Dark Horse 2021: January Through July

Welcome to 2021 everyone! Another year means another dark horse book list. 2021 boasts a boatload of promising SFF debuts, and we have plans to read a whole bunch of ‘em. It is always fun to dig in and highlight new authors to help them in their journeys to greatness. Like last year’s list, though, this year has such a huge selection of debuts that the only way to manage it is to split it into two halves. So, without further ado, here’s our dark horse list for January through July, 2021. 

As always, stay tuned for reviews of each book, then keep an eye out for our first half wrap up in July! While we will make every effort to cover all of these books our list is always in flux. So don’t be surprised if the round-up is missing some and or has some new inclusions. 

Last thing before the list: Alex already reviewed H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke, marking our first dark horse review of the year. Read his review here

The Quill To Live Dark Horse picks, H1 2021:

  1. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
  2. Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long
  3. The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis
  4. The Forever Sea by Joshua Philip Johnson
  5. Reset by Sarina Dahlan
  6. Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
  7. The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
  8. The Last Watch by J.S. Dewes

Hall of Smoke – Give Me S’more

Hall of SmokeI’ve never been entirely enamored with Norse mythology. Or at least, I’ve never been exposed to it in a way that has subsumed me in the ways that Greek mythology has permeated a lot of western pop culture. When I get snippets, there is a small part of me that begins to crave, but I never fully take the plunge. Sure, I know few of the names of the gods, along with several denizens of their bestiary, but it’s not ingrained in my psyche like the Greek myths. So when I saw a debut author releasing a Norse inspired fantasy, I just had to put on the Dark Horse list. Hall of Smoke, by H.M. Long, despite it’s rocky start, is a worthy read with the feel of a legend in the making.

The story follows the Eangi warrior priestess Hessa in her journey to earn back her goddess’ favor. Hessa recently fell out of Eang’s grace by not killing a traveller that stayed within her temple, as she was ordered to do. Hessa was just following hearth law, so the visitor came and went. While Hessa was waiting for a sign from Eang to know how to gain back her favor, Eang sent the very subtle omen of having her home village raided and burned down by a band of Algatt warriors. Her husband was killed and the survivors were enslaved, her goddess nowhere in sight. Hessa tries to fight back with what little fire of Eang she had within her, but she is ultimately captured herself. Hessa herself is then sold to Omaskat, the man her god demanded she kill. In a scuffle she breaks free, is whisked away by a river miles away from her home with only one goal in mind, vengeance.

There was a lot I like about this book, but before I get to that, I do want to address the main issue I ran into while trying to get into the story. The first third of the book was a slog for me. Generally, this is somewhat a me issue, since I generally dislike straight forward first person perspectives, but I just didn’t find Hessa all that compelling on her own. She’s a bit narrow minded and blind to the world around her beyond her duties to the Goddess Eang and preparing for the annual raiding parties by nearby tribes. It makes sense, but I just found it hard to care for the struggles she was facing. It didn’t help that a lot of her internal monologue felt very repetitive. The aspect I did enjoy the most about this time in the book was Long’s description of the environment. However, once the reader experiences the Gods Hessa has to contend with, the story kicks off and Hessa truly begins her journey.

Hessa really starts to shine once she encounters Nisien at a place known as Oulden’s Feet, named for the god of the Soulderni people. Here she has to contend with someone outside her village, and learn more about their ways. Nisien works as a good foil because he’s seen a lot of the world, since he used to be an auxiliary in the Arpa (similar to the Roman Empire) army. I particularly liked that meeting someone who was not a raider of her lands, and being cared for by them doesn’t really seem to change her, as much as it allows her to open up. Not long after meeting Nisien, the pantheon of Gods within Hall begins their parade, and what a parade it is. Long’s Norse themed gods were a delight, and the story she weaves within her tale is filled with nice twists and turns fueled by Hessa’s choices and the whims of the gods. Ogam, the son of Eang and Winter (yeah, THE WINTER) steals the show every time he shows up. He has an unmatched charisma and bravado that really sets him apart from the other humans and gods Hessa encounters. Every encounter she has with something in the world feels meaningful in a mythical way, and it became fun to just explore the land with her while she tries to carry out her mission of revenge.

The land itself feels alive and breathing. Obviously, there are many gods, and each one seems to have their own tribes of people worshipping them and carrying out their will in the mortal realm. There are conflicts spurned by belief, as much as there is acceptance in their existence. There is an ebb and flow to the land and the people that Long portrays quite well, even as it starts to fall apart. The regions felt solid, but breathable as if most of the people didn’t recognize any sort of borders (except for the Arpans) beyond their particular villages and places of worship. There is a map at the end of my copy, but personally, I think Long captures the feeling of knowing the land, without the map. There are places that Hessa feels comfortable in, and there are places that are mythical to her, even though they are not hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I truly felt transported to another world where the vastness of the world had yet to be realized by the people you were engaged with and it was magical.

Long has written a solid debut. Sure it has a rocky start, but if you stick with the story just a little bit, it will definitely be worth it. The descriptions of the land, and the people who inhabit it are fun and mesmerizing. The mythology is a blast in it’s own right, and Hessa’s journey through it truly is fantastic. I didn’t even get into how enjoyable the action scenes were, but I was honestly more impressed with the rest of the book. It is Hessa’s story, and Long does an admirable job of making the revelations feel like they are hers and not just an expansion of the world. If you are at all interested in Norse inspired fantasy, I definitely recommend you check out Hall of Smoke.

Rating: Hall of Smoke – 7.5/10
-Alex

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Dark Horse Roundup – 2020

IT’S THE MOST WONDERFULLLL TIME OF THE YEARRRRRR. Namely, the time when we get to discuss our Dark Horse books. This year, each of us picked six to ten debuts to read, and if you caught our H1 round-up, you’ll know we did a pretty good job of keeping up with 2020’s veritable onslaught of debut books.

But instead of an H2 round-up, we’re closing out our 2020 Dark Horse initiative with a list of our favorite debuts of the year. We each picked two debut titles that stuck out from the rest. If you are looking for fresh new content, ideas, and faces for 2020, this list should provide you with the authors that really made an entrance this year.

Andrew – My dark horses were a real mixed bag this year. Some of my picks ended up being my most disappointing reads of 2020, but there were also a few that made it to my top echelon of the year. Of the eight dark horses I read, The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, and Nophek Gloss, by Essa Hansen, were the two that rose to the top.

unspoken-gld-t1The Unspoken Name was so very fresh. The characters were different than your usual fantasy fare, and the world was just ripe for exploration. While the pacing was a little uneven, it was definitely one of the most memorable books I read in 2020. I read The Unspoken Name back in January and I still remember a number of senses, characters, and locations in the story as if I read it yesterday. The series also feels like it is going somewhere and did book one a great job of building up excitement for the sequel novels. You can’t just tell a reader that there is a mysterious race of technologically advanced snake demigods who disappeared from the world, and might be returning from alternate dimensions, and not dig hooks deep into your reader. This book is great, it’s super weird and cool, and if you didn’t check it out the first time I told you too you should do so now. You can find our review here.

51z7qpojazlNophek Gloss was also super fresh. Clearly, there is a theme on why I liked certain debuts this year. But, while Gloss definitely did a great job of throwing some fun new science fiction concepts at me, it was the characters and their story that brought me around. I have always been a huge sucker for beautiful, quiet, personal journeys in a science fiction setting. Essa Hansen’s book shows us that we are more than our trauma. Gloss is such a weirdly hopeful story, despite the fact that it is painted with a profound amount of tragedy and loss. It reminded me that I am kinda tired of reading about these dystopian futures and that reading a story with a light at the end of the tunnel does a lot for someone who is living their own dystopia. Nophek Gloss is a beautiful book, check it out. You can find our review here.

ColeMan, I picked some stinkers this year. Thank goodness for Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe and Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars (Honorable mention to Shveta Tahkrar’s Star Daughter, a fun YA adventure chock-full of Indian mythology). They were easily my two favorite dark horse picks, rising above the other four on my list. Both books have me giddy at the prospect of more writing from these fantastic new authors.

elatsoeElatsoe emerged as my favorite dark horse of the year. Darcie Little Badger’s magical murder mystery tour (as I lovingly called it in my review) tells an intriguing tale that falls somewhere between YA and adult fiction. Protagonist Ellie (short for Elatsoe) sets out to solve her cousins murder using her unique ability to commune with the spirits of the dead. There’s a whole lot to love about Elatsoe, but my favorite aspect was the constant presence of Native American mythology. Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she brings elements of her culture to life through her prose. She has experience writing for Marvel, and Elatsoe shows she’s got long-form fiction chops, too. I can’t wait to see where Little Badger takes us next. You can find our review here.

screen-shot-2020-08-17-at-5.46.42-pmNick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars reads like a video game speed run. Just as you’ve surpassed one checkpoint, another passes in a blur as antihero Michael Kingman navigates the treacherous political landscape of this unique fantasy world. Indeed, the speed can at times be a hindrance in Kingdom, but the story is well-suited to a quickfire pace, and jumping from one event to the next at lightning speed emulates the scattershot magic of Kingman’s world, where overusing spellcraft can eliminate some of your memories. The Kingdom of Liars is an all-around solid debut (praised by Brandon Sanderson himself), and the follow-up is slated for 2021. Martell is one to watch. You can find our review here.

Alex I don’t want to brag or anything but I was incredibly pleased with most of the debuts I read this year. Not only were their first books a treat to read, but all of those authors have an abundance of potential to keep readers hooked for years to come. I for one will be picking up the future works of Micaiah Johnson, Lindsay Ellis, and Premee Mohamed with absolute glee. Honestly, there was only one bad book out of my picks, and I’d rather not relive that experience if I can avoid it. The following are two of my favorites from 2020.

docileI have never read a romance book, or a book where the romance was the central storyline. Thankfully, Szpara’s Docile was able to lure me with the promise of analyzing the effects of capitalism through the main relationship. Quickly though I became enthralled with the romance and very much wanted these two men to work out their issues and find some humanity within each other. Szpara is an enchanting writer that knows when to be subtle and knows when to sound the air horn when it comes to his characters’ relationship with the themes he wishes to tease out. Even though it feels like I read it two years ago (thanks 2020), it still sticks with me and I can’t wait to see what Szpara has in store for us. You can find our review here.

HenchOh my god, did Natalie Zina Walschots blow me away with Hench. There are a few decent deconstructions of the superhero genre out there, but it is rare that it is done with such love and passion for the supervillains. Walschots offers a fresh look at a genre that is growing increasingly complacent and repetitive, and delivers it with a poignant passion. The writing is top notch, making the characters come alive in human and fantastic ways. Walschots ingrains you in Anna’s life, following her from her lowly days as a temp hench to the right hand woman of the top supervillain and it’s glorious. Spreadsheets as a superpower never looked so good, and felt so fun and powerful. The action scenes are few, but impactful and extremely character oriented. If you love superheroes, or are tired of the genre and want a fresher look, this is the book for you. You can find our review here.

Nophek Gloss – Whimsical, Prickly, And Keen

51z7qpojazlHow is it already November in this forsaken year? With less than a month left before we put out our best of the year lists, our reviewers are hard at work chugging through all the books we wanted to get to before the year’s end. Part of that effort involves finishing up outstanding Dark Horses, like Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen. Gloss was the debut I was most excited to check out this year, as its summary made it sound like a bizarre journey through space and time with a lovable crew of rogues on a spaceship that pushed the boundaries of the imagination. The good news is Gloss lived up to my internal hype and is somehow both more and less than what I expected.

Gloss tells the story of Caiden, a recently liberated slave that has lost everything and is looking for revenge. The start of the book is extremely fast-paced, as the reader witnesses Caiden’s picturesque life farming space cows turn into a traumatic nightmare. Caiden was a member of a group of humans who are kept in captivity, and ignorance, so they can raise cattle to feed nophek – giant murder cat things that grow space fuel in their brains. In the vast multiverse of this book’s setting, only a few realities can support nophek biology, so they are worth quite a pretty penny. However, when a virulent plague ends up killing most of the world’s cattle – the overseers of the harvesting project decided to feed the slaves (i.e., Caiden) to the nophek to keep them alive a little longer for harvest. Caiden watches his entire family get brutally torn apart by space lions right in front of him, manages to escape and find a futuristic spaceship, and falls in with a group of five side characters who help him get it off the planet and to safety. Caiden, at about twelve years old, vows to enact a horrific vengeance on the slavers who killed his family and sets out on an epic quest to throw them into the nearest sun.

The plot of Nophek Gloss left me with distinctly mixed feelings, especially because it is absolutely not the focus of the book. Everything feels contrived: Caiden falls into a powerful ship, a friendly and brilliant crew, and a clear plan on how to enact his revenge, in about 10 pages. But, that’s also not really an issue because all of the plot is window-dressing for the ideas, characters, and character growth. If you are looking for a hard science-fiction that has a thrilling and gripping plot that fits thousands of pieces together in an immersive experience, look elsewhere. If, however, you are the kind of person who likes their science fiction couched in the context of the human experience, wants to explore new ideas about how we grow into who we are, and love creative worldbuilding – then look right here.

The characters of Gloss are fantastic, though you should know what you are getting yourself into. The five crewmates that Caiden picks up are delightful, and exploring their individual stories through the chapters was moving and engrossing. On the other hand, Caiden is written, very effectively, to sound like a young boy, and that can make him occasionally extremely annoying. He struggles to learn lessons and often repeats the same mistakes, over and over again. However, through each successive error, we can see that Caiden is truly growing as a person and working through his trauma, which is a big part of the story. Trauma, and how to heal from it, is a cornerstone theme of Gloss. The book is filled with numerous sad stories, from Caiden’s to the crew’s, to any number of other side characters we meet. The trauma is the true antagonist of the story and the reader gets to watch each character they are attached to deal with their horrific pasts in their own way.

But if you aren’t into all of this touchy-feely goodness like I am, the worldbuilding and technology in Gloss are really fun. There are a ton of new ideas for technology – like a fascinating take on forced aging – that I had never read before that kept me thinking long into the night. Gloss also has some really interesting takes on multiverses and spaceships that made the inner child in me heel-click with glee. The prose is also quite vivid and evocative, and there are many instances of stunning imagery that are still sticking with me weeks later.

Interestingly, most of the things I didn’t really like about Gloss were clearly features, not bugs. Hansen has clear and well-realized methods on how she wants to tell her story that took me out of my comfort zone and helped me feel refreshed with the science fiction genre. Nophek Gloss was one of the strongest Dark Horses I have read this year and its weird story and weirder characters have me firmly invested in what happens next. I definitely recommend you use my breakdown of the book to decide if you think it’s for you because those that are drawn to Nophek Gloss are going to love it.

Rating: Nophek Gloss – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The First Sister – A Little Bit Of Everything, Not Enough Of Something

the-first-sister-9781982126995_hrThe First Sister, by Linden Lewis, is an impressively ambitious debut, and one of our dark horses of 2020. Part space opera, part social commentary, part feminist power piece, and part character-driven narrative, this book has a lot of moving pieces in a fairly small page count (350). It feels like a tiny explosion of everything that makes the science fiction genre a joy to read. But, when you have a book with a low page count and so many ideas, there is only so much you can cram onto each page. The result is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The First Sister is good at a lot of things, but great at almost none of them.

The First Sister tells the story of war across the solar system. Earth and Mars went to town on each other for a long time until all their AIs got up and left to found a more peaceful civilization elsewhere. This left the two planets exposed to the technologically superior outer planets who began to prey on their previous long-time inner planet bullies. Earth and Mars banded together and the solar system found itself in a two-territory conflict with the asteroid belt as a border. But our story isn’t focused on the big picture. Instead, The First Sister tells a very personal story of three characters and how their experiences bring context to the issues humanity is facing.

The biggest protagonist is the titular First Sister. She’s a sort of pseudo nun/sex slave of the Earth/Mars side and she is forced to live her life on one of the capital ships, servicing the troops spiritually and physically. Her voice is taken from her so that she may not complain about what is done to her, but she is allowed some boons. The First Sister is a highly sought-after rank among the slaves and it means that she may only be claimed by the captain of the ship – minimizing her torments. However, we join our First Sister in the midst of a change-up in the leadership of her vessel and her role is in jeopardy – and she will do anything to keep the small privileges she has gained.

The other two POVs consist of Lito and Hiro, a bonded pair of outer planet spies who use neural connectors to link brains. Their link allows them to think and fight in tandem for greater strength and efficiency. When an operation they are conducting goes south, Lito is dishonorably discharged. But, Lito is recalled to service when Hiro goes rogue as the best person to track Hiro down and eliminate them. Lito’s sections involve him tracking Hiro down in the present, while Hiro’s sections take the form of an audio diary that flesh out the duo’s past and why they defected.

The characters of The First Sister are its strong point. All three leads go through an enormous amount of growth over the course of the book and it really helps you get invested in the protagonists. Their stories are interesting and refreshing – plus they each have a lot of personality and depth which makes them feel rewarding to root for. I also have only praise for the supporting cast, which contains a plethora of side characters that do a great job of moving the story along with exciting set pieces and providing a canvas for the protagonists to paint themselves on. Unfortunately, this is where my unfettered praise ends.

The worldbuilding and storytelling in this book is a mixed bag, which is why I transitioned away from them so quickly at the start of the review. The world of The First Sister is awesome, but I constantly found myself struggling with some of Lewis’ new ideas and inventions due to a lack of context. A perfect example of this is I think I correctly described to you which planets are on the two sides of the war, but I am not 100% sure because the sides of the conflict are only talked about once or twice, and even then Lewis uses very vague terms that left me unsure who was who.

Other times, the ordering of information in the book confused me. Lito and Hiro are both masters of these really cool mercury swords that can change shape and style at will. A huge portion of the start of the book shows you how training with these swords is a vital part of how soldiers are trained in the outer rim. But, you are also consistently shown that most combat at the beginning of the book is done with long-range guns that end fights in milliseconds. Thus I found myself wondering “why the heck do they care about swords so much when they have super guns.” Well, near the end of the book it is shown that resources are so thin since the AIs up and left that neither side of the conflict can afford to blow ships out of the sky. So, almost all space battles involve boarding maneuvers to attempt to capture other ships and repel boarders from your own. Thanks to the tight, cramped, and winding ship passages, mercury blades are the most powerful weapon a soldier can use. This turns out to be only one of multiple reasons the reader is shown that the swords are important, but I spent the majority of the book confused about their purpose.

The story itself poses as this massive galactic conflict – but it struggles to make you care beyond the confines of the leads… because the personal stories of the leads are so interesting. The First Sister feels indecisive if it wants to be telling you a macro, or a micro, story – so it tries, and struggles, to do both at the same time. I think the microstories were a lot stronger and the book would have been better served to stick with the smaller tank of the protagonist’s struggles over the fate of humanity.

Additionally, the themes of the book were interesting, but a bit too undefined. The role of the First Sister was fascinating, and her struggles to survive spoke volumes of commentary about the struggles that some women face in the modern world. Yet, the reader is never really given any justification as to why the inner planets have shipbound sex slaves in the first place other than “it would be a horrible thing that bad people would do.” The result is a theme that feels a little divorced from the book because to a degree it feels forced in and foreign to the ecosystem that Lewis developed. For example, we see tons of evidence that homosexuality is open and accepted in the book and gender is fluid. Yet, we are only ever shown women Sisters, even when there are examples of soldiers who desire men. This diminishes the impact of otherwise smart themes, and while I suspect that future books in the series will address some of the worldbuilding issues I had with The First Sister, I needed these answers now to fully enjoy the first book.

Despite its unfocused nature, The First Sister is a captivating read with interesting characters and new takes on thoughtful ideas. I wish Lewis would try to narrow down the scope slightly going forward, or expand the page count to let the multitude of ideas the book contains have room to breathe. The climax of the first book is fantastic and absolutely dug its hooks into my curiosity as to what happens next. Despite a couple of problems, I still recommend The First Sister as a strong debut and one of the better dark horses I have read this year.

Rating: The First Sister – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Axiom’s End – Ellis’ Beginning

Axioms EndAxiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis, is less than what I expected, and more than I could have asked for. It’s a solid debut that serves as a great first step in a trilogy, offering a fun fast paced plot with thoughtful meditations on how people relate to one another and the “alien.” Part of me doesn’t want to write this review. I’ve been a big fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work for the last few years and she easily makes up the largest chunk of inspiration when it comes to how I approach my media critiques. “If you’re new to the world of Lindsay Ellis, her YouTube channel is a great starting point. Obviously when I heard she was writing a book, nay, a whole trilogy, I got very excited at the prospect of reading them. Here I am looking squarely in the mirror and confronting this parasocial relationship trying to find a way to convince myself, and ultimately you, that I enjoyed this book on its own merits.

Axiom’s End is the story of Cora, an early twenty something college dropout who makes a living on temp work that she can get from her mother. Her father is a major media phenomenon who leaks government documents pertaining to alien contact, and he’s been estranged from the family for years. The year is 2007, Bush is in office, and the financial crash that has come to dominate the millenial’s collective psyche is just around the corner. On her first day at a new temp position, Cora witnesses a meteor strike, known as Obelus, nearby her office building that blows out the windows, several weeks after a similar strike, labeled Ampersand. Later that night Cora encounters something she can’t rationally explain. No one believes her, but an alien has definitely broken in her home. When Federal agents show up to investigate, Cora makes a break for it, trying to escape the lies surrounding her family running into the very thing she refused to believe was real, the alien she refers to as Ampersand.

As you may have guessed from the introductory paragraph, this is a pretty hard book for me to review. I feel I’m constantly guessing whether I appreciate the book as a thing in and of itself, or I appreciate it as an extension of Ellis’ work on YouTube, or if I’m just telling myself I liked it because of said appreciation. I started my reading with that mindset, trying to parse through how much meaning there was supposed to be in everything, and whether I liked it, and what that was going to mean for the review. Friends asked my opinions on it given my history of sharing her film critiques. It was a fairly exhausting experience, but that feeling only lasted a few chapters before it clicked and Ellis whisked me away into her world and plot.

First and foremost, the aspect of the book that stood out to me the most was Ellis’ ability to capture mood. The leaks from Nils (Cora’s estranged father) that periodically show up, and the conversations Cora has with those around her, and the reminders of the impending financial collapse during the waning years of the Bush presidency sell this feeling of the constant drudgery and uncertainty of the time. While Ellis is able to capture Cora’s feeling of aimlessness, and her apathy that comes from a promised future revoked, Cora feels a little too lost in the beginning, and it took me a while to connect with her. She is constantly ping ponged between tasks, and her family felt estranged from her unintentionally. This feeling continues through the book, but about a fifth of the way into the novel it starts to feel purposeful and intentional, giving insight to Cora as a person, and how she relates to those she loves.

Two other things I want to highlight about this book are Ellis’ aliens and the budding relationship between Cora and the alien known as Ampersand. First the amygdalines (as they refer to themselves) are wonderful. They are detached and seem fairly insular, unassimilated within the story, and in some ways avoiding assimilation by the reader. Any purpose the government thinks they have is for the most part projected onto them by humans. They have a culture that is slowly unveiled through the book that barely feels uncovered. This isn’t a bug, it feels more intentional as if the language barrier will never be fully crossed. And speaking of, how Ellis handles communications in this book is as enjoyable as it is thoughtful. I think some people might question the particulars, especially with how Cora and Ampersand communicate, but I found myself fascinated with Ellis’ focus on word choice. That paired with Cora acting as translator for Ampersand’s extremely brusque way of talking to her. It made for some interesting conversations between Cora and Ampersand as he questions her ability to faithfully relay his meaning to other humans who he engages with. Miscommunication is a theme throughout the book, emphasizing the importance of what people choose to say as well as what they choose to not say.

Lastly, the relationship that blooms between Cora and Ampersand is positively delightful. I think a lot of people’s enjoyment of the book will revolve around whether they care about how these two interact, or if they want to see sci-fi action and the worldwide consequences of first contact. Personally, I became invested in this relationship as they navigate how to talk to each other and relay those conversations to the world. There are monster romance elements galore that escalate consequences for the two of them as they explore this new world they are creating. It fits in very nicely with the other conversations about culture clash as Cora and Ampersand serve as a case study. There are some extremely touching moments, and there is a lot of tension between them as Ellis darts back and forth between trust and mistrust with panache. Reveals don’t feel convenient to the plot; they feel incredibly character based, each one growing stronger as they reinforce the themes around communication. It’s truly wonderful, and I’m glad it’s the center-piece of the novel.

If you’re like me, and have hesitations about this book, don’t worry about it. Just pick it up and read it, but go in knowing that this is a smaller story with bigger implications. It’s about navigating the treacherous waters of communicating with those you love and care about, and with people you barely even know exist. Ellis provides a thoughtful take on the human condition, aliens included, with fast paced blockbuster action sequences and a bittersweet monster romance story. A line that comes up frequently in the book is “Truth is a human right” and the political implications are obvious. However, Ellis reminds us that it applies in all situations, especially individual relations, and that “the truth” is harder to synthesize than one would expect. I genuinely enjoyed Axiom’s End and truthfully look forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Axiom’s End 8.5/10
-Alex

The Bone Shard Daughter – Lacking Muscle

Andrea Stewart’s debut had all the telltale signs of a bonafide winner. The Bone Shard Daughter boasts a back cover full of big-name recommendations, including Sarah J. Maas, M.R. Carey, Tasha Suri, and many more. And as I read the first few chapters, I perked up at the exciting premise and unique magic system, hoping for a home run debut from my sixth and final 2020 Dark Horse pick. But in reality, I was relieved to turn the final page. The Bone Shard Daughter met my expectations in some areas, but the story as a whole failed to resonate with me. The good thing for anyone reading this review is that your experience may differ, especially given the book’s 4+ star average on Goodreads.  

The Bone Shard Daughter takes place in a failing empire comprising a network of drifting islands in a vast and unforgiving sea. The current emperor, Shiyen Sukai, rules the world using bone shard magic. Every citizen is required to give a small shard of bone from the base of their skull as a tithe to the empire at a young age, and those shards are used to power constructs that perform various tasks for the kingdom. If a person’s shard is used in a construct, the person gradually grows ill, and years of their life are shaved off as the magic drains their life force. 

We follow five points of view throughout the story:

  • Lin Sukai, the emperor’s daughter, who is forced by Shiyen into sick competition with her stepbrother, Bayan. They both attempt to recover lost memories, learn bone shard magic, and earn keys that unlock doors throughout the palace and the secrets behind them. 
  • Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler whose wife was kidnapped and whisked away on a ship with blue sails seven years ago. Now, he searches for signs of the ship in the hopes of finding her. 
  • Phalue, heir to the governorship of Nephilanu, one of the Empire’s larger islands. 
  • Ranami, Phalue’s girlfriend and anti-classism advocate who hopes to free the common people from Phalue’s father’s iron grip and unrealistic taxes. 
  • Sand, a resident of Maila Island in the far reaches of the Empire. Sand spends her days collecting mangoes until she falls from a tree one day and begins to question how she arrived at the island at all. 

I list these as bullet points because the narratives are interconnected, but not so much as to yield an easy explanation as to how. The pieces come together by the end of The Bone Shard Daughter, but Stewart also leaves a helluva lot for the next two books in the trilogy. I don’t plan to move on in the series for a number of reasons I’ll cover below, but first, I want to highlight the novel’s overwhelming positives. 

The Bone Shard Daughter’s premise and magic system are inextricably intertwined. The Empire forces its citizens to contribute bone shards as a sinister tax, and Emperor Sukai uses them to power constructs of all sorts to run his operations. He has four primary constructs that each require dozens if not hundreds of shards, each with a complex network of commands that dictate how the construct behaves and who it obeys. Simpler constructs, such as customs agents that work on the docks, only require a few shards engraved with rudimentary commands. There’s much more here to sink your teeth into, and fans of cool magic systems will be rewarded with some neat tidbits. It’s a novel idea, and Stewart does a great job of putting the magic to work in the world she’s built. 

The book’s world, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its premise. The characters take the reader to multiple islands throughout the book, but none of them feel distinct. I imagine a world of islands would birth numerous different subcultures and idiosyncrasies, even if they all report to the same ruler. But they’re all homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another. In addition, scene transitions can be so violent and fast you sometimes don’t even realize you have hopped islands. Every chapter starts with a header telling the reader which island the character is on, and that’s a red flag itself. I’d rather be shown through descriptive prose and narrative hints where a character is instead of simply reading it at the top of each segment. Two islands on the book’s map are never visited and rarely mentioned, leading me to believe they’ll be important in the sequel despite having little purpose in this installment. 

The characters are my biggest sticking point with The Bone Shard Daughter. I struggled to connect with any of them because their most relatable traits were difficult to reconcile with what the book told me. For example, Jovis searches for his wife, who’s been lost for seven years. I know nothing about her (other than that she’s lost), and the precious few memories he shares aren’t vivid enough to bring her to life. Jovis also befriends a cat-like sea creature named Mephi early on. They form a close bond and have a playful back and forth. It’s cute and fun, but to me, treating animals with kindness is a baseline barometer for human decency and does very little to tell me about Jovis, who already shows those traits by smuggling kids away from the tithing festival. He saves those kids, mind you, as he complains to himself about getting distracted from searching for his wife. 

Jovis raised another issue, and it’s the action sequences. There are multiple fights in the book, but they do little to impact the reader. In one scene, Jovis throws his quarterstaff about 60 feet, completely knocking out his opponent. Seconds later, he throws it again and accomplishes the same exact thing. This is a common occurrence; fight scenes breeze by with a lot of telling and remarkably little showing. 

Lin has arguably the best storyline, and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to please her distant father and discover the castle’s secrets. But because she has lost her memories, there’s not much to latch onto, character-wise. Instead, Lin becomes a vehicle through which the reader can explore the world and how it functions, learning things as Lin does. 

Phalue and Ranami’s storyline has to do with anti-classism and reworking your worldview to skew toward altruism instead of self-serving capitalism. It’s a great message, but their story in a vacuum doesn’t do much to advance the larger plot. They are also completely unmemorable with almost no character or development whatsoever. Their joint role in the story feels truncated, and once again I’m inclined to believe their relationship will be fodder for the sequel. 

Sand appears in so few chapters that I debated even dedicating a paragraph to her. Her story is a mystery, and by the novel’s conclusion, her purpose is apparent. The mystery at her story’s core is the most intriguing of the book’s many secrets. However, it’s near impossible to care for Sand and her comrades with so few pages covering their story.

The novel actually ends from Sand’s point of view, and the conclusion in general left me disappointed. I turned the final page ready to leave The Bone Shard Daughter behind. Some readers, I’m sure, will eagerly devour the next two installments of the series, and I wish them all the best. There are still some things to like here; Stewart’s magic system has heaps of potential, and the story could bloom into a gripping fantasy epic. For me, personally, The Bone Shard Daughter’s flat characters and bland world just didn’t strike a chord. 

Rating: The Bone Shard Daughter – 5.0/10

-Cole

Hench – It’s Good To Be Bad

IHench have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.

The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.

It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.

After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.

Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.

Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.

Rating: Hench – 9.5/10
Alex

Elatsoe – Magical Murder Mystery Tour

Darcie Little Badger (referred to as Little Badger for the rest of the review) has burst onto the fantasy scene with Elatsoe, a stunning debut. Little Badger deftly mixes elements from multiple genres into a cohesive and thoroughly enjoyable story that I devoured from cover to cover. 

Elatsoe takes place in a world remarkably like our own, with a single defining difference best described by the book’s own blurb: “This America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those indigenous and those not.” Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer, and she draws on Native stories to create a stunning, magical alt-America. Her protagonist, Ellie (short for Elatsoe), can raise, communicate with, and train spirits of deceased animals–she even has a ghost-dog pet named Kirby and he’s a really good boy. In Elatsoe, human ghosts are things of rage and vengeance, completely removed from the compassion they may have felt in life and immensely dangerous things to summon. There are also common tales of magical creatures–vampires, shapeshifters, and more–that are passed down through generations even as they roam the modern landscape of Elatsoe. Ellie’s six-great grandmother, from whom she gets her name, is somewhat of a legend among the family, and stories of her adventures are interlaced with present-day scenes that show Ellie investigating a murder. Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies mysteriously in a car crash near the town of Willowbee, Texas. But Trevor’s spirit comes to Ellie in a dream and tells her he was murdered. He even names his killer. Ellie and her family travel to Trevor’s home outside of Willowbee to investigate, and the dark tendrils of a magical conspiracy start to grip the town as immense danger rears its head. 

Elatsoe can best be billed as a fantasy mystery thriller. It’s hard to assign labels to it because Little Badger’s tone has its own distinct feel. During my readthrough, I never felt like Elatsoe fit neatly into a genre- or age-group. It traverses the thin lines between YA and Adult fiction, between fantasy and mystery, with the confidence of an experienced tightrope walker. For me, that’s what made Elatsoe so remarkable. I wanted to solve the mystery at its core. But I also wanted to learn more about Ellie’s world and explore her relationships with characters like ghost-dog Kirby, best friend Jay, and myriad others. Every element of Elatsoe clicks into place like well-oiled gears, and each turn of the interlocking mechanisms that make this story unique advance the narrative in a meaningful way. The story itself is rooted in a murder mystery, and it’s a gripping affair. Willowbee’s suspicious nature lends the novel an eerie atmosphere that serves as a backdrop for Ellie’s exploration of her power over the dead. My one gripe–such a small one that it does very little to affect my review score–is that Ellie and her cohorts solve the mystery with relative ease. It’s forgivable because the solution feeds into a captivating climax that feels true to the story. 

And what a climax it is! Little Badger slaps the reader with a riveting resolution that elegantly combines previous plot points and character powers. The final pages of Elatsoe fly by in a mystical breeze, and every element that came before, even quiet conversations between two friends, is important. Put simply, Little Badger closed her novel with resounding purpose. She had a goal from the outset, and she achieved it with a fun and intriguing denouement. In fact, it’s so fast-moving that I often had to pause and retrace my steps by flipping back a few pages. 

Come for the plot, stay for the subplots. My personal favorite aspect of Elatsoe is the interwoven oral stories of Ellie’s six-great grandmother. Ellie’s mom shares the stories as teachable moments, and each adds a meaningful significance to the “real” story happening in the foreground. These stories also culminate in a reveal from Ellie’s mother, Vivian, that hits hard and adds yet another layer of depth to Elatsoe.

I genuinely enjoyed Elatsoe. It’s a treat to read and a noteworthy debut from Darcie Little Badger. Her strong first outing as a novelist makes me incredibly excited for whatever she writes next. Elatsoe is one of my 2020 Dark Horse highlights, and Little Badger is a great new author to watch.  

Rating: Elatsoe – 9.0/10

-Cole

Architects of Memory – Unforgettable, Mostly

What’s that? It’s time for another dark horse review? Oh man, well I think I just used up that idea for an intro. Oh well, I got to it first so it’s mine now. I should be talking about a book right? Well, I’ll be honest, the first thing that leapt out to me about this book was the title. The description only sold it more, but that title really got to me. It felt like it could mean so many things, and I think that still remains true after completing the book. If you have somehow missed the title of this review so far, I am going to be talking about Architects of Memory, by Karen Osborne. It’s a solid debut with a compelling main protagonist, and a dreary future setting that succeeds despite some of its drawbacks.

Architects of Memory follows Ash Jackson, an indenture with the Aurora corporation. Ash and her coworkers are corporate scavengers cleaning up the debris from space battlefields in the aftermath of a major war with an alien race known as the Vai. After she and her fellow salvagers soon encounter something they don’t quite understand, they bring the mysterious salvage down to a planet to run studies on it, thinking it’s a zero point battery (a device that would fix the energy supply issues of space travel). While on the planet, another corporation makes its move, and the hunt for Ash and the object begins. The result for the reader is a book where sabotage, espionage, and kidnapping become tools of war for corporations  as they compete for ultimate control of weapons that could defeat the ever present threat of Vai.

In general, the story was enjoyable. It had a few slow moments while it transitioned away from a MacGuffin-centered storyline to a more character driven narrative about how to handle the MacGuffin. While I found myself drawn in by the plot in the beginning, Ash became the main reason I continued to read the book. Her journey from ‘corporate can-do’ to becoming her own person was a nice read. Osborne really captures the sense of trying to do everything you can while greater expectations are piled onto you until you reach a breaking point. Where this arc really succeeds is Ash’s breaking point does not make her a good person, and instead forces her to reckon with all of the bad she did beforehand, while attempting to do the right thing in the future. It was a nice addition that really fit into the universe of the book.

Speaking of, I enjoyed the indirect ways Osborne introduced the world of Memory to the reader. There aren’t any expanded monologues about how the world became the way it is. Most of the details are revealed through dialogue between different characters and diving into the history of the main character as she talked to herself and the ghosts of her past. I appreciated the slow rolling that let the characters breathe in the world that molds them into who they are without forcing it down the reader’s throat. Their choices highlighted what was important to the society they lived in while setting up crucial character moments for those who do develop. However, if you’re someone who wants more worldbuilding and intricate details, it leaves a little to be desired.

I did have a couple issues with the book. As I mentioned, the first portion of the story revolves around a MacGuffin, which didn’t really compel me personally. However, that became less an issue as the story evolved. The second issue is a little harder to ignore and her name is Kate Keller. Keller is the second POV character, and I did not connect with her or find her interesting until about two-thirds of the way through the book. I think part of it is that her sections were often shorter, infrequent, and felt like they were meant to break up Ash’s chapters to provide narrative tension. Unfortunately, a lot of her characterization was done by her own internal comparisons to Ash, leading to a much more direct style that felt disjointed compared to Ash. It makes sense that this sort of characterization happened through the lens of their romantic tension, but it made Keller feel like an accessory for most of the book instead of a full character in her own right.

Despite forgivable issues, I adored this book. Osborne’s metaphors were vivid and tactile, providing such a lush picture of place especially when it was important. Her aliens, the Vai, are weird, and wonderfully alien. Finally the ending to this book is as astounding as it is horrifying.  Overall, Osborne’s debut is an enjoyable read. It has a likeable protagonist, the world is interesting, and while not overly detailed, fleshed out enough to feel pervasive and weaved throughout the character’s lives. The issues I had did not push me away, but still feel important enough to point out that could affect your experience. There is still much to enjoy, and since the second half of the book is much tighter than the first, I think there is much more to look forward to from Karen Osborne.

Rating: Architects of Memory – 7.5/10
Alex