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Reviews Written by
Jessica Strider (Toronto, Canada)
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   

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Transcendental
Transcendental
by James Gunn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 29.99
4 used & new from CDN$ 10.80

3.0 out of 5 stars More telling than showing, April 12 2016
This review is from: Transcendental (Hardcover)
Pros: variety of aliens, excellent pacing, interesting mystery

Cons: impersonal protagonist, telling rather than showing makes it hard to feel immersed in the story

Riley joins a mixed group of alien and human pilgrims chasing after hints that an alien machine has been discovered that helps entities transcend. But not everyone wants such a device found, for the galaxy is enjoying a hard won peace, a peace they believe this machine will upset.

I was told that this was a sort of Canterbury Tales told in space. While Chaucer is referenced a time or two and some of the characters do tell stories, it’s not really a good comparison. Chaucer’s tales are for enlightenment and entertainment. Gunn’s tales are for exposition with regards to learning about character backgrounds and alien cultures.

Riley is an unreliable narrator. Though you’re getting the story from his point of view, you’re unclear of his motivations. You’re constantly warned not to trust anyone - including him, and told that everyone is lying about everything. This makes it difficult to get to know any of the characters, or feel like you’re really connecting with them or with the story.

Similarly, when the characters do start telling about their pasts - lies though their tales might be - it’s through narration that feels more like info dumps than a character explaining why they’ve decided to make a pilgrimage. Their stories are more about how their different races evolved or how they joined the Galactic Council than about their personal presence on the voyage. I found some of the stories more interesting than others, though they were all unique.

The book’s pacing is excellent. Each time I started to question things and need more information to maintain my interest, that information was provided. I was surprised at how early the Prophet was revealed - I expected it to be revealed as part of the climax - but it was a revelation that ramped up the tension for the end of the book.

There are a number of mysteries that come up at different times in the book from assassination attempts to what the transcendental machine actually is. Enough answers were provided that the ending felt satisfying.

It may not be the Canterbury Tales in space, but it does have some interesting elements to it and it was a quick, entertaining read.

The Legions of Fire
The Legions of Fire
by David Drake
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.40
34 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Roman based fantasy, April 5 2016
Pros: great characters, excellent world-building, interesting plot

Cons: a few distracting word choices

The magician Nemastes takes advantage of the superstitious senator Saxa and casts a spell in the man’s house. That spell interrupts the poetry reading of Saxa’s son Gaius Varus, and turns the young man into an unwitting pawn of Nemastes’s enemies. Also pulled into the spell’s influence are Varus’s sister, Alphena, who practices swordplay, even though it’s not a womanly art; his new, young stepmother, Hedia; and his best friend Publius Corylus, who grew up on the border of the barbarian frontiers of Germania.

The four players are pulled into other worlds, worlds in which creatures of myth are real, and where a group of evil men are planning the destruction of the world.

The author begins the book with a forward explaining that while the book is based on the history of ancient Rome (called Carce in the book to help keep the distinction), it is not historical fiction. He also points out that all of the gods and mythological creatures he references are things people in the past believed in.

It was really cool reading a book that referenced a lot of old mythology as if it were real. There were some expected creatures and a lot of unexpected ones as well. And while the main setting is Carce, Egyptian, Norse, and other belief systems make appearances.

The four principle characters are well fleshed out, as are a few side characters. I really enjoyed the developing relationship between Alphena and her close in age stepmother - the mix of anger Alphena feels towards the woman as well as her grudging respect. Hedia meanwhile is a surprising woman: on her second marriage with few illusions about the world. She enjoys sex and knows how to use her looks to advantage. She’s also quite intelligent with regards to the danger posed by Nemastes and honestly wants what’s best for her new stepchildren. I felt kind of sorry for Varus, who wants to do great things but just doesn’t have the necessary abilities. I was impressed by his actions in the climax. Corylus has a grab bag of skills that come in handy during the trials he faces. He doesn’t grow as much as a character as the others, but he’s a fascinating character to read about.

The plot takes a while to get going, but the characters are so interesting I didn’t mind. And when it does pick up, things go quickly.

A few word choices irritated me, specifically the use of ‘knight’ for a position in the Carcian army instead of the Roman title and ‘hell’ referencing to the Christian version of the afterlife (which didn’t exist as we think of it at the time) rather than the terms/meanings people back then would have used for the afterlife). But those are pretty minor complaints and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book

This is the first of a four book series but though there’s a teaser for book 2 in the epilogue, all of the plot points are resolved and it can be read as a standalone novel.

If you like mythology and Roman fiction, give this a go.

Fallout
Fallout
by James K. Decker
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.89
23 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting follow-up to Burn Zone, March 22 2016
This review is from: Fallout (Mass Market Paperback)
Pros: great protagonist, fascinating world, interesting aliens, complex plot

Cons: minor plot complaints, Sam survives a LOT of dangerous situations without injury

Though months have passed since the events that took place in Shiliuyuan station, Sam Shao is still haunted by what she saw there and what she knows Sillith’s virus is doing to the people of her city. She wants to expose the truth of the alien haan, what they really look like and have been doing, and so has teamed up with some other dissidents to help expose the aliens’ true form. But there are a lot of new problems: Alexei is enamoured with the new Gonzo religion that worships the haan, there are hundreds of missing people, and some of her allies want to take their protests to a new, violent level.

The Burn Zone ended with several revelations that deeply affect Sam. This book starts with her dealing with the fall out of what happened, even though some time has passed.

She’s a great protagonist. She’s been through some horrible stuff and is quite tough because of it. That does make it difficult for her to progress in her relationships. She’s kept Vamp at a distance and her relationship with Alexei is combative, despite her love for her adopted brother. She’s dealing with a lot and so ignores some important clues that those around her need help and attention, which causes her problems as the action progresses.

The world is fully realized. It’s easy to picture the streets of Hangfei as Sam goes from place to place. There’s variety in the different neighbourhoods and a sense of history.

While you don’t learn much new about the haan, they continue to be mysterious. And the new haanyong - humans who have been ‘evolved’ into haan like creatures - are pretty scary.

The plot is really complex, though Sam does do a lot of running around to keep things moving. There’s a ton of action, though I was surprised at how many dangerous situations she walked away from without injury. I was also surprised by how naive she was about how people would react to seeing the true face of the haan.

While I predicted one aspect of the ending, several other things surprised me and I was left… unsure how I felt about Sam’s reaction to the various revelations.

It’s an entertaining book that will keep you turning pages.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.09
16 used & new from CDN$ 7.41

4.0 out of 5 stars Space opera with excellent world-building, March 15 2016
Pros: interesting characters, fascinating world-building

Cons: limited plot

The Wayfarer is a ship that punches tunnels through space, connecting major hubs so other ships can travel between them faster. When they’re offered the chance to tunnel to a new area, they say yes, even though it means travelling over a year to the entry point in space that isn’t quite friendly.

This is a space opera that focuses on the crew and the world they inhabit by way of a simplistic plot. The crew encounter a number of problems on the mission, some personal, some interpersonal, and some brought on through outside forces.

I found the crew a lot of fun. You get to know some of them and their foibles a lot more than others. Corbin, for example, is introduced as a jerk and a loner and then pretty much ignored until a crisis focused on him arises. Other characters get a lot of page time, like Kizzy, the mechanic, and Sissix, one of the alien species on board. Having said that, I never really connected with any of them, and so never felt particularly strong emotions during their crises.

Where the book really shines is the world-building. The alien races are brilliantly done, with unique languages, cultures, dietary preferences, gestures, sexualities and more. There are minor info dumps through conversation explaining some of the races’ habits, but they’re integrated well and feel mostly natural. You’re given enough information to understand the differences between races, and how they interact, without being bogged down in details.

If you’re looking for action and adventure you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for a fun, interspecies crew and learning about a new world this is a great book. The climax is exciting and there’s a good denouement that wraps things up well.

Borderline
Borderline
by Mishell Baker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 29.96
20 used & new from CDN$ 18.32

5.0 out of 5 stars Great debut, March 1 2016
This review is from: Borderline (Hardcover)
Pros: fascinating protagonist, thought-provoking, interesting mystery

Cons:

Millicent Roper, director and UCLA student, is in an institute for borderline personality disorder and an attempted suicide that left her with two prosthetic limbs and a lot of physical and emotional scars. When Caryl Vallo approaches her with a job offer, she’s intrigued by the secrecy surrounding it. The Arcadia Project regulates travel between our world and Arcadia, and one of their nobles hasn’t returned as scheduled.

I picked this book up because the protagonist has several physical and mental disabilities. I kept reading because the writing is so damn good.

I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t like the protagonist, as she’s introduced as bitter and sarcastic. But as the story’s told from her point of view, the reader’s included in her thought process - why she acts the way she acts, and therefore gets to see the disconnect between her thoughts and feelings and her actions. In other words, she’s not a particularly nice person from the outside, but from the inside you really sympathize with her. Much of the division between what she feels vs what she does comes from her borderline personality disorder, but there’s also an element of ‘I’ve been hurt before so I’ll keep others away so I can’t be hurt again’.

I’m not qualified to judge the accuracy of Baker’s depictions of prosthetics, wheelchair use, and mental disorders, so I’d be interested in hearing from those who are. It was wonderful to see a protagonist deal with physical and mental disabilities - especially referencing the psychiatric treatments that help her deal with the borderline personality disorder.

The book is interesting because Millie works with several other damaged people, who aren’t very polite towards her but are likely just as sympathetic, if you saw inside them. It’s understood that they’ve all got issues of some sort - like Millie, but she’s not always told what their issues are. On the one hand, I understood that as a privacy issue it should be left to the individual to decide if they want to tell their story. On the other hand, I suspect some of the personality clashes in the book could have been resolved if everyone understood what everyone else is going through / what their diagnoses are - so they could avoid triggering negative reactions in each other.

One of my favourite things in the book was the calling out of unintentional/unconscious insults/racism. These include things she does and things she notices others doing to her.

You’re slowly introduced to what the Arcadia Project does and it’s quite interesting. The world expands a little at a time with each revelation to Millie about what’s really going on. And she’s a very clever protagonist, seeing minor clues and putting things together in ways I didn’t catch. The mystery was really interesting, with several twists I didn’t see coming. The world is soundly built, with rules - quite specific ones - and lots of room to expand.

This is an excellent urban fantasy novel that doesn’t follow the trends. There’s no romance, no ass kicking, just damaged people trying to get by in a damaged world.

The Bands of Mourning: A Mistborn Novel
The Bands of Mourning: A Mistborn Novel
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 27.78
31 used & new from CDN$ 22.42

4.0 out of 5 stars Some great twists and character development, Jan. 26 2016
Pros: variety of action, new settings, character development

Cons: Wayne started to grate on my nerves, some predictable events

Waxilliam Ladrian and Steris Harms' wedding day has finally arrived, but things don't go as planned. Against his desires, he's roped into helping the kandra recover one of their fellows' missing spikes. He's also given the whereabouts of his kidnapped sister.

This book changes location several times, and the plot shifts from one connected goal to another, so while my synopsis may not sound that interesting, the book itself has quite a good number of twists and turns.

I loved the growing relationship between Wax and Steris, which again felt realistic. I also liked how several characters developed, questioning themselves and coming to know themselves better.

Wayne started to grate on my nerves, especially at the beginning of the book. His dislike of Steris annoyed me, both because I like her as a character and because he disregarded the growing attraction between Steris and Wax. Towards the end he felt more like the loveable rogue from the previous books.

There are some plot twists that I found predictable, but others that changed the direction of the book in unexpected ways. But even the predictable moments were fun, as they didn't stay predictable for long.

From what I've been reading there's an upcoming 4th book, which is good, because the ending wasn't as neatly tied as I was expecting.

This is a great series with a unique magic system and interesting characters that are so much fun to read about. Can't wait to see what comes next.

City of Blades
City of Blades
by Robert Jackson Bennett
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.44
35 used & new from CDN$ 8.66

5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant book, Jan. 26 2016
This review is from: City of Blades (Paperback)
Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating characters, intricate plot, thought provoking

Cons:

Prime Minister Shara Komayd calls General Mulaghesh out of retirement to ostensibly do a ‘vacation tour’ in order to keep her pension. In reality, she’s being sent to check out a mysterious metal discovered in Voortyashtan that has potentially Divine qualities, and the disappearance of the last operative who was sent to investigate it. Voortayshtan’s harbour is currently being cleared out by a company from the United Dreyling States, who need this contract to keep their struggling economy afloat. Meanwhile, the commander of the military base there, a man Mulaghesh served under during the Summer of Black Rivers, has to navigate through local tribal politics. Then a grisly murder takes place.

This novel is set several years after The City of Stairs, but while some characters overlap, you don’t have to have read the first book to understand and enjoy this one (though the first book was absolutely brilliant, so you really should read it). You’re told in broad strokes what Shara’s been up to in the intervening years, but this is really Mulaghesh’s story. Sigrud becomes a big player later in the book, but again, nothing from the first book is required to understand this story or the characters.

A LOT happens in this book. There are numerous plots interwoven, and they’re all fascinating. The world itself is wonderfully real. The politics are complex - in every nation - the characters are products of their lands, cultures, families, and pasts - especially their regrets.

Mulaghesh is a wonderful protagonist, and not one seen very often. She’s an older woman, one who’s had a hard life and who understand the difficult choices made in war. She curses, she drinks, she smokes cigarillos and she’s forthright and honest. She’s also quite clever, figuring out several difficult mysteries. And she has nightmares about the time she served and the things she did during her years of service.

Signe, in command of the harbour reconstruction, is also a great character, dedicated to her job and helping her nation rise above its recent past of piracy. She’s another hard and clever woman, but very different from Mulaghesh. She’s also had a difficult life, but has chosen to use her time to make a better future for everyone.

It’s great seeing non-European based fantasy. This book is engrossing and will make you think about war, soldiers, politics and more.

The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes
The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes
by Hannele Klemettilä
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 47.12
33 used & new from CDN$ 24.57

4.0 out of 5 stars Great reference guide, Jan. 22 2016
Pros: comprehensive, lots of great sidebars with extra information, mentions numerous sources, lots of illustrations, recipes to try

Cons: text is dry

This is a well organized book on what people in the (predominantly later) Middle Ages ate. The author presents information from a number of sources, including cookbooks, archaeological finds, artwork, health guides, and manner guides. Chapters detail bread, vegetables, meat, fish, spices, milk/egg/cheese dishes, desserts (including fruits and berries), and drinks. She’s careful to remind readers of foods that were unavailable at the time as well as mentioning where certain foods and spices originated (when they were obtained through trade - like the fact that peach trees originated in Persia). The author also points out differences in menu and preference between regions - due to what’s able to be produced there, costs involved in importing goods, and other factors.

While I found the text somewhat dry, the information was interesting. The side bars, where a lot of the social information was relayed, were particularly interesting (with segments on food in fantasy literature, candles, ergotism, vegetarianism, etc.). I also found the segment on medieval drinks interesting (and I think it’s cool that the book has recipes for making hippocras, claret and mead).

While I haven’t tried any of the recipes - yet - some of the over 60 recipes sound very appealing while others… less so. It’s very true that tastes have changed. Some ingredients will be harder to acquire than others, especially depending on your geographical location.

The book is beautifully illustrated with over 100 images from manuscripts, paintings and illustrations.

If you’re interested in medieval food, this is a great reference guide, with a good variety of information and recipes to try your hand at.

Traveler
Traveler
by Arwen Elys Dayton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.80
33 used & new from CDN$ 6.94

5.0 out of 5 stars Even better than Seeker, Jan. 19 2016
This review is from: Traveler (Hardcover)
Pros: several fight scenes, more background, quick moving plot

Cons:

For Parents: some sexual content (nothing graphic), some swearing, some violence

Mere weeks have passed since John’s airship home crashed and Shinobu is slowly healing. When he and Quin are attacked by two feral boys and her father, they head for safety in Hong Kong. The Middle Dread’s plans put them in danger and they search the diary of John’s mother for clues to what’s happened to Seekers in the past in order to avoid the same fate. Meanwhile, John has found someone willing to finish his Seeker training.

The book alternates through several viewpoints, including the new point of view of Catherine, John’s mother, from the time of her training until her pregnancy with John. I personally found her chapters the most interesting, as they shined light on what the previous generation of Seekers were up to, and showed how she’d changed - or warped - into the woman John remembered. She begins her scenes quite like Quin, idealistic and believing in the nobility of the Seekers. It’s her research into the actions of the Middle Dread and the journal she writes about it, that guides this book, as both Quin/Shinobu and John search through the entries folysr clues in the present.

I really liked all of the protagonists in this book. Shinobu’s arc made me a little sad at times, given the substance abuse he fell into in the first book. John’s training was interesting and I would have liked to see more of it. Quin doesn’t change much, but I suspect that’s because she started this book in a better place than the other two.

The bad guys, while somewhat comical in their ineptitude, are also kind of terrifying with regards to the implications surrounding them. The Middle Dread has, apparently, been busy while the Old Dread slept.

There are a couple of good fight scenes as the plot speeds along. There’s just enough down time to appreciate the revelations that come before the characters head to the next problem or the point of view changes.

I liked that more of the Seeker families make an appearance, and that their history feels more grounded in this book. I also liked that a few more Seeker tools make their appearance. From the sounds of it, there are a couple more to discover in the last book as well.

Traveler’s a fun book. It’s a quick read that builds on everything that was good about the first book, and then adds more to it. While it’s not a cliffhanger ending, it did leave me wishing the third book, Disruptor, came out this year rather than next year.

Shadows of Self
Shadows of Self
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.77
31 used & new from CDN$ 19.77

5.0 out of 5 stars Fun western style fantasy with some excellent magic, Dec 22 2015
This review is from: Shadows of Self (Hardcover)
Pros: complex mystery, great characters, more mythology

Cons: didn’t touch on one of the unresolved plot points from the first book

The past year has brought economic trouble to the city of Elendil. When a creature from mythology starts a series of terrorist attacks, targeting the governor, whom Marasi believes to be corrupt, Waxillium and Marasi become more and more convinced that these problems are related.

Wax and Wayne make for a fun team. Wax is driven, with a strong moral compass while Wayne has a crude sense of humour and loose beliefs with regards to ownership. Their different abilities complement each other, making them powerful. Wayne’s ease with accents, dialects, and costumes gets a good workout.

I found myself liking Steris more in this book, and wishing she had more page time. While her relationship with Wax isn’t a love match, I do think they’re a couple that could work, given how things progress.

I also like how Marasi is developing as a character. She faces different kinds of challenges in this book and acquits herself well.

While you don’t technically have to read Alloy of Law to understand and enjoy the events of this book, it does help. Certain events have more weight if you know what’s happened, and you’ll have a sense of missing information during a few conversations (I ended up skimming the first book half way through this one to remind myself of what’s happened). There’s also a lot more mythology in this book, making me want to read the original Mistborn trilogy.

I love how Allomancy and Feruchemy work and the skills the powers allow the characters to use. This book also uses a third type of metal magic, which was cool to learn about.

I was somewhat surprised that one of the major unresolved plot points from the first book wasn’t really touched on or dealt with in this one. I’m assuming it will come back in the third book.

This is a fun book and while the ending isn’t a cliffhanger, it is designed to have you reaching for the next book, The Bands of Mourning, which luckily comes out in January.

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