Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1)

Seven Blades

Once in awhile I read a book that I identify with so deeply and so completely that I wish I could live within the pages and be the main character. The feelings of regret and suffering, of revenge and perseverance just emanate from the pages and make me drool and moan with pleasure like the smell of freshly baked bread or maybe Calvin Klein Infinity cologne (I’m SO CLASSY). I live vicariously through the main character and find satisfaction in ways I could never find in real life. *slaps faces of enemies with a pure, white glove*

Salazanca a.k.a. Sal the Cacophony is brash, ferocious, and a woman on a mission. She has made a deal with the spirit of her gun (named the Cacophony) that she would kill everyone on her list, everyone who attempted to sacrifice her to meet their own magical ends. Her own history with the individuals on her list is slowly revealed as she tells her story to her captors, Revolutionaries who seek to upend the Imperium and its Empress in favor of a human-run government.

The political backdrop to the story is just as compelling as Sal’s own vendetta. The Imperium has always had mages as Emperors and Empresses. The Revolution is made up of “nuls” – humans with no magical abilities, who seek to make their own government where mages are not in control. In the middle are mages gone Vagrant, mad that the Empress has given birth to one heir, a nul who will one day become emperor. They refuse to support a nul emperor after giving everything to set up and support the current Imperium, so they are fighting to bring about their own future separate from the Imperium and the Revolution.

It’s important to note that this is not your typical revenge story. Along the way it’s made apparent that Sal has her own choices to atone for, and has made some shady deals that she may not walk away from in pursuit of her goals. The realness with which Sykes presents this anti-heroine is so welcome and refreshing that I am already ready to accept her past if it means I get to follow her into the future. She is an unreliable narrator, and she leaves details out of her story as she tells it to her executioner because she sees them as unnecessary, but you will discover that she’s lying by omission, and there are some very disturbing actions she’s taken/taking that we only hear a whisper of before the story ends, leaving you begging for more.

It would be difficult for me to express to you how much I loved this book. When I initially opened it on my Kindle (I received it for free as the winner of a Goodreads giveaway) it said it would take me 12 hours to read it. This was daunting, but from the very first page I was in love with Sal the Cacophony and wanted nothing more than to see her succeed and get revenge on those who had wronged her. I gave what little mental energy I had left over in the past 3 weeks to moving forward inch by inch in the 30 minutes before I fell asleep each night, and every moment was worth it.

My only criticism? I hate the cover art.

You absolutely must read this book. While I wait for the next installment to this series, I’ll be seeking out the rest of Sam Sykes’ works. If his writing is this amazing, I cannot miss out on anything else written by him up to this point. GO GET IT QUICK WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air #2)

The Cruel Prince (The Folk of the Air #1)

It had been quite a while since I had read The Cruel Prince, but Holly Black did an excellent job of summarizing the main points in her first few chapters of The Wicked King. There was an absolute bloodbath at the end of the last book where many factions made a play for the throne. Jude Duarte, the mortal ward of the Grand General Madoc outsmarted them all by having her foster brother Oak, revealed to be of royal blood, place the blood crown on Cardan’s head, making him High King of Elfhame. Oak is sent away to the mortal world until he comes of age, when Cardan has agreed to abdicate and place the crown on Oak’s head instead.

The Wicked King picks up with Jude playing puppeteer to Cardan’s rule, trying to make everything run smoothly after the attempts on the throne and his agreement to allow her to command him for a year and a day. The Undersea and its queen begin to make an attempt to overthrow the land using Cardan’s only living brother Baeliken, and that sets up this next stage in our journey.

One of the main enjoyments that I get from these books is that we are always operating at a medium level of danger. As we follow Jude through Elfhame the very plants can poison her, any agreement she makes can come back to bite her, and even accepting a gift from someone can place her in their service or at their bidding. She has to be on her guard all the time, and as you read this book you will find that you are holding your breath while you wait for the next danger to jump out of the bushes.

I love how Jude becomes a part of Elfhame. She thinks she has it all figured out. She’s a great fighter, strategist, and bargainer. The Wicked King shows us a Jude that has almost lost all connection with her humanity and uses her knowledge and power as a kind of armor/cloak that she thinks makes her belong. Despite all her scheming though, her humanity cannot be denied, and she must remember that part of herself or be forced to by others who may or may not care for her. (Honestly I’m still confused about who actually has her best interests at heart and whether she’s always been alone, pinging around Elfhame like a lonely pinball.)

I still am not sure if Cardan truly cares for Jude. I don’t know if Cardan is an idiot or a genius. I’m not sure if he wants to be High King or if he actually is going along with Jude’s plan for Oak to become king. Is he a trickster of the highest order or is he flying by the seat of his elven pants? I DON’T KNOW AND IT’S KILLING ME NOT TO KNOW. I hated him in the first book and now I can’t decide if I love him or hate him.

Holly Black is the most devious and wonderful author I think I have ever encountered. The world is lush and complex, the magic is terrifying and tricky, and the people are not to be trusted. You’ll want to trust, you’ll want to believe, but that’s what makes you mortal. So be careful when you venture into this series, because it’s easy to be trapped and in trouble in Elfhame. After this second book my heart is in trouble, because I’m not sure it can survive until the next book arrives.

If you enjoy magic, elves, intrigue, dangerous bargains, and roller coaster ride that comes with the pursuit of power, you will love this series. Go get you some.

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The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)

The Belles (The Belles #1)

The Everlasting Rose was provided to me as a free eARC by Disney Book Group and Freeform Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The Everlasting Rose will be released March 5, 2019.

Second books often find themselves in a slump. I’ve learned that this is because the first book is often written without a deadline, put through multiple drafts, and given the chance to become perfect. Second books in a series tend to be under a deadline and under the scrutiny of many, which explains why they often feel bland, rushed, and a bridge to something better.

Not so with The Everlasting Rose.

Camille has escaped the palace and is on the run with the intention of finding the Princess Charlotte and foiling Princess Sophia’s plans to become queen. She runs into the rebel force of Iron Ladies who have chosen to live without beauty treatments and want to help the kingdom move away from them as well. They agree to help Camille and she makes arrangements to crash the coronation and bring Charlotte back to take her rightful place.

This book was everything The Belles wasn’t. People died, there were very real consequences, you can feel that the kingdom is under a cruel (yet beautiful) dictatorship. Camille has to explore what matters most to her so that she can make the right choices and keep her eyes on the top priority, which moves from her new love for Remy, keeping her Belle sisters safe, and murdering the ever-loving daylights out of Sophia. Every time her arcana woke up and she started to choke the life out of someone because she was so angry my vengeful heart just purred (although RIP to a sweet bebe no spoilers).

I enjoyed the read from start to finish. There aren’t a whole lot of surprises, you’re basically getting what you would expect even in the “twists,” but the story is told so well that you won’t mind the predictability. I was unable to unearth whether or not there will be a third book or if this was simply a duology, but The Everlasting Rose ties up nicely at the end while leaving just a few threads out there that another book could build on. If that next book should materialize I think I will be there to read it.

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The Perfect Assassin (The Chronicles of Ghadid #1)

The Perfect Assassin was provided to me as a free digital advance copy by Tor Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review. The Perfect Assassin will be available for purchase on March 19, 2019 but you can also preorder anytime.

When I started reading The Perfect Assassin I was reminded of a trilogy of books that is one of my absolute favorites. The Rebel of the Sands trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton introduced me to dangerous shapeshifters and legendary djinn, all of which must be decrypted and understood before goals could be reached. Another such series is the An Ember in the Ashes line by Sabaa Tahir. Through both of these series I have discovered a love of the stories and mythology from the middle east and desert realms.

This particular series begins with the final entrance exam for a school of assassins. We follow the main character Amastan as he sweats through his worst fears and completes a physically strenuous trial to join all his classmates as freshly minted assassins in the city of Ghalid. The problem is that the drum chiefs that run all the neighborhoods put an end to assassin’s contracts a long time ago, with no indication they will be issued again anytime soon. So the young assassins are told to bide their time and stay sharp in case contracts start up again.

One of the rules of being an assassin is that when they kill they have to do it so the body will be easily discovered, because if they aren’t then the special priests who quiet jaani (souls?) won’t be able to get there in time and the jaani becomes an angry ghost that floats around trying to possess people. These jaani start showing up and attacking Amastan, and he and his assassin cousins start discovering bodies on the rooftops, meaning that there are more and more unquieted jaani preying on the people in Ghadid. It’s up to Amastan and his friends to uncover the murderer and restore peace to Ghadid.

My only complaint was that the ending doesn’t make me salivate for the next installation in the series (chronicles). Everything is nicely tied up and everyone seems to be where they should be. Usually when I finish the first book of a series I am on Twitter demanding the next one post haste, but here it felt more like a standalone tome.

Balancing out this complaint is my delight in the normalcy with which the sexuality of Amastan is presented. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I want more books where LGBTQIA+ individuals are just a part of the world. Their presence is normal, not a red flag or something to be overcome or something they have to hide or convince others of. Just normal. I love this in a representation book. Thanks to K.A. Doore for making this a part of her writing.

Oh my goodness do I apparently love me some desert mysticism and stabby murder. I couldn’t stop reading, I had to know what happened next. Even though most of the elements were fantasy, this book is a mystery/thriller in its own right too. I strongly recommend giving this one a go.

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The Belles (Belles #1)

I bought this book a year ago with the generous funds I received on Patreon. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then. I’ve tried to start it several times, it’s popped onto my ‘currently reading’ list on Goodreads a few times, but then other books always took precedence either due to release date or being on hold at the library. But recently I was granted an advanced copy of its sequel, The Everlasting Rose, via NetGalley and since The Everlasting Rose is releasing on March 5th its the perfect time to read The Belles.

Despite it being a kind of dystopian fantasy novel, the setting and storyline were almost completely brand new to me. The magic is similar to the Corporalki Grisha in Leigh Bardugo’s universe, but there are only six girls in the current generation of Belles who can do what’s necessary to bring beauty and color to the kingdom of Orleans. They perform for the royal family at the Carnaval of Beauty and then the queen picks the Favorite, who will be the Belle of the palace. The rest of the Belles are places at teahouses around the islands of the kingdom.

The narrator Camille wants to be the favorite, but she is reckless in her performance and her sister Amber is picked over her. But something disastrous happens at the palace and Amber is sent away, at which point the queen summons Camille to take her place. Once we get a glimpse in the palace, especially Princess Sophia, it’s obvious that something really sinister is brewing under the surface, and Camille is just too naive to pick up on it. Things become darker and darker until Sophia’s true plan is revealed, which threatens everything that the Belles believe and stand for.

The racial elements being laid out in this novel are obvious. Clayton presents the pursuit of beauty in a sugar coated, shiny way, but you’ll find yourself asking whether this system is sustainable in the long term, especially with the number of Belles dwindling. Finding connections between the novel’s description of Belle-products and procedures to African-American beauty products and procedures is something you should be able to do without much prompting. I imagine any young black person would read this book and feel an immediate connection to the story.

My only real criticism is that while the descriptions of this new world begin as lush and gorgeous, as the story moves forward they become repetitive and unclear. The number of times we hear that “belle-roses” are on display is legion, and belle-buns, belle-products, and on and on. I feel like while some scenes were easy to imagine, many others left too much to my own imagination when this world was new and needed to be built more for me to envision what it looked like.

It was easiest for me to compare this book to Marie Lu’s Legend series. We see a main character who is a prodigy in her field, expects to be a part of the system, and works hard to qualify to be a leader in that system, only to inevitably see the darkness that bolsters the system and therefore become a rebel against it. While this plot fell apart for me when I moved on from Legend to Lu’s second book Prodigy, I am hopeful that Clayton’s The Everlasting Rose (out 3/5/19) will keep my interest piqued. I am very curious about how this re-Belle-ion will work out, especially given how the entire population requires beautification and is almost addicted to the process.

I have a DRC of The Everlasting Rose, and will have that review out to you shortly. As for The Belles, it is an interesting concept and worth reading and exploring if only for a fresh take on fantasy. I enjoyed and finished it. Give it a try.

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Two Dark Reigns (TDC #3)

Three Dark Crowns (#1)

One Dark Throne (#2)

Book 3 of the Three Dark Crowns series has us in three different locations with one central purpose driving everyone: Katherine is wrong for the throne and must be dealt with.

Mirabella and Arsinoe live with Billy, Arsinoe’s suitor, at his estate with his mother and two sisters. None of them know that his father has been killed, and they are all just waiting for him to return. His mom is pushing women on him to marry, but he’s still devoted to Arsinoe. Problem is that Arsinoe has started having strange dreams about the last great Blue Queen (a queen that is a fourth born automatically becomes a Blue Queen, and her other three sisters are killed) and is being shown how the prison mist they fought so hard to escape came to be, and why they must return to the island.

Jules has gone to Bastian City to learn to use her war gift (which when paired with her naturalist gift makes her “legion cursed”) but discovers that the warriors there plan to set her up as a replacement queen to end the triplet queen tradition and forge a new path forward for the island. She does not like this, but apparently rumors are being spread and events are being set in motion to turn the people against Katherine and towards Jules.

Katherine is trying to set up her new Black Council and begin her rule, but dead bodies of regular people that have been killed by the mist that surrounds the island keep washing up on shore, some decayed for longer than they were ever out at sea, implying that the mist isn’t just dangerous, that it might warp time as well. The people are whispering about her Undead Queen nickname, saying she has brought the curse of the mist upon them. When these whispers are added to the Legion Queen rumors spreading from Bastian City, Katherine finds herself dealing with a fair amount of unrest in Volroy as well as unrest from the multitude of dead queen spirits that reside within her own self.

This shit takes so long. I shouldn’t be 66% into book fucking three of this series wondering (1) what the fuck is going on, (2) WHY the fuck are things happening, and (3) what is the point of what is happening?

I loved the first two books, even if the second one was a little flat. This third book feels like someone put ideas on darts and threw them at the wall to see what stuck. There is no tension, no build up, and nothing has any meaningful connection to the mythology of this universe. This third book left me confused and unmoored instead of craving the conclusion. I finished it, but I won’t be reading the fourth.

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King of Scars

 

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Shadow and Bone
Siege and Storm
Ruin and Rising

Six of Crows
Crooked Kingdom

Language of Thorns

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I’m not sure how to make this review non-spoilery but I am going to try. I think it’s fair to say that there might be spoilers from the above books that I’ve already read and reviewed, so if you haven’t read those and you care about remaining unspoiled, maybe go read them first. I will not spoil THIS particular book though.

King of Scars is told through several viewpoints, but from two main locations: Fierda and Ravka. Nina is with a small team of Grisha attempting to infiltrate Fierda and save Grisha who would be willing to join the Second Army and help defend Ravka. She’s also there to return Matthais to the ground after his death in Ketterdam. Nicolai and Zoya along with the Grisha Triumverate are in Ravka building a fleet of submarines for Kerch to make money for the treasury while trying to handle the weird black demon thing that takes over Nicolai’s body and flies him around the countryside.

One of the things I love about Bardugo’s writing is her ability to write political intricacies into the plot. Ravka is facing war from the north and from the south, their financial situation is dire and they are in debt to Kerch (which they are hoping to supplement with the submarines) and they need the support of Novyi Zem to keep their naval defenses strong. In addition to all of the military and financial woes, other men are claiming they are the true Lantsov heir and have been trying to usurp Nicolai’s reign. It’s an understatement that they are in a bit of a pickle.

I enjoyed Nicolai and Zoya’s story more than Nina’s, and for a while there I was actually quite bored with Nina’s mission, her story feeling as gray and barren as the Fierdan tundra. I suppose this was to be expected. A lot of her and her team’s story was waiting, hiding, and being in disguise. If they were real people I’m sure they would have been bored (and cold and hungry) too.

Nicolai and Zoya have to deal with a growing group of people that claim to be loyal to the Starless Saint – The Darkling from the Grisha trilogy with Alina Starkov. They venture out to track ‘miracles’ that see to be popping up and radiating out from the spot on the Unsea where the Darkling fell and died. When they arrive on the Unsea they find a giant black, shiny disc in the sand. When they move toward it they are sucked into an alternate universe, leaving the Grisha Triumverate to tailor a solider and guard at the palace to look like Nicolai and manage a major diplomatic gathering in his stead.

It’s…a lot.

I cried real, gasping sobs in the first part of the book. Nicolai always has me laughing. And in Zoya I finally found a member of this Grishaverse that I could identify with. She’s everything I feel there on the page, walking around furious with everyone, with no fucks to give, and being a badass Grisha general. I love her. She’s one of my favorite characters now. I wish I could transport myself into the world of these books and live there, if only to help these characters that I have come to love.

I trust Leigh Bardugo 100%, and so I preordered this book. Other books I would put on hold at the library (if they were even available at all). Plus the hardcover jacket and book are absolutely gorgeous. I can’t wait to find out what happens to the whole Ravkan team in the second installment of the duology.

If you haven’t read Bardugo’s work by now I just don’t know what I have to say to get you to start. Her world is amazing and real. Her characters are diverse, interesting, and complex. The magic system is elemental and bone deep. It’s necessary reading for any fantasy lover. So go do it already.

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