2018 pick and mix


The first book in the fantasy series Thieves of Fate.

Publication year: 2017
Format: print
Publisher: Pyr
Page count: 366

This isn’t the ordinary fantasy world set in pseudo Medieval or Renaissance setting. It’s got two other sentient races but it’s far more technologically advanced than usual fantasy worlds. Most people use guns, not swords. All sorts of mechanical contraptions are become more frequent, at least for the wealthier people.

But what really sets this world apart is its religious philosophy. The Theosophy declares that God and Reason are one. Science and religion are one. God is a scientist, and some believe that life is an experiment. The Reverend Doctors are scientists. There’s no magic as such and the book has only one magical element.

This is a very dark world. Poor people are living on the streets and if you take a loan and can’t pay it, you’re thrown into prison and most likely die there. If you have enough money or right connections, you can do any crime you want. The police are corrupt. Some reviews said the world is Dickensian and that’s a good description.

The story has a lot of POV characters and some of them just disappear before the end. One of those was my favorite character and while I really enjoyed the beginning of the story, I was less enthusiastic with the ending. I found the characters sufficient different from each other that I had no problems following who was who.

Rowena Downshire is thirteen and working as a messenger girl for Ivor who handles both legal and illegal post. Ivor’s got a nasty temper and he feeds and pays the kids who works for him as little as possible. Rowena’s mother is in debtors’ prison and she’s trying to earn enough for both keeping fees and for buying her out. When Ivor’s best messenger girl goes missing, Rowena is sent in her place to Reverend Chalmers’ home with important letters. After receiving the letters, Chalmers sends her to the notorious Alchemist. Unfortunately, a lot of people want the book Rowena is now carrying and she’s robbed of the book.

Rare is a thief. She’s been a thief for most of her young life. While she’s been with her master (and lover) at the start of her career, she’s more independent now. She gets some (or most/all?) of her info from her lover Anselm and uses for her own gain. She’s pretty ruthless and when she gets wind of a prize that many people want, she thinks that she can get it first and sell it to the highest bidder.

Anselm Meteron is a retired thief and now owns several legal places in the city. Rare is his primary mistress and while she infuriates her, he’s very fond of her. When the chief inspector of the city, who is in Anselm’s payroll, comes over and acts strangely, Anselm realizes something is wrong.

Reverend Doctor Phillip Chalmers is doing important and controversial work with a book that he thinks will change the dominant religion in the world. He’s also nervous because he knows that not everyone will be pleased with that. When the delivery girl finally brings the letters from his partner, he panics and sends the book to the Alchemist. Just in time, because he’s attacked and imprisoned.

Bess is Ivor’s former delivery girl. Now, she’s a courtesan for smallduke Regenzi and he’s young and handsome and doesn’t want anything too difficult. She’s happy to be in a place which feels much safer to her. However, when Regenzi goes to buy something from the Alchemist, that mysterious old man warns Bess that her companion is far more dangerous than she could have guessed.

These are just the POV characters at start of the book. A couple of more are added later.
The two other sentient races in this world are quite clearly not human. The aigamuxa (aiga) are very strong and they’ve been used as slaves before. Their eyes are on their heels and their heads are eyeless. They usually travel by swinging from trees, like apes. The lanyani are tree-like creatures which are used as servants by some richer people. We don’t get much info about the lanyani but the aiga don’t care for humans. However, the human nations have trampled their habitats so some of them no choice but to live in cities. They can be aggressive and use brute strength in combat. While I love weird creatures (Barsoom’s kaldane and rykors!), I’m afraid the aigas’ lack of sight made them some what ridiculous as a credible threat.

The story has lots of mysteries and some are left for the rest of the series. I liked the beginning and the atmosphere of the book a lot. Most of the characters are also interesting, but my favorite character disappears too quickly. Many fantasy books shy away from religion, so it was interesting to see it explored at length here. And I loved the revelations about Anselm and the Alchemist so I won’t spoil them here.

Still, the ending was a bit too predictable and I couldn’t take the aiga as a threat. Almost every time I kept wondering how can they see to do that. It seems to me that they must have some other way to either see or sense their surroundings pretty well.

Still, I enjoyed the book and intend to pick up the next in the series.

I won this book from Books, Bones, and Buffy blog some months back.

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The third book in the Vatta’s War science fiction series.

Publication year: 2007
Format: Audio
Running time: 15 hours 35 minutes
Narrators: Cynthia Holloway

In the previous book, an unknown enemy almost destroyed Vatta merchant family and their company Vatta Transport Ltd. Now, Kylara Vatta is determined to fight back and rebuild the family and the company.

The book was just full of interesting female characters! Ky herself has mostly gotten over her insecurities and isn’t afraid to be in charge and make independent decisions. However, she can be rather abrasive and isn’t at all subtle about her goals. But she does the best she can in a very difficult situation. She, and by extension Vatta Ltd., has two merchant space ships. She has taken over the larger and armed ship while she’s given command of her original ship to her cousin Stella Vatta. The ships part ways because of trade, Stella following in Ky’s wake and trying to sort out the messes Ky has left behind. They stretch her diplomatic abilities to the max and she starts to doubt Ky. Perhaps not surprisingly, Stella starts to resent Ky and she’s also quite jealous of her. This is quite a departure from the previous book. There are also some very interesting repercussion from the previous book, which I didn’t see coming and which I quite enjoyed.

But my favorite character was aunt Grace. The Vatta family considers her a doddering old aunt but secretly she’s much more! She’s protecting her niece and her family from assassins while trying to piece together the larger plot.

There are a couple of other women among the other ship captains. One of them is even unlikable which is still pretty rare for a woman who isn’t an enemy.

This was a fast-paced and very entertaining book. We get to see a couple of new cultures which I rather enjoyed, too. One of them requires politeness from everyone and has extreme consequences for who don’t. I also enjoyed the dog situation. However, one culture is distrustful of women in power which is, now, a bit tired trope so I didn’t enjoy that as much.

Engaging the enemy is actually my favorite book of this series, so far.

A stand-alone fantasy book.

Publication year: 1990
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 hours
Narrators: Bill Hensel

This is a fast-paced and fun fantasy adventure with lots of political and court intrigue.

Ischia, the royal city of Cisali, stands next to a live volcano and not surprisingly, its people’s lives and religion center on the volcano, called the Lady. One magical stone is said to keep the lava from engulfing the city. So, when the stone’s stolen, the king is desperate to get it back. But due to court intrigue, he sends out an unlikely pair:

Darvish is the third prince. He doesn’t have much power and spends his days drinking and carousing with both men and women. This makes him unhappy and he drinks even more to forget it. Also, he’s now ordered into a political marriage to girl he doesn’t know.

Aaron is a thief. He had the misfortune to stumble into Darvish’s bedchamber and get caught. Luckily, Darvish was attracted to him and saved Aaron from tortured to death. However, Aaron grew up in a strict home and he has learned to deny his sexual leanings. He has two ghosts in his mind, talking to him and berating him.

The king suspects that Darvish is plotting to get the throne and therefore sends him out to retrieve the stone. Luckily for the duo, they stumble upon princess Chandra who is a trained wizard. She’s also Darvish’s unwilling fiancée and has no desire to a romantic relationship at all because it will stifle her wizardry. After the death of her mother, she has also become estranged from his father the king.

The trio will have to learn to work together to get the precious stone back.

I really liked the three main characters: each have circumstances and their own inner demons to conquer while on the quest. Aaron is the only one who actually knows a bit about the world: both Darvish and Chandra have led very safe lives and Aaron is their (unwilling) guide to the larger world.

The world isn’t too complex but not too simple, either. A nice, fun story which teases at a male/male romance but the ending might be disappointing for anyone expecting that.

The second book in the five-part Vatta’s War science fiction series.

Publication year: 2005
Format: Audio
Running time: 14 hours and 21 minutes
Narrators: Cynthia Holloway

This book starts soon after then first book, “Trading in Danger”. After she was drummed out of military academy, Kylara Vatta, Ky, is now the captain of a small and old trade space ship. She survived her first voyage on it, but not without losses. Ky refuses to return to the arms of her family, the wealthy Vatta who have made their fortune through interstellar trade. Instead, she’s determined to make it on her own, no matter how boring it’s going to be. But then someone tries to rob her ship and she’s attacked in public.

Someone has launched an attack against Vatta Transport Ltd. Their home is bombed killing many of the family members, including some very close to Ky. The attacks also sever interstellar communications, the ansibles. Furthermore, the government of Slotter Key is blaming the Vatta family and so shutting down their resources. Many of the other trading companies also feel that Vatta is to blame and refuse to deal with them.

The surviving family sends one of the own to find Ky and to find out who their enemy is. Ten years ago, Stella made a grievous error and was branded as the family black sheep ever since. She’s the most unlikely person to investigate anything, so she’s sent. However, she’s a determined and level-headed woman. She has already learned to work undercover, as a spy of sorts, and now her skills are put to a test. Her former lover Rafe soon joins her. He’s a lovable rogue with plenty of talents and secrets of his own.

Ky’s familiar cast returns. I enjoyed them more this time around although their attitudes towards Ky don’t change. She hires a couple of new men and while I could see what’s going to happen with (at least) one of them, it was still a nice ride. I also really enjoyed Ky and Stella’s interactions. However, Ky doesn’t really have time to mourn her family and the story has very convenient coincidences.

This was a nice continuation to the series and definitely raises the stakes for Ky and the surviving Vatta family. Now, Ky has to work with no safety net which she had in the first book.

A fantasy novella set in Bujold’s Five Gods universe. While it’s the newest in publication order, according to internal chorology, it’s the third. I recommend starting with the first novella “Penric’s Demon” to get the most out of the novella series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 4 hours and 29 minutes
Narrators: Grover Gardner

This story takes place about eight months after the events in “Penric and the Shaman” where Penric met some of the characters appearing in this story.

Learned Penric of the Bastard’s order is fishing with his friend who is a shaman when Locator Oswyl, this world’s equivalent to a detective, comes to get them. Someone has murdered a temple sorceress and he needs help from Penric to locate the demon which was living inside the sorceress. Much to his dismay, Penric can’t locate the demon and they come to the conclusion that someone, most likely the murderer, has stolen the demon.

This is essentially a murder mystery with some intrigue and sorcery added to it. While the temple sorceress is very much dead, her demon (an elemental spirit) which was inside her has mostly likely jumped to another person or animal. Wild demons are very dangerous so Penric must find the missing spirit. The story touches on life and death of humans and the spiritual beings who can be part of the them.

It’s a nice little story. I enjoyed the story and characters, as usual for Bujold. I’m particularly fond of Penric’s demon Desdemona and her interaction with Penric has, so far, always been delight.

The sequel to “Penric’s Mission” and “Mira’s Last Dance”. A fantasy novella. I recommend starting with the first novella “Penric’s Demon” to get the most out of the novella series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 5 hours and 25 minutes
Narrators: Grover Gardner

Penric is a sorcerer in the Bastard’s Order and therefore carrying a chaos demon inside him. He’s also a scholar and a healer, using the demon’s abilities for the healing. He named his demon Desdemona. Des has had 12 previous hosts, both animal and human, but Penric is the first male host. Penric is supposed to return to the temple where he is stationed but has put it off because he has romantic interest towards Nikys Khatai. She’s the widow of a general and the sister of another general. Penric wants to stay near her but is running out of excuses.

Nikys receives a letter which tells her that her mother is kept a prisoner in a Daughter’s House in Limnos. Because of political repercussions, Nikys wants to rescue her quietly. Penric happily volunteers and they set out for another mutual adventure. However, the letter could be a trap.

This is quite a gentle and heart-warming fantasy novella, like a cozy mystery but without the murder (or other crime). The characters are great, as usual for Bujold. There were some tense moments, but I didn’t think the characters were never in any serious danger. Which was fine, for a change. There are a lot of various disguises, daring escapes, and sneaking around.

The story has two POV characters: Penric and Nikys. While Pen is quite a gentle and understanding man, he’s also very powerful because of his demon. But having the demon does have its drawbacks, too, and several of the previous hosts have their own personalities which come to the surface from time to time. Nikys is a very practical and loyal woman. She’s falling for Pen but the thought that he has another person, or rather several people, really, inside him all the time, gives her pause. However, she does seem to take Pen for granted: right at the start she doesn’t even bother to ask him if he’s going to help, just assumes it.

We’re also introduced to a group of new characters. The letter was sent by a woman Nikys’ brother courted before he was declared a traitor. She’s apparently still waiting for him. She and her household agree to help Nikys even with such a questionable and dangerous mission as a prison break. While the Daughter’s House is a temple and not a dreary dungeon, it does have a loyal and dedicated staff. I also really enjoyed several of the new characters, especially Ikos and Bosha, and I’d loved to see more of them.

Overall this was a great continuation and I’m looking forward to seeing Penric and Nikys adventuring as a couple.

The first book in the Blackthorn and Grim fantasy series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 17 hours and 44 minutes
Narrators: Scott Aiello, Natalie Gold, Nick Sullivan

This story has three POV characters and so it has three narrators. Each reads the chapter which is written in the POV of his or her character. I really liked this technique.

The story starts with Blackthorn, although she’s a nameless prisoner in a terrible prison. She tells us that she rose against the local ruler, who was raping women and then discarding them, and so she was locked up. However, she’s endured and is waiting for her one chance to talk in front of the council and tell everyone what happened. But one of the jailers tells her that she’s going to be murdered before that can happen. However, she’s brought in front of a strange, a fey calling himself Conmael. She’s suspicious and sullen. When Conmael offers her a chance to freedom but at a cost, she’s hesitant. Conmael demands seven years of service from her. During that time, she will stay in another country, Dalriada, and help everyone who asks for help, and those who need it but won’t, or can’t, ask. She will be a healer and a wisewoman. She will also put aside her need for revenge during the seven years. That need has sustained her through her terrible year in prison, so it’s not easy. Finally, she accepts.

Grim is another inmate, a huge and strong man. He’s latched on to Blackthorn who is his life line even though they don’t really know each other. Nor are they friends. But when chance comes, in the form of a prison break, he tries to help other inmates and follows Blackthorn. They travel together to Dalriada and there Grim works for the local people and lives with Blackthorn (but not romantically).

Dalriada’s Crown Prince Oran needs to make a political marriage. He’s known that all his life but still dreams about a love match. When he starts to exchange letters with Lady Flidais he becomes convinced that she can be the girl of his dreams: gentle, compassionate, and intelligent. She also shows that she, too, has been brought up to serve the people instead of using power for her own benefit. But when the lady’s group arrives, she’s not at all as Oran imagined her to be: she snaps at even her own people, seduces Oran, and even her own dog seems to hate her. Oran can’t help but to feel that something is terribly wrong. Maybe the new local wisewoman Blackthorn can help?

This is a lush fantasy book. The world-building is intricate. It’s not an epic fantasy; it’s not based on fighting at all. Instead, people are the center of this novel. Both Blackthorn and Grim are wounded and flawed characters. They can barely tolerate the company of other people. But they’re also used to working for their bread. Oran has been reared to serve justice as best he can and he’s a very down-to-earth royalty. He doesn’t enjoy the noble pastimes of hunting or gaming. He much rather reads old tales.

Grim and Blackthorn are suspicious of other people, especially of people in power.

This was another long book and it took quite a while until Oran approaches Blackthorn. I knew (or thought I knew) what had happened to the lady, but I didn’t grow impatient with the story. Marillier builds the characters meticulously and also revealed the world, bit by bit. We didn’t much see the fey but I like what I saw. In this world, they’re tricksters with a lot of magical power and humans don’t trust them.

The book has quite obvious themes: corrupt people using their powers over others, most of them are men but women are just as capable of using power, if usually differently. The way that people will close their eyes and not see obvious bad things around them, when they don’t like the people to whom these bad things happen.

While I liked most of the book, it does have some rather questionable stuff about (female) sexuality.

The book doesn’t end in a cliffhanger and can be read as stand-alone.

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