Review: Mercedes Lackey – The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley

The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley
Mercedes Lackey

Annie’s got an eye to shoot and a brilliant husband who doesn’t care that his wife out shoots him! In her past she’s haunted by a hungry childhood in which she encountered a He-wolf who tried to take her magic for himself. After realising that magic is real, Annie has to make a decision – to train as a magician or go back to her regular life.

It’s obvious that Lackey has been paying attention to the media in terms of trying to get more obvious acknowledgement of poverty into the spotlight. There are hundreds of people who go hungry every day, including those who starve to death. I really like it when my favourite authors try to bring visibility to these issues.

However, this was a disappointing novel. It unfortunately followed the format of many of the most recent Elemental Masters by Lackey in that a lot of time was spent on the minutiae of life as a travelling circus performer and very little on the magic side of things. The handful of encounters with ‘baddies’ were unsatisfying and average. I also think I picked up a handful of plot holes.

Three stars from me. I’m unimpressed by this latest offering and I won’t be purchasing it for my shelf. Lackey, please go back to writing your original ideas rather than trying to take existing historical figures and trying to write magic into them.

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Beyond

Beyond
Mercedes Lackey

Duke Valdemar has always loved his land and his people. Forever watching out for the Emperor and his spies, Valdemar plans for the future – an escape to the West where the Empire does not yet reach. When he is summoned to the capital, it is up to him to deflect the Emperor’s interest from his home dutchy, and trust that the Plan can take place without him.

I liked Duke Valdemar and I didn’t have any objections to the second perspective of his sister-in-law. The opening pages make it seem as if Delia will have a big role to play, but as yet, she hasn’t achieved anything major during the novel. The Duke on the other hand has his nose poked in everywhere, and is devious to boot! His compassion and humility could read as trite, but his approach to life is always consistent.

This is the first Lackey novel I have read for a while. After reading the Collegium Chronicles, The Herald Spy and Family Spies (so bad, I didn’t even review it) I felt burnt out and disappointed. Lackey seemed to be pumping out weaker novels that didn’t follow her original pattern of duology/trilogy and were poorly edited, written and unnecessarily wordy. Thankfully, Beyond breaks that pattern in being a well-written first novel. I hope it is a trilogy and not a pentology.

The second book in the series is due to be published this year, and I await it with bated breath and the hope that it is equally as good as this one. We will see. 4 stars for this novel.

Review: Vanessa Len – Only a Monster

Only a Monster
Vanessa Len

Joan loves summers with her Gran and mom’s family, and this year she has a great job too – working in a tourist attraction with the attractive Nick. When Joan loses part of a day, she becomes aware of the family secret – she’s a time-traveler and monster to boot. But are monsters the bad guys in this story? Joan is going to have to work out what she wants most in the world.

Part of the struggle in this novel is that I wasn’t sure whose side I was on. Ok, it’s terrible that humans are losing part of their lives to monsters when they time travel. But also, how cool is that?? It could only be more awesome if they could take a regular human with them.

I like the way that the author addresses the paradoxes of time travel. It’s normal for people to go back to change the past, and it’s interesting to see how different monsters cope with the inability to change their past. Just like Joan, I feel certain that there must be a way around things!

Other reviewers have suggested that there is a love triangle enemies/friends sort of romance going on. I’d say that that cheapens the storyline for me. It’s not about the boys that Joan is interested in, it’s about the love she has for her family – both monster and other.

Let me give it to you straight – this is the first book in a series. Before you go and give up hope, I can tell you that the ending of this novel is entirely satisfactory, and didn’t leave me hanging at all. I am really looking forward to getting to reread it in preparation of the next novel in the planned trilogy. 5 stars from me.

Allen & Unwin | 1 February 2022 | AU$22.99 | paperback

Review: Juliet Marillier – A Song of Flight

A Song of Flight
Juliet Marillier

The Prince has gone missing, and the best candidates for the team to find him are Liobhan and Dau – but as they are romantically entangled they cannot both go on the search journey. Thus begins a novel of conflicted beliefs, truths and perspectives that culminates in the solution to the Crow Folk problem that emerged in A Dance with Fate.

I was disappointed in this novel. There were too many characters, and not enough depth for each one. I wanted to know more about Helga’s story. I wanted to know less about Galen and more about the “original three” characters of Brocc, Liobhan and Dau. Things seemed to take forever, and then I just wasn’t satisfied with the ending.

I didn’t need the Prince’s storyline. Brocc could have done it equally well. Also, why did Brocc suddenly decide to throw caution to the wind? I understand his love for Niamh clouds a lot of his judgement but is he truely so clueless as to his own powers? He seriously has no other options, and can’t walk in the Otherworld?

Liobhan, despite really being my favourate character in this trilogy, didn’t really show up. I didn’t see a completion of her character development. I definitely saw a deepening of the love she had for and of Dau, but that was mainly covered in The Harp of Kings. I also didn’t see much of a display of her warrior skills, which was something I enjoyed in earlier novels in the trilogy as it wasn’t an aspect of the first set of novels.

I will of course go back and reread these – they are Juliet Marillier afterall – but I believe that the Blackthorn and Grimm trilogy is superior to the Warrior Bard novels. 5 stars, but I was so sad about the ending 🙁 Oh! And I was generously sent two copies of this by Pan Macmillan, but neither arrived, so I bought it for myself as an early Christmas present.

Review: Alicia Jasinska – The Midnight Girls

The Midnight Girls
Alicia Jasinska

Marynka has never been good enough for her Jaga. She’s always been too short, too slow and altogether unimpressive. The thing that keeps her going is her rivalry with Zosia. They clash frequently, looking to steal the hearts of princes for power. Finally a prince appears that has a pure heart, and they ride together to go to the capital – both with only one thing on their mind. Instead the girls find themselves falling for each other and they can’t let the other win.

First, the book title. There is only one Midnight girl. There’s also a Morning girl and a Midday girl. Technically they are all ‘monsters’, but to me they were more minions of their Jagas (witches). There’s a whole lot of alliteration going on there. Then again look at that glorious saturated colour in the cover.

Ok, my major question about this novel is – where are all the Princes coming from? It seems like Wack-a-Mole, as soon as a new prince appears one of the girls is after his heart. If all the princes keep getting killed, where are the new princes coming from? I can imagine them getting married and having their parents abdicate the throne sooner so that they can become king and survive, but I don’t think that’s quite how this works.

The implication is that there were many servants before Zosia and Marynka – what happened to them? Did they all get eaten by the Jagas? I need a little more detail! What is going to happen next? The original Jagas are sisters, what happens when one dies? How long have they actually been living for? How did they get to be witches? I’d read a prequel of that!

Can I get a drool about the delicious Polish delicacies showcased here? Maybe you are thinking at this point that I hated the novel – I didn’t! I actually really enjoyed it and kept thinking about it when I had to put it down to life. I loved the way that both protagonists refused to admit they were in love, rather than the usual trope of the main characters falling in insta-love at first sight. There was the backstory that at least showed their previous relationship.

I’m so sorry. I would have given this 4 stars, except once again Jasinska disappoints with the ending. Lesbian protagonists in a whole where being queer isn’t even mentioned (because it’s so normal)? Sign me up. But I don’t think I’ll be reading more from this author – The Dark Tide has the same ending problem, so I can’t expect it to change.

Penguin Random House | 30th November 2021 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Juliet Marillier – Blackthorn & Grim series (Dreamer’s Pool, Tower of Thorns, Den of Wolves) (N)

Blackthorn & Grim series (Dreamer’s Pool, Tower of Thorns, Den of Wolves)

Juliet Marillier

Dreamer’s Pool

If you were given a second chance at life from an executioner, even if it meant putting aside the one thing you were surviving for and abiding by rules that go against the grain of who you are for seven years, would you take it? This is the choice given to Blackthorn. She chooses life, bitter and regretful with the only thought of getting through those seven years to come right back to the same place to fight for justice. In return for her freedom from an unjust imprisonment by her enemy, Blackthorn has promised the Fae noble Conmael to use her healers gifts for good, answer all calls for help she hears, and seek no vengence. It honestly seems a little random that this comes at the beginning and its clear that Blackthorn will struggle to adhere to the restrictions set.

Once she gets to a place where she will be safe from re-imprisonment and sets up shop so to speak with her cell-mate Grim who was the first to ask her help without words no less. She is presented with a puzzle in the form of the Prince Oran’s betrothed, Flidais, who has recently arrived and appears to be so completely different from the maiden the Oran courted.

Overall the book was an excellent read to me. I liked how there was a deep platonic support between Blackthorn and Grim. That while it was clear she was frustrated she was bound to help him from her promise, his presence gave her someone who understood that hellscape of a prison they both escaped. Together they unravel the mystery of Flidais and the connection to the Dreamer’s Pool. Throughout the book there are enough hints that you can figure out the mystery right along with Blackthorn and Grim and the PoV switches between them both allowing a good insight into how their thoughts work.

Tower of Thorns

The second entry in the Blackthorn & Grim series. Both Blackthorn and Grim have settled into their life at Winterfells and have the support and goodwill of Prince Oran and his wife Flidais.

Now its an outside mystery that comes calling and ends up taking Blackthorn and Grim along for the ride. A noblewoman from the west comes looking for help and while Blackthorn is reluctant, the appearance of a friend from her past sways her decision to help. Again this book has hints of a standard fairytale. You can see how the threads are progressing as the story develops but as ever there is a slight twist away from the expected that just makes for a satisfying ending all around.

This book gives us more details into both Blackthorn and Grim’s past before they ended up in that prison together. Those details are a heart-rending as you would expect for two people who basically deemed themselves irredeemable. Together they seem to slowly get through their pain together. But there were some instances where I just which someone would give one or the other a shake to wake them up to what they were doing. It’s so clear throughout that Blackthorn and Grim rely and support each other in equal partnership. There isn’t romance in the traditional expected way but that level of support just shows how deeply important they have become to each other that they really would be a little lost without the other there.

Den of Wolves

The final book of the Blackthorn and Grim series. Again they are drawn into solving a mystery but unlike the previous mystery this time they are left having to solve the different part of the mystery separately. It makes for additional strain on their relationship but in the end the distance makes it so very clear that they what they share together is more precious then they ever would have thought.

This time we have a young woman caught up in a mystery of her birth and a man who has been returned from the fae realm. Again it’s up to Blackthorn and Grim to solve the mystery. But this time they are having to do it separately. The most frustrating part of this as the reader is because we get both viewpoints we know the information that would be so useful for them to share if they could just a get a moment to indeed share it. It made for a much more thrilling read than I would expect. And it demonstrated that both Blackthorn and Grim are very clever in that they can get most of the way through a mystery on their own. But there were key details that they each needed from each other for the whole story to become clear.

Overall it was an excellent read and I loved the development between Blackthorn and Grim in how they supported each other and so clearly wanted each other. This was seen in the little moments rather than the big events. In how they left unintended messages for each other when they kept just missing the time they needed together. Those moments and their reflections on those moments were poignant. Because it happened alongside this mystery rather than separate from it. Often this is missed in fiction is that the big events are the focus and the small detail that build a relationship and let it grow aren’t shown at all. Not so here, the small details a woven in wonderfully.

 

This series was my second exposure to Juliet Mariller and they were all so very satisfying. I loved Tamora Pierce as a teenager and Marillier hits the same notes that I loved then as an adult. It was a complete pleasure to read the Blackthorn and Grim series. The slow development of their friendship and partnership was just enjoyable between their adventures and problem solving. More than that the solid depiction that just being there together helped them made me happy. Solid 5-stars and I will no doubt come back to these books in the future when I’m craving a read that plunges me into another world so thoroughly.

Review: Lyndall Clipstone – Lakesedge

Lakesedge
Lyndall Clipstone

Violetta holds a lot of secrets, ones that might be important for her survival. Violetta doesn’t care much about herself though – she only cares for her brother and protecting him from his dark shadows. She is limited though – the Lord of Lake’s Edge gets what he wants – and he wants her brother. Violetta tags along to see if she too can fight the Corruption.

Oh no! He’s feeding the Lake Monster! Oh no, he is the Monster. Oh well, we all know that the main characters in books like these will fall in love. In fact, we can predict pretty much the whole storyline despite them pretending that everything is a huge secret.

Isn’t the cover gorgeous? Ultimately it’s not the forest that is even relevant, or the lake. The interior of the house and the garden get the most attention, but maybe Violetta’s mind is the main attraction? I had such high hopes when I requested it, but it was hopeless. I felt like I’d wasted my time reading in.

Look, I’ve categorized it as teen fiction, only because there are some racy scenes there. My hunch is that the Lord of Under is going to be nursing a baby in 9 months time! Unfortunately the storyline is too simple and there isn’t enough character growth to truly belong to the teenage category – I think it could even be an advanced middle grade fiction except for the sexual elements. There’s also a hint of LGTBIQA* relationships, but these aren’t convincing or deep.

I got to the end of this novel, and I discovered that it’s only the first in a series! Honestly, it felt like half a book. There was a whole lot of telling rather than showing going on, and the ending wasn’t complete. I tried retelling this as a oral story at bedtime, and my audience was very unimpressed with the ending. I personally felt that I hated the characters enough that I would have been perfectly happy (even overjoyed!) that one or more of them died. 3 begrudging stars from me.

Pan Macmillan | 31 August 2021| AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Mercedes Lackey – Mage Storms Trilogy

Mage Storms Trilogy
Mercedes Lackey

“Karse and Valdemar have long been enemy kingdoms, until they are forced into an uneasy alliance to defend their lands from the armies of Eastern Empire, which is ruled by a monarch whose magical tactics may be beyond any sorcery known to the Western kingdoms. Forced to combat this dire foe, the Companions of Valdemar may, at last, have to reveal secrets which they have kept hidden for centuries… even from their beloved Heralds.

It had been a while since I read the later novels in Lackey’s (in)famous Valdemar world, so I picked this one up as an easy read. I actually didn’t even finish reading the Mage Winds series before doing so. I found it interesting that perhaps my distaste of non-Herald protagonists or my dislike of multiple perspectives in a novel set me up to view this one unfavorably.

While I enjoyed the novelty of having Karal’s perspective, I found it difficult to relate to him because he was truly a priestly type. I much preferred An’desha as being more relatable and showing some really decent character growth. Something I really didn’t ‘get’ was Florian’s role, and why Karal was convinced he was important (and why didn’t Florian just bond with him, huh?)

This is very slow as well, which doesn’t help. Every movement of Karal is detailed, from lighting candles through to taking notes. I needed a little more action! And the epilogue is a bit of a joke, given the HUGE leadup. Perhaps I found it a let-down compared to Brandon Sanderson’s novels, because there was very little chance that my favourite (or indeed any) characters would be killed off.

Obviously I’ve reread these, but probably with a span of at least 7 years between reads. Although that should qualify this series of novels as an automatic 5 stars, I think I’ll just give them 4. They just aren’t as good as my favourites such as the original trilogy (Talia, Arrows of the Queen) or Alberich/Skif (Exile’s Honor/Valor, Take a Thief). However, they are excellent compared to the most recent Foundation Chronicles!

Review: Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon – Owl Mage Trilogy

Owl Mage Trilogy
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon

Darian’s parents were lost to the forest some years ago, forcing Darian into apprenticeship with the local mage. Darian can’t see the point of magic – why would he lift a apple with his mind when he can do it with his hands? However, after his village is invaded, he accidentally flees into Hawkbrother territory – this sets him on a path where magic might be important.

These books, particularly the first one, require a suspension of disbelief. It’s so unlikely that Justin would suddenly want to change the way he deals with Darian in the first book – just before we get a sudden jolt of energy into the plot. Many of the outcomes for Darian also don’t make sense given that he’s just a man and doesn’t seem to actually have that much useful to offer society (apart from being a politician).

Man, these books are sllooooowww. I remembered from the last time that I read them that I largely skim read the first novel because it was very, very slow. The climax comes very late in the book (which would be fine) but the main character is largely self-absorbed and honestly quite irritating and unlikely.

The first novel is ok, pretty good really, but then the second book isn’t memorable at all. I honestly can’t remember it at all. The best of the three is the the finale – but I still had problems with it. Looking at the different cultures with a critical eye, I found the treatment of the Northern Barbarians to be frankly insulting. It’s implied that the Hawkbrothers are just so much smarter and well prepared by the tribes – even though as far as I can tell they are all human. There’s always going to be a mix of ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ people, but that’s not what it seems like at all.

I’ve obviously reread these, so that’s kinda an automatic 5 stars, but I wouldn’t recommend these for someone just starting out on discovering Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. I wouldn’t even let you read them as a capping to the very successful Valdemar series. Maybe just toss them in for a light read if you want to be inside a fictional and unlikely teenager’s head.

Review: Guillermo del Toro, Cornelia Funke – Pan’s Labyrinth (K)

Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

 

A year after her father’s death, Ofelia and her mother move in with her new Stepfather. The dense forest surrounding her new home provides a perfect hiding place, both for the resistance fighters her stepfather is trying to defeat, and fairies, Fauns, and a magnificent labyrinth.

This was a beautiful book. One of this book’s best features was its ability to inscribe wonder in my heart with the fantasy element, where it captured both the beauty and the danger of magic. I find there’s a big difference between fantasy which is simply ‘there are fairies and magic’ and the atmosphere and aura that a well-written fantasy novel can provide, and this book provided that perfectly. Part of the reason I think this is done so well was that the main character in the story is a child. This is the first time reading a book where the main character is significantly younger than I am, but I found that, far from being frustrated by annoying childlike decisions, the childlike innocence added to the atmosphere of the book.

The juxtaposition between the cruelty of Ofelia’s stepfather and the wonder of her secret world was outstanding. Both aspects of the book entranced me, and I never found myself trying to get through one part faster to move on to a more interesting story.

The worldbuilding of this book was beautifully done. The characters were vibrant and 3-dimensional, and the book pulled me in and refused to let me go until the very last page. I would definitely recommend this book, with a note of warning that there are some pretty extreme descriptions of violence, so it would not be ideal for younger readers.