The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

stars3.5TSDoEHbyST

Each night Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered, and each morning Aiden Bishop wakes up in a different body. Aiden is tasked with solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle in order to escape this time loop. He cycles through eight different party guests’ bodies at Blackheath Manor, but if he cannot solve the murder after spending 24 hours in each of the eight hosts, Aiden forgets everything and starts the cycle anew. There are also a few other “competitors” who are intent on solving the mystery so they can escape instead. Aiden does not know how long he has been stuck here or why he is here. All he wakes up remembering is a name on his lips: Anna.

Yes, this is a mystery with a fantasy-ish twist. That might sound awesome already, but if I could give everyone who picks up this book one warning, it would be this: as long as you are okay not knowing exactly what is happening for most of the novel and as long as you are okay not knowing all the hows and whys for this plot even happening, then you’re on the right track to like this book. I say this because just like Aiden the reader is dropped into the middle of the action without knowing anything. The book is from Adien’s first-person perspective. We only know what Aiden knows and sees around him, so this takes the already claustrophobic atmosphere up another notch. As I mentioned, Aiden isn’t alone in this “competition,” and his competitors are ruthless. So, there’s lots of intrigue, action, secrets, twists, and timey-wimey stuff to confuse and delight you if you can stand being in the dark for a while.

I had a hard time putting this one down. First, I wanted to know what the hell was going on, then I had to know who committed the crime. The twists kept me on my toes. I guessed very little of what happened, but I was able to piece together a couple things and that was very satisfying. The plot is very complicated, but I’m sure more attentive readers could do much better than me with predicting things. In my opinion, the ending wasn’t as satisfying as some of the other reveals, and the more I think about the ending, the more questions are actually raised. This book was heavily inspired by Agatha Cristie’s mysteries, but there’s much more to the mystery than just “who did it.” The author has stated that he spent 3 months just planning this novel out, and after finishing it, I don’t doubt that’s the true.

Reviewing the characterization is a bit hard for this book. There’s a large cast, but since many aren’t “real” and repeat their actions over and over, it was hard for me to feel for most of them. I wouldn’t even say that Aiden as a main character did anything for me, but that was probably because he was always in another person’s body. We are told, not shown, Aiden’s past, so this also made it hard to connect with him and his motivation to solve the mystery. I think Aiden’s thin personality made some sense though, because if he fails too many times at the mystery (the book tells us he has already failed a lot) he will lose his personality completely, and while he inhabits the guests’ bodies he also takes on aspects of their personalities. For example, one host has a quick mind but a slow body. (The way he is described is a bit gross and fat-phobic if that bothers you.) Another host is very sexual, while another is very timid. Hosts have talents and weaknesses. Some hosts have stronger personalities than others, which makes it hard for Aiden to always keep his mind to himself and stay on task. I loved how these aspects of the characters shaped how the mystery played out. There are also a few constant “competitors,” as I have called them, but I don’t want to say too much about them.

As with many complex and astonishingly unique novels, I am always afraid of how the author wraps things up. It’s one thing to love the journey, but I also want a satisfying end. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle‘s ending is pretty good, but I still want more answers. The mystery and murder stuff is tied up quite nicely, but the time-bending and the whole point of the time loop as well as the “supervisors” mentioned have me scratching my head. Are there other time loops out there like Evelyn’s murder? And most importantly, will we get these answers in more books?! Time will tell. I gave The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Nevernight

stars3.5NbyJK

Nevernight takes place in a world where three suns rarely set and full dark only happens every several years. When Mia was young her father was hanged for treason and her mother was imprisoned. While on the run from those who hurt her family, Mia discovered that she had strange powers over the shadows. She was taken under an assassin’s wing and eventually seeks initiation from the Red Church, a school for would-be assassins, in order to get vengeance for her family.

Admittedly, I picked this book up because it seemed like everyone who read it either loved it or did not finish it. With such a staggering difference of opinions I had to pick it up. (Plus, I found it used for cheap– yay!) I’ll start by saying that I’m in between those two widely varying opinions. I finished the book and liked it, but I did not fall head over heels for it either.

To begin with, the plot and world were by far my favorite parts. The plot has a lot of action and surprises. As I hinted at in the synopsis, a lot of the book takes place within a school for assassins. So, as you would expect, there’s a lot of killing and subterfuge. The students take classes for combat, poisons, thievery, and seduction (yes, there’s some sex), and the stakes are very high for those who fail. There are a few twists, and some even caught me by surprise.

The world building had an interesting foundation, but since most of this first book takes place at the Red Church, we don’t get to see too much else from the world yet. I should also mention that the book has many footnotes which serve to expand the world a bit more. Most of the footnotes could be skipped if they bother or distract you since most do not pertain to the main plot. They usually add to the world building by mentioning a person from the world’s history or by explaining the meaning behind a phrase a character said. The author has described the world as “a collision between ancient Rome and merchant prince Venice.” He goes on to say “The world really started as a thought experiment – what would’ve happened if Julius Caesar’s bid to overthrow the Roman republic failed and the Republic itself survived to the middle ages?” (Quotes taken from Jay Kristoff’s answer to a question on Goodreads.) You can certainly see this influence in book one of the series, but I’m sure that the subsequent books will open up the world a bit more for the reader.

If you’ve read any other reviews for this series, you’ve probably seen a few people talking about the writing style. I agree with several reviewers that it is a bit pretentious at times. The metaphors and similes are overwritten to the point that the meaning becomes clouded, or it begins to sound a little cringe-inducing… Here’s one of the strangest examples:

Tric gave another half-hearted stab, but the beast had forgotten its quarry entirely, great eyes rolling as it flipped over and over, dragging its bulk back below the sand, howling like a dog who’s just returned home from a hard turn’s work to find another hound in his kennel, smoking his cigarillos and in bed with his wife.”

Honestly, after the first half of the book I either started ignoring most of the flowery writing or it toned itself down a bit the farther I got into the novel. It wasn’t that bad, but your mileage may vary.

I also liked several of the characters, and many were well developed and interesting to read about. Mia was a little hard to get a feel for in the beginning, but I warmed up to her by the end. She’s a little cold but understandably so. And, as time goes on, it is clear that she isn’t even that cold-hearted compared to many other characters. I liked Mia’s friend Tric as well as a few other assassins in training. I also enjoyed the teachers and would have liked to see even more of them and their talents. I’ve seen the book advertised as being witty and filled with humor. I didn’t laugh out loud, but again, you may feel differently– it’s humor and it’s subjective after all.

All in all, I found the book to be an entertaining read. It didn’t blow me away, but I think it would be a great series for readers of young adult fantasy who want something a bit darker and more serious or “adult.” Especially if the flowery writing and footnotes don’t bother you, I’d say give the series a try. Personally, I am not sure if I will be continuing the series yet. I’m a bit notorious for leaving series unfinished (I saw that I had at least eight unfinished series just on my book shelves…), but that’s something I would like to work on this year! We will see what happens! I would give Nevernight three and a half out of five stars.

Kingdom of Souls

stars4KoSbyRB

Arrah’s parents are both powerful witch doctors, but year after year her magic does not come. There are other ways to possess magic in this world, like trading your years for it, but such things are frowned upon. When Arrah’s grandmother sees strange visions about green-eyed serpents and children begin disappearing from her city, Arrah does what she must to figure out what is going on. This leads her and her close friends on a wild adventure that pits her against her family and makes Arrah question who she really is.

To begin with, when was the last time you read a book about witch doctors? I never have, and it was one of the main reasons I gave this novel a try. So, I guess we’ll start by talking about the magic system. It isn’t very concrete, nothing like a Brandon Sanderson magic system, but it has some specifics. You can develop the ability to call magic to you naturally, and magic seems to be all around the characters, even if they cannot see it. There are also some rituals that can be done that involve herbs, blood magic, and chanting, but again the magic isn’t explained in heavy detail, if that is what you enjoy.

The characters were one of the stronger parts of the novel, but not all of them were developed as much as I would have liked. I enjoyed Arrah the most. She’s brave, strong willed, and has a lot of perseverance, but she also has a big heart for those she loves. Arrah goes through a lot in this book and loses people close to her. Despite that she remains true to herself and fights for what she believes is right. Arrah’s love interest and her friends are less developed than her, but since the book is in first person, that is probably to be expected. We are away from her friends and in her head for a large amounts of time. I just wish we had gotten to know a few of them better so that their close friendships to Arrah would be more believable. Arrah’s parents are also important, and they had a good amount of depth too. One very interesting thing about this novel is the relationship between Arrah and her mother. Her mother is very powerful, both politically and magically, and Arrah has always wanted to impress her, but unfortunately, their relationship is very volatile and hostile.

I have to also mention the worldbuilding. I liked it a lot, but I simply wanted more of it. In this world we have witch doctors, gods, demons, magic in the air, rituals, unique tribes, and a political hierarchy. There was a lot of action and drama in this book, but I just wish it would have slowed down a little so that I could get into the world more, get to know the characters, and have more time to digest some of the major events. Sometimes it felt like there wasn’t enough time for Arrah to recover (both physically and mentally) and plan her next moves after something tragic happened. And the book gets pretty dark for a YA novel!

So, yes, the pacing was my main issue. A lot happens in this first book of a planned trilogy. In my opinion, too much happens in this first book, but I also don’t know what the author has in mind for the second and third installments. There are a lot of characters, it is hard to know who to trust, and there’s a lot of magical, god-related back story that plays a big role in the plot. With such a complex world and plot, I wanted more time to flesh out the world and characters and a little less action. I know some readers would feel differently, so if you love action and having everything thrown at you quickly, this book would be just what you’re looking for.

I found Kingdom of Souls to be a refreshing young adult novel. If you are looking for an action-packed, unique, and exciting new series, I would definitely give this a try. Also, I have to mention the book’s awesome website that includes an interactive map, a guide for the terms in the book, and even some cute quizzes to see what tribe you’re in (Tribe Zu here!) or what character you are. I gave Kingdom of Souls four out of five stars.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

stars3.5GoJaSbySMG.png

I was actually anticipating this book since the beginning of 2019. Once I heard about it I knew it was for me: Mayan and Mexican mythology and history, the jazz age, gods and creatures, adventure. When it first came out I heard a few mixed reviews, but I eventually had to read to it anyway. It sounded too much like a “me” book to pass it up because of what other people said. And despite a few things, I liked this novel.

Casiopea Tun serves as a maid to her overbearing grandfather and her spiteful cousin, Martín. When Casiopea’s father passed away, her mother returned to her  family’s household in disgrace after marrying someone her family found undesirable. She and Casiopea became maids to their family because they had nowhere else to go. Casiopea has grown up in this stifling environment all her life and dreams of the freedom to do whatever she wants. After getting in trouble, again, Casiopea is left behind in her grandfather’s mansion to tidy up. She finds a box in her grandfather’s bedroom, and when she opens it, she finds a trapped death god who needs her help. Casiopea gets the adventure she has always dreamed of, but at what cost?

The one thing that I think most people will dislike about this novel is the writing style. It is written kind of like a fairy tale where the magic isn’t explained in detail, the characters feel a little flatter than usual, and you just have to go along with what is happening. Think about the Odyssey. We have characters and events, there’s magic, there’s strange mythological things, but it isn’t like a Brandon Sanderson structured magic system or anywhere near the level of character focus as something by Stephen King. If none of that bothers and you like everything I mentioned in the introduction, you might like this fantasy novel.

The amount of history and culture in the novel was great. The author alluded to trends and issues of the time. We get to see a good bit of the death gods and their realm as well as some other interesting mythical beings. I thought the writing could have been a little more atmospheric (I just love feeling like I am there in the time period.), but places and people were well described, so it was fairly easy to picture the scenes. Admittedly, I had to look up a few older terms and Spanish words, but the book has a small glossary to help in that area.

As for a couple of things I, personally, disliked, I wanted more from the romance. As I said, the characters could have been more fleshed out. The couple had a few cute moments, but it didn’t feel like they could have loved each so deeply after so little time/development. In general, I wish the book had just been longer. I wanted to see more of the land of death, more from the historical era, and more of the characters being together because I felt like they had some potential chemistry that could have built upon more. Though I liked the ending, it didn’t explain as much as I wanted. For example, what happened to Casiopea’s mother and grandfather? I also felt like the book was leading to something about her father, but that, too, didn’t really go anywhere. If there were more pages, maybe we could have had more answers and more fun.

To sum up my feelings, it was a very “me” book, but there were several things that I wanted from the book that it didn’t fully deliver on. I just wanted more, but that doesn’t mean that what was there was bad. I would give Gods of Jade and Shadow three and a half stars, but I rounded up to four stars on Goodreads.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month

stars4.5HLTBFMbyNKJ.png

It is Black History Month, but how long ’til Black Future Month? N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I’ve been slowly making my way through her other books and series, and I’ve honestly liked or loved everything, so I decided to pick up her new-ish short story collection. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised with so many great stories that feel familiar but are at the same time completely outside of the box.

Many of the stories deal with very old but very important themes, like love, family, loss, loneliness, etc. But I’ve never read stories that look at these themes from such different and unique perspectives. If I had to say one central theme that permeates all of the stories to some extent, I might go with the word survival. There are stories about hurricanes destroying towns and dragons helping out, a story based on her Broken Earth series where the land itself is shattered and unstable, stories about making sacrifices for the greater good, survival of alien species and other planets, and even a story about humans dying out completely (from the perspective of Death no less)!

Obviously, you could also comb through it and discuss the social, political, and environmental themes and how they relate to being African American or just any person of color. As I said, a lot of these stories contain things we can all relate to, but seeing it all through a lens of primarily characters of color was eye-opening to me on a social, political, and historical level, and it changed how I view sci-fi and fantasy by authors of color. Things have gotten a bit better in recent years, but it is still a struggle for authors of color to even get published, let alone become famous enough to tell the stories they want to tell (see Jemisin’s introduction to the collection in which she explains feeling like she had to write standard Western fantasy to get her foot in the publishing door).

Getting back to the collection, I did not fall in love with every single story, but the majority of them were very entertaining and have kept me thinking about them long after I turned the last page. If you’ve read the collection, my favorite stories were probably “Red Dirt Witch,” “The Effluent Engine,” “Walking Awake,” “On the Banks of the River Lex,” and of course the stories based on her other fantasy series, “Stone Hunger” and “The Narcomancer.” Many of her characters are fully rounded and memorable, and many of her plots were engaging and inspiring. The collection has moments of humor, sadness, justice being served, and a whole lot of heart. I’ve read several short story collections, but this one stands out to me. It is rare for me to give short story collections five stars (I feel as if I have to love every single story to give the whole collections a 5), but many of the individual stories in here blew me away, so I would give How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? a well-deserved 4.5 star rating on my blog, but I had to round up to 5 stars on Goodreads because it was that good.

A Touch Of Death

stars3.5AToDbyRC

A thousand years in the future, humanity has emerged from hiding beneath the Earth to avoid destruction and is slowly rebuilding. Advanced technology and strong laws have given the residents of Cutta a relatively safe and happy life, and although not everyone is satisfied with this life, dissenters are severely punished. Nate Anteros, despite his parents being in the King’s good graces, is one such dissenter. Catherine Taenia, who is to marry Nate’s brother Thom, has lived a quiet and sheltered life in the capital of Cutta. After Nate’s release from prison, he seeks out Catherine and Thom, which upends all three of their lives as they discover secrets about the home they thought they knew and the world they now live in.

This book surprised me with several positive and interesting aspects. To begin with, the world building has a lot of potential. As I read along, many, many questions popped into my head. What exactly happened to Earth? How did people and animals live beneath the ground for so much time? How are the animals, plants, etc. that stayed above ground changed? Are there still people living underground somewhere? The basic concept of the world is very interesting, and I wanted to know everything about the planet as well as how society functions now.

Mutants are a threat and a curiosity to the current society. It appears that not all humans remained safe underground; some stayed above and became mutated. The mutants used to be human, and their presence and relationship to humanity is a major plot point. The characters spend a good amount of time traveling in this book, so we see a few different people and places, but I definitely wanted to know more about all of them. Different cities appeared to have different people, religions, and cultures, but since the book is quite short, we only get a small taste of some of them. This is a series, so I imagine the world is fleshed out much more in subsequent novels.

One thing I disliked was some of the pacing. For example, I really enjoyed the novel’s exciting and dramatic opening, but the pace slowed down a lot for a while afterwards without enough urgency to drive it forward. At other points a character might leave the scene and although part of a day passes, the character returns within the same page. At times scenes feel too abrupt, and at other times the pace slows down a bit too much.

I liked the author’s writing style. It wasn’t overly flowery, but it also wasn’t dry to read. I do wish that there was a bit more descriptive language, but I’m someone who really likes description. I also just wanted a bit more world building in general. I wouldn’t say that the novel is dialogue-heavy, but there is quite a bit. If you dislike the characters, you might not enjoy their banter, but I thought it was fine and even humorous at times.

I gave A Touch of Death 3.5 stars, but since Goodreads still won’t add half stars, I settled for rounding up to 4 stars there. This is a good start to an interesting sci-fi, romance, dystopian series that I think deserves a little more attention!

 

Thank you to the author who kindly provided me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

stars4

TDRbyRFKThis is the sequel to Kuang’s The Poppy War that many readers (myself included) fell in love with. Released in August of 2019 (in the U.S.), The Dragon Republic follows Rin after she survives the Poppy War and is on the run. The warlords’ loyalty has splintered, and a civil war may be brewing. Rin and her group of shamans must choose where to place their own loyalties as they fight to preserve their country.

This was a solid follow-up novel to The Poppy War. I really liked the beginning of The Poppy War in which Rin and her classmates were learning how to fight at Sinegard, but the latter half with the war itself felt too fast paced for me to really grasp everything that was happening. A lot more action and battles happen in The Dragon Republic, but the pacing is a bit smoother with enough down time between battles/action to process the event and any mental/emotional and political repercussions. The action scenes were well described and easy to imagine, which I found to be a small improvement from the previous novel’s latter half.

This is a dark, action-packed series with an interesting magic system and a heavy dose of Chinese history. In this installment we see what would be considered the “westerners” if Rin and the people of Nikan are considered the equivalent of the “east” in real life. Rin witnesses the culture and religious clash between her people and the Hesperians (westerners), which I thought was a very interesting part of the novel for the author to focus on. Another thing I like about this series (and it was done even better in this sequel) is that the stakes actually feel high. Side characters die fairly often, plans go awry, battles are lost, and even Rin fails and gets knocked down or betrayed multiple times. Rin and many of the other characters are imperfect and do not always make the best decisions, but it all feels fairly realistic. Honestly, I don’t particularly like Rin as a character because of her faults and impulsiveness, but her reactions make sense, especially when you factor in that her hot-headed god has some control over her emotions. I respect Rin, even if I wouldn’t get along with her if she were real. And as this sequel progressed, I found myself agreeing with Rin’s actions more and more, so I would say that is a good gauge of her character developing throughout the series!

This series is pretty dark even when it isn’t based on real history. It doesn’t stray away from tough topics and shows the horrors of war on civilians, which some fantasy series gloss over. I gave The Dragon Republic four out of five stars, and I am ready to see where the next book takes the story.