4 stars, fantasy

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (The Risen Kingdoms #1)

31702733Title: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors
Author: Curtis Craddock
Series:  The Risen Kingdoms #1

A polymath princess and her faithful musketeer must unravel the plot of a thousand-year-old madman in order to save an a foreign kingdom from a disastrous civil war.

Caelum is an uninhabitable gas giant like Jupiter. High above it are the Risen Kingdoms, occupying flying continents called cratons. Remnants of a shattered world, these vast disks of soaring stone may be a thousand miles across. Suspended by magic, they float in the upper layers of Caelum’s clouds. 

Born with a deformed hand and utter lack of the family’s blood magic, Isabelle is despised by her cruel father. She is happy to be neglected so she can secretly pursue her illicit passion for math and science. Then, a surprising offer of an arranged royal marriage blows her life wide open and launches her and Jean-Claude on an adventure that will take them from the Isle des Zephyrs in l’Empire Céleste to the very different Kingdom of Aragoth, where magic deals not with blood, but with mirrors.

Rating4star

“I still think I should-”
“No!” Isabelle rallied against the automatic male assumption that anything she might do, they could do better, even if they had no experience whatsoever.

After the awesome-sounding blurb and the advance praise, I expected a lot from this book and was slightly disappointed in the first few chapters. It infodumps a lot on the world and there is too much magical technobabble for my taste. It also doesn’t need long till my fantasy pet peeve appears: the brutal execution method (described in detail) that shows us just how horrible the world the protagonists live in is. It is pointed out that that method isn’t the norm in the whole country, only the duke that rules over the Isle des Zephyrs is a psychopath but that doesn’t make it much better. I’m very tired of books that begin that way.

I wasn’t grumpy for long, though because the book soon made up for its mediocre start. (And the mustache-twirling villain that is the heroine’s father…who also made sense in context later). We get a math-loving heroine whose life is turned on its head when she is married off to the son of a neighboring country’s king. He’s only the second son but there is pressure on his father to disinherit his firstborn because he refuses to divorce his barren wife.

Isabelle is now thrown into a cesspool of intrigue. Her husband-to-be’s older half-brother and his wife are unsurprisingly not pleased by her. But she also isn’t sure what her groom’s mother wants. Her own son on the throne instead of the son of her husband’s first wife, so much is obvious, but what role does Isabelle play in her schemes? And what about the priest who arranged the marriage? The prince and Isabelle come from different magical bloodlines and the church says those should never mix. Add a few more people with uncertain loyalties and I wished I’d made some notes during reading to keep things straight. (Seriously. Especially during the very grand, very epic and very awesome finale it almost got a bit much).

And what does Isabelle want?
Peace.
That’s right. She knows that any uncertainty about the succession will throw the country into a bloody civil war and she wants to avoid that. And she has only one certain ally in that endeavor: Jean-Claude, a Musketeer that has been more of a father than her actual father and who has now accompanied her to the foreign court.
Of course, Jean-Claude is a King’s Musketeer. And the king of Céleste also has plans for his neighboring country. He and Jean-Claude have some disagreements about the importance of Isabelle for these plans. That leads to some…intense discussions between the two.

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Pictured: How I imagined Jean-Claude and King Leon

Now this book isn’t only about court-intrigue. There is also action (a couple of princes have to be saved after all) but if you don’t think that a scene in which Isabelle has to figure out what’s the right thing to say to her future mother-in-law can be just as tense and exciting as a swordfight you won’t enjoy that book as much as I did. (I enjoyed it a lot, in case that wasn’t obvious…now how long do I have to wait for the next book?)

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3 stars, fantasy

Dust and Light (Sanctuary #1)

18683282Title: Dust and Light
Author: Carol Berg
Series: Sanctuary #1

How much must one pay for an hour of youthful folly? The Pureblood Registry accused Lucian de Remeni-Masson of “unseemly involvement with ordinaries,” which meant only that he spoke with a young woman not of his own kind, allowed her to see his face unmasked, worked a bit of magic for her….After that one mistake, Lucian’s grandsire excised half his magic and savage Harrowers massacred his family. Now the Registry has contracted his art to a common coroner. His extraordinary gift for portraiture is restricted to dead ordinaries—beggars or starvelings hauled from the streets.

But sketching the truth of dead men’s souls brings unforeseen consequences. Sensations not his own. Truths he cannot possibly know and dares not believe. The coroner calls him a cheat and says he is trying to weasel out of a humiliating contract. The Registry will call him mad—and mad sorcerers are very dangerous….

Rating3star

One part of Dust and Light is a buddy cop movie. No, seriously. There’s the new guy who is a posh bloke, arrogant, privileged and obsessed with obeying rules to the letter. And there’s a working class guy who has been doing this job for a long time who is very aware that justice sometimes clashes with what is legal. Of course, they can’t stand each other at first. But then a murdered child turns up and they realize that both want the person behind this to pay for their crime. There is also some mutual life-saving involved and soon they’re willing to do everything for each other.
The other part of the book is a conspiracy thriller. Lucian discovers that he has some very powerful enemies. He has no idea why they are after him but he soon learns that he can trust nobody. Now he somehow has to find out what’s so special about him that the whole magical government is after him while also avoiding being captured by said magical government. (And catch a child-killer. Because the constant threat of imprisonment and worse is no excuse to neglect your strong moral compass).

I love buddy cop shows. I hate conspiracy thrillers. And the thriller is the main plot. Now despite my dislike for that particular genre: it’s a very well done one. The more Lucian finds out about the why the less he knows whom he can trust. And the more he has to deal with what this why means for him and his convictions. Carol Berg once said that she likes to put her heroes in situations where they have to go against their most valued beliefs and that is very true for Lucian. I really felt for him that on top of everything he also has to come to terms with something that major.

And all that made me often almost forget that all the conspiracy thriller tropes actually exhaust me. But then came yet another scene that made me wonder why Lucian hasn’t collapsed from exhaustion at an inopportune moment because he spent the last three days mostly without sleep, constantly running and getting beaten up at least once. Or he got attacked and my first thought was ‘Well, there’s about 8 possible choices for who did this’. So I was annoyed and at the same time really wanted to know how it all continues. (I still do and so I will read book two). Somebody who is less bothered by these tropes will probably enjoy this book more than I did. But for me, it’s a book I liked but one that won’t get a space on my favorite shelf.

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…