fantasy


A stand-alone fantasy heist book with potential for a series.

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Publication year: 2022

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 408

Darin, Evie, and Tom are doing a heist that should make them rich: they’ve infiltrated a gala full of the cream of the queendom. They are going to rob the wealthy crowd blind. Unfortunately, things go badly wrong. While Evie and Tom manage to get away, Darin is captured and loses everything. After a diversion, Darin manages to escape, too, but empty-handed.

A few days later the trio meets again in the Red Rooster Tavern in the middle of nowhere. The Queendom’s master criminal, the Dame, sponsored the heist and expects her cut. The fact that the thieves didn’t get anything doesn’t matter; they now owe her. The Dame gives them a month to get together a huge amount of money.

Also, Darin met Kat during his escape from the gala and invited her to the Rooster. Evie and Tom are suspicious at first but Kat quickly becomes an integral part of the group.

The group is an interesting mix. Darin is the leader. He’s an actor with a painful past and hides it behind quips and sarcasm. Evie is a beautiful seducer of the group. She was born into nobility and wants to return to wealth. Big Tom is a huge man and a fighter. He has a soft spot for horses. Kat lives in her wagon and rescues orphans. She brews ale that has a peculiar taste. She has traveled a lot and knows a lot of people. We get to know a bit more about their backstories during the book. They’re all POV characters.

The magic in the story is based on metallurgy, specifically silver. Darin has that talent but considers it a curse because whenever he uses magic, it drains him. He also doesn’t want to learn to control it better, even though one character offers to teach him.

The book has three major heists. The second heist involves domestic abuse. The story is fast-paced and the writing style is light and humorous. It has many prominent female characters, to my delight.

This was a fun read and I enjoyed it a lot.

A stand-alone fantasy book.

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Publication year: 2006

Format: Audio

Running time: 11 hours, 33 minutes
Narrator: Gabrielle de Cuir

Brenden Vetch is a young man who was born with the magical talent of hearing plants. He’s also good at healing people. Unfortunately, he couldn’t heal his parents who died of illness. Then his brother leaves. He’s all alone, feeling disconnected from everyone. Soon, he meets a woman but can’t stay with her and she also leaves.

One day he meets a giant woman who invites him to come to her magic school in the city of Kelior where only magic that is taught in the school is permitted. Brenden comes to the school as a gardener, not as a magic student. Soon, the king’s wizard becomes suspicious of Brenden. He has strange magic so he must be a threat.

However, this book is mostly the story of other people. Yar Ayrwood is a wizard and professor in the magic school. He’s becoming increasingly tired of the way the king controls everything about magic. He feels that the wizards are missing out on actually finding out things rather than being spoonfed the old facts that the king wants them to learn.

A wandering illusionist Tyramin comes to Kelior and the king’s closest advisor, wizard Valoren, thinks that Tyramin could be a threat if he uses real magic. Valoran is a suspicious, cold man.

Arneth is the son of the City Warden. The Warden is proud of his position and has promoted Arneth to a position that Arneth doesn’t want. He would much rather patrol the bad parts of the city, the Twilight Quarters. When he’s ordered to question Tyramin to see if Tyramin has actual, aberrant magic, he’s initially thrilled to return to the streets. But the task is more difficult than he realizes. Mistral is Tyramil’s daughter and the glue that keeps the wandering troupe together. But she has a couple of secrets.

Princess Sylus loves to wander alone in the Twilight Quarter. She also has natural magic and hasn’t told her father the king. The king hardly even notices her. When she’s told that she’s going to marry Valoran she hardly knows, she realizes that the life she knows is over. Her only ally is her great-grandmother who taught her how to use her natural magic.

The writing style reminds me of fairy tales, as is usual for McKillip. Her writing is lush and beautiful, like painting with words. The book has several magic styles or systems but unfortunately, it deals more with politics and power. It’s also about control: how powerful people need to control things they fear, how good intentions can be twisted in the service of fear and control.

The many POVs meld together into a coherent story. Brendan’s POV felt more disconnected from the whole until near the end. I also felt that the ending was a bit too easy. The reader has a breathless, “young” voice and it didn’t feel like it belonged to Valoran or Yar.

It’s been years since I last read a McKillip book and Od Magic reminded me that I want to read more from her.

The third book in the Heartstrikers fantasy series.

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Publication year: 2016

Format: Audio

Running time: 18 hours, 51 minutes
Narrator: Vikas Adam

The ending of the previous book in the series, One Good Dragon Deserves Another, changed the status quo of our hero Julius and the Heartstrikers dragon clan. However many of the dragons themselves are against that change, and Julius didn’t expect to be right in the middle of it.

Namely, that the clan would be ruled by a council instead of a tyrant, in this case, the mother of all Heartstrikers, Bethesda. But no other clan is ruled by democracy. Also, Julius didn’t expect to be on the council. Worse, one seat is open for any Heartstriker who gets enough votes, so now the dragons will have cut-throat elections. Julius’ sister Chelsie is still under Bethesda’s control and Chelsea is stretched very thin trying to keep the peace between her younger siblings.

Also, Algonquin, the powerful spirit of the lakes who rules Detroit, declares war on dragons. She proves it by killing three ancient dragons.

Also, the UN notices when the biggest dragon clan in the world is in turmoil, so they send representatives to talk with the council. However, they also have a keen interest in Marci and her familiar. Marci is apparently going to become the most powerful mage in the world and, of course, the humans don’t want her staying near dragons.

This was a change of pace from the previous book because most of the story was Julius trying to talk others from using violence. However, the story has violent scenes as well, including a duel between dragons. But the book focuses on dragon politics and relationships. Chelsie has a big part and we get to know a lot more about her past. We get to know a lot more about the other Heartstrikers, as well.

I enjoyed the book just as much as the previous ones, but I was a bit disappointed that one character won’t be appearing anymore, though. The ending is a huge cliffhanger.

The second book in the urban fantasy Heartstrikers where the main characters are dragons.

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Publication year: 2015

Format: Audio

Running time: 18 hours, 35 minutes
Narrator: Vikas Adam

This was an excellent sequel to the Nice Dragons Finish Last. Julius is the youngest dragon in the Heartstriker clan. He’s also a genuinely nice person which the other dragons don’t understand because they believe that might makes right. Julius’ siblings have bullied him all his life. Now, Julius is in Detroit which is ruled by a powerful spirit who hates dragons. But Julius’ ruthless mother, who is the head of the clan, sent him there and sealed him in a human form. Julius survived her mother’s plans and even made a few friends and some enemies, as well.

Now, Estella, one of the three dragon seers, is gunning for Julius’ mother forcing her powerful sisters to work ruthlessly against the Heartstriker. No matter how cruel Julius’ mother is, he must try to help her. Meanwhile, his business partner Marci is kidnapped. A spirit who has killed many dragons knows about Julius and wants to kill him.

I love the characters and the world-building is excellent. Aaron deepens it a lot, especially dragon history. Some readers might not like that so much info is given in dialog but I liked the history bits a lot.

Julius is a genuinely kind character if somewhat too angsty. He’s also in love with Marci but doesn’t want to endanger their friendship so he doesn’t say anything. Marci is a competent mage with a mercenary side. She’s also very attracted to Julius but thinks that she doesn’t have a chance. I also enjoyed Marci’s familiar Ghost, the spirit of a dead cat. He shows quite a new side to himself.

Many of the cast returns and we’re also introduced to a couple of new characters. The writing style continues to be light and fun, with plenty of exciting battles. The only thing I didn’t really care for was the romance between Marci and Julius. The ending was a surprise and I dove right into the next book.

The first book in Legendborn YA fantasy series.

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Publication year: 2020

Format: Audio

Running time: 18 hours, 54 minutes
Narrator: Joniece Abbott-Pratt

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Bree Matthews lost her mother a few months ago and she can’t get over it. She hates living in a house where everything reminds her of her mother. She has applied to a residential program for bright high schoolers at a university and both she and her best friend Alice are accepted. Despite her father’s misgivings, Bree and Alice attend.

But during the first night, Bree and Alice participate in a party that is outside the campus. Bree sees something unexpected: a supernatural creature attacking. Some of the other students use bows and arrows and swords to take it down. Bree hides.

This was an entertaining read and a new twist on the King Arthur legend. It has the descendants of various knights who belong to a secret order. It also points out that all the descendants and members are white. Some of them have been slave owners. And Bree is black.

The main themes of the book are grief and racism. Bree’s grief over her mother was beautifully and realistically described. Her reactions, too. When she realizes that she might not have died in a simple car accident, she won’t allow anything to stop her from finding out what really happened. She’s brave and determined and also wants to protect her friends and dad. She does have flaws, as well. Also, she’s only 16.

While racism is shown through some people’s actions and words, there are also heartbreaking scenes where Bree realizes that she always feels out of place. For example, because buildings and places aren’t for her (race) even though most likely black workmen (or slaves) have built them, but for white people. Or because she doesn’t know her family history. There are also a couple of flashbacks to her foremothers who were slaves.

Themes are more important than the plot. So the plot has a leisurely pace.

Despite the strong themes, the story succumbs to some YA tropes. The love interests and the love triangle. I didn’t care for the triangle. I kind of like the love interests as characters, though.

Bree doesn’t know anything about the magic at the start of the book. When people tell her about it, there are quite a few info dumps, which I didn’t mind. The Arthurian stuff comes up later, so I don’t want to spoil it. I enjoyed most of it but was dubious about some things.

A stand-alone SF novella.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Tor

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 201

Lynnesse Fourth Daughter is the youngest of the daughters of the Queen of Lannesite and the last one to believe in fairy tales of demons and wizards. When frightened people flee to Lannesite from the forest kingdoms with tales of a demon ravaging the forests and the people, the Queen and Lyn’s sisters dismiss the stories and are convinced that the smaller countries are fighting amongst themselves. Nothing for the Queen to be concerned about. But Lyn is convinced that a real demon is at work. She and her best friend Esha Free Mark make the long journey to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the last of the great wizards of the Elder Race. Nyrgoth helped Lyn’s great-grandmother and promised to return if he was needed again. Lyn begs the strange-looking wizard for help.

Nyr Illim Tevitch is an anthropologist second class, lightyears away from home. He and his two friends were sent to observe this alien planet where Earth sent a colony thousands of years ago. But when messages from Earth didn’t arrive, his friends chose to return to find out what happened. Nyr chose to stay, waiting for contact. He has been in suspended animation and is now rudely awakened. He expects that a new message woke him but that’s not the case. He didn’t expect two native women in his home, begging him to leave with them.

Nyr’s instructions forbid all influence with the natives. But he has broken the orders before, with Lyn’s great-grandmother. And Lyn looks so much like her great-grandmother that against his better judgment Nyr agrees. But customs have changed and so has the language.

This novella had two POV characters. Lyn (third person POV) is young and eager to be a hero, somebody her mother will acknowledge. Her worldview has magic and demons. Nyr (first person POV) is a scientist with a scientific worldview. He also struggles with guilt from his previous transgression and he’s very lonely and depressed. He has a Dissociative Cognition System that will suppress his emotions so that he can think clearly and make logical decisions. However, the system can’t work all the time.

The two POV characters complement each other. The local culture is very customs bound and hierarchical. Nyr’s society clearly isn’t and he struggles to make himself understood. The themes of the story are culture clashes and depression. They worked surprisingly well.

The first book in the Iron Widow YA science fantasy series.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: Penguin Teen

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 394

Hundreds of years ago, the alien Hunduns tried to conquer the Earth. Now, giant robots made from the husks of the aliens defend the remaining humans. Each robot has a psychically linked team of two people: the main pilot, a boy, and his concubine pilot, a girl. The girl dies almost every time. The boy pilots are media superstars.

Wu Zetian is an 18-year-old woman whose older sister became a concubine pilot and died a few months ago. But she didn’t die in battle. Zetian is convinced that the pilot her sister was supposed to be paired with, killed her and got away with it. She’s going to get revenge.

So, she makes herself beautiful by getting rid of her unibrow and then volunteers for the concubine program. She knows that she’s going to die, but she wants to kill the male pilot first. When her spiritual energy which powers the mechas, qi, is tested, she gets a much higher rating than most people. So, she is paired with the pilot she thinks is the murderer. But she ends up killing him in their linked minds and survives, which is extremely rare. Now, the military wants to control her and pairs her with a boy pilot who murdered his own family.

The world is harsh and even more harshly patriarchal. Everyone seems to think that it’s ok to sacrifice girls so that boys can pilot the big mechas against aliens. However, the boy pilots rarely survive past the age of 25 while the girls usually die in their first battle. Society is very much influenced by the old Chinese traditions where girls aren’t valued. Also, the old custom of foot binding has been revived, at least in some cultures. When Zetian was five, her grandmother crushed and bound Zetian’s feet, so it is difficult for Zetian to even walk. Zetian’s family wants her to become a pilot because when she dies, her family gets paid and Zetian’s brother can study. So, Zetian doesn’t like her family.

The plot is fast-paced with lots of fight scenes between the giant mechas and some between people. Unfortunately, that left the characters rather shallow. I would have also liked more world-building and more information about the Hunduns. Also, the other female characters didn’t seem to see the problems in the society or they were just trying to get by. Of course, the novel is in the first person from Zetian’s POV.

Zetian is a very angry character and the more she finds out, the angrier she becomes. She doesn’t dwell on any warm memories with her sister, but instead remembers her father’s belittling words and her mother’s advice to obey and confirm. Her only warm memories are with Gao Yizhi, a rich city boy, whom Zetian met accidentally. They’re in love but they can’t marry. Zetian leaves him to get her revenge on the boy pilot. She’s suspicious of every male character, quite rightly. When she gets power, she uses it ruthlessly. Especially in the end.

The first book in a historical fantasy series the Radient Emperor set in China in the 14th century.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: TOR

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 416

The story covers years 1345 to 1356 and is broken into three parts.

The first part follows our protagonist, a nameless second daughter of a destitute Zhu family. Almost all of her family has died of hunger, just she and her brother, and their father are left. Her brother and father call her a “useless girl”. She has learned to fend for herself, hunting with traps and hiding part of what she catches. Otherwise, she would have starved to death, too.

One day, the father takes the children to a fortune-teller. The old man prophesies that her brother, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness. The father and brother are happy and determined to survive. But for the girl, the fortune-teller says just ”Nothing”. The usual fate of girls in China.

But the girl is also determined to survive. A group of bandits robs them, but they don’t have much. So, the cruel men kick the father to death and the brother also dies the next day. The girl buries them, wondering why her brother has died when he was destined for greatness. She realizes that she can take up her brother’s name and greatness for herself. She remembers that her father arranged for the brother to go to a monastery. And so she walks to the monastery and sits outside for days until the abbot takes pity on her and lets her in.

She’s two years younger than the other novices and can’t read. She also has to keep her sex a secret. But she’s determined to succeed.

The second part introduces a handful of new POV characters. General Ouyang comes from the conquered Nanren people but he serves the Mongol Emperor who rules China with an iron fist. Ouyang’s father and the rest of the family were executed as traitors and Ouyang were the only one to survive. He was made a eunuch and a slave. Still, he clawed his way up, even though almost everyone despises him. He has, of course, plans of his own.

Ma Xiuyuing is the beautiful daughter of the rebel Red Turbans’ general. Recently he died in battle. Ma is betrothed to a young and foolishly arrogant rebel general. She feels that she has no control over her life. She’s a more gentle character than any of the rest. The other POV characters include a high-born Mongol man and a young thief who joins the rebels out of self-preservation.

The book has a couple of minor fantasy elements but you can almost read it as alternate history.

Zhu and Ouyang are mirrors of each other. They both have a destiny that they’re striving for ruthlessly. However, Zhu takes on her brother’s promised greatness to escape her fate of nothingness. She thinks that she has deluded heaven into believing she is her brother and she must do everything just like her brother would have. On the other hand, Ouyang has infiltrated his enemies to avenge his family. Except that he has grown to love his former master, lord Esen. Esen in turn thinks Ouyang as his best and most trusted friend. Ouyang is competent, of course, but must constantly endure the Mongols’ disdain both for being a eunuch and a Nanren.

Zhu and Ma are also mirrors of each other, as women. Ma has no desires of her own and hasn’t even realized she could have them. Zhu has a very strong desire and bends herself and the people around her to her will.

This society is misogynistic. It devalues women and deforms them and puts them in a tiny little box of either a dutiful, chaste daughter or a dutiful wife. Women do most of the domestic work and are still called useless to their faces. But I don’t think the narrative is misogynistic. While Zhu is clearly the exception who constantly hides her femininity, there are a couple of rather powerful women we see briefly. Ouyang despises women. The society also elevates warriors above other men. Without bureaucrats, the Emperor couldn’t rule but they are also constantly put down, as we see with lord Esen’s brother who is a bitter disappointment to their father.

This book certainly has an epic scope, with a large cast of characters and spanning decades. However, there aren’t many detailed battle descriptions. It’s far more focused on intrigue. The rebel Red Turbans have few leaders but they’re constantly fighting amongst themselves. The men under the Emperor are also undercutting each other.

The story was entertaining, if on the grim side. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger but Zhu’s journey hasn’t reached the end.

The sixth novella in the Wayward Children series but can be read as a stand-alone.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: TOR

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 174

When Regan Lewis was a little girl, she already knew that girls can be vicious to each other in a way that adults either didn’t see or chose to forget. Regan had two best friends but that changed when she was seven. One of her friends brought a snake to school and the other, Laurel, reacted terribly, saying that the other wasn’t a real girl because she liked snakes. Regan supported Laurel. Laurel ostracised her former friend and so did Regan.

Ever since she was little, Regan loved horses and her parents are wealthy enough that she can ride. But when Regan is 11, she realizes that she’s not developing like other girls who make fun of her. Then, Regan’s parents reveal that Regan is intersex and it’s possible that she won’t develop periods or breasts. Even though her parents insist that there’s nothing wrong with her, she thinks differently. The next day in school, she confides in one person who immediately accuses her of being a boy. Miserable and frightened Regan runs away from school.

In a forest, she sees some trees that form a doorway that says ”Be Sure”. She steps through to another land. In the Hooflands, there are no humans, just beings with hoofs, such as unicorns, fauns, and centaurs.

This is almost a cozy fantasy, except for some later scenes and the bullying at the start. It’s also a coming-of-age story.

Regan’s parents are very supportive and insist that she’s perfect. Yet, her friends Laurel is very strict about what a girl can do, look like, and be. Regan seems to believe Laurel more than her parents. She’s always thought of herself as a girl so learning that she’s intersex is a shock.

In the Hooflands, that doesn’t matter because she’s the only human. It’s common knowledge that when the Hooflands are in trouble, a human savior appears. But Regan doesn’t think she can be a savior so she does her best to reject that destiny.

This was a lovely, slow-paced story of Regan growing up and learning to accept herself.

I’ve only read the first book in the series and this one doesn’t have any connections to it, so you can read it without reading the others

A stand-alone fantasy novella.

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Publication year: 2021

Publisher: TOR

Format: ebook

Page count from Goodreads: 103


Thanh is the third daughter of the ruler of Bình Hải, a small but proud country. It’s allied to Eptheria which is a large Northern conquerer nation. All her life, Thanth’s mother called Thanth the useless one. Her elder daughters are the more useful heirs.

When Thanth was eight, she was sent to Ephteria, supposedly to learn and study but really she was a hostage. While she was there, the palace caught on fire. Everyone fled… except Thant, a foreign brown little girl who was forgotten. However, she and a servant girl, who was also from Bình Hải, fled the burning building together. The fire still haunts her and sometimes embers start glowing around her and set things on fire. Soon after the fire, Thanth had her first romance with the princess of Ephteria, who is also the headstrong heir to the empire.

Now, Thanth has returned to her birth country, but her mother is still displeased with her. She’s too soft and pliable.

A trade delegation is coming from Eptheria and Mother has put Thanth in charge of the negotiations with them. Mother hopes that Thanth’s years as the hostage make her a good diplomat. Thanth is nervous but determined to show her worth to Mother. But the head of the delegation is Thanth’s former lover who wants her back.

This novella is written completely from Thanth’s point of view. She feels invisible in the palace and Mother clearly doesn’t trust her and thinks that she’s useless. Mother oversees every detail of the negotiation. Thanth is a quiet, reflective girl. When she was with her lover, Eldris, for the first time she felt that someone actually saw her.

When Eldris shows up, she threatens (subtly) to take over the country if they don’t agree to the terms. Meanwhile, Thanth longs to be with Eldris again, but that would compromise Thanth’s position. Eldris is a confident woman who has grown up knowing that she can have whatever she wants. In that respect, she could have been a male character.

Thanth’s mother is another powerful woman. But she knows that her country is no match for the military might of Ephteria, so she has to negotiate and do it well. She demands much from her daughters.

This story clearly has roots in colonial history and the negotiations are a big part of the story. It’s also about love and abuse and growing to learn your own worth and place.

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