The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie- A Mom/Son review

This year I’m participating in a reading challenge with my teenage son. We’re taking part in Read Christie 2023, which is a year-long Agatha Christie challenge. Each month features a different theme and a book list to choose from. January’s theme is jealousy and my son and I chose The Murder on the Links.

We will be sharing our thoughts below and the format will be a little different than usual. I really really love discussing books with my son!

My son: “Recently, I read The Murder on the Links and I really enjoyed it! Here are my thoughts on it. The first half of my review will be spoiler-free, and the second half will have ALL the spoilers! Let’s begin!”

Me: “Sounds fair. Here we go!”

My son: “I’m just going to come right out and say it: I think Captain Hastings is my favorite character in The Murder on the Links. He had some stiff competition too! Hercule Poirot is a classic, sure, but there’s just something about Captain Hastings that’s just fun to read!”

Me: “I thought Hastings was a blast too, but I still have to stick with Poirot as my favorite. As you said, he’s a classic. I like how particular he is and it’s interesting to see his thought process (although it’s often hard to parse out what he’s thinking in the moment).

My son: “As for the other characters (i.e. the suspects), I think that most of them were somewhat simple background types who I found easily forgettable. All except one who I mention in the second half of the review. I won’t name any names but I thought she was a fun character if a bit less important/prominent as Hercule Poirot and some of the other, more involved characters.”

Me: “That’s an interesting point. I can see where you’re coming from: the background characters aren’t as fleshed out say, say, the zany characters from the movie Clue. I think they’re meant to be more archetypes than anything. I do agree that there is one character who is definitely more memorable than the others! I’ll avoid mentioning her name too since you’d like to save that for later on.”

My son: “Next up is the pacing! I thought that the book had a good steady pace overall. It did get a bit faster toward the end, which was simultaneously exciting and easy to get confused by, as the story moved very quickly and changed direction suddenly towards the end. At least, in my opinion.”

Me: “I’m right there with you! The pace definitely ramped up toward the end with a lot being thrown at the reader very quickly. I have read a fair bit of Christie so I saw that uptick in pacing coming but it can be hard to follow. I can’t read it when I’m tired or it will go right over my head!”

My son: And about the location, I’m afraid that once again I found it to be somewhat unimportant when it wasn’t being actively investigated. If you’re looking for an Agatha Christie book with an exciting location [refers now to the review readers], I’d recommend either Murder on the Orient Express (if you’re looking for more Hercule Poirot) or And Then There Were None. The latter is my mom’s favorite Christie book, but I found the ending disagreed with me slightly.”

Me: “I still can’t believe And Then There Were None didn’t just blow you away! I abhor your reaction, my friend (but I love you anyway)! Joking aside, I think that the setting was okay here, but nothing to write home about.”

My son: “Switching topics a bit here, I also really enjoyed the mystery itself. I can’t go into too much detail here in the first half (because so much of what made it interesting are spoilers) but I can assure you, I am a big fan of this one! The twists are very twisty, the crime is very criminal, and so on and so forth.”

Me: “The twists are very twisty! I thought some of them were a bit over the top. I like mysteries where I can go back afterward and pick up the threads of clues that I wasn’t smart enough to catch the first time around and I’m not sure they are there in this case. Maybe they are and I’m just not observant enough. As Sherlock says, “You see but you do not observe” (I’m mixing my detectives now). That quote describes me pretty well.”

—From here on out, there will be spoilers! Tread with caution!—

My son: “All right, time to get down to business. Here are my real opinions on The Murder on the Links. Spoilers ahoy!”

Me: “Ooh, time for the nitty gritty!”

My son: “First off, I really enjoyed how Agatha Christie carefully laid clues out that we (the readers) could follow, then added in new information to completely change everything. The second Cinderella “fainted” in the shed near the weapon and the weapon was discovered missing, I was immediately suspicious of her. I think I might’ve suspected even earlier than that, even! A few chapters later, I found out my suspicions were simultaneously valid and incorrect. It was really exciting having my theories confirmed then almost instantly tossed out the window with the discovery of new information. Which, funnily enough, was heavily reliant on a window to present itself. I guess you could say that the information chose a very fortunate window of opportunity. Ha ha! Oh man, that wasn’t really that funny…”

Me: “Hey, I thought it was funny! The faint was very suspicious indeed. Remind me later and I’ll tell you about the time I fainted (well, your dad says I did. But I really didn’t. I just decided to accidentally tilt dramatically). I love having suspicions confirmed! I was so busy being suspicious of everything (I’m sure there was even a shifty squirrel in there somewhere) that I didn’t settle on her over anyone else. Well done!”

Me: “So, any thoughts on the theme of jealousy?”

My son: “I really didn’t notice, to be honest.”

Me: “Fair enough.”

My son: “Anyway…I personally think that Agatha Christie did a fantastic job writing an interesting and compelling mystery, which I really enjoyed! Of course, writing good mysteries is nothing new to Miss Christie. I personally think that overall, The Murder on the Links might be one of my favorite Hercule Poirot mysteries (Murder on the Orient Express is some pretty tough competition, though)!”

Me: “Wow, that high praise! I didn’t love this one as much as you did, but I’m still glad I read it. Not least because I get to talk about it with you! I can’t wait for next month’s book! Thanks for doing this challenge with me!”

Adjacent Monsters by Luke Tarzian

BOOK 1: THE WORLD MAKER PARABLE
Guilt will always call you back…
Rhona is a faithful servant of the country Jémoon and a woman in love. Everything changes when her beloved sets the ravenous Vulture goddess loose upon the land. Forced to execute the woman she loves for committing treason, Rhona discovers a profound correlation between morality and truth. A connection that might save her people or annihilate them all.

You are a lie…
Varésh Lúm-talé is many things, most of all a genocidal liar. A falsity searching for the Phoenix goddess whom he believes can help him rectify his atrocities. Such an undertaking is an arduous one for a man with missing memories and a conscience set on rending him from inside out. A man whose journey leads to Hang-Dead Forest and a meeting with a Vulture goddess who is not entirely as she seems.

BOOK 2: THE WORLD BREAKER REQUIEM
Prince of Woe…
Avaria Norrith is the adopted heir to the Ariathan throne. But that means little to a man who, for the better part of fifteen years, has sought and failed to earn his mother’s love. Fueled by pride and envy, Avaria seeks the means to prove himself and cast away his mental chains. When he’s tasked with the recreation of The Raven’s Rage he sees his chance, for with the infamous blade he can rewrite history and start anew.

Daughter of the Mountain…
Erath has not felt sunlight for a century. Not since Ariath condemned her people to a life of darkness with their misuse of The Raven’s Rage. But when an old friend comes seeking the remnants of the ancient sword, Erath cannot contain her curiosity and resolves to lend her aid. Is it true-can history be revised? Can her people be reclaimed?

Toll the Hounds…
They are hungry-and they are here.

Thank you to the author for providing me with these books in exchange for my honest opinion. The Adjacent Monsters duology is available now.

Some authors guide you into their book, gently holding your hand and providing a safe space from which to explore their world. That is far from the case with Luke Tarzian. Readers will instead find themselves lost in a twisted landscape of beautiful, raw writing, so full of emotion and truth that it sometimes hurts. It’s glorious.

Adjacent Monsters takes trust. Trust on the part of the author, who bared his soul to strangers, writing honestly and unflinchingly about themes that are obviously very personal to him. And trust from the reader, to follow dark and winding paths, believing that it will pay off. And wow, does it pay off!

I first fell in love with Luke Tarzian’s writing when reading Vultures. I can honestly say that I have never read anything similar to the absolute distortion of reality that I experience in his writing. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll end up completely lost. His writing is easy to pay attention to, though. It’s pulling yourself out of the story that you’ll find difficult.

Themes of grief, guilt, and regret lace through this duology and the characters make difficult choices while questioning the very decisions they must make. It is sad and rather relatable (although I have yet to be in the position of leading a loved one to their own execution). Who hasn’t felt guilt or regret? A word of warning: Don’t read Adjacent Monsters if you are in a difficult headspace: Luke Tarzian’s writing is superb, but it is also difficult to read if you are struggling emotionally.

It’s hard to have a “favorite character” in books such as these. I was drawn to the inner torment of each character and the way it is explored in their actions. It’s almost as though you’re watching them go through the stages of grief that we’re always told about. Rhona and Varésh sucked me into The World Maker Parable (the first in the duology). Despite being very different characters with separate motivations, they were linked in the deep feeling they provoked in me.

As much as I loved The World Maker Parable, The World Breaker Requiem left me stunned. It’s gorgeous in a heartbreaking, surreal way. The characters seem so much more than what they are: questers looking for a legendary sword. At times they are in fact overshadowed by the writing itself which is both stark and beautiful.

Reading Adjacent Monsters is like being in a fever dream: uncomfortable, disorienting, and utterly engrossing. I loved it.

The Magician’s Daughter by H.G. Parry

In the early 1900s, a young woman is caught between two worlds in H. G. Parry’s spellbinding tale of miracles, magic, and the adventure of a lifetime.
Off the coast of Ireland sits a legendary island hidden by magic. A place of ruins and ancient trees, sea salt air, and fairy lore, Hy-Brasil is the only home Biddy has ever known. Washed up on its shore as a baby, Biddy lives a quiet life with her guardian, the mercurial magician Rowan. A life she finds increasingly stifling.
 
One night, Rowan fails to return from his mysterious travels. To find him, Biddy must venture into the outside world for the first time. But Rowan has powerful enemies—forces who have hoarded the world’s magic and have set their sights on the magician’s many secrets.
 
Biddy may be the key to stopping them. Yet the closer she gets to answers, the more she questions everything she’s ever believed about Rowan, her past, and the nature of magic itself. (Taken from Amazon)

 

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Magician’s Daughter will be available on February 28, 2023.

The Magician’s Daughter invited me into a world of magic and mysteries, holding me captive until I finished the last word. It was gorgeously written, each word meticulously placed to build an engrossing narrative. The story of Biddy’s desperate venture was a breathtaking one.

Biddy grew up on Hy-Brasil with her magic-wielding caretaker, Rowan, and his familiar. Hy-Brasil is a place of magic, only visible every ten years. Even then, it’s only visible to a select few. Biddy has love, attention, and freedom across the island, but has been asked never to leave. Rowan leaves some nights, flying as a raven on secret errands. He is always back before dawn- until one day, he isn’t. Suddenly, Biddy is included in the reasons for his flights, told why she can’t leave, and is warned of the danger hunting them. From resenting being left out, Biddy is thrust into something darker and wilder than she could have ever imagined. Soon, she must choose between what is safe and what is right.

I loved the way the plot moved! Time was given to establishing the rules of the world so that when those rules were shattered, it meant something. The motivations of the characters made perfect sense (even when they made less-than-savory choices), and there were twists and turns that I didn’t see coming which left me desperate to see what happened next.

The Magician’s Daughter has a smaller cast of characters, but each one is given the attention it deserves. Every one of them was fascinating and well-written, adding new layers to the story. Hutchinson, Rowan’s rabbit familiar, burrowed his way into my heart with his combination of protectiveness and a rather cranky attitude. Morgaine was a compelling conundrum and it took until the end of the book for me to decide whose side she was really on. Even the (very evil) villain was complex enough to be more than an “I’m evil just because” sort of character. And wow, he gave me the shivers!

The narrative flows like a river. First, it is calm with slight ripples under the surface, but by the end of the book, a roaring narrative has taken over, rushing the reader along at a breathtaking pace. I raced through The Magician’s Daughter and, even though the ending was perfect, I was sad to see my time with the characters and world come to an end. If that isn’t the sign of an amazing book, I don’t know what is.

There was magic in the plot, but it also dripped from every word. The writing was absolutely phenomenal. The Magician’s Daughter is a book to get lost in, one that you’ll find yourself thinking of long after you’ve finished the last page.

The Monsters We Feed by Thomas Howard Riley

The morning before he found the dead body, Jathan Algevin thought he had his whole life just the way he wanted it.
He knows his city inside and out, and doesn’t bother carrying a sword, trusting his wits and his fists well enough to get by, hustling extra coin by ratting out loathsome magi to the law for execution.
He and his sister, Lyra, have watched out for each other ever since the day they were orphaned by a bloodthirsty rogue sorcerer, and now they finally have steady work, good friends, and the freedom to spend every night laughing at the bottom of a bottle.
But nothing lasts forever.
When he stumbles across a brutal murder, Jathan discovers a strange crystal lens that opens his eyes to an invisible world of magick and terror lurking just beneath the surface of his own, making him question everything he thought he knew.
But will gazing into this new arcane realm lead Jathan to save lives, or help destroy them?
With dangerous people hunting for the lens, monstrous lies unraveling his life, and a hidden underworld calling to him, it is only a matter of time before his whole world comes crashing down.
Will he find the answers he is looking for, or will he only find a monster needing to be fed?
Rated-R Dark Fantasy Noir in a city of hope, lust, and brutality, where swords are banned, and magick is just as likely to get you killed as it is to save your life.
There are always things about ourselves that we don’t want to see.
There are always things we can’t stop doing no matter how hard we try.
We all lie. We all have secrets.
We are all feeding monsters. (Taken from Amazon)

The Monsters We Feed by Thomas Howard Riley has a heartbeat. It beats with anger, desperation, and something in between love and hate. The pages pulse with life in all its gritty messiness. The book is visceral and brutal, and utterly compelling.

Taking place in the same world as We Break Immortals (although you can absolutely read The Monsters We Feed as a standalone), the book starts with a bang. Well, actually it starts with the mention of a dead body, setting the tone from the first eleven words. This is not a happily ever after sort of fantasy. Rather, it is an R-rated look into the complexities of human nature. It’s full of sex (lots and lots of it) and violence (lots and lots of it), as well as characters that bypass “morally gray” and waltz right into “evil” territory.

Jathan, our main character, is an incredibly messed up person. He’s a bundle of anger wrapped in hard edges and lies told to himself and to others. His parents were killed when he was a child, leaving him with a loathing for magick. Years later, he lives with his sister Lyra in his family home (which she is desperate to leave). She is his rock, but he is her anchor, weighing her down and holding her back. Jathan happily uses her as an excuse for his less-than-savory actions, which include selling out any users of magick he comes across in exchange for money. His sweet sister deserves better, to be honest. So does her friend who inexplicably finds him attractive.

Jathan makes yet another in a string of bad decisions when he loots a dead body, finding a Jecker Monocle. This device allows him to see “traces” of magick, making it a heck of a lot easier to track down and sell out magick users. Of course, this brings a new brand of trouble as Jathan soon finds himself suspecting his sister of having a liaison with a hated magick user.

The magick in both The Monsters We Feed and We Break Immortals is incredible. It’s extremely complex but Riley describes it in a way that explains it without adding to confusion or making it boring. So much rides on Jathan’s feelings about magick and the way the Jecker Monocle is used that it was imperative to have a fully developed magic system. A vague idea or underdeveloped magic would not have worked. Luckily, Riley doesn’t do anything by halves. The magic- like the rest of the book- is fully formed, a living, breathing thing.

The fact that The Monsters We Feed is told solely from the point of view of such an unlikable character makes it even more interesting. Where Jathan lacks in charisma, he makes up for in layers upon layers of fear and grief masquerading as anger and sometimes even as love. His self-destruction is engrossing, although sometimes painful to read. I really felt sad for him at times.

Once you start reading a book like this, there’s no stopping or putting it down until you’ve turned the last page. The writing is excellent, the world is immersive, and the characters are fascinating. I’m not big on sex scenes in books (I know it’s odd that I am fine with fantasy violence, but book sex makes me uncomfortable; I never claimed to be normal), but everything else was awesome.

If you like fantasy that blurs the line between right and wrong, that has flawed characters with questionable morality and drags secrets usually hidden away into glaring light, The Monsters We Feed is for you.

*My review originally appeared on Before We Go Blog.

Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care & Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olsen

Miss Mildred Percy inherits a dragon.
Ah, but we’ve already got ahead of ourselves…
Miss Mildred Percy is a spinster. She does not dance, she has long stopped dreaming, and she certainly does not have adventures. That is, until her great uncle has the audacity to leave her an inheritance, one that includes a dragon’s egg.
The egg – as eggs are wont to do – decides to hatch, and Miss Mildred Percy is suddenly thrust out of the role of “spinster and general wallflower” and into the unprecedented position of “spinster and keeper of dragons.”
But England has not seen a dragon since… well, ever. And now Mildred must contend with raising a dragon (that should not exist), kindling a romance (with a humble vicar), and embarking on an adventure she never thought could be hers for the taking. (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to the author for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons is available now.

What a delightful book! The adventure in Miss Percy’s Guide might not include epic sword fights or swashbuckling moments (although Miss Percy is certainly not lacking in the ‘derring-do’ department). I was on the edge of my seat nonetheless. Mildred Percy is an extremely likable main character, and I loved rooting for her to succeed.

Miss Percy’s Guide to the Care of Feeding of British Dragons has an unexpected beginning. Mildred is a quiet, introverted spinster ( I can relate to the first two things), who lives in her sister’s home and takes care of her sister’s children. Despite this being a longstanding arrangement, Mildred’s sister makes it abundantly clear that Mildred is a guest who is there only through her kindness, happily ignoring the fact that Mildred is basically raising those kids. Mildred is rather resigned to not having an existence of her own when she receives an inheritance from a great uncle she barely knew. Hidden in among a bunch of paperwork is an honest-to-goodness dragon egg.

The hatching of the dragon and the challenges of having a dangerous hatching is tackled by Mildred, a certain vicar, and his bustling housekeeper. The growing relationship between Mildred and Mr. Wiggan (the vicar) was so much fun to read! If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that literary romance and I don’t always mix. However, it was done so subtly and sweetly that, much like the kid in A Princess Bride, I didn’t mind so much. Mrs. Babbinton, the housekeeper, vied with Mildred for the elevated Favorite Character spot. She made me laugh with her no-nonsense approach and her habit of plying everyone with copious amounts of food at every opportunity.

A book like this needs obstacles of some sort and author Quenby Olson was so clever in hers! There was Mildred’s niece Belinda, a conniving and manipulative brat who uses her “charms” to get her way and is petulant and sometimes even cruel when that doesn’t work. Add in a poor and desperate young man who is certain that the egg should be his (his father having lost it to Mildred’s great uncle during some drunken gambling), and you get an intimidating and desperate villainous duo. There’s Mildred’s older sister as well, who had ground poor Mildred down into a long-suffering person who takes what she gets and almost thinks she deserves it. Almost. And this leads to my very favorite, and cleverest villain, of all: Mildred herself. She has to fight against her own self-doubt and injured self-esteem all throughout the book. Each victory against herself (so to speak) had me cheering.

There were excerpts from Mildred’s guide to dragons at the beginning of each chapter, which added an extra dose of fantastic to a book that I had already fallen in love with. Of course, I can’t forget the dragon. What a great choice of catalyst! I’m sure at this point it is crystal clear that I loved everything about the book.

Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons is wonderful, a perfect cozy read. Pick it up if you want a smile in book form.

Small Press, Big Stories: Campaigns and Companions

I am so excited to join Runalong the Shelves, along with many other fantastic blogs, for Small Press, Big Stories. Runalong the Shelves has created this monthlong celebration of indie press and the plethora of great books they produce.

Today, I’m happy to talk about Campaigns and Companions by Andie Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett, illustrated by Calum Alexander Watt. Campaigns and Companions ponders the question: what would happen if your pets played Dungeons and Dragons. The results are hilarious.

I’ve shared my original rave below, but if you want to save yourself some time: just go buy the book. It’s fantastic.

If you have played Dungeons and Dragons for long, you’ll notice that there are those things that just sort of go along with it. First, there were comics. The humor found in Dork Tower or Order of the Stick totally encapsulated the funny side of D&D. Later on, the guys at Penny Arcade starting bringing D&D into their own work. Well, make room next to your D&D sourcebooks: all ttrpg fans need to own Campaigns and Companions. It’s genius.

What would happen if cats, dogs, hamsters, and other critter companions picked up some dice and decided to go on a gaming adventure? Simply put, hilarity. This book is clever and snarky. It had me laughing out loud and showing my favorite pages to everyone in my house. Authors Andi Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett perfectly captured the attitudes our animal friends show on a daily basis. From the cat who has a theologically-charged experience with a protection from evil circle, to the dog who gets…um, held up in a narrow passageway, each page offered a new laugh and more than a few knowing nods.

Of course, I have to talk about the art. The hilarious illustrations from Calum Alexander Watt elevated Campaigns and Companions to a whole new level. There’s something altogether too fitting about seeing a berserker rabbit. This book was everything I was hoping for and then some. I’m planning on buying this for some friends who I know will appreciate it as much as I did. Basically, 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).

This is perfect for pet owners as well, although the full brilliance behind the humor will be more fully appreciated by D&D players. In fact, I guarantee that by this time next year, Campaigns and Companions will be mentioned in regular conversation around many a gaming table. I can’t recommend it enough.

*This is a Rebellion title

Purchase Link:

Amazon

Small Press, Big Stories: Paladin Unbound

I am excited to be a part of #SmallPressBigStories, conceived of and led by the awesome Runalong the Shelves! Small Press, Big Stories exists to celebrate indie presses and the awesome titles they publish.

Paladin Unbound has become one of my favorite fantasy books. I’ve already reread it once, and plan to read it again before too long. It’s an amazing book to fall into. Here’s my original review, although I think I failed to fully describe my love of the book:

When people ask for books I’d recommend to a fantasy newbie, ones that represent all the wonderful things the genre has to offer, I have a few go-tos. The Hobbit, obviously, and the Dragonlance Chronicles (really, is anyone surprised?), and, more recently, The Ventifact Colossus. Now I’m adding Paladin Unbound to that list, because this book would make anyone fall in love with fantasy.

The story starts with the main character, Umhra, just wanting to find work for himself and his band of mercenaries. When they are hired to find out what has happened to several missing people, they are thrust into a situation that is much darker and more dangerous than Umhra expected.

I was sucked in from page one, which begins at an ending. The ending of a war between gods, no less. The war ends with an asterisk, the sort that always leads to trouble down the road. What I loved about the opening is that it started huge, before moving on to the main storyline which is much more personal. It showcased a fascinating history, one that we continue to get snippets of throughout the book. I love when the history of a world or its belief systems is shared naturally like that, avoiding the dreaded info dump. I have to admit, though, I would actually read an entire book just dedicated to the history and mythology of the world of Evelium, I loved it so much. It was creative and well thought out.

As much as I enjoyed the world building, though, where Paladin Unbound shines is in its characters. There’s an excellent cast who build off each other in the best of ways. The interactions felt natural and allowed each character to grow and develop brilliantly. This was, in some ways, the typical adventuring group sometimes found in ttrpg’s – and that’s a great thing! It works very well, after all. There was Naivara the druid, Laudin the ranger, a mage named Nicholas (I have no idea why, but his name made me smile), Shadow the rogue, Balris the healer, Talus the fighter, and Gromley the warrior priest. While I loved all of them, I must say that I had a soft spot for Shadow.

Then there’s our main character, Umhra. Oh, how I loved Umhra! Being half-orc, he was distrusted, looked down on, or treated poorly quite a lot. He could have been bitter or angry and I wouldn’t have blamed him. But instead, he was an optimist, always looking for the best in every situation. He was, at his core, a good, honorable character. He was not your boring “lawful good”, however. He was incredibly nuanced and I loved reading about him. I haven’t been a huge fan of paladins in the past, but Umhra has me planning to make a paladin for my next D&D campaign.

This book would be perfect for fantasy newbies, ttrpg players, or readers who have traveled the length and breadth of many fantasy worlds and are looking for new adventures to go on. It left me excited and wanting more. Paladin Unbound is fantasy at its finest.

*Paladin Unbound is a Literary Wanderlust title

To Purchase:

Paladin Unbound

Empire of Exiles by Erin M. Evans

The empire moved on. 

Now, when Quill, an apprentice scribe, arrives in the capital city, he believes he’s on a simple errand for another pompous noble: fetch ancient artifacts from the magical Imperial Archives. He’s always found his apprenticeship to a lawman to be dull work. But these aren’t just any artifacts — these are the instruments of revolution, the banners under which the Duke lead his coup. 

Just as the artifacts are unearthed, the city is shaken by a brutal murder that seems to have been caused by a weapon not seen since the days of rebellion. With Quill being the main witness to the murder, and no one in power believing his story, he must join the Archivists — a young mage, a seasoned archivist, and a disillusioned detective — to solve the truth of the attack. And what they uncover will be the key to saving the empire – or destroying it again. (Taken from Amazon

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Empire of Exiles is available now.

When an author combines extraordinary worldbuilding with a strong understanding of human nature, something magical happens. Empire of Exiles is spectacular, a feast for those who crave complex characters and sinister plots. Author Erin M. Evans has created the sort of book that will be treasured for years to come. The description of the book, while making me desperate to read it, doesn’t begin to show the full scope of what waits inside its pages.

The book opens with an errand. Quill comes to the Archives with a request: he needs some artifacts. A simple job, and nothing spectacular. But, then there’s a grisly murder with Quill involved for the most upsetting of reasons, and each theory leads to more questions. The twists and turns were brilliant, weaving a surprising story with much larger implications than anyone realizes.

It became less of a “whodunnit” and more of a question of how bad the fallout would be. The danger grew even bigger with each page, threatening to swallow everyone in it. By the end of the book, my house could have been on fire and I would have been annoyed at the interruption to my reading.

The plot wove between the past and the present, showing that history does not exist in a vacuum. Everything past had a connection to the present. I loved that, despite everything being connected in some way, the world was nonetheless huge. The book focused on a small cast of characters but did not exclude the rest of the world or make the story small in any way.

And what a cast! I can’t pick a favorite. I loved Quill’s tenacity and his willingness to admit that he was way outside his depth. Then there was Yinni, devout and oh-so-lost, completely unaware that everyone feels alone sometimes. Her character growth was astounding. I loved prickly Tunuk, who made me smile. And Amadea, full of secrets and questions herself, trying to hide her insecurities by being the pillar of strength for everyone else. As incredible as the world was and as fascinating as the storyline was, it was the characters that made me fall in love.

Well, that and the way the magic system perfectly described what my anxiety disorder is like. I was in tears at parts and the self-deceptive litany of “I’m fine” that could be found throughout Empire of Exiles felt so incredibly familiar. I loved the way the magic worked, how it threatened to swallow the character when they “spiraled”. I read that the author’s magic system was created from her wondering what a magic system that felt like an anxiety disorder would be like. I can say with confidence that she nailed it. I was in awe at the way she put words to the indescribable.

The history of the world was fantastic, with hints of more to come. I loved the Changelings and the layers to their mystery. I’m a fan of changelings in books anyway, and these were so creatively done. The questions of morality that were raised with their inclusion added an intriguing facet.

I’m desperate to continue the story and will be waiting impatiently for book two. Empire of Exiles is truly incredible, captivating, and thought-provoking. I loved every word.

Strange Cargo by Patrick Samphire

What do a smuggling gang, a curse that won’t go away, and a frequently lost dog have to do with each other?

Answer: they’re all here to disrupt Mennik Thorn’s hard-earned peace and quiet.

As the sole freelance mage in the city of Agatos, Mennik is used to some odd clients and awful jobs. But this time, one of his clients isn’t giving him a choice. Mennik might have forgotten about the smugglers whose operations he disrupted, but they haven’t forgotten about him. Now he is faced with a simple ultimatum: help them smuggle in an unknown, dangerous cargo or flee the city he loves forever.

Time is running out for Mennik to find an answer, and things are about to get completely out of control. (Taken from Amazon)

Mennik (Nik) is back and in even bigger trouble than usual, in the third installment in the Mennik Thorn series. Strange Cargo was one of my most anticipated books of the year and it did not disappoint. It was awesome, unsurprisingly.

I am a sucker for books featuring down-on-their luck rapscallions who can’t seem to stay out of danger. Whether it’s a smart mouth at the wrong time, or a penchant for chasing trouble, these kinds of characters keep me smiling and guessing. Mennik Thorn is high on my list of favorite trouble-finders and each book in the series makes me like him more.

After the events of Nectar for the God, book two in the series, Mennik is on the outs with his best (and some would argue, only) friend. He’s also unfortunately on the outs with a group of smugglers. Seeing as they’d happily see him dead, they choose the next best thing and pressure Mennik into a job protecting an item they plan to smuggle into Agatos. Of course, if he ends up dead in the process, that’s just a perk for them, right?

Not only does this “job” not pay, but it’s also incredibly dangerous. Once Mennik learns what it is he’s helping smuggle in, things go from sideways to dangerous. I won’t ruin the surprise, but it’s a doozy. The stakes keep going up from book to book, keeping me interested and wondering what fresh hell Mennik will find himself in next.

I love that Mennik always has another side problem that he’s trying to solve while the main story arc takes up most of the attention. In this instance, Mennik’s less-than-enthusiastic client is none other than the cranky owner of the crap bar Mennik frequents. Their passive-aggressive conversations entertained me to no end.

Mennik is a brilliant character, a study in contradictions. He tries to do the right thing, but he rarely knows what the “right thing” is. He’s smart-mouthed and mocks pretty much everyone but he is equally mocking of himself. He would probably have a longer life expectancy if he didn’t feel the urge to help people (even when they serve him subpar alcohol), but he can’t seem to stop helping anyway. Oh, and he might as well write Killed by Curiosity on his headstone now and get it over with.

Of course, his character does not exist in stasis. He has grown and changed since book one (Shadow of a Dead God), although he remains delightfully disaster prone. Strange Cargo doesn’t highlight that character growth quite as much because it is shorter (more of a novella than a full-fledged novel). In some ways it shouted “side quest” but it still managed to pack in revelations and world development aplenty.

As always, the writing is phenomenal. Everything is brilliantly described, painting vivid pictures of both Agatos and its inhabitants. The dialogue is witty, and things move at a quick pace. Strange Cargo showcased all the things that I love about the series and made me hungry for more. Book four in the Mennik Thorn series can’t come soon enough!

*Review originally appeared in Grimdark Magazine

Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Charlie Ovid, despite surviving a brutal childhood in Mississippi, doesn’t have a scar on him. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not. Marlowe, a foundling from a railway freight car, shines with a strange bluish light. He can melt or mend flesh. When Alice Quicke, a jaded detective with her own troubled past, is recruited to escort them to safety, all three begin a journey into the nature of difference and belonging, and the shadowy edges of the monstrous.

What follows is a story of wonder and betrayal, from the gaslit streets of London, and the wooden theaters of Meiji-era Tokyo, to an eerie estate outside Edinburgh where other children with gifts―like Komako, a witch-child and twister of dust, and Ribs, a girl who cloaks herself in invisibility―are forced to combat the forces that threaten their safety. There, the world of the dead and the world of the living threaten to collide. With this new found family, Komako, Marlowe, Charlie, Ribs, and the rest of the Talents discover the truth about their abilities. And as secrets within the Institute unfurl, a new question arises: What truly defines a monster? (Taken from Amazon)

With a premise that is reminiscent of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with a hint of X-Men thrown in for good measure, Ordinary Monsters could have easily gotten lost in a crowd of similar books. Instead, its evocative writing sets it apart from so many other “extraordinary children” storylines, while author J.M. Miro confidently subverts expectations.

The plotline seems simple enough: there are two kids with special abilities referred to as Talents, being hunted by a mysterious being. At the same time, there is a duo of detectives (ish) who have been given the task of finding these children and taking them to a special school for those like them (seems pretty similar to Professor X’s school, right?).

Where the book differs from other stories in this vein is its execution. Ordinary Monsters is darkly beautiful, grimy, and gothic with an ugly underbelly that rears its head when least expected. It’s unsettling and thought provoking. I was engrossed and almost repulsed, in equal measure. There’s an undercurrent of hope, even among the bleakest parts of the book.

Ordinary Monsters uses multiple points of view, but it is never confusing or distracting. There are Marlowe and Charlie, two children with Talents. Charlie can glow. Marlowe can heal himself of any physical hurt. Unfortunately for him, the emotional pain isn’t also healed. His introduction was heartbreaking, to say the least. Then there are several other characters who play roles of varying importance. What I loved about this was how even the smallest of interactions could have a profound impact on the personality or choices of a main character.

I definitely had some niggles. The plot could be a little convoluted at times, and there were subjects touched upon that I prefer to avoid (description of rape being the main one that most bothered me). If there was a content warning section in the book, I missed it. However, these unsavory topics were not used for “shock value”, and they weren’t dwelled upon. Take from that what you will.

As in life, things were complex and messy. There was no absolute good or absolute bad. Each character had their own drive and motivation, and many characters were morally conflicted at best. The story went far past surface level, examining what makes people tick.

While the book wasn’t perfect, it was a fascinating read. It impresses with its immersive, gothic atmosphere and its nuanced characters. Ordinary Monsters will worm its way into your head and keep you thinking. Pick this one up if you like exploring the dark corners of the human psyche and are drawn to the mysterious and unknown.