Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

The New York Times bestselling series that inspired the international hit video game: The Witcher.
For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.

Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world – for good, or for evil.

As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt’s responsibility to protect them all – and the Witcher never accepts defeat.

The Witcher returns in this sequel to The Last Wish, as the inhabitants of his world become embroiled in a state of total war.

I actually played the video game Witcher 3: Wild Hunt before I even thought about picking up the novels that inspired the award-winning video games.  When I fell in love with the game and its rich mythology, political intrigue and vibrant characters I had to have more of Geralt and his world.  So I decided to give Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels a try.  Given my recent rash of disappointing reads, I was absolutely thrilled when it turned out that Blood of Elves completely exceeded my expectations.

Here in Blood of Elves, we have a fantasy world that is both familiar and alien to most North American readers.  There are witches, wizards, dryads and other such creatures while at the same time there are unique creatures Sapkowski has created like witchers (obviously) and aeschnas (aeschnae?).  At the same time, he has put a spin on old fantasy creatures like elves, dwarves, dryads and werewolves.  It’s a wonderful blend of the familiar and the strange and it makes me happy to see that there’s a lot of potential exploration of other fantasy creatures in the rest of the series.  In addition to the wonderful creatures Sapkowski has created, the world-building allows for quite a lot of intrigue and conflict.  On one hand, you have the expanding Nilfgaardian empire under the lead of Emperor Emhyr var Emreis.  On the other hand, you have the fractured Northern Realms that include kingdoms like Temeria, Kaedwen, Redania, Cintra and Aedirn.  Each country has its own unique leader, culture and history and while the main focus of the story is on Ciri and Geralt, it’s fascinating to catch glimpses of the vast world Sapkowski has built.

As for the characters, I was pleasantly surprised.  While Andrzej Sapkowski has a pared-down writing style that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to much description, all of the characters in the novel were well fleshed-out.  Geralt is of course fascinating because although he’s supposed to be this cold-blooded monster killer for hire, you can tell he cares about people deeply.  Ciri herself is wonderful and I loved seeing her interactions with Triss and, later in the novel, Yennefer.  She’s rough and tough being raised as a witcher at Kaer Morhen but at the same time, she’s vulnerable when it comes to the changes every girl goes through during puberty.  She really reminds me of myself at the same age so I do admit to having quite a bit of a soft spot for her.  Seeing her interactions with Triss who becomes a mentor and a big sister to her was really touching in contrast to Yennefer’s loving yet slightly cold relationship with her.

Although Blood of Elves is slightly under 400 pages long, you will hardly notice the length once you get going.  The aforementioned pared-down writing style really does move the action along quite quickly and the first chapter has you hitting the ground running so to speak.  However, Sapkowski does have enough description and backstory that you’ll quickly catch on like I did, whether or not you’ve read The Last Wish (I still haven’t) before beginning the main series.  I don’t speak Polish so I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the translation, but I can say that it was fairly well translated because the story flowed well and the style was consistent throughout the novel.

If you’re looking for a slightly different fantasy with some great characters, pick up Blood of Elves.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Omega by Lizzy Ford

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

In a modern world ruled by territorial Greek gods, the human race has been oppressed, exploited and now, nearly destroyed by the constant infighting of gods.

However, a human girl with the power of a goddess is coming of age. Alessandra is the Oracle of Delphi – the last prophesized – and bears the mark of the double omega. Soon after she turns eighteen, Alessandra is told her destiny: to step between the warring gods and the human race and save her world from certain ruin.

For the gods, her appearance marks the beginning of the end – their end. They and the Triumvirate – leaders of the human elite – who serve them will stop at nothing to preserve their power.

Alessandra emerges from the forest where she spent her life hidden from gods and men and immediately plummets into a race against time, gods, and herself to discover who and what she is in a world where everyone she meets has a hidden agenda, and those pulling the strings remain in the shadows.

Before she can determine exactly what kind of savior her world needs, she must first master her power by completing three trials devised by the Triumvirate to enslave her.

One lone girl stands between warring gods and the people she’s destined to protect, but it’s the battle to understand who she is that she must win first.

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback from the publisher at Book Expo America 2015 in exchange for an honest review.]

So I’m a little late reviewing this one but I guess it’s better late than never!

When I started Omega I didn’t quite know what to think about it.  The info-dump in the beginning led to more questions than answers but not necessarily in a good way.  Instead of my overriding feeling after the info-dump being excited curiosity it was more confusion than anything else.  Why does Alessandra (called Lyssa) live in a school in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of gorgeous girls she calls nymphs?  Why do the priests want to contain her within some weird sort of red rope?  Why does her guardian Herakles seem to want to make her into a crazy survivor-type person?  And, most interesting of all, why is she only allowed to date a boy that can beat her in a race and out-solve her when it comes to puzzles?  These questions do eventually all get answered and not necessarily in a boring way but my overriding feeling coming out of this novel was a solid ‘meh’.

I tried to like Lyssa as a protagonist; I really did.  Unfortunately, she just doesn’t seem all that relateable to me.  She stays in extremely dangerous situations to merely satisfying her curiosity.  Believe me when I say I can understand living with an insatiable curiosity but I just felt like her staying behind with Adonis when she knows he’s the ruthless head of the secret police with a secret agenda is just suicidal.  Worst of all, when she is deemd the heir to the current Oracle she stays in her palace, even knowing the absolutely horrific fate of Oracles who pass the three tests.  Yes, Lizzy Ford tried to justify this decision within the narrative but I still feel like it was unrealistic.  If you’re a tough-as-nails survivor-type person, you’re probably not going to stick around when you learn that the politicians, priests and gods have quite literally a fate worse than death in store for you.  Especially when in Adonis/Mismatch you have an easy way to escape.  Like I said, I just can’t relate to that line of thinking and Lyssa isn’t characterized well enough to really feel like her choices are even justified within the plot.

What I found interesting was the portrayals of the Greek gods in Omega.  I’m a huge Greek mythology fan so seeing them portrayed as ridiculously ruthless and self-interested was nice.  It’s certainly how they come across in pretty much all of the myths I’ve read.  My only quibble is that even though it appears Lizzy Ford knows her Greek literature and mythology, there was a quote from the movie Troy actually attributed to Homer.  I’m not making this up.  At the beginning of Chapter 23 the quote underneath says “…any moment may be our last.  Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.  You will never be lovelier than you are now.  We will never be here again“.  I have read the entire Iliad front-to-back over ten times in two different translations and Achilles absolutely never says that.  He especially doesn’t say that to Briseis because anyone who has actually read the Iliad would know that Briseis has no speaking role; she’s just a toy for Agamemnon and Achilles to fight over, a symbol of kingly status.  So that was quite a jarring error that didn’t exactly help my overall enjoyment of the book.

The plot should have been interesting.  It certainly had all of the elements that I like: an unique dystopia, Greek gods, political intrigue, lies, etc.  However, I just couldn’t find it in me to care all that much about the book.  It’s not a terrible book despite all of my criticism but it’s definitely not a great book.  The series certainly has potential and I wouldn’t be averse to picking up the second book because the plot twist at the end was actually quite good.  And as the book went on, it seemed like the characters got a little better and the writing was just a higher quality overall.  Omega just wasn’t the book for me it seems.  Apparently if I can’t relate to the main characters at all, my enjoyment of the book as a whole takes a nosedive.

I can’t honestly recommend Omega but I really wouldn’t discourage anyone else from giving it a try.  Maybe you’ll like it more than I did.  I personally find Diantha Jones’ Oracle of Delphi to be a much more interesting Oracle story than this one.

I give this book 2/5 stars.

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The Remaining by D.J. Molles

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

In a steel-and-lead-encased bunker 40 feet below the basement level of his house, Captain Lee Harden of the United States Army waits. On the surface, a plague ravages the planet, infecting over 90% of the populace. The bacterium burrows through the brain, destroying all signs of humanity and leaving behind little more than base, prehistoric instincts. The infected turn into hyper-aggressive predators, with an insatiable desire to kill and feed. Some day soon, Captain Harden will have to open the hatch to his bunker, and step out into this new wasteland, to complete his very simple mission: Subvenire Refectus.

To Rescue and Rebuild.

While The Remaining purports to be a different kind of zombie story, it’s really not all that different from a hundred other zombie stories.  Only the premise is different: the US government actually prepared for biological warfare by building bunkers and paying specially trained soldiers as a way of having a contingency plan in case the entire military and government fell.  These soldiers in the 48 states on the US mainland are supposed to single-handedly bring order back to a world gone to hell and begin rescuing people and rebuilding society.  It’s really a lot to ask of just 48 people who have been locked in bunkers for two months with no idea what has been going on outside the four steel walls of said bunkers.

Other than that premise (which is somewhat refreshing considering most zombie stories have the government being completely incompetent with no Plan B whatsoever), this is pretty much your typical zombie story.  People have been infected by a virus that turns them into crazed killers.  They’re fast zombies and these ones use weapons like knives and shovels but that’s really all that makes them slightly different from a hundred other zombie stories out there.  They travel in herds, have sensitive hearing that forces the survivors to skulk around using any quiet weapons they can get their hands on and getting bit means infection and transformation into a zombie.  In the hands of a writer who didn’t set out to tell a typical zombie story, they could have been quite interesting.

However, my main issue with The Remaining is that it sticks to so many of the old zombie story tropes.  The protagonist has an animal which becomes exposed to the virus defending him and so must kill him in the tragic climax.  There are heartless looters and survivors who are doing what they can to help the remaining humans.  That’s not unrealistic at all but rather there was no real creativity in the characterizations of most of the survivors Lee encounters.  There’s Sam, the thirteen-year-old boy who traumatically watches his father die.  There’s Jack, the cynical former military man who is thrown into Lee’s group somewhat against his will in the beginning but who becomes a valuable asset.  And then there’s Angela and her daugher Abby, two helpless females the men in the group have to constantly protect.  Really, it seems like Molles just threw stock characters from every other zombie story together and ran with it rather than adding his own flair.

And finally, as for the plot it seems like the invisible hand of the author was always at play.  To make things harder for Lee, Sam must make a dumb mistake and be seen back at the bunker so some looters burn the house (and by extension, the entrance to the bunker) down.  Then of course the only other useful member of the group, Jack, gets bit and must soldier on before dying in battle.  Angela, Abby and Sam continue to be useless.  Then, when it seems like Lee and the group have found safety with another group, they seem to get attacked on the last page of the book for a stereotypical cliffhanger.

With all that said, The Remaining never crosses the threshold into truly terrible territory.  The pace is fairly fast and the pages do move quickly despite the rampant clichés.  The writing isn’t great but it isn’t terrible so this book really does sit in the middle in mediocre territory.  If you want a quick read and haven’t read as many zombie novels as I have, this might be a decent introduction to the genre.  But if you’ve read a few zombie books, watched The Walking Dead on TV or basically any zombie movie, you’re better off skipping this one and reading something a little more unique.  Mira Grant’s Feed would be a much better self-aware zombie novel to read.

I give this book 2/5 stars.

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My Posting Schedule Going Forward

Since I finally have the energy to do more than just collapse in bed after a day of work, I will be returning to a semi-regular schedule here at The Mad Reviewer.  While I won’t be posting five reviews a week any longer, I will be posting a review every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a Saturday discussion post.  If I decide to write an article that week it will probably be posted on Tuesdays but that will be a bit rarer as I am now also attending university and have to do quite a bit of reading for my classes.  So we’ll see how the new posting schedule works out!

I’ve missed blogging about books more than I can say for the past two years.  I really want to get back into my regular reading pattern and if that means taking it slow at first, that’s fine.  As long as I have a schedule I can stick to I’m happy to reduce the number of posts.

So welcome back to all my old readers and welcome to the blog for any first time readers!  I hope you’ll stick around and enjoy reading my blog as much as I enjoy writing it!

 

Two Months Pain Free (And Counting!)

Long time readers here at The Mad Reviewer are probably aware that I’ve been dealing with chronic back pain for nearly five years now.  For the first time in five years, I have good news on that front.

After years of being called a liar, a drug-seeker and an attention whore by doctors I finally, finally have a diagnosis.  My pain is not all in my head.  Rather, I have what’s known as benign Hypermobility Syndrome (for those of you looking for more info, MedicineNet does a great job of explaining it).  Now of course having loose ligaments doesn’t cause pain in and of itself but in my case Hypermobility Syndrome allowed me to bend so far backward that I actually slightly damaged the right facet on my L5 vertebra.  This in turn caused the muscles of my lower back to tense up, causing the initial lower back pain.  Because those muscles were tense, the muscles of my upper back also tensed up, causing additional pain to the point where everything from the small of my back to between my scapulae was in intense pain constantly.  On a scale of 1-10 with ten being the worst pain imaginable, I would put my back pain at a 6-8 on an average day (slightly less painful than getting dry socket when I had my wisdom teeth out but more painful than my adult tonsillectomy).

Obviously, being in constant pain and being called a faker by literally dozens of doctors did nothing to help my situation.  I became depressed and generally hopeless.  I had hoped that moving to the city and getting out of my hellish small town would improve things but that seemed not to be the case.  The pain kept getting worse and I was getting even more miserable.

Finally, in April 2016 I was diagnosed with benign Hypermobility Syndrome by a specialist who actually has the same condition (and passed it on to both of his daughters).  He recommended physiotherapy, which I did religiously for four months with no improvements.  All the while, my new family physician and I were trying different anti-inflammatories and other non-narcotic pain management drugs in an attempt to at least take the edge off for me.  After my third round of physiotherapy failed and my pain became even worse, I was in a dark place mentally.  Depressed, wanting the pain to just end.  And finally, it did.

I have been largely pain-free since March 23, 2017 and I can’t tell you how emotional I am right now typing this sentence.  For years I was called a liar and a faker and even though I had a diagnosis for almost a full year, no course of treatment seemed to be working.  Until my doctor suggested yet another anti-inflammatory medication and I gave it a go.  It took a week to really kick in but my daily pain levels since March 23 have been as low as zero and as high as six.  That’s a far cry from a daily pain level of 6-8 with absolutely no zero days, let me tell you!

Living without pain has been an odd adjustment.  I’m ridiculously relieved that I finally have a non-addictive effective treatment that takes my daily pain level down to zero.  It’s hard to believe but after five years of being in constant pain I couldn’t remember what it was like to not be in pain.  Even though I’d only been in pain for less than a quarter of my life, pain had robbed me of the ability to remember my normal life before my genetics and my body betrayed me.  So now that I wake up without pain and go to bed with no pain, I feel very odd.  When I was in pain it always occupied a corner of my mind but now that it’s gone I have to learn how to focus 100% on what I’m currently doing instead of always being aware of my back.  To say these past two months have been a bit of an adjustment period is really an understatement.

I feel like I finally have my life back now.  That I have the ability to be who I’ve always wanted to be.  That’s why I’m still living in the city and am actually attending university this summer (and into the fall/winter terms) now in order to get a Bachelor of Kinesiology in Exercise and Sport Studies.  My eventual goal is to attend medical school and become a physician so I can help patients like myself get the treatment they deserve.  And if that doesn’t work out, I hope to get a Masters in Physical Therapy so I can help people cope with injuries, aging and genetic conditions like mine.

For the first time in five years, I feel like I can finally make some of my dreams come true.  Being largely pain free has given me my life back and I hope to make something out of it.  Not everyone with chronic pain is as lucky as I have been.

Shadow Kin by M.J. Scott

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Welcome to the Half-Light City.

Imagine a city divided. On one side, the Night World, ruled by the Blood Lords and the Beast Kind. On the other, the elusive Fae and the humans, protected by their steadfast mages. A city held together by nothing more than a treaty-and even then, just barely…

I was born of a Fae mother, but I had no place amongst her kind. They called me “soulless.” An abomination. Perhaps they’re right…I’m a wraith, a shadow who slips between worlds. I was given into the service of a Blood Lord who raised me to be his most feared assassin. Still, I’m nothing more than a slave to my master, and to the need that only he can fulfill…

Then he orders me to kill Simon DuCaine, a powerful sunmage. In the blaze of his magic, my own disappears. Instead of seeking revenge, Simon shows me mercy. He wants to free me. But that’s one thing my master and his kind will never allow.

And even if I thought I could trust Simon, stepping from the shadow into the light isn’t as simple as it sounds…

I was a little apprehensive in the beginning of Shadow Kin simply because I’m very familiar with the whole ‘assassin falls in love with his/her mark’ trope.  However, I loved M.J. Scott’s take on this old trope because of course nothing is simple in the Half-Light City.

One of the things I really liked about Shadow Kin is the world-building.  There are four factions: vampires, werewolves, humans and the Fae.  There is a sort of tense peace between the four races but there’s a lot of compromise.  The most horrific compromise is the fact that any human who goes to the Night World chasing vampires is lost to humanity and their remaining family have little recourse if their loved one goes missing or becomes blood-locked.  (Blood-locking is when a human drinks vampire blood and becomes addicted to it, eventually going mad.)  And of course since the Fae are vulnerable to iron, they also limit the total supply of iron for the entire city.  Werewolves don’t seem to do much except fight with the vampires and fight each other for dominance.  It’s obviously a lot more complicated than this but that’s the beauty of this book: the world-building is excellent and M.J. Scott is a good enough writer that she can play with the political tensions while still focusing on the interpersonal conflicts.

Of course my favourite part of the book has to be the characters.  Lily is a woman that doesn’t belong anywhere: the Fae don’t want her because she’s a wraith and she’ll never truly belong with the vampires even though she does Lucius’ dirty work.  She’s been manipulated and used for her whole life so when she tries to kill Simon, fails and then he offers to hep her escape Lucius she obviously doesn’t believe him.  I can’t really blame her because I certainly wouldn’t in her situation.  But Simon is one of those few people that is entirely sincere in his desire to help people; it’s almost a fault with him.  He and Lily make an odd couple but their romance is very sweet.  It’s not easy and even the caring Simon can act like a total jerk (particularly in the last quarter of the book) but that just makes it more realistic.

The plot is fast-paced if a little predictable.  Well, mostly predictable—there was a major surprise regarding Lily’s powers at the end of the novel.  Still, the creative world-building, well-developed characters and sweet romance more than make up for a little predictability.  In addition to that, the ending resolves the main plot while leaving so much more for Scott to explore in the rest of the series.  Shadow Kin is a good start to the Half-Light City series and I can’t wait to read more.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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Song of the Storm Dragon by Marc Secchia

song-of-the-storm-dragon-by-marc-secchia

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

The Storm is coming! The hegemony of Sylakia has been broken and freedom won, but at a shattering cost. Laid low by the vile Shapeshifter pox and Thoralian’s wiles, can Aranya rise again? For war sweeps Herimor at the touch of the Marshal’s evil claws, and he will stop at nothing to possess the ultimate power.

Now, the race is on to find the First Egg of the Ancient Dragons. Accompanied by her friends Zuziana and Ardan, and the magnificent Land Dragon Leandrial, the Star Dragoness must dive deep in her new quest. Cross the uncrossable Rift-Storm to Herimor. Stop Thoralian. Crush his ambitions. Only then will she be able to save her beloved Dragons.

Yet profound Dragon lore enshrouds her purposes. History beckons. What are the secrets of the powerful Dragonfriend and the tiny, lost Pygmy Dragoness? Why did the Dragons disappear? What became of the powerful Dragons of yore?

Arise, o Storm Dragoness! She is legend. She is the whisper of starlight upon Dragon scales. She is Aranya, and this is her song. The Song of the Storm Dragon.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

So not only do we finally get a glimpse of the mysterious Rift in the southern Island World, we get to see Herimor.  If you’ve read the past two books in the Shapeshifter Dragon series, you know that Herimor is populated by Chameleon Shapeshifters and assassinations with various creative poisons are just a fact of life amongst the upper class.  It sounds pretty terrifying and strange but as we learn, it’s not all bad.  And not all of the Marshals are as bad as their reputations.

What I liked about finally seeing Herimor was that it showed more of Marc Secchia’s incredible world-building.  Herimor is populated by so many different species of dragons from the intensely creative Thunderous Thirty to the absolutely ludicrous Metallic Fortress Dragon.  (Yes, I know they were engineered by the Dragon-Lovers but they’re still ridiculous.)  Aside from the occasionally ridiculous dragon species, I was really impressed by Herimor.  From the variety of species to the moving islands, it really is incredible and is the perfect setting for the final showdown against Thoralian.

Aranya really undergoes a journey throughout Song of the Storm Dragon.  She has lost one of the things that defines her to other people: her physical beauty.  She was tortured by Thoralian and now has to deal with the aftermath of that.  And while overthrowing an empire isn’t easy, what comes after is often harder as she and her father try to manage the transition of power.  After decades of Sylakian rule on some islands, how can they go back to their own system of government?  What about the Dragon Shapeshifters that were rescued from Thoralian and his monstrous family?  Where will they go and what will they do?  These are hard questions with unclear solutions that will have to be dealt with while Aranya and the gang race Thoralian to Herimor to stop the First Egg from falling into his clutches.

Add into this whole mix the tension between her and Ardan.  Aranya definitely feels conflicted about her relationship with Ardan, especially after Thoralian’s torture disfigured her entire body.  While that may feel shallow, you have to remember that while she’s brought down an empire, she’s still only seventeen years old.  Being a teenager is hard enough without going from ‘so beautiful men can’t ignore you’ to ‘everyone young and old recoils when they see your face’.  On top of this, add in the fact that Ardan and Aranya’s meeting and oath swapping was pre-determined by Fra’anior himself and the two of them had very little choice in the matter.  If you’re looking for a neat ending to wrap up all of these problems, you won’t get it in this third book.  Marc Secchia is the master of ambiguity and ethical/moral grey areas so of course nothing is all that simple although both Aranya and Ardan get a little closure by the end of the novel.

The plot was fast-paced and complex with some heart-wrenching plot twists, particulary toward the end.  Still, despite the sort of cliffhanger ending it was satisfying on an emotional level and it did resolve some major plot points.  Basically, most of the main questions raised at the beginning of the book are answered by the end but there are still enough questions remaining that I’m going to be pining for the fourth book that’s coming sometime in 2017.

If you loved the previous two books, you’re going to enjoy Song of the Storm Dragon.  I can’t wait to see what happens next in Aranya’s tumultuous life.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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