It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2021 Adult Fiction Edition

2021 has been an amazing year for fiction. I have read so many excellent books, any of which would make a wonderful gift. For this year’s list, I picked books that are either the first in their series (as opposed to a continuation of a series) or standalones. You can find last year’s adult recommendations here: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2020 Adult Fiction Edition.

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

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

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

This is the most surprising, delightful, and heartwarming book! It is a hug in print and I loved every single moment of it. You can read more of my gushing about it here.

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)

Paladin Unbound would be an excellent gift for fans of the fantasy genre, readers who are new to fantasy, or people who play tabletop roleplaying games. Basically, it would make a great gift for 99% of the people I know (I’m still trying to convince a few friends to give fantasy a go). You can read my review here.

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)

Loosely based on a real person and real events, this book sucked me in and kept me feverishly turning pages. It is so well written, and would be a great gift for readers who like mind-twisting, psychological reads. You can find my review here.

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)

This book was so much fun! The Resurrectionist of Caligo would be perfect for readers who like a healthy dose of mystery in their fantasy. You can find my review here.

The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Exiled by her despotic brother, princess Malini spends her days dreaming of vengeance while imprisoned 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 destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a ruthless princess seeking to steal a throne. The other a powerful priestess desperate to save her family. Together, they will set an empire ablaze. (taken from Amazon)

Complex and beautifully written, The Jasmine Throne will keep readers engrossed. This would be a great gift for fans of books that have great worldbuilding, political machinations, and twists aplenty. You can read my review here.

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)

Book two in the Drowning Empire series, The Bone Shard Emperor was a wild ride full of action, betrayal, and heart-in-your-throat plot twists. Nothing happens as expected, and it’s fantastic.

The Bone Shard Emperor picks up soon after The Bone Shard Daughter ends. We are still following the points of view found in book one, although a few characters find themselves crossing paths. This is one of the main changes in dynamic: the new interactions. Instead of being on separate but related paths, the book slowly brings the characters into contact with each other. Some form alliances. Others…not so much.

While the world is well developed (and massive), it’s the characters that drew me in and kept me enthralled. Phalue and Ranami, now married, grapple with Phalue’s new role as governor. There are new obstacles and a new twist in their relationship: a scrawny urchin who may be hiding something. While still not my favorite points of view, Phalue and Ranami add a different angle to the story, fleshing it out well.

Meanwhile, Lin finds herself head of a kingdom that is, quite literally, drowning. I am always curious why anyone in their right mind would actually want to be in charge, so seeing her motives and the shifts in her viewpoint was fascinating. She is no longer the idealistic and motivated character she was in The Bone Shard Daughter. Instead, she is a person struggling to keep her head above the dark waters of politics, alliances, secrets she must keep, and an approaching army. From being rather ambivalent about her for the first half of book one, I have gone to eagerly reading the next part of her storyline, wondering if she can somehow hold the fraying kingdom together. I loved the combination of vulnerability and sheer stick-to-it-ness that Lin displayed. She didn’t quit, even when she really probably should have.

Jovis (and Mephi!) once again stood out as my favorite storyline, although things are a little different now. Jovis is now Lin’s Captain of the Guard, and his relationship with her is complicated, to say the least. They are both hiding big things, while at the same time trying to learn who to trust. His part of the book felt like it was always about to tip over into chaos, but never quite did. Author Andrea Stewart kept the multiple threads of his narrative held together wonderfully. Nothing was forgotten, and every action had consequences that were both far-reaching and sometimes flat-out terrifying.

Stewart has come into her own, her writing skillful and confident. The narrative flows wonderfully and the pacing is magnificent. The Bone Shard Emperor felt like a roller coaster, building up speed as it hurtles from drop to turn, turning everything on its head before plunging you straight into an astonishing confrontation. If the series continues on in this vein, it will easily become one of my favorites.

Read this one sooner rather than later.

Originally published in Grimdark Magazine.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: 2021 Picture Book Edition

This year has been an odd one, full of unexpected plot twists. Some months dragged on forever, while others raced ahead. I’m pretty sure we skipped August completely. At any rate, we are tiptoeing closer to Christmas, and with shipping issues being what they are, now is probably a good time to start on any planned gift shopping. Here are a few picture books that are loved in my house. Any of them would be a winner under the tree. If you’d like more suggestions, you can read my list from last year here: It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas 2020 Picture Book Edition.

Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke

Goblin, a cheerful little homebody, lives in a cosy, rat-infested dungeon, with his only friend, Skeleton. Every day, Goblin and Skeleton play with the treasure in their dungeon. But one day, a gang of “heroic” adventurers bursts in. These marauders trash the place, steal all the treasure, and make off with Skeleton―leaving Goblin all alone!

It’s up to Goblin to save the day. But first he’s going to have to leave the dungeon and find out how the rest of the world feels about goblins. (taken from Amazon)

We read this one with my youngest for the first time this year. It is so cute! It is the perfect length for an emerging reader, although it’s also perfect for before bed story time as well. The illustrations are adorable and the storyline is creative and fun. It follows Goblin as he sets off to rescue his best friend, Skeleton, from the evil clutches of a group of heroes.

Bach to the Rescue!: How a Rich Dude Who Couldn’t Sleep Inspired the Greatest Music Ever by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by Chris Eliopolous

Every famous piece of art has an origin story—even Bach’s Goldberg Variations! When the richest dude in town can’t sleep, he hires a much-less-rich dude named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play him lullabies on the harpsichord. Goldberg does an OK job, but as the Rich Dude hollers for Goldberg each night, he wakes up the whole town in the process. As the town gets sleepier and sleepier and grumpier and grumpier, Goldberg worries he may be out of a job soon. But then, the one and only Bach enters the scene with a series of lullabies composed specifically for the Rich Dude. And, thus, the Goldberg Variations are born! (taken from Amazon)

My kindergartener loves historical figures. From U.S. presidents to famous writers, from authors to artists, if a person has made a mark on history, he is excited about it. This is a fun (and true!) story about Bach, written by the author of the Origami Yoda series. The pictures are zany and entertaining, and the book gets bonus points from me for adding an afterword with the historical facts.

Good Knight, Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang

Knights in shining armor go full baby (and full mustache) in this silly and soothing bedtime adventure. Young knaves will fall blissfully asleep after hearing the tale of two brave knights: Baby Billy, House of Mustache, and Baby Javier, House of Beard, and how they fought to conquer their biggest foe: bedtime! The babies fight their enemy valiantly, but eventually even gallant Baby Billy falls victim to sleep, foiled by, of all things, an enchanted book. Though Billy succumbs to the magic of the story, in his dreams, he rejoins his bearded co-knigh . . . and they became the stuff of legend. (taken from Amazon)

The Mustache Baby books are so stinking adorable! This is the latest in the set, releasing on December seventh. I’ve already ordered a copy to give to the youngest.

Today I Feel Silly: And Other Moods that Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell

Jamie Lee Curtis’s zany and touching verse, paired with Laura Cornell’s whimsical and original illustrations, helps kids explore, identify, and, even have fun with their ever-changing moods.
Silly, cranky, excited, or sad—everyone has moods that can change each day. And that’s okay! Follow the boisterous, bouncing protagonist as she explores her moods and how they change from day to day. (taken from Amazon)

My youngest has experienced a lot of changes this year, and sometimes he struggles to know the appropriate way to express himself. I wanted him to know that whatever he feels is okay, that he isn’t “bad” if he is sad or angry. Today I feel Silly! to the rescue! The pictures are so bright and energetic and there’s a little “mood wheel” at the back, which is a lot of fun.

Sir Lilypad by Anna Kemp,illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

Once upon a time, in a deep dark bog, lived a teeny, tiny speckled frog. Now, he might be tiny (the other frogs call him stuff, like ‘weedy pants’ and ‘sugar puff’) but his ambition is great. For he wants to be known henceforth as Sir Lilypad! Sir Lilypad the brave and wise! Slayer of the – er – dragonflies. And all he needs to effect this transformation? A kiss from a willing princess, of course…(taken from Amazon)

My husband gave me a copy of this book because he knows that I love dragons in any form I can get them (I also love children’s books). I loved it! I read it to my youngest, who was equally delighted. It would be a perfect Christmas gift for any little one!

Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt

Shakespeare wrote with a feather quill and ink; Emily Dickinson wrote with a fountain pen; Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote on a Yiddish typewriter. But what did such writers do when they weren’t writing? What did Jane Austen eat for breakfast? What could make Mark Twain throw his shirts out the window? Why would Zora Neale Hurston punch a fellow elevator passenger? Lives of the Writers tells all that and more. (taken from Amazon)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this book. It’s part of an entire series and they’ve been my youngest’s favorite books this year. They give information in an accessible and engaging way. They’d be a good gift for any nonfiction-loving little readers.

Odyssey: The Reboot: A Hooligan’s Tale by Keith Tokash

Homer’s back, and this time, it’s personal.

Odysseus, cleverest of Greeks, is missing. Having survived war, betrayal, and his own fat mouth, Gelios discovers himself oathsworn to find his friend, and save the kingdom of Ithaca.

With his squabbling entourage, Gelios careens through the Mediterranean in a desperate bid to save Odysseus and reunite antiquity’s most annoying family. Fleeing a trail of mercenaries, bad decisions, and angry women, the group struggles to answer one of humanity’s most enduring questions:

Why the hell is this my problem? (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Odyssey: The Reboot is available for purchase now.

Odyssey: The Reboot: A Hooligan’s Tale is that wonderful mix of completely irreverent and smart that is so hard to find. I loved author Keith Tokash’s take on the Iliad (review here), and he continues in fine form here. The thing about “classics” such as the Odyssey is that they’re ripe for parody. There’s nothing like lovingly poking fun at a timeless tale that is pretty much required reading for every junior high school student. Tokash uses the classic to craft a fast-moving “true story” about the events of the Odyssey and it is hilarious.

Once again, Gelios (the cousin of Homer) crashed through an epic, causing mayhem. Gelios was pretty much born with his foot in his mouth, yet he is also somehow endearing. He’s a fantastic main character and reading the shenanigans he finds himself in was so much fun!

The writing is snappy, the humor is dry and witty, and the story is a blast. The author has taken everything that worked well in his first book (which was pretty much everything) and somehow made it even better. You don’t need to read Iliad: The Reboot to enjoy this book, although I highly recommend it. In a year (decade?) where humor is as good as gold, Odyssey: The Reboot: A Hooligan’s Tale delivers. Go ahead and grab both books; you’ll thank me.

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/

Fantasy Subgenres: A Plethora of Choices UPDATED

Every now and again, I’ll hear someone say “I don’t like fantasy,” even though they’ve never read any. Of course, everyone has their own preferences in literature, which is totally fine, but I sometimes think that what people mean is that they don’t like a certain type of fantasy. There’s much more than just swords and magic when it comes to fantasy (although I happen to love books that have swords and magic).

Here are a few sub-genres, with explanations, as well as examples of books that fit into each category. Of course, I’m in no way an expert, and some of these books can fit quite comfortably in multiple sub-genres. Talk to me! Tell me what I got right, what I messed up, and what I missed completely. Here goes nothing!

Since my original post, I have learned about and read a few new subgenres, which I am now adding to the list. Let me know what you think!

High Fantasy: High fantasy is probably what comes to mind first when people hear “fantasy.” There are some characteristics that separate high fantasy from other kinds of fantasy. First of all, it’s very character-focused. The choices made by a single character, or a few, are most important. High fantasy is set in its own world with its own defined rules of magic. A common theme is good vs. evil.

Examples: The Swans’ War trilogy by Sean Russell; The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Epic Fantasy: Epic fantasy is, well…epic. It usually consists of a threat to the entire world and has a large cast of characters, as opposed to the few that characterize high fantasy. While The Hobbit, for example, is high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is what I would classify as epic fantasy. There’s a larger cast of characters, and a danger to the entire world.
Examples: Game of Thrones; Wheel of Time; Lord of the Rings

Low Fantasy: Low fantasy is characterized by magical events that intrude on daily life in a normal world.

Examples: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Sword and Sorcery: Well, aside from the obvious (swords and magic), think romance, and adventure. Sword and Sorcery is a bit on the pulpy side (nothing wrong with that). I always picture 80’s era Sylvester Stallone as the movie equivalent of a Sword and Sorcery hero.
Examples: Conan the Barbarian; Legend by David Gemmell. Honestly, I’m on the fence about including Legend here, as it doesn’t seem as pulpy as other Sword and Sorcery books, but I’m drawing a blank on other examples. What would you add to this category?

Military Fantasy: This is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s basically military life in a fantasy setting, often following one solider, or a small company.
Examples: The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher; The Black Company by Glen Cook

Grimdark Fantasy: Don’t expect happily ever after’s or the archetypal heroes. Grimdark is marked with violence, morally gray as well as completely amoral characters. It also doesn’t shy away from violence.
Examples: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff; The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Dark Fantasy/ Gothic Fantasy: This sub-genre incorporates themes of death, fear, and romance. It has a darker tone, and elements of horror. Think Edgar Allen Poe- goes fantasy, and you’ve got the general idea.
Examples: Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman; Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan

Urban Fantasy: This is interesting in that there are a few different routes urban fantasy is known to take: either a separate fantasy world with rules that are similar to ours or, conversely, our world with fantasy elements mixed in. Go figure.
Examples: Jackaby by William Ritter; City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Arthurian Fantasy: This is fantasy based directly on the myths and legends of King Arthur.
Examples: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart; The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Superhero Fantasy: This is fantasy based on the character of a superhero. Easily defined.
Examples: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson; Vicious by V.E. Schwab

RPG Lit: Combining fantasy with role playing games, the main character is generally aware that they are in a game-type world. Stats. are very much a part of the book, and the characters interact and progress through the book as they would an rpg.
Examples: The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini; Path to Villainy: An NPC Kobold’s Tale by S.L. Rowland

Fairy Tales: Starting as children’s stories, lately there have been many re-imaginings of these books that are marked by fantastical elements and magic.
Examples of fairy tale retellings: Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer; Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik; House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig; A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

Portal Fantasy: I argue that this is a sub-genre in its own right! This would be books in which the characters leave their own world through a portal/door/etc, and travel to a world with different rules than their own. Often, fantasy elements such as magic are present.
Examples: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Fantasy of Manners: I’m a little newer to this subgenre ( Thank you to Way Too Fantasy for telling me about this one). You won’t see many dragons or violent battles. This subgenre is defined by its wit and its use of words as weapons. There is often a sort of hierarchy and the battles tend to be more involved with social maneuvering. I tend to picture Jane Austen-meets-fantasy.
Examples: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Sword-free Fantasy: Sans fantasy violence, sword-free fantasy uses wondrous, reality-free worlds to explore very real emotions and relationships. Look for themes of family, love, self-acceptance, or self-discovery.
Examples: The Living Waters by Dan Fitzgerald; The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune; Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olson

Viking-Inspired Fantasy: This subgenre could go a few different directions. It could borrow from heavily from Norse mythology or it can be set in a world that borrows elements from the Norse mythology or Viking way of life while still having its own mythologies or pantheons.
Examples: The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwyne; The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Fantasy Comedy: Irreverent and witty, fantasy comedy often takes a humorous look at the fantasy genre, either creating new and entertaining fantasy worlds that focus on humor, parodying common fantasy tropes, or even poking lighthearted fun at specific works of fantasy.
Examples: The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True by Sean Gibson; Harpyness is Only Skin Deep by D.H. Willison; Iliad: The Reboot by Keith Tokash

Time for you to weigh in! What did I get right? What did I mess up? What am I still missing? Let’s talk!

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.

Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons (D&D Book)


Meet Fizban the Fabulous: doddering archmage, unlikely war hero, divine avatar of a dragon-god—and your guide to the mysteries of dragonkind.
 
What is the difference between a red dragon and a gold dragon? What is dragonsight? How does a dragon’s magic impact the world around them? This comprehensive guide provides Dungeon Masters with a rich hoard of tools and information for designing dragon-themed encounters, adventures, and campaigns. Dragonslayers and dragon scholars alike will also appreciate its insight into harnessing the power of dragon magic and options for players to create unique, memorable draconic characters.
 
    Introduces gem dragons to fifth edition!
    Provides Dungeon Masters with tools to craft adventures inspired by dragons, including dragon lair maps and detailed information about 20 different types of dragons
    Adds player character options, including dragon-themed subclasses for monks and rangers, unique draconic ancestries for dragonborn, additional spell options, and a feat
    Presents a complete dragon bestiary and introduces a variety of dragons and dragon-related creatures—including aspects of the dragon gods, dragon minions, and more
    Reveals the story of the First World and the role the dragon gods Bahamut and Tiamat played in its creation and destruction (taken from Amazon)

On the off chance you are unaware, there are three (incredibly obvious) things you should probably know about me:

1. I adore dragons in any form.

2. I quite enjoy roleplaying games, even (especially) when I roll badly.

3. I absolutely love the Dragonlance series. It was my gateway to fantasy, and I have reread the Chronicles every year since I first fell in love with them, much longer ago than I care to admit.

So, much like a certain kender, I had to “borrow” Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons. I’m sure Fizban wouldn’t mind.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not particularly well-versed in fifth edition, 3.5 being where I’ve hung my hat the longest. However, a good chunk of what makes books like this great has nothing to do with the edition. It’s a jump-start in creativity. Looking through Fizaban’s Treasury of Dragons gave me several great ideas and got my mind working. In fact, I think I’m ready to attempt to conquer my nerves over being the DM and lead a Dragonlance campaign myself.

The book organizes and breaks down the different types of dragons often found in D&D, organizing stats, suggestions, spells, and more into easy-to-understand pages. Apart from the usual suspects, there are some new additions and some extra details given. Gem dragons! Faerie dragons! Clever, and sometimes funny, adventure hooks! When it comes to Dungeons and Dragons campaign books, there are a few different sorts: the D&D book that stays on the shelf; the trusty manual that is always consulted; and the fun extra that helps elevate a campaign in terms of creativity and enjoyment. Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons falls firmly in the last category.

Something that I found pretty interesting is the examples and tie-ins to other lines owned by Wizards of the Coast. There are examples from Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and even a mention or two from Magic the Gathering. I sometimes found it odd to see how the book tried to tie everything up into one neat little “it’s all related” bow, but the information itself was still cool. Being a huge Dragonlance fan, I was really excited when mentions of Cyan Bloodbane and Fireflash popped up.

Oh, and here’s the best part: lots and lots of Fizban! I loved the little quotes attributed to him throughout the book. They range from advice (“To portray a convincing human, one must embody greed, selfishness, and vigilance. To portray a convincing dragon, one must relax.”) to very important observations (“…When it comes to my pudding, well, you can’t fix perfect.”), and everything in-between. They added fun and charm to an already-enjoyable manual.

I did have one little niggle, which actually had to do with how Fizban was referred to in the book. If you haven’t read the Dragonlance Chronicles yet (I demand to know why!), there’s a huge spoiler! So, for the Dragonlance uninitiated, be aware of that. Or try to be unaware. Or something.

Aside from that, Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons is excellent. I’d like to apologize in advance to the poor unfortunates who will be stuck playing in my Dragonlance campaign. It’s Fizban’s fault. Truly.


(If you haven’t yet read Dragonlance, and would like to know where to start, you can find my opinion here: Dragonlance Books: Where on Krynn Should You Start?)

Witchy Witches of all Kinds

Witches in literature have changed quite a bit over the years. From the sinister and mysterious, to the flat-out evil; from the magic-for-good to the naturalist who is one with nature, you can find a book for every type. I am far from an expert in the inclusion of witches in books, but I’m a reader so I have my own experience with witches. Here are a few books with witches of different sorts.

Evil Witches:

These are the ones that often look like hags, live in huts in the middle of nowhere, have a penchant for eating naughty kids, or just like to cause trouble.

Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm- I just had to include at least one Grimm story and this one fits the bill.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (I would argue that they are bit more like the Three Fates, but…)

The Witches by Roald Dahl- Well, this book is terrifying.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum – Here for obvious reasons.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis- This book contains one of, if not the most evil witch I’ve read in a book to date.

Good witches: The term “good” is subjective, especially when it comes to magic users in books. Still, I think the witches in these books can at least fall vaguely in this category.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling- Without getting into the author at all, Hermione definitely qualifies as a good witch.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow- No spoilers given.

Small Place by Matthew Samuels – She’s technically good. Okay, she has some questionable anecdotes but for the adventure in Small Places, she is considered good.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede- I loved these books when I was younger! Morwen the witch is the least witchy witch ever and it’s fabulous.

Witches as naturalists: I’m seeing books that are going this route more and more often lately. While I don’t have quite as many titles for this section, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one example.

Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece- This book was wonderfully written. The prose was gorgeous and flowed beautifully.

It’s complicated: These books have witches that aren’t witches, witches as representative of other things (such as women’s rights), and other complex females characters with more than a hint of magic about them.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow- This book is brilliant! It follows three witches who are, more importantly, three women in search of respect and freedom. This book is chock full of fierce, justifiable anger and I loved it.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller- I’m pretty sure that, by now, the hysteria that gipped communities during the Witch Trials is well known. I remember seeing this play and being fascinated.

The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore- This one was a bit harder for me to get into, but I enjoyed it once it got going.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice- What can I say? It’s Anne Rice. That means the trilogy is incredibly complex, incredibly messed up in parts, and incredibly engrossing.

Time to add to my already-teetering tbr list! What else should be on this list?

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has done the calculations, and decided that the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town.

Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a pitch-black rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man―one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him. By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to.

Set in a dark-mirror version of post-war England, Caitlin Starling crafts a new kind of gothic horror from the bones of the beloved canon. This Crimson Peak-inspired story assembles, then upends, every expectation set in place by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca, and will leave readers shaken, desperate to begin again as soon as they are finished. (taken from Amazon)

I had high expectations for this one. I’m a sucker for a good haunting, and The Death of Jane Lawrence promised to be something new. The novel follows Jane, a practical woman who decides to marry as a business arrangement: respectability in exchange for a fair amount of autonomy. She decides the reclusive Dr. Lawrence is the perfect candidate. He has zero expectations and his only request is that she stay away from his dilapidated family estate. Of course, that is the one thing she doesn’t do. When Jane finds herself stranded at the manor late one night, it sets in motion events both strange and haunting.

I have to admit that I didn’t end up loving the book the way I thought I would. I struggled to really become invested in the characters or to really care about what happened to them at all. I felt Dr. Lawrence had potential, but instead he became simply a cutout-version of a stereotypical martyr. He seemed determined to give in to his “fate” without a fight, despite there being no reason for him to do so. Long-suffering characters such as that tend to grate on me pretty quickly, so I wasn’t a huge fan. Meanwhile, Jane sort of confused me. She seemed to be constantly angry but forgiving, even if no apology was offered. She is lied to, but decided it’s okay because so-and-so is compassionate toward others. Someone tries to kill her, but it’s okay because they weren’t themselves. Information withheld leads to extreme danger, but it’s okay because the person felt ashamed about it. I wanted to shake her for a good chunk of the book. I suppose the author did get me invested enough that I was almost constantly irritated at Jane’s character, so that is something.

The house itself was the perfect blend of intimidating and lonely. It felt like entering the house caused one to surrender their grip on reality. It was mysterious and dark, and wonderfully atmospheric. The descriptions of the apparitions gave me delighted shivers and the dark, rainy weather was used to great effect. Ultimately, the house sort of became a character in its own right.

The way the book unfolded didn’t quite work for me. I felt that some parts were needlessly drawn out, while other important moments were rushed. It was very odd. I could never quite get a hold on the pacing. However, that disjointed pacing could have been intended as a way to keep the reader off balance and to add to the feeling of “wrongness” that pervaded the story.

I could balance out what I liked and didn’t like about the book, but at the end of the day, The Death of Jane Lawrence just wasn’t for me. Have you read this one? What did you think?