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

(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

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

the-last-colony-by-john-scalzi

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.

That is, until his and Jane’s past reaches out to bring them back into the game–as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.

If, after The Ghost Brigades, you were still unsure about the ethics of the Colonial Union, you’re going to be sure about them after this. The Colonial Union is pretty much exactly as ominous as the name initially suggested to me. But I’ll get into that shortly.

First off, I want to say that as with every John Scalzi novel, the characters are fantastic. We’re back with John Perry, only now he’s retired. Until the Colonial Union throws a wrench into his plans for being a small community leader on the farming world of Huckleberry. So he, Jane and Zoe are thrown straight into a colonization project on a new world. Since many of the other races in the universe have banded together to stop colonization and the frequent wars that errupt because of it, this is way more risky than it sounds as the discovery of their colony could lead to all of their deaths.

John is a wonderful character and seeing him in this morally ambiguous situation really brings out his better traits. He clearly knows that colonization on a large scale like humans do is wrong when it pushes alien races out of their home worlds but at the same time he can’t really change the entire basis of the Colonial Union. So he has to make sure his new colony of Roanoke stays undetected and therefore safe. But while John is stuck between a rock and a hard place, his ingenuity eventually allows him to succeed where it would have been so easy to fail.

The plot is fantastic. John Scalzi crams a lot into just over 300 pages. We go off and see our characters found a new colony, learn that they’re not where they’re supposed to be, struggle to try to make the colony functional and eventually fight for their lives when the Colonial Union and the rest of the universe face off. At the same time, this is also a wonderful personal story. The relationship between John and Jane is wonderful and loving but not without its struggles. And of course Zoe is now a teenager and life is never simple when you’re a teenager on a new colony with two alien bodyguards with their own agendas and struggles. In the end, The Last Colony is a both a very human story of love and survival and a political thriller that asks you to question the world around you, particularly the motivations of various governments.

This is the third book in the Old Man’s War series and although the ending is satisfying in itself, it leaves open so many possibilities in the next few books. I can’t really get into the details of the ending because that would be a massive spoiler but let’s just say I definitely did not see that coming. John Scalzi is one of the few novelists who consistently surprises me and I honestly can’t wait to read more of the Old Man’s War series.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads

It by Stephen King

it-by-stephen-king

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Welcome to Derry, Maine. It’s a small city, a place as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown. Only in Derry the haunting is real.

They were seven teenagers when they first stumbled upon the horror. Now they are grown-up men and women who have gone out into the big world to gain success and happiness. But the promise they made twenty-eight years ago calls them reunite in the same place where, as teenagers, they battled an evil creature that preyed on the city’s children. Now, children are being murdered again and their repressed memories of that terrifying summer return as they prepare to once again battle the monster lurking in Derry’s sewers.

Readers of Stephen King know that Derry, Maine, is a place with a deep, dark hold on the author. It reappears in many of his books, including Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis, and 11/22/63. But it all starts with It.

Before reading It I had only read one Stephen King novel and felt it was kind of ‘meh’. But that was many years ago so when I got this one for my birthday from a huge Stephen King fan, I figured I’d give it a try. In the end, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the novel but the main word I can use to describe it is ‘weird’.

I was never scared of clowns as a kid (I didn’t love them but I wasn’t scared by them) so I don’t think It was as scary as it could have been, but it was still pretty scary. Stephen King is the master of the slow burn and I was honestly engrossed throughout the 1100 page novel. The book starts with a six year old child being dismembered by a freaky clown but there’s more to the tension than just the gore factor. There’s a sense of evil throughout the novel a sort of unnaturalness that hangs around the whole town of Derry. When you add in the fact that the town has more violent crime and an absolutely ridiculous number of child murders, it really sets up the atmosphere. So even though It is 1100 pages, I can be confident in saying this book will never truly bore you.

As for the plot, it was a bit confusing at first as there are several time skips. But as the book moves on and you get into the rhythm of the writing, they’re easier to follow and help build the tension I mentioned before. The two main storylines are the present day adults being contacted about coming back to Derry and finishing the job of killing It. The past storyline is, obviously, the adults when they were children and how they discovered the evil lurking beneath Derry and almost ended it. There are a couple of little subplots along the way, like the Interlude segments where the town librarian, Mike Hanlon, is piecing together Derry’s mysterious past and trying to figure out why such evil lurks in such a small town. And of course there’s the matter of Henry Bowers and Beverly’s awful husband throwing a wrench into things but I can’t really go into much detail about that without spoiling some nice plot twists. Needless to say, It isn’t just a book you can skim through; you really need to pay attention to appreciate just how wonderfully the different narrative threads come together in the harrowing climax.

As much as I enjoyed the plot, I was a little less enthusiastic about the characters. Not because they’re poorly made or anything like that. It’s just that some of them are rather stereotypical and are therefore kind of boring. Eddie is the hypochondriac kid whose hypochondriac mother fusses over him incessantly and Ben is the fat kid who loves the beautiful girl (who loves someone else) and is bullied terribly at school. All of the characters in the Losers (the name they call their group) are easy to relate to but I think they are a bit predictable. It would have been nice for Stephen King to put some twists on these sort of child archetypes. Despite this, at least the characters are interesting, if a little predictable.

One of the most bizarre things about the novel was the origin of Pennywise. I won’t go into too many details because of spoilers but it’s just weird. The theological/existential questions it creates are terrifying in and of themselves but when I got to the climax and discovered the origins of Pennywise the clown it kind of threw me. It makes sense and Stephen King does a good job explaining things while maintaining the suspense he’s built up, but it’s still weird as heck. There’s no other way to describe it.

All in all, I’d have to say I enjoyed It. Stephen King is a good writer and anyone who can keep suspense up for 1100 pages deserves the title ‘master of suspense’. The only real criticism I can levy is that it would have been nice for him to play around with the child’s characters a little more so they weren’t quite so predictable and didn’t conform to the usual stereotypes. But if you’re looking for a suspenseful read, I’d say go no further and try this one. Especially if you’re already scared of clowns.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

Amazon Barnes and Noble Goodreads