I'd heard a lot of good things about Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series and I was in the mood for something a bit more gritty, so I plucked this one from my TBR stack and dug in. Lies follows the illegal endeavors of one Locke Lamora, a plague orphan who ends up being raised by the most cunning gang boss in Camorr - one who masquerades as a priest. Together with his small crew of con men, Locke robs some of the wealthiest nobles in the city, an act that goes against the sacred truce between Camorr's elite and its underworld, which is ruled by one Capa Barsavi. When a rival Capa moves in to contest Barsavi's rule, Locke's own under-the-radar exploits are upended and the fallout makes for an intense read.
Every writer has their own flavor, a sort of attitude that flows from the page. Lynch's is a curious mixture of refinement and vulgarity. His prose is unflinching and yet elegant; his characters intelligent yet unscrupulous. Witty, bawdy banter is set against the dark and dingy backdrop of Camorr, a city ruled by the ruthless, both high-born and low. Lynch doesn't hesitate to use coarse language, which I appreciate. Humans swear. Especially those born in the gutter. It's a reality that often gets censored in traditional publishing, polished away and cleaned up to make manuscripts more palatable for a wider audience. Lies is chock-full of profanity that is used to add humor and authenticity to the story and the characters, and it is done masterfully.
The second thing that stood out to me about Lynch's writing was all the things he doesn't say. He doesn't crowd. He leaves lots of room for the reader to imagine or deduce all the missing pieces. He lets his dialogue breathe and he constructs characters effortlessly. Near the beginning, there is a scene with two of the supporting characters, the Sanza twins. They accompany Locke to Barsavi's hideout and while they wait for their audience with the Capa, one Sanza pulls out a deck of cards. The guards in the room immediately tense and the twins protest that the rumors are overblown. What rumors? What happened? Doesn't matter. The mere suggestion adds volumes of depth to the twins' characters in the space of a few lines, and that is exceptional character-building.
One part in particular that stood out to me was near the end (don't worry, no spoilers). Locke is out of breath after a flight across the city. As a reader, knowing where he's just come from and the state of mind he's in, I imagine him racing out into the courtyard, cutting the traces on a carriage horse while footmen and guards shout protests, launching himself up onto the horse's back and tearing off into the dark city streets. But all Lynch says is that Locke stole a horse to get there. This struck me at the time, because rarely do I get those moments of spontaneous visualization while reading, especially without any kind of prompting from the text itself. Lynch gives you room to fill in the blanks, and he does so without the prose feeling like it's missing anything.
I'll admit, it was hard to get into this book, at first. The first half has so much back-and-forth between the past and the present that I struggled to get engaged. The meetings with the Salvaras (the nobles he's conning) felt tedious. The structure of the chapters is also very nontraditional, but I quickly learned to ignore it and just take the strange numberings as a replacement for scene breaks. Compared to other books, I had to take this one in smaller bites. Lynch's descriptions of Camorr and its history are beautifully-written, but I found myself skimming or just flat-out skipping entire paragraphs. I find those sorts of long-winded explanations exhausting. Perhaps that's why this one took me so long to read. I'm glad I stuck with it, though. This was one of few books that made me actually laugh out loud while reading it. I look forward to the next book in the series.
Recommended for more traditional fantasy fans who enjoy darker settings and more elegant prose, as well as a good dose of swearing and shenanigans.
How long did it take you to write?
Technically? Over a decade. Elivya has haunted me since I was a teenager. Her story and her world have gradually been taking shape inside my head for years, but when I finally got my act together and sat down at a keyboard with intent, it took a year and a half.
Favorite chapter or scene?
I love all of Quintin and Elivya's interactions. She enjoys pushing his buttons and he is so good at shutting her down with a few well-chosen words. Their animosity makes writing dialogue for them a lot of fun.
How did Elivya's character evolve over time?
In painful leaps and bounds. Like any new author, my first attempt was horribly one-dimensional. I made her angry, proud, rebellious, permanent chip on the shoulder. You know the type. After a few drafts, I finally figured out that she needed legitimate reasons for all of these attributes. Why did she resent her privileged life? Why was she so prideful? In exploring these questions, I unearthed some of my favorite parts of Traitor, including Elivya's complicated relationship with her father. Over time, I tempered her to have a far more realistic balance of attributes, the good and the bad. Above all, I wanted Elivya to feel incredibly human, with all the shortcomings and mistakes that go with it.
Hardest part to write?
From a technical standpoint, Elivya's debut was a challenge. It's her first introduction to the lavish setting at Court and I wanted her to feel a little overwhelmed without losing the prideful edge that is core to her character. Balancing her practical inexperience with her innate cleverness and extensive training was difficult for me. From an emotional perspective, the burial scene in chapter 38 wrecked me.
Want to get equally wrecked? Listen to "Rue's Farewell" while reading it. I dare you not to cry. [...] No? No tears? Okay, FINE, maybe I'm just a big softie.
Got a question you want answered? Leave a comment on this post!
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Serpent & Dove.
Mahurin's sophomore novel was an auto-buy for me, my first in a very long time. If you read my review of Serpent & Dove, you'll know how much I enjoyed the first installment of this trilogy. A few things were hit-and-miss about book 1, but I had hopes that book 2 would see Mahurin really come into her own. In some ways, she did, but this second go-around with Lou and Reid was not quite what I expected.
Blood & Honey has all the dark magic and charm of S&D, with Mahurin's brutal-yet-beautiful magic system taking center stage. In an effort to head off Morgane's schemes, Lou and her cohorts attempt to make allies out of enemies and convene on the Archbishop's funeral in Cesarine for a showdown with the queen of the Dames Blanches.
There were many things I enjoyed about this book. The dialogue, as always, provides top-notch humor that offsets the dark backdrop of our heroes' circumstances. Lou's gradual slide toward the darker side of magic is taken with masterfully understated steps. New characters arise, each painted with a bold brush that imprints them firmly in the reader's mind. Ansel's development from boy to more-or-less man was painfully satisfying. Still, despite these qualities, this book was a bit of a let-down.
The Dames Rouges (blood witches) are deliciously dark, morbid creatures, and getting a glimpse into Coco's past and the schism that divided the two groups of witches had so much potential. Somehow, it still fell flat for me. I was bored for several chapters, feeling like minor characters were being foisted upon me, only to die a few pages later. While I could appreciate the significance Mahurin was trying to impress with those sacrifices, she doesn't give the reader enough time to care about them or to get invested in the particular mystery that is hinted there. It feels like a passing fancy rather than an integral subplot.
Then there's the werewolves. While an interesting part of Reid's past, I don't feel like their inclusion had any purpose except to add variety to the cast. Not much else to say on that front.
Between those two story lines (the blood witches and the werewolves), I can't help but wonder if the pacing would have been better served by picking one arc and sticking to it. Or, alternately, by splitting Lou and Reid up and sending them each on their own separate arc (Lou to the blood witches and Reid to the werewolves) to be reunited in the final act. As it is, the inclusion of both in succession serves to completely invalidate the sense of urgency that is laid out in the beginning of the book, squandering that tension through the seemingly endless time our heroes have to travel from the far north to the far south of the continent. If you don't look at the map, maybe this won't bother you, but I'm a sucker for maps and the one included in B&H makes its timeline feel far-fetched at best.
Another facet of my disappointment was the lack of romance in this second volume. From the very first page, Lou and Reid's marriage slowly degrades throughout this book. Normally, that wouldn't bother me, but their relationship feels suddenly petty and juvenile, easily influenced by the manipulative comments of others (looking at you, Madame Labelle). Reid's guilt and blind rejection of his own magic, along with Lou's crippling trust issues, work in concert to drive a wedge between them. Neither are willing or capable of compromise (or even basic communication), and it becomes grating after the first few hundred pages. I'm pretty sure I yelled at the book once or twice. The romantic maneuverings of the secondary characters are equally juvenile, even if they provide a bit of humorous banter to keep the reader entertained.
In all, this was a decent read. Not great, not terrible, but good enough that I'll be buying the final book in the trilogy when it comes out.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Middle books are tough.
There is a spectrum of qualities on which to judge a book. Plot, pacing, characters, conflict, action, romance, prose...the list is endless. All authors struggle in some areas while excelling in others. Renee Ahdieh is no exception. To be fair, these are the only two books of hers I've read, so the rest of her catalog might debunk this evaluation, but this review will focus specifically on her debut duology.
I originally intended to review these books separately, since that is how I have approached my series reviews in the past, but the first book's climax was so underwhelming that I decided to group them together. And therein lies my first criticism. This should have been one book. Yes, it would be long, but the length would have been justified. As it stands, The Wrath and the Dawn has a pitiful apex that left me closing the book thinking, "Is that it?" When taken as a single unit, the duology has a steady arc of growth that builds to a satisfying conclusion, with Wrath's "climax" serving as a pivotal turning point rather than a lackluster finale.
Ahdieh's characters feel skin-deep, though that is likely just a side effect of the 3rd person perspective. Tariq's chapters were my least favorite, bordering on tedious, and I found myself despising him by the end. Sharzhad was a bit too flawless for my taste, though her internal struggles with her feelings for Khalid helped redeem her enough to make me comfortable rooting for her by the end. In all, Khalid was my favorite character. I'm a sucker for a brooding love interest with a dark past.
The romance was slow-burn and satisfying, though Sharzhad and Khalid certainly won't make it into my top ships of all time. The subplots are few, but each is brought to a tidy resolution by the end. The magic that is largely absent in the first book is brought to the forefront with painterly gusto in the second. The limited action scenes didn't have much spine behind them, leaving me with a dampened sense of the story's stakes. Even the big standoff battle at the end of the second book felt phoned-in.
Where Ahdieh really excels is atmosphere. Her prose fluctuates between rudimentary and poetic, but the two are surprisingly not at odds. Through them, she weaves a rich fantasy world full of sights, smells, and flavors heavily inspired by middle-eastern culture. Her descriptions are concise yet evocative, bringing to life every decadent meal and gilded hall.
As a whole, I enjoyed these books even though they fell short for me on a few levels. The mix of arranged marriage and enemies-to-lovers satisfied some of my favorite tropes, which (if I'm being honest) is largely what kept me reading. I also found the style of magic wonderfully understated. For me, the icing on the cake was the titles. Silly though it may be, I appreciate when the title of a book has more meaning to the reader once they've finished the story. While The Wrath and the Dawn was pretty immediate in its relevance, I didn't fully grasp The Rose and the Dagger until the very end. A dark, poetic, well-constructed end, I might add. Though not my favorite read of the year, I might be revisiting Ahdieh's works in the future.
A good vacation read, but it won't change your life.
The conclusion of Beaty's trilogy didn't blow me away the same as the previous two installments did, but it was still a great read. I won't give much of a summary, since that might spoil things in the earlier books, but I will say that the romantic tension between Alex and Sage is intense. Their constant separation makes their few interludes all the sweeter and more desperate.
The big conflict in this one surrounds a set of peace talks between Demora and Kimisara, in which an unknown traitor is trying to pull strings to their own ends. Political maneuvering takes center stage in this one, with the wide cast of characters coming together for a single final goal. Complete with a few red herrings, this one left me guessing until the end.
Though there are a few bursts of action throughout, I felt a little underwhelmed by this book. It didn't spiral up to as big of a finish as its predecessors. That being said, I don't honestly know how it could have been different. The final face-off between Sage and the traitor was well-done and satisfying. A number of smaller arcs were resolved neatly. I think a bit more time could have been invested in developing the secondary characters rather than reinforcing Sage's already-established internal conflicts. I would have liked to see more of Lani and Cass, in particular.
Despite these minor grumblings, Kingdom is still a strong finish to a fantastic trilogy, and I highly recommend these books to anyone who loves political intrigue and romance (PG-13) with a hearty splash of action.
Once again, Beaty has built a slow-burn plot packed with tension, intrigue, and action. This book 2 suffers from none of the usual issues middle books often face. From start to finish, it's every bit as edge-of-your-seat as the first book, adding to the expansive world without being dull or overwhelming. As far as second-books go, this is one of the most successful I've ever seen. Beaty's approach to this series is very insular, in that each book stands quite strongly on its own two legs. Ruin's story arc is big enough to drive both the characters and the reader onward without relying overmuch on information in the previous volume.
In Ruin, Alex gets a crucial new assignment that puts him once again in a position to prove himself against the many doubtful voices that haunt him as a general's son and nephew of the King. Haunted by the events of the first book and under a tremendous amount of pressure to perform in his new capacity, his chapters are thick with emotional tension.
Sage, determined to remain at his side, gets herself assigned to accompany Alex's new regiment as a tutor for the King's son Nicholas, who is a page in the army. Alex's internal struggles make this a particularly contentious move that serves to drive a wedge between them for the first third of the book. When the unthinkable happens, Sage and Nicholas get separated from the regiment and whisked off to the neighboring kingdom of Casmun. Alex is finally faced with his greatest fear: having to choose between Sage and his duty as an officer.
This second installment in Beaty's trilogy is full of political intrigue and court maneuvering, not to mention an emotional roller-coaster. As readers, we learn about the nation of Casmun and its culture right alongside Sage as she struggles to navigate the Casmuni court. The new characters introduced are just as vivid and unique as those we've already come to know and love, and the development of the young prince Nicholas was particularly satisfying to me. All the while, the back-and-forth points of view between Sage and Alex keep the romantic and emotional strain keyed up without it becoming tiresome. Ruin is another slow, steady spiral up to a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching conclusion that had me snatching the next book off my shelf and diving right back in for more.
This trilogy by Erin Beaty is a perfect example of understated romantic fantasy. Sage Fowler is a resourceful, witty protagonist who is making the best of the hand life has dealt her. The trilogy begins with The Traitor's Kiss, in which Sage embarks on a journey to the nation's capital with a caravan of highborn brides - not as a bride herself, however. Deemed unsuitable for marriage, Sage is apprenticed to a matchmaker who teaches her to spy on both the girls and the soldiers escorting them.
Her inquisitive and clever nature quickly reveals a plot to overthrow the King, using the gaggle of young brides-to-be as leverage. Between Sage's skills as a spy and the handsome Captain Quinn and his loyal soldiers, the unlikely group must find a way to survive the traitor's grasp long enough for help to arrive.
This tale starts out quiet and humble, and slowly spirals outward to a heart-racing, action-packed conclusion. On top of that, add a strikingly-sweet romance and you've got a fantastic start to what promises to be a great series!
I have to laugh to keep from crying. For real, y'all, this feels so awful. Like stomach-twisted, off-my-feed, feel-like-crying kind of awful. I only had 10 pre-orders for Lazerin, but as a new author with a very small audience, I cherish every single one of my readers. Not for the royalties or the pats on the back, but for the fact that someone else enjoyed Traitor enough to want to find out what happens next.
I could blame COVID or stress or work, but the truth is that I thought Lazerin was basically done when I put it up for pre-order months ago. I set it aside to put the finishing touches on Traitor and get it through release, thinking I just needed one more line edit pass on Lazerin. By the time I got back to it, I hated everything I'd written. The core was there. The story. But the way I'd told it was every shade of wrong. It was shallow and flat and I hated it. I've spent the last two months furiously rewriting, breathing life into these chapters. It's almost there, but it's not there yet.
I let you down. I didn't deliver. I am unimaginably ashamed of that fact, but I promise it's coming soon. My obsessive, perfectionist brain WILL finish this book, and it will be RIGHT, before I put it in your hands. You deserve nothing less.
The conclusion of Pearson's Remnant Chronicles was a slow-burn buildup filled with heartache and fragile hope. Lia's hero arc culminates in a fierce, driven protagonist who is admirably self-assured without being arrogant. She believes wholeheartedly in her role in Venda's prophesy and doesn't flinch when it comes to fulfilling it. Her sharp, unapologetic nature is reinforced by the struggles she faced in the Komizar's captivity, molding her into a fearless heroine that is easy to root for.
Lia's link to Venda feels incredibly organic, as does the solidifying of her bonds with Vendan characters like Griz and Eben. It adds a depth to her connection with Kaden, as well, though the continuation of his unrequited love for her is sometimes hard to read. As a whole, this installment really tugs at the heartstrings for hopeless romantics like me. There are no sunshine-and-roses romances in these books. I suppose that's part of what I like best about Pearson's writing. She doesn't give you happily-ever-afters. Instead, you get to see the small, precious victories of the heart, the stolen moments of joy between long stretches of darkness, a hundred tiny victories that give far more depth to these relationships than the tidily-packaged triumph fiction so often provides. Pearson's characters fight for every scrap of joy and sometimes settle for the small glimmers of light fate offers them, even if it's not everything they wanted. Her stories speak of gratitude for the now, for the things right in front of us, and of the grasping impermanence of life.
In the end, I found myself wishing I'd read this trilogy first. There were many nods to the Remnant Chronicles in the Dance of Thieves duology, and I regret not being able to fully appreciate them. The trilogy adds a lot of backstory and context to the world Kazi navigates. I think I'll have to read those books again just to soak up all the details I missed the first time around.
Middle books are so tough, guys. They're sometimes called 'bridge books' because they are the in-between that connects the fresh, new first-in-series setup with the big-finish climax of the final book. It can be difficult for an author to find balance in the space between, delivering all the important big-arc buildup for book 3 or 4 without letting the story become a snooze-fest. (I'm battling this myself...) Needless to say, there's a reason they call it the 'book 2 curse'.
That being said, I think Pearson handled it well in a lot of ways. There is a lot of court-style tension in this volume with the introduction of the Komizar, an antagonist who has a depth of character that goes far beyond the 'big baddie' so often seen in fantasy. Lia's struggle to survive in Venda beneath the Komizar's sharp-edged attentions keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Disobedience has consequences and Lia feels the sharp sting of them on more than one occasion.
The development of Lia and Rafe's relationship is, in my opinion, one of the most well-done aspects of this book. Lia's resentment over Rafe's deception is authentic, but not dwelled upon incessantly. They soon move past it in the face of their overwhelming circumstances and wisely put their minds to better use. Over the course of their captivity, their bond is constantly tested in ways that make your heart ache for them both. Rafe's restraint and Lia's cleverness combine to sell a ruse that will hopefully keep both of them alive long enough to escape Venda and the Komizar's brutal clutches. Along the way, the few stolen moments they share manage to deepen their relatively new romance into something far more mature.
Despite knowing from Dance of Thieves how this particular story would end, I still found the peak of this arc satisfying. I wish Pearson had dug in a little deeper at the pivotal moment, giving us a little more framework of the grief and anger inside Lia's mind, but I can appreciate brevity, too. The softball cliffhanger at the end was just my style, and I will eagerly start in on Beauty of Darkness tonight.