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.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads

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.

Amazon Barnes and Noble* Goodreads

*Unavailable

Dark Minds by Michelle Diener

dark-minds-by-michelle-diener

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

The mind is the most powerful weapon of all . . .

Imogen Peters knows she’s a pawn. She’s been abducted from Earth, held prisoner, and abducted again. So when she gets a chance at freedom, she takes it with both hands, not realizing that doing so will turn her from pawn to kingmaker.

Captain Camlar Kalor expected to meet an Earth woman on his current mission, he just thought he’d be meeting her on Larga Ways, under the protection of his Battle Center colleague. Instead, he and Imogen are thrown together as prisoners in the hold of a Class 5 battleship. When he works out she’s not the woman who sparked his mission, but another abductee, Cam realizes his investigation just got a lot more complicated, and the nations of the United Council just took a step closer to war.

Imogen’s out of her depth in this crazy mind game playing out all around her, and she begins to understand her actions will have a massive impact on all the players. But she’s good at mind games. She’s been playing them since she was abducted. Guess they should have left her minding her own business back on Earth…

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

I’ve wanted to meet Imogen Peters ever since Fiona met the parrot she trained to sing the final song in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And, well, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

Imogen’s tale essentially begins with her seeing her captors massacred by a bloodthirsty alien species that seems to go berserk when they fight. It’s not a great start for her so when she’s on board the Class Five with the Krik and meets other prisoners they have taken, things get interesting. The Class Five called Paxe is the one who saves her from the Krik in order to save himself. In this way we get to see a Class Five’s awakening and the beginning of their humanization whereas Sazo and Eazi were definitely more socialized by the time we meet them. It was fascinating to see Imogen try to reign in some of Paxe’s practical if cruel responses to situations as well as see Paxe respond to Imogen’s emotions and become aware of his own emotions. Their friendship isn’t as long-lasting as say, Rose and Sazo’s, but they definitely have some chemistry and it makes for a great read.

While some readers may be disappointed about the romance part of the story being relegated to the side, I actually didn’t mind the change of pace. Imogen is in a very different situation from Rose and Fiona, what with a war between United Council members on the horizon as the true extent of the Tecran treachery is revealed. Cam is still a fascinating love interest and the pure attraction between him and Imogen can’t be denied. But it’s not a main plot point and although I was thrown by it at first, as I said it does make sense given the political situation and the limited amount of time the Grih and others have to avoid all-out war. Dark Minds is definitely a faster read than the previous two novels and that really makes it a great ending to the stories of these three incredible women (because of course we get to meet Fiona and Rose again).

Although I would have of course loved for the trilogy to turn into a ten book series simply because of the quality of Michelle Diener’s writing and world-building, this is a good place to stop. The ending is both happy and tragic but more importantly, it’s satisfying. It ties up all of the loose ends while at least leaving the possibility of more books set in the same world at a later date. Dark Minds was an emotionally resonant, enjoyable end to a trilogy that I’ve fallen in love with over the past few years. If you haven’t started the trilogy, I highly recommend going out and buying Dark Horse. But if you’ve read the first two books, you need to buy the third book; you won’t be disappointed.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads

The Onyx Dragon by Marc Secchia

the-onyx-dragon-by-marc-secchia

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

The battle is won, but the war has just begun. Evil stalks the Island-World as the Marshal of Herimor and his Dragon-slaying hordes put nation after nation to the sword. The haunting cry of the Nurguz summons all Dragonkind to their doom. None can resist.

But Marshal Re’akka and his all-conquering Dragon Assassins are not the only trouble on the horizon. For there is a new Dragoness finding her wings, and she will stop at nothing to protect her loved ones. She is Pip the Pygmy Dragon, jungle-born, survivor of seven years in a zoo. She dreamed of being Human. She is more. Much more.

Now, Dragon wings darken the dawn. Diminutive. Sassy. Full of fire and great heart. As Pip and her friends chart a perilous path in search of the secrets of her heritage, they will find a power of old reborn in the smallest of Dragons.

One will stand against evil.

She is Onyx, mighty of paw and deed. She is the laughter of starlight, and she will never allow evil to prevail. Let Dragons thunder! Let the battle commence!

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

After the end of The Pygmy Dragon, Pip was nearly assassinated and the man who was her enemy, Silver, confessed he’s attracted to her. I honestly didn’t think The Onyx Dragon could end on a bigger cliffhanger than that, but it does. But truly, the cliffhanger is just representative of the entire novel: it’s a rollercoaster. And it’s not just a rollercoaster in terms of plot; it’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster as well.

Pip is a great character and here in this second book we see a lot of the good characteristics that led her to succeed in the first book: determination, honesty, loyalty and, most of all, her fierce love for her friends. She really will do anything to protect them and that’s demonstrated in quite spectacular fashion in The Onyx Dragon. I can’t really go too much into plot details without spoiling so many of the twists but let’s just say that the ending was both jaw-dropping but very much in character. One of the parts of the book I liked the most in terms of character development, however, was when Pip had to go find Pygmies near her home island in order to uncover some ancient lore pertaining to her words of power.

Of course, like with the rest of Marc Secchia’s books, the secondary characters are very well developed as well. I’m a huge fan of Silver because I like the whole ‘tortured turncoat’ trope when the turncoat in question goes over to the good side. Although he’s gone over to the good side, Silver still keeps his cards close to his chest and when some secrets he didn’t tell are revealed, his relationship with Pip is tested almost to the breaking point. Speaking of characters, it was also nice to see a young Nak and Oyda and how their relationship progressed because by the time we get to Aranya, they’re already an old couple.

If you loved The Pygmy Dragon, you will adore this sequel. It’s fast-paced, filled with plot twists and great character development and the ending is incredibly emotional. You’re going to need some tissues nearby when you read it, trust me. Honestly, you can’t ask for a better sequel than this. Although Pip’s story seems to be over for now, the choices she makes in this book will definitely play a huge role one hundred and fifty years later in the third book in The Shapeshifter Dragon series, Song of the Storm Dragon. I can’t wait to find out what happens!

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads

Dark Deeds by Michelle Diener

dark-deeds-by-michelle-diener

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Far from home . . .

Fiona Russell has been snatched from Earth, imprisoned and used as slave labor, but nothing about her abduction makes sense. When she’s rescued by the Grih, she realizes there’s a much bigger game in play than she could ever have imagined, and she’s right in the middle of it.

Far from safe . . .

Battleship captain Hal Vakeri is chasing down pirates when he stumbles across a woman abducted from Earth. She’s the second one the Grih have found in two months, and her presence is potentially explosive in the Grih’s ongoing negotiations with their enemies, the Tecran. The Tecran and the Grih are on the cusp of war, and Fiona might just tip the balance.

Far from done . . .

Fiona has had to bide her time while she’s been a prisoner, pretending to be less than she is, but when the chance comes for her to forge her own destiny in this new world, she grabs it with both hands. After all, actions speak louder than words.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

For those of you hoping to see a continuation of Rose’s story from the first book, don’t worry! Fiona is obviously her own character and we see things through her eyes but we also get to see what has happened to Rose in the time between the books. With that said, let’s get on with the review.

I was skeptical about switching characters for the second novel but in the end I actually like Fiona a little more than Rose. They’re both great characters but I absolutely love Fiona’s resourcefulness and the fact that while she does find love with Hal, her priorities are more focused on finding out why she was kidnapped and if there are other humans out in space that faced similar predicaments. She’s very practical and determined and I think of myself that way so I guess I’m a little biased toward Fiona because I see myself in her. But really, each to their own. Both Fiona and Rose are strong characters facing tough predicaments and while they obviously aren’t thrilled about their situations, they adapt and maybe even learn to love their new reality.

In the last book, the political tensions between the Tecran and the Grih are almost at the boiling point by the end. However, with the discovery of Fiona, a second kidnapped human that proves Rose’s situation was not unique, things definitely start to boil over. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling some fascinating plot twists, but let’s just say that unfortunately, Fiona and Rose aren’t alone in their predicament either. And the Grih will go to war with the Tecran for their egregious and blatant violations of intergalactic treaties regarding the treatment of sentient beings. Politics definitely plays a bigger role in this book than it did in Dark Deeds.

One of the things I loved in this second book is that rather than letting the plot drag on as it builds up to the third book (as so many second novels do), Michelle Diener ups the ante. Now that the Grih are aware other Class Fives are out there, they’re not all that inclined toward leniency. Even though Sazo is on their side, they know it’s because of his personal connection to Rose. What if Eazi isn’t as attached to Fiona and is more inclined to enjoy true freedom? What if he turns agains them, especially after Fiona is very nearly killed multiple times by both the Grih and others? Again, I can’t say too much without spoiling things but let’s just say that Eazi isn’t Sazo; he’s a little more inclined to find his own path and the results are hilarious and satisfying.

Fiona was a great character, the political tensions have only increased and Michelle Diener managed not to fall into the temptation of creating a pattern of turning Class Fives exclusively over the Grih. Really, what more can you ask for in a second book? I honestly can’t wait for the third book, Dark Minds. What little we saw of Imogen through Fiona’s eyes makes me excited just to meet her character, let alone find out what happens to the Tecran and the Grih in the end.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads

The Secret Language of Stones by M.J. Rose

the-secret-language-of-stones-by-m-j-rose

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Nestled within Paris’s historic Palais Royal is a jewelry store unlike any other. La Fantasie Russie is owned by Pavel Orloff, protégé to the famous Faberge, and is known by the city’s fashion elite as the place to find the rarest of gemstones and the most unique designs. But war has transformed Paris from a city of style and romance to a place of fear and mourning. In the summer of 1918, places where lovers used to walk, widows now wander alone.

So it is from La Fantasie Russie’s workshop that young, ambitious Opaline Duplessi now spends her time making trench watches for soldiers at the front, as well as mourning jewelry for the mothers, wives, and lovers of those who have fallen. People say that Opaline’s creations are magical. But magic is a word Opaline would rather not use. The concept is too closely associated with her mother Sandrine, who practices the dark arts passed down from their ancestor La Lune, one of sixteenth century Paris’s most famous courtesans.

But Opaline does have a rare gift even she can’t deny, a form of lithomancy that allows her to translate the energy emanating from stones. Certain gemstones, combined with a personal item, such as a lock of hair, enable her to receive messages from beyond the grave. In her mind, she is no mystic, but merely a messenger, giving voice to soldiers who died before they were able to properly express themselves to loved ones. Until one day, one of these fallen soldiers communicates a message—directly to her.

So begins a dangerous journey that will take Opaline into the darkest corners of wartime Paris and across the English Channel, where the exiled Romanov dowager empress is waiting to discover the fate of her family.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. It was supposed to be for a tour but I didn’t get it done in time.]

I’ve only read two other books by M.J. Rose but what always strikes me about her books is that she has such a beautiful writing style. It’s descriptive and yet fascinating. She can describe things like stones in minute detail and yet you never find yourself skipping over the descriptions to get to the action. She really just has a beautiful writing style that grabs your attention and holds it for the whole book. It’s what makes finishing the book so disappointing. It’s not that M.J. Rose’s endings are terrible or anything like that, but rather it’s that I hate coming back to the real world after such beautiful writing.

With that said, what I like about this book is that while Opaline is Sandrine’s daughter and thus the daughter of a woman who practices dark magic (and allowed the spirit of her ancestor to possess her in the first book) but she despises dark magic. She feels magic call to her from the stones but resists praticing magic for fear of turning out like her mother or, worse yet, La Lune herself. And yet she’s having trouble controlling her natural powers and they almost get out of hand and destroy her before Opaline realizes she has to embrace her heritage in order to save herself. She clearly struggles with ethical dilemmas and fears the call of the dead from the stones but in the end, Opaline really does want to do what’s right.

M.J. Rose handles both characters and descriptions well but what struck me about this second book in the series is the politics. More so than in The Witch of Painted Sorrows, the political situation is ever-present. She really captures the feel of World War I, the fact that life was both normal and not normal. Normal business went on as much as it could but the war touched everyone: jewellers made mourning jewellery instead of fancier necklaces and tiaras, certain foods were hard to find and almost an entire generation of young men was wiped out. And of course, things weren’t just bad in France. As Opaline finds out when she creates a necklace for the dowager empress of the Romanov family, even innocent children aren’t safe from the war and its effects.

I liked both The Witch of Painted Sorrows and The Secret Language of Stones. While the stories of Sandrine and Opaline are different, they do have some similarities that connect the two books together in a satisfying way. Although I’ll have to say goodbye to Opaline, I can’t wait for the next book, The Library of Light and Shadow, which is coming out in July 2017. The Daughters of La Lune series is fantastic and I can’t wait to spend more time in M.J. Rose’s beautiful, enchanting world.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider

dragon-age-the-stolen-throne-by-david-gaider

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

After his mother, the beloved Rebel Queen, is betrayed and murdered by her own faithless lords, young Maric becomes the leader of a rebel army attempting to free his nation from the control of a foreign tyrant.

His countrymen live in fear; his commanders consider him untested; and his only allies are Loghain, a brash young outlaw who saved his life, and Rowan, the beautiful warrior maiden promised to him since birth. Surrounded by spies and traitors, Maric must find a way to not only survive but achieve his ultimate destiny: Ferelden’s freedom and the return of his line to the stolen throne.

I just recently got back into gaming after a hiatus that ended up lasting several years. When I got back into it I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition and fell in love with the world of Thedas. Normally I would role my eyes at video game tie-in novels but I decided to give Dragon Age: The Stole Throne a try because the lore I found in the game was very rich, detailed and consistent. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first thing I have to say is that The Stolen Throne works both as a video game tie-in and a regular novel. You don’t have to play the games to understand the book and you don’t have to read the book to understand any of the games in the franchise. So I’m basically judging it as I would any other novel. Wtih that said, I really enjoyed the book.

The thing that stands out most in this novel is the characters. Maric is your typical young prince (even if he and his mother are rebels on the run in their own country) and his naivety in the beginning is hilarious. He also finds the perfect foil in the serious, very mature Loghain, an outlaw who lives with his father and other Fereldans who resist the Orlesian occupation. Loghain challenges Maric’s preconceptions about his own country, his people and the realities of the world. They initially hate each other but their friendship grows as their struggle against the Orlesians continues. It seems like a rather typical story of enemies becoming the best of friends but their friendship happens quite organically and it’s tested again and again, particularly when Loghain falls in love with Maric’s intended.

I think my favourite character in the whole novel is Katriel. She’s an elven bard, which in the world of Thedas makes her both admired and a complete pariah. She’s an elf, which means she’s constantly discriminated against by the humans (which make up the majority of the population). But she’s also an Orlesian bard: a singer, courtier and an assassin-for-hire. Katriel has had her fair share of hardship and she’s fairly cynical but she still falls for Maric despite her contract to kill him. At first she seems to see him as representing a more innocent life, a better life for her. Then, later on, she really does seem to love Maric on his own merits. Katriel is a complicated and fascinating character and her story is way more nuanced than the whole “assassin who falls in love with her mark”.

The plot is quite fast-paced. There’s plenty of political intrigue, battles and interpersonal strife. Obviously, the road to the throne is hard for a young, inexperienced prince with a scattered army and few allies. David Gaider manages to balance his beautiful descriptions with the intense action scenes. While some of the plot twists were pretty typical, there were times when I was pleasantly surprised. Because although the plot summary makes it sound like a typical ‘young man fights to regain his throne/birthright’, The Stolen Throne is so much more than that. There are plenty of spins on tired old stereotypes.

If you’re a fan of the video games, you’ll obviously enjoy the book. But even if you’re not, this isn’t a bad fantasy book to pick up if you’re looking for a spin on a story as old as time. I can’t recommend it enough.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads