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Review of KINDLE Ebook A Local Habitation – Book 2 of the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire

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I read Rosemary and Rue far too long ago and when ill I came across this one on my Kindle and immediately dived into it, recalling the quality of the writing in the first book.

October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned a knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills. Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim.

This is  a classic murder mystery where the potential victims are all within a closed environment – in this case a software systems industrial unit – and Toby is desperately struggling to discover the perpetrator before everyone is wiped out. A complicating factor for Toby is that she is not working alone – Sylvester wanted her to take along one of the young pureblood courtiers to get him out of the way. So when she finds herself pitchforked into the middle of a situation far more dangerous than she expected, she is also responsible for a youngster who has no training or preparation for this kind of assignment. Though Toby increasingly is coming to the conclusion that she hasn’t sufficient preparation for it, either…

I loved this extra insight into McGuire’s haunting, dangerous world of fae where creatures who live for a very long time are slowly failing against humanity. As for the variety of types – think of the TV show Grimm. The standout characters are brilliant, abstracted January, who is responsible for keeping her people safe and running a successful company; Alex with the red eyes, who Toby finds she enjoys being around far too much. And poor little April – a young tree dryad who escapes the slaughter of her community when the oak grove where she lives is bulldozed flat to make way for a housing estate and is found wandering alone and traumatised by Jan. She is rescued and, before she fades away, is digitised to wander around the server as a shy, ever-present entity who occasionally runs errands for the staff and spends much of her time with Jan, who she regards as her mother.

Often in this type of murder mystery, the victims are the props – no one likes or cares much about them and they are there to provide clues and possible red herrings as the investigator and reader tries to puzzle out who is doing the killing. While I didn’t particularly care about some of the characters who died, there was a real sense of loss conveyed in the story. Each one was mourned by those around them, which had the effect of both upping the stakes and creating a sense of menace as Toby tries to discover what is going on.

I guessed part of the puzzle before we got to the denouement, but that didn’t really matter, as this case was as much about the ‘why’ as the ‘how’. And the answer is something of a heartbreak. Perhaps it was because I was feeling ill, but the ending left me with a lump in my throat as McGuire’s depiction of the final funeral drew to a close. This one really packs a punch and I now need to get hold of the next book, An Artificial Night, before too much time goes by.
8/10

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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of INDIE arc The Hidden Face – Book 1 of The Fifth Unmasking series by S.C. Flynn

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This puzzle-driven epic fantasy was offered to me by the author as I had read and reviewed his debut novel Children of the Different. Would this one impress me as much?

A face without a face – an unmasking that leaves the mask. Once every few hundred years the sun god, the Akhen, takes on human form and descends to earth. Each Unmasking of the Face of the Akhen ends one era and begins another; the last one created the Faustian Empire. Where and when will the Face next appear, and who will he – or she – be?

Dayraven, son of a great hero, returns to Faustia after years as a hostage of their rivals, the Magians. Those years have changed him, but Faustia has changed as well; the emperor Calvo now seems eccentric and is controlled by one of Dayraven’s old enemies. Following the brutal murder of his old teacher, Dayraven is drawn, together with a female warrior named Sunniva, into the search for an ancient secret that would change the fate of empires.

I liked both protagonists, Dayraven in particular. In common with a lot of high-born children, he has been sent to a neighbouring kingdom as surety for good behaviour and brought up in their court. But while he expected to return home within a handful of years, he has to wait a lot longer before returning home to discover all is changed – and not in a good way. Flynn’s unfussy writing style quickly drew me into the story as Dayraven finds out just who his enemies are, while he hurries to meet up with his former tutor and mentor.

And from then, the story nocks up another notch and we are whisked along with Dayraven, who begins to appreciate there is a lot more at stake than Emperor Calvo’s current mental confusion. Once he encounters Sunniva and they form a team, they begin to try to unpick the trail of clues left behind by the two guardians of these vital secrets. Together, they manage to uncover part of the mystery – but a number of formidable antagonists are in close pursuit.

I have seen this book rated as YA – do be aware that while the puzzle-solving aspect may appeal to teens, this one isn’t suitable for a younger age-group. I would not be happy to discover my thirteen-year-old granddaughter reading it as there is a fair amount of sexual content, including a rather explicit sex scene.

Other than that concern, I enjoyed this one. I particularly appreciated the depiction of the antagonists as we discover their motives and why they are trying to find out where the Fifth Unmasking will take place. This works well in powering the story forward as the reader is left in no doubt as to what will happen should the secrets fall into the wrong hands.

The storyline comes to a climactic denouement with plenty of action and drama that had the pages turning and bringing this particular slice of the adventure to a satisfactory close – though there are several major plotpoints left dangling as the story evidently will be continued in the next book. Recommended for epic fantasy fans with a taste for arcane mysteries embedded within the worldbuilding.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook World of Fire – Book 1 of the Dev Harmer Mission series by James Lovegrove

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I had already read the enjoyable World of Water which happens to be the second in the series – and spotted that I actually had the first book in my TBR pile…

Dev Harmer wakes in a new body with every mission, and he has woken this time on Alighieri, a planet perpetually in flames, where the world’s wealth lies below the elemental surface, and humanity is not the only race after it. Dev Harmer, reluctant agent of Interstellar Security Solutions, wakes up in a newly cloned host body on the planet Alighieri, ready for action. It’s an infernal world, so close to its sun that it surface is regularly baked to 1,000°C, hot enough to turn rock to lava. But deep underground there are networks of tunnels connecting colonies of miners who dig for the precious helium-3 regolith deposits in Alighieri’s crust. Polis+, the AI race who are humankind’s great galactic rivals, want to claim the fiery planet’s mineral wealth for their own. All that stands between them and this goal is Dev. But as well as Polis+’s agents, there are giant moleworms to contend with, and a spate of mysterious earthquakes, and the perils of the surface where a man can be burned to cinders if he gets caught unprotected on the day side…

Dev is such an enjoyable character. As ever, this book starts with a bang when poor old Dev, barely able to stand as he is still getting to grips with his new body, which is very nicely described, suddenly finds himself in the middle of an earthquake. And from that moment, Dev is playing catchup on a hostile planet with some heavily vested interests in a body that isn’t his own.

This is just what I needed to keep the misery of flu in the background as I was swept up into this action thriller. Lovegrove’s sense of pacing is always good and as Dev finds himself struggling against an alien race determined to see humanity founder and fail, the pages flipped past where other books I had thought I wanted to read got abandoned. It didn’t hurt that there were also some nice touches of humour in amongst the action and danger. But I simply relaxed and became swept up in Dev’s problems. For me, the highlight was the action in the tunnel when confronting those moleworms.

Lovegrove satisfactorily brings this tale of danger to a suitably exciting close – but I did enjoy the poignancy of poor Dev, doomed to continue on these ridiculously dangerous missions in a series of disposable bodies, until he has earned the right to have his own body back. Checking this out on Goodreads, I note there are only the two books so far – I do hope there are more to come and recommend these for anyone who enjoys a well-written far future action thriller.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan

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I’m a real fan of Sullivan’s writing – see my reviews of Occupy Me, Lightborn and Sound Mind. She is a highly talented writer with a penchant for pushing the envelope with her fiction in a way that I love. So I was delighted to see this offering on Netgalley.

Charlie is a dreamhacker, able to enter your dreams and mould their direction. Forget that recurring nightmare about being naked at an exam – Charlie will step in to your dream, bring you a dressing gown and give you the answers. As far as she knows, she’s the only person who can do this. Unfortunately, her power comes with one drawback – Charlie also has narcolepsy, and may fall asleep at the most inopportune moment. But in London 2022, her skill is in demand – until it all starts to go horribly wrong…

As you can see, this is set in the very near future where virtual reality is being taken into some disturbing areas… I happen to know someone who suffers from narcolepsy – where the sufferer will fall fast asleep anywhere at any time, particularly when stressed. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this sleep disorder drives a tank through any attempt to lead a normal life. Charlie’s ability to hack dreams starts after her drugs trial with BigSky, when she also starts to suffer from narcolepsy, lose her job and a lot of her hair through stress. Unfortunately, due to the small print on the contract she signed when she took part in the trial, she has no recourse to any form of compensation. So she also ends up homeless. However, she is lucky to have a loyal friend in Shandy and find herself living as a companion to a cranky old lady in a wheelchair, known as O, by cooking and cleaning her pigeons for her. O is also very supportive of her new job as a dreamhacker.

I very much enjoyed Charlie’s character. She could so easily have moaned her way through the novel and although she is often depressed and undermined by her misfortunes, she is also feisty, with a nice line in sardonic humour. I also liked her impulsiveness and occasional lapse of judgement – it can be rather wearing to read of a protagonist who invariably takes the sensible option.

As for the crime aspect – it was really creepy to experience the way the Creeper infiltrated Charlie’s dreams and as I hadn’t read the rather chatty blurb, which I’ve tweaked, I hadn’t realised there was a suspicious death. Unravelling the murder mystery was enjoyable with plenty of suspects and though I guessed part of it, I didn’t appreciate the final part of the puzzle. This was a thoroughly enjoyable, engrossing read and recommended for fans of near future whodunits. While I obtained the arc of Sweet Dreams from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Just Off the Path by Weston Sullivan

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I loved the cover for this and when I read the premise, I immediately requested it – I thoroughly enjoy vivid fairytale retellings..

Hansel never asked to be a hero. He never wanted to fall in love with Rapunzel, Queen of the East. He didn’t ask to be raised by Gothel the Wretch, and he certainly never wanted to be credited for her arrest. But more than any of that, Hansel never wanted to lie: but he did. He lied about everything. He thought that he was done with it all when he and his sister Gretel retreated into the woods to reclaim their land, but he should have known better. Years later, Rapunzel’s guards knock at his door, and they say the words he hoped that he would never hear: Gothel has escaped. As he and Gretel take refuge inside Rapunzel’s castle in the eastern capitol of Hildebrand, Hansel is thrust back into everything he never wanted in the first place: his lies, his legend, and his lust. In the wake of it all, he knows that Gothel has escaped to finish what she started. She is out to make sure that the Sleeping Beauty never wakes, and that Grimm suffocates under her blanket of thorn and vine.

This is a really clever retelling in a dystopian world where the famous curse on sleeping beauty has riven Grimm into a series of small squabbling states. Rapunzel, the Queen, is clearly out of her depth and I found her the most fascinating of all the characters. I enjoyed the way in which nothing is as it first seems. And the way Sullivan plays with established fairytale characters is both smart and intriguing.

However, for some reason while there was never any risk of not completing this book, I didn’t love it as much as I had expected. I didn’t bond with Hansel, finding his constant negativity a real problem. Neither did I like Gretel very much. And as these were the two main characters who were at risk throughout, I wasn’t as heavily invested in the story as the stakes were raised and they were increasingly at risk.

That said, I’m aware this is the personal preference and the other reviewers have loved this one. If I have found Hansel more appealing doubtless. I too would have been caught up in the story, which is accomplished and clever. Recommended for fans of fairytale retellings.

While I obtained the arc of Just Off the Path from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
7/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Uploaded by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Being the shallow sort, I was first attracted by the fabulous cover for this book, then intrigued by the premise which prompted me to request it from Netgalley.

In the near future, the elderly have moved online and now live within the computer network. But that doesn’t stop them interfering in the lives of the living, whose sole real purpose now is to maintain the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life slaving away for the dead. It turns out that he’s not the only one who wants to reset the world…

This dystopian, YA science fiction near-future adventure explores a premise that I’ve recently come across in other books – Reaper by Janet Edwards and The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts – whereby people are spending more time in a virtual reality at the expense of our organic, real-time world. There are differences, of course, and Steinmetz has the dead uploaded into a virtual Heaven, which sounds a great idea.

However, the dead are still in charge of governing and over time they out-vote the living, who are increasingly losing out to the dead. Professionals are inevitably dead – but imagine being treated by a virtual doctor who has been dead so long, he has no sympathy about the fact you are in a lot of pain. This is the kind of problem the living are coping with. I like this world very much, which is well thought-out and poses some interesting questions.

Our protagonist is certainly very ticked off with his situation. His parents, who died six years ago in one of the virulent plagues sweeping across the planet, spend their time and energy in a fantasy world looking out for dragons, rather than keeping in touch with their children. Amichai, bright and inventive, is boxed into a miserable dead-end maintenance job so necessary to keep the Upterlife going, so relieves his frustration by breaking the rules and getting into mischief. However, he is treading a very narrow line – if he finally succeeds in really annoying the authorities, the dead can examine his ‘Shrive’ his last ‘save point’ where his thoughts and memories are uploaded and if they judge him to be a criminal, he would then die a ‘meat death’ where he won’t be uploaded once he dies. Unsurprisingly, the real-time population are really fed up, but reluctant to revolt given the way the odds are loaded against them.

I enjoyed this one. The plot twists and turns as Amichai flounders to find his place in this unhospitable world with a strong supporting cast. I think I could have loved it a tad more if I hadn’t found Amichai so flaky and annoying, but I’m aware this is a very personal response. My grouse is that when the situation is so dire, his impulsive risk-taking is plainly inappropriate and a lot of the narrative tension rides on it. However, if only he behaved with more responsibility, he wouldn’t have found himself in such a bad place – and given that his sister is pretty much reliant on him, I lost patience with his attitude. That said, the author makes a good case for the reasons why he is as he is – and he is thoroughly called to account for his behaviour and forced to reconsider his attitude, so there is a sense that he grows up during the book. If you enjoy dystopian science fiction reads with plenty of action, then I recommend this one.

While I obtained the arc of The Uploaded from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook The Voyage of the Basilisk – Book 3 of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan

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The discovery of this series has been one of my reading highlights – and the reason I haven’t powered through all the books is because they are too good. I want to savour each one after I’ve read it and reflect on it for a while, before once more diving back into this rich, beautifully evoked world. That said, the gap between The Tropic of Serpents and this one was longer than I’d planned.

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

The tone and writing is pitch perfect. Isabella Trent epitomises those gutsy Victorian lady explorers who endured hazardous journeys to distant corners of the world in primitive conditions – often still wearing corsets and long skirts. Although Isabella does adopt trousers for their practicality in scrambling over ruins and running away from enraged dragons. This time, most of the book is spent aboard the ship Basilisk as the expedition she is heading attempts to garner more information on sea dragons, amongst other breeds living inconveniently long distances away from Scirland.

The first third of the book is necessarily episodic as the expedition gets under way – but once events start to spin out of control, as they invariably do for Isabella and her companions, the pace picks up along with the stakes. While she would love to devote all her attention and resources on tracking down and learning more about dragons, the politics of the region has to be taken into account – particularly in relation to her own country’s ambitions and she has learnt the hard way that this is an aspect of her travels she cannot afford to disregard.

The long-running narrative arc regarding the issue of dragon bones being stabilised and used industrially continues to gain momentum through this book. While I think all the books can be easily read as a standalone, it is always gratifying to have at least one ongoing thread to reward readers who follow the series. The climax in this book kept me reading until the end – I simply couldn’t put it down. And while I am not going to dive straight into the next book – I want more time to fully absorb and appreciate Basilisk goodness – I certainly don’t want to leave it too long before I once again delight in revisiting this world with the next book in the series, In the Labyrinth of Drakes. Highly recommended.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Death Shall Come: A Country House Murder Mystery – Book 4 of the Ishmael Jones series by Simon R. Green

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I read and really enjoyed the third book in this series, Very Important Corpses – see my review here – so when I spotted this one on the Netgalley dashboard, I immediately requested it.

Death shall come on swift wings to whoever desecrates this tomb … Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been summoned to remote Cardavan House, home of the world’s largest private collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, for the unveiling of George Cardavan’s latest acquisition: a bone fide Egyptian mummy. When a bloodstained body is discovered beside the empty sarcophagus, Ishmael is dismissive of the theory that the mummy’s curse is to blame. Instead he sets out to uncover the human killer responsible. But how can Ishmael explain the strange, shuffling footsteps that creep along the corridors? Who is playing games with them … and why?

This is a classic locked-room murder mystery with some very familiar elements – the ancient Egyptian artefacts complete with a curse; a powerful family all very grumpy with each other; complete isolation with no immediate help forthcoming. Given this is set in a more or less contemporary Britain, the final element takes some arranging – however Green manages to achieve the sense of the house being completely cut off without too much suspension of disbelief.

His protagonist, Ishmael Jones, is an interesting character – I don’t want to veer into spoiler territory, so I’ll just mention that he isn’t necessarily what he appears to be. This brings it set of problems, which play nicely with the hidden antagonist striking down victims within the house.

Green is an experienced writer and gives us a gripping read that had me reluctant to put it down as once the action takes off, the tension steadily mounts. I also like the odd moments of light relief provided by Ishmael’s right-hand woman, Penny, who happens to be the love of his life. They are a solid team, though Ishmael is also aware his concern for her welfare can be a weakness, but cannot bear the thought of leaving her behind as he takes this important, unofficial mission. I like the bond between them – the steady fondness and Penny’s sprightly banter provides the necessary moments of humour and humanity before we are once more plunged back into a situation where a crazed killer is on the loose.

The key to crafting such a mystery is that the solution has to provide a satisfactory explanation that has sufficient heft so the reader doesn’t feel cheated – it’s quite tricky to achieve. Green manages to satisfactorily wrap up the story, though there is a cost to the survivors and as his immediate boss is right in the middle of this mess, I’m interested to see how this impacts on their working relationship in future. This is an enjoyable murder mystery with a paranormal twist which comes recommended for fantasy fans who want a break, or crime fans who would appreciate reading something slightly different.

While I obtained the arc of Death Shall Come from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook The Real-Town Murders – Book 1 of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

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A near-future murder mystery written by Adam Roberts seemed an irresistible combination, but I’m a sucker for a science fiction crime thriller, so was my enthusiasm justified?

Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. But most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country is decaying. Alma’s partner is ill, and has to be treated without fail every 4 hours, a task that only Alma can do. If she misses the 5 minute window her lover will die. She is one of the few not to access the Shine. So when Alma is called to an automated car factory to be shown an impossible death and finds herself caught up in a political coup, she knows that getting too deep may leave her unable to get home.

I was convinced initially that this was going to be the classic closed-room mystery – until the action suddenly kicked off, the plot jinked sideways and it all turned into something quite different… I love it when that happens! There are only a handful of writers that can pull off these flourishes with such panache, but Roberts happens to be one of them. The story surged forward, as the worldmaking redefined this thriller into something quite different.

Alma is stuck in the real world, tethered by the specific needs of her lover who has been struck down by a genetically specific cancer attuned to Alma’s DNA, meaning that she is the only one who can successfully nurse and treat Marguerite. Alongside the case, Roberts rolls out this intriguing world where increasingly the majority of people live and work in the virtual paradise that is the Shine. So what happens to the increasingly lopsided power dynamic between the virtual governing body and the real-time government?

Amidst the mayhem of full-on action scenes, there are some also genuinely amusing moments – I loved the faces of famous Britons that have been carved into the chalk cliffs of Dover to try and provide some belated attraction in the real world. Rebranding the town of Reading as R! also is funny and authentic as the kind of meaningless fluff the powers-that-be indulge in to be seen to do something about the increasing inequality between the real and virtual world.

The initial murder throws up all sorts of issues and pitchforks Alma into the middle of a really scary adventure, which bring her to notice of some very dangerous people – although, worryingly, it seems she has already been on somebody’s list. She is an enjoyable, sympathetic heroine, though if I have a grizzle, it’s that the characters seem to be able to soak up an insane amount of physical damage and still stagger forth. However, that is a minor grumble – overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable near-future whodunit and I notice with joy in my heart that it is the first in a series. Yippee!

While I obtained the arc of The Real-Town Murders from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Penric’s Fox – Book 3 of the novella series Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold

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This series has become a firm favourite with both Himself and me, having been largely responsible for my renewed interest in reading novellas. So I was delighted when this one popped up on my Kindle as a pre-ordered release.

Some eight months after the events of Penric and the Shaman, Learned Penric, sorcerer and scholar, travels to Easthome, the capital of the Weald. There he again meets his friends Shaman Inglis and Locator Oswyl. When the body of a sorceress is found in the woods, Oswyl draws him into another investigation; they must all work together to uncover a mystery mixing magic, murder and the strange realities of Temple demons.

The observant among you may have noticed that this latest addition to the Penric and Desdemona series does not follow on from the last book. However, it really didn’t make all that much difference to my enjoyment as there were no spoilers in the subsequent stories to compromise my reading experience.

Penric is inhabited by an old and very powerful chaos demon, Desdemona, who can provide him with supernatural powers and regularly needs feeding with the souls of dead creatures. Penric normally obliges by ridding any dwelling where he resides of fleas, lice, mice and rats. So he is shocked when he comes across the body of a fellow sorceress alone in the woods. The question then has to be – what has happened to her demon? In addition to tracking down a clearly dangerous and inventive murderer, Penric needs to discover what has happened to a traumatised demon who may be hitching a ride on a woodland animal.

Bujold is very good at packing a lot of story into a relatively short read. While I appreciate and draw on previous knowledge of the character, I believe that if anyone reads this book as a standalone, they won’t find themselves floundering. An extra twist to this tale is that Penric has the assistance of a couple of shape-shifting shamans who know the woods well. It was interesting to see how these differently talented characters fitted into this established world and worked alongside Penric.

As ever, the pacing of the story is well judged as the tension rises. This isn’t a classic whodunnit as we have a fair idea who the culprit may be well before the end. But the manner in which the denouement occurs and the story wrapped up is skilfully handled. This is another well-written, thoroughly enjoyable addition to this quality series and is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys first-class fantasy with a difference.
9/10