Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Crown of the Sundered Empire by J. C. Kang – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

I approach the review of this one with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoyed much of the story (after a fashion), loved the characters and found several of the plot threads nothing short of riveting. On the other, dozens of typos pulled me out of the action very often, much to my annoyance.  Further, I admit to some confusion on account of the blurb of this novel only concentrating on a third, at most, of the story it tells. The much more significant conflict, which embroiders four out of the five point-of-view characters of Crown is described by the succinct sentence, “A coming war,” and perhaps by the following line “a broken land where conquerors dream of empires”.

J. C. Kang’s world is multifaceted. History and mythology are one and the same, with fragments of once-corporeal gods empowering the mortal might of broken and aspirant empires both. There’s enough here to be daunting to a new reader to the world of Tivara – at times, I felt lost, uncertain of which of the characters were being introduced for the first time and which of them had starring or supporting roles in Kang’s previous works.

I was entranced by Tomas’ story, the point of view which deals with the eponymous Crown of the Sundered Empire and with an invasion by the disgusting Bovyans, a race of large, militaristic males who procreate by forcing themselves on the women of those territories they subjugate through force. Tomas’ sharp wit is easy to grow fond of, and he goes through a dark hero’s journey, which sees him turn far more ruthless, at a very steep price. Only two instances come to mind as somewhat “off” in terms of his PoV sections, one of them when a soldier intent on not trusting the boy has a change of heart after stating very clearly he wouldn’t trust Tomas; the other involves a mid-wife in his village, of whom Tomas only ever thinks of as “the midwife.” This last one feels bizarrely archetypal and not at all like everyone in this tiny fishing and diving village has intimate knowledge of each other.

Our other characters, princes, princesses, bastards and a half-elf assassin, deal with the fallout of  Crown Prince Elrayn’s attempt to unite two broken kingdoms in order to further his own power. At its best, this part of the novel reminded me of the plots of some Shakesperean comedies, with men and women desperate to get out of arranged marriages, falling in love with exactly whom they shouldn’t and creating plenty of amusing conflict. At its worst, however, I just didn’t buy into the casual stupidity the Crown Prince exhibited in the midst of crisis – there’s incompetence, there’s short-sightedness and then there is whatever Elrayn suffers from. His early successes came across as no more than a stroke of luck, and his later failings appeared to me too artificial. Thankfully, he’s not one of the PoV characters – rather, the engine by which most of them come into the conflict.

I was familiar with the high-elf, Jie, from a short novella by the name of “Thorn of the Night Blossoms” and I enjoyed seeing her all grown-up and experienced but also struggling between duty and love. Her affair with Elrayn’s brother, Aryn, was a source of amusement and some well-appreciated tension, which ultimately didn’t come up to the sort of resolution I would’ve liked.

Alwrynn, royal bastard and brother to Elrayn and Aryn, whose overwhelming use of naval terms chafed during several instances, was otherwise an entertaining protagonist, skilled at sea but almost as helpless on land as in the world of politics. His connection with Alaena, the third PoV character and one of the princelings Elrayn attempts to marry into his family, is a source of plenty of tension that pays off really well towards the end of the story.

The action was fantastic, nothing less than what I’ve come to expect from Kang, based on my limited experience with his work.

Crown of the Sundered Empire is an intriguing read with plenty of positive elements. My enjoyment of it was mired by the typos and the extent to which I felt like a newcomer who lacked basic insight into some of the characters’ pasts and world events. Tomas’s story might’ve been a short novel of its own – and I would argue, it would’ve been a finer entry-point to the world for new readers such as myself. As it is, I liked J. C. Kang’s novel well enough, even with the issues I had, which is why I’m giving it 3/5 stars. I feel obliged to say that I’m in the minority – most of the readers who have scored this book over on Goodreads have given it either 4 or 5 stars. What didn’t work for me might very well work for you.

The Devil's Apprentice by Kenneth B. Andersen – Book Review (Ultimate Blog Tour)

I make a game of the collection of Hells.

Stay with me, I’ll explain. Ever since I was but a young ‘un, I’ve been fascinated by the numerous depictions of the underworld in its myriad religious and…not quite, forms. You give me a TV series like The Good Place, and I’ll have fifteen essays’ worth of ideas about the not-quite-good-at-all place. You give me a game like Afterparty, and I’ll gush for ten minutes, at the bare minimum, about how cool its clock-in/clock-out, exhausted-torturer-demons-in-need-of-a-drink premise is. You give me Dante’s Inferno, and I might really get into Italian for four weeks and memorise a bunch of lines at the age of thirteen, which no non-Italian thirteen year old should know.

And don’t even get me started on Disney’s Hercules.

Disney Movie GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

When my bud Dave of @TheWriteReads fame offered me a part in this Ultimate Blog Tour(TM, prob’ly), I was instantly hooked. Instantaneously. Momentarily. Without delay, I said to him, I told Dave, “Dave, I’m hooked!” Then I promptly deleted that email, it sounds way too unprofessional, don’t it, and I says to him, I sez, “Sure, I’m in.”

Because I’m cool like that.

So how’s this novel? How the HELL is it?

I quite enjoyed it. This is the story of Philip, or as I like to call him “Filip spelled with an uneccessary Ph-” but that’s only my personal lifetime of grievances being aired out again. Where was I?

Ah, yes.

Philip is a good boy, a really good boy, who accidentally gets sent to Hell to become the Devil’s heir. The Devil, Lucifer, is dying and desperately in need of a successor, but there’s been a mistake and Philip is the wrong boy. Philip is terrible at being bad, but Lucifer has no other choice than to begin the difficult task of training him in the ways of evil. Philip gets both friends and enemies in this odd, gloomy underworld—but who can he trust, when he discovers an evil-minded plot against the dark throne?

I enjoyed my time with The Devil’s Apprentice, partly because of the author’s iteration of Hell and partly because Philip and the supporting cast were enjoyable to read about. 12 year old Philip’s struggle to get better at being bad is as hilarious as my attempts at being social during the same age – although he really hits his stride in a matter of days, where I hit mine in…four, five years? What drives Philip to evil? A smitter of jealousy, a sprinkling of envy and — oh yes — a generous helping of manipulation! But fear not, for kids like that can’t do evil right, not for long. I mean, of course, kids whose names start with ‘Ph-‘ and not ‘F-‘, the poor wee buggers. Thank the celestials that he’s got a few demonic influences like Satina, a young temptress devil(ess?) who aids the recently deceased Lucifer-to-be in finding his evil footing. Is there a better thing to learn to lie for than for love?

There were some red herrings, a few mysteries that came to a squeaky clean resolution, and a hero’s journey that is as Campbellian as they come.

While not my usual cup of tea, I appreciate this novel for several reasons, the biggest of which has to do with the fact that it’s very much a child-friendly fantasy book, which has plenty to say about good and evil. The carmic balance doled out in Hell is what I was most fond of — the faces of those who stepped on others in life are used as pavement for the denizens of the underworld, those who have killed themselves spend eternity digging graves and being buried in them AND grave diggers dig those out. On and on goes this hellish torment, tinged with irony. Far from the most original rendition I’ve come across in my time as the Hells’ most avid connosieur but I liked it nonetheless.

Hell, I might read this one to my kids, as soon as they begin to form in their infernal, as of yet unknown, mother’s womb.

My score for this one is a 7.5 out of 10, which I’ll bump to 4/5 stars on Goodreads, since I (nearly) always round up and not down, especially when I enjoy my time with a book, as I did with The Devil’s Apprentice. I might even pick up the next volume, if given half the chance!

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren – Book Review

Originally posted over at booknest.eu! The review below is an annotated version.

Published by: Scott Warren (Self-Published)
Genre: Fantasy (Economic Adventure!)
Pages: 255
Format: e-book
Review/Purchased Copy: Provided through NetGalley, in return for an honest review.

Sailor Kestern is a fine banker in an unenviable position. His former client, a nobleman by the name of Brackwaldt, has it out for him and that’s made business difficult. So difficult in fact, Sailor’s prospects in the capital of Borreos are looking increasingly forlorn. Gates are shut in his face, trade routes are blocked for him, human shipmasters refuse to work with businesses that so much as associate themselves with the Kestern banking house.

Even with this one major issue at hand, it’s an exciting time to be a financier and Sailor isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. The Royal Mint is driving a major initiative on behalf of the Crown, introducing paper currency and hammering it into the economy with all the strength an institution has in wielding hardcore monetary policy. Adam Smith’s invisible hand?  Pfft, please, Borreos has one Darrez Issa, financier extraordinaire, who looks over the interests of the Crown with an eye sharp enough to make even an eagle jealous. A man like Sailor has a healthy dose of awe for the queen’s financial advisor, and the good sense to stay away from him after the last time the two crossed paths.

As a reader with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I was the perfect audience for The Dragon’s Banker. The economics made sense and Warren seems to have a good grasp of how demand and supply work; he’s thought through all sorts of issues that the reader could’ve picked up on and works them in the story seamlessly and just at the right time. Some of Sailor’s most minor actions, at first, see great pay-off by the end of this 255-page read and in ways I didn’t necessarily expect.

One aspect of this novel won me over, and it’s a specific reading of the novel that I will now expand on:

At one level of The Dragon’s Banker, there’s a critique of capitalism’s ceaseless chase of profit maximization. Though avaricious, Sailor never has the amassing of riches as his personal goal. For him, money is most valuable for what it can do for people. In that way, what could’ve been a cynical take on banking is instead a subversive work of fantasy well worth the read for that angle alone.

Sailor Kestern is a humanist – and that, I think, is the greatest triumph of The Dragon’s Banker. This banker, the only one worthy of representing the interests of the most avaricious creature of all, the dragon, ultimately differs from his cold-blooded patron in the following way – money isn’t an end goal for him. It is merely a tool.

To me, The Dragon’s Banker is a 4.5/5 star read. I enjoyed it immensely, partially because of my background, partially because of my reading of it as a critique on some of the woes of capitalism. It’s my firm belief that you’ll find plenty to love within these pages.

As for me, I am curious to see what else Scott Warren is capable of.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with Haruki Murakami’s books over these last few months. Kafka on the Shore in May, Norwegian Wood in September and just this last week, What I Talk About when I talk About Running. The last is freshest in my mind but I’ll contain myself and instead turn to Norwegian Wood, the title inspired by the Beatles song of the same name. It also happens to be the work that really shot Haruki Murakami to fame first in Japan and later internationally.

Norwegian Wood is a love story and it’s about overcoming grief, and it’s about those first coming of age years after you leave home, quite uncertain about what comes next, the direction you’re supposed to take as the world begins to mold and pressure you in ways outside of your control. It’s easy to lose yourself — something that main character Watanabe manages at one point in this novel.

Let’s look at it as a love story first, shall we? It’s sweet and sexy and tragic enough that you might just tear up by the end of it. Bittersweet but hopeful – that’s how I’d describe it in three words, were I forced to do so.

As a side-note, I would ride on the bus, listening to the audiobook more than once, when a ridiculous, steamy sex scene started up. You know, these are the moments when you’re not quite certain whether you should be grinning or blushing or pressing ‘Pause’. Say one thing about that, say it was funny.

What about dealing with grief?

Toru Watanabe, the protagonist from whose PoV the novel is told, loses his best friend Kizuki. Kizuki kills himself on his 17th birthday and this marks Watanabe for life — as it would most of us. Another, Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, is as affected by his suicide as Watanabe; perhaps more. Years later, Naoko and Watanabe reconnect and fall for each other but Kizuki’s shadow never fully clears between the two. Unable to cope, Naoko eventually ends up in a sanatorium, doing her finest to piece herself back together.

Some of the characters are unforgettable. Maybe not their names – I forget names easy enough – but the personalities will stay with me. Nagasawa is Watanabe’s exact opposite — driven and ambitious, and far more cynical than our protagonist, Nagasawa is in many ways Toru’s foil. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the two become close friends…although Watanabe never allows Nagasawa into his heart the way he let Kizuki in.

I was partial to Midori, an older woman in the same sanatorium as Naoko. As Nagasawa is to Watanabe, Midori is a foil to Naoko — though burdened by her own demons (her story is perhaps the highlight of Norwegian Wood for me) Midori has strength, the presence of character necessary to survive and perhaps overcome all that placed her in the sanatorium. Midori’s a guitar player, a concert pianist and totally the coolest, yo! Very flirty, too, which gives rise to some hilarious exchanges between her, Watanabe and Naoko, who also happens to be her roommate and dear friend.

This isn’t the best Murakami book I’ve read, nor is it my favourite. I’d live these honours to Kafka on the Shore and Dance, Dance, Dance, respectively. But it has a certain appeal to those who know a little of loss and pain and love, and I am certain some of you will be well-served by reading it.

I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.

The opening paragraph of Norwegian Wood.

My score for this novel is 4 stars. There’s plenty you can get out of it — but it’s not a book for everyone. Stay away if you can’t handle suicide and depression in your fiction – leave me a comment down below with your preferences, and I’ll point you to another one of Murakami’s novels, instead. If you’ve read any of his previous novels, there’s a chance this one’ll surprise you — it lacks many of the eery, magical realism and even surrealism that’s typical for most of his other works.

The audiobook narration by John Chancer was enjoyable – no complaints there, he distinguished between the characters and delivered an excellent performance.

Bakemonagatari, Vol. 01 by Oh!Great – Book Review

This manga is based on the original light novels by NISIOSIN.

Alright, I’m apparently branching out into manga — first time for everything. I was looking through NetGalley a few days ago, searching for something new and intriguing and what do I come across but the first Volume of a manga adaptation to something I’m familiar with? I saw the Bakemonogatari anime years ago, and was struck by how unique its visual style was — on par only with the eeriness, the sheer bloody strangeness, of its story.

The art is praise-worthy. Oh!Great’s art consists of clear lines, which was a relief since I often struggle with the visual overload so frequently present in a lot of manga art. It properly communicates the moods of characters and their intentions. The writer-artist is enormously talented with the pencil, that’s for sure, and I am looking forward to how this looks on paper as compared to digital. The few double-spreads in this first volume showcased the kind of art I’d put in a frame on the wall, and looking at them cut in half in a .pdf file felt very wrong indeed.

Onto the bad…or at least the mildly, wildly annoying bits. There’s a fair amount of fan-service here, which works great for my sixteen-year-old self but at twenty-four comes across as gratuitous and unnecessary. Pretty art, sure, but I could do without the panty-shots and several even more over-sexualized elements included inside.

It doesn’t quite capture the quirky nature of the story as presented in the anime. It doesn’t have to – they’re two different adaptations of the same core material but this operates in a different medium entirely and it’s a good way to reacquaint myself with a franchise I never got to explore in full.

The story, alas, lacks clarity. Some will find it difficult to comprehend, which is where my familiarity came in use. I had at least some knowledge about what was going on, and I’m not entirely sure the dialogue succeeded in recapturing the eery feel of the light novel as much as it was confusing. It gets clearer about midway through.

If you like manga, if you’ve heard about the Monogatari franchise but prefer this medium to anime — I’d say, go for it! The release is in October — my personal score is 3.25 stars out of 5, or a 6.5 out of 10. It lacks that extra something to give it a score of 3.5/5; as it is, the art pushes it to a level just above the utter averageness of most 3-stars.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a review copy.

God of Gnomes by Demi Harper is Released Today!

One of my favourite debuts in recent memory is now available for purchase over at Amazon! This isn’t an affiliate link or anything, I just really like the bookand think it deserves attention.

Now, if you want to know a little bit more about it, I put my review of it up over at booknest.eu last week. For an excerpt of the full review, you need only read on below:

God of Gnomes is special. A book that isn’t afraid to play with well-known fantasy tropes but nonetheless makes them feel fresh, God of Gnomes has a whole lot of heart, a solid portion of enjoyable, well-written action and a memorable protagonist with a huge personality and a tiny gem where a body ought to be.

Demi Harper’s debut at first borrows from and then further develops ideas that (if I’m not mistaken) were first introduced in Dungeon Keeper, the dungeon building video game series originally from the late 90’s. As someone who does a fair amount of gaming, I’m familiar with the gratification this subgenre offers – even if I wasn’t aware of the Dungeon Core subgenre in litRPGs before getting this review copy. Apparently, there’s a growing body of Dungeon Core books and while I can’t speak about any of the others, God of Gnomes captures the essence and gratification of the games.

Our protagonist’s name is Corey, and she’s a God Core. A newly discovered one too, exhumed from the depths of the earth by a tiny, ugly creature in the very first chapter of the novel. What the first quarter of the book deals with is much like the tutorial level to any strategy game – Corey has no clue what role she’s fallen into, how to take on her duties as a god to these disgusting, dumb creatures she’s supposed to care for, these gnomes. Thankfully, she’s got a helpful wisp by the name of Ket to show her the ropes! The interaction between Corey and Ket is fun and funny – the wisp is continuously enthusiastic, bright and eager to offer all the information Corey could ever need, and more; the God Core meanwhile is short-tempered and even frightened by this new responsibility she’s suddenly forced into taking on.

There’s a threat inherent to any opening that relies heavily on exposition, especially when that exposition takes on the form of explanation of a character’s abilities and limitations. Like a dungeon builder’s tutorial, there’s always the threat that it’ll drag on, even become tedious. How Demi Harper avoids this is not just through the interaction between Core and wisp; nor is it only because of the disgustingly adorable gnomes that fill these pages. It’s owed in largest part to the fact that Harper introduces a number of compelling mysteries. Our protagonist is entangled in mysteries: the mystery of who, of what Corey was before she awoke in the darkness – flashes of darkness, of cruelty, of a great subterranean city – all draw a fragmentary picture that fellow fantasy nerds might enjoy theorizing on as they read. I did, and I was proved correct! Another mystery has to do with a nasty antagonist lingering in the shadows, taunting our baby Core girl in an unholier-than-thou, third-person, garbage spewing manner. These are but a handful of the different plot threads that caught my attention and imagination both.

My score for God of Gnomes is a 9/10, or a 4.5/5 on Goodreads. There were a few moments – not many, just a few, that didn’t quite hold onto my attention as well as the vast majority of the novel did, which is why I’m not giving this a full 5/5 score. Nevertheless, this is a memorable read, a great debut and another solid entry into Portal Books’ growing catalogue of LitRPG/Dungeon Core publications. I’m looking forward to seeing what the publisher comes up with next…and I’m even more excited to find out where Corey’s story goes next!

A Different Time by Michael K. Hill – Book Review (Blog Tour Edition!)

I enjoyed this piece of time-displaced romance.

Keith falls in love with Lindsey, a girl thirty years in the past. It all begins when he picks up a VHS cassette at a flea market, while looking to expand his X-Men collection (which, by the way, definitely made him initially likable — true X-Men nerdhood is something to bond over!). The cassette is the video diary of a girl Keith’s age at the time of recording, back in 1989; what shocks Keith is that, as soon as he speaks aloud, the girl hears him…and responds. So begins this short back-and-forth through time, as Lindsey and Keith fall in love within the span of…15-30-45 minutes.

Lindsey is the star of the book — her dialogue in particular, had something special about it, a spark, something that would glisten under the sun. She’s a creative in a nasty situation, living with a mother who doesn’t understand her and a creep for a stepfather, far away from the Hawaiian home she’s known for most of her life, lost and terribly alone. But she’s well-read, and a talented artist – reading and drawing are two activities that are a haven from the trouble of the real world.

Keith’s behaviour is somewhat more troubling — this sudden connection with Lindsey has some pretty adverse effects on him as the novel goes on. He borders on the obsessive a little bit too much for my liking; don’t get me wrong, I had a good time hitching a ride in his noggin’. He’s a likable guy, he’s a nice kid, but he’s even more lost than Lindsey.

The prose is crisp, clear and serviceable. It could’ve benefitted from a few extra descriptions, I thought; there was an element of bareness to it that would’ve been well-served by Michael K. Hill adding a few lines here and there. That might be preference, though; ultimately, Hill offers an acceptable replica of our world as a backdrop to the story he chose to tell. The cover is lovely, too!

It didn’t surprise me, however — most of the small twists were foreshadowed without subtlety and and I wasn’t surprised to come across most of the ‘revelations’ by book’s end. Maybe there didn’t need to be — this is a romance, after all. But I’d have liked some little surprise to have gone past me.

My score? 6.5/10. 3 stars on Goodreads – I enjoyed it. But it lacked an extra little something to get it to the 3.5 I’d need to give it that half star extra and round it up to 4/5 on ye olde Goodreads site.

My recommendation? If you like an nonstandard love story that’s cute and has some interesting, well-realised ideas, this is something you might want to look at. It’s a very simple book, and I mean that in the best sense – clarity, straightforward plot, a pair of characters it’s easy to root for — these make for a quick, pleasant read.

August in Review: Sharp Ends, Blunted Keyboard Keys and Loads of Reviews!

Another month has passed, and with it I’ve grown a year older! Gasp, Filips age! I was shocked when I found out and I bet you are, too! At any rate, I had

I reviewed some fantastic books!

I read and reviewed a number of wonderful books. Let’s run down the list:

Wrath of Empire (Gods of Blood and Powder #2) by Brian McClellan

I missed my train station.
Brian McClellan’s Sins of Empire was among the finest novels published in 2017. I came to it blind, not having read Brian’s first Powder Mage trilogy, unfamiliar with a world that, soon enough would come to be one of the most treasured fictional realms I’ve ever resided in. I recall opening Sins of Empire up for the first time, on a train from Milano to Monza where I was living in March 2017. I’d bought the book on something of a whim, after glancing through a review on the r/fantasy subreddit. It’s a short trip, from Milano to Monza, barely twenty minutes.
And I missed my train station.
That’s the sort of magic Brian McClellan works into his writing. You forget everything but the page you’re on, and then there’s the next one, and the next one, and the one after that. His Powder Mage work is escapism at its finest, and it’s enchanting and addictive.

This was a wild read, and I wrote a review I was very happy with. Adding to that, to my utter amazement, the thread I made on reddit blew up! Even author Brian McClellan took notice and stopped by! One of the blogging highlights of August, even this whole year.

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #0.5) by Andrzej Sapkowski

I had a lot of fun with this anthology. It’s a retelling of some of my favourite fairy tales with one of my favourite gaming protagonists in recent times:

Ah, Geralt of Rivia, how I love thee. With the CDProjekt Red games behind us and the Netflix show soon to come, now is the best time to finally acquaint myself with Andrzej Sapkowski’s signature works.
 The Last Wish is an anthology chronicling six of the Witcher’s adventures, a seventh one interspersed between them. These are good stories, one and all – though a few are not without issues. Most of them are based on familiar fairy tales – “A Grain of Truth” incorporates many of the elements of Beauty and the Beast, while “The Lesser Evil” borrows from Snow White – offering a few different interpretations of that tale, in fact, each one darker than the last. Even those not directly based on existing material borrow from folklore; so, for example, the eponymous story, “The Last Wish” begins with the discovery of a djinn. That is, with the sole exception of “The Voice of Reason,” which, as the connecting tissue between all these other stories, is wholly the author’s own.

The full review is over on booknest.eu.

Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn. Man, that’s probably the first author whose work got me into sci-fi, however tangential Star Wars is to proper science fiction! For the full review, click here; and if you want a taste, read on:

This novel is a return to form for Zahn after last year’s Alliances. Not that I didn’t enjoy that – but where that book suffered over a few issues, the chief of which were underwhelming (for the most parts) sections during the Clone Wars. Treason works because it goes back to the basics element that make the Grand Admiral so compelling – he’s a brilliant tactician who studies his enemies through a variety of methods and then dismantles them one piece at a time, using not brute force but their own weaknesses against them. We never see the Chiss Admiral’s inner thoughts – even when we spend some time in his head, what we get is how he perceives the world, as an observer; impartial, almost. Analytical, disciplined and entirely too alien.

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie 

I love Abercrombie. So much, in fact, that I wrote a 2250 word review of this brilliant anthology! Here’s a review of one of the short stories within:

The Fool Jobs

Curnden Craw is among the last straight arrows in all the North. This, I learned reading The Heroes. However, you don’t actually need to have read that novel to have a grand old time with this. It’d work well enough as an introduction to Craw’s crew, even if you haven’t had the pleasure; this, for example, is the first time Craw himself sees Whirrun of Bligh in action. To those unfamiliar with Whirrun, think, ‘barbarian, possibly insane, with the father of all two-handed swords in his hands, crazy funny’. Craw’s Dozen is chock-full of memorable characters, several of whom different from those familiar from The Heroes.

Something else I loved was the irreverent take on sorcery – it’s signature Abercrombie and like the rest of the story, it’s chock-full of laugh-out-loud moments.

Wonderful, Craw’s Second-in-Command, is as wonderful as her name implies – and damn quotable, too:
‘…Don’t get too comfortable, though, eh? If the rest of us come to grief these Fox fuckers’ll track you down before our blood’s dry and more’n likely cut your fruits off.’
Raubin’s sigh rattled to a quick stop.
‘Cut your head off,’ whispered Never, eyes all scary-wide.
‘Pull your guts out and cook ‘em,’ growled Jolly Yon.
‘Skin your face off and wear it as a mask,’ rumbled Brack.
‘Use your cock for a spoon,’ said Wonderful.
They all thought about that for a moment.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just crude as sin but this exchange between the band of bloodied warriors and the cowardly courier bringing them their orders had me cracking.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

A really fun Discworld novel, even if I didn’t enjoy this particular B-plot as much as some of the others in previous novels. For my full verdict, click here:

The star of this book is Susan sto Hellit, the granndaughter of ol’ bonebag himself. Susan, an orphaned girl in an all-girls school, is called to the greatest Duty ever — to fulfill the shoes of her grandfather, of whom she remembers next to nothing. Susan is sixteen, and taught to trust the ways of logic — a ludicrous enough preposition in the Discworld, but what can you do, education ruins young people nowadays, wrote the 23-year old. When she’s forced to take on her grandfather’s mantle as the personification of Death, Susan who is now mid-way between an abstract concept and a human being (difficult preposition, as I well know, being on the crossroads myself), she rebels at the unfairness of it all, the terrible cruelty of senseless death.
Meanwhile, in good old Ankh-Morpork, Imp y Celyn is a lute player from Quirm, a young lad come to search for the greatest city on the Discworld. Pity him, finding Ankh-Morpork instead but what can you do — sometimes, the trouble finds you. What trouble is, in this case, is a guitar with music in it. And not just any music, but music with rocks in which is to say, rock music. And the Discworld is far, far away from ready for such a thing. Music is a rhythm, the rhythm of life, of all the universe — and an overwhelming one, at that, the sort of force that’s bound to stir up human hearts and minds. And it does, oh how it does.

The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

…Which apparently has more than 16 THOUSAND hits! What?! Here it is!

I’ve found my favourite standalone fantasy novel of 2019.
I always have difficulty speaking about the fantasy books that win me over as completely as The Sword of Kaigen has. When you come across greatness, your first instinct is to fall silent.  But damn it all if I’m a slave to my instincts! I’ll talk about M. L. Wang’s latest novel, hell, I’ll scream about it from the rooftops if that’ll get anyone to listen!
Before the screaming begins, here’s what you need to know: this is a fantasy novel inspired by Japanese warrior culture with modern-day elements which are more often talked about than seen – satellites, planes, info-com devices and broadcasting towers, to name a few. The magic system is elemental, reminiscent of Avatar: The Last Airbender but with the added benefit of being aimed at adults and not constrained by a PG rating*.

I read some great articles, essays and blog posts

I spoke at length about these here and here, and you should, too! I regret not having the time to write more posts like these over the last few weeks — I haven’t really read too many articles, I’ve prioritised indies and audiobooks lately.

And still more reviews, these ones tiny, tiny, tiny!

I spoke about The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White, Of Mice and Men, and Marx the Humanist, all in one succinct post. I really enjoy writing tinier reviews sometimes — the big ones demand hours of concentration and in-depth study and mini-reviews allow me to speak about books with frank brevity, which is a different kind of fun altogether.

What’s Next?

I’ve got quite a few really fun reads ahead of me — Red Country and A Little Hatred by Abercrombie, The Dragon Republic by the brilliant Rebecca F. Kuang, as well as the excellent Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray ; God of Gnomes , Wrath of Storms by Steven McKinnon, and eventually, as soon as I’m done with Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun in full, I’ll talk plenty about that, most likely in October. There are yet more indies I would like to cover — time will tell when I’ll get to Banebringer‘s prequel, Sweetblade by the wonderfully talented Carol A. Park. And many, many more.

On the graphic novel front, I finished Monstress Vol. 03: Haven by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, as well as Wic/Div: Year Three by Kieron and McKelvie and will eventually talk about them too, right over here on the Reliquary.

Oh, and lest I forget, I’m part of a book tour on September 11! Looking forward to telling you all about this month’s victim A Different Time!