4 stars, fantasy

Song of the Beast

11338966Title: Song of the Beast
Author: Carol Berg

Brutal imprisonment has broken Aidan McAllister. Once the most famous musician of his generation, celebrated as a man beloved of the gods, his voice is now silent, his hands ruined, his music that offered beauty and hope to war-torn Elyria destroyed. Even the god who nurtured his talent since boyhood has abandoned him. But no one ever told him his crime. To discover the truth, he must risk his hard-bought freedom to unlock the mind of his god and the heart of his enemy.

Rating4star

 

I did not know how to offer love or how to recognize it when it was offered to me, though I was fairly certain it did not come from those who told you in the same breath that they wanted to slit your throat.

One thing I really enjoyed about the Carol Berg books I’d read so far was that romance didn’t play a huge part in them. I don’t mind romance but I get annoyed when people who should be busy saving the world just talk about their heartache. So I was not too happy when both Aiden and Lara spent a lot of time in their POV-chapters talking about their own feelings and how sure they were that the other one could never reciprocate them.
But then both of them had very good reasons to think so, it wasn’t some ridiculous melodrama blown out of proportion. And while especially Lara’s chapters are sometimes really dripping with self-hatred and her ‘I’m sure he can’t stand me’ gets somewhat repetitive I can easily see why she is like that.
Oh well, and the romance has some of my favourite tropes. They have to pretend to be a couple twice. There’s dancing and live-saving and Aidan has to keep calming Lara down because really she just wants to kill people. Exactly my kind of couple. If you have romance in your fantasy, please do it like that.

And then there’s the villains. Or rather the lack of typical fantasy villains. Nobody wants to destroy the world for the evilulz. Nobody wants to kill the king. No foreign power threatens to conquer the country and enslave the people.
The closest thing we get to villains are the dragonriders (and yes, they admittedly don’t have that much depth) but even they don’t want more power than they already have. They just want to keep the power they have. And when that status quo is threatened they are Not Happy. But they are not the main reason for the bad things that happen in this book. The main reason is bad decision making. Some were made by the characters in this book. Some by their ancestors and they are now stuck with them. Admitting that those decisions were bad would lead to disaster. And now they all hope that they can just carry on as before, even if that means making some more bad decisions.

Now there are some things that show it’s the author’s first book. There are some info-dumps early on about the character’s past and the worldbuilding. Through the changing POVs we also get some pieces of information twice and the final battle is somewhat anticlimactic but those are just minor things in an otherwise great book. (And a single-volume fantasy no less! I can’t remember the last time an author managed to fit a whole epic fantasy in a single book).

5 stars, fantasy

Transforation (Rai-Kirah #1)

Title: Transformation
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Rai-Kirah #1

Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him: his dignity, the people and homeland he loves, and the Warden’s power he used to defend an unsuspecting world from the ravages of demons. Seyonne has made peace with his fate. With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone. But from the moment he is sold to the arrogant, careless Prince Aleksander, the heir to the Derzhi Empire, Seyonne’s uneasy peace begins to crumble. And when he discovers a demon lurking in the Derzhi court, he must find hope and strength in a most unlikely place…

Rating5star

No, my lord. It is your heart. Difficult as it may be to comprehend, there is a possibility you may have one.
Look at that blurb. And then at that cover. I know how this looks but this isn’t a highly problematic gay romance. It is a beautiful story but also one that’s probably not for everybody.
Slavery in fantasy-stories isn’t unusual but most books shy away from really touching the topic. It mostly happens far away to Other People. If it happens to our protagonists he either remained strong and resistant and honourable through the worst abuse or has the great luck to meet the one Nice Guy master who does not abuse the human being he owns for fun (even though everybody else in the story does).
Transformation doesn’t go that way. The first few chapters are not easy to read because some horrible things are done to Seyonne. (It’s not needlessly graphic but also doesn’t leave any doubts about how bad it is). And Aleksander does some of these horrible things. He’s a spoiled brat with a frightening amount of power who has never thought about the consequences of his actions.
He gets better.
And I’m buying his redemption arc. There is no long and meaningful conversation between him and Seyonne where he explains how sorry he is and how he realizes how horrible he’s been. There are only two or three short scenes where he says things that make it clear that his views have changed drastically. He also does a lot of things to make up for his behavior. (Yes, I know that threatening to kill people if Seyonne gets hurt is not a sensible or healthy thing to do but it is very delightful. And it’s not the only thing he does).
So yes, for me his ark worked but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who see him at the beginning and don’t want to see anything more of him.
And since that book is about Aleksander, Seyonne and how they and their relationship changes over the course of it, you will only enjoy it if you buy the redemption. Sure, it’s a fantasy novel where the protagonists fight demons but that part is so closely linked to the characters that you will not enjoy it if you don’t like them.
So what I have just said in many words is that this is a very character-driven story and that I like the characters a lot. Is the book perfect? No, there are some pacing-issues towards the end. A lot happens on the last 100 pages. Actual action and revelations and you get barely time to comprehend all of it because there are already three more things happening simultaneously. At the very end, there is even something that I expected to be the sequel-hook but it gets resolved in 5 pages.
But…I don’t care. I still loved it because it shamelessly panders to preferences. A fantasy novel with a small cast of characters and focus on their relationship, mages, a world that isn’t just fantasy medieval Western Europe and even though it’s dark it never feels dark and gritty(TM) just for the sake of being dark and gritty.
5 stars, fantasy

The Demon Prism (Collegia Magica #3)

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Title: The Daemon Prism
Author
: Carol Berg
Series: Collegia Magica #3

Dante the necromancer is the most reviled man in Sabria, indicted by the king, the Temple, and the Camarilla Magica for crimes against the living and the dead. Blinded by his enemy’s cruel vengeance, Dante salves pain and bitterness by preparing his student, Anne de Vernase, to heal the tear in the Veil between life and death. 
When Anne abandons him to return to her family, Dante seeks refuge in a magical puzzle, a desperate soldier’s dream of an imprisoned enchantress and a faceted glass that can fulfill one’s uttermost desires. But the dream is a seductive trap that threatens to unleash the very cataclysm Dante fears. Haunted, desperate, the blind mage embarks on a journey into madness, ancient magic, and sacred mystery, only to confront the terrifying truth of his own destiny…

Rating5star

She raises grapes. I raise the dead.

If that quote doesn’t make you want to read the series I can’t help you…

The Spirit Lens and The Soul Mirror read like mysteries. Of course, there was magic and the mystery wasn’t simply ‘who killed him?’. It was ‘who is behind the conspiracy that aims to set off the magical equivalent of a nuclear bomb?’ but there were clues, red herrings, everything a good mystery has. The Demon Prism is more conventional epic fantasy. There is a problem, a bigger one than the magical nuclear bomb and our heroes have to stop it.

That doesn’t mean that it’s quite your typical ‘group on a journey to stop the big bad’ either. The characters are all at different places at the beginning of the book. Different things make them think something is wrong and set out on their journey. They meet others, loose them again and find somebody else. They don’t always know what has happened to those that aren’t with them which makes for some gut-wrenching reading. Character- and relationship-development had been a strength of the previous books and so there is no doubt about how much these people mean to one another. And them thinking the worst and grieving you just wanted to reach through the pages to give them a hug. (And a blanket. And cookies).

Though people who come to the epic fantasy for the big battles will be disappointed. Even though there are three powerful mages, a master swordsman and a really really powerful big bad there isn’t much battle action. You get to see much more of the fight with the big bad’s henchmen than of the actual boss battle. I didn’t mind because I knew the henchmen much better and wanted to see them getting their comeuppance. (On a side note: Berg is brilliant and writing characters you despise and then give them extremely satisfying ‘reality ensues’ endings).

Now for all my flailing (and crying), this book isn’t without fault. It drags a bit halfway through. Dante is imprisoned and the reader is stuck with him. Things become somewhat repetitive. But those bits also contained some of the most chilling scenes when we saw the effect it had on Dante. It still could have been condensed a bit more but I’m again complaining on a very high level.

So go and read all the Collegia Magica books. And then have feelings together with me.

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It’s funny because the grumpy necromancer learns that friendship is indeed magic.

5 stars, fantasy, romance

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1)

35118935Title: Spectred Isle
Author: KJ Charles
Series: Green Men #1

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfill his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Rating5star

 

“You’ve had a hell of a time, haven’t you?”
“Other’s worse,” Saul managed.
“That is the most specious form of consolation possible. One can always find someone who has it worse. If I’m having my fingernails torn out with pincers, it is unhelpful to observe that my neighbour has been hanged, drawn and quartered.”

 

One thing that annoys me in romances is when the relationship seems to be a one-way-street. One partner is experienced in Everything: sex, relationships, life in general and genre-dependant monster hunting, cooking or archery. Of course they are just too happy to teach their partner who Knows Nothing.

 

You know nothing, Jon Snow
Come on. Did you expect my to pass up the opportunity to use this gif?

That’s not what happens in this book. To say that Saul’s last relationship ended catastrophically is an understatement and now he’s unsure about himself, his sexuality and doubts he even deserves good things. A lack of confidence has never been a problem for Randolph and he’s in a privileged enough position that his sexuality had never been an issue. He is, however, an aristocrat and thus grew up in a family where nobody had emotions of any kind (or at least never talked about them). He also thought in his profession relationships were out of the question anyway.
Apart from that, both of them are in a bad place after the war but have a hard time admitting to themselves just how bad it is. So when they meet they learn from each other. About acceptance, admitting things to yourself and dealing with your emotions.

 

“Look, not to insult you by suggesting that you have human feelings, but-”
“I should bloody well hope not.”

That doesnt’t mean that there’s no humour. Rather the opposite. Neither of them is ever in want of a witty comeback and it’s a joy to read them. On occasions, I felt it would have been better if they had kept their conversation serious for a bit longer instead of turning to sarcasm again. But then dealing with difficult situations with humour is very human (and it got never so bad that I felt I was just reading witty remarks loosely connected by a plot).

Now for the non-romance part:
*excited shouting* STEPHEN AND MATHILDA!

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Look, some long-dead monarchs make me exceptionally happy.

Ehem. Sorry. I will simply forever be bitter about the lack of (good) fiction about the Anarchy. WHY IS EVERYTHING ABOUT THE WAR OF THE ROSES? Now it’s not a big deal, in the sense that you need extensive knowledge of the era to understand what is going on. The little information you need is explained in the book. But I’m very happy when authors dive into some of the less well-known chapters of English history.
The plot should also satisfy readers that don’t get nerdgasms when certain periods of English history are mentioned. It’s fast-paced, has a very interesting magical system and a great set up for a trilogy. It answers enough questions to give closure to the storyline, while leaving enough open to make me look forward to the next book.

 

ARC provided by the author.

4 stars, fantasy

The Soul Mirror (Collegia Magica #2)

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Title: The Soul Mirror
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Collegia Magica #2

By order of His Royal Majesty Philippe de Savin-Journia y Sabria, Anne de Vernase is hereby summoned to attend His Majesty’s Court at Merona…

Anne de Vernase rejoices that she has no talent for magic. Her father’s pursuit of depraved sorcery has left her family in ruins, and he remains at large, convicted of treason and murder by Anne’s own testimony. Now, the tutors at Collegia Seravain inform her that her gifted younger sister has died in a magical accident. It seems but life’s final mockery that cool, distant Portier de Savin-Duplais, the librarian turned royal prosecutor, arrives with the news that the king intends to barter her hand in marriage.

Anne recognizes that the summoning carries implications far beyond a bleak personal future – and they are all about magic. Merona, the royal city, is beset by plagues of rats and birds, and mysterious sinkholes that swallow light and collapse buildings. Whispers of hauntings and illicit necromancy swirl about the queen’s volatile sorcerer. And a murder in the queen’s inner circle convinces Anne that her sister’s death was no accident. With no one to trust but a friend she cannot see, Anne takes up her sister’s magical puzzle, plunging into the midst of a centuries-old rivalry and coming face-to-face with the most dangerous sorcerer in Sabria. His name is Dante.

Review4star

The people in this book make very reasonable, but also very frustrating decisions. Because of Portier, Anne’s father is wanted for treason. When Anne finds evidence that her father might be innocent after all it’s logical that she doesn’t share it with Portier immediately. On the other hand, it’s also perfectly logical that Portier doesn’t trust the daughter of a known traitor. Especially if he can tell that she’s keeping secrets from him. So in-universe their behavior is completely sensible. Still, as reader, you want to scream Just talk to each other! because you know they both belong to the good guys and could get much further if they just shared their findings. Now, it only takes about a third of the book till they do but it is a very frustrating third…
Especially if that third is otherwise also…not great. By which I don’t mean horrible, just not meeting the high expectations I have of Carol Berg since I started binging her books. Which is complaining on a very high level. It’s just that Anne – the narrator of this book – is very passive at the beginning. She finds out things (mostly more or less by accident) but isn’t able to do much with her knowledge. Again, it makes sense. She’s new at court, doesn’t have any connections and ‘avoid getting killed’ is a rather time-consuming. And people are trying to kill her (or worse), she just has no idea who or why. And, as long as she doesn’t know whom to trust she can only react to things that happen and nothing more.
Now I guess that was my long-winded way of saying that the beginning of this book is a bit long-winded. But once it gets going it really gets going. I went Wow! I did not see that coming! quite often. Only one of the minor villains was disappointing. He was basically the disgusting rapey old man you get in some bad romance novels. Nothing beyond that. Which is a shame because even the irredeemably evil characters in this story manage to have some depth. Only this guy didn’t. Still, he didn’t appear so often that he bothered me too much.
Now for the climax of the story. Well, there was something I did see coming. Or perhaps I should rather say, something that didn’t surprise me. Because while this is a fantasy story with magic and villains that want to destroy the world, it’s also a mystery. So when it obeyed certain mystery rules I wasn’t too surprised. But it was still highly awesome (and there were enough things that I did not see coming). And I wanted to wrap everybody in blankets afterward and give them cookies. My poor, poor babies. OK…I’ll stop now. I just care a lot about these characters…

1 star, fantasy

The Phoenix Born (A Dance of Dragons #3)

Title: The Phoenix Born
Author Kaitlyn Davis
Series: A Dance of Dragons #3

For the first time in a thousand years, the fire dragon has been awakened and Rhen is its rider. But after destroying the armies that threatened the city of Rayfort, Rhen is shown a vision in flames that changes everything. The shadow’s phantom armies are coming and the dragons are the only things that might stop them.

High in the castle at the top of the Gates, Jinji has learned something of her own. Janu, her long lost twin, is alive. And just as the spirit shares her body, the shadow shares his. In the blink of an eye, her quest for vengeance against the evil that killed her family has changed to one of protection. Because she knows that if Rhen learns the truth he will do what she cannot—end the shadow, and end her brother in the process.

As the shadow grows more aggressive, Jinji and Rhen fight to find the rest of the dragon riders. But with time running out, they are forced to face the impossible decision between honor and love. Alliances are formed, promises are broken, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance…

Rating

They learned how each other moved, how they flew, how they fought. But most of all they bonded, formed a friendship.
Don’t bore me with details on the character- and relationship development. That might actually give them some depth and make them interesting and who would want that?
At the beginning of the book, Jinji uses her magic powers to rebuild a city that had been destroyed in a battle and heal the people that were injured during the attack. She spends almost a day doing that before she collapses. But not because using magic is physically exhausting, but because seeing so many dead and injured people takes an emotional toll on her. Fortunately, trauma can be healed by a hug from your boyfriend so she can go on to use some magic to convince the different sides in the battle to stop fighting each other and fight the Shadow instead.
All of this happens in the first three or four chapters and makes it very clear that the characters won’t need to worry about any of the things most other fantasy protagonists do. Somebody doesn’t believe them? There’s a person with essential god-like powers who can impress them till they change their opinions. A serious injury? That can be solved with little more than a snap of the fingers? No food? Same. The only thing Junji can’t do is teleport but then the other’s have dragons that can cover huge distances in minutes. (That, or the whole book takes place in an area roughly the size of Liechtenstein). Frankly, that makes for some very boring reading.
Of course, there is still the Big Bad of the series but what makes fantasy exciting is that the protagonists have to deal with a lot of stuff besides fighting the Big Bad. Here, the only other things that are going on are Jinji and Rhen’s relationship “problems”. In quotation marks, because they can be summed up with ‘You lied to me about something major. But when I think about it for a few paragraphs I can understand why you did that. Now I have betrayed you but you also forgave me after a few pages. And it’s not like either of our betrayals had any real consequences (except the deaths of a few thousand people but let’s ignore that since we did not know any of them).’ So these parts are also really boring. Which results in an exceptionally boring book.

 

ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of the series so far:

1 star, fantasy

The Bronze Knight (A Dance of Dragons #2.5)

Title: The Bronze Knight
Author: Kaitlyn Davis
Series: A Dance of Dragons #2.5

Princess Leena arrives in Rayfort with one thought on her mind–getting the information that might stop her father’s armies to Prince Whylrhen as soon as possible. But once there, she quickly realizes the situation is far more dire than she ever anticipated. Abandoned by Jinji and Rhen who were sent away by the king regent, Leena is left alone with an impossible decision to make. Stay in Rayfort and fight with the rest of the doomed city. Or risk a life on the run for the chance of survival.

Rating: 

 

“For the hope that one day, I’ll be able to return home, to a kingdom changed, to a kingdom that has tossed cruelty to the side and replaced it with love.”
 
Let me get this straight: We spent all that time establishing that the Ourthuri, in general, are evil and it’s not just Leena’s father who is an evil ruler. He didn’t decide to execute all his wives who didn’t bear him a son immediately, that’s an Ourthuri custom. He didn’t introduce slavery, that’s an Ourthuri custom. He didn’t decide that minor offenses warrant a cruel punishment, that’s an Ourthuri custom. Leena herself says about her culture that in it “each moment of beauty [is] scared by some hidden darkness.” Because those Arabs are just evil. Sorry. Of course, I mean the Ourthuri. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that Ourthuro resembles a middle-eastern place. Or that only Ourthori women wear veils which, today, is something mostly associated with Muslims. I’m sure they aren’t meant to be the evil Arab stereotype from a bad 80s fantasy novel…
Where was I? Right. Leena’s plan. She wants to help the Whylrhen defend themselves against the Ourthori attack. And then attack Ourthuro herself? Or just hope that after the lost war her people will be so devastated that she can waltz in and announce “Hey everybody! I know you hate women and never listen to them, and you will hate me even more because I broke some traditions…oh and also because I betrayed you to our enemies. But anyway have you considered being not evil?” And then everybody starts singing ‘Love, Love, Peace, Peace’ and they can live happily ever after?
That is a shitty plan. And all this could have been avoided if it had been just Leena’s father who was an evil king. Or at least the last in a line of rulers that got progressively worse. Instead, we get a people with all the depth of the orcs in Lord of the Rings (only hotter) and only our protagonist with her awesome sue-powers and some convenient cannon-fodder is speciul enough to see that and fight it. It doesn’t make sense.
 
Well, and the plot itself…repeated what we already know from the previous novel. Plus some new information that will probably be repeated in the next novel. I still don’t see the point of these novellas.
ARC provided by NetGalley.