fantasy


The first book in an epic fantasy series.
I received an ARC copy of The Hidden Face to review.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook, kindle
Publisher: the Hive
Page count: 403 at GoodReads, including an excerpt of a prequel

Dayraven is the son of Faustia’s hero Urland who has killed when Dayraven was only six years old. Because his mother was also dead, he was a ward of the emperor. In order to ensure peace, he’s given as a hostage to a potential enemy state. Despites promises of quick return, it’s 15 years later when Dayraven is finally summoned back home. He’s now 30 and lived half his life in an enemy nation. His teacher, a Jaelite scholar Halakh, sent him an urgent message to meet at an abandoned temple. After a meeting with the scatterbrained old emperor in the baths, Dayraven hurries to the temple but too late: someone has murdered Halakh. However, Dayraven meets a possible ally: the young woman Sunniva who has disguised herself as a soldier in order to find her missing father. Together, they have to puzzle out the clues that Halakh and Sunniva’s father have left behind.

Dayraven also meets a couple of enemies: a mysterious hunchback and his old childhood tormentor who is now the emperor’s trusted high priest. He and Sunniva have other enemies as well, who want to get the information that the pair knows.

I liked most of the characters and many of the enemies were great. Unfortunately, I rather disliked the femme fatale, who was a cliché character using her looks to manipulate males, and the story has only two named female characters. I also rather enjoyed the clues and puzzles in the book. The book has several POV characters, most of them bad guys.

Dayraven seems quite a thoughtful fellow. He doesn’t rush into anything, but rather ponders things. This is a rather nice change for all the hot-headed heroes in many books. However, he’s still a great swordsman.

Sunniva is a warrior and an archeologist and something of an architect as well, because her father taught her those things. However, her father has disappeared, and she disguises herself as a soldier to look for him. Unfortunately, men have to rescue her several times in the book.

One of the most unique characters in the book is the Twister who is a hunchback and quite possibly a madman. He’s a character who can change sides depending on his whims and his unpredictably was great. Another character, a mercenary, was also interesting.

There’s also an obligatory romance and that’s how it felt to me rather than an actual attraction between characters.

The world-building was very interesting. The Faustian Empire feels to me like a Roman Empire -type setting because of the baths and the wax tablets that people use. The Jaelites are apparently modeled after Jewish people, especially considering that they use mystical numbers and writing reminiscent of Kabbalah. There are other cultures as well, but we aren’t shown much of them.

The Hidden Face is a sun god type of deity who is hidden most of the time. But when he (or she) shows his face, or manifests among people, one culture will rise to prominence. This happens every 500 years or so. Not surprisingly, people want to know where the Hidden Face will next manifest and know or even manipulate the events that will follow. The finding of the Hidden Face is the central mystery of the book.

Personally, I would have wanted more details. Now, the cultures feel like sketches which we don’t really know much about. Apparently, women can’t be soldiers because Sunniva has to disguise herself. Yet, she has enough fighting skills that she doesn’t stand out and nobody seem outraged about her disguise, so it doesn’t feel like an enormous taboo.

This is clearly a first book in a series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but the main story is left open at the end.

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The fifth book in the fantasy romance series set in the Five Hundred Kingdoms.

Publication year: 2010
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 and 5 minutes
Narrators: Gabra Zackman

Princess Rosamund has just turned 16 and is the sole heir for her father the king of Eltaria. She also knows about the Tradition, which is the power of the fairy tales who steer people into the most, well, traditional paths. Her mother has died recently and she knows that according to Tradition, her father will now marry an evil woman who will hunt down Rosa. So, she runs away. But she’s chased by a murderous huntsman and her fragile plans to out the window. She manages to evade the huntsman but foolhardily promises to seven dwarves to do anything they want in exchange for a place to stay. But these dwarves are mean and evil: they keep Rosa as a slave and expect her to cook, clean, mend, and do everything else too, in exchange for a bit of food and a sleeping place in the kitchen. She’s close to desperation because they’ve chained her to the little, dirty cottage.

She also doesn’t know that the local fairy godmother Lilly already had a plan. She and the king realized the path that the Tradition was likely to take. So, they decide to side-step the Tradition’s demands: Lilly will impersonate an evil sorceress and wed the king. They hastily do that because war is near and the king is forced to go out and defend the kingdom. However, they haven’t told anything about this to Rosa. Lilly manages to find her with her magic mirror and devises a plan to get Rosa away from the dwarves. That plan involves making Rosa appear dead magically and then revive her magically.

However, unbeknownst to Lily or Rosa two princes are nearby. One of them is Siegfried, a Northern prince and a demi-god who grew up with his extended family of gods, goddesses and demi-deities. He’s a sell-sword hero trying to escape his doom: a maiden sleeping in the middle of flames who needs to be kissed awake. That maiden may also be his half-aunt or something… The other is prince Leopold who is more of a roughish prince who laughs and jokes often. He also gambles a lot.

This book mixes up Snow White with a little bit of Sleeping Beauty and a big dose of the Ring of the Nibelung. The beginning was more fun, though, the string of contests for the princes, which takes up most of the book, were fun, too, and riff on the traditional contests in fairy tales, of course.

Like all the other princesses in this series, Rose is quite level-headed. Her mother was a shepherdess and she taught her daughter a lot of useful skills. Lilly has been a godmother for 300 years so she’s also very capable. She has a close friendship with her loyal mirror servant Jimson. Siegfried was also great fun and so was Leopold and their friendship. Not the best of the series for me but quite enjoyable. I’d also love to see the further adventures of the main couple.

I’ve really enjoyed Gabra Zackman’s unhurried narration in this series and this book was no exception.

The next, and the last, book is Beauty and the Werewolf. I might track down the Snow Queen at some point, which is not available through Audible.

The first book in the Eternal sky fantasy trilogy.

Publication year: 2012
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 334+ an excerpt of the next book

This series is set in a Mongol-type culture. However, the book has a lot of traveling and introduces us to other cultures as well, Middle Eastern and a couple of others.

Temur is the grandson of the Great Khagan who conquered large parts of the world around the steppe. However, the Khagan has died and his sons and nephews are now fighting over who will rule. They’ve also brought each their own tribes to war. Temur followed her brother to war and at the start of the book, he is all that’s left of the mighty armies. Alone and severely wounded, he still manages to live and even find a loyal horse, the magnificent mare whom he names Bansh (dumpling).

He finds groups of fleeing civilians, mostly women and children, and managed to tangentially attach himself to one such group because he can guard and hunt a little. One of the young women, Edene, develops an interest to him and they become lovers. However, because Temur’s family is dead, she can’t marry him. After a few weeks, a group of ghosts attacks. They kill some before Edene realizes that they are vulnerable to salt. However, the ghosts capture Edene and carry her off. Temur vows to return her and heads to a city where he thinks he can get help, Qeshqer, which is beyond the Range of Ghosts mountain range.

In far Tsarepheth Samarkar, who was once a princess, makes ready to become a wizard. Because wizards aren’t allowed to procreate, she has been neutered but survived the process. She doesn’t know if she has magical talent and if not, she can become a scholar or something else. But when her magical talent comes to her, she has a lot to learn and she must investigate what is happening in Qeshqer. She and her teacher, who not a lot of about magic but doesn’t have magical talent herself, are sent through the mountain range to the city.

Meanwhile, the head of the cult of the Nameless is planning to further his plans and begin a war. He will use his own assassins, his giant rokh birds, and of course the ghosts to shape the world into what he wants it to be.

The world-building here is just wonderful. People are from somewhat different cultures, with different languages, and different values. The sky is different depending on the dominant culture of the land. Great!

The book has two kinds of magic. Samarkar uses one kind. Apparently she herself powers it. The main villain uses other people’s death and blood to use magic.

Temur is actually something of a cliché but a well-used one: young, an orphan, related to kings, a warrior with a quest. He’s a very capable man, loves horses and tends them before himself. The horses are also a big part of this book which was great.

Samarkar is somewhat different. She’s been trained in court, in the middle of intrigue and was sent as a bride when she was 15 (I think). Her marriage was not horrible but it wasn’t wonderful either, and ended when she asks her brother to kill her husband. She wants to be free of court and not anyone’s pawn. The only way to do that is to become a wizard. However, she still has to do as her masters bid her so she’s not free. She can change substances, conjure things (like make water from the moisture in the air), and she knows healing plant.

They are joined by other people later in the book. I found the tiger-like magical person to be the most interesting one of the lot. They are all very capable and work well together even after just a short time.

The book doesn’t have a conclusion. It just ends and with a twist that will no doubt influence the rest of the series.

The first novella in an urban fantasy series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2016
Format: ebook, kindle
Publisher: Chaos Fox
Page count: 100

Evelyn and Quin Hawke are hunters who keep the Prague’s supernatural beings in line. Evelyn is a strong, grim fighter and Quin is a charming negotiator who is fascinated with alchemy. He also acquires magical potions and powders which can negate magic or heal. Evelyn hates magic and trusts only a few people in addition to her twin Quin.

Now, Quin has disappeared and Evelyn is starting to first worry and then become frantic. She goes out to meet with people who might know something about her twin’s disappearance, but they just make her run dangerous errands. She’s really starting to lose her patience and she doesn’t like almost any of the people she’s forced to see.

This was a fun, quick read. I rather like action heroines like Evelyn. However, she made no effort to think about the situation, she just ran from one place to another hoping to find something relevant. It seems that Quin is the brains of the duo and without him Evelyn doesn’t really know what to do, except demand answers with her fists and knives. She’s angry and grim most of the time. But underneath, her emotions are churning. She’s rude to the people she meets and dislikes almost everyone. She’s also very worried about Quin and at one point she cries when she thinks about her former boyfriend.

The world-building was very interesting. I’ve never been to Prague but it was very nicely described. This world has witches, werewolves, necromancers, and various undead. It also has several kinds of fairies, including the sidhe and redcaps. Also, alchemists seem to play a big role.

Evelyn and Quin are orphans and one of the people Evelyn meets hints that their parents had some secret the twins never knew. But we don’t find out more than that. Other than that, the story can be read as stand-alone. It’s described as a prequel to the Infernal Hunt so it’s nice to see a complete story. Even though Evelyn and Quin are twins, they don’t seem to share any mystical bond which was another nice change from most twins in fantasy.

The third book in the Five Hundred Kingdoms fantasy romance series.

Publication year: 2007
Format: Audio
Running time: 10 and 36 minutes
Narrators: Gabra Zackman

Katya is the seventh daughter of the Sea King. The King is a sensible man and knows about the Tradition (the way that fairy tales want to impose their own way onto people and entire nations. So, he’s made sure that none of his children are idle or have cause to complain. All of them have their own careers and important duties according to their talents and interests. Katya, Ekaterina, is a warrior and a spy. She loves to travel to other places and meet new people. She also loves shoes and clothing which aren’t practical in the sea. She’s also very aware of her role as the first line of defense to her nation and family. So, she’s happy to spy.

Sasha is the youngest son of the king of Belrus. As a seventh son, the Tradition takes an exceptional interest in him. Sasha is the Fortunate Fool. His family treats him badly in front of others but amongst themselves they know the very important role Sasha has maintaining the stability of the kingdom. He travels around making sure that the Tradition doesn’t twist anyone to a too bad end but at the same time he knows that the lands can’t be too safe. It’s a balance.

Their romance isn’t dramatic. There are no jealous current or former boy/girlfriends, no misunderstandings that could be solved by one honest discussion, no mooning from afar because the other person can’t possibly be attracted to me or any such “romance” troupes. Nope, they just get together. Great! However, that doesn’t happen right away. Before meeting each other, Katya and Sasha have their own adventures first. Sasha is also trailed by unicorns which were very hilarious in this book.

Both Katya and Sasha are quite dutiful towards their families. If the plot had been different, that could have been a tragedy. But this is feel-good romance and adventure without tragedy. The lovers are very compatible and very cute together. This book immediately jumped into my top courtship romances list (which is very short, anyway). However, I’d love to see them working together now that the whole courtship thing is done.

The book is set in vaguely Russian nations which means that certain old witch makes an appearance. She’s the most terrifying aspect in the book. I thought this story was based on the Little Mermaid but happily, that was not the case. Instead, it does weave together several fairy tales from Japan, Russia, and Arabian Nights. That does feel a little too much at times. Otherwise, I loved this book!

The third book in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences steampunk series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Publisher: Ace
Page count: 374

Our colonial pepperpot and dashing archivist are heading to the US. During the airship voyage, a mysterious man tries to sabotage the ship but Agents Eliza Braun and Wellington Books manage to stop the sabotage. Otherwise, Eliza is unhappy with the voyage because Wellington kissed her previously and she’s expecting him to continue in the same way. Instead, Wellington labors with his steam powered motorcar.

In Norfolk, our intrepid agents are met by two agents from the US’ Office of the Supernatural and Metaphysical. Librarian Felicia Lovelace is on her first field assignment and she clearly doesn’t have any experience in spying, going so far as forgetting the others’ assumed names. On the other hand, her partner William “Will Bill” Wheatley is a very experienced field agent. The Ministry agents are supposed to just consult the Americans about why ocean and airships are disappearing. Soon, they uncover an ominous plot which seems to involve Thomas Edison and his inventions.

I really enjoyed the steampunk elements and the inventors, Edison and especially the others. Both new agents are also rather interesting characters and they play well against each other but their role in the story made me dislike them. I also rather enjoyed the Ministry’s own mad scientists Blackwell and Axlerod.

Also, the Ministry’s enemies are on the move. Almost every other chapter was an interlude focusing on a mysterious priest doing the House of Usher’s work or Sophia del Morte moving in on her newest target. I rather enjoyed these chapters as well. The story is fast-paced with lots of fight scenes.

Unfortunately for me, this book has not just one romantic triangle but two. That’s right: Bill/Eliza/Wellington and Eliza/Wellington/Felicity. Both American agents start to court a British agent amazingly quickly. Eliza and Wellington are unsure about each other’s feelings and Eliza is barely civil to Wellington. So, the story has lots of Eliza and Bill going off to do mayhem while Wellington and Felicia do scouting and other spy things. So, there’s plenty of time for Bill to make moves toward Eliza and likewise Felicity to Wellington. Unfortunately, it felt very contrived to me and went on for far too long.

Near the end, there are some revelations which will, no doubt, feature heavily in the next two books. It ends almost in a cliffhanger. I was thinking that I might not want to continue with this series but it seems that the jealousy and UST is now finally ended as major parts of the books, so I’m going to get the next two books, too.

11th book in the wonderful October Daye urban fantasy series.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 11 and 36 minutes
Narrators: Mary Robinette Kowal

Toby is getting married and her “sister” (death omen) May has organized a bachelorette party for her. In a karaoke bar. At first, Toby is horrified but after the Sea Witch has sung a Disney song (from the Little Mermaid) Toby starts to relax and even enjoy herself. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last.

Amandine is one of the very powerful Firstborn Fae. She’s also of opinion that changelings, the half-fae offspring of humans and fae, aren’t worth the space they take. She’s also Toby’s mother who wanted very different things for her than what Toby herself chose. Amandine has never forgiven Toby for that.

Now, she comes to Toby’s home and demands that Toby finds August. August is Amandine’s eldest child and a full-blooded fae. However, August have been lost for over a century without any clue as to where she has gone. Toby has no interest in obeying her mother and so, Amandine takes hostages: two people who are very dear to Toby and May. Now, Toby has no choice. She has to find her sister whom she’s never met, indeed, whose very existence she didn’t even know about until very recently. And she’s must do so as soon as possible: Amandine is cruel.

First, Toby needs someone related to August. That means Amandine’s full-blooded fae husband who is also one of Toby’s most hated enemies.

This was another very satisfying read. We get to know more about Simon and even about the Sea Witch. One of my favorite troupes is enemies forced to work together and here McGuire uses it beautifully. McGuire even finds a way to separate Toby from most of her allies who are, by now, admittedly quite powerful. It’s also heart-wrenching, especially the end.

Amandine is very arrogant. It seems that she’s forgotten, or suppressed, her time with Toby’s mortal father. I can’t really understand how she could have lived with him because now she expects everything to be of high-fae standards. Maybe she’s just crueler than usual. She’s also very powerful. Maybe more than Toby can handle.

Many of the large cast make an appearance and all of my favorites have a large part to play.

Once again, I want to reread the whole series. Maybe next year…

Quotes:
“I’ve been informed that you’re continuing to play at being a detective,” Amandine sniffed. “It seems an odd thing to spend your time in since we both know that you have no native talents in the area. But if you will persist, it seems you’re able to do me a boon.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I wish to hire you.”

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