble districts – but its morbid origins, distinct culture, and iconic landmarks lend it a lot of flare. Also, I saved the best for last, The Red Church is a school that rivals Hogwarts in its rich lore, entrancing facilities, and cohesive identity. Much smaller than the aforementioned wizard school, The Red Church uses its smaller space to enormous effect. The mannerisms and locations in the school are fun, engrossing, and terrifying all at the same time. I won’t reveal any specifics, but the entire place is awesome.

That being said, some of the worldbuilding felt surprisingly sloppy compared to the extremely buttoned-up nature of the rest of the book. The book pays special attention to logistics, which can add a layer of creative depth that makes the world feel more real. However, it also has some elements that logistically do not make sense – at all. Examples of this include: a travel system that is a lynchpin to the entire existence of the Church but is completely unreliable, blanket enchantments and spells that seem to work in very specific ways for plot purposes, and overly complex tasks and traditions that are meant to feel quirky but just feel archaic. None of them did much to slow the hype-train I was riding, but they did noticeably leap off the page to me.

Nevernight is a bomb of a book and earns top marks in almost every category I use to evaluate books. It’s dripping with lore, has a masterful plot, and contains characters you will find yourself deeply invested in. It’s one of the best magical schools I have visited, which catapults it easily into the “highly recommended” territory. On top of all of this, Nevernight does such a good job setting up the next books in the series that I ordered it the moment I turned the last page. This is a very good book and you should pick it up at your earliest convenience.

Rating: Nevernight – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Shadow Saint: Out Of The Shadows, Into The Limelight

shadowsaint

Okay, let’s do a checklist here of things I like that The Shadow Saint has in it, yeah? Krakens attacking ships: check. Skeletons with dry senses of humor: check. Horrifying surreal imagery: big ol’ check. Ghouls: still a check there too. I could keep going for a while but I think you all get the idea, The Shadow Saint ticks a lot of the boxes of things that I like in a book, and I really, really liked it. Sorry for the review spoiler, but get over it, or don’t, whatever.

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan, is the second book in The Black Iron Legacy series. Given that it is the second book, you probably shouldn’t be reading a review or a synopsis of it if you haven’t read the first book, The Gutter Prayer, but I’m not your dad so you can do whatever you want, man. You can find our review of Prayer here if you are wondering if it’s for you. That said, spoilers lie ahead for the first book and you should venture forth at your own peril. 

Our story picks up soon after the close of the first novel, with our previous protagonists mostly either dead or fundamentally changed by their experiences. The appearance of the New City, due to the Gutter Miracle from book one, and the fall of the alchemical stranglehold of the guild and their Tallowmen, have thrown Guerdon into chaos. For those familiar with the city, it’s pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, that is about to change when the Godswar finally comes to Guerdon. 

One of my minor complaints in my review of the previous book (still here), was that the rest of the world felt a little underdeveloped compared to all of the information and history we received about Guerdon and its place in the world. We knew that there was a death empire called Haith, but little else about it. We knew that Ishmere was perpetrating a “godswar” that was causing a massive influx of refugees, but outside of a couple of chapters and descriptions of the various horrors, we never got a chance to experience them. In The Shadow Saint, all of that changes. It almost felt as if Hanrahan heard the (very mild) criticism, and decided that if we wanted to know about the rest of the world, then we’d best buckle up for book two. Saint packs so much worldbuilding and information into its runtime, without feeling bloated at any point, that I am frankly amazed. I have a much better understanding of the world and how it functions after this book, and it all felt surprisingly important to the overall plot. Ishmere is the one small exception to this because while we did get more of a glimpse into individual Ishmerians and their choices and beliefs, the actual society still feels a little blank. 

On the other hand, we have the empire of Haith. Normally I would briefly go over all of the various factions in my paragraph about worldbuilding, but I am so enthralled with and enraptured by the idea of Haith that I just need to gush about it for a little bit. Haith is an “eternal empire” run by necromancers (necromancers are so hot right now). Instead of worshipping gods, their power instead comes from the creation of magical artifacts they refer to as phylacteries. These phylacteries are held by the head of an individual noble house and contain the souls and accumulated knowledge and experience of all those who have held the artifact before. Think Avatar the Last Airbender, with each phylactery granting the holder knowledge of thousands of their greatest ancestors rather than the previous avatars. The moments that we see this in the book are incredibly cool and I loved the descriptions of how the character going through this moment experienced it personally. As I mentioned before, only the previous wielder of the phylactery can transfer their soul into it and become Enshrined, the highest class in Haith. Beneath the Enshrined, we have the Vigilant; individuals whose souls are bound to their bodies after death and become magical living skeletons forever working toward the betterment of the Empire of Haith. Needless to say, the concept of legions of skeleton warriors led by necromantic superhumans against a nation of mad warring gods is pretty far up my alley, and I absolutely loved it.

I also loved Hanrahan’s improvement in terms of the plot. I mentioned in my last review that while The Gutter Prayer was a fun ride, I felt the plot could be directionless and meandering at times before it finally found its stride. The Shadow Saint felt like it noticeably addressed this issue with a much more cohesive and streamlined plot. I’m not sure how much of it was my preexisting knowledge of the city of Guerdon and the characters that live there, and how much of it was Hanrahan smoothing out the hiccups from the previous installment, but the pacing and engineering of the plot is spot on in The Shadow Saint. However, I did feel that the actual climax happened rather quickly – but I think that was more a result of the sheer amount of things happening than any mechanical failing on Hanrahan’s part.

I’d like to wrap up with a note on the prose and descriptions. Hanrahan has a gift for describing the miraculous and horrifying in a way that makes it easy to imagine and hard to forget. In a book that is about warring gods and saints, miraculous massacres of undead bone soldiers, and a living city that was created by magic everything still manages to feel real and weighty. I could envision every stilling of the waters by the Kraken, and the descriptions of the Smoke Painter drawing glowing sigils in the sky that turned those that looked at them mad clicked with the part of me that loves cosmic horror and the rabbit hole of the SCP Foundation wiki. I need more of this world in my life, and I hope that Hanrahan decides to continue this world’s story whether it revolves around Guerdon and the characters from this series or not. I had a ton of fun reading this book. The Shadow Saint is a stellar sophomore effort and I can only hope that Hanrahan continues his skyward trajectory from here. I will be on the lookout for more news on the world of The Black Iron Legacy, and I desperately hope that I get the opportunity to return to this world sometime in the future. As it stands, we already have two fantastic books and I cannot recommend highly enough that you bump this series to be next in line on your reading schedule. 

Rating: The Shadow Saint – 9.0/10

-Will