Titanshade – Familiar Yet Fantastical

91mbw2bkarelAlright, I am back from my wedding and honeymoon where I read nine books on the beach – so I have a ton of new stuff to talk about and am excited to get back into it. Let’s see if I still remember how to write a review. The first book I want to talk about this week is Titanshade, by Dan Stout. It is a fantasy buddy cop book and one of our dark horse selections for this year. I was eager to tear into it for a number of reasons, the simplest being “can it do a better job at a fantasy buddy cop story than the train wreck that was Netflix’s Bright from last year.” The short answer is yes, it is much better, but that bar was extremely low and there is a lot of space between “terrible” and “amazing.”

As mentioned, Titanshade is a fantasy buddy cop book. The plot is fairly straightforward: our lead cop protagonist, Carter, is an excellent but unconventional cop with a troubled past that has mired his career in the cases that no one else will touch. He lives and works in the city of Titanshade, a Siberian industrial city that holds high esteem in the world because it produces most of the known supply of oil. The city sits nestled in a northern icy wasteland next to a mountain that contains a chained god who is constantly being tortured by devils (we don’t really know why). The god’s agony produces a massive amount of heat, warming the area and allowing workers to live in the shade of the titan. Unfortunately, Titanshade is running out of oil. The wells are running dry and the city needs to find a new source of income and power to remain relevant in the world. So when Carter stumbles onto a murder case that threatens upcoming talks to transform the cities industries he is assigned a young plucky non-humanoid partner to work the case and keep the city from metaphorically dying.

The murder investigation is fun and interesting, but if you are familiar with a cop or detective dramas the story isn’t really something you haven’t seen a million times before. Carter is assigned a young partner named Ajax, an adorable yet effective cop who serves as a good foil to Carter. He is this strange bug humanoid creature, and while he and Carter have a ton of friction at first they unsurprisingly come to trust and like one another over the course of the book. Titanshade’s plot doesn’t really stand out and does nothing to reinvent genre clichés that I personally find extremely tired. If you are hoping that this would be the new frontier of cop stories then you might be disappointed. However, this book still has a ton to offer readers if they have the right expectations.

In my opinion, the target audience of Titanshade is people who like both cop shows and fantasy and are looking for something that bridges the gap. While the plot isn’t innovative, the characters are extremely enjoyable and the world-building is fantastic. Carter and Ajax are just fun to read about, and it’s hard not to find yourself enjoying their relationship even though you know where it is going from page one. Originally I was going to say that the world-building is simplistic, but a more accurate adjective would be to say that it is streamlined. Titanshade’s fantastical elements are fairly subdued. There are a ton of different fantasy races, all cool and original, but all of them are essentially humans with very different physiology. There aren’t tons of psychological or cultural differences between the species. Additionally, although there are magic and fantastical things – they are incorporated to accomplish things that we already have in the modern world through the use of technology. Dan Stout has essentially taken our existing world, and stripped a bunch of the tech, and then replaced it with things that are powered by magic. The result is a world that feels both extremely familiar, yet exciting and fun to explore. It is a really cathartic read, giving you a tried and true plot that you are sure to enjoy – in an original setting that enhances instead of distracting from the plot. My only complaint with the world-building is that there were still some pretty big questions left unanswered from book one, that I can only assume Stout will answer in later books.

If you like cop shows and fantasy books, you will almost certainly like Titanshade. Although it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, the book is a wonderful reskinning of popular cop tropes with a lovable cast. Thank you Dan Stout for giving me an absolutely perfect beach read, and I can’t wait to check out what is next for Carter and Ajax. Go check out this debut book when you get a chance.

Rating: Titanshade – 7.5/10
-Andrew

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One Good Dragon Deserves Another – Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger

51dk2bbubyflI thought about spacing these out a little more, but as they say in every single fantasy book with a blacksmith (read: all of them), strike while the iron is hot. Please take a moment to read my review from last week on The Heartstrikers book one, Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron, or a lot of this review won’t make any sense. It was an impressive introduction to a dragon based urban fantasy, and despite its flaws I immediately bought the second book in the series (One Good Dragon Deserves Another) and started reading it. I wanted to jump into a follow up review for book two because it addresses a number of problems I had with the first book, whilend taking the positives and kicking them up a notch for an incredible read. The Heartstrikers is rapidly jumping up my recommendation list and I am super excited I have three more books left to read.

So what’s better about One Good Dragon? Well for one, it’s about twice as long as its previous novel. This gives it a huge amount of additional space for plot, world, and character development. The first book ends with a devious plot from a rival dragon gang foiled, and Julius surviving his mother’s wrath by the skin of his teeth. The second book simply picks up right where Nice Dragons left off, as the aforementioned rival dragon clan comes back for round two. A big theme of The Heartstrikers books is destiny, and the abilities of dragon sages to see and influence the future. In One Good Dragon, an enemy sage has learned a way to force fate down the paths she desires – making things truly unpleasant for the Heartstriker clan. Julius, concerned for the potential destruction of his family, steps up and involves himself in the plots of his mother and enemies to try and save everyone. The plot of book two is a lot more complicated, but a lot more rewarding. Book one felt like a prologue compared to One Good Dragon, and the step up in complexity lead to a much more fulfilling and exciting read. However, I will say that my one complaint for book two was that I had a slightly difficult time understanding some of the internal logic of Rachel Aaron’s world near the end of the story, and she might want to make the workings of some elements of her story a little more clear.

That being said, holy cow did the world building and character development take a significant step up (and it was already strong to begin with). In Nice Dragons Finish Last most of our world building was centered around the Heartstrikers and New Detroit. While it was excellent, it was somewhat narrow in scope – especially compared to the second book which sees an explosion of new characters and cultures introduced. Several new kinds of magic, cultures, and places show up in One Good Dragon and the series has reached the point where I am excited for each new page to see what Rachel Aaron will dream up next. In particular, I loved her “dragon hunter” from the Scandinavian Fjords in this book and hope she continues to work in magic from all over the world (which I am sure she will).

The characters were the big sell from book one, and somehow they have gotten even better. Rachel continues to introduce the reader to a number of Julius’ extended family, each a personality that makes the Heartstriker melting pot more delicious to dive into. In particular, book two brings us Julius’ oldest and most powerful sibling, Amelia, and I can’t get enough of her. In addition, some of my previous complaints about Julius and his repetitious thoughts are gone. His character felt much more coherent and enjoyable to be around, despite still liking him a good deal in the first book.

Overall, One Good Dragon Deserves Another is bigger, better, faster, and stronger than its previous novel. Rachel Aaron clearly improved her already good writing between the books, and I am now selling this series even harder than I was before. The Heartstrikers is turning out to be a real treat and I recommend you check it out as soon as possible. P.S. I am really enjoying the naming conventions.

Rating: One Good Dragon Deserves Another – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Nice Dragons Finish Last – So Many Feelings

20426102I am really annoyed because I thought I had a hidden gem review with this book. Unfortunately, every other reviewer I know apparently read Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron, at the same time as me and has already gotten their review out. However, at the end of the day I am just happy that this story is getting a bunch of exposure because I have so many strong feelings about it. Nice Dragons is a self published (I think, I couldn’t actually confirm) urban fantasy with a ton of heart, and is currently criminally underread. It is the first installment in a five book series that just put out the final book this week. The plot, characters, and worldbuilding are frankly incredible, and while it suffers from some small but noticeable problems, Nice Dragons provides some of the most fun I have had in awhile.

The plot is initially simple. Julius is the youngest and smallest dragon in the Heartstriker family, a dragon clan famous for its large size (number of members) and a powerhouse in the magical world. His mother is extremely disappointed that he doesn’t seem to be doing anything with his life other than avoiding the plans and machinations of her and the other children. To remedy this, she seals his magic and throws him into Detroit with the ultimatum that if he doesn’t do something to make her proud in the next few days he will be put to death. He links up with one of his older siblings who gives him a job/quest, which will hopefully impress his mom and result in his continued existence. While a harmless starting point, things predictably spin out of control and rapidly expand in scope. Rachel has a real talent for keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and the book explodes into a number of different plot threads that are all intertwined. Overall, the story held my interest and kept me engaged the whole way through – and I bought the second book immediately after finishing Nice Dragons.

The worldbuilding is really on point for an urban fantasy. I think that saying urban fantasy has lazy worldbuilding as a genre is a gross generalization, but I will say that I expect less of it than when reading a more traditional fantasy novel. Rachel took that expectation and broke its spine over her knee. Nice Dragons has an astounding amount of imaginative worldbuilding that puts you in a place that is both vaguely familiar and completely new. The book mostly takes place in a reimagined Detroit, and the changes she described paint a city that has evolved into a magical city state – self ruled and self regulated. The mix of background subjects that Rachel draws her inspiration from is also impressively diverse – including lore from England, Mesoamerica, Russia, Scandinavia, and more. This lore is used to highlight small loveable details such as the fact that Heartstrikers are feathered Aztec dragons descended from Quetzalcoatl. It is a small detail, but it felt so fresh in the landscape of traditional european dragons. Every single new idea and detail Rachel introduced in her world had me excited and awestruck.

While I enjoy heaping praise on the plot and worldbuilding, the real place that this book shines is the characters. I ADORE the full cast of this book. It is filled with unique and memorable characters from top to bottom regardless of their immediate importance. Julius’ oldest brother Bob is particularly delightful, and ranks up there with some of my all time favorite characters. Julius himself is wonderful, if a little whiny at first, and the second protagonist Marci (who you meet a little ways into the book) balances him out perfectly. Everyone feels relatable, interesting, and fun making me feel highly invested in each member of the cast.

Despite all my praise, Nice Dragons definitely has a few shortcomings. The most glaring is that a couple conversations in the book can be extremely repetitive. Julius feels like he talks about his status as the weakest dragon in his clan every ten pages, and constantly goes to pains to remind you how he usually tries to avoid his older siblings. Occasionally, his frequent talks of how scary his siblings are can lead to some great emotional payoff when you finally meet them, but often I found myself thinking “yes, yes, I know” when reading pages. Additionally, there is a romance subplot that can be painfully awkward sometimes, though I do like the general direction that it is going.

I read Nice Dragons Finish Last in almost a single sitting, and bought the sequel immediately after setting it down. This by itself should tell you my overall feelings about the book, I highly recommend it to everyone. The Heartstrikers is shaping up to be my favorite urban fantasy ever, and will definitely place well among all books that I have read. If you want to read about a lovable dragon taking on impossible odds, surrounded by fantastic characters, in a kick ass world – then this might be the book for you.

Rating: Nice Dragons Finish Last – 8.0/10
-Andrew