Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
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After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy.

I breezed through this novel within about 4 days give or take. Timothy Zahn's done a fantastic job reviving his classic villain from the Star Wars Expanded Universe and I am pretty excited to be reviewing it.

The Story:
"After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy."

The Review:
Star Wars: Thrawn is easily one of the most satisfying novels in the new Disney Canon. Not only does Timothy Zahn reintroduce his classic Expanded Universe character in great detail and style, but it also makes for a cracking read. Thrawn, a master tactician by anyone's measure, is presented as brilliant, calculating and possibly menacing, but also compassionate and mysterious.
If you've never heard of this Grand Admiral before (which would be a pity), then this novel does a damn good job showcasing just why Mitth'raw'nuruodo, more commonly known as Thrawn, has been a fan-favorite for decades and has been one of the most-celebrated re-introductions to the Star Wars canon to date (and may remain so until Disney finally gets around to bringing Mara Jade back...).

Personally, I only ever scratched the surface of the Expanded Universe. I was about to dive fully in when news of Disney's acquisition of LucasFilm hit and the EU got thrown out the window - including Timothy Zahn's classic Thrawn trilogy. A few months back I tried to squeeze in Heir to the Empire, the first book, but didn't get more than maybe 10 chapters in before other reads called. However, what I read of Thrawn was thrilling and engaging. I'm happy to say that this new Thrawn book is just as satisfying as what I read then. But I don't intend to compare the two works. I honestly don't care to do that and there are plenty of analysis videos and articles on the net already. Instead I want to look at it more from the perspective of somebody who hasn't read much EU stuff, hasn't seen the "Yuuzhan Vong" invade the galaxy, or Thrawn's untimely demise. At least not in detail.

The reason for that is simple: Thrawn can stand very well on its own, without the nostalgia or big links to the old material. It simply is a great book exploring incredibly compelling characters and a complex mystery that spans many years of the Empire's history, up to just shortly before Grand Admiral Thrawn's appearance in the animated Rebels series. You do not have to watch the TV show to enjoy it either - in fact, I've seen very little of it outside of choice bits - but it will greatly enhance your understanding of various characters.

The novel primarily focuses on three characters: Thrawn himself, his translator/aide Eli Vanto and Arihnda Pryce. Eli crosses paths with Thrawn when the latter is rescued from lonely exile and the Chiss quickly adopts him as his translator. From then on, their paths are invariably intertwined and we follow their rise through the imperial ranks from the academy to admirality.
In many ways I found their relationship quite resembled that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Thrawn is analytical, seeing patterns and studying his opponents' moves, both on the battlefield and in conversation. Eli, meanwhile, has a good degree of understanding but lacks the ability to quickly put things together. Thrawn, like Holmes, attempts to tease out his aide's potential, asking questions and letting him puzzle things out on his own. This also extends to the rest of his command staff later in the book - Thrawn is hugely intelligent, but tries to cultivate his allies for their mutual benefit.

Eli meanwhile has some misgivings about the situation. The encounter with Thrawn means that his career path changed drastically and he becomes the target for a lot of the political fallout of the Empire's upper classes. Having a non-human gain the favor of Emperor Palpatine just doesn't sit right with the higher echelon of the navy or the ruling classes and the duo face stiff opposition on a political level. Thrawn seems relatively oblivious to this - as much of a genius as he is, he isn't presented as flawless. He has his blind spots, and Eli, and later Arihnda Pryce, offer a way to balance those problems out.

Miss Pryce, who also appears in Rebels, gets her origin story here, up unto her introduction in the TV series. It is her that shows the most drastic changes in character and morals over the course of the book. Having grown up as the heir to a mining company on Lothal, she gets thrust into the political power play of Coruscant after her family's properties are taken from them under duress. Her goal? To take back what is rightfully hers and take revenge on the politicians that caused the fall of her family.
But as much as you may root for her success, as she gets further entangled in Coruscant's politics, attempting to raise her own status and forge convenient alliances, her character becomes far more dubious and devious. I loved it. She was never much of a nice person to begin with, but her course throughout Thrawn gives a fantastic view of the political intrigue of the Empire and its corrupting influences.

All these political shenanigans, whether within the army or government, make the book. There is little direct action for most of it, especially as far as Thrawn himself is concerned. Instead you get treated with fleet maneuvers, smartly orchestrated attacks to force surrender rather than devastate needlessly and mysteries rooted in the Empire's secret projects.
Thrawn's hunt for the book's antagonist Nightswan really felt more like something you'd expect from a mystery/detective novel rather than one on science fiction warfare. There are wild goosechases, but they were more considered than what you could find in, say, Battlefront: Twilight Company. Thrawn usually is in a bird's eye position, orchestrating rather than directly engaging, though there are exceptions to that throughout.

At first I was a little concerned by how disparate the Thrawn/Eli and Pryce plotlines seemed. There was the occassional crossover, but only late in the book did the two converge fully. That convergence was hugely satisfying to me, though, and well worth the setup. Both plotlines delivered different things that just clicked into place effortlessly as the story progressed.
Another thing I quite enjoyed were the depictions of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen. Both of them felt authentic to their other depictions and Tarkin, for as little time was spent on him, slotted right into place with his appearances in Catalyst, Tarkin and Rogue One. There were even cool little references to Tarkin throughout which served to make the universe and new canon feel even more connected.

The end of Thrawn will have a few very exciting implications for fans of the new canon. Taken along with the recent Rebels season 4 trailer, certain assumptions can be made. Adding to that knowledge of Palpatine's plans for the galaxy as a whole and teases of the threat coming from the unknown regions, you're in for a treat. It doesn't say too much on any of these matters, but just enough to get you speculating and anticipating the next piece in the puzzle. Zahn shows a satisfying kind of subtlety here.

I found much to love about Zahn's return to Thrawn. He maintained the essence of his original creation while reassessing his role and character for the new canon and timeline. Nowhere did the book feel bogged down and exciting twists and shifts of perspective occured throughout. Thrawn himself has proven to be a very complex character with a lot of depth, and pitching Eli Vanto as his aide was the perfect decision to build up the character. Their dynamic shaped the book into what I expect to be seen as a canon classic for years to come. It wouldn't surprise me if Thrawn was cementing the titular character's popularity for another twenty-five years - both with veterans and newcomers alike.

Star Wars: Thrawn on Goodreads
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Review: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
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After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
I had been holding on to a review copy of this for months now. Months. I figured I'd best save it for around March, getting the review out shortly before release in early April. Look how that turned out. The release brought with it an audiobook version, which I bought on Audible to make up for the lost time in some fashion, at least. Good reading courtesy of Gabra Zackman, by the way.
I finished the book a few days later, and have been thinking on it since. What do I really want to say about it? I think I've figured it out now, so here's my review.

The Story:
"After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature."

Disclaimer
I received a print ARC from the publisher upon my own request. I love Lovecraft's works, so getting my hands on it was a given. I also picked up the audiobook via Audible.

The Review:
Winter Tide was a great extension of Lovecraft's mythos. Ruthanna Emrys impressed me with the original Aphra short story The Litany of Earth when I read it last year and this sequel novel continues that trend. While not exactly dark and disturbing on Lovecraft's level, the angle Emrys based her approach around is a very satisfying one to see explored.
This novel almost didn't happen. Litany was a stand-alone story with no planned sequels. Thankfully, the author got enough requests and encouragement that she ended up writing this book. For what my opinion is worth, I believe that this was a fantastic thing to happen to fans of Lovecraft and the Mythos as a whole.

Over the years, especially the past five or so, Lovecraft has received a lot of flak from all sides for his personal views on race, sex and the likes. Many of his views are, of course, reflected in his writing. His stories have been taken apart systematically to expose and theorize on his xenophobic tendencies, and sometimes that even resulted into pretty weird new interpretations of his works.

One of these stories is The Thing on the Doorstep. Fun fact: I believe that was the first HPL story I ever read, and I still have a soft spot for it. In the story, the protagonist details the reasons why he supposedly murdered his best friend. It develops into a weird mind-frying body-switching tale full of odd concepts and horrifying ideas. One interpretation of the story comes down to topics of sexual identity. I personally am not a fan of these, because I'm more intrigued by the Cosmic Horror angle, but speculation was rampant for a while. It is an interesting topic to discuss, at any rate.

Now, I'd highly recommend reading The Thing on the Doorstep before you read Winter Tide, because Emrys used it as a somewhat big factor in her novel. To her credit, she combined some of the literal Lovecraft message of the story with the more out-there interpretations and allowed both sides to co-exist within the setting, while maintaining the "canonicity" of the Cosmic Horror angle.
I've seen a lot of attempts to modify the Mythos canon, as far as it can be said to exist, to better suit modern sensibilities, which often makes me want to gouge my eyes out and beg great Cthulhu to take my sanity. I credit Emrys highly for finding her own niche, in a lot of ways, to tell her stories in, all with their own little interpretations, viewpoints and messages, without attempting to reinvent the wheel. It is obvious that she has a lot of respect and passion for HPL's fiction, and while likely very at odds with the man on an "ideological" level, her way of showing that in Winter Tide and Litany is for the most part subtle and effective.
This was very important to me on a personal level, so excuse me for spending so many words on elaborating on that. I believe that the concern is worth addressing, however.

Now on to Winter Tide itself.
Aphra Marsh is a survivor of the Innsmouth raids, which are based around Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Again I would highly recommend reading this one first to get the most out of Emrys' novel. Aphra, as told in Litany, made a contact with the FBI and this time around she is asked to accompany agent Spector to old Arkham to counter a supposed plot by russian agents to learn the art of body-switching magic.
Spector offers her and her brother Caleb the opportunity to study the collection of books taken from Innsmouth during the raids and kept at Miskatonic University. Getting their hands on their family and friends' old books, journals and so on wasn't something Aphra could have passed up on.
Other characters join the trip from San Francisco to Arkham, and yet more get introduced along the way, leading to an unexpectedly large cast to look out for.

And here lies one of the problems I have with the novel. There's just so many intriguing little bits that I wanted more from some than the book could realistically deliver. Neko, Aphra's "sister" of her adopted japanese family that she and Caleb met during her time in the camps over the course of the second World War, could have used more of a role here. I loved the scenes involving her, and her relationship with Aphra was beautifully explored, but for large sections her role in the ongoing events was very negligible. As new characters got introduced, old ones were sidelined more and more. Of course, the new characters can join Aphra's growing circle of students; it was nice to see her own little family growing, but some of it happened a little too fast and easily here.

That is not to say I didn't also appreciate the new characters that appeared. Not at all! Audrey, one of Aphra's new students, was one of the most exciting and dynamic parts of the book. She was clever, had depth and saved some butts. Professor Trumbull too added a LOT to the book that I didn't expect. It just bugs me a little that some of the early themes from closer to home had to make way for emergent themes to the degree that they did.

This also includes the initial contrivance for Aphra going to Arkham and Innsmouth: To find out about the russian spy plot and foil it. Less than halfway through, I was feeling like nobody really cared about this point anymore. Other things took center stage easily and unopposed, and the way this plotpoint was resolved in the book felt... weak. It really felt more like a MacGuffin than a vital part of the book.

Much of the narrative is spent commuting between Professor Trumbull's home, two universities, Innsmouth and even a museum. There are a lot of sections where Aphra and co are simply researching texts and finding familiar handwriting in journals. Introspection and musings on the future of the Deep Ones are prominent, whereas action is left by the wayside. The novel has a lot to say, whether through dialogue or Aphra's narration, so at times it could be considered a little slow. When the climax appears on the page, things get a bit frantic but damn exciting, however. That, too, strikes me as pretty lovecraftian.

I'm aware that this may seem very negative. Please don't take it that way. The book as a whole was insanely enjoyable to me. There were so many little nuggets for Mythos fans, so many very human moments and relationship developments, I got deeply invested in Aphra's journey and the people in her life. For all the cosmic horror and magic, at the core Emrys has written a strong, human novel that bridges cultural differences easily but not cheaply. It was very charming.
Not exactly as dark and desperate as Lovecraft's works would be. Not nearly as cynical and nihilistic (though definitely not weak on it either), but full of relatable feelings and invitations to take a different approach to people's differences. It is also very pro-family, which is to say it triple-underlines the importance of having a home and people to rely on and trust. In that, it is very different from HPL, who would usually write stories about suspicion, distrust and doubt. His narrators are unreliable, whereas Aphra is very honest and caring under all the painful experiences.

It is a strange thing that a book that is in many ways almost antithetical to Howard's works can feel so familiar and respectful while shifting the perspective on the Mythos as a whole in such a profound way. It didn't contradict the horror inherent in HPL's cosmos, but it added a layer of understanding that Lovecraft himself would likely never have offered. It maintains the dangers and risks while establishing a level of control.

Honestly, this is very tough for me to put into words. I adored Winter Tide. It has problems. But it also has a certain charme that pulled me in and makes me ask for more. Emrys wrote many characters I cared for, and if one of my biggest complaints is that I didn't get to see enough of every single one of them to satisfy my curiosity, then that seems more good than bad to me. They all appealed to me for one reason or another.
As a fan of cosmic horror, I am pleased. I want to read more about Aphra Marsh and her Confluence.

Winter Tide feels like a journey of discovering one's place in a ever-changing world full of mystery and the mundane. It defies many expectations while fulfilling a lot of hopes I had for it. Despite a few nitpicks, it feels like a logical and passionate extension of the Mythos and incorporated many elements thereof while adding much of its own to it. It can't have been an easy task, but it was one Ruthanna Emrys nonetheless succeeded in.


Winter Tide on Goodreads
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Review: The Heart of Stone by Ben Galley
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Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.
Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.
Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.
Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone.
This one was supposed to be out... about a week and a half ago. Alas, things really didn't go as planned in March, what with five different flavors of awful to deal with.
I finally managed to just sit down and finish the self-imposed job to read & review this book, and now I actually feel worse for taking this long. Sorry for the delay, Ben!
The Story:
"Merciless. Murderer. Monster. He has been called many names in his time.
Built for war and nothing else, he has witnessed every shade of violence humans know, and he has wrought his own masterpieces with their colours. He cared once, perhaps, but far too long ago. He is bound to his task, dead to the chaos he wreaks for his masters.

Now, he has a new master to serve and a new war to endure. In the far reaches of the Realm, Hartlund tears itself in two over coin and crown. This time he will fight for a boy king and a general bent on victory.
Beneath it all he longs for change. For something to surprise him. For an end to this cycle of warfare.
Every fighter has a last fight. Even one made of stone."

Disclaimer
The author contacted me via email to ask for/offer a review copy. I accepted the request and have not regretted it. Since then I've also ordered a print copy for my shelf off Amazon.

The Review:
The Heart of Stone is already a strong contender for my favorite books in 2017. Not just because it is still early in the year, mind you, but because it had an incredible blend of emotion, action, philosophy and compellingly complex characters. I'm honestly still amazed by how human a story built around a stone golem could end up being.

Task, our Golem, is thrown amidst a kingdom's civil war between royalists, the Truehards, and the capitalist factions under the Last Fading. He is beholden to his master, who turns out to be a very petty man with ego problems. He is to follow orders and slay the enemy combatants indiscriminately, constantly biting his tongue and trying not to care. He isn't like other golems, of course. He thinks, he feels, he can even be genuinely funny. He is, as much as you can say it about Golems, a freak of nature. He is used to the grind of war, the stares of fear, the orders and cruelty of his masters. That doesn't mean he is fine with any of them. He struggles to bend the rules a little bit, and despite his better judgement, ends up befriending a young stable girl at the Truehards' camp.

The girl, Lesky, was the anchor of the entire story. She is bright, clever, even wise sometimes. She brings relief to what could otherwise be a pretty dark story. Not that it isn't dark, but Lesky's character brings a degree of hope to it all, and her growing friendship with Task, despite all odds, makes not just the Golem care, but the reader as well. I loved how her and Task's dynamic gave color to the entire book. It was touching to see them interact, both making me smile and close my eyes in regret during the sadder moments. The novel may be about a long-running civil war, threats of a world war looming, Task's rebellion against the magic binding him, but at the core it is a story about a Golem and his unlikely best friend, and how friendship can change your entire outlook and give you strength.

On the other side we get introduced to the Last Fading's counter weapon, the Knight of Dawn Alabast Flint. Slayer of the last dragon, Alabast has turned to more.. dubious pasttimes. He's a regular at whorehouses, borrowing money from all the wrong people, an alcoholic, and gets recruited to slay a Golem while down on his luck. He attempts to escape his bonds and wiggle out of his sheer impossible quest. He offers a neat contrast to task, who has mostly resigned himself to silence and grim acceptance of his role. Both of them have their duties, both are forced into them, yet both long for ways to escape them and be free. Alabast proves a compelling counterpoint to Task in more ways than one, and the comedy he brings to the book isn't to be underestimated.

The last of the characters I want to specifically talk about is Ellia Frayne, councillor to the royalists and zealot of the Mission, the realm's religious authority. She is a highly complex character with her own goals and schemes, and it is clear from very early on that she's taking the war into her own hands with subtle nudges to both Task and his master. I won't spoil her role in the story, but damn me if I didn't loathe and love her for her place here. She could go from relatable to appalling very easily, and it wasn't so easy to figure out where she stood on things. In many ways, she is also the glue holding the different factions in the book together, allowing the reader a better understanding of the ongoing politics in the kingdom.

The Heart of Stone is, in many ways, about the final months of a civil war that has lasted almost a decade. But more than that, it uses the war and the various injustices committed throughout as a vehicle for the characters to grow and connect. The war isn't shown gratuitously; it isn't glorified or the point of the book. Instead it offers context for everything, and rather than play out all of Task's fights in the book for the reader's benefit, Galley often chose to just depict the aftermath, the state of mind of the Golem and lowly soldiers, the carnage and cleanup duties. In my opinion, he nailed the horrors of war and the ways in which such a long-lasting conflict can ruin the environment it is held in. There is no call to arms here, but a clear message of avoiding war at all costs, because little good will ever come of it. I felt it was a very mature way to depict war and one I enjoyed a great deal for the way it was executed.

However, the book starts off relatively slow. I liked the pace, personally, and how it held back a lot of top-down information from Task - and by extension the reader. The first half feels very personal and focused as a result. Task's role in the world, the war, the Truehards, is explored in great depth, as is his friendship with Lesky. There are introductions for Alabast and his recruitment by the Last Fading. Ellia is seen scheming here and there, and Task slowly shifts his mindset towards hope.
But only in the second half does the overarching plot really kick off. Things start spiralling out of control as Task comes to doubt and think more about his place and the Truehards and Fading. It gets progressively more exciting as more is revealed. I think limiting exposure for the most part to what Task himself can witness was clever, but I can see why some readers may not be fully engaged by the early sections. The problem, if it is one at all, solves itself, however.

One nitpick I have is that a lot of the underlying causes for the war were so long in the past, the reader has to rely on reports from witnesses. The novel tells of various atrocities in brief terms, like at campfires, but we don't actually get to see them committed. As a result there is a lot of (intended) ambiguity in who is right and who is wrong, whether the Truehards are righteous or not. While it ends up giving pretty definitive answers on almost everything later on, I would have liked to get some slightly more visible evidence. The Mission especially, could have benefitted from a more active role. A lot is implied, but in the end The Heart of Stone doesn't let its focus slip too far from Task and co.
For this book in particular, I liked that approach. I liked the focus. But I'd be damned if I didn't want to see more of this world. Galley crafted something very interesting here, with its own mythology and various kingdoms and their dilemmas. Even if this is a standalone novel with a clear end point, I would love to see the author take this world and tell more stories within it, whether sketching out past events or building further into the future.

In the end though everything slots together neatly like the stone plates making up the Golem's body. The character dynamics, the war, the wider world, the rising emotions, they all worked to create a memorable story with a lot of heart. There were plenty of sections that could just get you thinking. There was humor, tension, fear and anger in it. Galley managed to change my mind on various characters as things progressed, which I take as a big achievement.
Despite the personal delays I experienced in finishing this novel, it was always a joy to go back for more. With it being a stand-alone novel, I'm afraid there won't be anything to come back to next year, like if it was a trilogy and that makes me somewhat sad. I've grown to love Task, Lesky and even the infamous Knight of Dawn.

There not being any clear sequels makes it very easy to recommend, however. I know I'm not the only one who gets annoyed with the wait between installments in a series, or needs a change of pace sometimes. I'd honestly recommend The Heart of Stone if you'd like to read something more grounded with a clear start and end point. No cliffhangers, no padding, but fully satisfying in its conclusion. For that, I already chalk it down as one of my favorite reads of the year, and come the new year, I'll be sure to recommend it again. Ben Galley's put himself on my list of authors to look into further, as well.

The Heart of Stone on Goodreads
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Review: Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero by Graham McNeill
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Lord of the mystical and uncanny, Magnus the Red has long studied the ancient crafts of sorcery. A psyker without peer, save only for the Emperor himself, he commands his loyal followers of the Thousand Sons Legion in the Great Crusade, always vigilant for any lost knowledge they might recover from the remains of dead human civilisations. Now, fighting alongside his brother Perturabo of the Iron Warriors, Magnus begins to foresee an approaching nexus of fate. Will he remain true to their mutual aims, or divert his own efforts towards furthering his own mastery of the warp?
Oh joy, I didn't get much at all done in March, for various reasons. It is actually pretty demotivating to see that. So, with April on the calendar (and my moving stress dealt with!), let's get to it again.

I skipped reading the second Primarchs novel about Leman Russ so far. Well, I started to read it but felt kinda bored by the action scenes in the opening chapters. But now Magnus the Red released, and I wanted to go straight for that, especially in anticipation for The Crimson King this summer!

The Story:
"Lord of the mystical and uncanny, Magnus the Red has long studied the ancient crafts of sorcery. A psyker without peer, save only for the Emperor himself, he commands his loyal followers of the Thousand Sons Legion in the Great Crusade, always vigilant for any lost knowledge they might recover from the remains of dead human civilisations. Now, fighting alongside his brother Perturabo of the Iron Warriors, Magnus begins to foresee an approaching nexus of fate. Will he remain true to their mutual aims, or divert his own efforts towards furthering his own mastery of the warp?"


The Review:
Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero is, overall, a damn good novel for all manner of reasons. I have some gripes which relate to the usual issues with Graham McNeill's works, but at the end of the day, it worked. It felt like a fresh story, with early Great Crusade Legions still growing into what they'd become by the Heresy. Out of the three Primarchs novels out so far, I might like this best (though admittedly I stopped reading Leman Russ for the time being; the action-heavy start just didn't get me fully invested).

To get my big bugbear out of the way first, though: Yes, McNeill once again "recycles" his characters from previous books. Not only do we see Ahzek Ahriman, Hathor Maat, Phosis T'Kar and Atharva, who at least make sense being here in a Thousand Sons novel, but Graham also included his old Storm of Iron/Angel Exterminatus cast; Forrix, Obax Zakayo and Barban Falk accompany Perturabo, and while Forrix at least made sense considering his rank, I found the inclusion of Zakayo and Falk to be... redundant.
I didn't feel it added to the plot, and their roles could have easily filled by other, non-established Iron Warriors. In fact, I cannot recall a single, lasting Legion character of either TS or IW that we did not see before in another McNeill novel. Where both David Annandale and Chris Wraight have made efforts to play with a new roster of fresh characters, Graham is, once again, resting on his old creations. It strikes me as lazy, even if I can see why he would do it. Adding to that somewhat on-the-nose foreshadowing for Forrix and co, regarding Storm of Iron, didn't help me feel good about it.

Be that as it may, though, the rest of the book was pretty unconventional. Rather than big warfare, we get a logistics problem here. What fighting there is tends to be limited to short scenes, not drawn-out engagements, and McNeill implies more of the overall conflict than he clearly spells out. I bloody loved that!
I've talked about "battle fatigue" a few times before, and after seeing both previous Primarchs novels being heavy on action, this came as a pleasant surprise and relief. I didn't have to trudge through chapters full of bolter shells and psychic fizzing, but got to see a desperate evacuation of a doomed world that allowed for plenty of character development for Magnus, his sons and even Perturabo.

That isn't to say that the action was unsatisfying, not at all. It was on point and had a purpose beyond ticking checkboxes for the editors. There are spectacular scenes here, showcasing the psychic might of the Thousand Sons and their Primarch, and Forrix kicks ass. But everything serves the plot and the greater moral dilemma. McNeill made the correct choice going this route, in my eyes. It is too easy to fall into the trap of writing superhero-Primarchs doing everything by themselves. True enough, Magnus goes far and beyond what you might expect here, but it is all well-grounded and comes at a price. What he does here shapes his character in a way I didn't expect, and Perturabo too has some great scenes, including lines of dialogue that I'd quote here if they didn't involve spoiling some very well-handled scenes.

Where the book really shines in my eyes however is in depicting the youthful naiveté of the two Legions. They are still highly idealistic and think they can do no wrong. Many lines have not yet been crossed, and Perturabo and his Legion aren't worn down yet by disregard and being used as blunt tools of siege warfare. The sons of Magnus are still a little reluctant to show the full extent of their powers to the other Legions. It was refreshing, really, to see some characters like Ahriman still a little uncertain of their true potential, though I am a little disappointed in how his role grew exponentially throughout the book, taking the spotlight from Atharva. I'll really have to re-read A Thousand Sons soon as well, I think, even if just to see if Hathor Maat was as much of an annoyance there too...

The scale of the story, the early look at the Legions, the well-paced action and awesome twists that link back to the Sons' search for lost knowledge all made this book a truly enjoyable experience for me. I can overlook my nitpicks about recycled characters and heavy-handed foreshadowing if the overall framework and many of the close-ups of the story are as satisfying as with this novel. The book stands on its own pretty damn well, while offering readers of A Thousand Sons and Angel Exterminatus some really neat looks behind the curtain. If you've ever been interested in reading more about the Sons and their early days, this is about as good as it gets.


Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero on Goodreads
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Review: The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner
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Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.
What is it lately with difficult reviews? This one takes the cake. This one was offered to me as a review copy by the author, and after reading the very neat sample through Kindle, I agreed to give it a bash. Fast forward a few weeks, and here we go with The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner's strange debut novel.

The Story:
"Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.

The Promise of the Child is a stunning feat of imagination set against an epic backdrop ranging from 14th-century Prague, to a lonely cove near the Mediterranean Sea, to the 147th-century Amaranthine Firmament. Toner has crafted an intelligent space opera filled with gripping action and an emotional scale that is wonderfully intimate, a smart and compelling debut that calls to mind the best of Kim Stanley Robinson or M. John Harrison."

Disclaimer
The author contacted me back in early February to offer me a review copy of the book. I liked the premise and sample I got on Amazon, and agreed to read & review it. I've also ordered a paperback copy on my own.

The Review:
The Promise of the Child is a tough book to judge. As a debut novel, it does a lot of things right, some things wrong, but it is so utterly inventive and refreshing, trusting the reader to piece things together on their own rather than over-explaining every single factoid, that for the most part I enjoyed my time with the book a lot. There are just some things left dangling that I'd have liked to see addressed in this book rather than the next.

The big thing to say about this book right off the bat is that it is difficult. It is by no means a quick and easy read. Clocking in at around 550 pages as a paperback (including glossary), this will take time to get through, and moreso because you'll often find yourself checking earlier chapters for things you might have missed, or clues that are being put into new light as the story progresses. It really doesn't hold your hand and expects you to take a wild plunge into the Amaranthine Firmament and its peculiarities.

For the first 100 or so pages you'll probably feel lost and like you are missing something - and you are, because Toner holds back a lot at first. The setting he presents is incredibly complex and in parts convoluted, giving a lot of strange vibes that I'll wager make more sense on a re-read of the novel or the series as a whole. But little by little, mysteries are being peeled back and small explanations offered to the reader. Suddenly your perspective shifts and appreciation grows.

By the end, though, I still felt a little lost in the universe. There are dangling plotlines that are obviously going to come to a head in the sequel(s), which I am determined to read as well, but they made me wait for continuations that just didn't happen in this book, or were still very opaque to me. I have my suspicions, but clear answers on many aspects still elude me - by design, but it does make me worry a bit that I'm simply missing something, or should have re-read a few more chapters after the fact. A little more context and explanation wouldn't have gone amiss, in my opinion, as much as I love it when authors trust their readers to make their own connections. As inventive and exciting as this debut novel is, I cannot deny that it appears somewhat daunting.

Beneath all the complexity, there lies a lot charme, however. Once you start getting the hang of it, you'll find yourself deeply invested in the Melius Lycaste's somewhat reclusive life, his struggles with romance, model house building and his eventual fall from grace. Lycaste's plotline serves to reinforce the strangeness of the world 12,000 years into the future, with its trees growing materials and food, an odd class system and abhuman servants.
Lycaste's progression through his home province and outside allows the reader to cling to something relatable while increasing the scope of the book as the character experiences new things and slowly loses more and more of his youthful innocence. He grew up rather sheltered and most of the world is beyond his understanding. Toner found a great way to gradually introduce the reader to technologies, the wider intrigue and events unfolding.

To me, Lycaste's almost tragic tale was the strongest part of the book, in terms of plot points. His unrequited love, being introduced to outside influences and discovering things he never paid attention to before all made for a dramatic tale. Where a lot of the other plotlines are mysterious and led by characters far from regular humanity, Lycaste just works out to be a relatable point of view character.

On the other hand we have Sotiris, a Perennial Amaranthine, an immortal human of old, getting invariably involved in a fierce play for the crown of Most Venerable emperor of the Amaranthine Firmament. The old leader has seemingly given up and a pretender to the throne is manipulating pieces and people to get what he wants - although what exactly that may be is a mystery for most of the book, and even beyond. Aaron the Long-Life, said pretender, is an enigma. Undeniably powerful, he is stranger than strange, invades the Amaranthines' dreams and Sotiris is hard-pressed to make his choices throughout the book.
I quite liked Sotiris, his personal tragedies and role in showcasing glimpses of our present day, and his reflections on the changes wrought upon the world since.

Besides these two central plotlines, there are others, of course. I have to admit though that, looking back, I am not quite sure they needed to be as elaborate as they ended up being. While the book kicks off with the various Prism-species fighting over a mysterious invention of the Vulgar Corphuso, I wasn't quite sold on how much time was spent on having them chased by the point of view character of a second plotline, some skirmishes and spacefaring. It was great to see some corners of the galaxy and get a broader understanding of how the Amaranthines' rule works and what rivalries exist between the Prism - a collection of various human-descended species, most of which appear to be dwarfish - but in the end little of it all had an immediate effect on the book.

Toner really managed to weave an intriguing and dense net of viewpoints and characters, but it did introduce a few pacing problems to hop around so much. I personally enjoy the switching perspectives in books, but here I was really eager to get back to the most intriguing characters. Though, admittedly, without these plotlines there'd be little enough space travel and void warfare to make things seem a bit awkward.

I know this review is sounding nitpicky, or even negative. But I really didn't get a negative feeling from the book. I liked it a lot, and wish I had the time to go straight to the sequel, The Weight of the World, partially because I really enjoyed Toner's style and courage, but also because I am hoping for more answers to what is going on in the Firmament. There are entire chapters in the book hinting at something even bigger going on, yet these bigger factors barely materialize until the very end, and even then just briefly. There is a lot to the Amaranthine Spectrum, and The Promise of the Child makes me think that I have barely seen the tip of the iceberg of what Tom Toner can do. There's so much to it already that I cannot help but feel respect for the author's ingenuity.

This is a highly unconventional novel, which does a lot of things I appreciate about good space opera stories. It is a book that demands a lot of attention and thinking on the reader's part, which can be problematic if you feel stressed and want to unwind with a good novel. The Promise of the Child is so full of intricate details that a slip of attention can cost you, especially as this debut focuses a lot on worldbuilding aspects over direct plot movements.
I'd advise against reading it in stressful environments like public transportation or waiting rooms - you'd do yourself and the novel a disservice getting distracted. But if you decide to take the plunge and stick with it through the early sections filled with confusing ideas and wondrous concepts, you'll find a rewarding and intelligent adventure with great twists and a promising future.

Despite my gripes, I want to stress that I had a good time with it. It was not an easy read, but all the more rewarding for it. It is a flawed gem with many breathtaking ideas. I am excited for The Weight of the World and exploring more of this setting. Now that I've gotten to grips with what Toner is doing with his debut universe, I'm ready for more.


The Promise of the Child on Goodreads
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Review: Bakemonogatari, Part 1 by NisiOisiN
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There’s a girl at their school who is always ill. She routinely arrives late, leaves early, or doesn’t show up at all, and skips gym as a matter of course. She’s pretty, and the boys take to whispering that she’s a cloistered princess. As the self-described worst loser in her class soon finds out, they just don’t know what a monster she is.

So begins a tale of mysterious maladies that are supernatural in origin yet deeply revealing of the human psyche, a set of case files as given to unexpected feeling as it is to irreverent humor. So begins the legendary novel that kicked off the MONOGATARI series, whose anime adaptations have enjoyed international popularity and critical acclaim.
I've been looking forward to reading this one for a while. I finally got around to it, squeezing it in between review copies I got on my desk. Thankfully, light novels aren't as time-intensive as most western novels, and the dialogue-heavy nature of NisiOisiN's works made me breeze through it.

The Story:
"There’s a girl at their school who is always ill. She routinely arrives late, leaves early, or doesn’t show up at all, and skips gym as a matter of course. She’s pretty, and the boys take to whispering that she’s a cloistered princess. As the self-described worst loser in her class soon finds out, they just don’t know what a monster she is.

So begins a tale of mysterious maladies that are supernatural in origin yet deeply revealing of the human psyche, a set of case files as given to unexpected feeling as it is to irreverent humor. So begins the legendary novel that kicked off the MONOGATARI series, whose anime adaptations have enjoyed international popularity and critical acclaim."


The Review:
Bakemonogatari is an odd one for certain. Well, I guess that is actually a given for any one of NisiOisiN's works. He is a strange writer at the best of times, and the Monogatari series could be considered his magnum opus in terms of peak strangeness. The series is as divisive as I can see any piece of media with a cult following getting. Some love it to bits, others will hate it to their very core. Some may appreciate the witty wordplay with little moving parts beyond metaphors and rolled eyes, while others will be floored by how little actually happens in the included stories.

To dial back a little, this is only part one of Bakemonogatari. Unlike the japanese original, which was split into two volumes, the english release is a three-parter. As a result, this one here only includes the stories "Hitagi Crab" and "Mayoi Snail", but not "Suruga Monkey" like in Japan. To cross-reference the highly popular anime adaptation from 2009-10, this release covers episodes 1 through 5 only. I'll also have to say that, if you've already watched that particular anime adaptation, you can mostly skip reading this book, because unlike with Kizumonogatari (which got a dreadful 3-part movie adaptation), most scenes are copied pretty accurately, despite some liberties the animation studio took with scenery and keeping it visually busy.

However, taken on its own, I enjoyed this first volume. It was a good way to refresh my memory of the series which I watched many years ago, and some things are a little less mindboggling than in the anime, due to giving the reader more introspective sections and time to piece things together without the dramatic visualizations, flashing screens and rapid-fire of dialogue lines. Watching the anime in japanese with english subtitles is certainly entertaining, but can get quite overwhelming with how much information it conveys. The book is easier to digest in that regard.
It also helps that the translator tried to localize some wordplay and references to the point where they'd be understandable to an english-speaking audience - there are still a few japanese language-related subjects in here, like the way you could interpret and read certain character combinations and how the meaning of a name can change drastically depending on perspective and circumstance, but I felt it was well-handled here. So kudos to the translating and editing staff at Vertical for the solid job here, as with Kizumonogatari, which frankly wasn't nearly as tough in this way.

Looking at the stories, "Hitagi Crab" explores the traumatic life of Senjougahara Hitagi, who had her "weight" stolen by a Crab a few years earlier and lives an isolated life trying to hide the fact. Araragi happens to find out and offers his help in solving the oddity. Senjougahara is a difficult, sharp-tongued person with more thorns than petals, and her relationship with Araragi borders almost on abusive.
In "Mayoi Snail", Araragi comes across a lost grade schooler on Mother's Day, while he is reluctant to return home himself, and together with Senjougahara they attempt to take the kid to its destination. The child, Hachikuji Mayoi, is funny to read about and offers a neat counterbalance to Hitagi's sharpness.
Both stories are rooted in family-related drama for all involved, straddling the line between comedy and touchy subjects.

Either way, if you expect action, you'll be disappointed. Sorely so. Unlike with Kizumonogatari, where the protagonist Araragi had to fend off three vampire hunters and the vampire Kiss-shot Accerola-Orion Heart-under-Blade, this is a more passive pair of stories that relies much more on dialogue and simple character interaction. In fact, large sections of "Mayoi Snail" take place sitting on a park bench, or walking around looking for a certain address, before returning to the park bench.

The focus is squarely on the dialogue, the banter, the wordplay and tension between the characters. Environments and outside descriptions are mostly absent, unless they directly concern the characters in some way. You'll be unlikely to get lost in the setting, like you could with many western fantasy authors. Instead the author aims to get you into the characters' heads, and develop an understanding of their circumstances. A lot of the dialogue and Araragi's inner monologues aim to elaborate on those points specifically, putting them into various different contexts and deliberating back and forth. And as convoluted as the chatter can be here, the prose itself, the style of the narrative, is very straightforward and often simplistic.

To me, this is an interesting thing to read about, but it is also plain to see that it will not be enough for a lot of readers. If you don't enjoy the characters for what they are and represent, your enjoyment will suffer greatly.

And let me get one more thing out of the way: This isn't a book for children. The cover may be inviting and anime/manga still have a reputation of being "for kids" in the West, but this is anything but a kids' story. Bakemonogatari deals with the characters' traumatic experiences and their reactions to them, and while there's always a sense of comedy and tongue-in-cheek writing here, some subjects can be pretty sobering when they surface.
Beyond that, there is also a degree of sexual topics in here; while Senjougahara's story deals with those in a rather frank manner, it may seem too much to some readers, and downright offensive to others. It makes certain cultural differences between the West and Japan stand out quite strongly. Even accounting for that, I feel that NisiOisiN elaborates a little too much on these touchy subjects here, though they still serve to underline the characters here and there.

Despite a bunch of points in my review seeming negative, I do want to stress that I enjoyed the book. I'm hoping the second part will be with me next week. The close-up on weird, eastern folklore-inspired abberations and very personal dramatic experiences is very appealing to me, even with all its quirks. There's neat trivia in here that I didn't know before, and the squabbling between Araragi and the rest is entertaining and can even shift your perspective on your own past actions at times. The witty dialogues are often refreshing, easy to visualize and made me laugh more often than they made me cringe.
I still enjoyed the more directed nature of Kizumonogatari more, having a real sense of danger that didn't really exist here, but for as different as they may be, both Kizu- and Bakemonogatari share three important aspects: They are engaging, entertaining and introspective. If that's your thing, like it is mine, then you'll be in for a treat!



Bakemonogatari, Part 1 on Goodreads
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Review: Will Save the Galaxy for Food by Yahtzee Croshaw
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A not-quite epic science fiction adventure about a down-on-his luck galactic pilot caught in a cross-galaxy struggle for survival! Space travel just isn't what it used to be. With the invention of Quantum Teleportation, space heroes aren't needed anymore. When one particularly unlucky ex-adventurer masquerades as famous pilot and hate figure Jacques McKeown, he's sucked into an ever-deepening corporate and political intrigue. Between space pirates, adorable deadly creatures, and a missing fortune in royalties, saving the universe was never this difficult!
From the creator of Mogworld and Jam!
This one almost blindsided me. I didn't know that Yahtzee Croshaw, known for his Zero Punctuation series on The Escapist, had a third novel coming up. A friend thankfully let me know last month, and when the audiobook version surprisingly hit on launch day (both previous books had lengthy delays for that), I jumped on it immediately. I can only recommend grabbing the audiobook yourselves, as Yahtzee narrated it himself, with all the usual snark.

The Story:
"A not-quite epic science fiction adventure about a down-on-his luck galactic pilot caught in a cross-galaxy struggle for survival! Space travel just isn't what it used to be. With the invention of Quantum Teleportation, space heroes aren't needed anymore. When one particularly unlucky ex-adventurer masquerades as famous pilot and hate figure Jacques McKeown, he's sucked into an ever-deepening corporate and political intrigue. Between space pirates, adorable deadly creatures, and a missing fortune in royalties, saving the universe was never this difficult!
From the creator of Mogworld and Jam! "

The Review:
Will Save the Galaxy for Food is an incredibly enjoyable science fiction satire novel. I enjoyed my time with it immensely. Not only did it drip with sarcasm and just plain ridiculous ideas, but it also had some very interesting points to make about the dangers of finding oneself obsolete. While it seems like just a comedic sci-fi romp, it actually offers a lot more depth than is immediately apparent.

The protagonist (and first-person narrator) is a down-on-his-luck pilot. During the Golden Age of space adventures, he liberated planets, along with many other pilots. Some turned excentric, adopting the cultures of "their" planets for themselves, others just stand at the space ports waving signs for tourism jobs, just to foot their bills. The development of stargate-esque portal technology has made space pilots pretty much obsolete, and put almost all of the old heroes onto the street with little more than nostalgia to keep them going.

But amidst it all, there is a "traitorous" pilot making his fortune off the backs of his colleagues: Jacques McKeown, a highly popular novelist stealing the adventures of his peers for his books. Nobody knows who he is, however. So it just happens that our unnamed protagonist gets roped into imitating McKeown in a dangerous job for a big-time crime boss (who is very much orange skinned!), and shit hits the fan from then on out. With the syndicate boss's son being a massive Jacques McKeown fanboy and wanting to impress his crush by going on a space trip piloted by his idol, and kept in line by the stiff personal assistant Warden, things are just going downhill from here.

The story takes us to a lot of places. From fending off crime lords over pirates to even other pilots trying to scalp Jacques McKeown, or oddly-cute-but-bloody-dangerous mascots-turned-cannibal, and even cyborg hiveminds and the dangers of teenage hormones, Will Save the Galaxy for Food is chock-full of action, room for sly comments and characters expressing their distaste for one another. I was surprised by how much Yahtzee was able to cram in here will still supporting the nostalgia and end of an era themes.
The characters are surprisingly well-developed for a satire piece too, with miss Warden slowly cracking up a little (while still being a psycho-div through and through) and heroes and villains of the old times seeking simple job opportunities. Our protagonist also turns from seeming like a sleazeball into a reliable hero figure with just slight brain damage as things move along.

I apologize if this review is a bit sparse on details, but you'll really have to see for yourselves just what troubles "Jacques McKeown" gets himself into here. The story follows a neat from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire style, one thing leading to another and another, and I'd rather not unravel it all. While some developments might appear a bit out of the blue, I never thought that was a bad thing. It is just the kind of weird space adventure I was hoping for it to be. In a way, I got reminded of the movie Galaxy Quest in a few places.

Most importantly, though: It is a genuinely funny book. The amount of lines I ended up quoting to friends while reading this was just silly. Most of it are sarcastic remarks, situational humor and oh-god-I-want-to-bash-my-head-in-is-this-stupid moments, so quoting them here is a bit tricky. The humor won't work for everyone. Yahtzee's dark and dry british sarcastic yet somehow over the top style works very well for me, but as with his previous books, or Zero Punctuation itself, I know a bunch of people who aren't partial to it. My best recommendation here is to read the sample of the ebook on Amazon or listening to the Audible sample and seeing for yourself. That's the nature of comedy, I'm afraid.

One little thing that stretches through the entire book I enjoyed was that Yahtzee decided to use mathematical terms as a curse and insult dictionary.
In “Pilot Math”, the word multiply (shortened to ply) replaces the most popular swear word, with subtraction (or trac) filling in as an all-purpose noun with scatological leanings. Bracket became a common insult, as did decimal point (or doint) and division (div), which also came to mean male and female genitalia, respectively.
While this may seem a little thing of search&replace all swear words, it helped the world building for me. It was also quite funny to see the characters swear like this, and I'm sure I'll make personal use of some of these in the future. It is such a simple idea yet it carried part of the comedy for me.

Either way, I was surprised by what Yahtzee got going for him here. Jam was ridiculous on so many levels (I mean, it was about man-eating strawberry jam and the fall of human society amidst the jampocalypse...) and Mogworld was very nerdy and video gamey by design. Will Save the Galaxy for Food seems like a great mix of both. It is easily approachable while undeniably nerdy, yet also offers multiple points in regards to real world issues like automation, a shrinking job market, corruption, surveilance states and so on. While it never stood in the way of the entertainment factor, having those snippets of witty commentary made the book a great deal better.
I'd urge you to give it a try. If you in any way enjoy audiobooks, go for it for the (in my opinion) best experience. Will Save the Galaxy for Food is an intelligent amusement park visit with a lot of attractions to show for itself.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food on Goodreads
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Review: The Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions by Michael R. Miller
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Rectar has always had his sights set on conquering the human lands. His demonic invasion of the west is gaining momentum – an unrelenting horde unhindered by food or sleep. Now, only the undermanned Splintering Isles lie between the demons and the human kingdom of Brevia. If the islands fall, the rest of Tenalp will soon follow.

The Three Races must work together if they are to survive, but they have another problem – Castallan. The traitorous wizard has raised a deadly rebellion and declared himself King of Humans. He believes himself safe in the bowels of his impenetrable Bastion fortress, but Darnuir, now King of Dragons, intends to break those walls at all costs.

To face these threats, all dragons, humans and fairies must truly unite; yet old prejudices may undermine Darnuir’s efforts once again. And as the true intentions of all are revealed, so too is a secret that may change the entire world.
After a few intense weeks filled with stress, sickness, more stress and a noticeable lack of productivity on the review front, this is the novel that I needed to get motivated again. I originally wanted to get the review out by its launch day on February 10, but couldn't manage it. Either way, I am happy to be through it now and being able to put out a full review instead of just poking friends with tidbits.

To preface, though, I got a review e-copy of this novel, like the first, from Michael R. Miller. I'm happy I did, because my print copy is still lying at the post office until tomorrow. I was asked to let you know that you can get an ebook copy of The Dragon's Blade: The Reborn King for free via Michael's website, thedragonsblade.com, by signing up for his newsletter. Since I very much enjoyed the novel despite some flaws, I'm impressed by the generous offer and think you should take him up on it. I mean, it's a free book either way, and you mind find out about a bunch of cool author interviews he's hosting (including for some whose books are on my reading pile). If your taste is similar to my own, you might find value in it.

With all this preamble out of the way, let's begin!


The Story:
"Rectar has always had his sights set on conquering the human lands. His demonic invasion of the west is gaining momentum – an unrelenting horde unhindered by food or sleep. Now, only the undermanned Splintering Isles lie between the demons and the human kingdom of Brevia. If the islands fall, the rest of Tenalp will soon follow.

The Three Races must work together if they are to survive, but they have another problem – Castallan. The traitorous wizard has raised a deadly rebellion and declared himself King of Humans. He believes himself safe in the bowels of his impenetrable Bastion fortress, but Darnuir, now King of Dragons, intends to break those walls at all costs.

To face these threats, all dragons, humans and fairies must truly unite; yet old prejudices may undermine Darnuir’s efforts once again. And as the true intentions of all are revealed, so too is a secret that may change the entire world."

Disclaimer
As stated above, I received a free review copy of the ebook ahead of the official release. I have also ordered the print copies of the first two books on my own, and purchased the audiobook of The Dragon's Blade on Audible, so I was well-willing to open my wallet for it. Either way, keep that in mind while reading the review.

The Review:
The Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions is a big step up from its predecessor, which was Michael R. Miller's debut novel. I am very happy to say that, because The Dragon's Blade was a good novel with interesting characters, world building and plenty of promise, marred by a few flaws and bumps. I enjoyed it a good deal, and was hoping to see Miller grow as he gained more experience and feedback. And he did. I don't think my review in January had much to do with it, if anything, due to being so late to the party. Still he managed to address a lot of points I made with his second book, and the entire thing feels like a natural improvement.

Veiled Intentions builds on all the points I enjoyed about book one, while getting rid of or decreasing the aspects that worried me before. It felt exciting to read from the first to the last page, which led me to finishing the book today after hours of non-stop reading through the final 20%. Everything ramped up, had a degree of pay-off and more intrigue revealed, and I think that this will turn out to be a trilogy that avoids the weak-midpoint-syndrome you often see.

The novel picks right back up where it left off last time. There is little time wasted on reintroducing characters or summing up the state of the war of the alliance of humans, fairies and dragons against Rectar and the Shadow. It catapults you right back into the unfolding plot and mysteries, even though it doesn't focus on battles until quite a ways into the book.
Coming right from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy (I'm currently taking a break from book three to get this one done), I might be overly appreciative of this. I got pretty annoyed with the reiterating of plot points and character arcs, let alone the magic systems, early on into Sanderson's books. Even halfway through there are still bits and pieces here and there that bug me because I remember those things and it takes me out of the moment.
The situation here is quite different. While Miller tells us what we need to know and eases the reader back into his world, it never felt on-the-nose to me. I never felt bogged down by summaries of previous events or infodumped. Callbacks feel like a natural part of the unfolding plotlines and character arcs, rather than existing solely for the benefit of the reader. But of course, this also means that you'll have to read book one first and can't jump in midway. To be honest, I never liked that idea anyway, and have consistently urged people not to do that even when it comes to the Horus Heresy series. For me, it is all or nothing.

Either way, I was invested in the book right off the bat. The prologue introduces us to new characters and regions of the world, and brings Dukoona, the Spectre general, back into focus. His plotline here is an intriguing one that I enjoyed a great deal, and turns the minions-of-evil tropes on their head nicely. Dukoona actually has become one of my favorite characters in the series so far. As Veiled Intentions keeps pulling back the shroud, my appreciation for the Spectres and their dilemma only grew.
But Dukoona is only one of the many characters that grow significantly in depth here. Garon, left-hand man of Cosmo and somewhat of an uncle figure to Darnuir, who is now king of dragons, turns into a man with backbone and integrity and works towards achieving Darnuir's dream of revitalizing the alliance and bridging racial rifts on a smaller scale. Cassandra, recently recaptured by the wizard Castallan, makes moves to take her fate in her own two hands and shows initiative throughout. Even Blaine, the Guardian, who I had a hard time liking in The Dragon's Blade, turns into a relatable, nuanced character full of depth and interest.

As somebody who focuses a great deal of attention on characters and their progression, their thoughts and feelings, but also their actions, I think that this book succeeded wholeheartedly. It clears up a lot of motivations and intentions, while making everybody more interesting, relatable and believable. Even the villains, like Castallan, turned into more than just simple antagonists with a lust for power. I believe that Miller has a good grasp on what makes characters tick and interesting to follow, and Veiled Intentions highlights a highly diverse cast of examples who share one common theme: They're all exciting to read about, and many of them have their own secrets.

The action, too, is on point. The inevitable assault on the Bastion, Castallan's stronghold, was well-executed and exciting, providing a midpoint climax that provided growth and new conflict in equal measure. Everybody has a part to play as the alliance's bonds are strained and Castallan makes his big plays. The magical showdown here was fantastic, vivid and thrilling. Darnuir's growing dependence on cascade energy, Blaine's wavering light and Brackendon's inner demons all make for intense scenes throughout the book. From fighting against red-eyed enhanced humans over wizard duels to schisms between Spectres and desperate defences, the action sequences are varied, highlighting neat environments and all serve to further character development and intrigue.

Besides the thrill of battle, there are many calm, reflective moments. New bonds are forged, some as unlikely as they come, and there are many heartwarming scenes here. I especially liked one between Cassandra and the fairy general Fidelm that involved a pretty white dress and lots of paint.
Old mysteries are solved, questions answered, new ones asked. I especially liked how many of the reader's questions get adressed through Ochnic the Kazzek troll and his people in the highlands, far away from Darnuir and the capital of the human kingdom. It serves to flesh out the realm of Tenalp, making it feel like a cohesive world whose inhabitants may be divided but still share history and are fighting for common goals. Things are coming together nicely, especially towards the end when the immediate threats are resolved. Overall, it is a satisfying experience.

Stylistically, too, I want to point out some improvements. For one, every chapter, or section, is prefaced with a header that names the point of view character and the location they are currently at. If the perspective shifts, there is another header midway. While it may not seem like a big deal on the outset, it definitely helps the book's structure and giving a sense of movement as armies and characters travel from one place to another.
Another thing are the short excerpts from Tiviar's Histories, in-universe books written by a fairy scholar. They've been named and talked about in the first book, as Cassandra discusses them with Brackendon for example, but here we get snippets that help to reinforce the world's cohesiveness further and offer hints relating to the unfolding events. I tend to love little tidbits like these in books, and this is no exception. It simply adds another layer of depth from a non-present perspective in a non-intrusive way and helps the reader piece things together.

There are still some minor nitpicks, of course. The occassional typo was still in my review e-copy, for example, but those occurances were rarer than in the previous book, and never really bothered me. In the end the book succeeded everywhere I hoped it would and felt more consistent than its predecessor. I don't remember any chapter that made me struggle, or any character I didn't feel invested in in some capacity. There are many pleasant surprises here, believeable conflict, both external and internal, and a very promising set up for the final book in the trilogy. I could gush for quite a bit longer than this, but chances are, I'd need to spoil a few cool things, so I'll just recommend that you read it for yourselves.

Instead of bumps in the road I found a great adventure that hopefully paves the way to a successful writing career for Michael R. Miller. Here's hoping book three will be out sooner rather than later, and live up to this spectacular second installment!


The Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions on Goodreads
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Review: Exocytosis by James Swallow
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Having long been hounded across the galaxy by the Dark Angels, First Captain Typhon of the Death Guard has limped his fleet to sanctuary in Segmentum Obscurus - as a guest of the separatist Luther of Caliban, no less. On the world of Zaramund, long a symbol of brotherhood amongst the Legions, Typhon begins to suspect that a new form of corruption has followed him out of the wider war. Will he embrace it, or escape into the darkness once more?

It's another step towards what we all know is coming for the Death Guard and Captain Typhon. Is it time that he embraced his destiny as a pawn of the Plague Lord?
Another long-delayed review. Life gets in the way more often than you'd like, doesn't it? Either way, this was coming one day or another. It is another advent story, of course.

The Story:
"Having long been hounded across the galaxy by the Dark Angels, First Captain Typhon of the Death Guard has limped his fleet to sanctuary in Segmentum Obscurus - as a guest of the separatist Luther of Caliban, no less. On the world of Zaramund, long a symbol of brotherhood amongst the Legions, Typhon begins to suspect that a new form of corruption has followed him out of the wider war. Will he embrace it, or escape into the darkness once more?

It's another step towards what we all know is coming for the Death Guard and Captain Typhon. Is it time that he embraced his destiny as a pawn of the Plague Lord?"

The Review:
Exocytosis is yet another neat, character-focused Horus Heresy short story. It is a sequel to Gav Thorpe's Angels of Caliban, continuing on from the novel's epilogue. If you haven't read it prior to this story, I'd recommend that you do. Not only was it pretty good, but the Caliban plotlines and foreshadowing lead right into the situation we've got here.

Calas Typhon, First Captain of the Death Guard, has come to Zaramund, and found Luther of the Dark Angels waiting for him. Typhon and crew have been hounded by loyalist Dark Angels for years now, so tensions with Luther are a given. Only a modicum of courtesy is extended towards the Grand Master, yet materiel and refugee are accepted nonetheless. But the Death Guard, and Typhon in particular, are keeping many secrets here, almost mirroring the Dark Angels themselves. And then Typhon gets confronted with a grim truth that sets him truly on course to become Typhus, the Herald of Nurgle we all know from the 41st Millennium.

To be frank, I was a bit worried about Swallow taking back the Death Guard after all these years. He set a certain tone for the Legion in Flight of the Eisenstein - but that was almost 10 years ago! Since then, he had very little to do with the Death Guard at large, despite his long-running Garro sub-series. In the meantime, many other authors have tackled Mortarion and the Death Guard, from Graham McNeill over Gav Thorpe to Chris Wraight, and I don't think it controversial to say that out of all of the depictions, I am particularly keen on Wraight's. Indeed, this story, along with Wraight's The Path of Heaven, will undoubtedly lead right into the upcoming fall of the Death Guard novel. Needless to say, I was hoping Chris would score the book, but after reading Exocytosis, I am more torn on the matter.

That is to say, I enjoyed this short story a good deal. Typhon takes the center of the stage, though I would have liked to see a little more of Luther, Zahariel and co. The few nuggets of info we get there are worthwhile in my opinion, and show the tensions within the Dark Angels pretty well. But it really is about Typhon, his eventual fate and the beginning of the true turn of the Death Guard from traitors to swollen, pustulent abominations in the service of the god of pestilence.
Swallow offers a few callbacks to ideas he put onto the table back in Eisenstein, which I appreciate greatly, and Typhon feels a bit more nuanced than I thought him in Thorpe's The Lion. The semi-religious themes tackled here also were a nice touch, though I was shaking my head over the one and only Dark Angel who could've had a chance of changing the inevitable.

Overall this isn't great on action or big Legion progression. A lot of it is setup for what is to come, to bring Typhon, an oft-neglected character, back into the spotlight. However, it is good setup with a good character focus that was sorely needed. It is competently written and fits neatly into the current state of the Heresy. If it heralds a return to the Death Guard for Swallow, he is welcome to go ahead with it.

Exocytosis on Goodreads
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