Operation 2021: Success! (or Favorite Books from this Year)

This year has been an amazing one for reading! I was planning on doing a top 10 books that I loved in 2021, but I could only narrow it down to 20. Even that was a difficult thing to do. Eventually I managed to get down to 20 books, but it was hard! So, in no particular order, and after a ton of internal wrestling, here’s my top 20 books of 2021.

*These are books that I enjoyed this year, not necessarily books that were published in 2021.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio



On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras.

But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.

If We Were Villains was named one of Bustle’s Best Thriller Novels of the Year, and Mystery Scene says, “A well-written and gripping ode to the stage…A fascinating, unorthodox take on rivalry, friendship, and truth.” (taken from Amazon)

“If you’re looking for a book to suck you in and leave you floored, this one is for you.”

Review

Lexcalibur by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik

A collection of nerdy poems for adventurers of all ages, written by Jerry Holkins and featuring illustrations by Mike Krahulik. 

“The poems are engaging enough for children with enough wit and little nods that adults will be just as entertained.”

Review

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga

With a murderer on the loose, it’s up to an enlightened bodysnatcher and a rebellious princess to save the city, in this wonderfully inventive Victorian-tinged fantasy noir.

“Man of Science” Roger Weathersby scrapes out a risky living digging up corpses for medical schools. When he’s framed for the murder of one of his cadavers, he’s forced to trust in the superstitions he’s always rejected: his former friend, princess Sibylla, offers to commute Roger’s execution in a blood magic ritual which will bind him to her forever. With little choice, he finds himself indentured to Sibylla and propelled into an investigation. There’s a murderer loose in the city of Caligo, and the duo must navigate science and sorcery, palace intrigue and dank boneyards to catch the butcher before the killings tear their whole country apart. (taken from Amazon)

“A brilliant must-read for fans of books the include grimy, smog-filled streets, shady doings, and ridiculously fun characters.”

Review

Paladin Unbound by Jeffrey Speight

The last of a dying breed, a holy warrior must rise up against a growing darkness in Evelium.The most unlikely of heroes, a lowly itinerant mercenary, Umhra the Peacebreaker is shunned by society for his mongrel half-Orc blood. Desperate to find work for himself and his band of fighters, Umhra agrees to help solve a rash of mysterious disappearances, but uncovers a larger, more insidious plot to overthrow the natural order of Evelium in the process. As Umhra journeys into the depths of Telsidor’s Keep to search for the missing people, he confronts an ancient evil and, after suffering a great loss, turns to the god he disavowed for help. Compelled to save the kingdom he loves, can he defeat the enemy while protecting his true identity, or must he risk everything? (taken from Amazon)

 “This book would make anyone fall in love with fantasy.

Review

Dragon Mage by M.L. Spencer

Aram Raythe has the power to challenge the gods. He just doesn’t know it yet.
 
Aram thinks he’s nothing but a misfit from a small fishing village in a dark corner of the world. As far as Aram knows, he has nothing, with hardly a possession to his name other than a desire to make friends and be accepted by those around him, which is something he’s never known.
 
But Aram is more. Much, much more.
 
Unknown to him, Aram bears within him a gift so old and rare that many people would kill him for it, and there are others who would twist him to use for their own sinister purposes. These magics are so potent that Aram earns a place at an academy for warrior mages training to earn for themselves the greatest place of honor among the armies of men: dragon riders.
 
Aram will have to fight for respect by becoming not just a dragon rider, but a Champion, the caliber of mage that hasn’t existed in the world for hundreds of years. And the land needs a Champion. Because when a dark god out of ancient myth arises to threaten the world of magic, it is Aram the world will turn to in its hour of need.

” It isn’t too often that I call a book perfect, but that’s what Dragon Mage is. It is absolutely perfect.”

Review

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Exiled by her despotic brother, Malini spends her days dreaming of vengeance while trapped in the Hirana: an ancient cliffside temple that was once the revered source of the magical deathless waters but is now little more than a decaying ruin.
 
The secrets of the Hirana call to Priya. But in order to keep the truth of her past safely hidden, she works as a servant in the loathed regent’s household, biting her tongue and cleaning Malini’s chambers.
 
But when Malini witnesses Priya’s true nature, their destines become irrevocably tangled. One is a ruthless princess seeking to steal a throne. The other a powerful priestess seeking to save her family. Together, they will set an empire ablaze. (taken from Amazon)

“Savagely beautiful, The Jasmine Throne kept me riveted from the first page all the way through until the last heart-stopping moment.”

Review

Nectar for the God by Patrick Samphire

In the city of Agatos, nothing stays buried forever.

Only an idiot would ignore his debt to a high mage, and Mennik Thorn is no idiot, despite what anyone might say. He’s just been … distracted. But now he’s left it too late, and if he doesn’t obey the high mage’s commands within the day, his best friends’ lives will be forfeit. So it’s hardly the time to take on an impossible case: proving a woman who murdered a stranger in full view is innocent.

Unfortunately, Mennik can’t resist doing the right thing – and now he’s caught in a deadly rivalry between warring high mages, his witnesses are dying, and something ancient has turned its eyes upon him.

The fate of the city is once again in the hands of a second-rate mage. Mennik Thorn should have stayed in hiding. (taken from Amazon)

Review to Come

We Break Immortals by Thomas Howard Riley

The Render Tracers always say magick users deserve to burn. Aren couldn’t agree more, Keluwen would beg to differ, and Corrin couldn’t care less either way.

In a world where most people use swords for protection, Aren uses tools that let him see what no one else can see, and he takes advantage of loopholes that can undo magick in order to stop the deadliest people in the world. He is a Render Tracer, relentlessly pursuing rogue sorcerers who bend the laws of physics to steal, assault, and kill. But his next hunt will lead him to question his entire life, plunging him into a world where he can’t trust anyone, not even his own eyes.

When Keluwen finally escaped her fourthparents’ home and set out on her own to become a thief, she never thought she would one day be killing her own kind. She honed her magick on the streets, haunted by her past, hunted by Render Tracers, and feared by a society that hates what she is. Now she joins a crew of outcast magicians on a path of vengeance as they race to stop an insane sorcerer who has unlocked the source of all magick and is trying to use it to make himself a god.

Corrin is a sword fighter first, a drinker second, and a…well, there must be something else he is good at. He’ll think of it if you give him enough time. He is a rogue for hire, and he has no special powers of any kind. The most magick he has ever done is piss into the wind without getting any on himself. He is terrible at staying out of trouble, and someone always seems to be chasing him. When he gets caught up in a multi-kingdom manhunt, he finds himself having to care about other people for a change, and he’s not happy about it.

They are about to collide on the trail of a man who is impossible to catch, who is on the verge of plunging the world into ruin, and who can turn loyal people into traitors in a single conversation. They must struggle against their own obsessions, their fears, ancient prophecies, and each other. They will each have to balance the people they love against their missions, and struggle to avoid becoming the very thing they are trying to stop.

All they have to do is stop the unstoppable. Simple. (taken from Amazon)

We Break Immortals has heart, humor, excellent characters, and violence aplenty. It’s the sort of book that plunges in and never stops to let you catch your breath. It is, in a word, badass.”

Review

The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune

Linus Baker is a by-the-book case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. He’s tasked with determining whether six dangerous magical children are likely to bring about the end of the world.

Arthur Parnassus is the master of the orphanage. He would do anything to keep the children safe, even if it means the world will burn. And his secrets will come to light.

The House in the Cerulean Sea is an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place―and realizing that family is yours. (taken from Amazon)

“This book is wonderful. It’s comfort in written form. It’s a reminder that happy endings (or maybe happy beginnings) exist, often found in the most unexpected of places, if only we’re brave enough to look.”

Review

Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune

Welcome to Charon’s Crossing.
The tea is hot, the scones are fresh, and the dead are just passing through.

When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead.

And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.

But even in death he’s not ready to abandon the life he barely lived, so when Wallace is given one week to cross over, he sets about living a lifetime in seven days.

Hilarious, haunting, and kind, Under the Whispering Door is an uplifting story about a life spent at the office and a death spent building a home. (taken from Amazon)

“…insightful, sad, hopeful, and exhibits a faith in humanity that is rarely seen in books now.

Review

Campaigns and Companions by Andi Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett, illustrated by Alexander Watt

Grab your dice and pencil, sit your pets down, teach them to play… and immediately regret your choices.

Hilarious collection of Dungeons & Dragons-themed pet jokes by acclaimed comics creators Andi Ewington, Rhianna Pratchett, Calum Alexander Watt and Alex de Campi

What if your pets could play D&D? And what if they were… kind of jerks about it?

If there are two things all geeks love, it’s roleplaying games, and their pets. So why not fuse the two? It’s time to grab your dice, dust off that character sheet, and let your cat or dog (or guinea pig, or iguana, or budgie) accompany you on an epic adventure! It’ll be great!

…unless your pets are jerks. (taken from Amazon)

“I got a Nat 20 with Campaigns and Companions (those who know me know that I never roll 20s, so this is a momentous event).”

Review

Small Places by Matthew Samuels

Jamie is a lonely, anxious kid when he has a run-in with a witch in a remote Somerset village. He’s almost forgotten about it thirteen years later when unpredictable storms and earthquakes hit England – and that’s the least of his worries. Suffering from anxiety, terrible flatmates and returning to his family home after his mother is diagnosed with cancer, he’s got a lot on his mind. But Melusine, the witch of flesh and blood, lures him back with the offer of cold, hard cash in exchange for his help investigating the source of the freak weather; something’s messing with the earth spirit, Gaia, and Mel means to find out who – or what – it is. As they work together, travelling to the bigoted Seelie Court and the paranoid Unseelie Court, meeting stoned fauns and beer-brewing trolls, Jamie must reconcile his feelings about the witch’s intentions and methods all while handling grief, life admin and one singularly uptight estate agent. (taken from Amazon)

“I loved the combination of ordinary and flat-out bizarre, the day-to-day grind and the unexpected.”

Review

Goblin by Eric Grissom, illustrated by Will Perkins

A young, headstrong goblin embarks on a wild journey of danger, loss, self-discovery, and sacrifice in this new graphic novel adventure.

One fateful night a sinister human warrior raids the home of the young goblin Rikt and leaves him orphaned. Angry and alone, Rikt vows to avenge the death of his parents and seeks a way to destroy the man who did this. He finds aid from unlikely allies throughout his journey and learns of a secret power hidden in the heart of the First Tree. Will Rikt survive the trials that await him on his perilous journey to the First Tree? And is Rikt truly prepared for what he may find there? (taken from Amazon)

“Masterfully told and beautifully illustrated, Goblin is an unforgettable journey, full of both action and heart. “

Review

The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism, attending séances in the hope they might reach their departed loved ones.

William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him – seemingly from beyond the veil – placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far?

Based on the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunted, twisted tale of power, paranoia and one ultimate, inescapable truth… (taken from Amazon)

” The Spirit Engineer is an engrossing book that delves deep into the subjects of loss, paranoia, belief, and what can happen when a person’s beliefs are questioned.”

Review

The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Emperor is Dead. Long live the Emperor.  
 
Lin Sukai finally sits on the throne she won at so much cost, but her struggles are only just beginning. Her people don’t trust her. Her political alliances are weak. And in the north-east of the Empire, a rebel army of constructs is gathering, its leader determined to take the throne by force.  
 
Yet an even greater threat is on the horizon, for the Alanga–the powerful magicians of legend–have returned to the Empire. They claim they come in peace, and Lin will need their help in order to defeat the rebels and restore peace.  
 
But can she trust them?  (taken from Amazon)

“… a wild ride full of action, betrayal, and heart-in-your-throat plot twists. Nothing happens as expected, and it’s fantastic.”

Review

Book of Night by Holly Black

Charlie Hall has never found a lock she couldn’t pick, a book she couldn’t steal, or a bad decision she wouldn’t make. She’s spent half her life working for gloamists, magicians who manipulate shadows to peer into locked rooms, strangle people in their beds, or worse. Gloamists guard their secrets greedily, creating an underground economy of grimoires. And to rob their fellow magicians, they need Charlie.

Now, she’s trying to distance herself from past mistakes, but going straight isn’t easy. Bartending at a dive, she’s still entirely too close to the corrupt underbelly of the Berkshires. Not to mention that her sister Posey is desperate for magic, and that her shadowless and possibly soulless boyfriend has been keeping secrets from her. When a terrible figure from her past returns, Charlie descends back into a maelstrom of murder and lies. Determined to survive, she’s up against a cast of doppelgängers, mercurial billionaires, gloamists, and the people she loves best in the world ― all trying to steal a secret that will allow them control of the shadow world and more.

Review to Come

The Infinite Tower by Dorian Hart

Horn’s Company saved the world of Spira.

The Black Circle erased it.

Now Dranko, Morningstar, Kibi, and the rest of the team have a lot of work to do.

In order to mend their broken reality, the company must venture to distant Het Branoi — The Infinite Tower — in search of a third Eye of Moirel. Only then will they be able to travel into the past and stop the Sharshun from changing the course of history.But Het Branoi is a bizarre and deadly place, a baffling construction full of mystery and danger, of magic and chaos, with unexpected allies and terrifying monsters. Horn’s Company will need courage, perseverance, and more than a little luck if they are to find the Eye and discover the terrible secret at the heart of the Infinite Tower.

“Read this series for an escape into a fantastic new world, peopled with some of the best characters you’ll ever read.”

Review

The Coward by Stephen Aryan

Kell Kressia is a legend, a celebrity, a hero. Aged just seventeen he set out on an epic quest with a band of wizened fighters to slay the Ice Lich and save the world, but only he returned victorious. The Lich was dead, the ice receded and the Five Kingdoms were safe.

Ten years have passed Kell lives a quiet farmer’s life, while stories about his heroism are told in every tavern across the length and breadth of the land. But now a new terror has arisen in the north. Beyond the frozen circle, north of the Frostrunner clans, something has taken up residence in the Lich’s abandoned castle. And the ice is beginning to creep south once more.

For the second time, Kell is called upon to take up his famous sword, Slayer, and battle the forces of darkness. But he has a terrible secret that nobody knows. He’s not a hero – he was just lucky. Everyone puts their faith in Kell the Legend, but he’s a coward who has no intention of risking his life for anyone…(taken from Amazon)

“Author Stephen Aryan crafted an incredible book in The Coward, one that provides an excellent view both of what the fantasy genre can be, and the complicated yet beautiful morass of life.”

Review

In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce

An audacious novel of feminine rage about one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history–and the men who drove her to it.

They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreams–their fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte.

The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she’d given up, what was taken from her, how she’d suffered, surely they’d understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That’s all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive.

“This book combines fact, rumor, and creative license to weave a tale both unsettling and engrossing.”

Review

White Trash Warlock by David R. Slayton

Not all magicians go to schools of magic.

Adam Binder has the Sight. It’s a power that runs in his bloodline: the ability to see beyond this world and into another, a realm of magic populated by elves, gnomes, and spirits of every kind. But for much of Adam’s life, that power has been a curse, hindering friendships, worrying his backwoods family, and fueling his abusive father’s rage.

Years after his brother, Bobby, had him committed to a psych ward, Adam is ready to come to grips with who he is, to live his life on his terms, to find love, and maybe even use his magic to do some good. Hoping to track down his missing father, Adam follows a trail of cursed artifacts to Denver, only to discover that an ancient and horrifying spirit has taken possession of Bobby’s wife.

It isn’t long before Adam becomes the spirit’s next target. To survive the confrontation, save his sister-in-law, and learn the truth about his father, Adam will have to risk bargaining with very dangerous beings … including his first love. (taken from Amazon)

” White Trash Warlock was a supernatural show-down combined with complicated real-life problems.”

Review

Gravitas by Christopher Russell- Storytellers on Tour

Thank you to Storytellers on Tour for allowing me to be a part of this book tour. You can find more great reviews, interviews, and giveaways at Storytellers on Tour. Gravitas is available now.

History has weight behind it. The power to crush an empire . . . or birth it anew.

Nowhere is this more true than the Republic of Lestadt, an island nation founded upon the bones of tyrants and sustained by the might of Gravitas. This magic is the manifestation of the past, drawing upon the heritage of relics and heirlooms to bend the forces of nature. The more storied an artifact, the more power it commands.

Yet after 300 years of prosperity, Lestadt is crumbling. Revolutionaries gather in the docklands, seeking restitution for the crimes of the ruling oligarchs. A mysterious augury pronounces the nation’s doom.
Desperate to save themselves, Lestadt’s Court of Magisters turns to Lord Fixer Scraw for salvation. The deformed man may be ruthless in his methods, but he has never failed them. With a powerful Gravitas relic in his scarred hands, unlimited resources at his disposal, and a depraved plan taking root in his mind, can Scraw stop the revolution and save Lestadt?

Or will the cure be worse than the disease?

Brutal and unforgiving, this novella had all the markings of an engrossing read. Fixer Scraw is, in essence, given unlimited power and resources ( think: dictatorship) in a last ditch effort by Lestadt’s Court of Magisters to save Lestadt. Of course, this begs the question: are they saving it or simply delivering it straight into the hands of another sort of villain?

Having not yet read anything by this author, I was unsure of what to expect. My first takeaway was, “Wow, this ‘good guy’ is not a good guy.” Fixer Scraw is, however, a fascinating character. I love complex characters and Scraw definitely fits this category. He also is a good indicator of the feel of the book. It is a harsh read where morality is considered more of a sliding scale than a fixed idea.

The world was incredibly well developed, especially if you consider how very short the book is. Author Christopher Russell packs a huge amount of detail into this shorter format, painting a nuanced and complete picture of a darker world and the desperation it contains.

The magic system is where this book really shines. I refuse to explain it (I would bungle things horribly), but I loved the way the acquisition of this magic was used to show the depths to which some people were willing to sink. This book is harsh, so be aware of that. It you don’t mind taking a walk on the grittier side of fantasy, I recommend adding Gravitas to your “to be read” list.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/59023552-gravitas 
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09GNMJBJK
 Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/gravitas-5

About the author:

Christopher Russell (native of Williamsburg, VA) is a 29-year-old mechanical and aerospace engineer (graduate of the University of Virginia) who has loved reading since the day he picked up a book and writing since he could scrawl his first letters. After voraciously consuming titles from every genre—ranging from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings—he decided to combine the expertise from his professional education, passions, and Christian faith into fantasy epics bridging the gap between magic and science. He currently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his loyal dog, Vallen, named after the protagonist of his first work. For behind-the-scenes information on all of Christopher Russell’s works, visit christopherrussellauthor.com.

Website: https://www.christopherrussellauthor.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Chris_DT_author

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/christopher_russell_author/

Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/DivinitysTwilightBooks/

The Splinter King (The God-King Chronicles #2) by Mike Brooks

The world fractures as a dead god rises…

Darel, dragon knight and the new leader of Black Keep, must travel to the palace of the God-King to beg for the lives of his people. But in the capital of Narida, Marin and his warrior husband will be drawn into a palace coup, and Princess Tila will resort to murder to keep her hold on power.

In the far reaches of the kingdom an heir in exile is hunted by assassins, rumours of a rival God-King abound, and daemonic forces from across the seas draw ever nearer…(taken from Amazon)

The Splinter King (book two in the God-king Chronicles) continues in the vein of The Black Coast, with a complicated, well-thought-out storyline placed in an astonishingly detailed world. Mike Brooks writes with a confidence that is backed up with skill. As with The Black CoastThe Splinter King utilizes multiple points of view to tell a rich story, twisting different plot threads together in unexpected ways.

Where book one felt very much like setup, and at times seemed a bit confusing, The Splinter King sees things starting to pay off. The stakes seem higher-or maybe I’ve just become that much more invested in the fates of everyone. While still on the larger side, it seemed to move more quickly than The Black Coast, quite probably because the world is now established, and the rules have been explained. The speech patterns, which threw me a bit in The Black Coast, now made much more sense.

The intrigue was a stroke of genius. I enjoy books with crooked characters, ingenious plots, and the occasional backstabbing, and The Splinter King has all of it in spades. Add in dragons (although they are distinctly dinosaur-esque), and it’s safe to say that I was more than satisfied.

Author Mike Brooks chose to focus more on different characters in this continuation; however, the characters from The Black Coast were still present. They just stepped out of the limelight enough to allow other characters to become more developed. The Splinter King was told from multiple points of view, but each character had their own perspective and their own narrative voice. It becomes almost a puzzle: if you put together the separate points of view, it forms a more complete picture of the world and what is happening in it.

The book did have its moments where I felt that not much was going on, and sometimes it seemed to forget what it was doing and sort of meander a little. It wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but it was definitely noticeable. On the other hand, usually the meandering was accompanied by another look at what is an incredibly nuanced world. The world itself is by far my favorite part of the series. It is so well thought out, unique, and diverse. There are no shortcuts when it comes to worldbuilding, and it shows.

The Splinter King continued the story started in book one extremely well. We have moved past the setup of The Black Coast into the meat of the story and it’s quite the story! I have no idea how everything will be wrapped up, but based on how things have progressed, the next book will be quite the ride.

Review originally published in Grimdark Magazine.

Remnants edited by Stephen Coghlan

Strange clouds on the horizon herald the coming of the swarm. The undulating masses of the hoard cannot be stopped. Terrifying creatures roam the Earth, seemingly with no aim but to devour all that stands before them. Experience the end of the world as we know it with these fourteen tales of horror, survival, and hope. The world ends in a frenzy of death and miasma of terror, but what will become of the remnants of humanity?
Fourteen tales of post-apocalyptic survival horror! (taken from Amazon)

Remnants is a collection of stories about a world ravaged and left for dead, with only a few leftovers- remnants, if you will. Instead of focusing on the horrific monsters that have violently changed life as humans know it, these tales focus mainly on how the few survive and who they become. The stories showcase tenacity, an unwillingness to lay down and die, and the best- and very worst- of humanity. Although, in some cases, humanity has long since left the building.

The concept behind Remnants is not a new one; post-apocalyptical stories like this have been created before. However, where this anthology is different is in its execution. Instead of full stories, there are short vignettes, brief glimpses in time. Some stories are touching, others incredibly brutal. Like humanity itself, the stories have a sliding scale of morality, with some unwilling to cross boundaries that other characters don’t even see as existing.

I found the examination of humanity to be fascinating. Like most anthologies, some stories worked better for me than others, but this was a collection that I consistently enjoyed. While some readers might wish for a little bit more focus on the monsters themselves, I really liked that following the survivors were the main event. Although in some cases, I could argue that not all the characters alive had actually really survived.

Each story added something to the overall atmosphere of the book. The first story, “Resistance” by Stephen Coghlan, set the tone for Remnants. It’s also a good lead-in, preparing the reader for stories that range from bizarre to emotional to disturbing or almost grotesque. The main storyline might be centered around one event, but the way each author tackled it was completely unique. I was never in danger of losing interest at all.

There were a couple of stories that were really unique in their telling. “Heatwave” by Aaron Lee takes a rather coldblooded look at the fallout, in which there is a blog that keeps tracks of death “statistics”, that the blogger utilizes to try to understand the nightmare that they’re living in. I thought this one was both fascinating and chilling.

“First Swarm” by J.D. Sanderson followed two photographers and their experiences, which left me mulling over whether viewing something through a camera lens helps expose truths otherwise denied, or if it allows the photographers to separate themselves from the reality of what they’re seeing. Short yet powerful, this was one of my favorite stories in the collection. The creativity behind both “First Swarm” and “Heatwave” are what elevated them above some of the other stories in this collection, although they were all well written.

Remnants is one of the stronger additions to post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read recently, with the grimdark and horror aspects working incredibly well. Thought provoking and just flat-out cool, this is not a collection to miss. I highly recommend it.

Review originally published in Grimdark Magazine, found here.

Self-published Authors Appreciation Week: Shadowless by Randall Mcnally

Banner Credit: Anca Antoci

For Self-published Authors Appreciation Week, it is only fitting that I repost a review of one of the most uniquely-written fantasy books I’ve had the pleasure to read. My review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine. You can find it here.

Grim and fascinating, Shadowless is a masterpiece told in shades of gray. It is a fantasy of the epic variety, one with incredible world building.

Every now and then, in the Northern Realms, a child will be born without a shadow. These children are half-human/half-gods, a concept that is very reminiscent of Greek mythology. They each have a bit of their godly father’s power. Where the book goes from here, though, is completely unique. See, a god’s offspring can be used as a vessel to gather more power, which the gods harvest in the most brutal of ways. These Shadowless are hunted. Their killers are soldiers, priests, even the gods themselves. How do you survive when even the gods want you dead?

Shadowless unfolds in a very unusual way: each chapter follows a different character and is almost a short story. Eventually these individual threads form a tapestry, rich in detail and creativity. The Shadowless are gathered together by a mysterious figure, with a common goal: ensure their safety by any means necessary.

Each character is fully formed and developed, adding their own one-of-a-kind perspective. In fact, every character’s story could easily be made into a separate novel, complete and incredibly interesting. Rarely is there that much detail in a book with multiple points of view. It was impressive, to say the least.

Another point in the book’s favor is that the reader doesn’t have to wait long to understand what being Shadowless means: an explanation is given in the very first part. It helped to know a little bit more early on, as there were so many characters that trying to figure things out without much detail would have detracted from the story.

I loved each character (oh-and did I mention that here there be dragons?). However, where author Randall McNally truly shines is in his ability to paint vivid pictures of a grim world, one filled with darkness, but not quite hopeless. That tiny shred of hope–call it a refusal to lay down and give up–lends extra layers to a book that is already extremely nuanced.

This is a longer book, but I flew through it, sucked into both the story and the world. Shadowless is a perfect book for fans of large, sweeping fantasies. Any book that contains complex histories, secrets to be discovered, and meddling gods is one that I’ll happily disappear into.

All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter

Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them. (taken from Amazon)

What happens when you renege on a deal with a monster? Miren O’Malley is the last daughter of true O’Malley lineage. The family used to be mighty and successful, but that luck (is it just luck?) has dwindled as surely as their bloodline has. There have always been rumors about how the O’Malleys managed to be so rich and successful for so long, but the truth has been kept strictly secret. This is where All the Murmuring Bones starts.

Miren’s grandmother is the matriarch of the O’Malleys and is desperate to regain some of their lost glory. She plans to marry Miren off to a rich, abusive jerk. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with Miren. She flees, but is followed-not just by her intended, but by the mer.

These aren’t your Disney merfolk. The mer are dangerous and mysterious. I loved everything about them. In fact, they are not the only wild and savage creatures of legend that make an appearance. Rusalka, kelpies, and more give All the Murmuring Bones a dark mythical feel that drew me in.

Miren is smart, capable, and no stranger to bloodshed. There is no boundary she is unwilling to cross to keep her life and her freedom. Her flight to safety turns into a quest for answers and the switch is fascinating and brilliant. I’m used to gothic novels sticking to a single setting. However, Miren’s travels allow the world and plot to open up magnificently.

I did feel there was a misstep here and there. For example, the ending wraps everything up in a neat little bow that feels a little out of place considering the path the rest of the book takes. I would have liked seeing parts of the story left, if not unexplained, at least a little enigmatic. Also, the climactic event was over sooner than I was hoping. It felt a teensy bit rushed. However, these are small complaints in the grand scheme of things and the rest of the book is really stinking good.

All the Murmuring Bones is a gothic novel that hits all the right points. I highly recommend it.


This review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine. You can find the link here.

The Shadow of the Gods (The Bloodsworn trilogy #1)

This is the age of storm and murder.

After the old gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrio.


Now, power-hungry jarls carve out petty kingdoms, and monsters stalk the shadow-haunted woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power, promising fame and fortune for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out.


As whispers of war echo over the plains and across the fjords, fate follows the footsteps of three people: a huntress searching for her missing son, a jarl’s daughter who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who has cast off his chains and now fights alongside the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn.


All three will shape the fate of the world, as it once more teeters on the edge of chaos. (taken from Amazon)

Wow. Okay, I’m done. That could be my entire review. In fact, I am pretty sure that nothing I write will do justice to the sheer brilliance of The Shadow of the Gods. So, let me apologize in advance for any random blathering that ensues. I promise, I’m doing my best.

First of all, let’s talk about the feel of this book. It takes place in a Norse-inspired world, stark and harsh. Our heroes are all about one bad decision away from becoming villains. It’s survival of the fittest, or of the most desperate. It’s also the perfect setting for a story that is almost mind-bogglingly epic.

Vigrio is split into a few cities, each run by a Jarl who gives his people protection in exchange for loyalty (or, you know, taxes). The Jarls do this through their Tainted Warriors, people with unbelievable powers inherited from the blood of gods. Their powers vary, although I personally was a fan of the berserkers. These Tainted Warriors are controlled by a sort of collar that reins in their power. They are hunted and sold to different Jarls. Basically, if you’re a Tainted Warrior you’re not in the best of situations. Enter Varg, one of my favorite characters.

Varg is wanted for murder, and we first see him on the run. His driving goal is to find out about what happened to his dead sister. In order to get these answers, he needs the help of a Tainted Warrior. This simple beginning leads to a fantastic storyline, one that kept me fascinated. From his very first battle (which started to go belly-up when his groin punch hurt him instead of the intended target), I was drawn in. Through him, the reader is treated to a side of the world that might not otherwise be seen and appreciated.

There’s Elvar, a soldier in a war-band, those who look for tainted to sell to Jarls. She’s got a past that she’s trying to outrace. Her story arc was interesting, but did not grab me quite as much as the others. Of course, it was still incredibly well written.

Finally, there’s Orka. She was my absolute favorite part of the book, although it’s hard to pick a favorite. She was an extremely complicated character. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I liked her at first. She came across as hard and cold. Then I realized: that’s how she copes and survives. She’s a warrior. She’s a mother. She’s a wife. She is smart, and strong, and a bit ruthless. She’s pretty stinking amazing and I loved getting to the chapters about her. I keep hearing people talking abut how cruel Gwyne is to his characters and now I’m scared.

The Shadow of the Gods is brutal and genius, a perfect balance between breath-taking battle scenes and intricate characters. I high recommend picking this one up.

The Black Coast by Mike Brooks

War Dragons. Fearsome Raiders. A Daemonic Warlord on the Rise.

When the citizens of Black Keep see ships on the horizon, terror takes them because they know who is coming: for generations, the keep has been raided by the fearsome clanspeople of Tjakorsha. Saddling their war dragons, Black Keep’s warriors rush to defend their home only to discover that the clanspeople have not come to pillage at all. Driven from their own land by a daemonic despot who prophesises the end of the world, the raiders come
in search of a new home . . .

Meanwhile the wider continent of Narida is lurching toward war. Black Keep is about to be caught in the crossfire – if only its new mismatched society can survive.

Large in size, and ambitious in scope, The Black Coast (book one in the God-King Chronicles) perfectly lives up to the saying, “Slow and steady wins the race”. While it did not contain as much action as I was expecting, it was still a fascinating read.

The main storyline of this book features two separate cultures trying to coexist peacefully. A clan of the Tjakorsha people have just shown up at the Black Keep. Normally, that is cause for huge concern, as the Tjakorsha are raiders. However, in this instance, something has changed: the Black Eagle Clan is hoping to settle alongside the people of the Black Keep and live peaceably. Daimon of the Black Keep goes against the wishes of his law-father to allow this, adding an extra level to this already-unique plotline. This meshing of two very separate cultures makes for an engrossing story. There is no lack of danger or action, but the main risk is with two very different cultures attempting to mesh and live side-by-side.

There is much more to The Black Coast than just a joining of two cultures, and this is where things got a little muddy for me. I wanted so much to like the other storylines, especially that of Tila, a political mastermind with a double life (which I will not spoil by discussing). Unfortunately, they failed to suck me in. While the world is huge, with unique cultures, traditions, and speech patterns, I was left feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. It was a bit much for me to keep track of, and I’m sure I missed something important. It didn’t matter in the long run, though, because the Black Keep storyline was so interesting.

The Black Coast seems to be a book that is entirely set up for the rest of the series. I was left intrigued but feeling like I was still waiting for things to start. Another book that I had a similar reaction to was The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series by Tad Williams. As with that book, I have a feeling that The Black Coast is ramping up to what will be an amazing series, one that rewards patience. Go into this book expecting a slow buildup, epic worldbuilding, and a lot to mull over.

My review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine. Find it (and more) here.

We Lie With Death (The Reborn Empire book 2) by Devin Madson

There is no calm after the storm.
 
In Kisia’s conquered north, former empress Miko Ts’ai is more determined than ever to save her empire. Yet, as her hunt for allies grows increasingly desperate, she may learn too late that power lies not in names but in people.
 
Dishiva e’Jaroven is fiercely loyal to the new Levanti emperor. Only he can lead them, but his next choice will challenge everything she wants to believe about her people’s future.
 
Abandoned by his Second Swords, Rah e’Torin must learn to survive without a herd. But honor dictates he bring his warriors home-a path that could be his salvation or lead to his destruction.
 
And sold to the Witchdoctor, Cassandra Marius’ desperate search for a cure ties her fate inextricably to Empress Hana and her true nature could condemn them both. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Orbit Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Both We Lie With Death, and We Ride the Storm (book one) are available now. You can find my review of We Ride the Storm here.

After reading and loving We Ride the Storm, I had ridiculously high expectations for We Lie With Death. I thought, “How can the follow up be as good as the first book?”. Devin Madson is a phenomenal writer, that’s how. This book is freaking incredible.

We Lie With Death picks up right after We Ride the Storm and doesn’t pause for a minute. While the pacing is different, there is never a dull moment. There are revelations, new points of view, and plenty of the intrigue that I so love to read. While having multiple points of view in books can sometimes be problematic, Madson handled each one skillfully and kept the characters’ personalities from meshing into each other.

The world building was incredible, of course, with even more being shown and developed. But where I thought We Lie With Death shines is in the relationships between the characters. There were dynamics being shown and explored that had me completely sucked in. It changed how I viewed the characters and showed off just how nuanced they all are.

Rah was my favorite in We Ride the Storm, but he slipped a little in this book. His stubbornness kind of annoyed me. Instead, it was Cassandra that kept me riveted throughout. Her relationship with Hanna was interesting to say the least. They are opposite in many ways and it just…worked.

I’m not going to say too much about the plot, for fear of giving something away. Suffice to say, it was layered and fascinating. The reader was given some answers (and a few more questions). As with book one, I will say that this is on the harsher side of fantasy.

There really isn’t a thing that I would change about the book. We Lie With Death is a fantastic book and a worthy follow-up to one of my favorite reads from last year.

A Class Above: D&D Classes in Books-Rogues and Rangers

Over the last few days, I’ve been talking about roleplaying classes in books. A “class” is a set of criteria that sort of shows what type of character someone is playing. For example, boiled down, a paladin is a holy warrior. Examples of different Dungeons and Dragons character classes can be found all throughout literature.

When I decided to tackle this subject, I knew that I wouldn’t do it well on my own. Some amazing bloggers and authors offered their expertise as well! Today, I’m talking about rogues and rangers. You can find my posts about fighters and barbarians here, and my post about paladins, clerics, and druids here. Now, on to today’s post!


Rogue: Rogues use stealth, and cunning to defeat their foes or prevail in a situation. Rather than rushing straight into danger, guns blazing (or giant swords decapitating), rogues prefer to use their own unique skill set to accurately assess the situation and shift the odds in their favor. Rogues can be thieves, assassins, or even con artists. If a rogue is around, best to keep your hands on your valuables!

The Irresponsible Reader has a great take on the subject of rogues: “When I sat down to think about rogue characters (they were still called “thieves” when I played, but changing times and all), I was more than a little surprised at how many came to mind. I’m not sure what it says about me that, in almost every genre, I can think of a handful of stellar examples. The character that created this appreciation in me is James “Slippery Jim” Bolivar deGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat.

Thirty-thousand plus years from now, society is almost entirely crimeless. It’s orderly. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. It’s (arguably) boring. There’s some petty crime, but most of the criminals are caught quickly and dealt with by the law.
Then there are what diGriz calls Stainless Steel Rats.

Jim is a thief, a con man, a non-violent criminal (unless he absolutely has to be, and then he can be ruthless). There’s no safe he can’t crack, no lock he can’t pick, no building he can’t get into, no artifact he can’t find a way to walk away with. He’s smooth, he’s witty, he’s charming, he’s…well, roguish. He’s a loving husband (utterly smitten with his wife, actually), a good father (if you grant training his sons to be criminals like he and his wife), and in return for not being in prison for the rest of his life, he’s working to bring down other criminals like him all over the galaxy. Think White Collar or Catch Me If You Can. “

“…At a certain stage the realization strikes through that one must either live outside of society’s bonds or die of absolute boredom. ” – Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat

Beneath a Thousand Skies explains why she thinks Thren Felhorn from the Shadowdance series by David Dalgish is a great rogue: “Rogues are fun. There’s nothing like rolling high and knowing that your target isn’t going to have a clue you’re there until you introduce them to your dagger, or slipping out of situations with nary a scratch because of evasion. Then there’s the sneaking, intrigue, and outright thievery because what better way is there to get what you want?

That is who Thren Felhorn is, and more. He’s the quintessential rogue- a thief, a survivor, an assassin- and he has a ruthless streak a mile wide when he needs it. He also blurs that line of living in the moment, focusing on the current situation or target, and looking to the future and clawing (and stabbing) his way to the top. There are moments when you’ll love him, moments when you’ll hate him, but you can’t help but be drawn to him and into his world.”

“‘That’s how you gut someone,” Thren whispered into the man’s ear as if he were a dying lover. A twist, a yank, and the sword came free.”-David Dalgish, Cloak and Spider

Behind the Pages has two great examples of rogue characters, starting with Jenks from The Hollow series by Kim Harrison: “Skilled at stealth, at a few inches tall this pixy is the perfect backup on a heist. He can detect electronics and is a pro at putting cameras on loop. While he isn’t a hardened criminal, Jenks has no problem helping his teammates steal for legitimate jobs. He specializes in aerial combat and has the ability to pix his enemies causing itching sores on exposed skin. Most overlook him due to his size, and it makes him the main scout for his party searching out traps and ambushes.”

“You can trust me to keep my word. I always keep my word, promises or threats.”– Kim Harrison, Dead Witch Walking

Behind the Pages also has some thoughts on Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: “After a tragedy left him on the streets, Kaz learned to steal to survive. Money is his motivator and if you offer enough, he will steal whatever your heart’s desire. Danger and consequences hold no bounds for Kaz. No lock can hold him back, and his quick mind enables his team to pull off the most complicated of heists.”

“‘I’m a businessman,” he’d told her. “No more, no less.”
“You’re a thief, Kaz.”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
 – Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows

Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub gets on her soapbox: I love rogues so, so much! I almost always play a rogue of some sort when I’m gaming. In fact, a recent D&D character that I created just happened to be an assassin that had been hired to, um…eliminate a member of the party. The rest of the players were none the wiser. Good times. Everyone else has such great examples of rogues in books, but I want to add a couple more: Both Ardor Benn and Quarrah from The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn fit the bill. Ardor is a charismatic con artist, always a step ahead. He rolls with the punches and is able to think on his feet. Every time I thought one of his cons was going sideways, he’d turn it to his advantage. He would have been right at home planning the heist in Ocean’s Eleven. Then there’s Quarrah, a talented cat burglar (her eyesight is not the greatest, which I think is awesome in a thief). Together, they make for two very unique characters that show the range a roguish character has.

“‘That’s just it,” said Remaught. “I know exactly who you are. Ardor Benn, ruse artist.”
“Extraordinaire,” said Ard.
“Excuse me?” Remaught asked.
“Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire,” Ard corrected.”

Ranger: Hunters, wilderness survivors, and protectors, rangers are often what stands between civilization and the monsters that live in the wild. They do well in game settings that require treks through the unknown, being more at home outside the comforts of civilization. Like druids, rangers have spells taken from nature’s power. These spells tend to focus on skills that will help with survival and with the fight against what pushes against the boundaries between nature and society.

Kerri McBookNerd has great experience with rangers: “I’ve been playing D&D for a minute and, though I’ve dabbled in almost all of the classes, my tried and true favorite has always been the ranger. I’ve always connected with characters that love to be out in nature and tend to face danger from a respectable distance, lol. Rangers in my mind tend to be outsiders who aren’t 100% comfortable in polite company and gravitate more towards four-legged friends. They’re good at tracking, they’re good at hiding, and they know how to live off the land. And, as anyone who has met one of the rangers I’ve played, they have quite a sarcastic mouth on them! That’s why I think Fie from The Merciful Crow series would make a great ranger! She has lots of experience fending for herself or her clan in the wilderness. She tends to get on with animals (especially cats) more than people. And her wit is sharp enough to draw blood! Though Fie and her clan are outcasts due to prejudices in the kingdom, she generally prefers to stay away from “civilized” society, anyways. She’s got a bit of magic, too, so I’m definitely sensing a sorcerer subclass here. I think she would make a fantastic ranger!”

“Pa’d taught her to watch the starving wolf. When beasts go hungry too long, he’d said, they forget what they ought to fear.”-Margaret Owen, The Merciful Crow

Ricard Victoria has a few good examples of rangers in literature: ” the most obvious option would be Aragorn [from The Lord of the Rings], but I think Jon Snow [from A Song of Ice and Fire] fits the role as well, especially during his time as a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch. He has a combat style of two-weapon fighting, which would help him to wield effectively Long Claw. His armor could be considered light. He also has an Animal Companion in Ghost. The Wild Empathy ability would account for his nascent warging powers (in a low-level campaign anyways). His time with the Wildlings would have given him good tracking skills as well as the endurance proper of a ranger. Talking about the Wildings, one could argue that they would be his Favored Enemy, but I think the White Walkers make for a better Favored Enemy. He would have also as part of his background (and this is a spoiler), some draconic blood (you know, because of who he really is son of). Longclaw would be a bastard sword with a Keen Edge enhancement that could evolve into a Vorpal sword. Jon could have high stats in Con, Char, and Dexterity. Decent intelligence and wisdom.”

Yet even so, Jon Snow was not sorry he had come. There were wonders here as well. He had seen sunlight flashing on icy thin waterfalls as they plunged over the lips of sheer stone cliffs, and a mountain meadow full of autumn wildflowers, blue coldsnaps and bright scarlet frostfires and stands of piper’s grass in russet and gold. He had peered down ravines so deep and black they seemed certain to end in some hell, and he had ridden his garron over a wind-eaten bridge of natural stone with nothing but sky to either side. Eagles nested in the heights and came down to hunt the valleys, circling effortlessly on great blue-grey wings that seemed almost part of the sky.”– George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire

Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub gives her thoughts on rangers: Personally, I think Raven from The Black Company by Glen Cook is a good example of a ranger. Yes, he prefers to use a sharp knife over a bow (which is usually the ranger’s weapon of choice), but he can use a bow with the best of them. He’s a great tracker and even knows a little bit of magic.

“I can laugh at peasants and townies chained all their lives to a tiny corner of the earth while I roam its face and see its wonders, but when I go down, there will be no child to carry my name, no family to mourn me save my comrades, no one to remember, no one to raise a marker over my cold bit of ground.”– Glen Cook, Shadows Linger

Meet the Contributors:

The Irresponsible Reader is one of my very favorite blogs. Covering a wide variety of genres from comics through biographies, the reviews on this blog are detailed and interesting. The Irresponsible Reader is responsible (ha!) for many additions to my “to be read” list.

Beneath a Thousand Skies talks about all things nerdy on her blog, including books and Dungeons and Dragons. A perfect haven for those with an eye toward imaginative books, Beneath a Thousand Skies is definitely a blog to follow.

Behind the Pages is an excellent blog and beta reading site, run by the talented Tabitha. Her reviews are very insightful and incredibly well-written. She has excellent taste and never fails to review books that would have snuck under my radar, adding to my already way-too-long list of books to read.

Kerri McBookNerd is a great blogger. She’s my go-to for Young Adult Fantasy reviews (her other reviews are just as great)! Her reviews are creative and unique. You can’t go wrong, following her blog. I guarantee you’ll find some new gems to check out.

Ricardo Victoria is the author of The Tempest Blades fantasy series. Book one, The Withered King, (which I highly recommend reading), is available now. Book two, The Cursed Titans will be released this summer and is available for pre-order on Amazon.